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  • Gilad Shalit vs. Pessimism

    Posted on September 21st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    I find this time of year hard, really hard –as I feel I should. Returning year on year to the same list of sins and faults, taking account of what I have done and more likely not done in the last year, and wondering about my own mortality weighs heavily on my heart. They are powerful and potent, not entered into lightly. Last year I was able to get behind the idea of real change, seeing possibilities and renewal. This year, less so. My communities have been struck by too much cancer, too much financial hardship, too many broken relationships for me to truly believe as Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, “If you believe breaking is possible, believe fixing is possible.”

    This pessimistic view lingered through the rabbi’s sermons –which were both hopeful, and through the family time, and the joyful communal meals into the first days of the New Year. I was not happy with this state of affairs but no amount of meditation, prayer or spiritual conversation was bringing about a change.

    But one never knows from where strength will come.

    Gilad Shalit

    Gilad Shalit

    On Wednesday, I chanced on a tweet by Reuven Werber, recommending Gilad Shalit’s message for the New Year. Like so many who followed Shalit’s ordeal and reveled in his release, I was curious to know what Shalit would share. He describes this past year, one which has been truly one of renewal. He writes about the exceptional moments like being a guest at the NBA and the mundane moments walking the streets and being recognized or even occasionally anonymously. His optimism is profound.


    “During the past year and the previous years in I have learned to look at things from a different perspective. In general, I try to see the glass as half full, and this is also what I wish for the people and the State of Israel. People can suddenly find themselves in extreme situations or unexpected crises. I believe people should prepare themselves mentally for the possibility that such situations may arise. Even if they are not certain what they are preparing for, they should be aware that things can change dramatically at any given moment. This awareness helps people cope with such changes.

    If and when such an extreme situation arises, you must deal with it as calmly as possible and avoid doing things you will regret later. You must overcome.”

    The cynic in me wanted to dismiss this as naïveté, but the reality of Shalit’s survival and his strength suggest something significantly more profound. If the liturgy is remote and abstract Shalit’s words are embodied in the particular and the clearly horrific. The context and experience that frames these words gives them exceptional meaning and power. Shalit’s words resonate with the positive psychologist, Martin Seligman’s research that suggests that optimism is essential for longevity and the ability to flourish in life. Shalit’s words resonate with the wisdom of Rabbi Nachman.

    But Nachman battled to find the joy and meaning in life, it did not always come readily to him. It is easy to be an optimist when times are good, the economy strong, the sun shining, our bodies healthy, our communities strong. Much harder to achieve is the ability to hope in face of difficulty, to see possibilities even when the world seems closed off.

    But Shalit’s optimism is no blind vision. As he explains, “Faith can help of course, but it must be accompanied by an awareness of reality.”

    As I enter into Yom Kippur I will bring with me Shalit’s words. They are my prayer for myself, for all of us, that we may remain optimistic in face of our realities that may not be changeable in discernable ways, for that is the place from which renewal is possible.

  • Five Rosh Hashana Videos that Get the Job Done

    Posted on September 11th, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    It is a busy time of year, a Hebrew school classes, choir rehearsals, service plans and sermons. Yet no small number of Youtube videos with holiday themes keep popping up and demanding my attention. There are the inevitable holiday parodies and pop songs that can’t be missed, the video instructions for braiding round challot, and numerous holiday greetings from that of President Obama to that of our very own President Ellenson. But among these types of popular holiday videos are also those put out by synagogues to help connect with community and prepare for the season. Here are a few of my favorites with an explanation of what I think they are doing well.

    While it is easy to imagine a synagogue based video as a sort of infomercial for their community all my favorites moved beyond the most obvious approaches and broadened out the message. Temple Emanuel of Beverley Hills for example, embraced the message that a new year is like a new book. This fairly somber effort set the tone for the holidays but the inclusion of clergy as well as staff including the custodial workers serves as a reminder that this message is for everyone and the video quality suggests a well run professional place.

    Temple Judea in Tarzana took a more light hearted and direct approach. Carrying on their tradition of musical riffs on popular songs, they redid one of the summer’s most popular hits with a parody that hits on many important holiday themes –family, shofar, the challenge of services- while not being shy about promoting their approach to Jewish life. The impression left by the video is of a place that is open and playful about modern Jewish living.

    Ikar the non-affiliated community in Los Angeles forsook the direct branding almost completely. I was not wowed by this video, it is simply a series of shots of a person in a hoodie blowing shofar. But it made my shortlist because it took the Jewish action out of the synagogue and engaged many different people in different settings in the actions of Jewish life. Without explicitly saying so, it offers an inclusive and expansive vision of community.

    Lastly, I came across this video by Rabbi Eric Yanoff of Adath Israel outside of Philadelphia. Yanoff has a whole series of videos that feature him talking straight on camera hoping to engage the community. In this edition, he invites the community to help him crowd source one of his High Holiday sermons. He does a good job of succinctly explaining the concept and providing concrete instructions on how to get involved. Did it work? I don’t know, as of this writing I had yet to reach him for comment but maybe he is just too busy sorting through the myriad of submissions.

    Finally, a bit of fun. This offering from the Aliyah department for France is a Jewish take on the summer hit Call Me Maybe. Even with my limited high school French, it is a catchy tune, with familiar themes, beautiful people and beautiful views.

  • How to Teach Moral Wisdom

    Posted on August 1st, 2012 Ruth Abusch-Magder No comments

    by Ruth Abusch-Magder

    דאמר רבי ישמעאל בר רב נחמן

    עשרים וששה דורות קדמה דרך ארץ את התורה

    מדרש רבה ויקרא פרשה ט פסקה ג

    Rabbi Yishmael Bar Nachman said:  Derekh Eretz preceded the Torah by 26 generations

    -Midrash Rabbah Vayikra


    Summer camps and beach holidays, ice cream and blockbusters; even as we relax and indulge the march towards the High Holy Days has begun. The practical components not withstanding, the spiritual journey is complex. Elul is still weeks away, but Tisha B’Av has just passed and opened the doors of contemplation.

    Baseless hatred was the cause of the destruction of the Holy Temple in Jerusalem and even if we are not inclined to rebuild we cannot fail to recognize the corrosive power of negative speech and mean spirits. How tenuous the life of a community when we all do our best, kal va’khomer, all the more so when malice and negativity invade.

    Before there was a Temple, before there was Torah, there was derekh eretz- the way of the land, the natural path, simple wisdom. It was straying off that natural path, into the briar patch of pettiness and small mindedness that got us stuck and created destruction. If we want to do teshuvah, really repair the wrongs, then we need to return to the way of the land, to the simple wisdom that would have us make right and thoughtful moral choices in the world.

    This is the drum that psychologist Barry Schwartz beats loudly. Known for his work on choices, he has recently turned his attention to common place wisdom. Schwartz traces the origins of practical wisdom to Aristotle, who saw it as a combination of moral will and moral skill. As he explained in a recent TED talk, “A wise person knows when and how to make an exception to every rule. A wise person knows how to use these [moral] skills in pursuit of the right aims.” Someone who is wise, knows how to improvise and does so in a way that helps not hurts others. This kind of wisdom can, for example, turn a hospital janitor into an essential element not just of hospital maintenance but of patient care and wellness, for the janitor who goes against her supervisor’s directive and does not vacuum the waiting room, allows the family sitting vigil to catch vital moments of sleep.

    Critically, Schwartz, contends that practical wisdom can and should be taught. From where he stands that learning comes through experience and through being allowed to try and fail. But there is also a need for mentoring. Or in the words of our tradition,

    “רַבִּי אֶלְעָזָר בֶּן עֲזַרְיָה אוֹמֵר: אִם אֵין תּוֹרָה, אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ. אִם אֵין דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ, אֵין תּוֹרָה.” (משנה אבות ג יז


    Rabbi Elazar ben Azariah said: without Torah there is no derekh eretz, without derekh eretz there is no Torah. –Pirkei Avot 3:17

    Derekh Eretz may have predated the Torah, as practical wisdom which knows no religious or tribal boundaries ought to, but it is the specific precepts of Torah that shape our understanding of what is right.

    When he was setting down the foundation for modern Orthodoxy, Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch took the phrase,  תּוֹרָה עִם דֶּרֶךְ אֶרֶץ Torah with derekh eretz, (also from Pirkei Avot) as the basis for his vision. He focused less on the element of derekh eretz as practical wisdom but on the element in our tradition that sees it as engaging in the world, earning a living and abiding by the customs of the general community. As he explained in his commentary on Avot, “Derech Eretz includes everything …this term especially describes ways of earning a livelihood and maintaining the social order. It also includes the customs and considerations of etiquette, that the social order generates as well as everything concerning humanistic civil education.” His main concern was making sure that observance of Torah did not eclipse the practical elements of modern life.

    For modern Reform Jews, Hirsch’s understanding of derekh eretz in well within our grasp. On the whole, we are successful in the boarder world, we participate in the social and communal fabric of modern society with ease and achievement. But it is possible, that if we focus exclusively on that understanding of derekh eretz alone, we will miss out on the other fundamental meaning of the term, its link to Torah and the power that comes from the combination of the two.

    Tisha B’Av opens up a conversation about what pulls apart that which is most precious to us, it reminds us of what hangs in the balance with our simple actions, like speech. Derekh eretz is the beginning of the redemption, the use of the common wisdom that keeps our tongue from speaking evil our lips from telling lies. But as essential as derekh eretz –in both its practical wisdom and engage with the secular world meanings- is, it is only a starting point. We step from this general wisdom in Av into the rituals of Elul, the blowing of the shofar, the singing of slichot, culminating in the very particularistic rituals of Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur that define for us clearly the blueprint that is Torah and Jewish practice.

    Derekh eretz is essential to creating community and success but it does not happen in a vacuum. As Schwartz reminds us, it must be learned and reinforced. His worry about lack of leadership, overlooks the resources we have at hand. The means to moral wisdom is available to all of us if we remember that ein Torah, ein derekh eretz. Leadership that is rooted in the precepts of our tradition, in the teachings of Torah, in the rituals and rhythms of Jewish life will not only inspire but guide and instill. As modern Reform Jews, we would do well to reinterpret and reembrace Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch’s charge. We already know how to navigate the practical elements of modern life, but if we want to ensure continued moral and communal success, we need to reaffirm talmud Torah with derekh eretz.


    Moral Wisdom, Torah, Limits of Rules



  • High Holiday Tickets, Video-Streaming, and Mission

    Posted on July 29th, 2011 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    As technology makes its way into every aspect of modern life, each community has to consider how to engage with the multitude of possibilities. This week’s guest bloggers Rabbi Robert B. Barr and Rabbi Laura Baum are pioneers in working with technology on multiple fronts to connect and expand their community. Through their work they are creating models that can be used in many settings.

    -Ruth Abusch-Magder

    At this time of year it’s not uncommon for boards of congregations to reconsider their policy on High Holiday tickets.  For some congregations, ticket sales are a significant revenue stream.  For other congregations, tickets encourage unaffiliated individuals to join.  Some congregations use tickets to ensure that members have paid their dues in full, while others have dispensed with tickets all together.  Tickets at the High Holidays are used by congregations for a variety of reasons.  While we each may have our particular bias regarding High Holidays tickets, we probably can agree that there is no one “right way” to handle tickets.   Each approach has different outcomes – intended  and not.

    Rabbi Robert Barr

    Given that the notion of video-streaming services is a relatively new phenomenon it is worthwhile to consider it through the lens of ticket sales.  There is no one answer to whether a congregation should stream, why they should stream, and who their audience will be.  Streaming isn’t “one size fits all.”  There are different approaches that congregations can take which would reflect their values and sense of mission.

    At, we will stream the High Holidays for the fourth year.  Since our launch, our online services have been viewed by tens of thousands of people in dozens of countries around the world.  When we started streaming, our audio and video quality were not great, but people came online anyway, and they appreciated having the opportunity to “attend” the High Holidays.  Some came because they were homebound, others because they could not afford synagogue membership, others because they appreciated our unique liturgy and philosophy, others because they were geographically isolated.  The reasons were endless.

    One woman and her mother attended online and learned the power of online video streaming – all of a sudden a family separated by miles could attend services together.  A woman in DC who had to work watched our streaming services from her office, called her mother in Florida and told her to click on the link, and the two had a very powerful moment listening to the sound of our shofar together.

    Over time, we’ve needed to improve our technology and make significant financial and time investments in the technology – as people’s expectations continue to increase and technological change happens in what seems like nanoseconds!  We’ve also had to wrestle with meaningfully connecting to both our bricks-and-mortar congregants and those watching online.   By deciding to video-stream, there is a responsibility to ensure that the online participant has a quality experience.

    Rabbi Laura Baum is an initiative of Congregation Beth Adam in Loveland, OH.  Our brick-and-mortar congregation’s vision is to be a spiritual home, a meaningful voice, and a humanistic resource for people worldwide, seeking a contemporary Jewish identity and experience.

    With that vision in mind and with funds available after 30 years of fiscal responsibility, our congregation decided to boldly launch an online congregation.

    We do not use technology for its own sake.  We use technology because it helps us move our congregation’s mission, vision, and values forward.  Just as philosophy guides our Jewish practice, our philosophy guides our use of technology.

    Each year, a few more congregations decide to video-stream.  For some, streaming doesn’t make sense.  After all, if you require tickets for the High Holidays why would you offer ticketless High Holidays online?  Some congregations still want to be able to stream for their members who may be homebound or travelling during the holidays.  Those congregations may offer their streaming on a password-protected basis, essentially requiring a “ticket” to watch.  For others like us, we never had tickets at our bricks-and-mortar congregation, so streaming for everyone made sense.  Beth Adam was so committed to reaching out that it expanded its rabbinic staff specifically to serve the needs of the online community.

    Lots of questions arise in congregation’s board rooms about streaming.  Are we encouraging folks not to join?  Are we sending a message to our members that they are footing the bill while others get it free?  Why would someone show up if they can watch it at home?  What does my congregation have to offer online that will be more enticing than showing up?  Can we afford the technology?  How will having video equipment in our sanctuary interfere with the experience of those physically present?  Do we have volunteers and/or employees who can invest the time in this?  How can we protect our members who do not want their attendance to be broadcast on the Internet?  What are the copyright issues if we stream and archive words and songs that others have written?  Will those watching online feel like participants or like voyeurs?  What will the quality look and sound like?

    Just like discussions about membership, tickets, and liturgy, there is no one answer when it comes to technology.  What we have found, though, is that a significant investment of time, energy, and resources is important not only in creating the technology – but also in thinking about how the technology fits with the philosophy, mission, vision, and values of the community.


  • What is God? Praying to One

    Posted on September 2nd, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 2 comments

    More than at any other time of year, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur, demand that we grapple with our understanding of God. This week, Rabbi Larry Bach of Temple Mount Sinai, in El Paso TX, writes about his struggles with the liturgy and the evolution of his understanding of the Divine.

    Rabbi Larry Bach

    As we move into Yamim Hanora’im, some of us will find ourselves face-to-face with a familiar dilemma: the challenge of praying “face-to-face” with a God who is so intensely personalized in our liturgy. “God as Person,” it seems to me, is even more present in the machzor than the siddur. This is certainly true for North American Reform Judaism today, where experiencing the polyvocality of Mishkan T’filah year-round sets us up for a jarring experience upon returning to Gates of Repentance, so thoroughly (almost uniformly) couched in the language of dialogue.

    My own struggles with saying “You” while in prayer are an outcome of my explorations in the world of Jewish mindfulness. Through meditation, prayer, study, and observation, I’ve come to experience God not as other, but as All. Ein od – there is nothing else. How then, to speak to a separate being, a “You” when experience tells me that it’s all One?

    One option, which has worked for me up to a point, is to mentally “translate into monist.” While speaking to God as Other, I attempt to offer a running, internal commentary, hearing kavvanot in my head that allow me to reflect on the theme of that  particular prayer through the lens of my own theology. Often, these kavvonot present themselves in the Bronx-inflected lilt of my teacher, Sheila Peltz-Weinberg, a master at praying aloud in this way. As I speak the words, “Cause us, O Eternal God, to lie down in peace, and raise us up, O Sovereign, to life renewed…” my mind might be offering this prayer: “May this evening be one of attunement to YHWH, the Breath of All Life, and may that attunement manifest in me as a sense of peacefulness. Resting peacefully, may I be restored in body and spirit, so that I can stand up tomorrow with energy and strength to meet the day.” This practice works well for me on many levels, not the least of which is “keeping my head in the game” and not drifting toward a mindless rehearsal of words, disguised as religious leadership.

    And yet, what is so satisfying intellectually can sometimes leave me cold, emotionally. And since I believe that prayer is as much about the heart as the head, I’m going to try something very different each year. I’m going to offer up each “You” with all my heart and soul, and see what arises. My kavvanot as I take on this practice will come from two teachers, Alexander Susskind of Grodno (d. 1793) and Kalonymous Kalman Shapira (1889-1943).

    Susskind, a Lithuanian Kabbalist, wrote Yesod Veshoresh Ha’avodah, which explores various aspects of prayer and mindfulness. The selection below is anthologized in Yissachar Dov Rubin’s T’lalei Orot:

    When you say baruch atah imagine that the Creator is actually standing there, in your presence. That’s what’s implied in the second-person singular form, atah. This intention is an important part of praying, praising, and offering thanks. Don’t just “go through the motions!” Have it in mind when you say “Blessed are You…” that there really is a “You” confronting you. After all, “The fullness of the whole earth is God’s glory” (Isaiah 6:3).

    The second text comes to us by way of the Warsaw Ghetto, and is from Sefer Aish Kodesh, the Shoah-era commentary of Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira of Piaseczno (1889-1943). On the opening verse of Ki Tezei, Shapira offers a beautiful and creative Hasidic rereading.

    “When you go to war against your enemies…” When you are in a bad place, in “wartime”…

    “..put ‘YHWH, your God’ in your hands…” Pray “You” from the depths of your heart. Take refuge in the fact that “YHWH is your God,” and that divinity is present to you, personally…

    “…and return, come back.” We pray, “Bring us back, O YHWH, to You,” and God says, “Return to me.” How is that accomplished? When we make God present in our prayers, we and God are returned to each other.

    Together, these teachings have helped me to recontextualize my struggle against saying “You” when I pray. I find in them – particularly in the Piaseczner – an invitation to be more imaginative at prayer. These mystics understood ein od just as I do (l’havdil….they understood it far more deeply!), and yet they invest their “You” with power and meaning. With their teachings in my repertoire, I find myself less concerned with reinterpreting my way toward some “theological correctness” when I encounter the metaphor of God as Other. Instead, see it for what it is: a metaphor.

    In saying “Blessed are You” to some Other, I no longer feel as though I’m denying reality as I understand it in light of my meditation cushion; rather I am affirming it in a new and profound way.

  • Integrity and Pride: We hang in the balance

    Posted on July 28th, 2010 Ruth Abusch-Magder 3 comments

    Recently, stories about integrity pride have made headline quite frequently. This week Professor Alyssa Gray, Associate Professor of Codes and Responsa Literature on the New York campus of HUC-JIR puts into the context of rabbinic thinking on these two challenging human impulses. She reminds us that in thinking about these how to manage our sense of pride there are no simple answers.

    Professor Alyssa Gray

    We like to think that our world operates in this day and age on principles more elevated than “might makes right.” Think again. Plenty of people believe and act on the idea that might does make right. Taking “might” to mean something other than physical or military strength—power derived from great wealth, or even athletic skill and celebrity—we see that public figures ranging from Tiger Woods to some Goldman Sachs executives (not to mention Bernard Madoff and co.) acted arrogantly on the implicit belief that their power entitled them to do and have whatever they wanted whenever they wanted, at whatever cost. Given some of what we’ve seen, the Rambam’s advice (Hilkhot Deot 2:3) that we behave with extreme self-deprecation so as to avoid arrogant pride looks sound. But it’s more complicated (as Rambam surely knew too): the same sense of self that can deteriorate into a toxic brew of arrogance and overreaching can be, in a person of better character, a vital component of the healthy sense of self of an accomplished individual.

    Reflections on pride, arrogance, and overreaching fill our Judaic and Western traditions, sometimes with confusing results. Who doesn’t (just a tiny bit) admire John Milton’s proud Satan in Paradise Lost (“What though the field be lost? All is not lost; the unconquerable will. . . .” Book I)? And that’s just one small quote. The Tanakh is less subtle in its assessment of the arrogance of power, as well as the arrogant’s inevitable (to the Tanakh) fall. That fall may be spectacular (think of Pharaoh and his armies at the Reed Sea), and at other times drawn-out and tragic (David’s sin with Bathsheba changed the narrative arc of his reign from one success after another to a reign in which he never again enjoyed a moment’s peace until his death). Kohelet’s pessimism notwithstanding, the overreaching arrogant don’t fare well in the Tanakh.

    Yet pride, arrogance, and their deleterious impact on one’s integrity aren’t only for the Tiger Woods(es) of this (and the Biblical) world. Let’s consider the consequences of lashing out in response to wounded personal pride, a wound we all suffer at one time or another. In the rabbinic narrative of the destruction of the Second Temple in 70 CE, the chain of events culminating in the destruction is kicked off by the (not then famous) Bar Kamza’s false report to the Roman Emperor that the Jews were rebelling, which he made in order to get even with the rabbis for his public humiliation, which they witnessed but did not stop (BT Git. 56a). This is a cautionary tale in which Bar Kamza’s justifiably hurt pride led him to an ill-considered act with unforeseen consequences. In another cautionary tale, R. Eleazar b. R. Shimon, puffed up with pride because of all the Torah he had learned, thoughtlessly insulted a man by calling him “ugly” (BT Tan. 20a-b). Although he immediately regretted what came out of his mouth and begged forgiveness, the injured man stubbornly refused until R. Eleazar’s townspeople (=his “congregation”) intervened. R. Eleazar’s justifiable pride in his accomplishments turned him “ugly” while the man’s justifiable hurt turned him truly “ugly” when he unjustifiably refused to forgive. Careful response to wounded pride is also of halakhic concern. Rambam teaches (Hilkhot Matanot Aniyyim 10:19) that one who refuses to take tzedakah even though he or she literally cannot live without it is a shedder of blood, liable for his or her own death. While Rambam sees the reluctance to accept help from others as admirable even if it means that one lives right at the edge, that pride becomes sin when it becomes an obstacle to continuing to live.

    Between the extremes of Rambam’s exhortation to self-deprecation and the arrogance of pride and power lies a healthy sense of self that includes an awareness of one’s abilities/status/good points, etc., and a true humility that keeps one from seeing those things as justifications for taking advantage of other people or for seeing oneself as superior to them. For (Talmudic) example: While a strong sense of self-confidence is vital to leadership, the rabbis saw humility as equally indispensable, inveighing against leaders who behave tyrannically toward their communities (e.g., BT Rosh Hashanah 17a), and teaching through stories of failed rabbinic leadership that the failure may have been due to a want of humility (e.g., Rabban Gamliel on BT Ber. 27b-28a). While taking pride in knowledge is found wherever there are teachers and students, humility is equally vital to doing that sacred work; to borrow a phrase from another context—if you don’t know something, “Teach your tongue to say, ‘I don’t know’” (Kallah Rabbati 4:22) and, if you’re a teacher, recognize the truth that often one really does learn most from one’s students (BT Tan. 7a). (If you’re a student, recognize that you can learn from the teacher too! That’s on BT Tan. 7a as well.) There is no better advice for all of us—wealthy, powerful, and not so much—than the well-known words of the Hasidic R. Simcha Bunim of Pshiskhe: In one pocket carry the words “The world was created for me” and in the other “I am but dust and ashes.”