Rabbi Noah Farkas’ Yom Kippur sermon: Clap Along if You Feel That Holiness is the Truth

It might seem crazy what I am about to say

Sunshine she’s here, you can take a break

I’m a hot air balloon that could go to space

With the air, like I don’t care, baby, by the way

(Because I’m happy)

Clap along if you feel like a room without a roof

(Because I’m happy)

Clap along if you feel like happiness is the truth

(Because I’m happy)

Clap along if you know what happiness is to you

(Because I’m happy)

Clap along if you feel like that’s what you wanna do

What a catchy tune..  My kids dance like crazy when it comes on. 

Now it might seem crazy what I’m about to say and I might be full of hot air, but I’m not a balloon. Even though my wife sometimes calls me a buffoon.

Yom Kippur is not supposed to be a sad holiday.  We have other holidays that are sad.  We have Tisha B’Av, a night and day of fasting that memorializes the destruction of the Temple.  It takes place in the middle of the summer because nothing says summer vacation better than being told to put down your margarita to mourn the loss of building 2,000 years ago.

On a much more serious note, there’s Yom HaShoah, where we read the names of the victims of the holocaust.  It is a serious day indeed.  Even Passover has its elements of anger like at the end of the Seder we open the door for Elijah, the harbinger of the messiah and we recite “Pour out your wrath” upon those that seem to keep the world from redemption.

Yom Kippur, however is not a sad holiday.  Even though we take a moment to remember the one’s we’ve lost along life’s journey, the purpose of Yom Kippur is not be in mourning. The purpose of Yom Kippur is not to be angry, or completely down on ourselves.  It is a day of personal evaluation and of bringing to the surface of vulnerabilities and our mortality, but once the great shofar is sounded at the end of the holiday we are supposed to dance and sing.  The very first thing you are supposed to do after you break your fast is to put the first pole in the ground for Sukkot, the most joyus holiday on the calendar.  (Orach Chayyim 624:5 and 625:1) Yom Kippur is not a sad holiday.

In fact it’s a holiday that through the process of fasting and praying will make us more joyous and ultimately more holy as people.

Which is what I want to focus on with you for a few minutes today.   I want to think through what it means to make your life happy and to see if happiness is really the truth as the song says or if happiness is part of a greater plan for your life to make you more holy as an individual.

For starters there’s the idea of “being happy.” It’s an emotion usually based on something that is happening to you.  Happiness is based on your happenings.   It’s triggered by by something on the outside and shapes the way you feel in a particular moment.

For example, I’m at my birthday party and I get a cake and everyone sings “Happy Birthday” I’m feeling happy.  I’m at my son’s birthday party and he gets cake, and I sing “Happy Birthday” I’m feeling happy for him. I’m at my son’s friend’s birthday party and he gets a cake and we all sing “Happy Birthday” and I’m happy because I know I can leave soon to get back to watching football.    Happiness is a feeling that happens to you based on your surroundings.

So let’s take a trip where you are surrounded by happiness.  Let’s go to the happiest place on earth.  Disneyland.  I’m there with my family and everyone is having a great time.  We ride the rides, eat ice cream, get a few souvenirs and everyone is happy. Until of course we leave the park, sit in traffic for hours and then I get my credit card bill for how much we spent on tickets, ice cream and souvenirs.    Then I’m not sure I’m so happy.

That is to say that being happy is not only based on your surroundings, but that it is also temporary. It’s ephemeral. It oozes out of us as soon as we stop feeling it.

Where does this idea of being happy come from? How did we get to “Happiness is the truth?”  It comes from ancient Athens, the founders of philosophy, democracy and the gyro sandwich.  Aristotle one of the forefathers of philosophical thought wrote two books on ethics. Eudaimonian Ethics and Nicomachean Ethics, both extraordinary works of erudition.  His idea first principle in both books is that happiness or what he calls eudaimonia is itself the greatest goal in life.  He knows this because as he “says it is complete and self-sufficient, being the end of all of our practical undertakings.” What he means is that we can arrive at the conclusion that happiness is the most important thing in life because everything that we choose do, we do for some greater purpose – except happiness.

I’ll explain it this way.  It’s like the kid in a math class who ask.

Child: Why do I have to learn math?

Parent: “So you can get good grades”

Child:  “Why do I need to do that?”

Parent:  “So you can go to High School?”

Child: “Why?”

Parent:  “So you can go to college.”

Child: “Why?”

Parent: “So you can get a good job.”

Child: “Why?”

Parent: “So you can have a nice home and go on vacation.”

Child: “Why?” 

Parent: So you can be….happy.

Each idea leads to another and another until he comes to rest on the greatest purpose in life, the function of being a human, which he writes is to achieve happiness.  Happiness is “self-sufficient” and the “ends of life’s goals.”

You can draw a straight line from ancient Athens and its philosophers through the Western canon of intellectual thought all the way until today.  The most popular class at Harvard is called the Happy Class.  Over eight hundred students enroll every year.  They fill the largest lecture hall on campus twice a week.  The only purpose of the class is to learn to be happy.

Hundreds of songs on itunes, like the one by Pharrell Williams who says “clap along” either have the title or subject matter as happiness. On the TED website, where all rabbis go to learn to give a sermon, There are over two hundred TED talks on the subject.  On Amazon there are over 20k books on happiness available for purchase.  We go to McDonalds and eat America’s most popular fast food dish – “Happy Meals”  After work we go to where everyone knows your name to for “Happy Hours”  and some people I hear go to other places for “Happy Endings.”

Americans we know are obsessed with happiness.  Perhaps it’s because we look out at the world and we feel anxious.  Whether it’s internationally with the threat of nuclear war from North Korea.  Or domestically with the politics of our country. Especially as we realize that there are strong forces that try to make us more divided.  Or even closer to home with fear and anxiety that permeates everyday life.   There are those in this room who have a fear of getting fired. There are those in this room that have a fear of not making enough.  Fear of not having a big enough bank account. Fear of being shamed for your life choices or just for who you are.  Fear of going back to work after having a child because you leaving them with a stranger.  Or fear of staying home after having a child because it will set your career back.   Or maybe someone in our family is getting sick and we are not sure how to take care of them.  Or there is mandatory retirement at your company but you feel like you’re not done with your life’s work.  There is a lot of anxiety that permeates every corner of our lives.   And we know intuitively that we need something more.  We need a release from the anxiety and pain.  We need something to make us smile. We look out at the horizon and are searching, searching almost messianically for what we call happiness.

Don’t think that Judaism doesn’t care about joy.  Not everything we sing is in the minor key.  Judaism says, being happy is important.  Rabbi Nachman of Breslov famously for example said,  mitzvah gedolah lihiyot b’simcha tamid. “  It is a great mitzvah to be happy all the time. (Likkutei Maharan, Part 2:24).  The word simcha is mentioned nearly two hundred times in the Tanach and nearly a thousand times in rabbinic literature.  An overflowing cup of wine on Friday night is a symbol of unending joy.  You are not allowed to make kiddish angry.  If a bride walks by your shop on the day of her wedding you must stop your work. Stop everything  and dance for her.  It is a commandment to rejoice with the bride and the groom. (Talmud Ketubot 17a) If you are invited to bris, you have to go.

Jewish humorists are some the most famous comedians in history.  We love to tell jokes:

Did you hear the one about the chicken and the salmon who go for a walk?  I know it’s a tough visual. The chicken and salmon go for a walk, and as they walk they see a big sign outside a restaurant: “Lox and Eggs Breakfast for Charity.” The Chicken says, “Come on, let’s go in, looks like fun!” The salmon hedges and says,“I don’t know.” The chicken says, “Why, what’s holding you back?  C’mon it’s for a good cause!” The salmon says, “Look: it says “lox and eggs.” From you they want a contribution, from me they want commitment!”

Or this one….

Rabbi Ben Simmons was fed up with his congregation. So, he decided to skip the services on Yom Kippur, the holiest day on the Jewish calendar, and instead go play golf.

Moses was looking down from heaven and saw the rabbi on the golf course. He naturally reported it to God. Moses suggested God punish the rabbi severely.

As he watched, Moses saw Rabbi Ben Simmons playing the best game he had ever played. The rabbi got a hole-in-one on the toughest hole on the course and then again on the next hole.

Moses turned to God and asked, ‘I thought you were going to punish him. Do you call this punishment?’

God replied, ‘Who’s he gonna tell?’

Or how about this one…

There was the Jew that went camping.  Spend the night in Yosemite and woke up in the morning to a glorious sunshine.  He goes out of the tent and puts on the Tallit and Tefillin.  He begins to pray.  Thank you God for such a glorious day. For making me free.  And just then a huge bear comes out of the woods licking his chops.  The man knows that he’s breakfast.  So he raises his hands and says, Ribono Shel Olam! Master of the world!  Please, please, I know my end is near, please make this bear into a Jew a good Jew.

He closes his eyes and begins to Shema Yisrael.  He opens his eyes and he sees that bear has put on a kippah and is covering his eyes in prayer as well.  Thank God!  Moshele says!  I’m saved!  The Bear is a Jewish Bear!  He listens closer to hear what the bear is praying:  The bear sings: Hamotzi Lechem min haaretz.

Telling food jokes on Yom Kippur, oy.  Everyone ok?  Anyone hungry?

We love being funny and having fun. We love being happy!  It’s not just you that feels that way this compulsion for happiness.  There was an economic survey back in the 1970s that asked a series of questions that can be boiled down to the inquiry, “are you happy?” The economists behind the survey wanted to know– in a long period of economic growth where incomes were rising and debts falling– did having more money in your pocket made you happier. Questionnaires of this sort have been repeated many times. The results of the survey were decidedly mixed.

On the one hand, you can track happiness and life-satisfaction to income.  The more you earn, the more things you can own, and the happier you can become. This is true for both individuals and whole countries.  On the other hand, when the data is reexamined through the lens of behavioral economics and psychology, a paradox emerges.  While happiness seems to rise with increasing wealth, so did the rising sense of meaninglessness.

Therein lies the paradox of our lives.   The more things you try to own the more you realize that you cannot find meaning in it.  The more you ask yourself, “What do I need to feel happy?” the more you are disappointed when you have have that thing. As one billionaire said, “How many more pairs of jeans do I need to own to make me look good? I already have one for everyday of the week.”

What emerges from these studies is that our sensibilities adapt to the things we own.  Every purchase of material goods we make can add to our satisfaction, but only for a short period of time.  You quickly  get used to your new car or purse and soon feel just as empty as you did before you bought that new thing.  The more we ask “what do I need?” the more we feel that we need.  It is what Freud calls being driven by our instincts or our passions.  We create a cycle of desire…pleasure…desire….pleasure.   Until we look back at our lives, and wonder what it was all about.

Deep down our souls are begging for something different.  Our hearts are screaming for something more.

Ultimately to me, trying to find enough happiness is a like trying to get enough sleep.  It’s something that we tell our friends we don’t get enough of, that we are always looking for more of it, and when we finally have it, we are never awake enough to know it.

Trying to live life as Aristotle says, by setting up happiness as life’s ultimate telos, or goal, and then crafting your entire life around that goal by drugging our way there or buying our way there or vacationing our way there is our inheritance of being in a Western culture. Athens has had a lock on the Western mind for thousands of years.  Rational philosophy, utilitarian philosophy, existentialism, and American pragmatism are all thought palaces built on the foundations of Athens.

But Jews are not Greeks. Athens is not our capital.  Jerusalem is.  Judaism has always said that our lives cannot be reduced to the mere biological cycle of need and satisfaction.  Being happy is not life’s primary goal.  As Kohelet, the author of the book Ecclesiastes teaches, “Come now, I get mixed up with joy and experience pleasure,” and behold, it too was vanity. Of laughter, I said, “It is mirth” and concerning joy, “What does it accomplish?” (Ecclesiastes, 2:1-2) Kohelet was no cranky old man.  He was full of life and wisdom.  Kohelet travelled the world, learned from the greatest of teachers, earned great riches. Some say he was King Solomon.  He had seen it all – being poor and rich – wise and foolish.  And yet, his holy wisdom says to us that happiness leads to futility and meaninglessness.  If he were alive today he would be one of us. He would have gone to a nice college.  Got a graduate degree.  Made a living.  Stayed at the Ritz on vacation.  He has a wine collection, got good seats to Hamilton, the best tea times at the club, and a box at the bowl every summer, yet he felt in the end that all his travels and his wealth brought ephemeral joy, but in the end it had accomplished nothing.   Does this sound familiar to any of us in this room?

That is because life is more than the circle of pleasure, desire..pleasure…desire.  You are more than a biological creature, more than what Freud said about how you are driven by instincts.  The vital drives of sex, food, power and all the time we spend trying to satisfy  those needs do not, according to our rabbis, describe the fullness of our existence.

The material desires are part of each human being, but they cannot fully describe the experience of being human.

Our souls are begging for something different.  Our hearts are screaming for something more.

It is the philosophers of Athens teach us that happiness is the greatest good because it is the only thing we do for it’s own sake, but it is the sages of Jerusalem that teaches us that what happiness is not life’s goal.

It is holiness, that is life’s goal.

The purpose of life, says our tradition, is to be not only happy, but to be holy.

What then is holiness?

It is hard to teach this in a straightforward manner, so Think of it this way.  The kids this year in our day school are doing the Wizard of Oz. Remember the movie?  It’s starts out in Kansas and everything appears to be alright.  They have a nice farm, good family not without its problems, but for the most part everyone is ok.  Except, that there is this one thing that nobody notices. It permeates every corner of their lives. It is in every frame of the movie, it is behind every breath and furtive look.  Yet not a single character notices that the are living their lives in black-and-white. It’s only after the storm when the house goes flying in the air and lands somewhere in munchkin land does Dorothy open the door to the house and wanders outside does she see the world in color for the first time.

That’s what holiness is.  It fills our world and floats in the background and many of us never know that it is there.  If you only live your life trying to achieve one thing, happiness, you are living along a single axis.  Your life is broadcast in black-and-white.

But if you understand that happiness is means and not an end, if you understand that there is a greater world out there more cherished and sacred than happiness alone, if you see yourself in service to something greater, then you you can live in many dimensions at once. Your life is no longer in broadcast in black-and-white but in full streaming technicolor.

It is hard to approach this directly, so let me try again with another story.

When my zayde died, we gathered together for shiva at his home.  After a couple of nights, one of the cousins stands up and says, Can I tell zayde’s favorite joke?  She proceeded to tell it and the family started laughing contagiously.  Then another member of the family stood up and told another family joke.  One after another for 20 minutes amidst their sadness we found laughter.  We were on the floor in stitches.  That’s not because we were happy.  We were able to live in joy and sadness at the same time. Darkness and light comingled together into the admixture of our lives.  We were not happy in a happy moment, we found ourselves to be in a holy moment.

A few years later Sarah and I were married.  At my wedding, Sarah and I stood under the chuppah with our family, and we took a few moments to remember our fallen loved ones including my Zayde.  Just imagine on this beautiful Sunday we stood under chuppah and said prayers for him, remembering this sweet man who poured his life into our. We all cried.  I cried.  Because we were not just experiencing happiness as a couple, but holiness.  When you mourn for your family under the chuppah. That’s a technicolor holy moment because you begin to see the world through a prism that refracts all of life moments into one.

The same is when we had our oldest daughter, Meira.  We named her after my Zayde.  And amongst the most joyous feelings of new beginnings we took a moment to remember him again by sharing a few of his virtues we wished to see in her. I was sad and happy and excited and nervous.  A full spread of colorful emotions painting the world with God’s paintbrush.  Michieye matim brachamim rabim. Bringing light into darkness and darkness into light.   Mourning into dancing, and death into life, precious sweet life once again.  Michieye matim brachamim rabim.

It’s ok to laugh in a shiva house and cry under the chuppah and mourn at a baby naming. It’s not only ok, it’s holy.

Holiness is the fullest expression of our flourishing.  It is finding the colorful background behind the grayscale of our lives.

How do we find holiness?  Jews don’t believe that God makes a map for your life.  We are not predestined to heaven.  God does not set a fated path before each us.  Nor does God even know the outcomes of our choices, otherwise Yom Kippur makes no sense.  What is the use of taking the field and playing the game if everyone, even the fans know the outcome.  God is not a map maker.  God does not have a plan for your life.  That is your responsibility.

God does, however, provide us with a blueprint.  A blueprint tells you how to build the house.  Where to put the beams, what kind of shingles to use and where the plumbing and electricity go.  A blueprint never tells you what paintings to put on your walls or what sports team to follow.  It never tells you which melody to use when you sing your children to sleep.  Or what kind of tortilla to use for ‘Taco Tuesday.’ Blueprints are plans for an environment, an ecosystem in which those holy moments can be found. The blueprint is the background and you are the foreground.

According to the midrash, the Torah is God’s blueprint. (Bereshit Rabbah 1:4)  God uses the Torah to set out the foundations of the world.  The Torah gives us commandments and tells us the many stories of our people, but at it’s center is a single character that matters more than Abraham and Sarah or Moses and Miriam. At  the very center of the Torah is the most important character – so important that the whole world depends on it.

At the center of the Torah is the story of you.

The story of where you come from, of what is the nature of being human, of what is demanded of you, needed of you, and how you can give to the world.

God ordains the sacred times but it is up to you to make them holy.
(Leviticus 23:2) The Torah sets out the blueprint for the house and it’s up to you make life in the house.

The Torah teaches us greatest dimension of difference between holiness and happiness.

Aristotle asks, “How do I find happiness?” “What fulfills my desire?”  “What frees me from pain?”  “What gives me pleasure?” “What do I need?”

The Torah asks, “How do you find holiness?”  “How do you free the pain of others?” “How are you needed?”

Holy moments are not about your needs, but about how you are needed.

You don’t marry someone to make you a better person, it’s because you are needed by your partner so that they feel loved. They need you.

You don’t ask for forgiveness to make yourself feel less guilty, you ask for forgiveness so that the other person no longer has to feel the pain you’ve caused. They need you.

Tzedakah is a holy virtue.  You shouldn’t give money to charity because it makes you feel good and happy, or to get a tax deduction, it’s because the poor need you, they cry out to you.  When you break their fetters of oppression, their shackles of poverty and slavery says the prophet Isaiah (58:6-12) on this holiest of days, you become holy through them.  They need you.

That is how you become holy.  By being needed.

The Torah does not say, Smechim Te’hu,  “You shall be happy” Because life is not lived in black-and-white. God’s blueprint says, Kedoshim Te’hu, (Leviticus 19:2) “You shall be holy”, with all it’s ups and downs.  With happiness and sadness. With life and death.  In life’s fullest dimensions and colors.  Holiness breaks the cycle of desire and pleasure by transcending ourselves to be more godly.   To be like God who is holy.

This is the central task of your life.

The world, according to the Talmud was created for your so that you know that you are part of something dramatically bigger than your personal needs. (Sanhedrin 34a).  Being human and finding significance, and indeed happiness, cannot happen solely by the fulfillment of your desires, but instead in the realization that you are needed. The Torah’s blueprint for your life is only the foundations, the parameters of your days on earth.  It gives you some guidance, but at it’s heart it asks of you this most central question.   “Are you needed?”

Your life is the answer to this question.

In 2011, the Nobel Laureate and author Toni Morrison, spoke at the Rutgers University commencement.  She said, “I urge you, please don’t settle for happiness. It’s not good enough. Of course, you deserve it. But if that is all you have in mind—happiness—I want to suggest to you that personal success devoid of meaningfulness, free of a steady commitment to social justice, that’s more than a barren life, it is a trivial one. It’s looking good instead of doing good.”

Yom Kippur is our commencement day complete with robes and funny hats.   Yom Kippur is also our holiest day of the year. Yom Kippur is the holiday when we free ourselves from the cycle of desire and pleasure in order to achieve something greater, something more than our own short-lived happiness.  We fast our bodies so we can feed our souls.  We wear no leather, nor display wealth of any kind for we know that materialism is no substitute for holiness.  We spend the day away from work and our physical needs choosing instead to reflect and look inside ourselves so that we may grow.  We are all trying not just to look good but be good. Be holy.

Both Athens and Jerusalem say that you and I are the most important thing ever imagined.  But where the Greeks say the goal of life is to be happy, our sages say it is to be holy.  To build a life of holiness where your needs are met by meeting the needs of others.  Where we can build a synagogue community of caring and sharing.  A place that dips into the wellspring of our ancient tradition and say at almost any given moment, that we are doing holy work.  By belonging to a community, making a commitment to a community that says it’s mission is to create holiness in the lives of all people.

By learning our eternal values (Torah), by reaching deep with our own souls (Avodah), by connecting to others (Hevre) and by growing in spirit by growing the spirits of others through acts of loving kindness (chesed). For without them the world cannot stand. (Pirke Avot 1:2)

Our community is not a country club nor is it a business it is a kehila kedosha, a community of holiness.  Were we can never settle for happiness.  Because our lives are so much more colorful than that. Be with us. And you can clap along if you feel that’s what you wanna do.

Gmar Hatima Tova.

This was originally posted on Valley Beth Shalom’s website

The Triangle Waist Factory fire and the laws of holiness

This week, in Parashah Shmini, we learn the laws of Kashrut.  We often think of Kashrut as a hoq, a mysterious commandment that we follow only because our Torah says that God wants us to.  But Kashrut is also a mishpat, a commandment informed by values and virtues that we can comprehend; in this case, an abhorrence of cruelty. Not only may we not eat, and thereby develop a thirst for, blood; we may not slaughter in a cruel way, because we care about tzar baalei chayim, the suffering of living creatures.

The tradition acknowledges that we need to eat in order to live, but it also governs how we fulfill that need.  There is no aspect of our lives, not even within the ordinary workday world, which is unmarked by our commitment to holiness. That holiness is lived out in the context of our relationships, be it with the rest of creation, with other people and with God.

This means that a kosher butcher runs a business within a regulated marketplace.
The butcher has the right to earn a living—there is nothing wrong with working hard and earning a profit honorably—but there are some corners which may not be cut.

This principle applies to all business dealings.  If we may not be cruel to the other animals, then, all the more so, we may not be cruel to people.

We learn in Brachot 19b and Shabbat 94b that, “Human dignity is very great in that it supersedes even negative commandments (“shalt nots”) from our Torah.”  This is why so much of our Talmud concerns contract law.  A contract, a brit, is an agreement of mutual obligation between human beings, each of whom is a representative of the One in Whose image we are made and is therefore deserving of respect.

This Shabbat will mark the 100th secular anniversary of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company fire.  On March 25, 1911, a fire broke out at a garment factory in which the workers, mostly Jewish and Italian immigrant women were working on the upper floors, where doors were locked to keep workers inside and union organizers out.  The one fire escape soon collapsed. 146 workers are killed and over 500 are injured by burns, smoke inhalation and injuries suffered after jumping from the building to escape the flames.

This fire followed the historic Uprising of the 20,000 in 1909 in which women garment workerswent on strike for higher wages, safer working conditions and—most critically, the right to collective bargaining, to the establishment of contracts between workers and management guaranteeing mutual rights and obligations.  When the strike ended, most companies, including Triangle, had agreed to some but not to collective bargaining.  Two of the strikers’ demands which had not been met were improved fire escapes and unlocked doors.

After the fire, Rabbi Steven S. Wise said, “The lesson of the hour is that while property is good, life is better, that while possessions are valuable, life is priceless. The meaning of the hour is that the life of the lowliest worker in the nation is sacred and inviolable, and, if that sacred human right be violated, we shall stand adjudged and condemned before the tribunal of God and of history.”

The hopeful news is that from the ashes of the fire rose a stronger union and also the Factory Investigating Commission of New York state which pioneered many labor reforms, including improved fire safety.  But in this current era, those gains are in jeopardy, because all unions, as we have seen in Wisconsin, are under attack, and many garment jobs are outsourced overseas.

Today, the fire still burns.  In 2010 alone, there were two major factory fires in Bangladesh that were eerily reminiscent of the Triangle disaster.  Workers were trapped upstairs in locked rooms without adequate fire protection or escape and, as with Triangle, they died of burns or jumped to their deaths to avoid being burned alive.  These factories supply clothing to H&M, The Gap, JC Penny and other popular retailers.

We as consumers have the power to change things.  After the fires in Bangladesh, the voices raised through the Clean Clothes Campaign pressured retail outlets to agree to police the safety conditions at their contracted factories.

Returning to our parashah, we learn in Leviticus 10:10, “You must distinguish between holy and ordinary, between pure and impure.”  This applies to the clothes we put on our bodies as much as to the food we put inside them. If we are careful of human dignity, we infuse even the most mundane details of daily life with holiness.

Workers at home need the support of ethical consumers as well. Please visit the Progressive Jewish Alliance’s website to download more information about the Triangle fire and to find out what you can do to support today’s garments workers’ fight for human dignity.

We invite you to bring this important story to your synagogue or shabbes table this weekend.

Seeking Holiness

Oh, deep in my heart
I do believe
That we shall overcome, someday!

Those lyrics, known for inspiring so many movements for justice and righteousness, are at the core of what I am thinking about these days. Is it truly possible to overcome?

From what great wellspring did this vision surge forth? In many ways, it came from the second half of this week’s Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim.

Kedoshim is a lofty and powerful parsha, known as the holiness code, which the Talmud and Midrash understood to be rav gufei Torah, or encompassing the majority of the Torah, namely that this chapter is a summation of the entire Torah itself.

“And God spoke to Moshe saying: Speak to all of the children of Israel, saying to them, ‘You shall be holy, for I, the Great Holy One am holy'” (Leviticus 19:1-2).

For one of the greatest statements that God lays upon us, it is really not clear from these words alone exactly what we are supposed to do. How should we be holy? What can we do to imitate You, God, in order to emulate Your holiness?

However, what is clear at the outset is that we cannot be fully holy alone as individuals, but rather we must seek this goal as a community. That is why the Hebrew is in the plural, kedoshim t’heyu, you (plural) shall be holy. Holiness is not something that can be fully realized alone.

Nor is holiness an easily defined concept. However, the verses that follow instruct us as to what God thinks holiness is all about. Some of the highlights are that we should care for the poor, leave the corners of our fields for the needy and the stranger, not withhold the wages of a laborer until morning and not stand idly by the blood of our neighbor.

Next come some of the most challenging words of the Torah, which tell us that we should not hate our brother or sister in our hearts, even as we must rebuke each other for wrongs committed; not take vengeance or bear a grudge, and love our neighbor as ourselves. Wow, is that a daunting task!

The great commentator Rashi understood holiness to be “separating oneself” from sexual immorality, and the precepts that follow the call to be holy often involve separating oneself in some way.

In a broader context, kedusha, holiness, can be about separating ourselves from the many forms of immorality that we face — injustice, inequity, violence, ethnocentrism. The irony of kedusha is that while it sets one thing apart from another, the experience actually can serve to unify us.

As Martin Buber elucidated on this parsha, “God is the absolute authority over the world, because God is separate from it and transcends it, but God is not withdrawn from it. Israel must, in imitating God by being a holy nation, similarly not withdraw from the world of the nations, but rather radiate a positive influence on them through every aspect of Jewish living.”

That is why Jews have always been strong proponents of social justice, and that is why, thankfully, we continue to be leaders in the cause of righteousness and justice for all people, not just our own.

I love this parsha because it reminds me of what we should all be striving for and what it will take to truly overcome. When I am criticized for being “too political” in my sermons or divrei Torah, it is this parsha that strengthens me in the face of that criticism.

Overcoming disparities in health care is not political, it is holy; overcoming war, genocide, hatred and vengeance is not political, it is holy; fighting for economic justice or immigration reform is not political, it is holy; greening our world is not political, it is holy.

Love and compassion for the other, be they gay or straight; Jewish, Christian, Muslim or any religion; be they white, black or any race; male or female; young or old; rich or poor; Israeli or Palestinian — love and compassion for the other is not political. This love is holy; it is how we emulate God’s holiness, and it is taught to us directly in the Torah.

It is only as a community — local, national and global — that we can achieve these amazing goals; it is only as a plurality that we can overcome. When we wonder what needs to be done to make a world of our dreams, a world that some call the messianic time, we can look to this chapter of Torah for the first steps.

May the words of Kedoshim inspire each of us to live holy lives and find ways to imitate God by shining light and hope onto the dark corners of pain and suffering in our world. For the sake of our children, deep within my heart, I do believe we shall overcome someday. Amen.

Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater is the spiritual leader of the Pasadena Jewish Temple & Center. He serves on the executive committee and is the social action chair for the Board of Rabbis of Southern California; is chair of Brit Tzedek v’Shalom’s Los Angeles chapter is and co-founder of an emerging group called Jews Against the War. He can be reached at rabbijoshua@pjtc.net.

Under The Skin

In the new “Body Worlds” exhibit at the California Science Center, a plastic man called “Chess Player” sits at a table with his back hunched forward and his hands cupped under his chin. His lips pursed, his eyes stare intensely at the chess board.

Posed in cerebral solemnity, “Chess Player” would look at home at a chess tables in Central Park — were it not for the fact that he is naked, the skin is flayed off his body and his cranium is split open. But what is most distinguishing — and perhaps, in a philosophical sense, disturbing — about “Chess Player” is not that he is plastic and without skin or clothes, but that he is a corpse.

“Chess Player” is one of dozens of artfully posed “plastinated” corpses that make up the showpieces of “Gunther von Hagen’s Body Worlds, the Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human Bodies.” The exhibition had its U.S. premier in Los Angeles in July, after 15 million people saw it in Asia and Europe. Organizers hope that the U.S. display will attract comparably large crowds.

Billed as educational, the exhibit aims to expose what goes on beneath the skin in order to teach visitors about the intricacies of the human body and to inspire health consciousness. With visitors poised precariously on the edge of ghoulish fascination and corporeal awe, the exhibit is currently drawing summer campers on trip day, families looking for an interesting vacation outing and medical students eager to get a look inside.

The exhibit has a full array of real bodies and body parts on display. There are glass cases that contain lungs, livers, kidneys, hearts, gall bladders, spleens, intestines, brains and other internal organs in various states of health and illness.

A display of embryos and fetuses show how babies develop during the nine months of pregnancy. A glass case that contains a man, woman and child, stripped of everything but their blood vessels, presents the intricate network of the blood’s passage through the body.

A woman, fecund in her eighth month of pregnancy, reclines while her womb is exposed through a cutout that reveals the baby nestling within. An athlete crouching mid-bounce with a basketball in his hand is stripped of his skin to reveal a thick layer of tawny red muscle.

Von Hagen also presents bodies that have been dissected horizontally and vertically at various intervals. Each dissection is preserved in a sheet of plastic and then reassembled to create a body in parts to expose the inner workings of the body.

But “Body Worlds” has also touched a nerve in the Jewish community of Los Angeles. Local rabbis have variously praised and vilified it. Some have announced from the pulpit that seeing the exhibit is a mitzvah, while others advise not to go see it because the exhibit violates everything that Judaism holds sacred about the body.

Von Hagen, a German anatomist, created the science behind “Body Worlds” back in 1978. Tired of seeing anatomy specimens floating in jars of cloudy formaldehyde, von Hagen invented and patented a process he called “plastination,” which uses a vacuum chamber to replace the fluids in the body with a reactive polymer that hardens and preserves the body in a “lifelike state.”

Plastinated bodies do not smell or rot, and, as von Hagen amply demonstrated, they can be sliced, diced and posed at will. Using bodies donated specifically for that purpose, von Hagen, now 59, created plastinated bodies and body parts that he sold to medical schools for educational purposes.

In 1995, he put the bodies on display to the general public for the first time in a “Body Worlds” exhibition in Japan. Other exhibitions in other countries followed and with them controversy.

Ethicists accused von Hagen, renegade anatomist in his trademark fedora, of running a “freak show,” and some media outlets dubbed him “Dr. Frankenstein.” His notoriety increased in 2002, when he held a public autopsy in London open to anyone wanting to pay $19 a ticket — a practice that had been banned 170 years before.

According to England’s Sunday Telegraph, in January of this year, Siberian authorities opened legal proceedings against von Hagen, claiming that he received corpses at his body processing center in Heidelberg, Germany, without the permission of the deceased or their relatives. Von Hagen successfully contested the charges.

However, in an unrelated incident, he did concede that bodies admitted to his China processing plant in Dailan might have been those of executed prisoners, and that he had advised his staff there that they could not accept bodies of those who were executed.

Von Hagen sees his plastinates as continuing the work of great anatomists of the past, like Leonardo da Vinci and Andreas Vesalius, and many of his plastinates pay homage to the drawings of these men by being posed and sculpted in an identical fashion.

“I see myself in their tradition, and I look up to them,” said von Hagen, who spoke to The Journal by phone from Taiwan. “I studied for weeks at the anatomical museums in Italy, and I looked at pictures from the Renaissance, and I learned [from them] about posing a body in a natural way.”

Aware of the controversy surrounding von Hagen and his traveling corpse exhibit, officials at the California Science Center assembled an ethics advisory committee to investigate and advise on the matter before they signed an agreement with von Hagen. The committee included medical doctors who were also medical ethicists and Jewish and Christian clergymen.

Morley Feinstein, senior rabbi of University Synagogue, who sat on the committee, recently delivered a sermon explaining that the committee investigated the body donations and came back satisfied that those who donated their bodies were fully aware that they were going to be part of the exhibit, and that none of the bodies came from dubious sources — such as bodies of victims of the Holocaust, Feinstein said in his sermon.

The committee also decided that it was proper for school-age children to see the exhibit, because they could come to conclusions that would make them healthier, such as deciding, after seeing the cirrhotic livers and blackened lungs that von Hagen has on display, not to drink or smoke.

While all of the committee members supported the exhibit, seven of them issued statements endorsing it.

“‘Body Worlds’ will give [people] access to the many miracles of the human body and help them understand their physical selves,” said Dr. Stanley Korenman of the UCLA Medical Center.

“The human body is essential to our humanity … and any growth in the understanding and knowledge of our human body leads to a greater appreciation of our dignity as human persons,” said the Rev. Richard Benson from St. John’s Seminary of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles.

Morley said the exhibit “helps us understand better the Designer who created and shaped humanity,” and then in the sermon, Morley went even further.

“Learning health matters at ‘Body Worlds’ can be life-saving,” he said. “And viewing the exhibit in that context can be a mitzvah.”

But other rabbis disagree with Morley.

“Jews should be aware that this is a fundamentally un-Jewish way of treating bodies,” said Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein, the director of Project Next Step and an additional adviser to “Body Worlds,” who offered the committee the Orthodox perspective. “We view the body as an instrument that brought holiness to the world, since the body is the vehicle that enables the soul to do its job. Every part of Jewish funeral practice stresses that there is this element of holiness [in the body]. We view holiness as something that human beings can and do create, and it leaves lasting effects. Therefore, the notion that the body is something that can be disposed of at will as long as you have the consent of the deceased is foreign and repugnant to Judaism.”

“Just as you can’t take sefer Torah [Torah scroll] and use it as wallpaper for a synagogue, you can’t take a body and cut it up and put it on display,” he said.

However, Adlerstein noted that these laws only apply to Jewish corpses. Morley said that after investigation of the donors, the committee surmised that there were no Jewish bodies on display in the exhibit.

“Perhaps people are gaining something in the process when they see the exhibit,” Adlerstein said. “But they should not lose sight of the fact that every time you use the human body for something that is not immediately connected with saving a life, you are paying a price, and human life becomes cheaper and cheaper.”

In Judaism, the body is viewed as a sacred vessel, and human life is viewed as sacrosanct. The Jewish view on health is a holistic, albeit abstemious, one. “Guard your life exceedingly,” is the verse in Deuteronomy that commentators say is the basis for Judaism’s view on health and fitness.

In the Mishneh Torah, the classic text that codifies Jewish law, Maimonides writes, “A healthy, whole body is part of the way of God … one cannot know or comprehend the Creator when ill [therefore] one should distance themselves from things that destroy the body.”

Maimonides, a physician who wrote about 10 books on medicine and healthy living, goes on to list some basic principles in keeping healthy, such as not eating to satiety. The Kitzur Shulchan Aruch (Code of Jewish Law) also advises that it is important to “keep [your] bowels lax” and that preserving physical health is intertwined with preserving emotional health.

According to traditional Judaism, our bodies are on loan, so to speak, from God, and are not our own to do what we want with. That’s why there are prohibitions in the Torah against intentionally harming or wounding our bodies or putting them in danger; also, there is a biblical prohibition against marking our bodies (i.e, tattooing).

“These laws translate into other concepts, like not eating junk food, and not smoking,” said Rabbi Nachum Sauer of the Rabbinical Council of California. “Most halachic authorities hold that it is forbidden to smoke now that the dangers of smoking have been determined.”

Sauer also explained that modern halachic authorities, like Rabbi Moshe Feinstein, forbade the use of marijuana and other narcotics, not only because of the harm they could cause to the body, but because their use violates the biblical concept of kedoshim tihiyu (and you shall be holy).

“A Jew has to live a lifestyle of holiness and [taking drugs and their consequences] are antithetical to Torah,” he said.

But regardless of the health of the body, the mitzvah of saving a life takes precedence over all other mitzvahs in the Torah, with the exception of the prohibitions against murder, idolatry and incest. “An elderly man or woman, a mentally retarded person, a deformed baby, a dying cancer patient and similar individuals all have the same right to life as you or I,” Fred Rosner, a doctor who has written extensively on matters of Jewish bioethics, writes in the essay, “Risks Versus Benefits in Treating the Gravely Ill Patient, Ethical and Religious Considerations.”

Yet whether or not one has treated his or her body with respect during one’s lifetime has nothing to do with how much respect must be accorded one’s corpse. There is a biblical commandment to bury bodies and body parts (i.e, if a limb is amputated), and a prohibition against desecrating the dead (i.e., cutting up a body). It is also forbidden to benefit from bodies.

Sauer believes that death and its accompaniments need to be a natural process according to halacha (Jewish law), which is why traditional Judaism forbids cremation and embalming bodies.

But there are some halachic authorities who say that the mitzvah of saving a life takes precedence over the prohibition against desecrating the dead. Therefore, many authorities permit harvesting organs for transplant purposes from a person considered brain dead, even though it would require the harvesters to cut through the dead body to extract the organs.

There is also a famous responsa that was given by Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, an 18th century rabbi in Prague also known as the Noda B’Yehuda, that permitted autopsies if there could be a direct health benefit to a person who was present at the autopsy. In other words, performing autopsies on bodies for the general purpose of “research” would be forbidden, but if Person A had died of a certain disease, and Person B in the same town contracted the same disease, it would be permitted to perform an autopsy on Person A in the hope that the knowledge gained about the disease could help save Person B.

As an exhibit, “Body Worlds” seems to straddle these various opinions. On the one hand, the bodies have been mutilated and embalmed, on the other hand, organizers claim that these mutilations and embalmings can have untold health benefits on the myriad people who come to see the exhibit and leave feeling inspired to lead healthier lives.

So maybe the bodily mutilation could, in a sense, save lives. According to visitor polls carried out at several “Body Worlds” exhibition sites (in Japan, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, Belgium and England), 56 percent of visitors left the exhibit “with valuable incentives for a healthier lifestyle … and resolved to pay more attention to their physical health in the future.”

Diane Perlov, the senior vice president of exhibits at the California Science Center, told The Journal that in California, after people viewed the exhibit, they resolved to give up smoking and other destructive behaviors.

“I don’t think there was anyone who first heard about the exhibit and didn’t think that it was beyond their ken,” Feinstein said. “But once we learned about it, and understood the care and dignity that goes on and the opportunity to save lives [this exhibit has], these were very high priorities for us. I think that the exhibit does have the potential to help teenagers, especially in regard to smoking and alcohol, and I think it might open up the mind’s imagination to comprehend the miracle that we live with every day. And, if in fact we gain that knowledge, we might be able to appreciate the wondrous Creator of that miracle.”

Others disagree about the educational benefits of putting plastinated corpses on display. Rabbi J. David Bleich, a professor of Jewish law and ethics at Yeshiva University in New York and the one of the editors of “Jewish Bioethics” (Hebrew Publishing Co., 1979), told The Journal that plastic facsimiles of the body are just as effective as educational tools.

Sauer also took issue with the educational component of the exhibit. “Even if the halachic issues [of not desecrating the dead] do not apply to non-Jews, [von Hagen] is using this as a commercial endeavor, and thus is not showing the proper respect [to the bodies]. Even though it is billed as educational, I feel there are other motives involved than purely scientific, medical ones. I think people may go and see it because of the notoriety — people are always looking for shocking experiences, and it lowers the sensitivities of people in general to the sanctity of the human being. So when people ask me, I recommend that they don’t go see it for those reasons.”

Feinstein thinks that the positive outweighs the negative.

“My congregation was fascinated and overwhelmed when I told them about “Body Worlds.” They had not considered that his particular area of science learning could have such a great connection with their Jewish spirituality and learning.”

“Body Worlds the Anatomical Exhibition of Real Human
Bodies” will be at the California Science Center until Jan. 23, 2005. For more
information, visit www.bodyworlds.com .

A Jewish Diet

The Tu B’Shevat seder, with its many fruit and nuts, challenges us to reconsider our usual diets, and the recommended Jewish diet. While the FDA recommends a diet high in grains, rich in nutrients and low in saturated fats, Judaism recommends a diet high in holiness, rich in consciousness and connection, and low in selfishness. These four factors guide not only a Jewish diet, but also a Jewish life.

As Jews, we’re commanded to strive for holiness in every facet of our lives. One ritual and spiritual practice that helps us infuse holiness into our daily life, is offering blessings. Offering a bracha or a blessing with mindful consciousness — known in Hebrew as kavanah — helps us transform apparently mundane acts into moments rich with spiritual potential. Saying a blessing before and after each meal ensures that we stop to appreciate our food and its Ultimate Source. In our tradition, eating without blessings to thank God is like stealing from the Source of Life, while robbing ourselves of spiritual awareness. Judaism tells us a proper diet should include healthy portions of holiness — ideally beginning and ending each meal with blessings.

A second key ingredient in a Jewish diet is consciousness. Maintaining a traditional Jewish diet requires a high degree of consciousness in order to follow the ritual guidelines of kashrut commonly described as keeping kosher. The word kosher, which means ritually fit, can apply to a wide range of subjects from the food we eat to the wedding rings we may wear. In the dietary realm, the core ideas of kashrut are defined in the Bible. While the biblical Garden of Eden narrative clearly defines a vegetarian diet as ideal, our Noah narrative highlights the human lust for blood and meat. In Judaism meat eating can be seen as a concession to human blood lust, which was allowed, but highly regulated through ancient cultic ritual and the practice of kashrut.

As we know, the biblical traditions of kashrut include definitions, prohibitions and guidelines for treating animals. Kosher land animals have cloven hoofs and chew their cud (thus cows and most herbivores can be kosher, but pigs and all carnivores are treif, or un-kosher). Kosher fowl essentially include all birds except birds of prey. Kosher marine life must have fins and scales and may not be scavengers. According to kashrut, meat and dairy products may not be mixed, and traditional kosher homes have separate dishes, silverware, cookware and utensils for meat and dairy products.

While kashrut allows the slaughter and consumption of animals for food, it demands that the animals be treated with respect. Judaism requires the schochet (ritual slaughterer) to perform his duties consciously minimizing pain and maximizing reverence for life and the Life Source.

A third dish in the Jewish diet is connection. Our foods connect us symbolically to the teaching of our tradition, and sociologically to our heritage. This is best reflected in the Passover meal, or seder. Tradition teaches us that in this ritual meal, bitter horseradish represents the bitterness of slavery and saltwater reminds us of the tears of bondage, while fresh spring herbs symbolize the promise of hope. Through the Passover meal, food helps us symbolically reenact the journey from slavery to freedom. Similarly, the oily latkes and sufganiyot of Chanukah, remind us of the remarkable events surrounding the rededication of the oil lamps that burned in the ancient Temple.

A Jewish diet also connects people through a program of communal meals. One of the joys of the Sabbath is joining friends and family for a celebratory meal — by tradition this should be the best meal of the week. Every life-cycle event — bris, baby namings, b’nai mitvah, weddings and funerals — is accompanied by a communal meal. These meals and the food we often serve, connect us not only to our family, but to our particular familial heritage.

Our tradition demands that our diet be not only high in holiness and rich in consciousness and connection but also low in selfishness. We are commanded to share our bread with the hungry, even to feed our animals before we feed ourselves. At every Passover seder, we’re expected to call out to all who may pass, all who are hungry, let them come and eat. We strive to make providing food to the hungry a regular part of our Jewish practice, contributing to food pantries and volunteering at soup kitchens.

Mazon is a Hebrew word that means food. It is also an international Jewish organization that urges us to donate 3 percent of the cost of a celebration (such as a wedding or bar mitzvah party) to help feed the hungry the world over. Our blessing after meals includes the phrase "Chazan et hakol," praising God for providing food for all who live. We realize we must be partners with God to realize this promise.

As we know, there is enough food to sustain all who live on this planet if only we’ll be partners with God in the distribution of our resources — learning to share our abundant blessings with those in need. At times, in our world full of hunger, poverty and suffering, the blessings of holiness, compassion, connection and selflessness may seem distant ideals. The Source of Life and Sustenance, which we sometimes call God, may seem distant when we see the eyes of a hungry child.

Leo Baeck, a great rabbi who was sent to concentration camps by the Nazis, was once asked where God was during the Holocaust. His answer? Every time one prisoner helped another to drag a heavy wagon or shared one hard crust of bread with another starving inmate, God was there in the helping and sharing.

May we who are blessed with abundance, be blessed also with the strength, will and conviction to share what we have.

This is the foundation of a Jewish spiritual diet.

Sheryl Nosan-Blank is rabbi at Temple Beth Torah of the San Fernando Valley.

The Bonds that Unite Us

Enter a cathedral, and what do you feel? Thesoaring vaulted ceiling, the giant columns, the colossal statues ofsaints and martyrs, the luminous stained-glass images of scripturalheroes — the architecture articulates a spirituality of contrast. Weare small, insignificant, ephemeral creatures, no better than insectson the floor. We are impure, corrupt, stained with sin. Who are we toapproach God? God is magnificent, distant and fearsome in judgment.In the cathedral, it is only the figure of Christ that mediatesbetween my miserable condition as human being and God’s majesty.Holiness, argued the scholar Rudolf Otto, lies in the contrastbetween our “utter creatureliness” and God’s frightening “tremendum.”Holiness is the shiver of vulnerability in the face of theinfinite.

In Hebrew, the word for holiness is kedusha. Thisis the key term in this week’s Torah reading: “Kedoshim tihyu — Youwill be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:2).Trace that word in our experience, and we arrive at a very different– and very Jewish — idea of holiness.

A family, a havurah, a community of friends,gathers at a Shabbat or holiday table to celebrate life together, toshare our stories, our laughter, our tears, the triumphs and failuresof our lives. We raise a cup of wine and recite a prayer ofsanctification. But it isn’t the wine that is sacred. The prayeraffirms the holiness of the circle around the table — the bonds thathold us together as family and friends. That prayer is called”Kiddush.”

Two separate, independent individuals — fromdifferent families, different cultures, even different planets, hefrom Mars, she from Venus — find wholeness in one another. Theypledge to share life together. A ring is placed on a finger, a ringwhole and unbroken so that their lives, their dreams, their pain andtheir joys will be wholly intertwined. The tightly drawn circle ofthe self is unlocked to include another, whose happiness becomes “myhappiness,” and whose suffering becomes “my suffering.” And “we”recite: “Haray at mi-kudeshet lee” — “With this ring, we aremi-kudeshet, bonded in sanctity.” This miraculous process is calledin Jewish tradition, Kiddushin.

When a loved one dies, we refuse to let thecatastrophe of death be the last word. We will not sever our bonds ofloyalty and love. We will not lose our memories of shared wisdom,warmth, strength, vision. We rise in synagogue — in the midst of ourpeople — to recite a prayer that affirms the triumph of life overdeath, of hope over despair. The prayer is called “Kaddish.”

Rudolf Otto, like the builders of the greatcathedrals, found holiness in the God’s awesome distance. We Jewsfind it in God’s warm closeness. We find it in the bonds that uniteus. We find it in shared laughter and shared tears.

I used to listen faithfully to “Religion on theLine,” the radio talk show featuring a rabbi, priest and minister.Each week, whatever the scheduled issue, the panel would inevitablyreceive the same question from a caller: “Must one belong toorganized religion to have a relationship with God?” It is a sincerequestion. But I wonder where it comes from. What a lonelyindividualism that sees community as a trap and belonging asconfinement. What a cold and solitary spirituality that has nolanguage to share the insights of faith. What kind of human lifefears belonging?

This is more than theology; it is personal. I layin a hospital bed this past January, facing the most frighteningmoments of my life. And then I felt the warm hands of friends whocame to offer support. They prepared meals for my family, cared forour children, donated their blood on my behalf, and offered theirprayers for strength, healing and hope. In the warmth of their love,I have felt the Presence of God.

Ed Feinstein is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom inEncino.