Showing posts with label Abraham Joshua Heschel. Show all posts
Showing posts with label Abraham Joshua Heschel. Show all posts

Thursday, June 8, 2023

Daily Life Lessons from Rabbi Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Rabbi Mark Borovitz is a friend, teacher and mentor. His story is amazing. And he has a tremendous blog in which he riffs on a teaching from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, whom he reveres, each day. I try to read them as they post. Yesterday's is a standout and I would like to share it with you. Please go to Rabbi Mark's blog to read more: Living Rabbi Heschel's Wisdom - A Daily Path To Living Well.

Daily Life Lessons from Rabbi Heschel
June 7, 2023
Year 2 Day 218

Rabbi Mark Borovitz
“What is decisive is not the climax we reach in rare moments, but how the achievements of rare moments affect the climate of the entire life. The goal of Jewish law is to be the grammar of living, dealing with all relations and functions of living. Its main theme is the person rather than an institution.”(God in Search of Man pg. 384)

Rabbi Heschel’s wisdom above says it all, to me. We are a society that is constantly seeking a new ‘high’, fulfilling a new desire, recapturing an old ecstatic experience. We are constantly trying to reach a climax, we are constantly trying to ‘win’, we are constantly moving to the next shiny thing, the next rung up on the ladder, the next ‘big score’, the next, the next, etc. I hear Rabbi Heschel calling to us to let go of this folly, to stop our incessant search for our next climax, our next success.

My Rabbi and friend, Rabbi Ed Feinstein, teaches that the day after Yom Kippur is the most important day. Rabbi Heschel teaches that “prayer will not save us, it may make us worthy of being saved.” 

Both of these teachings reiterate the teaching above in the first sentence. How does “the climax we reach in rare moments… affect the climate of the entire life of a person”? How has the climax of the Revolutionary War impacted the way we treat freedom? How does the rare moment of our experience at Mount Sinai affect our way of living? How does winning World War II impact our ways of being more human and more humane? How do all of our ‘top of the mountain’ experiences change our ways of living?

In the Bible, after the giving of the 10 Commandments/10 Sayings, we learn about how to treat indentured servants, we learn how to deal with one another in difficult times, how to honor the humanity of one another no matter what ‘station’ in life we are at. 

After the greatest spiritual experience in the Bible (Old Testament to some), we are given paths to living well with one another, we are told of the nature of human beings and how to overcome our nature to treat another poorly, how to get over our self-deceptions and our narcissism! 

We are taught throughout the Bible how to use our daily experiences to better our internal life, to mature our spiritual life, how to live well with one another in peace, in compassion, in truth, in justice, in mercy and in love. Yet, we continue to seek the next ‘high’, not paying attention to the lessons of this experience, not allowing the climax of a good job, a new insight, to grow our inner life, to “affect the climate of the entire life”! 

We are too busy amassing more and more, eventually finding out the truth of life; there is never enough stuff, high, even accomplishments to hide from our selves, to ignore the ways we achieved wherever we have gotten to, our own inner doubts, missing the marks, callousness.

We are witnesses to the dangers and pitfalls of chasing the next big thing, the next climax and not allowing the experience of our climactic experience to change us, to impact our sense of how to live well. We can look throughout our history and see how we have treated ‘those people’, how we have tried to use ‘them’ as enemies and gotten myriads of people to agree, be it Jews, Blacks, Hispanics, Asians, etc. 

We have and still do feel great when we ‘win’ and can dominate the minority, when we can win and get the minority to rule as we have seen in Germany with the Nazis, in Russia with Putin, in America with Trump, et al. It seems as if people are only learning how to make bigger and bigger ‘bets’ on how to satisfy their narcissistic desires, their inauthentic need for more authoritarian control. 

I am not talking about just the ‘leaders’, I am speaking of the people supporting them as well. Both the far right and the far left are spewing anti-Semitic tropes and ‘blaming the Jews’ for some troubles, both the far right and the far left are trying to push their agendas as ‘the only right way’ to live. When we are living in the extremes, we find ourselves unable to have a success, a “rare moment of climax” impact “the climate of the entire life” because we are so consumed with keeping our authority, staying in power, we are unable to learn from either success nor failure.

In recovery, we know we cannot afford to live in the extreme anymore, we know from the destruction we have caused and experienced the danger of ‘chasing the next high’. We take “One day at a time”, we go end our day with a look back so we can learn from our actions, the actions of another(s), we can repair our errors, make our amends, learn from our “rare moments of climax”. 

In recovery, we know that our recovery depends on the nature of our spiritual condition and we have to live our spiritual principles in all of our affairs, they are not etherial, they are our lifeline. God Bless and stay safe, Rabbi Mark

Friday, October 16, 2015


This is from a letter I shared with the parents in our school this fall.

Something New
I am working with a group of colleagues from around the country with Doctors Jeffrey Kress and Evie Rotstein. Jeff is a professor at the Davidson School of Education at the Jewish Theological Seminary. Evie—who many of you met last May when she spoke here-is director of the School of Education at the Hebrew Union College Jewish Institute of Religion.

We are studying something called social, emotional and spiritual learning (SESL). Like cognitive (knowledge) and affective learning, they each distinct ways in which we perceive our world and make sense and meaning of it. For the last several years our faculty and I have been developing lessons that utilize something called experiential education—which focuses on things that happen as we learn, distinct from information on a page or screen. SESL actually provides us with the philosophical underpinning to experiential and many other kinds of learning.

We need your help. During the course of the year, we will be constructing a lexicon—a list of words that we will use to describe things that reflect how learners’ social, emotional and spiritual selves are nourished. We will share that vocabulary with you in the weekly e-mails. Please use some of those words when you ask your kids to describe something they experienced or that their teacher or classmate said. Lots of people talk about the importance of spirituality, but because we don’t really have a common language, it is very hard for us to actually do anything about it.

Something Old
Last year, in this space I told you about a week I spent learning in Los Angeles in an immersion program for Jewish educators, rabbis and cantors at Beit T’shuvah. It is the country’s only Jewish residential facility for people in recovery from all kinds of addiction.

At Beit T’shuvah, they breathe spirituality. The rabbi there, Mark Borovitz – is crazy for the work of Abraham Joshua Heschel, one of the great Jewish thinkers of the 20th century. We spent considerable time studying Heschel’s work. He said:

“Our goal should be to live life in radical amazement. ....get up in the morning and look at the world in a way that takes nothing for granted. Everything is phenomenal; everything is incredible; never treat life casually. To be spiritual is to be amazed.”

In our school we continue to work on radical amazement. Our growing Tefillah – worship – curriculum is one example, as is our new Hebrew curriculum. Both were developed to respond to the educational and spiritual needs of our students and set them on the road to radical amazement.

In Tefillah, each grade spends part of the service time learning about a prayer. Why do we say it? What is the point? What does it mean to me? Then we pray together.

In Hebrew, we use Modern Hebrew instead of the prayer book – to teach the same levels we used before. The vocabulary and the content are different, but the linguistic skills develop at the same rate. And the content integrates with the rest of our curriculum, covering holy days, values and Israel.

We invite you to be a part of the process as we seek ways to help our learners discover radical amazement in their lives! 

Monday, November 24, 2014

Addicted to Redemption:
A response to Har Nof

Nearly every Friday morning for the last six months I meet Rabbi Mark Borovitz of Beit T'shuvah (BTS) in Los Angeles for coffee. Right at 10:00 a.m. unless one of us is running behind. We catch up on the past week and and study Abraham Joshua Heschel's The Insecurity of Freedom. We have gotten most of the way through the first chapter in half a year of 30 minute conversations. We may be moving too fast. I look forward to our weekly coffee. He is usually at a Starbucks somewhere between his home and Beit T'shuvah, which is in or adjacent to Culver City. I am usually at my desk or kitchen table.

It is only 7:00 a.m. his time and he has already written his weekly d'var torah which will be in the Shabbat service bulletin at BTS which they call the shmatteh. He has also written his weekly blog post for the LA Jewish Journal. I have just arrived at work following the gym and picking up my Cafe Americano. He makes me feel like a slacker and he is a decade older!

I usually don't read his blog or d'var until after we talk.  This paste week it took until just now. I need to share. Mark, thank you for putting this into words and giving me a context. I am signing the pledge.


Combating Hatred:
Honoring The Five Men Who Died in Jerusalem

By Rabbi Mark Borovitz

I am sitting in the lounge at the Los Angeles Airport, on my way to Florida with my wife to help her 102+ year-old mother, Molly, move into assisted living. I am thinking about Molly’s life and how she has survived on her own to this day. She says it is Bridge playing and a great sense of humor, as well as not getting angry with others, understanding that everyone has their way and that we can learn from each other. Juxtaposing this attitude with what happened in a Synagogue this week in Jerusalem is almost more than I can handle.

When we foster hatred in any way, we beget more hatred. When we practice a way of being that is based on personalities, it is doomed to cause destruction. Watching the way the world plays out it’s Anti-Semitism would be a great study, I must admit, if they were not out to get me. Listening to the way the “liberal” establishment has been co-opted by haters and killers is so very sad. Hearing students trash the name of Israel and Jews while saying nothing about real despots like the leaders of North Korea, Syria killing their own people, Iran, ISIS, the Chinese and Tibet, Sunnis and Shiites, the way that our “oil allies” treat their people, Russia and Ukraine, etc. All of these countries are not singled out, yet Israel is. I think that I have finally figured it out.

The “liberal” establishment is angry that Israel didn’t stay down!! Israel stood up, grew up, became self-sufficient, etc. (certainly I am not saying they did everything right) and thus betrayed the “liberal” establishment. The “Poor Palestinians” will never betray the “liberal” establishment because their leaders will not let them become self-sufficient and their benefactors will not allow them to have any power for fear of a revolution. I guess that there is a deal in place that we didn’t realize.

How often does this happen? We go into something with a “deal” in place in our minds and not in the minds of our “partners.” We make up a story and if the other person/people don’t buy into the story or change it, we get angry and walk away. I have seen it in work situations, I have seen it in family situations, I have seen it in friendships, marriages, etc. I have participated and been an unwitting participant as well.

The murder of five men in a Synagogue is a great example of the hatred of people, God, and principle. The UCLA Student Union voting for Divestiture is a mockery of what College Campus Activism was in my day. We looked for ways to make peace, to heal old wounds, to fight for the rights of all people, not just one group over another. Where do we go from here? Being an optimist, like my mother-in-law, Molly Reiffin, I have an idea.

Let us all sign on to be Addicted to Redemption by: 1) using our minds, heats and souls to connect to Truth, 2) using our sense of humor to not take ourselves soooooo seriously, 3) reaching out to understand each other and see the similarities as well as celebrate our uniqueness, 4) owning our part in our successes and our “missing the mark,” 5) continuing to learn from what did not work and repair and improve our ways to wholeness and peace.

In these ways, I believe, we will honor the lives of the 5 men who died this week in Jerusalem; we will honor and redeem the lives of soldiers who have died in these past 13 years of terror. We will honor and redeem our souls and the souls of our countries. Join me and sign the pledge to be Addicted to Redemption.

Friday, June 6, 2014

The Persistence of “Identity”

I have been struggling with writing. I read in Heschel recently "Words have become pretexts in the technique of evading the necessity of honest and genuine expression."  (The Insecurity of Freedom, p. 17.) So I have been trying to carefully consider my use of words. I will write again very soon. Until then I want to share something published by the Mandel Center at Brandeis University and picked up today by eJewishPhilanthropy. It was written by Jonathan Krasner, an outstanding teacher with whom I have been fortunate to learn on a few occasions. I think it is fabulous. Discuss it over Shabbat dinner!

The intro was written by of the Mandel Center. The original posting is here.

Jonathan Krasner
This guest post is by Jonathan Krasner of Hebrew Union College. He is a visiting scholar at the Mandel Center this year; next year, we will welcome him to Brandeis as the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Chair in Jewish Education Research.

In 1994 Leon Wieseltier declared in the New Republic that identity was “an idea whose time has gone.” Twenty years later the Jewish identity industry is still going strong.

I recently had occasion to reread Wieseltier’s article in preparation for a conference on “Rethinking Jewish Identity and Education” at the Jack, Joseph and Morton Mandel Center for Studies in Jewish Education at Brandeis University. Listening to the various panel presentations and the vigorous discussions that ensued, it was clear to me that Wieseltier underestimated the enduring power of identity as a concept, particularly within the North American Jewish community. As the opening conference statement made clear, “With the possible exception of ‘continuity,’ identity (and the attendant fears of its disappearance or weakening) has driven more philanthropic initiatives and educational policy than any other single concept.”

With funders and community leaders eager to shore up the Jewish identities of millennials and their younger siblings, there is plenty of money to be had and made in the Jewish identity industry. Hence my quip at the conference that “Jewish identity has basically become the crack cocaine of the Jewish educational world.” Everyone from Birthright trip venders to Jewish boutique camp directors is fishing for a piece of the action. And who can blame them? Many of these good folks are incubating innovative and potentially transformative initiatives. If wrapping themselves in the banner of Jewish identity enrichment can win them dollars in a time of otherwise dwindling resources, where is the harm in shopping their products as Jewish aphrodisiacs that will encourage endogamy and result in lots of Jewish babies?

ID block quoteBut let’s return to Wieseltier. Before we chuckle at his obtuseness we should pause to revisit his reasoning. By 1994 it was clear to Wieseltier and others, including the late cultural theorist Stuart Hall and sociologist Herbert Gans, that longstanding assumptions about identity were outmoded, particularly in western societies. It turned out that identity was fluid rather than stable, transient rather than enduring, hybrid and overlapping rather than distinct and impermeable. Moreover, individuals inhabited multiple identities and often treated ethnic identity symbolically. Decisions about which one(s) to emphasize were provisional, situational and circumstantial in nature. Wieseltier, who was by no means sanguine about these revelations, logically reasoned that if developmental psychologist Erik Erikson was correct that “identity formation begins where the usefulness of multiple identification ends,” than identity as a concept was past its expiration date.

Erikson introduced identity in the 1950s as an antidote to anomie and alienation, the scourges of modern civilization. But if the self turns out to be protean rather than fixed, then why has identity endured? Part of the answer is supplied by Wieseltier himself: Even if identity is a fiction, it is a useful fiction. In describing the modern condition he pointed out that “we are unprecedentedly dispersed and unprecedentedly distracted.” This is even truer today than it was twenty years ago, as a result of globalization and advances in information technology. Even memory, “which confers a sense of continuity … is disappearing beneath the assault of associations. We are carrying too much. We are falling out of our hands. We need a basket. The name of the basket is identity.” Wieseltier is providing an important insight into why much of the contemporary discourse on identity has been patently ignored by Jewish educators on the front lines. Parents, educators, communal leaders and funders want to believe, and even need to believe in the basket called Jewish identity. The alternative is too messy, too overwhelming, too threatening.

As much as some of us, including myself, chafe at the persistence of identity and the simplistic way that it often conceptualized by stakeholders within the Jewish community, we ignore its continued allure at our peril. The price of abandoning identity discourse may be our irrelevance, that is, the continued chasm between the academy and the street. We can try to influence that discourse in ways that seek to educate practitioners, funders, community leaders and others.

Perhaps the message we should be driving home is that in the post-modern world, when identity can be merely symbolic and momentary, identity becomes a poor substitute for lived experience, for practice. Measuring people’s feelings might have been an important corrective for sociologists whose survey instruments measured identity purely in relation to ritual practices and friendship patterns. But people’s feelings do not get us very far. The vast majority of North American Jews have positive feelings about their Jewishness. But that does not mean that Jewishness plays an important or even meaningful role in their lives. As Wieseltier writes, “An affiliation is not an experience. It is, in fact, a surrogate for experience. Where the faith in God is wanting, there is still religious identity. Where the bed is cold and empty, there is still sexual identity. Where the words of the fathers are forgotten, there is still ethnic identity. The thinner the identity, the louder.”