Thursday, December 25, 2014

Upcoming Initiatives

This week left me with three days off, not much scheduled other than a somewhat overdue doctor's visit.  Much of this blank canvas of time went into the semiannual project development that I engage in every June and December.  In recent sessions I've pick twelve, a couple easy or with deadlines that I must meet.  These get done.  The more elaborate multiple aspect initiatives generally do not go to completion but they still get a due measure of effort.  Last week I explored cyberspace to try to figure out why so little comes to fruition.  To a large extent it seems to be related to picking end points over which I have no control.  My goal of catching ten fish resulted in none.  But I do not make fish take the lure.  A better approach would have been to go fishing a certain number of times, make a modification for each unsuccessful venture, and try out a specified number of locations.  I probably have less control over my weight than I might imagine so losing ten pounds may not be under my control.  Exercising and modifying what I eat is very much under my discretion so this year's goals will get modified to specify the exercise expectations and the dietary modifications, allowing the weight itself to go wherever nature intends it under the circumstances I create.

My template has changed from one modified by Covey's 7 Habits many years ago to categories that come across as more specified.  So with two days left before the first Sunday weekly planning specimen of implementation, here's how it looks:

Travel:  Visit three different museums which I've not visited previously  in three different towns.

Personal:  Engage in a program of healthy eating

Long term Activity:  Develop a comprehensive retirement plan with pursuit of three activities that can be carried forth to my retirement years.

Mental:  Develop the premier Jewish iconoclast blog filled with external comments.

Home:  Declutter part of the house for 45 minutes every Sunday.

Financial:  Make a donation to a worthy Jewish cause on the 20th of every month and send each organization a note of appreciation for what they do.

Friends:  Write to two Jewish thinkers per month.

Family:  Attend my son's graduation.

Health:  Exercise 15 minutes three days a week.

Large Purchase:  Remodel the kitchen.

Community:  Set aside my religious participation in AKSE in favor of a beneficial non-religious project.

New Frontier:  Begin writing the book that ultimately makes me famous.

I color code my projects and the daily activities that enable their pursuit.  No professional projects to pursue for the first time in many years.

We'll see how these dozen proceed over the next few months.

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Synagogue Consumerism

This week I began a book that I had been looking forward to purchasing from the moment the editor indicated to me that he was assembling it.  Hayim Herring's Keeping Faith in Rabbis came out a few weeks ago.  For a nominal sum and a little hassle with Kindle, I downloaded it and began reading the various essays, most written by Rabbis themselves but a few written by synagogue participants, a few not entirely happy with the experience, though none really feeling shut out the way I assess my own experience.  Most have suggestions for making participation a more active process and most are baalebatim themselves.  One essay by a Rabbi Shapiro divided the cadre of rabbis and the cadre of Jews into two clear categories each.  Rabbis could either be clerks or prophets, the Jewish public could either be passionate about their organizations or passionate about rejecting those organizations.  Most people, of course, fall somewhere between the two poles but clear divisions make analysis easier.  I think he is right, at least from my AKSE experience, that people just want to processed through Judaism, fed what previous sages have written for the current Rabbi to digest and impart, and deflect people who are either challengers or outliers.  Congregants can be managed like the Army with a few soldiers going AWOL but most buying into what the generals want with little challenge to authority.  Those congregants really just want to be part of the Army and if not overtly mistreated will remain on board, maybe even help perpetuate mediocrity.

I think that's a pretty decent summary of how organizational Judaism has matured in America, from its origins as an identifiable minority of people banding together to fulfill a common purpose where a certain amount of creativity was both needed and valuable to more of a self-perpetuating collection of people still trying to find purpose long after the original challenge has been resolved.  Certainly the sacred texts and commentaries are still studied and added to just as they have always been.  Now, more than any prior time, the thoughts of the giants are readily accessible, many acknowledge the comments sent their way by untitled peasants like myself and write back.  Even the most egregious control freaks, the Rabbinical Assembly, know that they cannot continue to shield themselves from a public that contains highly educated people used to reading primary sources and analysis and have modified some of their protections that have disenchanted some of their most capable Conservative laity.  But I still go to shul on a shabbos morning listening to relative fluff in the form of repetitive interAliyah comments, two minute factoids that can be looked up on the internet during the week and fed to a few dozen attendees who did not pursue anything Jewish on the internet that week.  Another essay in the book assesses the form of presentation amid the content of presentation.  People really can be processed through by their professionals, be they doctors putting the cap on medical setbacks or Rabbis telling somebody of lesser knowledge some of his or her knowledge, though without really advancing the recipient in a meaningful way.  Unless you want to be spending your career having roobs reach threshold, there has to be some serious content with its challenges and vulnerabilities.  Until that arrives in a more consistent way than I have experienced, Orthodoxy will continue to exert its growing monopoly on the most capable Jewish amateurs.

Tuesday, December 2, 2014

My Enneagram

 One of my FB friends, a retired special ed teacher, posted a summary of what preschool kids are like temperamentally.  I still am like that, impatient, inquisitive, challenging, sometimes impulsive.  When put to one or more of those online free enneagram tests my type comes up consistently as an Investigator or Explorer.  Now, these twelve innate personality types have a consistent distribution in the population but probably a skew in different subsets of the population.  My guess would be that the inmates at SuperMax have a different distribution than those appointed to the Federal Bench by the President, though both subpopulations have all twelve types of mindsets represented in some fashion.  And very diverse populations, such as the citizens of Delaware, would have the same distribution as in the larger population.

My own characteristics seem to serve me pretty well in my medical world, one where inquiry and maybe a little compulsivity have value, not as well in my Jewish world, or at least the organizational component of it, where independence and challenge are often regarded by those whose enneagrams mark them as Achievers as threats to stability more than as resources to progress or adaptation.  Innate Loyalists are more valued there, though it comes at a high price.  The Piper is probably being paid right now.

So while the venerable organizations with its Leaders and Loyalists have found themselves diminishing for some time, there remains a more amorphous outlet for reassembling those Explorers.  As far back as the 1970's, the first Jewish Catalog had chapters on Havurah movements, a counterculture of Jews with Isro hairdos forming their own minyanim.  Many were initially unwelcome by the synagogue leaders who regarded them as disruptive hippies, then invited back when they realized they needed people with bimah skills.  In a more updated fashion, we see a floundering United Synagogue reaching out to the defectors who left for cause, less concerned about populating the kehillot with the maximum number of tuchases but more concerned with restoring a better vibrancy to the experience of those who participate, making it more inviting to those who might want to participate.

My own congregation seems to lag behind on this, focusing more on dues paying numbers than on the talents that those members might bring.  Leaders and Loyalists and Peacemakers prevail.  The Explorers and Artists  and Challengers can be put on hold a while longer.

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Shopping Downward

As I was finishing med school and needed to start looking presentable for patients, a best seller called Dress for Success by John Molloy had gathered considerable public interest.  He described how one's appearance correlated with one's future employment and promotability, something very relevant to me at the time.  I got the book from the library and read it over a few day, absorbing the hints of how to make clothing fit and select colors and patterns that added 10 points to one's virtual IQ.  Needless to say, the senior executives made a lot more money than senior executive wannabes and got where they are by adapting to the sartorial pageant of where they worked.  Peasants of lesser means, including myself to this very day, had to give the illusion that they were purchasing good stuff without actually spending money that they did not have.  He suggested a form of shopping down, wandering through Brooks Brothers where the boss shopped, noting what is on their most expensive racks, then going to the less expensive racks and seeing what features were maintained and what were deemed expendable.  Then onward to the Value City where I really shopped for clothing and trying to duplicated as much as possible from the upper end.

This strategy has served me well for a long time, not only for clothing but for my cars and my house, pretty much every large purchase except universities for my kids where I bought the real thing.  Shopping down seems similarly tempting though with my ultimate synagogue purchase predetermined, what I really get are a few shabbos mornings of the type I'd like to have most but not really the chance to purchase the closest facsimile available.  In order to do that, there would need to be a menu of experiences with different values to choose from, something not available in my community for some time.  But you take what you can get, which for me is a lovely morning at Beth Tfiloh, none of which is transferable to my usual shabbat morning.

I got there as they were starting the repetition of the Amidah.  This particular shabbat was not only a bar mitzvah, something I've come to expect but the BNai Mitzvah of a male-female twin set.  The boy excelled with flawless Torah and haftarah chanting and very appropriate speech about what it is like to  be a twin, the tension between being bundled with another person and the need to protect one's individuality.  Lest her sister remain subordinate, she had her own limelight within the local parameters, chanting the first two Aliyot from the next Parsha, as section about twins.  She then spoke of being a twin, followed by the twins speaking jointly, sometimes in unison and sometimes in alternating sentences.  Not to upstage Rabbi Wohlberg, the Dvar Torah drew on a current event, the passing of President Reagan's astrologer and the interface between fates that you cannot control and personal efforts that guide destiny.  Many parallels to this in the Parsha.  And extraordinary kiddush when it ended.  No interaliyah Sound Bites.  No contrivances like changing your seats so the Rabbi can look at everyone when he speaks.  No, it was a service suitable to college graduates who mostly work all week and could have been doing other things on Saturday but opted for the experience of shabbat morning worship.  That's what I aspire to and will have to relocate myself on shabbos morning to get a little closer to that ideal.

As Theodor Herzl noted, "If you will it, it is no dream; and if you do not will it, a dream it is and a dream it will stay."  Our baalebatim don't seem to will that type of shabbat experience and our Rabbi's style cannot deliver it.  So I think it might be time to will it for myself.

Thursday, November 13, 2014


Ran into a synagogue acquaintance at Shop-Rite this weekend, wanted to pose a question to him but we ran in different directions in our quests for nutrition and bargains so  it did not materialize.  I thought about telephoning my question to him later in the week, looked up his phone number and still might, but decided to save it until I see him on shabbos morning at Chabad, which will probably occur soon.  This fellow does one critically important project for AKSE, almost entirely on his own, the relatively thankless job of arranging our High Holy Day proceedings, contacting large numbers of men to honor with Ark openings and making sure the Rabbi has an accurate list to announce from the Bimah.  He does this exceptionally well and with an attention to detail that eludes most of the AKSE participants.  During the year he will take his turn as haftarah chanter, maybe two or three times, and show up a handful of shabbatot beyond that, but for the most part he can be found at Chabad near his home on shabbos morning.  At the moment I can only speculate why.  Similar reaction to the experience of sitting in our sanctuary on Saturday morning?  Being more absorbed into the Chabad community?  Having meaningful things to do at Chabad that occur more than once a year?  Just have to ask him.

In anticipation of his soon to be released series of essays on Continuing Education for Rabbis, Rabbi Hayim Herring has presented a series of You Tube interviews on the subject.  One explores the difference between broadcast and social media.  For a broadcast, you partake of what you are given but you are on your own to accept, reject or pursue what is given to you.  Social media is more interactive, more personalized, as is blogging.  My disappointing shabbos morning experience can be traced back about three years through my blog.  In one respect it is what it is, a presentation to me of shabbos, take it or leave it.  That's not very hard to deal with.  I find it much more irritating to try to express what I encounter, its negative consequences which diminish community, only to have multiple layers of baalebatim never even acknowledge the comments.  That is no more community than a bunch of fans watching the home team as an aggregate of individuals at a stadium, at least until they express themselves by booing as a group.  Yes, shabbos morning at AKSE is less than it once was, it is less than it once was for cause, and those doing something else instead, myself among them, could be a kehillah in its own right if we had a way to interact other than disappearing into the woodwork as individuals.

There is also the illusion of community.  Shabbos dinner and kiddush do not make a kehillah unless discourse occurs there.  Being responsible for each other, being sensitive to each other, enabling talent to emerge without suppression, that creates community.  By that definition, which I think is accurate, the grand American community may be in decline in parallel with AKSE's shabbos morning.

So what are my kehillot at the moment?  Primarily work and Sermo.  I'm a contributor to both.  People tolerate my mind, people at both do not hold a grudge when that mind becomes an irritant.  Nobody at work has invited me to dinner or any other social activity outside of work.  I've only met a handful of the grand collection of fellow physicians on Sermo.  Yet both are forms of pageantry that welcome whoever comes by, irrespective of what they think.  Nobody gets marginalized at either.  There are some basic rules of Derech Eretz, but not a lot of them, and nobody can say they are ignored because of what they think.  That's a functional kehillah, one that I do not think the leadership of my congregation is really prepared to pursue.  The Rabbi probably might if he understood it better.  But for now, it seems the right circumstances to join my congregational amigo at Chabad for a while.

Thursday, November 6, 2014

Grass Roots Shabbos Morning

We almost did it.  Rabbi away for a family simcha.  Cantor present for shacharit and Torah reading.  Everything else either not done, particularly those annoying Aliyah Sound Bites, or done by volunteers including a wonderful D'var Torah, simple, insightful and with a piece of herself revealed, not something looked up on the Internet during the week.  One of the better experiences on a shabbat morning, much like the congregants of Temple Beth Hillel-Beth El getting together, ditching their very capable clergy, and creating a fully traditional shabbat morning experience.  I understand fully why transdenominationalism is taking hold and maybe understand a little better why the AKSE service is underattended, or at least why I have been rationing my mornings there.

There was an intriguing presentation on a few years ago:

The speaker was not talking about Rabbinical Judaism, which is how we function, but the experience of dealing with an ordained class of people as focal points.  There is certainly great demand for the right Rabbi in a congregation or community which may be why Rabbi searches are often contentious and why placement organizations insist on manipulating the selection process.  But once in place, it is not entirely clear whether these people augment or mar the Jewish experience.  I am certainly rather uneasy admitting to a more satisfying experience without the Rabbi, though that is the reality repeated a few times for certainty.  That grass roots experience of shabbos morning at university Hillels conducted entirely by students has never been surpassed at any dues paying congregation that I have attended either as a member or visitor.  I've limited my attendance in the past based on disappointing if not unfavorable experience and I've gone so far as to change congregations once, but never with the formality that I do now.

This all has implications, of course.  Congregations like AKSE struggle for membership looking at their membership as a source of revenue with volunteer participation as a bonus.  Yet that membership has to be contingent on deriving something of value from it, be it worship, learning, fellowship or social action.  But ultimately the experience is rather fluid and not that hard to individualize.  If shabbos morning fails to inspire me, I can either remain uninspired or replace the experience, which is what I seem to be doing.

Thursday, October 30, 2014

Variations of Tzniut

Once in a while something special catches my attention, a brief insight into Torah nor more than a few minutes of length which has any number of widespread application and insight.  One of these came a a pre YK Dvar Torah by one of the younger Roshei Yeshivah of Yeshiva University.  The rabbi spoke of elements of modern life that we acquire from the outside mainstream culture, absorb into our usual and customary practice but are really contrary to what we are supposed to be extracting from Torah and its many expositions.

The Rabbi selected three:  Shabbos, Tzniut, and elements of law that run counter to our best assessment of what our concept of Din ought to entail.  The reality is that my pager and cell phone never shut off, as I am the only endocrinologist on staff at my hospital.  I carry them to shul on shabbos, assuring that the concept of shabbos does not disappear.  Electronics shut down except for immediate patient care.  For the last three years I have been treating myself to a leisurely breakfast to mark Saturday morning and for the most part the shopping centers are off limits.  While maybe the car ought to be put away too, it enables me to do things not available to me the rest of the week.

I'll reverse the order slightly.  Election day approaches next week.  I live in a Blue State where I am within the majority, and in small state where I've met nearly all my representatives, chatted with most at one time or another and do not have any particular ethical problems with any of the people I have voted for and few ethical problems with the people I've voted against.  At one time I was a swing voter.  That stopped with the last election.  There can be no moral defense of Legitimate Rape, enslavement of workers by their employers, science denial or accepted maneuvers whose intent is to deny people their access to cast their ballot.  Sorry, very nice Red State people I encountered in Utah, Idaho and Wyoming this summer.  Torah requires a certain commitment to laws that reflect justice and the reality of what HaKodesh Barechu put into place in the world, at least as I interpret it.  In that context, Judaism's values run separate from a significant fraction of the mainstream.  While we tend to vote in the same manner as much of America's underclass, we make our electoral statements the way we do primarily because it represents the right choice, and less because we got the gimmes for ourselves.

Tzniut requires special mention as it has a lot of implications beyond maximizing skin and hair covering among women.  While I'm still a product of the suburban debate nights of the 1950's when representatives of the Orthodox and Conservative shuls would meet on neutral turf to solicit membership from beneficiaries of the post World War II GI too good to pass up home loans, the reality is that Orthodox and Conservative worship were not very different.  Mixed seating and open parking lots were the main differences, with my parents opting for those elements which inevitably imprinted on me.  Fifty years later, the differences have exaggerated considerably, not only in the decline of shabbos and kashrut and even population among the Conservatives, but in the mindset.  Tzniut has eroded as well, not so much in clothing or hair covering or who can worship where, but in how people are classified as important vs convenient.  Macher swoops, small in-bred assemblies of wealthy operators running their organizations with entitlements due large corporate shareholders violates any application of Micah's L'Hatzneat Lechet.  We have tyrannies of small minorities who can leverage what they want by threatening funding or in our case withdrawing from an already tenuous daily minyan.  We have tyrannies of the majority undermining the quality of the Hebrew school curriculum so that kids get processed through to Bar Mitzvah with little of enduring da-at or binah to show for the five years of afternoon and Sunday effort.  We have Federation Machers who want your money but not your ideas for how to best allocate what gets collected.  The Rabbi asserted that theses assaults on tzniut derive from applications of exposure to common practices of our secular world adapted to our Jewish agenda.  I'm not so sure this quest for status or influence that has really devalued status was really imported.  Where I think the Rabbi scored, though, is in his assessment that resistance to this remains a core element of Judaism, one that could be asserted more consistently by more participants than it has been.