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Two Ways of Thinking

When I was a kid my parents would try to tell me to think about not just the immediate gratification, but also about the longer-term results of my actions. I find myself telling it to my kids. It’s not easy for a little kid to stay away from too many sweets because we tell them “it’s bad for your health.” It’s even harder for a teenager to not to get into that car with that boisterous group of “friends,” not to tell that lie about their age at the bar. We also tell our kids not to blame others but to take responsibility for their own action. “He did it first,” “She jumped over the fence so I did, too” remind me of phrases I was using from age 3 to age 10 or so. But, hopefully, we grow up we gain more ability to think about the long term, the bigger picture, and to see how our actions are sometimes part of the problem, and not just blame others.

Unfortunately, that is not what I’m seeing when I turn on the news. “Brexit” the British vote to leave the European Union seems to be only one example of people expressing their frustration, fear or anger in ways that look to blame others, but will likely have harmful consequences for everyone in the long run. In our country, we are seeing a frightening number of people attracted to racist and anti-immigrant scapegoating as an easy way to push off those same feelings of frustration, fear or anger.

There are a lot of things that we can say to try to explain why this is happening now. The many factors of history, economics and politics will fuel conversations and arguments for years to come, but one article in the Sunday New York Times caught my eye as particularly relevant. It was called “When Paranoia Replaces Piety,” by J. D. Vance (that was the title in the print edition. Online it was titled “Bad Faith in the White Working Class,” Vance makes the point that religious observance, in his case, regular attendance at church, meant that he actually learned things like self-examination, self-control and being kind to others. He laments the fact that, in recent years there are a growing number of people, he describes the case of Evangelical Christians, who still count themselves as believers, but whose attendance at church has dropped off to near nil. They still watch the televangelists and listen to the politicians who whip up fear and anger at The Other (liberal elites, Muslims, Immigrants, etc) in the name of religion, but the harder lessons that one actually gets by going to church week in and week out have mostly gone by the wayside.

Vance writes, “research suggests that children who attend church perform better in school, divorce less as adults and commit fewer crimes. Regular church attendees even exhibit less racial prejudice than their nonreligious peers.” He points out that the relationship is causal: the church attendance isn’t just correlated, but actually helps to bring about the better behavior; and that it doesn’t matter which religion. They all seem to work in the same way.

The picture Vance paints of evangelical religion gone bad, seems to me one more piece in the larger picture of our society becoming more fragmented, more focused on customized, individualized experience. It’s becoming a more two dimensional society in which we have exchanged a lot of our real, embodied interactions for the convenience of screens. Even our religious life has become less about meeting real people in brick and mortar synagogues, churches or mosques, and more about self-confirming exhortations to blame others.

Of course, a church or synagogue or any other real life religious meeting place is going to be somewhat self-selecting. Each religion, denomination, group and sub-group will gather together, but even then, there will be some variety. Geography sometimes counts for more than ideology when selecting a place of worship. You can’t always choose who you sit next to the synagogue dinner or church fellowship gathering. Whatever it is: the rituals, the strengthening of social ties, the music and prayers, working together on committees — religious life seems to promote values and a sense of belonging that tends to make people not less tolerant of others, but more tolerant.

It takes energy to join and participate in a synagogue or any other religious group, and it’s becoming less popular to do so. But we are seeing the results of choosing the convenience of staying home with our screens. It can get complicated dealing with old acquaintances with whom we have too much history, with new members who don’t share our history, and with looking inside ourselves to question what part I am playing in this greater enterprise. But we need to see the faces, hear the voices and touch the hands of our communities. We need to gather together in song and prayer to remind ourselves of our deepest commitments and take the time to meditate on how each of us is doing in our service of a something or Someone beyond ourselves, whatever name we give it.

It’s only one piece of the puzzle and coming to synagogue isn’t going to solve all the world’s problems. But over the long term it is proven to promote a kind of thinking and being that is more adult, more responsible and more values-driven than the alternative of staying home. And that looks pretty important these days.

Case Study in a New Paradigm for Rabbinic Training

Note: Natan recently published this piece on Click here to read the full article.

Last month my student of six years became ordained as a rabbi. The ordination took place in the wood paneled Braun Room at Harvard Divinity School’s Andover Hall – as far as anyone knows, the first time there ever has been a rabbinic ordination on the school’s grounds. He was not ordained into any denomination of Judaism, and he didn’t attend a Rabbinical School. My student, (now Rabbi) Jeremy Sher, besides studying privately with me, had also attended Harvard Divinity School in an “M.Div.” (Master of Divinity) program. I would have been much more leery of ordaining him simply on the basis of our study together, and I also wouldn’t have ordained him only if he had come to me straight from receiving an “M.Div.” from a multifaith graduate program, but the combination of the two worked extremely well. Read More on eJewishPhilanthropy >

A Distillation of Life

The snow is on the ground and winter has finally arrived here in New England. The roads are beginning to narrow with the snowplow’s sloppy drifts piling up around the curbs and our mud room is starting to pile up with wet boots, socks, hats and jackets spilling onto the floor.

And I’m thinking of my old home in Hawaii where we’d walk out of the house with shorts, a t-shirt and flip flops and that’s it.  All year.

My life has taken me all around the world, but especially as grey winter starts to close in, the lush warmth and vibrant colors of my old home start to pull at my dreams. The place where you grew up imprints itself on your soul, and so the green land, swaying trees and crashing waves of Hawaii are a part of me.

But, strangely enough, when I grew up and went off looking for my soul’s deepest roots my path took me all the way across the world to Israel, and not only to the land, but also to the beit midrash, the study house, where I learned Jewish texts like the Talmud and Mishnah and Midrash.

How could my Hawaiian soul find its deepest connection in ancient Jewish texts?

It’s because Judaism is not a philosophy. It isn’t a science. It isn’t “theology” or “psychology” or any other “ology.”  It is a way of life that goes as deep and strong and free as life can go. It started with an ancient people living on their land.

The ancient Hebrews were very connected to their land. The hilly boondocks of Canaan were not good for the big, “industrial agriculture” that made Egypt and Mesopotamia the superpowers of their day.  Those countries grew up around great river basins.  Their material wealth was a result of organizing many slaves and serfs to work the irrigated fields and the technology of canals and pumps to move the regular rhythm of the rivers. No, Canaan was a hilly country dependent on the rain of heaven falling in its season. When it fell you knew it was a blessing from God.  It was a land where you needed to improvise, to care about the details of the local eco-system. One side of a hill was not going to get the same rainfall as the other side.  You needed to maintain good relations with your neighbors who would help with the tasks of small farming and raising flocks and you needed to respect the land if it was going to sustain you and your family for generations. You needed to create the kind of society that God would want to bless.

So the religion of ancient Israel was very much a counter-culture and an alternative to the big powers. It was a religion and way of life that depended on relationships with the whole network of natural and human and divine partners.   Within those relationships the fruits of the earth, the fruits of one’s labors, were seen as gifts, to be valued, as all gifts should be, not just for themselves, but as outward signs of a relationship.

If I were a farmer in those days I’d bring my first fruits up to the Temple in Jerusalem to present to the Kohen.  It was a way of showing that I valued the land and its fertility as a sign of my relationship with the Source of All.  And that relationship was not just with me, the farmer, but when I presented that fruit at the Temple, I recited the whole story of my people. In fact, the core of our Passover Hagaddah, is derived from this first fruits recitation: “My father was a wandering Aramean, and he went down to Egypt with meager numbers . . . but God brought him up with an outstretched arm….” (See Deuteronomy 26)  Beyond my personal life history, I was a part of a centuries old relationship between the Israelite people and God.  My relationships were not just about the present moment, but stretched into the past and future as well.

It was this religion and way of life that the Rabbis, after the Romans destroyed the second Temple in 70 C.E. and exiled the Jews from their land, managed to transform into texts: the Midrash, Mishnah and Talmud.  It was as if they needed to bottle a way of life, a way of being, and make it portable.   The ancient Israelites would become the Jews, the People of the Book, but not a book the way we think of it. These new genres of literature were not written by one author but were distilled from the wisdom of many rabbis and from generations of people.  They were not meant to be read sitting in a library, silently scanning the page.  You needed a teacher to guide you, and a partner with whom you could discuss them.  You studied them aloud, getting them into your bones and your sinews.    This was because the Rabbis knew that even if we had books, the real home of the Torah was inside the person.

And not just inside the individual person. The life of the Torah resided in community.   When you got together in the beit kenesset, the gathering house (which translated into Greek is synagogue) you could feel yourself part of that same past and future that the ancient farmer would invoke when he brought up the first fruits.  Wherever ten Jews gathered to pray or study, when we used our ancient holy language, it was as if the nation, past present and future were there.

So, Judaism is a tradition that starts with our agrarian roots which taught us to appreciate life as a gift and a network of relationships.  It evolved into an intellectual and religious tradition that distills the rich life-giving sap from those roots. This distillation of life is flexible and strong and ties us to our bodies, to eating, family, community, beauty, work, play and rest. Perhaps that’s why when I was a young man ready to explore the world, I went from the lush trees, beaches, green mountains and blue water of Hawaii, to the study houses of Israel, and I found as much life in those texts as my soul could desire.

In the end, it doesn’t matter whether it’s Hawaii or Israel or Massachusetts. Life is where you are, and Judaism is a resource for appreciating and enjoying life to its fullest and for working to see that all of our relationships are healthy and all our relationship partners are thriving: the land, the animals and plants, the air and water, our communities, families, all peoples. It is through all these relationships that we truly find home, find our soul and connect to the Soul of the World.

New Class starting in February

Mishnah Ketubbot: Marriage, Money and Gender

Wednesday Nights, Mar. 2 – May 18 at Congregation Eitz Chayim, Cambridge

We’ll explore the first chapter of Mishnah Ketubbot in this course. Looked at from the perspective of its literary/anthropological patterns, this chapter reveals insights into the way the Rabbis of the Mishnah viewed men, women, and marriage.  It also opens fascinating vistas into how cultures of all kinds deal with money, language, emotion and law.  Texts will be in both English and Hebrew.

Classes will meet at Congregation Eitz Chayim in Cambridge, MA.  This class is presented in cooperation with Kevah: Making Space for Jewish Learning. See  Ten class sessions will meet on Feb. 24, March 2, March 9, March 16, April 6, April 13, April 20, May 4, May 11, and May 18.  May 25 will be set aside as a makeup day in case of snow.

For more information and to join, please contact the group organizer Jeremy Sher at

Slow Money Maine: Forum on Building a Healthy Local Food Economy

Thursday, January 7, 7 p.m.

Congregation Adas Yoshuron and Rabbi Natan Margalit will host a panel discussion on Slow Money Maine on Thursday, Jan. 7, 7 p.m. with panelists Bonnie Rukin, Coordinator of Slow Money Maine, Samuel Kaymen, soil enthusiast and investor, and Jeff Wolovitz, owner of Heiwa Tofu. Slow Money takes its name from the Slow Food movement. It works to support local food economies by connecting investors with local food producers. The program will explore ways in which people can make the shift from a mass-produced, industrial food system to a more cooperative, local, community-based food economy. The speakers will provide their own unique perspectives on this innovative movement and Rabbi Margalit will offer a perspective on how Slow Money connects with core Jewish values and ideals. There will be time for question and answers and a wide-ranging discussion of our food economy, Judaism, health, and sustainability. The program is free and open to the public. For more information email or call 594-4523.