Monday, January 28, 2013

God and the Super Bowl

DOES GOD CARE WHO WINS the Super Bowl? It’s a question that has been asked numerous times in sports and in other areas of life generally considered unimportant. There’s no denying that the Super Bowl, with its half-time show and million dollar commercials, commands a tremendous amount of attention, unequaled by any other sporting event.

In 1985, the public celebration of Ronald Reagan's inauguration was shifted from the constitutionally required day of January 20, a Sunday, to the following day, Monday, so as not to conflict with Super Bowl Sunday. Prof. Joseph Price writes, “fans spend more money on the Super Bowl than Americans spend on traditional religious practices and institutions throughout the entire month.” However, as we all know, God’s policies are not dictated by the spending behavior and attitude of the American public.

Most people laugh at the foolishness of this question and insist that God has more important things to be worried about.  They mockingly tell you that God is busy dealing with major problems like global hunger and world peace and does not pay any attention to trivial matters like sporting events, even one as grand as the Super Bowl. In their minds, the person who believes that God cares about Football is somewhat delusional.In order to provide what I feel is the correct answer to this question, it would be helpful to reframe the conversation. Does God care about each and every human being on earth? I think so. Indeed, the Talmud tells us that a blade of grass doesn’t sway in the wind without God commanding it to. Whether you agree with that Talmudic statement or not, (much ink has been spilled over its theological implications) the point is that God cares about us. We may not like His decisions, we may get angry at Him at times, but God cares.

Ray Lewis
Ray Lewis of the Baltimore Ravens
Ray Lewis has led the Baltimore Ravens to a Super Bowl matchup against the San Francisco 49ers. I don’t know whether God will grant him a second Super Bowl victory, but he quite loudly and proudly believes that God has granted him these last couple of victories. After the first playoff game he wore a “Psalm 91” shirt and declared that because God is his refuge, he was victorious. After their stunning victories against the Denver Broncos and New England Patriots, he preached the holy words of Isaiah to Sal Paolantonio, “No weapon formed against you shall prosper,” and concluded by claiming that “man cannot change what God has already blessed and destined.” A few years back, I wrote an article defending Buffalo Bills wide receiver, Steve Johnson, who similarly blamed God for causing him to drop a game winning catch against the Pittsburgh Steelers.

These men and many others know that God cares about them and their success. They understand that God desires a close relationship with everyone and appreciates every prayer- from the “mundane” to the “holy.” Three times a day, many Jews recite the majestic words of King David, “God is close to all who call upon him sincerely.” If we care, then God cares. It’s as simple as that.

So does God care who wins the Super Bowl? Well, not exactly. But He will be at that game rooting for each player, owner, fan, and concession stand worker hoping that the experience of the Super Bowl will, win or lose, enhance and deepen their relationship with Him. While some may claim that God has more important things to worry about, I believe that God is everywhere. I don’t place limits on the limitless.

Rabbi Joshua Hess is the co-founder of the blog. He blogs for the Huffington Post and is an Orthodox rabbi in Linden, New Jersey. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiHess

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Gibson Guitars Gives Belated Hanukkah Gift to Musician

STORIES OF AIRLINES DAMAGING travelers’ baggage are about as common as delayed flights these days, but a particularly dreadful mishap occurred recently. Dave Schneider, the lead guitarist of a Jewish band called the Leevees (with Guster’s Adam Gardner) that produces only Hanukkah-themed songs, was traveling on a flight from Buffalo to Detroit. The Delta flight went fine without any problems, but it was after landing at Detroit Metropolitan Airport that the nightmare began.

Schneider, who also is the lead singer of the Zambonis, a band that only play songs about hockey, was told by Delta Airlines that he would have to check his vintage 1963 Gibson ES-335 TD guitar rather than carrying it on the flight with him. He even offered to purchase a seat on the plane for the guitar, but Delta refused. Upon landing in Detroit Schneider shot video footage from his cellphone of the baggage handlers moving his guitar off the plane, but there was no damage then. It was only later that he was informed that his cherished guitar was crushed between a service elevator and a loading dock at the gate in Detroit. Delta authorities quickly offered Schneider $1,000 for his vintage guitar, which was likely worth close to $10,000. Of course he declined Delta’s offer as inadequate. Even to repair the classic guitar would have cost more than Delta’s measly offering.

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Meaning of Lance Armstrong

OPRAH WINFREY'S INTERVIEW WITH Lance Armstrong has come and gone, revealing to the world the open secret that he used a variety of steroids on his way to unprecedented success at the Tour de France. After years of vehement denials, Armstrong is finally coming clean. What created this monster?

In this week’s Parsha, the Jewish people are given the Mitzvah of the Karban Pesach, the sacrifice they performed the night before leaving Egypt. This Karban was a focal point of the entire Seder and we still incorporate aspects of the Karban Pesach in our Seder today.

A prerequisite for a male to participate in the Karban Pesach is having had a Bris Milah. This is a rare circumstance of the fulfillment of one Mitzvah becoming a pre-condition to perform a second Mitzvah. Why would there be such a requirement?

The Karban Pesach served as an opportunity for the Jewish people to publicly declare their faith in Hashem. While they had no responsibilities before the first nine plagues were carried out, in order to be saved from the 10th, the plague of the firstborn, they needed to perform the Karban Pesach and paint its blood on their doorpost. On the precipice of salvation, they needed to be ready and willing to publicly show their commitment to Hashem. They needed to become active participants.

Lance Armstrong - Doping

By requiring a Bris, Hashem was saying that the public declaration of faith was only meaningful if it was accompanied by a private declaration of faith. The Bris Milah was a private, and painful, declaration that showed a person’s true colors. The Karban Pesach would be a sham if the public declaration was allowed without the true personal commitment the Bris Milah demonstrated.

We live in a world that celebrates success and ambition. Lance Armstrong became a national hero because he demonstrated an unusual capacity to push himself to succeed. He won seven consecutive races, even after recovering from cancer. A person that driven to succeed will naturally be tempted to do whatever it takes to win. Just look at baseball. How surprised should we be that a large number of high profile players used steroids when there was no steroid testing in place? When dealing with highly ambitious and successful people, the temptation to win at all costs is enormous.

As a society, we need to ask ourselves what we truly value. Do we value success or character? At a graduation, the valedictorian gets up to speak, not the student with the best character. Our winners get lionized as “immortals” while second place finishers become historical footnotes. We’ll forgive our cheaters, be it Bill Belichick or Alex Rodriguez, as long as they win. If they lose? Then they become useless to us, and are labeled losers and cheaters.

The Karban Pesach teaches us that the public, demonstrative acts of faith are only meaningful with the sincere, private ones. By rethinking who we honor and who we consider a success, we can truly make that lesson a reality. We need to make clear that our public winners are only valuable to us if accompanied by private character. Now grab some popcorn and enjoy Oprah’s interview.

Rabbi Josh Strulowitz is the rabbi of the West Side Institutional Synagogue in NYC. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Jeremy Piven's EnTORAHge Bar Mitzvah

JEREMY PIVEN, MOST FAMOUS for his role on the award-winning series “Entourage,” doesn't often talk openly about his Jewish faith. In an episode of Entourage, Piven's character Ari Gold famously donned a tallit at his daughter's bat mitzvah. In the 7th season of the show Piven appeared with rocker Lenny Kravitz at his niece's bat mitzvah. But, in real life the actor admitted last week to an interviewer that it was difficult for him to learn Hebrew as a young boy and that he had to resort to rap for help ahead of his bar mitzvah.

Speaking to Jonathan Ross on a British talk show, Piven described himself as “Jew-ish” and said he was a terrible bar mitzvah boy. "It was hard for me to learn Hebrew. I actually had to rap my haftorah portion.” The actor then launched into a short rap, putting his Hebrew skills on display.

Jeremy Piven and Lenny Kravitz with a Tallit (Jewish)Ross was impressed and even suggested that Piven use rap to help other boys through the bar mitzvah process. Piven quickly retorted, "Yes! We’ll get Justin Bieber and circumcise him."

Piven might have been the first bar mitzvah boy to rap his bar mitzvah portion, but he certainly wasn't the only one. A few months ago, I watched a video of a 13-year-old boy with a sever stutter rap on stage at a #140conf conference. What was amazing was that the teen, Lil Jaxe didn't stutter when he rapped, only when he spoke. The video was amazing and inspirational.

I had the opportunity to meet Lil Jaxe this past summer at the #140edu conference at the 92nd St. Y in New York. Lil Jaxe told me that he rapped his bar mitzvah rather than chanting it. Here's a video of our discussion which includes him rapping the Jewish prayer Adon Olam, just as he did in April 2012 at his bar mitzvah.

I'd love to see Lil Jaxe get together with Jeremy Piven and rap a Haftorah!

Rabbi Jason Miller, the co-founder of the blog, is an educator, entrepreneur and blogger. He owns Access Computer Technology in Detroit, Michigan and is a highly sought after speaker on the intersection of technology and Judaism. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiJason.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Les Miserables Film is Infused with Faith

LIKE MANY OF MY COLLEAGUES, I too was moved to write about Les Misérables after I saw the movie. This was published in Temple Beth Emeth's newsletter, The Truth, as the Rabbi's Message for the January 2013 edition:

I recently saw the new movie adaptation of the musical Les Misérables. I have loved this musical for years and it was the first show I ever saw on Broadway, on a theater club field trip to New York when I was about 16-years-old. It has been a long time since I’ve seen it, though. Watching the movie, I was struck by the extent to which the story -- which is largely bleak -- and the movie are infused with religious faith.

There is significant use of the imagery of crosses and crucifixes, and faith in God plays an explicit role in the transformation of the hero, Jean Valjean. I can’t think of any other movies or television shows aimed at a popular audience with such a clear, strong, and positive portrayal of religion, including other works that are also set in time periods when religion would have played a major role in daily life (I’m looking at you, Downton Abbey).

Religion in Les Mis is not portrayed as communal—you don’t see any church services or anyone going to church (though many people certainly would have in early-19th-century France). Rather, faith is shown as something intimate and deeply relevant to the daily decisions one makes about how to live. It is faith that leads to an act of mercy that changes Valjean’s life. The bishop who helps him sees himself as God’s agent, and tells Valjean that any sense of indebtedness or gratitude he may feel should not be toward another human being but toward God. From then on Valjean does see himself as belonging to God, and because of that he feels a duty to act compassionately toward others. In doing so, he saves lives as his life was saved.

This all happens in the context of Catholicism, but it is certainly not foreign to Judaism. We, too, have as part of our theology the responsibility to care for others through tzedakah (giving to the poor), g’milut chasadim (acts of compassion or lovingkindness), bikur cholim (visiting the sick), and more. The great 20th-century philosopher Martin Buber wrote that God is in the relationships between people in those moments when they truly connect with one another. We recognize that we are all created in the Divine image.

It is easy to point to all the damage people have done in our world in the name of religion. And it is certainly true that religion is not required to live a moral life and be an upstanding person. The story in Les Misérables, however, shows the impact faith can have when it infuses a person’s life—not in a dogmatic way, and not necessarily in a way that would be obvious to another, but as a way to remain conscious at all times of a powerful reason to be honest, to live ethically, and to strive to be a force for good in the world. Religion provides a moral anchor. The reason that religious people practice tikkun olam (repair of the world) is because we are acting as God’s agents, doing God’s work. It’s not about feeling good about yourself (though you might), it’s about serving something larger than yourself, feeling responsible to do good even when it’s hard, even when it hurts, even when it’s not in our immediate self-interest. This is religion at its most beautiful, and this is, I believe, why faith is worthwhile.

As expressed in a lyric in Les Misérables, “to love another person is to see the face of God.” In this new secular year, let us show lovingkindness and compassion to our fellow human beings, and may we see the face of God everywhere we look.

Rabbi Heidi Hoover is rabbi at Temple Beth Emeth v'Ohr Progressive Shaari Zedek, a Reform synagogue in Brooklyn, NY. She is member of Rabbis Without Borders. Follow her on Twitter at @HeidiHoover.

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Is Trash Talking Kosher?

WHEN YOUNG KIDS ARE VERBALLY harassed by other children they are taught to respond to their provokers by saying that, “sticks and stones may break my bones but names will never hurt me,” conveying the message that words are not physically damaging and therefore aren’t bothersome. While this phrase has become somewhat effective as a tool to prevent bullying, it actually runs counter to the Jewish idea of speech.

Judaism believes that our ability to speak is a very precious gift that God has bestowed on us and must only be used for constructive purposes. Any attempt to use our speech for destructive purposes is, essentially, a rejection of our God given gift. In fact, tradition emphasizes the unique power of speech by relating that God created the world with 10 utterances. In other words, Jewish tradition maintains that words are so holy that they have the ability to create new realities.

The biblical story of the Tower of Babel is a prime example of how speech can be misused. All the inhabitants of the world, at that time, spoke one language and, as a result, were united. They decided to build a tower that would reach the heavens in an attempt to ‘fight’ with and overthrow God. These people took their gift of speech; the ability to communicate clearly with every other inhabitant of the world, and used it for harmful and negative purposes. Ultimately, God punished the people for their attempt to destroy Him by making them unable to communicate with each other.

The problem of verbal harassment is not limited to children in the schoolyard or at the park. It applies equally to adults and children alike. Athletes are certainly not strangers to ‘trash talk’. Certainly not Kevin Garnett. A couple seasons ago, Garnett, insulted Milwaukee Buck forward, Charlie Villenueva, by telling him that he looks like a cancer patient. Garnett claimed he told Villenueva that he is a cancer to his team; not that he looked like one. Regardless of which version was true, both of those statements were inappropriate. And this week, he went after Carmelo Anthony, hurling insults about his strained relationship with wife, La La.