Monday, November 24, 2014

Do We Get Older or Do We Get Better? A Message from the Rabbi

One of the things I have most enjoyed personally and professionally is the fact that my upbringing and training was so geared to lifelong learning. My parents were always reading and discussing ideas and historical events with me and my sister. I never got the idea that learning was “to get a good job, get a good education.” Learning was about living; why wouldn't you want to learn? So naturally I gravitated to academic pursuits and eventually to the rabbinate. When I first entered the field, laity still seemed to think that somehow rabbis were glorified grade school teachers for Jewish kids. After all, there was nothing for adults to learn about Judaism; it was kids’ stuff.

How much has changed in the last thirty years! In front of me is a 2002 book, Becoming A Congregation of Learners: Learning As A Key to Revitalizing Congregational Life by Dr. Isa Aron. There are regularly scheduled seminars on Adult Jewish learning. Almost every large urban center has a Kollel, an ongoing Adult Jewish study center, running programs around the clock. These programs are run by almost every movement. There are ongoing institutes running programs for adults on many topics. The ones that I am most interested in are the Institute of Jewish Spirituality and The Mussar Institute.

Last month, I conducted two Adult Education programs introducing Mussar to the congregation; it seemed to me that the attendees were quite interested in the topic which didn't surprise me. People do want to know how Judaism has dealt with character development and changing traits. Life is rather difficult and we do want to know how we can change or develop habits, deal with stress, and it is only natural to believe that our age-old tradition might have some tried and true advice to share with us.

The more reading I did concerning this topic, the more surprised I became. Joseph Dan, one of Judaism’s most important scholars of the late 20th early 21st century presented in a series of lectures at the University of Washington in the 1980s, and he started his lecture this way:
The main subject... is the story of an ideological miracle; it is the tale of seven hundred years of diverse Jewish theological creativity, including many extreme, radical and even seemingly heretical schools of thought, which were integrated into a constructive, traditional Jewish ethics within the framework of Hebrew ethical literature. It is an almost unbelievable phenomenon, that the most far-reaching and revolutionary theological and mystical ideas produced by Jewish thinkers in the Middle Ages and early modern times were collected and re-presented as ethical ideas, and continued their existence within Jewish ethics, side by side, with the most orthodox, traditional and conformist attitudes. The ability of Jewish ethics to absorb and sustain conflicting ideas, which originated in schools that fought each other fiercely, is most remarkable and presents a fascinating chapter in the history of Jewish ideas.
Jewish Mysticism and Jewish Ethics

Who would think that Jewish ethics would have such a strange background? That makes this study so fascinating. Let me give you a bizarre example that strikes me as Zen meets the Marx brothers.
Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv of Kelm (sic) 1824-1898 developed a strategy to never lose his temper. He had a special jacket that he had set aside to wear whenever he was angry. He  said, "When I feel anger coming on, I know that I have to get my special jacket. But, by the time I do, I am no longer angry”.
 Every Day, Holy Day by Alan Morinis

How was Judaism able to create such an ideosyncratic system, drawing on different and competing ideologies, and yet produce so many practical methods to help individuals shape
their character traits (middot)? I have always been interested in how individual decision- making could be elevated from purely selfish desires into positive ethical practices. In our age almost everyone wants TO DO THE RIGHT THING but the follow-through from wish to act is the real rub. Exercises to build character transformation seem to be the missing link. That is what our Adult Education classes have begun studying, and I hope you will join our sessions soon.

- Rabbi Yosef Zylberberg, November 2014

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