Honoring Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Today is the secular anniversary of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, the preeminent theologian of the 20th century (his yahrzeit on the 18th of Tevet is next week). Many of my teachers at The Jewish Theological Seminary were students of Heschel’s and were highly influenced by his thinking and writing.

In Heschel’s memory I share my favorite story of Heschel as retold to me recently by Rabbi Gordon Tucker, one of his students: Heschel was sent by the Seminary to a Conservative synagogue to give a speech at a fundraising event. He went on and on for over an hour about his theology of humanity’s desire to conquer both Space and Time. It was highly intellectual and far over the heads of many in the audience who quickly lost focus. When Heschel was finally finished with his teaching, the president of the congregation got up and simply said: “You heard the rabbi, the Seminary needs more Space and there isn’t much Time!”

While Heschel died before I was born, his writings have had a significant impact on my own Jewish theology. In college I read Heschel’s The Sabbath which I have re-read several times since. My library has a dedicated shelf of Heschel’s works, many of which were inherited by me from my late Papa, David Gudes. My copies of Man in Search of God and The Prophets still have the dogeared pages that my Papa left.

In high school, as a member of USY’s AJ Heschel Society, I would stay up late at night learning about Heschel’s theology. I recall studying God in Search of Man with USY’s International Director Jules Gutin at International Convention in Los Angeles in 1993.

Over the years I have taught Heschel’s The Sabbath to adults and teens. The first time I taught that book to teens was as a college student at Camp CRUSY. It was after Shabbat dinner on a Friday night and somehow all twenty or so teens gave me their full attention. That was one of the pivotal moments in my decision to become a rabbi.

I also remember the first time I taught about Heschel’s theology of Shabbat to adults. It was during a Tikkun Leil Shavuot at Congregation B’nai Israel. Sitting next to the synagogue’s rabbi, Leonardo Bitran, I discussed how I fully embrace all the technological advances we have at the end of the 20th century and how my love of technology, electronics and automation often comes into conflict with Heschel’s Shabbat theology, which calls for a break from technological automation that makes our lives easier. Heschel believed that we humans use space to try and control time. I asked “Is Heschel’s notion of Shabbat a possibility? Can we, as humans in the 21st century, ever just allow ourselves to sanctify time without trying to conquer space and time in a tech-centered world?”

As society becomes even more dependent on technology in the 21st century, Heschel’s theology seems to gain importance. Heschel’s legacy is two-fold. He was a Jewish pioneer in the call for civil rights in our country and he pushed us to think intelligently about God’s role in our lives. Heschel’s ability to write poetically, if cryptically, about modern man’s challenge of letting time dictate our lives if only for a day has been a gift for generations and will be a gift for generations to come. May the righteous memory of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel continue to be for blessings.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

We All Try to Beat Time – Mitch Albom’s "The Time Keeper" (Review)

“Tuedays With Morrie” Author Reminds Us To Live Life and Worry Less About Keeping Time

I have a feeling that author Mitch Albom timed the release of his new book, “The Time Keeper,” to coincide with the Jewish High Holy Days. This work of fiction forces us to consider the meaning of time and why it is not good for humans to try to control it. Albom’s message, interwoven in a beautiful story, will likely bring much food for thought to Jewish worshipers during this contemplative season, known as the Days of Awe.

Albom is a self-proclaimed secular Jew, as he articulated in both “Tuesdays With Morrie” and “Have a Little Faith”; however, he cannot hide the godliness that permeates this novel. In the acknowledgement section of his latest work Albom writes, “First, thanks to God. I do nothing without His grace.” There can be no question that “The Time Keeper” comes from a place of deep spirituality, if not an overt association with institutional religion. Issues of free will, reward and punishment, divine intervention and profound prayer inform Albom’s characters throughout.

“The Time Keeper” opens by looking at the difference between humans and animals. While animals seem to just live their lives without considering or even knowing about the concept of time, we humans are always thinking about time. From generation to generation, we count the seconds, minutes, hours, days and years of our lives. While we have no control over time, we still wish to either speed it up or slow it down. (Spoiler alert…)

During the Days of Awe, Mitch Albom will talk about “The Time Keeper” at Sinai Temple in Los Angeles where his childhood Jewish day school classmate and friend David Wolpe serves as rabbi.

Albom has brilliantly constructed three characters who demonstrate how humans seek to control time. Creatively named Dor (Hebrew for “generation”), Albom’s first character lives 5,000 years ago and was the first human to measure time. Counting months and hours and breaths, Dor neurotically seeks to keep time while all those around him try to conquer God. It was during his generation that the Tower of Babel is constructed, a project conceived of by Dor’s best friend Nim. Dor tries to convince his childhood friend that conquering time was a more noble effort than building a corporeal structure to the sky to overtake the incorporeal, but Nim couldn’t understand that and banishes Dor to a life of exile.

When Dor’s wife falls deathly ill he runs rather than returning her from exile to get help. In his deep regret he wishes he could have stopped time. As a punishment for trying to gain human control over time he is sentenced to eternal life as Father Time in a cave where he hears the cries of all humanity throughout the generations. Their cries are about time and their desire to dominate it.

Dor wants to stop time, while Albom’s other two protagonists want it to either speed up or slow down time based on life’s circumstances. Sarah Lemon is an overweight, high school senior with low self-esteem, anxiety issues and a crush on an out-of-her-league boy. She is a bright student who gets perfect grades and has a promising future, but her teenage social struggles make her want time to end by committing suicide.

On the other side of the spectrum is billionaire hedge fund tycoon Victor Delamonte, who after a successful life and a long marriage is on dialysis to help him live but a few more months. Victor, however, will do anything to extend his life and buy himself more time on earth. He’s even willing to stop dialysis if it means having his lifeless body frozen in a Cryonics lab to return generations later when there’s a cure for his cancer and he can return to the life of wealth and luxury he has come to know. Sarah wants less time. Victor wants more time. And Dor is charged with the mission of helping them both realize that control over time is more of a curse than a blessing. As Dor himself learned, controlling time is no gift.

Rather than preach to us that we should end our futile preoccupation with time, Albom constructs a wonderful fantasy with characters both human and mythical to drive that point home. It is a skill that Albom has demonstrated before by offering wisdom through his dying professor (“Tuesdays With Morrie”) and his dying childhood rabbi (“Have a Little Faith”).

Dor delivers wise counsel after spending thousands of years in a “purgatory” of eternal life. “Everything man does today to be efficient, to fill the hour? It does not satisfy. It only makes him hungry to do more. Man wants to own his existence. But no one owns time,” Dor counsels Victor.

Albom’s Victor shows us that no matter how much money one has, it is impossible to beat time. After all, billionaires have the same 24 hours in a day that the homeless have. Victor has more wealth than he could ever spend, but he craves for an eternity. Again, the author has fun with his character’s names. Even the “Victors” have to play the cards they’re dealt and Sarah Lemon shows us that no matter how challenging life gets, you need to use the time you have to make lemonade from those “lemons.” [Note: Albom told me that he didn’t make these character associations intentionally.]

What is important is for us to make the best use of the time that we have. We are unable to stop time and we are unable to speed it up. However, we can seek to do the best we can in the amount of time we are given by God. All of us are time keepers. All around us, we have clocks and watches and calendars. Six millennia ago, Dor sought the key to keep track of time. Today, we are slaves to it. Time is kept on our wrists and computer screens, on our cell phones and on the walls of our home, but Mitch Albom teaches us that being a time keeper is not the way to live. Through Dor’s wisdom he warns, “There is a reason God limits our days … To make each one precious.” Perhaps that is the best message for the Jewish season of introspection.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Meeting the New Matisyahu

After posting a photo [below] with Matisyahu backstage at his recent Detroit concert, the questions began. Friends wanted to know if he was wearing a kippah (yarmulke) or tzitzit (ritual fringes), whether he was eating kosher, and if I asked him if he was still frum (religious). For the record, he still keeps kosher and mostly eats vegan (although before his concert he ate a bagel with creamed herring at NY Bagel, a local Detroit bagel store that I certify as kosher).

I understand fans’ fascination with Matisyahu’s religious transformation. After all, he’s a celebrity who became famous as a result of his Hasidic look and he now looks significantly less outwardly religious. However, Matisyahu’s transformation isn’t unique and that is precisely what I explained to those who asked those questions.

I reminded them that we all know people who became religious and then decided to make another lifestyle change by changing their level of observance We all know religious Jews who have veered “off the derech” (the path of observance). In the case of Matisyahu, because he’s in the public eye his personal spiritual and religious transformation is scrutinized.

His journey is more complicated than deciding to shave his beard and to stop wearing religious garb. His journey begins in childhood. Matthew Miller (AKA “Matisyahu”) wasn’t born into an observant family. He was brought up as a Reconstructionist Jew and went to Hebrew School at Bet Am Shalom (Reconstructionist) in White Plains, New York. He went to Israel with the Alexander Muss High School in Israel program. A devoted Phish Head, he started attending the Carlebach Shul in Manhattan and becoming more ritually observant. In his early 20’s he joined the Chabad Lubavitch movement and began using his Hebrew name “Matisyahu.” In the past year, he has left Lubavitch, shaved his beard, and stopped wearing a kippah and tzitzit.

Since Matisyahu’s religious appearance is a cause célèbre, his fans want to know if his religious observance has changed in addition to his “look.” Does he still observe kashrut (the Jewish dietary laws) and pray daily? Does he observe Shabbat anymore? How has his religious transformation affected his wife and children?

I certainly wasn’t going to ask him any of these personal questions when I met him after his recent concert (I first met him after a concert in 2004), but Heeb writer Arye Dworken didn’t shy away when he interviewed him recently over the phone. As Dworken writes, “It turns out though that while all the other media outlets focused on follicles, there was a lot more going on inside the mind of Matthew Paul Miller. Yes, the man behind the unkempt whiskers is going through some changes, stylistically, aesthetically, philosophically, artistically, and religiously. And while it saddens me to see any charismatic and talented young Jewish role model struggle with his identity especially when his unprecedented example has meant and can mean so much to many in our small and insular community, ultimately, Matisyahu’s struggle is very real and very much worth discussing.”

Here are a few of Dworken’s more thoughtful questions and Matisyahu’s candid responses:

I’ve got to ask about your wife’s reaction to all of this. I know you have children and you’ve raised them in a fairly strict Orthodox environment…and for a husband and a father to change his aesthetic suddenly… and perhaps his observance… that must be pretty jarring. I think I even read that you didn’t discuss the beard shaving with your wife before getting it done.

Yeah… I love my wife very much. But it had nothing to do with her. I chose to become religious. I chose all that. I never said this is permanent and this is who I will be for the rest of my life. People who are close to me who chose to be close to me, and they have to accept that. In general, the whole beard thing was very personal. I am in the public eye so I knew it was going to be discussed… but I was trying to not think of other people at the time. I wanted it to be pure.

Your beard was your identity. Like Batman has a mask. Or Paul Wall has grills. And the Jewish community respected you for your uncompromising observance, even if, to many, it started and ended with aesthetics.

Yes, but I think that I should never see myself being dependent on the Jewish community. I saw my crowd grow from being 80% Jewish to there being maybe three or four beards at a show. Maybe five or ten yarmulkes out of a crowd of thousands. If Marley shaved off his dreadlocks, he maybe would have not been as cool but his music would have still touched the souls that it did.

How do you approach spirituality now? Like, let’s get specific in terms of observance.

I’ve got a chef who cooks vegan and it’s kosher. That’s not an issue though. The concept to me is much deeper than mixing meat and milk. You shouldn’t get caught up in all the stuff. It has to be about healthy, about mind, body and soul. You can keep kosher and be completely out of shape. If I didn’t have Shabbos to turn off the phone, the computer, and to not tour–that’s a deep experience. Keeping Shabbos back in the day could sometimes be like a bad acid trip. I’m stuck in a dark place for twenty-five hours, sometimes on tour being in a hotel with no TV, being alone… that was really lonely. So I’ve come a long way as far as my relationship with Shabbos, in understanding it. In making it personal. And my thinking is, why not do that on Saturday?

I’m a blend right now with what goes with my intuition and what goes with the rules. But why do I keep the Shabbos though? Is it guilt? Is it meaningful to me? I still have to sift through it.

How does one “sift” with a family and a spotlight?

I’m very open with the kids. I’m very comfortable with what im doing. My oldest son… we have conversations. We talk about it. I could say, we could never do this before…or mom doesn’t want us to do this… but dad is okay with it. It can get confusing but it’s important for me to show them that there is a broader perspective. This world that they’ve been raised in –basically the Lubavitch headquarters and then on a tour bus –this is a beautiful opportunity for them to have these experiences. This is real. Change happens and you can’t always be sure of your decisions and beliefs. I think that they have to make their own decisions in life. They can’t have anyone telling them what to do. Not even me.

Do you want them being brought up in a Yeshiva upbringing?

I wouldn’t put them in Yeshiva, if it were up to me. There are some beautiful aspects to it. There are some holy and beautiful things to it… being outside of the mainstream culture which focuses on being cool, girls, and all that….the main thing for my kids is that they should be taught to think and question. That didn’t happen for me until college because I was in public school. I was exposed to my lifestyle, but no one else’s. The main thing [for my kids] is a place that can let them grow and learn and question. Next year, they’re going to a home school-type program where they learn differently. I think it’s important to get past the idea of who and what you are. It’s good to have identity and know what you are. I tried on different things…I wore a yarmulke on the subway, I grew a beard…that was me exploring. I don’t like the concept that we’re taught in Yeshiva of being the chosen people and that’s so rampant. I’ve seen that a lot. And my kids have said that coming home from school…and I’ve gone in to speak to teachers about that.

Are you still wearing a yarmulke?

I think basically when I took on the look of a chassid, there was a whole look. A whole vibe. It was style. I decided to be a chassid. But I was also twenty-one years old. I remember when I started wearing a yarmulke and started growing the beard and got the tzitzis all at once. It looked cool to me. It completed the uniform, but then I got pushed into the suit. That became later when I got really sucked in to Chabad. You need to wear a hat and a suit. In retrospect, it was a style thing. I know the yarmulke represents more than style… but it didn’t fit with who I was any more. Does it really represent my fear of God? That’s bullshit. I wore a yarmulke when I was drunk and puking in public. That became nothing to do with fear of God. People act disrespectfully when they’re wearing a yarmulke.

But do I feel God without the yarmulke? It did bring me to a different standard, yeah. I mean, I stopped checking out girls when I was twenty-one and wearing a yarmulke. But it wasn’t about God, it was about identity. I went into a gas station in South Carolina and had it on — I forgot to take it off — and I remember the reaction of the people in the gas station. I remember thinking, Oh yeah, I’m different. I felt proud. But then it became less important to me. My spirituality is happening inside. If it’s really happening inside, I really feel for myself and I don’t need anyone else being aware of it.

Getting back to the new record, you open it with the words of praise “Yevarechecha [you should be blessed].” Why start the record with such a strong Jewy opening?

Shaved beard and blonde hair. He’s obviously given up on Judaism, most people will say. On the contrary, I feel more spiritual than I ever have. It’s not that simple as people want to see, and so I think it’s cool that the first thing someone heard on this record is yevarechecha. It’s a message that we [just] can’t all have simple.

So if there are so many changes here, then why keep the name Matisyahu? Why not go back to Matthew if this is about reinvention?

Judaism is still very important to me. It’s still a big part of who I am. Looking here next to me…the books I have are Burnt Books, a comparison of Rebbe Nachmun of Breslov and Franz Kafka. Another is a tehillim, another is a siddur and another is a biography of the [Rebbe] [Note: Matisyahu mentioned a specific Rebbe but I was unable to hear it]. The name “Matisyahu” means a lot to me and it’s not hard to say. Like, it doesn’t have a “chh” in it. It has a spiritual life force. My real name Matthew or Paul are both Christian names and so I don’t relate to them. But Matisyahu feels like it has a spirit I relate to.

If we learn anything from Matisyahu’s very public religious transformation it should be that our identity isn’t static. Our lives are journeys and the only thing different about Matisyahu’s journey is that it is being lived out in the public eye. We all change our outward appearance, our religious observance and our convictions. Matisyahu’s look may have changed drastically, but his music will continue to be full of faith, fervor and spirituality. Personally, I have tremendous respect for Matisyahu’s courage in making these changes. He’s proving that being religious isn’t about a long beard, dangling tzitzit, and a black hat and suit. It’s what’s inside that matters most.

Here’s video of Matisyahu’s encore performance of “One Day” this past Sunday at the Fillmore in Detroit:

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Korach Challenges the Leadership of Moses with a Tallit

This D’var Torah for Parashat Korach was published in the Detroit Jewish News:

The Tallit: A Reminder of Our Relationship With God

Hanging in the back of my closet is a beautiful tallit that was hand-woven in Ethiopia. This colorful prayer shawl was purchased by my grandmother several years ago when the renowned “Mitzvah Man” Danny Siegel visited Adat Shalom Synagogue. The tallit is waiting in my closet until my oldest son becomes a bar mitzvah and, God willing, my grandmother can present it to him as a gift.

The tallit is a fascinating garment. There are many different styles and fashions of the tallit that we see being worn at synagogue during prayer services, but the most important component to the tallit are the fringes that hang from the four corners.

The Israeli poet, Yehuda Amichai, writes the following about the tallit:

Whoever put on a tallis when he was young will never forget:
taking it out of the soft velvet bag, opening the folded shawl,
spreading it out, kissing the length of the neckband (embroidered
or trimmed in gold). Then swinging it in a great swoop overhead
like a sky, a wedding canopy, a parachute…

Whoever has put on a tallis will never forget:
When he comes out of a swimming pool or the sea,
he wraps himself in a large towel, spreads it out again
over his head, and again snuggles into it close and slow,
still shivering a little, and he laughs and blesses.

In Parashat Korach, Moses’ cousin Korach mounts a rebellion against him. Korach argues that he has as much right to lead the Israelites as Moses or Aaron, who are in the same generational line on the Levite family tree.

The tallit plays an interesting role in this biblical story of mutiny. The Korach narrative begins with the words Vayikach Korach, which come immediately following God’s instructions regarding the laws of tzitzit, the fringes with a blueish/purpleish cord (a p’til tekhelet) that are commanded to be attached to ones tallit. Each four-cornered garment must have four tzitziyot hanging from each corner. Midrash Tanchuma notices the words Vayikach Korach – “Korach took” and imagines what Korach took by associating that phrase to the section preceding it.

The Midrash imagines that what Korach took were the words from above in the text concerning tzitzit. The Midrash presents a story in which Korach tries to embarrass Moses by challenging him with a difficult question. He says, “You told us to put tekhelet on the tzitzit, tell me if the tallit is entirely made up of tekhelet, would such a tallit still require four tzitzit?” Moses replies that it would still require tzitzit.”

Korach then responds with a challenge, questioning the fact that four strings of tekhelet can allow you to wear a tallit, but a garment made entirely of tekhelet cannot be exempted from this restriction?” Korach isn’t simply challenging Moses’ authority, but also mocking him, and by extension mocking God’s Torah.

Korach uses the tallit, a holy ritual object, for a negative purpose. The tallit is a ritual garb that shows that the Jewish people are a holy nation of priests. Korach uses the tallit to make Moses look silly. He uses the tallit and tzitzit to undermine Moses’ authority.

Whether Korach was correct or not in challenging Moses’ authority, he was wrong for using a holy garment for the purpose of mocking the Israelite leader. The tallit is a reminder for us. It is used during prayer as a sign of our relationship with God through the commandments.

When we wear the tallit, we should look down at its fringes, the tzitzit, and be reminded of God’s love for us and of God’s gift of the Torah. We should also wear it proudly and let it serve as a reminder of how Moses and the Israelites did not allow Korach and his gang to overthrow their leadership.

Each morning when we wrap ourselves in our tallit let it serve to show that Korach was defeated and that the tallit should not be used for such negativity. Let us consider the words of Yehuda Amichai and be ever cognizant of the ritual of tallit – from taking it out, to folding it and putting it back in its bag.

The tallit that I wear on Shabbat has an additional special meaning for me. This white tallit was a gift from the Jewish Theological Seminary upon my ordination as a rabbi. Like any tallit it has stories to tell. It has significant meaning because it reminds me of my experience in rabbinical school. It also brings to mind the many life-cycle events when I was wrapped in its embrace.

The tallit is a beautiful way for us to wrap ourselves in God’s embrace and be reminded of God’s love for us. Korach’s error was in using the tallit to undermine Moses’ authority and publicly humiliate him. Let us use the tallit for good. Let us wrap ourselves in the tallit and give thanks for leadership rather than trying to weaken it.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

I Was at Mt. Sinai: A Personal Revelation Story

Cross-posted to the Huffington Post

Much of the disharmony in the Jewish community today can be attributed to the divergence of opinions concerning the revelation of the Torah at Mt. Sinai. Regardless of what individual members of the Jewish faith believes actually occurred at that mountain, the essential issue for the Jewish people on the eve of the Shavuot festival is that we feel a part of divine revelation.

How do we internalize the midrashic tradition that all Jews stood at Sinai as the Jewish Bible was revealed to Israel? Just as we Jews seek the spiritual connection to see ourselves as having escaped Egyptian slavery on Passover, we also attempt to envision ourselves at Sinai as the Torah was revealed several millennia ago.

Never has the spiritual force of revelation affected me more than it did on the early morning of May 31, 1998. I had recently graduated college and was spending the Shavuot holiday at a synagogue in Metro Detroit where I was serving as youth group adviser. The new assistant rabbi decided that the congregation would offer an all-night Tikkun Leil Shavuot (study session) for the first time, and then at dawn, we would participate in outdoor morning prayer services complete with a special reading of the Torah.

The Israelites standing at Mt. Sinai – Photo: Zipiyah

It was a memorable night with many opportunities for Torah study with several wonderful teachers. With delicious snacks and caffeinated beverages, about 30 of us managed to stay up the entire night. At around 5 in the morning we convened outside in the courtyard so we could enjoy the sunrise while we prayed.

The Torah service that morning took on new meaning for me. The Torah was paraded around and I had the sense that we really were at Mt. Sinai claiming what God had lovingly gifted to us. I was called up for an honor, and as I stood at the Torah for my alliyah the sky began to get dark again. The Torah reader pronounced, “On the third day, as morning dawned, there was thunder, and lightning…” As the words “thunder” and “lightning” were uttered, a huge thunderstorm ensued. The Torah reader managed to get out a few more words, chanting “…and a dense cloud upon the mountain, and a very loud blast of the horn; and all the people who were in the camp trembled. Moses led the people out of the camp toward God, and they took their places at the foot of the mountain.”

At that point, the sky opened up and the heavy rains began. I grabbed the Torah and ran inside to the chapel where the scriptural reading was completed. As I wiped the raindrops from my glasses, I remember thinking that this must be what divine revelation felt like. This was the epitome of holiness. This existential experience was full of awe and majesty, thunderclaps and lightning bolts. Best of all, it was shared with community.

This was a liminal moment in my life. The experience has had a lasting effect on my life in the ensuing years. Being shaken by the thunder, seeing the lightning and hearing the words of our Torah convinced me that I really did stand at Mt. Sinai. We were all there together. As a community.

That was my revelation. That spiritually charged moment had the three ingredients that shape the lives of the Jewish people: God, Torah and Israel. I felt the awesome force of the Holy One, I was touched by the words of Torah, and I stood together with my fellow Jews.

What’s your personal story of revelation?

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Counting the Omer in the Digital Age

Today is the 13th day of the Omer, the period of forty-nine days between the Jewish holidays of Passover and Shavuot.

The Jewish people are commanded to count these forty-nine days which commemorate the day on which an omer (unit of measurement) of barley was offered in the Temple until the day before an offering of wheat was brought to the Temple on the festival Shavuot. We begin this counting on the second day of Passover and each night announce what day of the Omer it is.

Omer counting devices and special Omer calendars have long been relied upon to help individuals remember the correct count, but in the Digital Age there are websites and apps and text message reminders to help keep the counting correct.

There are also some fun tools to help us count the Omer. For the past 13 years the Homer Calendar has been a fun destination on the Web for Jewish Omer counters who are also fans of The Simpsons. The website, which has had about 225,000 visits, cites Howard Cooper with the idea of an Omer calendar that pays homage to The Simpsons and Homer Simpson, the patriarchal head of the cartoon family. In addition to providing an easy-to-use omer calendar, the site is also a resource for Simpsons fans who want to learn more about the many Jewish references on the show. Brian Rosman, the Homer Calendar’s administrator, also tweets the daily Omer count @CountTheHomer on Twitter.

An introduction to the website explains that it is now in its 13th year, which it calls its “Bart Mitzvah”. The site also mentions that, “When we started, we got a ‘cease and desist’ order from Fox, claiming a copyright violation. Interestingly, the letter was dated on Shavuot. We wrote back, claiming a ‘fair use,’ and haven’t heard anything since.”

Seth and Isaac Galena over at Bangitout.com have come up with two fun ways to count the Omer. With a nod to pop culture, the brothers have created the Movie Lover’s Omer Counter and the Sports Lover’s Omer Counter. The movie counter uses movies with numbers in their titles to remind users which day of the count it is, while the sports counter relies on athlete’s uniform numbers. Perhaps next year they’ll create an omer counter for NASCAR fans with car digits.

There are several mobile apps that help remind users to count the Omer and provide the correct day of the counting. Rusty Brick first released its Counting the Omer app (Free) back in 2009 and it is still an industry leader. The app provides an Omer calendar and includes the blessings and spiritual information pertaining to each day of the period. The free version of the app does not provide a daily reminder to count, but the 99-cent version does. Moshe Berman’s Ultimate Omer 2 ($2.99) not only reminds you to count the Omer, but it also lets you keep track of the days you remembered to count. The app also plays the phone’s default alarm sound to remind you to count.

Mosaica Press released a new app ($4.99) that is based on Rabbi Yaakov Haber’s Spiritual Grow book. The app, which is available in iPhone and iPad formats, helps count the Omer and also provides daily insights with a Kabbalistic flavor. An example of the Jewish spiritual wisdom the app provides is: “Day 10: Make sure that today you not only give people the benefit of the doubt, but even when it seems that they are definitely in the wrong, try to find some way of justifying their actions. Try to see their point of view…Find two things in your life that conflict and make them harmonize.” Some of the app’s features include the proper blessing to recite before counting each night, automatic adjustment for time zone and location, and social network integration to share on Facebook and Twitter.

In addition to the mobile apps, there are other ways that technology is playing a part in the Counting of the Omer. Josh Fleet, one of the editors of the Huffington Post’s religion vertical, came up with the idea of offering a liveblog on the HuffPost Religion site during the Omer period this year. The Omer Liveblog features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual reflection during the Omer.

Rabbi Heather Altman turned to Google Docs to help assemble other rabbis who would contribute their wisdom to a Counting the Omer project she conceived of to raise money for the Global Seva Challenge. Rabbi Altman launched the seven week email subscription series called Countdown to Freedom which offers a different spiritual insight each day via a subscription-based Constant Contact newsletter. Subscription costs of the daily Omer reflection newsletter raises funds in the fight against human trafficking. Her 49-day project also raises awareness of the global problem of human trafficking, which is now a $32 billion business.

A generation ago, Jewish people simply counted up the days of the Omer until Shavuot arrived. The more spiritually inclined might have delved into the mystical traditions of the counting period. However, no one could have imagined that technology would create so many new aspects to this seven week observance. New technology has certainly opened the door to new ritual.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Do-overs and Learning From Mistakes

This is my contribution to the HuffPost Religion’s Omer Liveblog, which features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual reflection between Passover and Shavuot:

“The broken tablets were put with the new ones into the Ark.” –Talmud, Menachot 99a

What can we learn from the fact that Moses put the broken tablets into the Ark along with the new tablets? We move on from our mistakes, but we also take the lessons along with us.

In helping to form a new nation, Moses made many mistakes. He overreacted when he saw the people sinning before God by dancing around the Golden Calf, and he threw the tablets to the ground. Forty days of hard work were lost.

As a leader, Moses owned his inability to handle the situation calmly. He did a “do-over” and received new commandments, but the experience of breaking the tablets wouldn’t be erased from memory. It was part of his narrative as a leader and part of the historical record of the Israelites. The broken tablets would endure alongside the new ones.

We all make mistakes on the way toward our goal. As a business owner and entrepreneur, there is a story upon which I often reflect that was shared with me by Josh Linkner. Everyone is familiar with WD-40, the water-displacing spray that was originally designed to repel water and prevent corrosion, but was later found to have numerous household uses. Many people, however, don’t realize that WD-40 stands for “water displacement 40th attempt.” It was the inventor’s 40th attempt at a successful product. Norm Larsen had 39 do-overs before finding success. By naming his product WD-40 he kept the first 39 attempts with him as a lesson, just as Moses preserved the broken tablets as a reminder.

May we all make mistakes and then remember those mistakes as lessons as we achieve our goals.

This is a reflection on the fourth day of the Omer. Join the conversation by visiting the Omer liveblog on HuffPost Religion, which features blogs, prayers, art and reflections for all 49 days of spiritual reflection between Passover and Shavuot.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Matisyahu on Contradictions in Religious Observance

As any man with a beard, goatee or mustache will tell you, it is a transformative experience to shave it all off. Something tells me that Matisyahu felt a sense of freedom after he shaved off his iconic beard the other day. There has been a lot of discussion about Matisyahu’s transformation after he came clean [shaven] and claimed he has evolved from a Hasidic reggae star. The opinions have ranged from those who interpreted this as Matisyahu’s having left a religious lifestyle (going “off the derech“) to those who can’t figure out why this story even qualifies as “news.”

While I personally question if shaving off his iconic beard was a wise PR move, what I think is more interesting is how he has made his personal religious journey into a public narrative. His rise to super stardom occurred after he had already adopted a religious lifestyle and his break from Lubavitch a couple years ago wasn’t very well publicized so this is really the first time his observance has been discussed on such a broad scale. And now that he’s gone public with his shifts in observance, Matisyahu has (unintentionally?) brought the conversation of religious shifting and spiritual seeking into a very public sphere.

I listened to Matisyahu’s first interview since his transformative shaving experience and there was an interesting exchange toward the end. Soundcheck host John Schaefer began to ask Matisyahu a question that was sent in to the program by a listener having to do with him living some sort of a contradictory life. Matisyahu quickly cut Schaefer off and said something that I think is of utmost importance in any conversation about religious observance and spiritual seeking.

I’d like to say one thing about contradictions — I don’t mean to cut you off — but the whole thing is contradictions. And that’s what I’ve realized, is that everything has multiple sides to it, you know? We’re so quick to go, to make things black and white and to put things in their box. You know what I mean? But everything is this mixture, and that’s what this world is, is this blend of different things.

Exactly! I hope Matisyahu’s quote goes viral because it is so true. Religion is not black and white although some may claim that it is. I recently had a conversation with a young venture capitalist in Detroit who is a ba’al teshuva, meaning he adopted an observant Jewish lifestyle. As he hammered away at the contradictions of non-Orthodox Jewish religious practice (“they keep strict kosher at home, but eat vegetarian in non-kosher-certified restaurants,” “they don’t drive on Shabbat except to go to the synagogue,” etc.), I tried unsuccessfully to explain to him that these contradictions exist across the board. Human beings are inconsistent and religion (including religious law) is fluid so that it breeds inconsistency (across denominations, between communities, and in individuals).

Some observant Jews may find comfort in their own reality distortion field, but I am certain that contradictions exist in their own personal religious practice. As a colleague of mine often says, “Every Jew can find another Jew who isn’t as frum (religious) as he is and look down on him.” There really does not exist any baseline for religious observance because religion has many sides to it and is a mixture, as Matisyahu expressed. Perhaps the end of 2011 marks Matisyahu’s most meaningful religious epiphany yet. Shaving off his beard helped him open his eyes to the sea of grey that is a religiously observant life and a spiritual existence.

Beard or no beard, I’m sure that Matisyahu’s music will continue to resonate with millions. I hope his insight will as well.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Prayer in Sports – Part 2

Last week I blogged about the role of public prayer in sports. What prompted me to blog about the subject was a Detroit Free Press article in which I was quoted that dealt with the trend of major league baseball players praying and performing various religious-related activities on the sports field like drawing crosses in the dirt and blowing kisses to heaven after a home run.

Professional and collegiate players giving thanks to God in the locker room after a game is nothing new and neither is a player crossing himself after a touchdown. Lately however, this has gone to a new level and that is probably thanks in large measure to Tim Tebow, the NFL player who started the “Tebowing” craze. The Denver Broncos quarterback, who stencils biblical verses into his eye black, drops to one knee in silent devotion in the middle of his games. This act of public prayer has led to people everywhere to start “Tebowing.”

As a rabbi, I don’t have a problem with the Tebowing craze but I think it’s funny that it has restarted the debate over public prayer. If a player simply closes his eyes and gives thanks to God no one will notice, but as soon as he drops to one knee it becomes a national obsession.

Today’s college game between Penn State and Nebraska will only add fuel to this debate. Before the game in Beaver Stadium, the crowd watched as both teams joined together in the middle of the field for group prayer. This prayer service was preceded by a moment of silence for the entire stadium asking for healing for those affected by child molestation. The Penn State campus was already emotionally charged following the forced resignation of its long time coach Joe Paterno for not doing more to stop the child molestation that took place at a youth football camp held on campus several years earlier. No doubt, people will be weighing in on whether it was appropriate for both teams to join in public prayer before the game. After all, this is something that is usually done in the privacy of the locker room.

For those who criticize Tim Tebow for praying on the football field for such trivial things as a touchdown pass, perhaps the Penn State-Nebraska prayer service will raise the question of whether its appropriate to pray for serious things on the football field (victims of child molestation, our troops oversees, those battling cancer, etc.). Most likely, athletes are going to continue to publicly pray on the sports field and demonstrate their religious beliefs. And the debate over whether its appropriate or not will continue as well.

(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller

Athletes’ Public Displays of Religion

This past Friday evening I sat with my family at Adat Shalom Synagogue as we watched a performance by Storahtelling, which is known for its innovative and arts-focused take on the Torah. The Storahtelling performers interpret the themes from the Torah in new ways, acting out a theatrical midrash. In “Like a Prayer,” Storahtelling veterans Jake Goodman and Emily Warshaw presented a creative exploration of the power of prayer by invoking the stories of our biblical ancestors Aaron the High Priest, Hannah, Sarah and Hagar.

Each of these biblical characters prays in a unique way. Jake and Emily got the audience to consider that a synagogue might be the most traditional place for prayer, but our prayer can take place virtually anywhere. I immediately thought of the recent controversy when Israeli Knesset Minister Meshulam Nahari of the Shas party harshly criticized Gilad Shalit for going to the beach with his father on the first Shabbat of his freedom from Hamas captivity instead of going to the synagogue for prayer as I had blogged about just a day prior. If Gilad Shalit chose to be thankful to God on a beach instead of a synagogue, then who are we to judge?

Watching the Storahtelling production also led to me to consider athletes’ public displays of prayer on the playing field. There are those who are critical of athletes (from professional on down to the high school level) openly giving thanks to God after a good play or a victory. I’ve also noticed an increase in the public displays of religion among the fans at sporting events as well. Sure, fans holding signs proclaiming the John 3:16 verse from the New Testament is nothing new, but lately the TV cameras at sporting events have caught fans visibly praying for their team. This was certainly the case in the recent Major League Baseball playoffs.

In fact, I was contacted by a reporter from the Detroit Free Press last month during the playoffs as my hometown team, the Detroit Tigers, were playing in the American League Championship Series against the Texas Rangers. She told me she was writing an article about baseball players and religion. Her first question caught me off guard when she asked me if I thought God was a Tigers fan. We then discussed whether religion should have a role in spectator sports. I explained to the reporter that I appreciate when athletes give it their all and are so intent on winning that they don’t hide their religious convictions.

Conservative Rabbi Jason Miller, director of Kosher Michigan, said he took no offense at Christian displays of faith on the field.

“In America, we take our sports seriously and baseball as the American pastime has been elevated to almost the level of religion,” said Miller of Farmington Hills. “When I see a player like Jose Valverde of the Tigers pointing to heaven or crossing himself, I can tell my children that he is a religious person and is grateful to God for his successful performance and God-given abilities.”

Later that night as I sat in the stands at Comerica Park in Detroit watching the Tigers beat the Rangers in Game 3 of the ALCS, I thought more about athletes publicly displaying their gratefulness to God during the game. Watching the players take a moment to pray and thank God was quite meaningful. They are so grateful to be in the position of playing a fun game in front of tens of thousands of fans and millions more on television that they recognize the importance of giving thanks.
We should appreciate when players publicly demonstrate their faith, whether by asking God to help them achieve success and not get injured during the game or by thanking God for their triumph. If we are going to teach our children that God is accessible anywhere and that we don’t have to be in a church or synagogue to pray, then let us embrace the notion that a sports field is an appropriate place for players and fans to welcome in God.
(c) Rabbi Jason Miller | http://blog.rabbijason.com | Twitter: @RabbiJason | facebook.com/rabbijasonmiller