Know Before Whom You Stand: Learning from Everyone

These words are displayed over the ark containing the Torah scrolls in many synagogues: Da Lifnei Mi Atah Omed (“Know Before Whom You Stand”). Thousands of Jewish people see this reminder in front of them while sitting in synagogue. Of course, the phrase reminds us to keep in mind that we stand before God while we pray in synagogue and it calls to mind the scene in Exodus when Moses appeared before God at the Burning Bush.

I thought of these words yesterday while reading an article in the New York Times about the recent armed robbery of Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer at his Caribbean vacation home. The article goes on to discuss the anonymity that the Supreme Court justices enjoy and the relative lack of security provided to them. The article concludes with a true story that demonstrates just how anonymous these justices are. “One day, Justice [John Paul] Stevens was walking outside the court when tourists stopped him. They wanted to know if he would mind moving out of the way so they could take a good photograph of the Supreme Court.”

These tourists had no idea that they could have enjoyed the memorable experience of meeting one of the nine justices on the U.S. Supreme Court, but instead they were left with a photograph of a building in which this justice sits and makes history while ruling on the most important legal cases of our time. I couldn’t help but laugh while reading this story. I recalled the famous Yehuda Amichai poem, “Tourists”:

Once I sat on the steps by a gate at David’s Tower, I placed my two heavy baskets at my side. A group of tourists was standing around their guide and I became their target marker. “You see that man with the baskets? Just right of his head there’s an arch from the Roman period. Just right of his head.” “But he’s moving, he’s moving!” I said to myself: redemption will come only if their guide tells them, “You see that arch from the Roman period? It’s not important: but next to it, left and down a bit, there sits a man who’s bought fruit and vegetables for his family.”

What a shame that those tourists in our nation’s capital didn’t recognize Justice Stephens. Too often we don’t take the time to recognize the important people in front of us and what they have to offer. Here’s another true story that shows how easy it is to ignore the wonder right in front of our noses:

On a cold January morning in 2007, a man sat at a Metro station in Washington DC and started to play the violin. He played six Bach pieces for about 45 minutes. During that time, since it was rush hour, it was calculated that thousands of people went through the station, most of them commuting to work. The story goes that after three minutes, a middle aged man finally noticed the musician but he only slowed down to listen for a few seconds. Some people stopped to toss some money in his collection till, but most simply ignored the violinist. The individual who paid the most attention was a 3-year-old boy, but his mother hurried him along. In all he collected $32, but no one really stopped to enjoy his music. When he finished, no one applauded.

Turns out that this wasn’t just any violinist playing on any violin. This wasn’t a beggar looking to make some quick lunch money either. The violinist was Joshua Bell, who only days earlier had sold out at a Boston theatre where the average ticket was $100. In the subway, Bell was playing one of the most intricate pieces ever written with a violin worth $3.5 million. The Washington Post conducted this as part of a social experiment about perception, taste and priorities of people. (The video of Joshua Bell playing violin in the subway station is below.)

Why don’t we recognize people’s gifts when they are right in front of us? We have a reminder that we’re standing before God when we pray in a synagogue, but perhaps it would be helpful to have this reminder when we stand before other human beings. In Pirkei Avot, Ben Zoma teaches, “Who is wise? He who learns from all people.”

I have found that many Jewish people are hesitant to learn from other Jews who are of different denominations than their own. We can all learn from those around us and oftentimes, we are forced to think in new and different ways when we keep an open mind to those who think differently than us. While the teacher in front of you may not look like you or dress like you, I encourage you to remember before whom you stand. It is a child of God who, in the words of the sage Ben Zoma, may make you wise.

One of the gifts of the Internet is that we have much more access to the wisdom of teachers from around the world. Every teacher who offers his or her Torah via the Internet is a “rabbi without borders.” It is so important that we are all open to learning from others. We just never know when that human being in front of us will be a Supreme Court justice, a world renown musician, or a great teacher who will forever change our life.

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

My Teacher Rabbi Burt Visotzky Does Dinner with President Barack Obama

It’s not everyday that you know someone who gets to have a meal with the President of the United States. Last week, one of my favorite teachers (if I don’t say “one of” I’m bound to offend) had just that honor.

Rabbi Burt Visotzky, whose Midrash courses at the Jewish Theological Seminary I thoroughly enjoyed, was invited to the White House for the annual Iftar dinner and had the privilege of sitting at the President’s table.

This year the Jewish month of Av coincides with the Islamic holy month of Ramadan, a time when pious Muslims fast from sunrise to sunset to show their devotion to Allah. After dark, they break their daylong fast with an evening meal known as the Iftar. President Thomas Jefferson hosted the first Iftar dinner at the White House and it became an annual tradition under President Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, and is now hosted by President Barack Obama.

This year’s White House Iftar meal was held on August 10 with approximately 120 guests, including two Jewish people in addition to Rabbi Visotzky. Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren (pictured with me at right) and Bahraini Ambassador Houda Ezra Ebrahim Nonoo.

According to a JTS press release, Rabbi Visotzky sat at President Obama’s table and brought the president up-to-date on JTS’s most recent and noted Jewish-Muslim dialogue programs, along with JTS’s other forms of Jewish-Muslim engagement, including 2010’s two-day workshop entitled “Judaism and Islam in America” and this past May’s “Our Better Angels,” a three-part program that anticipated the 10th anniversary of 9/11 through Jewish, Christian, and Muslim discussions on the themes of tragedy, mourning, and healing.

While it’s usually teachers who are proud of their students, I must say that I feel much pride for my teacher Rabbi Burt Visotzky’s devotion to Jewish-Muslim dialogue and his great honor last week.

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

A Tribute to My Teachers

As the first decade of the new millennium comes to a close, I thought I would pay tribute to the teachers who have influenced me most during these ten formative years of my life. Like many, I feel nostalgic on New Year’s Eve as another year becomes history, and I feel especially nostalgic as the final hours of this decade pass.

I have learned a great deal from these teachers. Some have taught me in a classroom setting and some have provided valuable insight in a less formal way. Some of these teachers gave me experiential opportunities and others have guided me toward exciting endeavors and encouraged me to think differently. Friedrich Nietzsche said, “One repays a teacher badly if one only remains a pupil.” I hope that in my current and future pursuits in the field of Jewish education and beyond I will be able to repay these influential teachers.

RABBI DANNY NEVINS – Every rabbi needs a rabbi. Danny came to Adat Shalom Synagogue, my hometown congregation, as the young junior rabbi in the summer of 1994 as I was preparing to leave for college. However, he played a pivotal role in my decision to become a rabbi and proved immensely helpful to me in the past decade. Whether for spiritual guidance, to answer a quick question, or to discuss challenging matters of Jewish law, Danny has always been there for me.

RABBI BILL LEBEAU – During my first year of rabbinical school at the Jewish Theological Seminary, I immediately regarded the school’s dean, Rabbi Lebeau, as a wise sage who was a great listener and always had practical advice. At the conclusion of that year, he announced that he was stepping down as the dean to focus on fundraising for the Seminary. I couldn’t have been more disappointed. However, a couple years later he returned to the deanship and was a guiding light as I completed school and entered “the real world.”

RABBI NEIL GILLMAN – The first time I thought seriously about theology was in the late 1990s as I prepared to apply to rabbinical school and wrote my admission essays about what I believed. One individual, through his writing and his courses, has helped me formulate and make better sense of my theology. Not only did Neil Gillman teach me about theology, he also helped me feel completely comfortable teaching the subject. Whether I’m teaching “Jewish Theology” to adults or teens, I draw on what I learned from his classes.

RABBI DAVID KRAEMER – Talmud study became fun for me the first time I sat in David Kraemer’s class. Now the librarian of JTS, he drew me in to his discussions by telling stories to complement the Talmud text. His deep knowledge of the history of eating in the Jewish tradition and the foundation of the kosher laws has been invaluable to me as I launched my own kosher certification agency.

RABBI BURTON VISOTZKY – It’s been said that to truly understand the world of midrash, one needs a teacher who can unlock the door to this collection of rabbinic literature. For me, the gatekeeper was Burt Visotzky. During my final years of rabbinical school, he encouraged me to explore the text deeper and write my own midrashim. In these exercises I discovered my love of writing and commenting homiletically on the richness of biblical narrative.

RABBI ALAN SILVERSTEIN – I learned to be a congregational rabbi while living in Caldwell, New Jersey and serving an internship under the tutelage of Rabbi Silverstein. Regarded as one of the most successful congregational rabbis in the Conservative Movement, he gave me countless opportunities to find my voice, teach, and counsel in this amazing community. I will forever be indebted for these opportunities.

MICHAEL BROOKS – While I had planned to serve as a congregational rabbi after being ordained, the best job opportunity presented itself in Michigan at the University of Michigan Hillel Foundation in Ann Arbor. Michael Brooks, the executive director, taught me the ins and outs of working with Jewish college students. My first year at the Hillel was Michael’s 25th as the director and his experience and knowledge was legendary. Leaving important articles on my desk for me to read was a daily occurrence, as was forcing me to think differently on a whole host of subjects. Michael’s perspective and connections were essential in my first “real world” job.

RABBI JOEL ROTH – I joke that Rabbi Roth is my “kosher hotline.” As a Talmud scholar, his courses on Jewish law were captivating. As a kosher expert, he has been a beacon for me as a kosher supervisor. When I was hired by Tamarack Camps to serve as the year-round rabbi and kosher supervisor, I returned to the Seminary for one-on-one training from him and I am certain I couldn’t work in the field of kosher certification without his guidance.

RABBI HAYIM HERRING – Hayim has found a niche as sort of a business coach for rabbis. The fact remains that the “rabbi as corporate executive” training does not exist in the rabbinical schools. Hayim created necessary programs to train rabbis as executives through the STAR Foundation, which ceased operations recently. Hayim has motivated me to focus on the entrepreneurial aspects of my rabbinate. He is a leading thinker when it comes to technology and our conversations have always been inspiring and stimulating.

RABBI IRWIN KULA – Irwin is my guru. Every time I read one of his articles, I find myself highlighting each word and shaking my head affirmatively. More than any rabbi today, Irwin gets it. I first worked with him during the first months of this past decade when I served an internship at Clal in New York City. So, it’s only appropriate that I finished this decade in the same office learning at his feet. Irwin, together with Rabbi Brad Hirschfield, has taken the organization that Rabbi Yitz Greenberg founded into several new directions and spread his wisdom wide into the global marketplace of ideas. Along with my colleague Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu, Irwin and Brad created a dynamic fellowship for rabbis called “Rabbis Without Borders.” Participating in this new initiative was nothing less than life-changing. As the borders disappear in the global Jewish community of the 21st century, Irwin has inspired me to think about my rabbinate and my contributions to the Jewish people in new and creative ways. He has energized me to focus on the role of technology and social media in Jewish life, and invigorated me to write more. Our private conversations have been true blessings. Irwin is one of the most charismatic leaders in religion today and I am deeply honored to learn from him.

It has been a wonderful decade for me. One in which I have become a rabbi and a father. One in which I have worked passionately to contribute to society and the Jewish world. I pray that I will continue to be inspired by wonderful teachers in the future, and that I will come to be regarded as an inspirational teacher for others — lighting the sparks for students just as my teachers have lit sparks for me.

I wish everyone a happy and healthy new decade.

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

Avot: My Teachers

Yesterday was Father’s Day. It was my 7th Father’s Day as a Dad. I love Father’s Day because it’s a chance to honor fathers and to appreciate fatherhood.

Yesterday, in addition to thinking about my father and father-in-law who have both been influential teachers in my life, I also took some time to consider the role of my teachers as father figures.

Last month, while in New York City, I spent an afternoon honoring the memory of two of my teachers. I went to the Beit Midrash at the Jewish Theological Seminary (JTS), where I spent six years learning the ancient texts of the Jewish people. There, a gathering of my teachers, classmates, and current rabbinical students paid tribute to Rabbi Morris Shapiro, of blessed memory. Rabbi Shapiro, ordained by Yeshivat Chochmei Lublin, spent many years as a sage consultant in the Beit Midrash where he was available to help students struggling over a passage of Talmud text. This was the 30-day anniversary of his recent death marking the end of the shloshim period and it was a fitting learning session in his honor. Sitting there with my own rabbi — Danny Nevins — and two of my classmates — Josh Cahan and Rachel Ain — I couldn’t help but to think of all the wisdom that Rabbi Shapiro had passed from the Old Country to the rabbis of tomorrow.

From the Seminary, I ventured downtown to an apartment across the street from the Empire State Building. This apartment — the home of my beloved college professor Jonas Zoninsein, of blessed memory — was now a shivah home where his family, friends and colleagues gathered to reminisce about his life. Professor Zoninsein was my teacher at James Madison College at Michigan State. A scholar of Latin American economics, he taught with devotion to the subject and a passion for education. I had the merit of sharing some stories from my undergraduate experience in his classroom with his daughter Manuela.

Both of these teachers were so passionate about their teaching that they took on a fatherly role to their students.

And then yesterday morning, on Father’s Day, I received word that a project I created for one of the many classes I took with Rabbi Neil Gillman at JTS was included in a website in his honor. “Beit Nachum” was created to honor Rabbi Gillman, a theologian who taught at JTS for decades. As the website states, “Just as the students of Hillel and the students of Shammai disseminated and built upon the Torah of their teachers as Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, we honor and build upon the Torah of our teacher as Beit Nachum. We have learned, through Rabbi Gillman’s example, that the words of the living God can inspire lifetime of intellectual integrity, theological courage and humility.”

During my time at the Seminary, Rabbi Gillman played a very father-like role to me and many other students. He was kind and gracious, but wasn’t afraid to let a student know when they possessed the potential to do better. I decided to submit a creative midrash on Akeidat Yitzchak (The Binding of Isaac) for inclusion on the Beit Nachum website. It is the story of this biblical event as told by Isaac as a guest on the Jerry Springer Show. It is evidence of the freedom that Rabbi Gillman gave his students to be creative and to think and write out-of-the-box.

Happy Father’s Day to all the dads out there, and to all of my teachers… Thank you.

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