Listening in the Senate Hearing

Dear Friends,

I had taken a spiritual hiatus from the media trail. Sometime over the summer I confessed to a friend that I checked CNN daily, and her face shocked me out of the reality I had acquiesced to, and I welcomed media celibacy. But as the holidays recede, within these days of integration, I watched the senate hearing intently, with an ear tuned in to the way everyone in the room listened. A few moments caught my attention:

Firstly, there were staggering differences between the listening styles of the men and women in that room. Dr. Ford, Senator Feinstein, and Rachel Mitchell, spoke and listened with a gentleness that was in stark contrast to Judge Kavanaugh, and the male senators who spoke in the later hours of the hearing. We are one of the first generations in history to overturn gender-roles that have existed since the days of hunter-gatherers. Think of how different the listening demanded of hunters, is from that of home-makers -- hunters listened for prey, for the kill, homemakers listened to children, to elders, to the concerns of community. Women and men have been trained to listen differently for generations; it’s been written into the fabric of our beings. In these days of fervent reassessment of justice, respect and equality for women, not only will women be given greater pedestals to speak from, it will be demanded of men that they learn how to listen anew.

When asked what she remembers most, Dr. Ford answered, “Indelible in the hippocampus is the laughter, the laugh — the uproarious laughter between the two.” How miraculous and monstrous, are the capacities of mind and memory, that a sound imprinted on the aural faculty countless years ago can linger eternally, a defiant trigger for trauma that is so difficult to heal, all the more so, in a culture that makes little room for healing.

In the final moments of a lengthy hearing, Senator Kamala Harris concluded the day with a simple question to Judge Kavanaugh, “Did you listen to Dr. Ford’s testimony?” “No,” he said, “I was going to, but I was preparing for my own.” We’re measuring our listening this year, against the demands of the 2nd century sage Hillel, who when debating in court, would argue in favor of his opponent, before arguing his own case. How could Kavanaugh deny what he hadn’t even been willing to listen to? Did he not consider that something she would say might jog his memory? What a terrible model of listening to present to the nation, as he prepares for high office.

Whether or not you believe Ford or Kavanaugh, an essential notion was absent from yesterday’s discussion. Sensitive subjects are most often avoided, because we’re so afraid of the vulnerability they necessitate. But that vulnerability is the site of real listening. No one asked for testimony on the nature of healing.

Do we not believe a person is capable of healing, of change, of repentance and growth? Should the wrongs he may have committed as a teenager prevent his nomination? If we are a community that believes in the possibility of healing then we must say “No.” If Judge Kavanaugh was willing to step forward, to speak and listen from a place of vulnerability and own up to the mistakes of youth, even just a little bit, it would go a long way toward healing the pain of his past sins, in himself and in others, be they large or small, and whether they include Dr. Ford or not. Vulnerability and listening are preconditions of healing. But that was not his choice, he chose denial and anger.

What does our society demand of those who sit on the supreme court? We want righteousness. And that doesn’t mean purity, perfection, unadulterated goodness. Righteousness is a measure of listening to all as equals -- men and women, Democrats, Republicans and Independents, blacks and whites, Jews, Buddhist, Muslims and Christians. Can you listen to every voice and hear within the shared humanity that far outweighs difference? Can you bring compassion, no matter what they bring?

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment
Listening in Disagreement (Israel)

It was Rosh Hashana at The New Shul, the ceremonial beginning to a new year.  Aware of the utter absence of the art of listening in our present political culture, and inspired by the Talmud’s treatment of argumentation in the tales of Hillel and Shammai, two first century sages, who though almost always in opposition, knew, somehow, that each could be right without the other being wrong, we decided to devote this new year to the cultivation of the art of listening.  How might we live like Hillel, we asked ourselves, a teacher who always cited the view of his opponent before he expressed his own?


So at mid-service on Rosh Hashana, mellowed by music, words and silence, I heard Rabbi Zach ask me, “Do you and I have any major disagreements?”   “No.” I answered. “Oh good -- let’s argue about Israel.” “OK.” “You go first,” he suggested.


Thinking we’d stage a mock debate that would illustrate how one might listen receptively to an objectionable opinion voiced passionately by a friend or colleague, I decided to give Zach a run for his money.


“The State of Israel,” I began,  “represents the return of the Jewish people to history and mediates to the world the living meaning of Judaism.” Then zapped by the dark implications of what I’d just said, namely that Israel’s occupation of the West Bank might reveal the real role of “Love your neighbor as yourself,” in living Judaism, I swerved and stopped. 


But suddenly, with even greater authority, I asserted, “The Jewish people is the very incarnation of God in the world and it is therefore a religious obligation to work for the survival of the Jews.”  “State policy notwithstanding,” I went on, “if there are no Jews there will be no Judaism, and if no Judaism, no God.”


Stunned by the passion of my performance and its wild coherence, we looked at each other, Zach and I.  “I do love you,” I said, and we embraced. 


My feelings for the State of Israel run deeper than I know.  For it was in Jerusalem in 1969, as a rabbinical student, that I convinced Elana to marry me—no mean task.  Four years later she and I returned to Israel, lived on an educational campus not far from Tel Aviv and taught in an American high school program where, with our students, we lived through the Yom Kippur War.


In 1974 I first heard Rabbi David Hartman teach at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem.  Captured by his passion and intellect, I stayed with him as student and colleague for the next seven years during which time Elana gave birth to three of our children, ran a day care center, sent me off to serve in the IDF, and lived close to our community of fellow immigrants, friends who’d become family, most of whom still live in Israel. 


Put simply, we love the country and loathe its politics. “Now you know how we feel,” many of our dear Israeli friends said to us after the 2016 U.S. presidential election.  The clash between state and people is deep, a foundational agony that has shaped our lives both as Americans and Israelis.


Elana and I have received many gifts because of the State of Israel, none more precious than the friends of our youth who remain among our closest, and also the ability we achieved there to speak, read and write Hebrew.  That there is today a living Jewish vernacular, spoken by millions, at once rooted in the Torah yet there for you to use when you change diapers, buy a book, order a pizza, or have an argument with a friend—has enabled romantics like us, to feel the presence of God in every aspect of ordinary life. No doubt it helps that we are now visitors to Israel, no longer residents, freed from the drone of day-to-day responsibilities that so easily deafen one to the subtleties of language and the mysteries of life.


Still, even at a distance, the weight of responsibility we carry for the ongoing oppression of the Palestinians—those whom we dispossessed that we, after suffering near annihilation, might repossess our ancient homeland—is unbearable and inescapable.  It would be tempting merely to say and believe, “What can you do?  It is the way of the world. Suck it up.”  But that would entail denying that love and generosity are at the heart of what it is to be Jewish.  It would mean living as if friendship and benevolence were to be directed only at fellow Jews, and as if the rules of godless realpolitick apply to Jews as they do to all other players, namely, winner take all.  


We simply refuse to go that way.  Survival is a necessary condition, not a task.  The task of being Jewish is to make gratitude real by living it, to make love real by listening.


But how do we live true to this vision without erasing the opposing view, the one that insists Judaism is a family affair, a religion that requires first and foremost that we attend to the needs of our brothers and sisters, listen to the summons of our martyred ancestors, and join the defense against our common enemies?  Are we Jews here for the sake of the world (“For through you will all the families of the world will find blessing,” God says to Abraham.)?  Or are we here to be a nation apart, loyal to our ritual laws and customs, waiting for God to save the world?


According to the Talmud it took a voice from heaven to show the way to live inside this dilemma.  “Both views are the words of the living God,” the voice said, “But the law goes according to Hillel.”  Hillel once summed it up like this:  “What is hateful to you do not do to your friend.  All the rest is commentary.” 


Would that Hillel’s was the final word.  But one still must ask, “Who is my friend?” and “Who is my neighbor?”  Won’t we always answer these questions differently? 


Elana and I feel graced by the opportunity you’ve given us, fellow New Shulers, to begin and live this new year with you as friends.


With Big Love, Shabbat Shalom, Shannah Tovah!


James (and Elana) Ponet

Rabbi in Residence (and his Rabbi)

The New ShulComment
High Holy Day Assignment (A Listening Scavenger Hunt)

Dear Friends,

The New Year approaches! I hope that even from within the chaotic transition from summer to September you are listening for the silent call beckoning to us out of its mysterious source – Arise arise, wake from your slumber, you are beings of clay and soul, lift your ears to your loftiest aspiration and allow yourself to move through suffering for the sake of all that you are becoming. Such is the call of the season, grow, become, renew, offer prayers, be in silence, listen, for the sake of the world you’ve been gifted. I can’t wait to learn, and play and dance the New Year in with all of you.

Our classroom, with each renewing season, The New Shul’s 20th (more on that later!) and my 9th, has become a body of eager students. I have received far more than one request for early access to the High Holy Day assignment, so here it is. The due date is Sept. 19th, Yom Kippur, where I invite you to share some brief words on your experience with the community. (Past due assignments will be accepted indefinitely). 


High Holy Day Assignment 5779 (A Listening Scavenger Hunt)

1) Ask a friend to tell you of a time when they experienced great pain, loss or suffering –listen.

2) Have a difficult conversation that you’ve hesitated to confront, maybe even an argument, but listen without attachment to outcome.

3) Take a vow of silence. Here are some options: For a day, for an hour a day, a week. Take a digital vow of silence -- no text, email, for a week. Try accomplishing all of your daily tasks in near silence. Whichever vow you take, when you’ve settled into silence, allow your inner knowing to manifest, and take note of the revelations.

See you Sunday night!

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment
Regret and Renewal

Dear Friends,
The metaphysics of a world returning to the alignment of beginning blows in the air, as summer winds to a close and the New Year approaches. The month of Elul which leads us to Rosh Hashanah, is marked by the wake-up calls of the shofar and a series of prayers called selichot – more or less, a grand catalogue of “I’m sorry” songs.
The reason Judaism remains so dear to us, even as times change and the way we live is profoundly different from the ancestors who spun out these customs from mythological antiquity, is that the spiritual technology inherent in our holidays hits the nail of humanity pop on the head. As we go through the day-to-day of our lives, even when we carry ourselves with deep intentionality, we can’t help but make blunders large and small, mistakes, misunderstandings, and frustrations that cause harm to ourselves and those around us. We need, regularly, to say, “I’m sorry” as individuals and as a community. Rosh Hashanah without Yom Kippur would feel cheap, like a New Year’s Eve resolution forgotten in a week. The Jewish holidays work on our very souls, because regret and renewal are intertwined, and the technology of prayers, meals, community, and celebration allow us to take stock of our lives, and begin again.
Wherever you are spending this last weekend of summer, I hope you’ll find a few quiet moments by yourself or with friends, to reflect on your little blunders from the past year. In Hebrew, the word sin, chet, which carries so many terrible religious overtones, is simply an arrow that has missed its mark. In your heart of hearts you never wish to hurt anyone, but sometimes in the winds of the world our arrows fall outside the eye. The consciousness that we give to these moments are in direct proportion to the feeling of renewal that will come with the New Year.
Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment
Shooting Stars

Dear Friends,

I write to you from the early light and the infinite orchestra of crickets that have been with us from evening to morning on the porch of an old church turned recording studio, Dreamland. The working title of the project is, Refuah [Healing], and tonight the full moon of Elul will rise with the music. Ten musicians, but no singer -- without voice, without language, like the shofar -- we give over our yearnings for a less broken world, in the majestic art that speaks most deeply to my heart, music.

Language is an eternal bridge from the solitude of ineffable beauties and struggles, but it is always partial, inadequate. As the old poets said, “If all the seas were ink, if all the trees were pens – still, your beauty would go untold.” Music, all high arts at their best maybe, point toward the inexpressible.

What is within me that I cannot tell you any other way, but by this music? And what within you, the same and different?

We all yearn to be listened to. And we should become again blacksmiths of language, and seafarers of the heart, courageous when we give over our most vulnerable truths to another human being.

But we’re also yearning for the world to hear everything in our being that language can’t convey. The heart, the mind, they are infinite caverns, and from those depths, genius ,love, and self are born. Oh my friends, I want you to hear my darkness and my deep.

So sing your hearts out tonight! The full moon overhead, sing in whatever language you speak, sing your silence and your deep. Our songs tonight will be arrows pointed to the heavens, shooting stars for rain.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment
Listening to Soul

As with any devotion, many out-of-the-way paths must be trod before we arrive at a destination we could not have known until we arrived there. Before I found the Arabic oud, I had fallen into the depths of musical bewilderment at the spells of Chet Atkin’s finger-style guitar, classical Indian raga, Jerry Garcia and the Dead, and the one and only Queen of Soul, Aretha Franklin.

When it comes to death and dying, burials and funeral, folks have so much trouble believing in soul. But when Aretha Franklin sings, how can you do anything but testify to the majestic power of soul that all human beings are endowed with. The rare bird, Aretha, makes a temple of her life, her heart, her lungs, and her chords, for soul to resound in the world – revelation.

Aretha earns her place as the greatest of the generation for her work pioneering the genre we call “soul” music. But if you do not know it, learn swiftly now, that Aretha’s mighty power was brought up in houses of God. Her father was a preacher, and Aretha joined his choir as they caravanned, practicing, learning, mastering the art of listening and singing – soul.

In 1972 she recorded the most successful gospel album of all time, Amazing Grace, with Reverend James Cleveland and the Southern California Community Choir. Words can do no justice to the magic in these recordings, but you can listen here.

These recordings were foundational to my musical soul, and they are a deep influence on our services at The New Shul.

How is it that a rabbi could be so profoundly influenced by a gospel record, Jesus and all? Soul music transcends boundaries. When we pour out soul, the barriers around us dissolve. When Aretha sings, “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” you can’t help but fly alongside the harmonies of her band of angels, and open your soul to the beauty of her spirit, which she gives to the world – free.

What is soul music?

Soul music is beyond genre. It rises at the meeting point of rehearsed and free, at the balance of brokenness and joy. It sounds like silence erupting from melody, fire, and groove. These are the rules of soul music, as I have come to learn them. Thank you dearest Aretha for being our teacher of soul. We will miss you dearly, and we will honor your being by our music.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment
A Potent Moon (Elul)

Dear Friends,

Tomorrow evening the new moon of Elul rises in the sky, heralding a lunar cycle of preparation before the arrival of the new year, Rosh Hashana. These days overflow with potency. The actions, practices and intentions that we perform these days are met with great receptivity, and more than in any other season, we are able to taste the fruits of our labor, like berries in high season, like manna.

The first practice of the new year, is listening to the sound of the shofar, the ram’s horn, which we begin to sound daily in the month of Elul. Why is listening the first practice of the year?

The rabbis of the Talmud imagine bizarre scenarios of folks hearing or overhearing shofar sounds and they ask in each case — has this person fulfilled the imperative of the ram’s horn, that is, has this person truly listened?  They imagine someone walking the roaming hills of the Catskills, corn fields, barns, cows and all; that person hears what they think is a shofar, and she gives her heart, but it’s really just a braying donkey. Does this count? Has she listened? They imagine another soul, passing by west tenth street, overhearing the sound of the shofar, but without any intention to do so. Did he listen?

Listening is the first practice of the year, encapsulated in the metaphor of the shofar, because intention is exactly the marker which distinguishes conscious from unconscious action. Listening is the basis for all of our work in the year to come. It’s easy to hear the shofar — but did you really listen? You can perform most any action lazily, unintentionally; but to make your pancakes, prune your garden, be in a relationship with radical aliveness necessitates constant (regenerating) intention. 

This is the month of potent, constant intention. Every time you perform an action, you teach yourself to perform the next action in the same way. That’s why we can’t allow ourselves to do anything unintentionally. The garbage, the bills, the monotony that accompanies every devotion — did you really listen? Our ears, our heart — they’re changed with every deed. 

Sow the seeds of your practice with vigor. Diet, learning, creativity, attention, devotion to whatever calls to your single-minted soul. Make it happen. 

Shabbat Shalom my friends. See you in a moon. 

Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment