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
Who Taught You How To Listen?

Dear Friends,

Who taught you how to listen?

As a babe fresh from the womb, the faces of your mother and father responding to your cries, did they teach you how to listen? Or you had a teacher in your youth who heard you, and whether you knew it or not, she taught you? Maybe as an adult, someone taught you how to find your stillness, so that even hearing stories of pain and hardship you refuse the inclination to turn your heart away and stay, listening to whatever greets your ears? Or maybe, no one ever taught you to listen?

I am amazed that our culture assumes that the most fundamental spiritual tasks can be acquired without consciousness. Did anyone ever teach you how to breathe? Of course you can breathe. But did anyone ever teach you how to draw a mighty quiet breath from the depths of your belly and your toes, to let it rest and permeate after you take it in, how to release air like a flautist does, every breathe music, and how to be in the emptiness at the end of every cycle as a lesson in contentment?  Why didn’t you learn that in school, alongside the alphabet and Dr. Seuss?

One day The New Shul will pioneer spiritual education 101, and I imagine our course will begin with breathing and listening. Why? Because these arts are the doorways between the individualized bodies of the cosmos – listening and breathing - they are the current of blood of the one world. They are all that is between us.

To prepare for the High Holy Days I have ordered many books about listening; the New Age books and the Ted talk videos, they are a decent place to start but they do not touch the difficulty, nor the poetry, of real listening. Last night before me sat John Cage, the father of post-modern sound, his book Silence, and I introduced him to my great-grandfather, Menachem Mendel Kasher, who wrote an entire encyclopedia of commentary on the Shma and listening. By way of devotion, we arrive at profound questions. Can we hear silence? What are the preconditions for listening?

The language of “Listen Israel,” appears one other time in the Torah, preceded by a word, hasket – be silent!  Silence first, then listening.

The real work of preparation has been my focused attention on how I listen. Am I always capable of listening? No!  What brings me to listening? And if someone is talking to me, and I am not in a place of listening, how can I get there quickly?

Maybe listening is something we have to teach ourselves, and teach each other in community? To a year of listening, and learning how to listen.

Shabbat Shalom my friends,

Rabbi Zach Fredman

The New ShulComment