Art and Spirituality

 Judaism seems in many ways to be a religion dominated by words. There are the words of the prayerbook, the Torah, the Talmud and the sermon. Even our meals are framed by the words of blessing.

 All of these words give us opportunities for great expression and spiritual connection. Sometimes, though, the words of tradition can be overwhelming. There are so many that they may inhibit our own words. They may also give the impression that words are the only way to connect to our spirituality.

 In my years of teaching I have noticed that there are many people who do not respond to text, but respond in a very powerful way to images and to sound, whether creating them, or meditating on them. A lot of them have been turned off by Judaism, because they do not feel there is room for them.

 This is one of the reasons I have put my own art and music on line. To be honest, I was a little hesitant about doing so, but I thought it was important to show that there are lots of different ways of connecting (dance and athletics, of course, are other ways, but I am probably not the right guy to look to for advice).

 Spirituality is about the expression of our souls, not just the words of our lips or pen. If you or your loved ones are feeling cut off from Judaism because the texts are a barrier, or if your spirit souls through other means, I encourage you to look at those times that you are moved by art and music as potentially true religious and spiritual moments, as moments of Torah.

 The Torah tells us that God gave each of us our own way to understand the world. Find yours!

Paintings page update

I have added some paintings that I did that are in my house. A couple are recent, but most are over the last fifteen years or so. Some are of family that I never met because of the Holocaust. They all largely reflect my attempt to bring life and color to a period of Jewish history that we tend to think of as having been in black and white.

Rabbi Efry Spectre, Z”l

All of us in the Adat Shalom family and Detroit Jewish community were stunned and saddened to hear about the passing of Rabbi Efry Spectre.  Rabbi Spectre was our shul’s rabbi for twenty-two years and served with great heart and devotion.

I never had the privilege of working with him directly, but I would like to share a couple of memories that touched me personally.

When I was in college, Rabbi Spectre offered a class on Jewish philosophers at the Hillel House. He taught a session on one of his favorite teachers. This is the first time I had ever heard of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel. Rabbi Spectre’s class inspired me to read everything I could of Heschel. Heschel is one of the reasons I became a rabbi, and specifically why I chose JTS. Rabbi Spectre, then, was at least partially responsible for my being a rabbi, and ultimately being a rabbi at Adat Shalom.

My other memory is how much the unity of the different Jewish denominations mattered to him. As the president of the Michigan Board of Rabbis, which is mostly composed of non-Orthodox rabbis, he arranged for us to have a meeting with the Vaad HaRabbanim, the Council of Orthodox Rabbis. Just getting together , and help open some warm lines of communication between the two groups. I greatly respected and admired Rabbi Spectre’s determination to put together this rewarding but highly complex project.

I will just add one more example of Rabbi Spectre’s great wit, which he was able to combine with his Torah knowledge. He was bringing greetings to a meeting, and said, “The Torah tells us that we should rise in the face of the gray-haired. However, everyone here has dyed away all the gray. I am not sure what to do.”

I am sorry that I never got to really know Rabbi Efry Spectre, but I am proud to follow in his footsteps.


There is not much I can say about this extraordinary tragedy. Here is a great place to donate for relief:

We should also be directing our prayers to the people of Haiti, whether at home or in shul.

Finally, just for those religious leaders who said the Haitians deserve what they got, I have a book for you to read. It is called the Bible. It talks about compassion for the widow, the orphan and the stranger.

Relevance is the future

Our tradition tells us that the Jews accepted the covenant at two different occasions in our history. The first was at Mount Sinai. This seems obvious, but even here there are some complicating factors. God had just taken the Hebrew slaves out of Egypt in an impressive manner. There were horrible plagues put upon the Egyptians because of Pharaoh’s arrogance. The Torah says God brought the people out with a mighty hand and outstretched arm. Tacit in this is the realization by the Hebrews that anyone who defied God was at great risk. Accepting the Torah, then, was hardly voluntary. God in fact says, accept the Torah, or this land where you stand will be your grave. The Hebrews of course accepted.

The second acceptance of the covenant, somewhat surprisingly, was during the Purim story in the Book of Esther. I say surprisingly, because in many respects Esther is the least religious book in the Bible. It does not mention God. It takes place outside of the Land of Israel. Most of the Jews remain happily adjusted to Persian life. Nonetheless, our rabbis believed that this became a great time of spiritual growth. Jews in fact lived happily in Persia, now Iran, until our present-day.

For most of our history, our acceptance of the Torah imitated that of Mount Sinai. Judaism was rarely voluntary in most of the places in which we lived. We were limited in where we could live, and what we could do. Judaism was the only way in which Jews could function. The Jewish community was the only community in which Jews could live. Jewish identity was mandatory, not voluntary.

Most of us do not live in this kind of environment. We are more like the Jews of Persia. Judaism is voluntary. Jobs are open to us. Where we live is not limited. Belonging to the Jewish community, or even identifying with it is completely a matter of choice. Why then, should people choose to identify?

I pray that we do not have a crisis like the Purim story that reminded us of our identity. If Judaism is going to be healthy, and a healthy choice for our people, it is going to have to be relevant. That is, we need to communicate what is genuinely beautiful in our tradition, and reevaluate those aspects that are not resonant, or may even be negative.

I believe that every generation that has faced a crisis has gone through this process. It is the positive response to our world that has made us The Eternal People.

Here is an excercise that might be interesting for you to do with your family or friends.Pretend that someone has come from very far away, maybe another planet, and has never heard of religion or culture or ethnicity at all as concepts. Explain to them what Judaism is, and who Jews are.  I would love to hear some responses.

Introductory ideas

In this blog I will mostly share my favorite teachings from our tradition, and hopefully show why they still have profound things to show us. From time to time I will bring in teachings from other traditions that have helped me understand Judaism better.

This will not really be about politics or current events, though I am interested in thinking through the potential long-term consequences of some of the issues we are dealing with at the moment.  I will, however, add some links from time to time that give a range of opinions. I may not necessarily agree with them, but it is usually better to get information straight from the source and make an informed opinion, as opposed to getting it second or third hand.

I believe we are in one of the most exciting times to be Jewish. Exciting in terms of new possibilities. Exciting in terms of uncertainty. We are in a moment of huge transition caused by the two most cataclysmic events in thousands of years of Jewish history occurring within a decade of each other, namely the Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel. This has caused so many people to think about what it means to be Jewish and how to live Jewishly in a thoughtful manner. Reflex and nostalgia are no longer compelling, nor should they be.

I am not completely sure where we are heading as a people, but I think history will look back on us as the generations that maintained a powerful and meaningful Judaism, one that embraced the best this whole world has to offer, while at the same time bringing our light to the rest of the world.

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