Judaism engages the heart, mind, soul, body, and intellect. It guides us in our relationship with ourselves, with others, and with God. I hope that this blog aids in bringing the wonder of Judaism into our lives and into our world.
A Reflection on My Eighteen Months of Growing, Then
Cutting, Then Donating My Hair
unintended personal journey began almost four years ago, when I was then the
Associate Rabbi of Westchester Jewish Center in Mamaroneck, NY.I had a realization, one which, perhaps,
should have been self-evident to a pulpit rabbi but one which nonetheless
forced me to reconsider one of my basic assumptions about Jews and Judaism.
pulpit rabbis do in the weeks leading up to the High Holidays, I was
considering the topics and content of my sermons.I thought to challenge my community by
encouraging each member of my synagogue to accept upon himself or herself one
new mitzvah or Jewish ritual for that upcoming year.How hard could that really be, I
wondered to myself.After all, in
Judaism, there are many rituals that are simple, accessible, and
meaningful.It should not be any problem
simply to select one and try it for one year!
the same time, a new kosher meat product was on the market – kosher meat from
Grow and Behold.It represented
everything that I was looking for in kosher meat:locally grown, organic (by the spirit and not
just by the letter of the law), free-range (also by the spirit and not just by the
letter of the law).It was delivered
fresh, and it tasted delicious.I
remember cooking the chicken the one and only time that I purchased meat from
them.I did not marinate or dress the
chicken; I was curious to taste fresh organic meat for the first time, and its
taste did not disappoint.
experience did.I had anticipated that I
would feel better about eating meat.After
all, the animals were given a good life, not mistreated, and the environmental
impact was kept to a minimum.Instead, I
had to face a personal truth:I believed
that, for me, eating meat was wrong.And
I had known it for years, yet I had made no change to my diet.Why?Simply
because making that change, I permitted myself to believe, was too hard.
Jews, this is how they perceive Jewish ritual.They often want to participate and try something new, but change is
difficult.Nonetheless, here I was,
about to stand in front of almost two thousand members of my community at Rosh
Hashanah and ask and expect them to do something – that is, make a change in
their personal and religious practice – that I had put off doing for nearly a
decade.Thus, I committed to becoming a
vegetarian for one year.
now coming up on four years since that Rosh Hashanah sermon.Truthfully, I have eaten meat about a
half-a-dozen times, but I still hold to my vegetarian practice and lifestyle.
haircut was on Monday, November 12th, 2012, almost eighteen months
ago.I was at the home of Michelle, a
friend and a parent of a student at Milwaukee Jewish Day School, where I have
worked as the Director of Jewish Life & Learning and School Rabbi for
almost two years.I was at her house for
two reasons:my friend’s daughter and my
son were in the same Junior Kindergarten class at MJDS, and Michelle was going
to give me a haircut.
college, I wore a half-inch buzz cut for years.I admit that I have always harbored a not-so-secret desire to grow my
hair long – not the socially acceptable down-to-the-ears length at which I had typically
kept my hair for the past decade – but long. Societal pressure held me back.I was going to be a rabbi, I reminded
myself.I am a rabbi, my
congregation reminded me.It was a rare
case for me of conceding to societal norms.But, I wisely and with great dismay did not grow out my hair.Undoubtedly, this was not a case of personal
conviction but rather preference, and, having accepted a public position with
the expectation of an accepted norm of appearance, I did not press the
And so, with my usual personal
reluctance, I sat down one-and-a-half years ago for a haircut in Michelle’s
house.She gave me a wonderful haircut –
as far as haircuts go, I loved it!But,
I looked in the mirror, and the reflection began to mock my principles.
I do not have a working
television in my house, and it has been nearly two years since I last plugged
in my television.I have a twenty-nine
inch tube TV that I received as a gift in 1997 for my twenty-first birthday (it
still works, but I do not have the digital adapter for it), and I have an
antenna which I can plug into my laptop to watch basic channels with
intermittent reception.Still, giving up
a working TV in my house was a much more dramatic change for me than becoming a
I love television, I love TV series,
I love movies, and, most importantly, I love sports.When I was a synagogue rabbi, most nights, I
would come home from work and would be the only person awake at my house – my
family was already asleep.I would turn
on ESPN, watch whatever was on, and eat dinner, do e-mail, or complete some housework
with sports on in the background until I went to sleep.
Of course, living in New York
and maintaining my Packers, Brewers, Bucks, and Badgers loyalties was often a
challenge.Inevitably, I purchased the
Sunday Ticket and MLB pass to watch Packers and Brewers games, respectively,
and I only subscribed to a cable package that would offer me the Big Ten network.As the rabbi of a synagogue, I rarely had the
opportunity to watch my favorite sports teams live, so I would commit the shameful
sports-fan sin of taping a game and watching it later.It wasn’t a perfect system, but it
worked.And I got to watch my sports on
Until I moved back home to
Milwaukee nearly two years ago and did not plug in my TV.
I decided that it was time to
cut my hair right now for one simple reason:I found a place that would accept hair that was six inches long.Most organizations require donated hair to be
at least eight-inches in length, and I would not return to a half-inch buzz in
order to donate my hair.I then stumbled
upon 360-hair.com, which works in partnership with the Canada Cancer
Society.360-hair.com makes wigs and
hair extensions, and it personalizes – for free – wigs for children with
cancer.That alone is enough to
encourage me to donate my hair to them; the fact that I do not need to wait to
meet the six-inch length minimum requirement locked it in as my choice.I was set to cut my hair in front of the entire
school on Friday, April 4th, 2014.
I knew that I could use my time
more productively in the evenings than by watching sports on TV or by having
movies on in the background.There were
other uses of my time that I knew would be better for my own personal growth,
development, and fulfillment.And, with
two young children at home, I did not want them to fall into the same habit
that I had:coming home, mindlessly turning
on the television, and living my life with the TV’s omnipresent glow in my
Now, I will occasionally invite
myself over to a friend’s house to watch a Packers game, this weekend’s Badgers
Final Four appearance, or other sporting events.But, my evenings are much more
fulfilled.I taught myself guitar (in
just enough time for my live
Purim performance at MJDS in 2013!); I read as voraciously as I had before;
I returned to my passion for making puzzles; I took an Improv class at
ComedySportz; and I had time for personal reflection and introspection.I did watch the occasional series on the
internet or on Netflix, but my personal journey – which began with becoming a
vegetarian and continued with unplugging my television at home – was
crystallizing in purpose.I was making
conscious decisions to make daily choices which upheld my principles and my
And it made me feel good.
I made my intent to grow my
hair, cut it, and donate it public.I
wrote an article and distributed it to the entire school community in our school’s
weekly newsletter, Yom HaShishi.The
initial purpose was relatively simple yet personally meaningful.I believe in conserving and re-using as much
as possible.I am renowned for bringing what
others would consider scraps of paper for taking notes.I shut off lights habitually and militantly
in my house.I will use the same
washable glass all day rather than taking a new one at each meal.
Of course, none of these
practices is particularly impressive or impactful on the larger world.But, I am trying to adapt my lifestyle to reflect
a core personal tenet:protecting our
world demands personal accountability.For me, that means re-using what I can.
At first, it struck me that hair
is no different.If I have the
opportunity to re-use my hair rather than discard it, then that is fundamental
to my convictions.How could I not
grow it and donate it?Upon reflection, however,
I realized that it is categorically different:by donating my hair, I am not only acting in a microcosmic way as a
guardian of the earth, but I am also performing another mitzvah.I am, in one small way, giving dignity to
someone suffering from cancer.A two-for-one
the eighteen months, I was surprised at how meaningful this decision became for
me.Every time that I saw my hair, every
time that it dripped into the bubbler as I took a drink, every time that, when
rolling on the floor with my children, one of them stepped on it pulling it
painfully, I felt a sense of pride.I
knew that I was adhering to my convictions – not the one of personal preference
but the one of bettering myself and improving the world in my own small
way.I was living out the life and
ideals that drove me internally.Moreover, I was sending a message to the students with whom I worked
every day:convictions can and should
drive you despite what other might say or think.
those same eighteen months, though, I was also surprised at the unintended
impact that my choice had made.To be
sure, most people who came up to me were both curious and supportive.How much longer do you have to grow out your
hair?Where are you donating it?Have you grown to like it?Indeed, more than a handful of people
would even whisper, I like your hair longer or I have always wanted
to do that, too.Of course, the fact
that they would make those comments to me confidentially confirmed a growing
suspicion:a rabbi with long hair – even
if being grown for a good cause and with public knowledge – pushed societal
conventions more than anticipated.
the pushback that I received was open.A
few people would suggest, kindly though forcefully, that my choice was
inappropriate as a rabbi and as a representative of MJDS.I appreciated their directness, and I
welcomed the opportunity to share my passion and conviction.While some remained opposed to my choice, I
believe that these conversations led to a greater understanding of my
motivation and a better appreciation for my principle.I came to realize, however, that many there
were many more who were confused about my choice and talking – not with me,
however, but with each other.
harah (harmful speech) is arguably the greatest toxin in any
community.Upon reflection, I now wonder
aloud if I helped cause and create an environment that fostered lashon harah.Instead of using my conviction as a way to
unite a community behind a cause, instead of my personal choice challenging
students and adults to live out their principles, I might have fed the culture
of gossip.Was it really worth it,
I asked myself often and was often asked.What started out with tremendous personal pride became a personal and
professional battle not to give in to societal pressure.Indeed, I have never felt more connected with
my middle school students, who struggle every day to stand up for what they
believe is right in the face of social pressure, as I did during these past few
months as my hair continued to grow far beyond traditionally-accepted lengths.
the challenges that my choice to grow, cut, and donate my hair brought, I feel
fulfilled.I am much more heartened than
dismayed, thanks to the tremendous support and encouragement that I received
from many in my community.It was a loud
voice, and the aforementioned interest and chorus of encouragement inspired me
to see my commitment through to its conclusion and continue to fill me with overwhelming
end, if I had to do it over again, I would.Indeed, I would love to grow it again and donate it repeatedly, though I
do not anticipate doing it any time soon (of course, I already imagine the
personal lament that I will feel every time I get a future haircut and see the hair
discarded…).But, I feel good.I feel good that I actualized my core
beliefs.I feel good that I created
awareness and conversation – many productive ones in particular with students,
with parents, and with strangers.I feel
good that my children, now five-and-a-half and almost three, can both
articulate the mitzvot that I am performing.And I feel good that I modeled for the
students at MJDS the value in acting in accordance with one’s principles.And I thank you, my community, for your
tremendous support and encouragement along the way.
like to talk about two things this morning that have been on my mind.
is particularistic and the second universalistic.
particularistic: Judaism. In talking about Judaism, I do not want to
talk about numbers. We give much more
weight to numbers than is deserved.
Rather, I want to talk about purpose and impact. Because in those regards, Judaism is
passionate, thriving, engaging and indispensable.
some personal history. When I applied to
rabbinical school in 2000, I wrote one of my admissions essays on the constant
dynamic tension that I felt wearing a kippah
(yarmulke; head covering) all the time.
I was most concerned about wearing my kippah at a non-hekhshered restaurant, a bar or a night-club or dance-club. While my essay focused on the personal,
professional and religious implications of such a choice, my conclusion
ultimately reflected a core ideological tenet of the Judaism.
that, for me, it was ultimately less important what I determined to do than
that I recognized that I would be constantly engaged in that process of
determination. The answer was less
important than the question. The
resolution was less important than the ongoing struggle. Indeed, it is that very ongoing struggle that
ultimately brought and continues to bring me the most comfort. My kippah
is uniquely meaningful to me because I think about it every time that I wear
it. I think about what it means to be a
public religious figure and what it means to be a Jew. I think about God. Had I decided with certainty one way or the
other about when to wear and not wear a kippah,
I would think of those other things much less regularly. Absolutism would be disengaging; certainty
would be stifling: my personal and
religious life would be much emptier as a result. Thus, the constant dynamic tension of when to
wear a kippah epitomizes the strength
and passion of my religious conviction.
Of course, this tension
translates to all facets of Judaism. Are
we absolutely sure that praying the traditional words of the siddur (prayer book) is what the Torah
and God commanded us to do to replace sacrifices? Are we absolutely sure that the prohibition
of boiling a kid in its mother’s milk demands eating meat from kosher slaughterhouses
rather than demanding that the violation of the ethical treatment of animals in
those slaughterhouse prohibits us
from eating their meat? And, if we’re
going to be honest, we also need to ask:
are we absolutely sure of what God is, of what God wants, or even of
God’s existence? Are we absolutely sure?
For some of us, we might be able
to answer a definitive “yes” to one of more of these questions. For others of us, we might even be able to
answer “yes” to all three. But, I suspect
that, for most of us – including myself – “yes” is a difficult if not
disingenuous answer to give. “Yes” might
be easy, and “yes” might be convenient.
But, it is not likely genuine, and it is not definitely Jewish.
In Judaism, the response to these
questions is no different than my response to my struggle about when to wear a kippah.
Judaism does not deal in absolutes.
Indeed, prayer is more engaging because of its constant dynamic
tension: we want to talk with God, we
really do; is how we do it the best and most appropriate way? Speaking personally, my becoming a vegetarian
is more meaningful because of the constant dynamic tension: kashrut
(Jewish dietary laws) is not simply about a seal on food but also about the
ethical considerations that the Torah mandates.
And our relationship with God is intimate because of its constant
dynamic tension: the absence of absolute
empirical evidence is what demands, creates and sustains our faith. Certainty is boring. Certainty is unfulfilling. And, certainty can be dangerous. Absolute certainty leads to dogmatism, to
theological, ideological and even military warfare. Ambiguity, however – just the slighting
intrusion of doubt – leads to faith, exploration, meaning, understanding,
passion, and compassion.
This is what I want in
religion. I want to be part of a
religion that does not shun these questions, that does not seek to impose
dogmatic behavior as a substitute for meaningful ideological and theological
inquiry and engagement; I want to be part of a religion, of a Jewish movement
that does not deny our religious obligations in the name of ethical
practice. I want that tension, that
constant dynamic tension. We need that
constant dynamic tension. People are
hard-wired to live in a world of ambiguity and to accept the challenges
therein. We do not deny the complexities
of living a traditional religious life in our contemporary society. We do not resort to dogmatic ideology or
practice nor do we deny the value and centrality of religious
proscription. We embrace that tension,
we navigate that tension. We are a
movement of integrity and a movement of authenticity. We are am
yisrael, a people who – literally:
that is what the word yisrael
means! – struggles with God and with our choices. We are Judaism.
legendary conservationist Lawrence Anthony died March 2. His family tells of a
solemn procession of Elephants that defies human explanation.
For 12 hours,
two herds of wild South African elephants slowly made their way through the Zululand bush until they reached the house of late author
Lawrence Anthony, the conservationist who saved their lives. The formerly violent, rogue elephants,
destined to be shot a few years ago as pests, were rescued and rehabilitated by
Anthony, who had grown up in the bush and was known as the “Elephant
For two days
the herds loitered at Anthony’s rural compound on the vast Thula Thula game
reserve in the South African KwaZulu – to say good-bye to the man they loved.
But how did they know he had died?...
There are two
elephant herds at Thula Thula. According to his son Dylan, both arrived at the
Anthony family compound shortly after Anthony’s death. “They had not visited
the house for a year and a half and it must have taken them about 12 hours to
make the journey,” Dylan is quoted in various local news accounts. “The first
herd arrived on Sunday and the second herd, a day later. They all hung around
for about two days before making their way back into the bush.” Elephants have
long been known to mourn their dead. In India, baby elephants often are
raised with a boy who will be their lifelong “mahout.” The pair develop
legendary bonds – and it is not uncommon for one to waste away without a will
to live after the death of the other.
But these are
wild elephants in the 21st century, not some Rudyard Kipling novel… So, how
after Anthony’s death, did the reserve’s elephants — grazing miles away in
distant parts of the park — know?
“A good man
died suddenly,” says Rabbi Leila Gal Berner, Ph.D., “and from miles and miles
away, two herds of elephants, sensing that they had lost a beloved human
friend, moved in a solemn, almost ‘funereal’ procession to make a call on the
bereaved family at the deceased man’s home.”
“If there ever
were a time, when we can truly sense the wondrous ‘interconnectedness of all
beings,’ it is when we reflect on the elephants of Thula Thula. A man’s heart
stops, and hundreds of elephants’ hearts are grieving. This man’s
oh-so-abundantly loving heart offered healing to these elephants, and now, they
came to pay loving homage to their friend.”
these elephants doing? Really, what were
they doing? They were paying a shiva call (the period of mourning of
the death of a loved one when family and friends come to offer condolences)! The connection between these elephants and
this man was not just physical and emotional.
It was spiritual. They had no way
to know that he had died! It’s almost
unbelievable – but for the fact that it happened.
So, why do
I choose to conclude my sermon on religion with this story? Because we are all seeking. We all yearn for a spiritual connection with
others, with God. And, as we discussed
earlier, we all doubt. But, the
relentless companion of doubt is hope, is inspiration. This story reflects that hope, that
inspiration. There are things in this
world that resonate, that are inexplicable, that are binding. They embody spirituality, and religion is our
key, our access card, our password to that very same connection.
I know what
people say the dangers of religion and spirituality are. But, they are wrong. Religion and spirituality are not
dangerous. People who misuse and distort
religious and spiritual teachings are dangerous. Similarly, religion and spirituality are not
inherently good. But, those who use
religion and spirituality to bring people together, to bring God into this
world, to somehow make sense of the two elephant herds’ shiva call: they – we – are
good. That is what religion and
spirituality can bring into this world and into our lives.
is why it is such a privilege to be a rabbi, to be a conduit of this kind of
religious teaching, to help bring this sense of spirituality into your lives
and into our world.
And so it is my hope and prayer
that we all be blessed with many connections, and may our faith and tradition
continue to guide us and bring us together.