Friday, July 04, 2008


Today we celebrate a birthday, the anniversary of the signing of the Declaration of Independence. The Declaration was penned by one of my greatest heroes. I have made many a pilgrimage to his house, which I often refer to as “my favorite place in America.” I always carry two-dollar bills in his honor. And whenever I reflect on the individuals who have made America great, he first and foremost comes to mind.

We are a country that loves to celebrate our veterans and our military victories. And that is how it should be. Jefferson once said that “every citizen should be a soldier. This was the case with the Greeks and Romans, and must be that of every free state.” Ironically, though, Jefferson was never himself a soldier. A philosopher, farmer, statesman, scientist, architect, anthropologist, bibliophile, inventor … even a musician (yes, as any lover of the musical “1776” can tell you, “he played the violin”). He was all those things -- just not a soldier. So today, when we celebrate our nation and date ourselves from a single event, we recall not the heroic conduct of a “band of brothers” who were victorious in battle, but rather the decision to ratify the words of a single writer, whose poetic and profound statements have held so much meaning to all of us who are proud to be Americans.

Jefferson loved the freshness of his America, and especially its yet-to-be-explored quality. Famously, he commissioned the travels of Lewis and Clark and gloried in the fruits of that expedition. He loved the fact that our land hadn’t been cultivated to death, our most native people had preserved that land relatively intact, and his successors had the opportunity to serve as trustees over the land – to hallow it, the way Europeans might have hallowed a great medieval Cathedral. But Jefferson wasn’t simply a man who loved to preserve; he also was one who loved to create, to invent, to erect. He created a magnificent home (Monticello) and university (the University of Virginia), and was instrumental in implementing an idea that at the time was truly radical: that human beings can flourish in a single democratic republic that stretched over thousands upon thousands of square miles. Democracies had thrived before, but only in limited areas. What Jefferson and his colleagues were attempting had no precedent whatsoever. But that was fine by him. He wasn’t merely a philosopher, farmer, statesman, scientist, architect, anthropologist, bibliophile, inventor and musician. He was also, at heart, a revolutionary.

A cynic might look at the above words and point out, with some truth, that any nation is founded by creative, revolutionary minds. To be a “founder” is to be unafraid of novelty; that would apply to the founders of Cuba and the USSR as much as those of the US of A. But there is a difference that is quite relevant here. America, from the time of her founding until the present, has always celebrated her entrepreneurial spirit. We are the nation of small businesses and respect for economic diversity. We are also the nation of civic organizations. Alexis De Tocqueville observed this in the 1830s when he visited our nation. Much of the secret of our success has been the proliferation of clubs, churches, non-profits and other community groups that have sprung up on these shores. Through these groups, we as individuals express our values, share our interests with others, and band together to accomplish things that we could never accomplish alone. It is no coincidence that during the 232 years since Jefferson wrote about the pursuit of happiness as an inalienable right, Americans have served as this world’s pre-eminent inventors and creators.

So happy birthday, America. Or should I say, most precisely, happy 232nd anniversary. As an American, I like to draw distinctions between birthdays qua anniversaries and true days of birth. This year, I plan to celebrate more than one such day. I’ve already mentioned August 11, 2008, which is when my second novel comes out. A bit later in the year, I expect to celebrate another – my daughter Hannah’s second CD, which only a tone deaf person couldn’t appreciate (take my word for it). But those days of birth are still off in the temporal horizon. This week, I have another in mind. The date was July 1st – this past Tuesday. And the object of my celebration is a brand spanking new Jewish community. It is called Shirat HaNefesh, which means “Song of the Soul.”

Shirat HaNefesh, of which I am proud to call myself a founding member, isn’t merely just another synagogue. Indeed, it isn’t really a synagogue at all. It has on its paid staff a highly experienced and decorated rabbi and cantor … but what it doesn’t have is its own bricks and mortar. This summer, meetings of Shirat HaNefesh will be people’s homes. In the fall, meetings will move to churches – Christian churches. In founding this group, our goal was not to start with an impressive looking structure that can remind us of Jewish affluence but rather to build upon the spirituality of two amazing clergymen and dozens of congregants who are determined not to let religious bureaucracy interfere with their own spirituality.

Ours is a group that celebrates prayer through song, and yet includes people whose views of God range from the traditional … to the atheist … to the Spinozistic (I’ll let you guess where I stand). The cantor of Shirat HaNefesh is acclaimed throughout the Jewish world for his voice and his knowledge of Jewish music from every part of the globe. Ours is also a group that celebrates tikkun o’lam, which connotes a deep commitment to social action. Our rabbi, in fact, helped found the North American chapter of Rabbis for Human Rights. Politically, he is a progressive’s progressive. In addition, ours is a group that celebrates Jewish education for adults as much as for children. I for one am sick and tired of people talking about the need to provide their child with a “sense of Jewish identity” when their own Jewish education has ended decades in the past. What kind of religious role-modeling is that? My hope, my assumption, is that members of Shirat HaNefesh plan on practicing in their own lives what they preach to their children.

My confidence in the beauty of Shirat HaNefesh stems from various places. First, I know that the organization’s rabbi and cantor are both inspirational figures. Second, I know that the founding members of this organization have been schooled in how not to run a religious organization; they were members of a large synagogue whose Board paid lip-service to democratic principles but ended up running the organization like a fiefdom. (Jefferson would have been disgusted, believe me.) The founding members of Shirat HaNefesh were the ones who found that kind of hypocrisy intolerable, rather than simply shrugging their shoulders and settling for the status quo. In other words, the founders of Shirat HaNefesh are people who viscerally hate injustice and who refuse to be enablers -- my kind of people. Finally, I know that the organization is determined to be eclectic. It has steadfastly avoided affiliating itself with Reform, Renewal, Reconstructionist, Conservative or Orthodox Judaism. It plans to pick and choose from among the best of all Jewish traditions. And, not surprisingly, it is open to participation from people who come from non-Jewish traditions.

I happen to know that the organization’s Activities Committee chair – my wife -- is not even Jewish. Actually, she had been thinking of converting until our horrid experience with our last synagogue beat that out of her for the moment. I used to joke back then that if either of us were to convert, it would be me, if you get my drift. You see, there are few things in life more disgusting than a religious organization whose practices fly in the face of its expressed goals. But, by the same token, there are few things in life more beautiful than a religious group that has set a high standard for itself and is determined to live up to that standard. It takes a lot of effort for such a group to avoid hypocrisy, but as Spinoza wrote, “all things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” I have little doubt that all the work we are putting into Shirat HaNefesh will ensure that it is not merely “a light unto thy nations” but a light unto the Jewish people as well.

As you reflect over the next few days about this great nation and its commitment to novelty and religious plurality, I hope that you check out the website of our new Jewish organization. Go to Get a sense of what makes this group special. Then spread the word. We will be meeting in Silver Spring, Maryland, and we are actively looking for new members. Even if you are already a member of another synagogue and have no interest in becoming an associate member of a new organization, we would be happy to have you come and simply check out the new baby. For those of you who are not from D.C. but have friends there, for heavens sake, pick up the phone and ask them if they’d like to get in on the ground floor of something spiritual.

If you have any questions about the group, just e-mail me. It would be my pleasure to share my love for this group with anyone – Jew or gentile – who doesn’t yet think of “religion” as a dirty word.

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