I'm Jon Spira-Savett, rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. This website and blog is a resource for Jewish learning and Jewish action. It is a way to share my thoughts beyond my classes and weekly Divrei Torah. You'll find blog posts, standing resource pages with links and things to read, and podcasts as well.
On “The Good Place” Chapter 7 is the classic lying episode, and on the podcast Rebecca Rosenthal and I jump off from the Talmud’s analysis of white lies to talk about truth and relationships, how and when we tell people important truths, and how truth emerges between people not just by telling.
Rabbi Dan Ross and I co-host once again. On “The Good Place”, Eleanor tries both to keep and not keep her promises to Michael — and on the podcast, Dan and I trade stories of dog-watching gone wrong and explore why promising is such a big, Yom-Kippur-level matter in Judaism. (That's Dan below!)
That's Rabbi Sari Laufer, my partner for Chapter 5 of Tov!
"To Measure or Not to Measure" -- on “The Good Place” Eleanor is excited when she is polite for the first time without thinking, Tahani’s philanthropy doesn't score enough points with her parents or the algorithm, and Chidi doesn’t find pleasure in doing the most good. So on the podcast Jon has his first stomach ache and Sari Laufer (new rabbi on the team) helps us think more about where measuring goodness does and doesn’t make sense. Oh, and where intellectual vs. sensual pleasure fits in!
On “The Good Place” Michael tries to guide Chidi and Janet toward new things, but it’s Eleanor who finds unexpected inspiration because of Tahani. So on the podcast, Jon Spira-Savett and Audrey Marcus Berkman explore reincarnation Jewish-style and who the teacher you need turns out to be.
If you're a fan of "The Good Place" and at all connected to Jews or Judaism, try out my new podcast that I'm creating with a bunch of colleagues!
Tov! is on all the major podcast platforms, and it will be a fun and interesting way to explore some Jewish texts and ideas. Check out the website for episodes and show notes, or search for it in your app and try it out!
It's launching right as we begin Elul, the month in the Jewish calendar leading to Rosh Hashanah. This is the time of year when we're all Eleanor Shellstrop, trying to improve our lives as though everything is in the balance.
On Tuesday, July 2 we made some history with the first presidential candidate forum from "How To Be President." This is an initiative to add something that is missing to the presidential primary process. We hear all about issues and resumes, but rarely if ever about leadership reflections. No one forces candidates to talk about how they are preparing for this unique and un-preparable-for job. No one asks about holding the power of life and death, or maintaining one's self-confidence and ego in the face of constant failure and frustrations of one's power, or the role of humility when you are the leader of the free world.
We need the candidates to hear these questions constantly, so they know it's important to us that they answer them and that we won't trust them to be good leaders if they don't. We need to hear each other ask these questions, so we don't let each other settle for bad preparation and bad vetting.
Someone has to ask these questions. It should be journalists -- but they don't. So we have to model it and ask them to! You can ask questions yourself, like the ones listed here. You can attend our forums or watch them on YouTube.
Former U.S. Representative John Delaney was the first to accept our invitation. The video is here, with notes that point you toward the time in the video where he addresses each question.
My partners so far are Rev. Allison Palm of the Unitarian Universalist Church of Nashua, Rev. Sally Newhall of the Nashua Presbyterian Church, and Michael Reinke, Executive Director of the Nashua Soup Kitchen and Shelter.
Okay -- here are all the things you can and should do:
There are a lot of important things happening in the real world this week. Still, you should forward the following to whoever delivers sermons in your place of worship, whatever their title and whatever scripture they preach about.
It's a scene from the West Wing TV show, and it's a withering critique of sermons. I post this in a spirit of self-flagellation, for the many times I have been what President Bartlet calls a "hack", not living up to the gift of a willing audience every week in the synagogue.
The doors open. Bartlet and Abbey walk inside.
How was church?
[mumbles] It sucked.
It was fine. [to Bartlet] Stop it!
[sighs] You're talking about church.
Oh, like I'm not already going to hell.
[follows them a pace behind] What was the problem?
He feels the homily lacked penache.
It did lack penache.
It was a perfectly lovely homily on Ephesians 5:21. "Husbands, love your
wives, as Christ
loved the church and gave himself up for her."
Yeah. She's skipping over the part that says, "Wives, be subject to your
husbands as to
the Lord, for a husband is the head of a wife as Christ is the head of the
I do skip over that part.
Because it's stupid!
They walk in THE OVAL OFFICE.
"Husbands, love your wives as Christ loved the church and gave himself up
for her, that
he might sanctify her, having cleansed her by washing of water with the word
might present the Church to himself in..." something.
[behind his desk, puts on glasses] "In splendor." And I have no problem with
And any time you want me to cleanse you with the washing of water, you know
I'm up for it.
Then what is your problem?
Abbey waves her arms at him and walks out to the PORTICO. Bartlet follows.
This guy was a hack! He had a captive audience! And the way I know that is
that I tried
to tunnel out of there several times. He had an audience and he didn't know
what to do
You want him to sing "Volare?"
Couldn't have hurt. Words...
Oh, God, no.
Words, when spoken out loud for the sake of performance, are music. They
and pitch, and timbre, and volume. These are the properties of music, and
music has the
ability to find us and move us, and lift us up in ways that literal meanings
You are an oratorical snob.
Yes, I am. And God loves me for it.
They stop and face each other.
You said he was sending you to hell.
For other stuff, not for this. You can't just trod out Ephesians, which he
blew, by the
way, it has nothing with husbands and wives, it's all of us. Saint Paul
passage: "Be subject to one another out of reverence to Christ." [passionately]
subject to one another." In this day and age of 24-hour cable crap, devoted
the voyeuristic gluttony of the American public, hooked on a bad soap opera
passing itself off as important, don't you think you might be able to find
in verse 21? How do end the cycle? Be subject to one another!
So... This is about you.
No, it's not about me! Well, yes, it is about me, but tomorrow it'll be
else. We'll watch Larry King and see who. [shouts] All hacks, off the
stage! Right now!
That's a national security order.
It feels good to know that a thoughtful question during a presidential election makes a difference. When I had the chance to ask a question on a televised town hall to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in February, I went for what my colleague Rabbi Josh Feigelson calls a "Big Question."
Josh differentiates between "Hard Questions" and "Big Questions." A Big Question is something that matters to everyone and that everyone can answer. Big Questions elicit conversation and personal stories, and the conversations build connections. Hard Questions, which are important, depend more on expertise. Paradoxically, they also lead to debate and often to division.
Anyway, I asked a Big Question to Sec. Clinton about ego, humility, and leadership. She gave her response then, but what is amazing is that eight months later people are still bringing it up. See for instance these articles from the Washington Post a week and a half ago, the New York Times and Los Angeles Times and Politico just the past couple of days. The New York Times reporter called me to see if I had anything else to say about it. What I said, essentially, is that the continued resonance of that exchange points to the fact that there have been so few Big Question moments in the campaign, and people wish there were more.
My Nashua clergy colleagues and I invited candidates from both parties to Big Question forums before the New Hampshire primary. No one chose to come.
But as citizens, we shouldn't stop. We should try to get our Big Questions heard, and we should keep talking about them among ourselves. Rabbi Feigelson suggests some, such as: Who are we responsible for? We think it's obvious what a Democrat or a Republican would say. But how recently have we taken the time to say it out loud, especially to someone from another political background?
Rabbi Feigelson suggests a different version of the question about race, immigration, or bias: Who do you choose to ignore? Check out his post on "How to Build a Better Debate."
I am mulling over how to advance this perspective on Yom Kippur morning in my words. And in the meantime, I hope on Sunday evening more than one of the voters at the town-hall-style second debate will ask a Big Question.
Tashlich (pronounced tash-leech, with the Hebrew-sound 'ch' at the end) is the ceremony of throwing bread into a river on Rosh Hashanah, symbolically washing away our wrongs and bad habits.
"Tech Tashlich" is an annual practice of taking one day in the month before Rosh Hashanah to focus specifically on technology in our lives. What things do we do with phones, computers, tablets, etc that we need to throw away, for the good of our relationships?
Why today? It is the 16th of Elul. 16 represents 4 "bits" -- the basis of early microprocessors, which are the foundation of today's consumer devices, from personal computers to smartphones and tablets. So it's an appropriate day in the month before Rosh Hashanah to reflect and commit.
Do you stop in the middle of a conversation with someone to answer a call or text? When you're out socially with family or friends, do you check your e-mail? Does the time you spend monitoring social media prevent you from relaxing at the end of the day?
Take some time today to think and work on this. If it helps, you can use your machine very briefly by posting thoughts or commitments in the comments to this post. Or at the Tech Tashlich Facebook page, where there are some further ideas and links to interesting reflections.