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Shabbat, June 6-7, Greenville, SC.

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Audio / Video
Open to Hope - Click here to listen to a radio interview for "Open to Hope" - a non profit organization with the mission of helping people find hope after loss. .
A Gathering in Support of Israel and Peace, August 13, 2014. Click here to here to listen to "Reflection & Text Study: It is written in the Book of the Wars of Adonai, 'There will be love in the end.'" Click here to list to a prayer for Israel's soldiers, a prayer for healing, a prayer for Israel and a prayer for peace.
Click here to watch the burial of ashes from Dachau in the Durham Hebrew Cemetery, Memorial Day 2014.
Clcik here to watch a panel on Huffington Post Live - February 4, 2014 - on Untimely Death.
Click here to for a podcast with Amy Ziettlow, Host of FamilyScholars Conversations.
Click here to listen to Rabbi Greyber and Rev Joe Harvard on Your Health Radio for their conversation on "Faith and Death" - August 2013
Click here to listen to Rabbi Greyber's conversation with NPR's Frank Stasio on The State of Things.
Click here to watch a panel on Huffington Post Live - December 18, 2012 - on Holiday Loss.
Click here and listen in to minutes 10 to 31 for the conversation for a conversation about Faith & Healing with Drs. Adam Goldstein and Cristy Page on "Your Health Radio."
Click here to listen to a talk given at the Rotary Club of Chapel Hill on June 1, 2012.



Beards and Rock Stars, February 2012 / Shvat 5772

As I mentioned on the second day of Rosh Hashanah#, I spent a day last spring meeting educators within the Palestinian community.  Late in the afternoon, I sat with village leaders from Bani Na’im, a village most famous in the region for including the tomb of Lot, Abraham’s nephew.  After exchanging greetings and talking for a few minutes, one of the elders turned to me and asked, “Are you sure you’re a rabbi?”  It was a question I’ve been asked before, usually followed by, “you’re too young to be a rabbi!”  But that is not what came next.  Instead, he asked, “Where is your beard?”  His question reminded me how much of the world associates having a beard with male Jewish piety.  I imagine he’d have asked a different question of a female rabbi!

Jews too associate piety with having a beard. Over the break, Jen and the boys and I traveled to Atlanta and Florida by minvan. As an abba and a rabbi, there was a particular joy I felt when I looked into the rearview mirror and saw our eldest son, Alon, plugged into his I-pod and, as I listened more closely, heard him rocking out to,

“If you’re drowning in the waters and you can’t stay afloat, Ask Hashem for mercy and He’ll throw you a rope, You’re looking for help from God, you say He couldn’t be found, Looking up to the sky and searchin’ beneath the ground.” and

“Jerusalem if I forget you, let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do,”

Those words are from the pop star Matisyahu.  That my son can rock out with a pop star and, at the same time, hear lyrics about Jerusalem and asking “Hashem for mercy” seems a guilty pleasure I am glad for him to indulge, like eating candy that’s good for him too.  It means a lot to an abba to see his son fall in love with something so Jewish yet that seems to speak to the wider world, that doesn’t demand he either cloister himself, yet again, from popular culture, or absorb messages at odds with Jewish tradition.

So it was with some personal interest that I read on the Jewish Telegraph Agency (JTA) ( website or (, that on December 13th, Matisyahu shaved his beard and declared, “No more Chasidic Reggae superstar.”  

The association for male Jewish piety and beards starts with the Torah itself.  Based on Leviticus 19:27, 21:5 and Deuteronomy 14:1, Rabbinic tradition forbids Jewish men from shaving with a straight-edge razor.  (If you’re curious, I shave with an electric razor during the week but I don’t shave at all on Shabbat which is why on Saturday mornings, I’m never quite clean shaven.)  The Torah itself offers little explanation for these prohibitions.  Maimonides says shaving with a razor was an idolatrous practice (Laws of Idolatry 12:1) – we read a few weeks ago in the Joseph story that when Joseph is brought to see Pharaoh, he changes clothes and shaves (Genesis 41:14).  According to one line of thinking, not shaving seems to have served as a way to differentiate ourselves from surrounding societies.  In the JPS commentary to Deuteronomy 14:1, Jeffrey Tigay points out that in antiquity, cutting oneself and shaving one’s hair was a sign of mourning and “self-punishment, expressing feelings of guilt, which are often experienced by survivors after a death” which probably explains why even shaving with an electric razor is forbidden by Jewish tradition during the initial period of mourning.

Rashi (11th century France) offers a different explanation.  He says, “You are God’s children and deserve to be beautiful,” about which, my friend and colleague, Rabbi Michael Knopf writes:

“At first blush, this might sound counterintuitive…In our culture…we are constantly bombarded with messages – some subtle, some overt – about how naturally ugly we are…[We are told] we need external remedies to make ourselves more attractive and presentable.  The Torah offers another way of thinking: we are actually perfect just the way we are…In this line of reasoning, a man’s facial hair reflects his natural beauty.”  [Rabbi Yosef Caro says] (Shulhan Arukh Yoreh De’ah 181:3, et. al.) we may modify that natural beauty slightly (i.e., with scissors, which trim but cannot fully remove), but we must not radically alter it (i.e., with a straight razor, which comes as close to fully removing the hair as is possible).”

My wife might (or does) disagree that I’m more beautiful with a beard, but Rashi’s comment presents a counter-cultural aesthetic and pushes us to engage the question – where should my sense of my own self-beauty come from?  Is everything natural beautiful?  On the other hand, must I reject all of cultural aesthetics to be true to myself?

Matisyahu thought a lot about his beard.  In an interview, he compared it to wearing a yarmulke.  “One day I put on a yarmulke and I liked the way it felt, representing a Jew.  I like representing on the outside what’s on the inside.”  Based on his experience with Chabad, he was taught that his beard was “a representation of God’s mercy…The group I was into said, ‘You can’t cut it; if you cut it off, it’s like you’re cutting off God’s mercy.  There were moments I loved my beard and moments I twisted it and hated it.  I loved it and hated it, but I [said to myself], I can’t cut it.’  [For a while] it was a humility thing. [I told myself] I can’t cut it even if I want to.”

Why did he shave?  “I realized some of my ideas were not, for me at this point, true anymore.  I think it’s a symbol and symbols are not the thing itself.  If I’m connecting with God, the idea that I can’t cut it because it’s going to cut off my braches (blessings), didn’t resonate with me…When I started becoming religious 10 years ago it was a very natural and organic process," he wrote. "I felt that in order to become a good person I needed rules -- lots of them -- or else I would somehow fall apart. I am reclaiming myself.”

I’m happy for Matisyahu, and in a world where movie stars and sports figures regularly do drugs and get felonies, I’m grateful for shaving as an act of rebellion.  I’m also grateful that he went on a journey many years ago and grew his beard, and I’m grateful he didn’t stop listening to his own voice.  If we are to respond to the call of God’s Torah, we need to know ourselves – there must be “I” – a divine spark – who encounters and connects with God’s “Thou.”  We serve God by finding – not losing – ourselves.  But I suspect – and I sent him a message via his website to ask – that Matisyahu shaved his beard and his head with clippers and an electric razor, not a straight edge razor.  What’s the difference?

At a technical level, the former are permitted; the latter is forbidden.  But at a deeper level, shaving with a straight edge would ignore the journey he’s been on, would negate the way he’s been changed by observing Jewish law for so long.  Deliberately shaving with a straight edge would be an act of willful violation, another immature lurch, a continuation of an all-or-nothing approach to Judaism.  Using an electric razor and trimmers – permitted by all legal authorities – signals a continuing devotion to Jewish law even as he assimilates into his surrounding culture.  Such an approach demonstrates a mature acknowledgment of life’s complexity and, while I know he doesn’t see himself this way, it quite beautifully represents Conservative Judaism’s approach to Jewish law and modernity.  I love the fact that a week after he shaved his beard, Matisyahu tweeted that he went to mikvah and shul on Shabbat and, “you haven’t seen the last of my facial hair.”

You may be thinking, why all this focus on Matisyahu’s beard?  Does God really care if a Jewish man shaves?  At a completely rational level, one could argue that it is just such pilpul - such, as my mother put it, arguing about how many angels fit on the head of a pin – that diminishes, rather than glorifies, God and Torah.  But at an emotional level, to shave or not to shave or how to shave is a beautiful Jewish question.  For parents, it brings God and Judaism into the intimate conversations we have with our children about how they should groom themselves and take care of their bodies.  For all of us, it presents yet another opportunity for conscious living, for inviting the Jewish tradition into every moment of our lives, not just a few hours on a Saturday morning at 1004 Watts Street.

One last thought.  Matisyahu is not the only person with a beard whose actions have caught the attention of the world.  I will not focus here on the terrible things that occurred in Bet Shemesh.  I will only conclude by pointing out that the question of how one shave points beyond the question of whether I, as an individual, feel a connection with God through the issue of facial hair.  At stake is the question of who and what represents Judaism to the world?  Rabbi Yaakov Rosenblatt wrote, “a keeper of the beard does not make one a keeper of the faith.  But it would be remiss to ignore that it was the beard which made Matisyahu a sensation…A clean shaven white guy doing reggae, no matter how clever and talented, would not have made it to the Jimmy Kimmel Show.”  Rosenblatt is right – it was only by standing out that Matisyahu could achieve what he did.  Whether his fame continues sans beard remains to be seen.  But for us, absent beards and black hats, we can ask, “how do we as a community represent Judaism to the world?”  How do we shine our light into darkness?

Marianne Williamson once wrote, our “playing small does not serve the world.”  The world pays attention to Jews.  When will they see us?  When will the world see clean shaven, modern Jews, committed to modesty/tzniut and women’s equality, committed to democracy and kindness and justice and committed to a life of prayer and study and Torah?  Too often it is Jewish extremism, not moderation, simplicity, not complexity, which the world sees in Jewish life.  Now more than ever, it is not just the Jewish world, but the larger world that needs our approach to see us.  I’ve seen enough on TMZ about Matisyahu’s beard and Jewish facial hair; how we remain proudly and passionately committed to all things Jewish while remain engaged with perfecting God’s world – that is something worth tweeting about.



Never Finished, January 2012 / Tevet 5772

125 years is something to celebrate.  Like you, I look forward to the weekend of January 20th not only because my teacher and friend, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson, will officially install me as Beth El’s rabbi, but because our community will commemorate an important moment in our history.  We will celebrate with prayer and learning, food and song.  Yet celebrations of the past carry their own risks.

After all Jacob’s adventures, Jacob settles down in Israel (Genesis 37:1).  I imagine Jacob sitting in his tent, finally home, saying to himself, “I’ve lived quite a life.  I deceived my father and angered Esau.  I traveled through the wilderness and worked twenty years in a strange land for a difficult man, Lavan.  I married Leah, then Rachel.  My beloved Rachel is dead, but God has blessed me with a large family and fortune.  Esau and I went our separate ways, but we reconciled and, years later, were able to come together again to bury our father.  Issac is gone and I am old, but I am finally home.”  I imagine Jacob feeling within him the temptation to celebrate his life, to say, “It is good to be done, for the challenges and trials and struggles to finally be over.”  All Jacob wants to do in that moment is live out his life in peace when, according to Rashi, God said, “Is it not enough that the righteous have peace in the world to come, they also want peace in this world?” and so, “the matter of Joseph leapt upon him.”

It is good to look back, to celebrate what we have achieved.  But if the past teaches us anything it is: one is never finished.  Jacob misread his life.  He thought his story was coming to an end, but there were other chapters yet to unfold, more lessons to be learned.  If we have made a contribution to Beth El and the Jewish people – intellectually, financially, or with our time and energy – we feel Jacob’s temptation to believe “we’ve done our part.”  Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Kotzk (1787-1859) said, one “who thinks he has finished is finished.”  Being a Jew is an infinite process.

As we celebrate 125 years, we can feel a sense of accomplishment.  The history of Beth El as a beacon for the Jewish community in Durham-Chapel Hill and the many contributions we’ve made to our surrounding community and the Jewish people – these are all things of which we can all be proud.  We can feel a sense of gratitude that God has blessed the work of our hands and enabled us to reach this moment of joy.  But each end must be a beginning.  Within celebration should reside impatience; within satisfaction, restlessness.  May we be impatient to bring more compassion and love into the world.  May we thirst for Torah, ache for holy fellowship, and feel restless for God’s presence.  May we be grateful for 125 years and may God grant us the wisdom to remain ever anxious for a better future.

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