Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Math and The City

The New York Times ran an article today, about certain mathematical laws which seem to govern everything from the rate at which a cell produces energy, to the distribution of populations in cities. On one level, I just found this article to be really, really cool. But, with my "Rabbi" glasses on, it seems a bit more than that.

First of all, it is, in the purest sense of the word, "Awesome." The intricacies, the interconnection, the subtlety of our world are truly astounding, and awe-inspiring. Anyone who knows my theology knows that I do not believe in a literal Creator God, and I have little time for Intelligent Design*. But, there are times when the world does reveal itself as so remarkable, so fundamentally, radically amazing, that it does give me the sense of something greater than myself. A sense of being in Awe of the One greater than anything else.

*which is different from intelligent design (not capitalized), but that's for another time

And, at the same time, this governing mathematical reality reveals the converse - not just the greatness of God, but the smallness of me, and of you. We all like to think that we're in control of our own destinies, and we certainly know that's true on some level. I was the one who decided to get Dunkin' Donuts for breakfast this morning**. But, we also have to be aware that we aren't really in control. And, I'm not just talking about the "I only went to DD for breakfast because Ben took so long getting ready that I had no time to eat at home" sense. I'm also talking about the fact that we often make decisions for reasons that we don't even know about.

** can anyone tell me why coffee and a corn muffin is such a good combination, especially on a rainy day?

I'd like to think that I moved to Tampa for my own reasons - to be part of a small, dynamic congregation, to be close to family, to get away from freezing cold. But, according to that article, on some level, I moved here as part of some larger plan. This city is going to be a certain size, and I'm a part of that flow of population. Like an ant in the anthill, I may think I'm doing my own thing, but I'm really just a cell in a larger organism.

I know I've said this before, and I'll say it many, many times in the future, but religion is about, in large part, understanding that we are each of infinite worth, but at the same time, we're really insignificant. We are partners with God here on earth, each created in God's image, but we're also insects, serving a larger vision of which we aren't usually even aware.

It's a good morning when some decent coffee, a muffin and the New York times come together to remind me of all of that.

Tuesday, May 19, 2009

Shopping, Shopping Shall You Pursue

This past Sunday, our youth group held a "Mall Scavenger Hunt." They divided themselves into teams (which wound up being 1 all-girl team and 2 all-boys teams. This will become important in a moment) and were given clues such as "At this store, Eve could find something to tempt Adam." They'd have to write "Apple Store" into that spot.

One of the clues was:
The Torah commands, 'this' shall you pursue. 'This' is the name of the store, and girls like to shop there, but boys don't.

The girl's team correctly knew that this was talking about the store "Justice" - "Justice, Justice shall you pursue."

One boys team wrote, "Gucci."

One wrote, "Victoria's Secret."


Pluralism and Rabbi Benjamin Hecht

I've linked before to some of the writings of Rabbi Benjamin Hecht, the founding director of Nishma, an adult study organization in Toronto. Rabbi Hecht is fervently Orthodox, from the Modern Orthodox wing of Judaism (as opposed to the Haredi, or Ultra-Orthodox). I've long been impressed with Rabbi Hecht's writings, in part because they're so learned and insightful, but also in part because he manages to balance his intense devotion to Halachic (legal, traditional) Judaism with a true open-mindedness - a desire to think clearly, no matter where those thoughts lead him, and a a desire to learn from many varied sources. He is a wonderful counter-argument to anyone who thinks that Orthodoxy is equivalent to close-mindedness.

Recently, he and I got into a small exchange in response to a blog posting of his, regarding what his movement of Judaism can learn from other movements (in this case, the Haredi). It's worth reading the short posting and the comments which follow, in part because it gives some interesting insight to the original issue in the posting, but moreso because the last entry of his (from May 16th) is an absolutely fantastic explanation of how one can be fervently Orthodox, but still rational, thoughtful and open-minded. Enjoy!

Friday, May 15, 2009

Doing Tzedakah

I recently heard about a Responsum* from the Reform Rabbis' Responsa Committee, concerning the current financial crisis. One of the aspects addressed was the relationship between good governmental fiscal policy and tzedakah (charity, more or less).

*"Responsum" is the singular of Responsa, which are answers which Rabbis give to questions they receive, traditionally by mail. It is a long-standing way that thinkers and sages can answer the questions of Jews from other places, and can address detailed issues ("am I allowed to eat this?") or more general inquiries ("do I have to believe this?" "What is the proper way to pray?").

Part of the question was whether there was a proper fiscal policy for Jews to support. That is, given our values and laws, is it proper for a Jew to be a "Supply Sider," or a "Tax and Spender," or anything else, and are we obligated to support a government/candidate with that policy? Interestingly (and, to me, thankfully) the answer was, "no." Judaism absolutely demands that we take care of the poor, and the argument, "I worked hard for my money, I shouldn't have to give it away to those less fortunate/hardworking/worthy than I am" carries absolutely no weight for us. But, there are those who argue that, in the long run, Supply Side economics will give the most benefit to the most people. It is, big-picture, more just and more caring than other econimic policies. Judaism, and Rabbis in particular, are in no position to judge that assertion - it's purely economic, not religious. Therefore, the Responsa Committee refused to endorse any one fiscal policy. Given that most people on the Committee are probably very liberal, and most would probably gouge out their own eyes before supporting a Supply Side policy, it was a nice moment of honesty and restraint, I thought. (And, in case it's not obvious, I'm one of those bleeding-heart liberal, Supply Side hating types, so this isn't just me being partisan!)

But, things really got interesting when the Responsum addressed a different issue. If we support a fiscal policy which gives aid to the poor through tax cuts, does that, in any way, affect our requirement to give tzedakah? In other words, if I work hard to ensure that the poor pay less in taxes, then I've increased their available money. One could argue that I am now not obligated (or obligated to a lesser degree) to give of my own money. Similarly, a government which cuts taxes on the poor could feel less obligated to give direct aid to those same poor - the tax cut is aid.**

** Of course, I also understand that the government isn't, and shouldn't be guided by Jewish values. But, this was a theoretical discussion of what we should expect of a just government.

The answer was, in short, "no." Giving tax cuts in no way changes our obligation to give tzedakah. And, why was that? Because, giving tzedakah is an active obligation. In other words, we, as Jews, are obligated to give, not just to help. Helping in other ways might be laudable, but it doesn't change our base obligation, which is to give from our own wallets.

It's helpful to know that tzedakah is very often referred to as a tax (which is how it's different from charity - it's an obligation, not a free-will offering). And, like taxes, giving in other areas doesn't change our tax burden. If I donate to the local school, that doesn't change the amount of tax I have to pay to the government, even though some of that money will then go to that same school! No matter what else I do, I am still obligated to give tzedakah, actively.

But, that still leaves the question of, "why?" Why do we have to give tzedakah. I'm sure that there are many reasons, but let me suggest just a few. First off, and maybe most importantly, there is still need. Even if you arrange for lots of support/tax breaks/whatever, there are still poor people who desperately need help. We have to give to them, because they need us to give. Simple.

But, there is something else. There is something about the actual act of giving which is powerful. Something about the act of taking what seemed to be mine, and handing it over to you. It's more personal. It gets me engaged. It's like the difference between sending a doctor to look after my child who is sick, and being there to stroke his head when he feels awful. The first might be more effecacious, but the second is so much more important, in a different way.

Primarily, tzedakah is about helping the needy, and however we help them, that's a good thing. But we can't forget that we are a part of tzedakah, too. Our obligation to give is really our obligation. We can't let someone else do it for us. It is, in the end, our mitzvah. And, that's what keeps it sacred.

Thursday, May 14, 2009

Breaking God's Windows

If you've never noticed, this blog has a gadget on the left-hand side that has a "Jewish Proverb of the Day." I keep wondering if I should delete it, mostly because the proverbs are rarely that good, and it doesn't really fit very well (a pointless little smiley guy blocks out some of the actual proverb. Good planning, that). Today, I happened to notice that the proverb is, "If God lived on earth, people would break his [sic] windows."

Wow. That's pretty dark. I guess that's trying to say something about human nature - how, deep down, we just can't help ourselves, and we'll always act badly, no matter how much we know we shouldn't. Or, maybe it's defensive - if someone is attacking us, we should know that it's not because we're bad, but because that's just what people do--they attack. Even God would get attacked, where S/he down here.

I guess that that last interpretation actually does speak to me. It's important to remember that, very often, how people treat us says a lot more about them than it does about us. Of course, this can be taken too far, and it can become an excuse for never admitting our own fault in a particular conflict. But, on whole, I think it's useful. A Rabbinic friend of mine once taught me that, no matter what happens to me, I should say, "I am not the doer."* If someone is really angry at me, I am not the doer. If someone is praising me, I am not the doer. It's a way to remember that, even in the things that we do, there is some One else who is involved. Who gets the credit (or the blame). Humans tend to think "it's all about me." When, it's closer to the truth to say, "it's never about me." Not completely true, but closer.

*it just so happens that, as I was typing this post, my friend starting chatting with me over Skype (see how techie I am?). I told him I was quoting him, and he reminded me that he was really just channeling Dueteronomy which warns us against ever thinking that our accomplishments are "the work of our hands." It all goes back to God. Reminds me of a joke - a bunch of scientists tell God that they don't need Him any more. They've figured out all of creation. "Even making people?" God asks. "Sure," they say. "OK, then, I'll make you a deal." God says. "We'll have a people-making contest. If you can make a person as well as I can, then I'll leave you alone. Otherwise, I still get to be God. I go first." So, God takes clay, molds it into a person, blows a breath into it, and *poof* - it comes alive. The scientists say, "that's easy. Watch." And, as they start gathering clay, God says, "No, no, no. That's cheating. You have to get your own clay."

I am not the doer.

I am not the doer.

I am not the doer.

Thursday, May 7, 2009


I'm not sure exactly what I want to say about this, or what I can add to it. I'll admit that issues of this size often leave me feeling helpless. I can talk about them from the bimah, and that's important, but it clearly isn't enough. And, there are so many issues out there - this one, Darfur, poverty, slavery, etc, etc, etc - that it's hard to know which one to talk about. Part of me feels like, every time I get up to speak, it should be about one of these issues. But, I know that, in the end, that's not effective - people will simply tune out if every message is about some (very important) cause or another.

So, while I try to sort out that end of it, at least click through to the article, and see if you have any ideas about what we can do.

Friday, May 1, 2009

Being Small

I definitely think that there's a religious/spiritual advantage to feeling small - to realizing how insignificant we are, in the grand scheme of things (I also happen to think that it's equally important to realize how each of us is infinitely important. It's a little bit of a balancing act).

Well, if you ever want to feel small, just click on this (and be sure to enlarge the picture so you can see it well, and start at the top).

Shabbat Shalom!