Tuesday, October 27, 2009


If you haven’t been seeing them, the JCC is filming a regular piece called “Yiddishology” – asking various people in the community to try to define a Yiddish term (quote contest! Can anyone name the movie, actor or anything about this quote: “It’s not translatable. That’s why it’s in Yiddish”). They’re fun*, and worth checking out.

* not as much fun as the wonderful teachings given by local Rabbis, but not bad…

If you’re not on the JCC’s e-list, and you want to be, just click here.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Flooding the world with anger

The story of Noah's Ark is actually a very troubling story*.  It's pretty terrible to think about God wiping out all of humanity, no matter how bad we may have gotten.  But, even if you think that people had it coming to them, what about the animals?  God slaughtered nearly every animal on earth, all because of something that people did.

* does anyone else find it strange that we take a story about the utter moral corruption of all of humanity, and the subsequent ultimate, horrific divine retribution, and then use it as a theme for decorating our children's bedrooms? I do…

Very often, rabbis and other commentators try to apologize for, or at least explain, the seeming unfairness of God in this story.  But, Rabbi Bradley Shavit Artson has a different approach.  He suggests that we're actually supposed to be learning a lesson from God, but in this case, not in the usual “let's all be like God” sense:

Even when it comes from the God who is “slow to anger and abounding in kindness,” destruction bursts beyond manageable or fair limitations.  Even punishments originally intended to be measured and reasonable provoke unanticipated suffering and hardship…Once violence is launched, Rashi [the great medieval commentator] suggests, there is no foretelling its sweep or its destruction. 

Everyone gets angry, and everyone lashes out from time to time.  Very often, when we do, we justify our actions.  But, the fact that we had a reason to be angry, the fact that we may have been justified in our outburst, doesn't make it right.  When we unleash our anger, more often than not, innocents suffer.  Others are caught up in the anger.  The fact that that wasn't what we intended doesn't absolve us of our responsibility.  On the contrary, we’re even more responsible when we hurt those who didn't deserve it, in the least.

I once heard of a certain type of person described as “a skunk.” That’s a person who, when they feel scared or threatened, lashes out with nastiness.  But, it's never only their target who suffers.  Very often, someone else gets hit, as well – it’s hard to aim this stuff, after all.  And, in any case, there is a nasty, noxious stench left behind, which makes the room unbearably unpleasant to be in, for everyone.  Have you ever been an innocent bystander in a meeting, when one person attacks another? You know what I mean.

Look, even God is susceptible to this.  None of us are perfect.  But, the next time we're about to open our mouths, and attack someone else, let's ask ourselves if it’s really necessary, and if it's worth making others suffer, as well.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Human Rights in Israel

In an Op-Ed piece today, Robert Bernstein, the former head of Human Rights Watch, speaks out against HRW’s treatment of Israel. He says, very clearly, what others have already said: Israel is treated incredibly unfairly by the international community, especially in terms of its Human Rights.

[The Middle East] is populated by authoritarian regimes with appalling human rights records. Yet in recent years Human Rights Watch has written far more condemnations of Israel for violations of international law than of any other country in the region.

There can be no doubt that, over the years, Israel has done immoral things. Very often, probably most often, they are perpetrated by individuals (as opposed to being official policy) and, with shocking frequency, they are policed by their own system – the military, the Supreme Court, the press and the public all have admirable records of speaking out when Israel steps over the line. That, not perfection of conduct, is the reasonable hallmark of a just society – how they respond to wrongs committed by their own.

I’ll admit to being very disturbed by some recent reports that, more recently, misconduct may have been more openly condoned, and even encouraged, by higher-ups. But, I’ll also admit that, given how many times Israel has been accused of atrocities, only to have those accusations turn out to be made up out of whole cloth, I’m a bit dubious about the accusations. I’m at least willing to give Israel the benefit of the doubt, until I’m convinced otherwise.

I am not, and never will be, part of the “Israel can do no wrong” camp (actually, I’ve only heard about those people; I’ve never actually met one). But, the next time some group accuses Israel of Human Rights violations, ask yourself if this same group has spoken out, with even close to the same frequency, against the oppressive regimes of Israel’s neighbors, or against the ongoing Human Rights violations in China, or against the ongoing Genocide in Darfur, or against…you get the idea.

Significantly, Col. Richard Kemp, the former commander of British forces in Afghanistan and an expert on warfare, has said that the Israel Defense Forces in Gaza “did more to safeguard the rights of civilians in a combat zone than any other army in the history of warfare.”

Israel is not perfect, not by a long shot. But, by just about any reasonable standard, they have behaved incredibly morally in the most difficult of situations. Groups like Human Rights Watch do themselves a huge disservice when they single Israel out for such harsh criticism. They deserve better. They’ve earned it.

Friday, October 16, 2009

The Mistakes of Hatred

Looking through my files, I came across a teaching by “Diane” – I have no idea who actually wrote this, so my apologies to her. Anyway, she is commenting on a very disturbing midrash (Genesis Rabbah 17:6) which notices that the first occurrence of the letter samech (makes an “s” sound) in the Torah is during the creation of Eve. So, this ancient text teaches, we can learn from this that Satan, which starts with the same sound*, didn’t enter the world until woman was created. Nice, huh?**

* yes, Satan appears in Rabbinic literature, although he is nothing like the Satan that we see in Christianity and popular culture.

** My teacher, Rabbi Leonard Kravitz***, would now say, “Not a good teaching to use on Sisterhood Shabbat.”

*** Yes, Lenny Kravitz was one of my Rabbinical School teachers. The man can rock out, AND teach Midrash. Very prolific.

One problem. Satan is spelled with the letter sin, not samech. Same sound, different letter. There is no connection, none whatsoever, linguistically speaking, between satan and woman. So, the larger connection which the ancient writer is trying to draw is equally invalid.

The lesson that Diane, our modern writer, draws is this:

The idea that femininity is evil is based on a mistake…thinking the introduction of femininity…is the source of evil in the world is exactly as stupid and misguided as thinking Satan begins with a samech

I’ll be we can take it a step further. The idea that any group is, simply by their being created, responsible for bringing evil into the world is dumb. It’s actually narrow-minded bigotry like that which brings evil to the world!

Luckily, this guy isn’t racist. Not at all.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

It is not good for man to be alone

The Creation story is famous for its list of things that are “good,” but it’s less often noticed that there is one thing in creation which is not good – Genesis 2:18 tells us that “it is not good for man to be alone,” and that’s why God makes Eve. We are not made to be solitary; we’re meant to be with a partner. A mate. We were made for marriage, literally.

I love that teaching (which is why some of you have heard it before!), but I don’t remember ever connecting it with the realization that other religions don’t share this view. I recently read a d’var torah which pointed out that, for example, Catholicism sees marriage not as an ideal, but as a concession. In Catholicism, celibacy is the ideal.

So, to my Catholic friends who read this (or anyone to whom this applies), I have two questions: firstly, is this a fair representation of Catholic doctrine, or did the Rabbi get it wrong? And, if it is accurate, can you explain it? I don’t meant that in an accusatory way, it’s just that I’ve never thought too much about how far apart we are on this. I’ve always known that Judaism and Catholicism have very different views on sex, marriage and the like, but I never realized how fundamentally this issue might speak to our view of human nature. Any of you care to shed some light on why the Catholic church holds this view?

A Jewish Brain

In a recent NY Times piece, David Brooks wrote about the incredibly fascinating new field of Social Cognitive Neuroscience. It’s trying to understand how biology both affects and is affected by behavior (or, to put it somewhat pithily, how “the outside” interacts with “my inside”). Some of the studies involved hooking subjects up to brain scanners, and seeing what’s happening under different situations, but looking at the data through some social lenses. So, for example, what happens in the brains of Red Sox fans vs. Yankees fans when they watch baseball? How do different nationalities react to violence, at the neural level? It’s a cool article, and it sounds like some interesting science.

Here’s the one line, really offered in passing, which got my attention:

Reem Yahya and a team from the University of Haifa studied Arabs and Jews while showing them images of hands and feet in painful situations. The two cultures perceived pain differently. The Arabs perceived higher levels of pain over all while the Jews were more sensitive to pain suffered by members of a group other than their own.

Notice, it doesn’t say that Jews were equally sensitive to the pain of others, but that they were more sensitive. I’m shocked by that, because, for better or for worse, Judaism encourages taking care of our own family (literally and figuratively) before taking care of others. Not to ignore others, but to set up concentric rings of responsibility – my own immediate family, my extended family, my friends, my community, Jews, the world.

But, according to this insight, we actually, on some level, care more for those further from us than those closer to us, at least in some instances. I don’t know exactly what to make of that. Does that speak well of us, that we are so universally caring? Does it speak to the breakdown of those circles of responsibility – is this a modern phenomenon that’s the result of an disaffection among Jews? I’m not really sure.

Anyone have any theories?

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Vegetarianism and Judaism

I don't think I've ever really thought about it this way before, but food has always been a big part of my self-identity.  When I was a child, I was the skinny kid who hated food – my parents put “I'm not hungry” as my quote on the baseball cards they had made up for me for my Bar Mitzvah.  When I started getting more interested in my Judaism in college, beginning to keep kosher (something I had declared, just a month or two earlier, I would never do) was a big part of that transition, and it remains a centrally important part of my own Jewish practice.

Over the past few years, I've struggled quite a bit (theologically speaking) with my relationship with meat.  It's been around15 years since I decided that I would only eat kosher meat in my home (I continued to eat non-kosher meet outside of my house, mostly as a concession to my own weakness).  I stuck to that, fairly strictly, until, a couple of years ago, I became aware of the abuses that were commonplace in kosher slaughterhouses – of the workers and, more relevantly here, of the animals.  I had always learned that one of the laws of kashrut was to prevent all pain during slaughter.  As a disturbing secret video produced by PETA clearly showed, that couldn't be farther from the reality.

I'm skipping over a good deal of study, contemplation, and angst, but eventually I decided (along with Hillary) that it felt more consonant with Jewish ideals to eat meat from animals which had been well cared for, as opposed to slaughtered in accordance with the laws of kashrut (it is possible to find meat which satisfies both sets of requirements, but it's difficult, and wildly expensive).  But, I've also been aware (although often too willing to ignore) how hard it is to ensure that the animals from which we get our meat were truly treated humanely.  There's very little regulation or oversight of the various labels we see on food, and the government's definition of “humane” tends to differ greatly from how most of us would use that word.  In other words, I've slowly been admitting to myself, that despite my best intentions, I'm probably now bringing meat into my house which is neither kosher nor humanely raised.

Then, this week, I read an article in the New York Times Magazine by Jonathan Safran Foer (who, not coincidentally, narrated that PETA video). Foer argues convincingly in favor of vegetarianism.  Part of why he is so persuasive is that he isn't a zealot.  He admits that he likes eating meat, and that he has often backtracked on his commitment to vegetarianism.  Nonetheless, he holds it up as a value, both from a universal, as well as a Jewish, point of view.

To summarize a few key points, eating meat is horrific, from an environmental point of view:

According to reports by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the U.N. and others, factory farming has made animal agriculture the No. 1 contributor to global warming (it is significantly more destructive than transportation alone), and one of the Top 2 or 3 causes of all of the most serious environmental problems, both global and local: air and water pollution, deforestation, loss of biodiversity. . . . Eating factory-farmed animals — which is to say virtually every piece of meat sold in supermarkets and prepared in restaurants — is almost certainly the single worst thing that humans do to the environment.

It is also horrific, given how these animals are treated, during life and at the time of slaughter:

Every factory-farmed animal is, as a practice, treated in ways that would be illegal if it were a dog or a cat. Turkeys have been so genetically modified they are incapable of natural reproduction. To acknowledge that these things matter is not sentimental. It is a confrontation with the facts about animals and ourselves. We know these things matter.

In the book of Genesis (which we begin reading again this week), Adam and Eve are told that they are allowed to eat of all of the plants, but never are they told that they are allowed to eat meat. That doesn’t happen until after The Flood, and many modern commentators interpret that as a concession by God – God realized that, the first time around, the world was too strict, and that’s why people failed to obey (as any parent can tell you, if you make the rules so strict that a child can’t follow them, then they have no incentive to even try). So, in other words, we are allowed to eat meat, but the Torah is also telling us that not eating meat, being a vegetarian, is much better. It’s the ideal. It’s how things were in Paradise.

I’m not ready to declare myself vegetarian. It is, to put it bluntly, too hard. Being a healthy vegetarian takes a lot of work and, to be honest, I also love meat. I’m not sure I’m strong enough to turn away from it, completely. At least, not yet.

But, when Hillary and I were going through our transition from “kosher” to “organic,” we also decided to try to eat less meat. If eating meat is wrong, then eating less meat is better than eating more meat – it doesn’t have to be all or nothing. And so, although it lacks the grandeur of “I hereby declare that I will no longer eat meat,” I think I’ve decided to swing the pendulum a bit further, and to try, as hard as I can, to avoid meat. To kill as few animals as I can get myself to. It’s a good place to start, if you, yourself, aren’t sure what you want to do.

It’s worth clicking through to Foer’s piece (and, if you have the stomach) to that PETA video. It’s not that eating meat isn’t wonderfully pleasurable. It’s just that, if we’re being honest, it might really be the wrong thing to do.

Friday, October 9, 2009

One more curse

Last month, I blogged about Yiddish curses.  I just came across a new favorite: “May you become so rich that your widow's second husband never has to work to earn a living.”

Man, 2000 years of wandering can really make people irritable, huh?


I'm doing my final preparation for a class I’m teaching next week on Jewish humor*. While looking for a quote which I partially remembered from a book which I haven't looked at in years, I came across a little bonus**.

* favorite joke so far: a Jewish man is talking to a Jewish friend.  He start tell a joke: “one day Cohen and Levine were going…” His friend stops him. “Why are your jokes always about Jews?  Tell a joke about some other people for change.” “OK - one day, Soo Lung Mu and Mao Tsu Nu were going to Soo Lung Mu’s nephew’s Bar Mitzvah…”

** man, I hate to sound like a Luddite, but as e-books and such get more popular, how many fewer happy accidents like this will we all have?

Throughout Rabbinic literature, we have a number of deathbed quotes.  The great Rabbis of old had a chance to offer one last piece of wisdom to their students.  One last chance to summarize their lives of teaching, in a single principle.

When Rabbi Eliezer was about to die, all his students came and sat before him.  They said to him, “Rabbi – teach us only one thing.”

He replied, “My children, what can I teach you?  Every one of you go and be very careful of the dignity of others.”

Derech Eretz Rabbah, 3)

Wednesday, October 7, 2009


One of our members was on the West Coast for Yom Kippur, and she found herself at a congregation made up of mostly LGBT Jews. The sermon was given by a young woman who is, in her own language, queerspawn* – the child of a same-sex marriage. It’s worth clicking through to read – there are some bits I might quibble with, but overall, it’s a powerful, open and honest look at life as a queerspawn Jew, and the role that this synagogue plays, and should play, in that life.

* the writer uses “queer” as a neutral or positive word. I’ve spoken with some from the LGBT community who find that term offensive, and some who find it completely appropriate. I’m using it here because she uses is, and I sincerely hope that anyone who feels differently about that word won’t be offended by that.

I have some reservations about LGBT congregations, because I have reservations about any demographically defined congregation. I think that Jewish organizations should be equally for all Jews, and I wonder if separating out one sub-group is the best way to bring about greater understanding and acceptance (or, to put that a bit differently, I may disagree with the means, but I think we’d agree on the ends). But, this sermon is an important reminder that, even if I’m right that, in a perfect world, Queer Synagogues wouldn’t be necessary, we don’t live in a perfect world. And, since that’s true, thank God there are places like this, that make a home for some people who might not otherwise feel at home elsewhere.

Friday, October 2, 2009

The joy of Sukkot

Getting ready for Sukkot, and I came across a lovely little teaching from Rabbi S.R. Hirsch:

Rosh Hashana, which  is a day of pleading and broken hearts, was established as a single day*. The same goes for Yom Kippur, which is a day of fasting, repentance, and forgiveness.  They only have one day, but the Torah says that Sukkot, which is called “the time of our joy” is to be celebrated for seven days. This is because it was our Creator’s will that Israel (i.e. Jews) should continue in joy (i.e. spend more time in joy than in sorrow).  Just as it is written, “Ivdu et Adonai b’Simcha -- serve Adonai in joy.”

* originally, Rosh Hashana was one day, not two, and Sukkot was seven days, not eight.  That changed about 2000 years ago.

Rabbis and lay people alike often complain about the “two day a year Jews.” You know, those members who only show up for the High Holy Days.  You know what the real problem is with that kind of Jewish life?  It misses the best stuff. 

Look, Rosh Hashana and Yom Kippur are important, powerful holy days.  But they aren't much fun.  I've never heard anyone say, “Oh, goody!  Yom Kippur is on its way!  I can't wait to fast!” Even though people may find it very meaningful, I've never heard anyone describe sitting in synagogue all day as “fun.”

But, Sukkot is fun! We get to make a hut! We get to decorate it!  We get to eat outside!  We get to play outside! Especially given how hot the summer has been here in Tampa, and how lovely the past few days have been, I'm positively giddy with the prospect of spending some time outside, and even getting to call it “work.”

There's nothing wrong with seriousness.  And sometimes important things have to be done which aren't much fun.  But, it doesn't always have to be that way.  It doesn't usually have to be that way.  At its best, our religion (all religions?) should engender joy.  We should love doing what we do.  We should look forward to it, and look back on it with happy memories.

I don't think that it's a coincidence that several of my Rabbinic friends have recently referred to Sukkot as, “my favorite holiday.” After the High Holidays, it's a pure joy to step outside, raise the roof (sorry, couldn't resist), and celebrate with family, friends and community.  An absolute joy, just as it was meant to be.

Chag Sameach!

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Please Read: Two Jonahs

Jonah Dreskin was the son of Rabbi Billy and Cantor Ellen Dreskin. He died earlier this year in a terrible accident. His father has been blogging since then, although I just learned of the blog now. He posted a powerful, beautiful piece about the connections between his son and the prophet after whom he was named.

I also read the preceding post, equally poignant, about how Rabbi Dreskin sees the world, or is trying to, in the wake of this loss.

I'm not going to pull any quotes - there's too much, and I don't feel right doing any editing. I haven't been able to read more postings, yet - they're just too difficult, and too powerful. But, utterly beautiful. Please, find some quiet time, and give these a read. And, as always, hug your family. A lot.

G'mar Chatimah Tova - May you be sealed in the Book of Life.