Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The Chanukah Miracles

[somehow, I put the wrong link in when I first posted this - if you clicked through, try it again - it's much better than the other one!]

Nothing for a month or more, now three posts in a day. It's all about momentum...

Anyway, as you probably know, tonight is the first night of Chanukah. Chanukah is a strange holiday, because it's been so heavily influenced by Christmas - most people realize that the holiday has become so much more important to Jews in the West because our neighbors are celebrating a major festival of their own around the same time (well, most years - this year, we're pretty far apart), and we've done a bit of compensating, as a result.

I suspect that I'm not alone in that, when I was a kid, I loved Chanukah - I thought it was the best holiday. No big surprise - presents will do that to a kid. But, as I grew older, I began to care less about Chanukah - I realized how much our celebration of this festival reflected a kind of assimilation (not exactly the right word, but close enough for now), and a kind of me-too-ism which didn't seem so necessary, once I started to gain a stronger, more mature Jewish identity. Many of us become somewhat proud of minimizing the importance of this holiday which is, strictly speaking, pretty minimally important, in the grand scheme of things. It was a sign of our seriousness as "authentic Jews" that we didn't invest too much emotion into these 8 days.

But, as I've gotten even older, and been able to learn more, I've come to appreciate Chanukah on an even deeper level. The truth is that, however minor or major it may be, Chanukah is an incredibly interesting holiday. The simple story that we tell the kids - the mighty Maccabees defeat the terrible Syrian-Greeks! - misses so much nuance.

The Maccabees were really fighting, among others, Jews who wanted to acculturate - not assimilate fully into the outside culture, but take the best of both worlds and live as honestly as possible as "Modern People," and as Jews. That sounds familiar to me - it's what all of us non-Ultra-Orthodox Jews are trying to do. And, the Maccabees weren't so pure, themselves - ironically, they relied on logical reasoning, imported from the Greek world, to justify some of their actions against the Greeks. So, the purists only fought off the outside culture by appropriating some of it! Crazy!

And then there are the lessons which, whatever you make of the history of the holiday, really can continue to inspire. I came across this lovely article about Chanukah - pointing out some messages which permeate these days of light. See the possibilities of redemption in the ruins of our world. See the sacred, where others see only defilement. Find the small vessels of purity, even if they're few and well hidden. Trust yourself enough to light the flame which begins to banish the darkness.

Those are lessons which even a kid can understand, but only an adult can really grasp.

Chag Urim Sameach - a happy Festival of Lights to you all.

Israel - Rogue, and proud of it

I had recently heard about a debate at the renowned Cambridge debating club on the topic, "Israel is a Rogue State." I heard about it because, by several accounts, Israel fared better in the debate than anyone could have expected. But, I hadn't read more than snippets from the most powerful, effective presentation from the event. One of the speakers on the "pro" side of the issue took a rather unique approach. He declared that Israel is indeed rogue, and that's a very, very good thing for Israel, and for the world:

THE WORD “rogue” has come to have exceptionally damning connotations. But the word itself is value-neutral. The OED defines rogue as “Aberrant, anomalous; misplaced, occurring (esp. in isolation) at an unexpected place or time,” while a dictionary from a far greater institution gives this definition: “behaving in ways that are not expected or not normal, often in a destructive way.”

These definitions and others center on the idea of anomaly – the unexpected or uncommon. Using this definition, a rogue state is one that acts in an unexpected, uncommon or aberrant manner. A state that behaves exactly like Israel.

Given the world that we live in, and the way in which most countries act, do we really want to encourage countries to act like everyone else? I mean, given the countries in that particular region of the world, is being non-rogue (i.e. similar) a good thing, at all?

As the speaker points out, Egypt shoots people who are trying to get into that country - trying to get in, because they're from Darfur, and the alternative is a living hell. Israel? Israel takes them in, makes some of them citizens. Even sends out soldiers to help the ones who can't quite make it.

There's so much more - a free press, equal rights for women, official investigations of governmental misdeeds. In the Middle East, these are indeed "rogue," in the purest sense of the word.

And, we should all be really thankful that there is a country as "rogue" as this. Because, they often do the things that no one else will:

And here’s an argument for all of you – Israel willfully and forcefully disregards international law. In 1981 Israel destroyed Osirak – Saddam Hussein’s nuclear bomb lab. Every government in the world knew that Hussein was building a bomb. And they did nothing. Except for Israel.

Yes, in doing so they broke international law and custom. But they also saved us all from a nuclear Iraq. That rogue action should earn Israel a place of respect in the eyes of all freedom-loving peoples. But it hasn’t.

But tonight, while you listen to us prattle on, I want you to remember something: While you’re here, Khomeini’s Iran is working towards the Bomb. And if you’re honest with yourself, you know that Israel is the only country that can, and will, do something about it. Israel will, out of necessity, act in a way that is the not the norm, and you’d better hope that they do it in a destructive manner. Any sane person would rather a rogue Israel than a nuclear Iran.

On Same-Sex adoption

So, I've been incredibly bad about blogging for a while - life got busy, and all of that. I really want to recommit to writing, though - not only because I know how much you all love to read my every word, but also because I find that it really gets my mind going - especially when we get a good, even contentious discussion going in the comments section. So, hopefully I'll get back to posting regularly.

As a quick hit, I give you this recent posting by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach (he of the Kosher Sex fame). Rabbi Boteach is the closest thing you're ever going to find to a liberal Ultra-Orthodox Rabbi, I think, and he often has interesting takes on various hot topics. When it comes to the issue of same-sex couples being allowed to adopt children? Well...

But to my fellow straight people I offer the following challenge. You have every right to oppose gay marriage. It's a free country. We don't suppress opinions. But aren't you under a moral obligation to adopt the children in their stead? Surely leaving kids to drown without love is deeply immoral. But to stop others from rescuing them is an abomination.

You know, I've often said that I don't think that religion and morality are the same thing - being religious is not the same as being a good person. But, being a good person is an essential part of being religious. In other words, you don't have to be religious to be moral, but you have to be moral to be religious. Or, in the words of Rabbi Boteach:

I am an Orthodox Jew. Judaism and the Bible have been the center of my life for all my 44 years. But if religion has not taught me to respect all men and women who adopt an unloved orphan and be inspired by their example, then it has failed to bring out my humanity or change my heart.
It's a short article, and well worth clicking through to read. Enjoy!

Thursday, November 11, 2010

Rockin’ Out, Jewish Style

I was just sent a link to a new website – Run by Rich Recht’s non-profit organization, Judaism Alive, it’s a site which streams high quality, modern Jewish music for free.

I’ve only just started listening to it. Some of it seems like “music that’s good for Jewish Music” while some is “great music which happens to be Jewish Music,” if you know what I mean.

Give it a listen, and tell me what you think!

Tuesday, November 2, 2010


Is there an advantage to being bored?

I recently read a review of a new book about boredom called Spiritual Boredeom: Rediscovering the Wonder of Judaism. Interestingly, the book makes the claim that boredom is both deadly for religion, but also essential. Having read only the review, I think that the point is that boredom can drive us to make our religious experience better, but chronic boredom can kill a religious life.

But, it’s part of what the review says about that first point which got my mind thinking:

There are a great few Bloom County comic strips in which Opus is looking for a way to lose weight. He goes from one fad diet to another, each time failing. All the while, his friends are telling him to eat better and exercise more but he insists there must be a better way. There isn’t. The best things in life come through hard work. Overcoming boredom, Dr. Brown tells us, is the same. It requires “restraint, training, and self-control” (p. 83).

We need to rid ourselves of the negativity and skepticism that prevent us from giving religious ritual the chance to excite us. We need to train ourselves to approach prayer and ritual in the proper mindset so that we understand and engage it. That takes preparation. But if you aren’t willing to work to make your Judaism meaningful, don’t complain. Losing weight takes effort and so does making the most of life. “Sin is the failure of individuals to take responsibility for overcoming religious boredom” (p. 25).

I’ve been told, many times, not to tell congregants, especially during sermons, that it’s their fault if they don’t find meaning in religion. It’s pretty obviously a bad tactic. Not only is it unwise (people don’t generally respond to being told, “it’s your fault!”), but it’s also unfair (not everyone who dislikes religion, or a given synagogue, has the same reason, so it’s not reasonable to just give the synagogue a blanket pass on this one). But, all of that being said (and, I really do believe it), there is something to be said for that controversial comment. For most people who don’t find anything worthwhile in religion, it’s probably at least partially their own fault.

Religious experience takes practice. And effort. We shouldn’t be surprised if, absent that effort, it’s ineffective.

Imagine a person who wants to get in shape. So, they go for a run. It hurts. They can’t run fast, or far. They don’t enjoy themselves. The next day, they hurt even more. They certainly don’t feel any better.

Now imagine that this person announces that, based on this experience, they now believe that running is a waste of time, and a sham. They won’t run at all, anymore.

Or, maybe they’ll just try running a couple of times a year. I’m sure that will work out well.

The benefits of running are only there for those who commit to it, and do it regularly. It can be very difficult to get to those benefits. But, without that commitment, it’s fairly obvious that they are unattainable. I think that’s how it is with religion (or, at least with prayer and spirituality; “religion” is much more than just that).


One of the nice things about my philosophy/theology is that it doesn’t require anyone to be religious, if they don’t want to be. I don’t think that you’re a bad person, or in some way incomplete, just because you’re not religious. If you don’t want to get involved with religion, or with organized religion, then good for you – don’t. Really. No harm, no foul.

But, that also kind of frees me up to say that if you do want to get involved in religion, then you have to commit. Well – have to might not be right. But, that’s probably the only way this is going to work out for you. If you commit to a religious practice, then there is every chance that you are going to find religion. It may take some time. It may be hard work. It may not always be pleasant, especially at first. It may not look like what you thought you were looking for. But, it will be there.

Like I said before, there are actually plenty of reasons that religion doesn’t work for some people. Commitment is not the only thing you need to get spiritual uplift. But, it’s one of the things. A good worship leader is also essential, for example. But, commitment is definitely essential, too. Necessary, though not sufficient.

The day after a workout, I often say, “I need to either exercise more, or less.” Lately, I’ve been exercising more. It doesn’t hurt as much the next day. And, overall, I feel better.

How about that?

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Who made whom?

Interesting discussion with the 6th graders that I’m teaching over at the Hillel school today.

We normally think that parents make babies. Seems obvious, right? But, until they have a baby, they aren’t really parents. So, from a certain point of view, babies make parents.

Sure, I was alive before I had Ben, but I wasn’t a parent. Which means I wasn’t really me, as I am now, right? In one important sense, Ben made me.

Same with teachers – I’m not really a teacher, until I have a student.

Babies make parents. Students make teachers. And so on.

Which led to the interesting discussion: if we see the world from this perspective, then who, exactly, made God…?

Wednesday, October 27, 2010


On Yom Kippur, I gave a sermon entitled Mosques and Islam, Hatred and Kindness. It was about two overlapping topics, and, in looking back on it, and talking to some people, I think I did a much better job with one than with the other. I’m going to try to fix that, somewhat, here.

On one level, the sermon was about Islamophobia and, in one specific, important example, the Park51 Islamic Community Center (the “Ground Zero Mosque”). I am extremely distressed by the ongoing demonization of all Muslims. Let me be clear: I think that Muslim Extremists, and Muslim Terrorists, are as evil as they come; I really do think that they are one of the greatest threats, if not the single greatest threat, in the world today, and I have no problem fighting them tooth and nail. I also (I don’t think I said this in the sermon) don’t have much time for those who try to argue that, in some way, we’ve brought this on ourselves. The cliché might be overused, but you don’t blame the rape victim for wearing a short skirt – nothing that the US has done comes even close to justifying 9/11.

But, there is a difference between hating Muslim terrorists and hating Muslims. And, that’s where I felt the need to speak up:

It is our sacred obligation to speak out, as a community, and individually, against hatred. When we hear someone saying that Islam is a religion of evil, we have to speak up and say that Baruch Goldstein, the religious Jew who locked himself in a mosque at prayer-time, armed with an assault rifle, and killed as many Muslims as he could, was evil. But, he didn’t make Judaism evil. The thousands of Jewish supporters who still look to him as a hero, don’t make the rest of us Jews evil, either. When we hear someone saying that “they” are out to get “us,” we have to speak up and remind them that “they” are “us.” Muslims died on 9/11, and Muslims defend this country, every day. Our tradition compels us to speak up for those who are being held down. It never gives us an escape clause, should that innocent face Mecca when he prays.

I still stand by what I wrote, and I’m glad (and a bit proud of myself) that I said it to the full congregation*. But, here’s the part that I don’t think came across very well. I said it, but I think it got drowned out by the more pressing, practical concerns. Ignoring the specifics of the issue at hand – ignoring the Islam/Islamicist distinction, or the Park51 debate, I think there’s an important reality about hatred itself.

* I’m also proud that I’m part of a congregation in which the reaction to that view was overwhelmingly supportive.

So much of public discourse – domestic politics, international politics, religion, climate change, race relations, you name it – is dominated by anger, and by hatred. This isn’t exactly an original insight, I know. But, I don’t think we often acknowledge how toxic that hatred can be – both for the larger debate, but also for ourselves.

So often, when engaged in political discussions, I find myself disturbed not as much by the logical arguments that someone is making, but by the nastiness. Or, at least the lack of caring. Let me take one example (sure to offend some): health care. There are some very rational, important arguments against much of the current reform – for example, it really might be a drain on the economy; I don’t know. But, that’s a different argument from, “why should I have to support freeloaders?” or variations on that theme. I’m not saying that everyone who was/is against Health Care Reform is a mean, insensitive person. I’m saying that much of the debate reflects an underlying insensitive point of view.

I want to be a person who looks at someone suffering, and first thinks, “How sad – I want to help them” rather than “not my fault; not my problem.” I want to raise my kids with that same instinct. This might come across as trite, perhaps even ridiculously so, but I think that, when deciding where to stand on an issue (political, personal – it doesn’t matter), “what’s the kind thing to do?” is a very valuable question. Certainly not the only valuable question, but a good starting point.

Some of you, I’m guessing, are thinking that I’m being somewhat of an idealist, or an escapist. That I’m talking warm-fuzzies about serious, important topics. That may be true. But, I’ve come to an interesting realization. When we talk practical, real-world issues, we tend, by necessity, to be talking theoretically. Take Health Care, again – a very real-world issue, right? But, when we talk about it, the conversation has very little effect on the real world. We can vote – but that that single vote carries very little weight. We can, if we’re truly motivated, raise money or campaign for a cause. But, we rarely do. Usually, it’s that single vote, or less. We have very little real impact.

But, if we start to think of kindness as a primary virtue, and we try to think more kindly, then we’ll potentially have a very real impact – on ourselves. I can’t convince America that a single-payer system is the best way to go. But, I can convince myself that helping the weak, and being kind to them, is commanded by my God. We can have a very minute impact on a major issue, or a major impact on a personal issue. There’s surely a place for both, but it at least serves as a reminder not to write off the seemingly non-practical parts of these discussions – they are, in their own way, exceedingly practical.

I’m still not sure I’m saying all of this right. It’s admittedly hard to talk about the importance of kindness, but to do in a serious way. But, one of the jobs of religion is to make us better people, and I’m pretty sure that being kind is one of the steps towards being better.

Friday, October 22, 2010

Virtual Strip Searching

Another post which is barely, if at all, Jewish in content…

My friend Jonathan Mitten posted an interesting article on Facebook. It seems that a pilot recently refused to submit to the controversial full body scanning that’s been in the news, on and off, for some time now. Michael Roberts, the pilot:

“I'm not going to do it,” he says. “Not once am I going to show them my naked body.”

The offered him the standard alternative: a full body frisking:

“I'm not on board with Federal Agents putting their hands on me every time I go to work,”

I'll admit a tiny bit of ambivalence about this one. On the one hand, there is something about "virtual strip searching" which strikes me as no big deal. I just don't reflexively get all that concerned if some anonymous person sees an anonymous scan of my body. I'm not saying that's right or wrong - that's just my honest, initial reaction.

But, even with that, the extreme lengths that are being gone to, in terms of time, money and Civil Liberties, to enact largely ineffective measures against terrorism seem really problematic. It might be an old trope, but one major, awful terrorist act has convinced us to spend untold millions (billions?), and also to put up with endless intrusions to our privacy and liberty. Seems like a continuing victory for the 9/11 bombers.

Like I said, I’m ambivalent. I can see both sides of this one. But, when asked about the distinct possibility of losing his job, Roberts replied:

“Better people than I have sacrificed more than their careers, their livelihood, for the cause of freedom.”

I’m interested to hear if anyone wants to defend the TSA policy, but even if he wasn’t right, I can’t help but admire Michael Roberts quite a bit today.

Baseball, drugs and hypocrisy

I’ve always reserved the right to use this blog for an occasional non-Jewish post, especially when it involves my True Religion – baseball! So…

As part of a recent Facebook conversation, I wound up finding an article about a Red Sox player by the name of Bernie Carbo who admitted that, during a World Series game in which he hit an important homerun, he was stoned out of his mind:

I probably smoked two joints, drank about three or four beers, got to the ballpark, took some [amphetamines], took a pain pill, drank a cup of coffee, chewed some tobacco, had a cigarette, and got up to the plate and hit,'' Carbo said.

"I played every game high,'' Carbo said. "I was addicted to anything you could possibly be addicted to. I played the outfield sometimes where it looked like the stars were falling from the sky."

I just want people to remember this, and refer back to it, the next time someone talks about steroids and such in baseball, and then starts talking about the Good Old Days™ when the game, and the players, were pure.

To quote Billy Joel, “The Good Old Days weren’t always good, and tomorrow ain’t as bad as it seems…”


Rabbi Danny Gordis seems a lot like me in the views which he holds: he is a staunch defender of Israel. He is often quite frustrated with the unfair treatment which Israel gets in the press and in the International Community. He thinks that those who blame Israel and the settlements for the lack of peace, while ignoring the constant calls for Israel’s destruction from her enemies, are sadly, tragically misguided. And, he thinks that Jews and Israelis who join others in blockade breaking flotillas are, too.

But, we also agree that there is a difference between disagreeing – even vehemently, even stridently – and denying that that person has a right to have, and express, their views:

[Famous Israeli poet] Natan Zach’s announcement that he would be joining a Gaza-bound flotilla might well have passed unnoticed.

But this is Israel, where few nonstories are allowed to pass without someone fanning the barely flickering flames. This time, a member of the Likud’s Knesset faction reacted with outrage and immediately wrote to Education Minister Gideon Sa’ar demanding that Zach’s poetry be removed from the high-school curriculum.

Suddenly, the nonstory had become a story.

What matters about the story is neither Zach nor even our high-school curriculum. What matters is the story’s sobering reminder of how low intellectual life here has sunk. When someone says something with which we disagree, we evoke the magnificent Soviet tradition, calling for his eradication from our collective memory.

The hosts of The View have been getting quite a lot of press, of late, because two of them stormed off the set in reaction to some comments made by Bill O’Reilly. Look – I find O’Reilly fairly despicable, and I thought his comments were detestable. And, inviting him on your show, and then acting shocked and offended when he does what he does…well, that’s just silly*. But, more importantly, it’s just another example of how intolerant we have become of people who disagree with us. About how ready we are to vilify and attempt to silence those with views in opposition to our own.

* One thing I will say for O’Reilly [and, I’ll admit I never expected to be writing anything positive about him] is that he’s gone on The Daily Show and had John Stewart – a man who has mocked him incessantly – on his own show. And, has engaged him in a substantive debate. Clearly, O’Reilly has been as guilty as anyone of vilifying those on the other side of the spectrum, but at least he’s been willing to sit with them and argue it out.

Gordis is a wonderful writer – it’s worth clicking through to read his article. And, it’s worth thinking about how far we’re willing to go to allow others to express their views, even when we disagree with them passionately.

Whether or not Natan Zach ultimately boards a flotilla is utterly unimportant.

What does matter is whether we can produce a generation of students who, when they hear something about which they disagree, can debate the ideas at hand, rather than merely seeking to silence those with whom they disagree.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Don’t Learn That! It’s too scary!

I’ve mentioned before that I get a daily e-mail talking about one halachic (Jewish legal) question. It’s usually on some relatively minor issue – am I allowed to talk in between shofar blasts on Rosh Hashana, or whether an electric light can be used for reading on Shabbat. It’s an approach to Judaism which is utterly different from my own, but I’ve always found it fascinating, in an academic kind of way. Occasionally, I find something really interesting in the legal logic. Sometimes, I find a hint of a higher meaning there. Sometimes, well…

Today’s question was “Is it permissible to study secular philosophy?” You see, there are some opinions, found in the Ultra-Orthodox world, that all of our spare time should be use for sacred study, and nothing else. There are some quotes that can be found in ancient Rabbinic writings to support this kind of view, as well.

Of course, many great Rabbis, such as Maimonides, were well versed in secular philosophy. Don’t worry. We’ll just rationalize those away - “oh, he was only learning that in order to refute the heretics. And besides – you’re not as holy as he was, so it doesn’t apply.”

But, the kicker was the explanation as to why it’s bad to study secular philosophy:

We should not be studying secular philosophy, which causes confusion and raises questions without providing adequate answers, thus threatening a person's fear of God and commitment to Torah.

So, let me get this straight. Secular philosophy causes confusion, and can’t always provide sufficient answers. But, religion never does. Right? Nope – only absolute clarity and surety over here!

Oh, and just to make it clear – if something challenges and confuses us, the best way to deal with it is not to do the hard work of deepening our learning and understanding, and delving further into the matter. No, the best way to deal with it is to cover our eyes while crying “na na na na – I can’t read you.”

If secular philosophy, or anything else which can be learned (I’m looking at you, opponents of evolution), is so destructive to your faith, then maybe you should consider that the problem lies with your faith, not with that outside learning. I mean, how solid is that faith, exactly?

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Recognition of Israel

Michael Oren, Israel’s ambassador to the US, has an Op-Ed in today’s New York Times. It’s a clear, powerful call to recognize that the key, foundational issue in Israeli-Palestinian peace negotiations is not construction in the territories, or secure borders or anything else that is often talked about. These are important issues, but they are not foundational. They are not at the core of the matter. At the core is Israel’s right to exist as a Jewish state:

Affirmation of Israel’s Jewishness, however, is the very foundation of peace, its DNA. Just as Israel recognizes the existence of a Palestinian people with an inalienable right to self-determination in its homeland, so, too, must the Palestinians accede to the Jewish people’s 3,000-year connection to our homeland and our right to sovereignty there. This mutual acceptance is essential if both peoples are to live side by side in two states in genuine and lasting peace.

Whether or not you agree with Israel lifting the ban on construction in the West Bank, why anyone would think that it is as big of an issue as this is beyond me. When one side refuses to acknowledge that the other even has a right to exist, it makes peace impossible.

Borders and land-swaps can be negotiated. Our right to exist cannot.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Thursday, October 7, 2010

Some sanity – spoken at the UN

There’s a bunch of things I’ve been trying to find time to blog about, but the post-holiday catch-up has been making it hard. In the mean time…

Today, a congregant forwarded me a transcript of the speech given by Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu at the UN last year. You can find the full text of it here.

I’m certainly not Bibi’s biggest fan, but I think that this is one case where he gets it exactly right. Pretending that an oppressive, Islamicist regime like Iran getting a hold of nuclear weapons is not a crisis – we'll, that just sounds like lunacy:

But if the most primitive fanaticism can acquire the most deadly weapons, the march of history could be reversed for a time. And like the belated victory over the Nazis, the forces of progress and freedom will prevail only after an horrific toll of blood and fortune has been exacted from mankind. That is why the greatest threat facing the world today is the marriage between religious fanaticism and the weapons of mass destruction.

The most urgent challenge facing this body is to prevent the tyrants of Tehran from acquiring nuclear weapons. Are the member states of the United Nations up to that challenge? Will the international community confront a despotism that terrorizes its own people as they bravely stand up for freedom?

Pretending, at the same time, that Israel is the most immoral actor in the international community – well, that’s just hypocrisy taken to a new level:

Finally, after eight years of this unremitting assault, Israel was finally forced to respond. But how should we have responded? Well, there is only one example in history of thousands of rockets being fired on a country's civilian population. It happened when the Nazis rocketed British cities during World War II. During that war, the allies leveled German cities, causing hundreds of thousands of casualties. Israel chose to respond differently. Faced with an enemy committing a double war crime of firing on civilians while hiding behind civilians – Israel sought to conduct surgical strikes against the rocket launchers.
That was no easy task because the terrorists were firing missiles from homes and schools, using mosques as weapons depots and ferreting explosives in ambulances. Israel, by contrast, tried to minimize casualties by urging Palestinian civilians to vacate the targeted areas.

We dropped countless flyers over their homes, sent thousands of text messages and called thousands of cell phones asking people to leave. Never has a country gone to such extraordinary lengths to remove the enemy's civilian population from harm's way.
Yet faced with such a clear case of aggressor and victim, who did the UN Human Rights Council decide to condemn? Israel. A democracy legitimately defending itself against terror is morally hanged, drawn and quartered, and given an unfair trial to boot.

The speech isn’t that long, and it’s worth reading the whole thing.

It’s very closely tied in to what I spoke about at Kol Nidrei, just a couple of weeks ago. I’m most certainly not in the “Anything Israel does is de facto right” camp (I’m not sure I know anyone who actually is), but I think that a reasonable look at the history of the current conflict will show that Israel has, for the most part, acted remarkably morally, and with astounding restraint, against an enemy which seeks not victory, but destruction.

If you’d like to read the full sermon, just follow the link above. As always, I’d love to hear your comments – one of the main advantages of blogging, over sermonizing!

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Wednesday, September 22, 2010

The Tree and the Soil

Sometimes,  if I have some time to kill, especially on Shabbat mornings before services, I’ll grab one of a few books which tend to put my in an inspired, Shabbat-like frame of mind. One of them is I Asked for Wonder – a collection of sound-bites from Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel.

Recently, on such a morning, I came across this passage about prayer:

Prayer begins where expression ends. The words that reach Our lips are often but waves of an overflowing stream touching the shore. We often seek and miss, struggle and fail to adjust our unique feelings to the patterns of texts. Where is the tree that can utter fully the silent passion of the soil? Words can only open the door, and we can only weep on the threshold of our incommunicable thirst after the incomprehensible.

Prayer is exceedingly difficult, and I think it’s more so for any of us who are non-literal believers. If God is a entity with a personality and a will, who can grant me what I want (or can decide not to), then prayer becomes relatively straightforward: I can tell God something, or I can ask God for something, very much like I would a parent.

But, what if I don’t believe in that kind of God?* What is prayer, then? There are lots of answers, of course, but Heschel offers one powerful image.

* hint: I don’t.

Prayer, to Heschel, is supposed to be an expression of some deep, ineffable, existential feeling. Prayer is attempting to connect to something that we don’t really understand, but which we know is somehow essential. I love that image of the tree – in prayer, I am the tree, and God is the soil. My foundation, and the creator of me, but not something I can possibly comprehend, or apprehend, totally, or even adequately.

Just another musing, as I think about a class I have to teach on “Radical Non-Fundamentalism…”

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

Al Cheit – For the sins which we have committed…

Yom Kippur is upon us, and, of course, the dominant theme of the day is teshuvah – repentance. We are supposed to consider our sins and then (ideally, having already apologized to those whom we have wronged, and done our best to make restitution) confess them.

In addition to whatever private confessions we might be making, the liturgy contains repetitions of two communal confessionals. The longer of the two is the Al Cheit – it’s a long list of sins which we have committed*. Very often, that list feels a bit – this isn’t quite the right word – generic. It’s just a laundry list. Some of the sins resonate, while some don’t. Some I know I’ve committed. A few I know I didn’t. Many – well, I guess it depends on definitions and such. Anyway, the point is that, very often, for some of us, these public confessions feel a bit pro forma.

* It’s an interesting aside about what it means to confess in the plural – what it means to confess that, for example, we have gossiped, or that we have been stingy with tzedakah. For another time…)

In an attempt to get us to approach the vidui (the confessional prayers) with a bit more kavannah (focus and intention), The Forward, a Jewish magazine, asked various Jewish thinkers to propose some new sins to add. What sins should we be thinking about, as we prepare to ask God for forgiveness? It’s an interesting list, and well worth looking at before Yom Kippur begins on Friday night.

There’s a pretty good range of ideas here. The sin of pigeonholing other Jews:

Were all of us to make an effort to truly see one another — not challenge or change or even “bring closer,” but simply see, in the light of good will and ahavat yisrael — and connect in whatever way we can, we would begin to atone for a dangerous blindness that has plagued the Jewish world for too long.

And the sin of Tolerating Intolerance:

We belong to a small minority, once reviled for our beliefs. In our not so distant past, some Americans wanted to deny us the right to worship where and how we wanted. We had to plead our case to the larger public to win what we now assume to be our non-negotiable entitlement.

And more. Which of these speaks most strongly to you? What would you have added, had you been asked to contribute?

G’mar Chatima Tova – may you be sealed in The Book of Life.

Tuesday, September 7, 2010

Of Camels and Needles’ Eyes

Random “why am I thinking about this, as opposed to the quickly approaching High Holy Days?” teaching…

I've always been fascinated by the New Testament teaching, “it is easier for a camel to fit through the eye of a needle then for a rich man to enter heaven.” (Matthew 19:24) I find it interesting because the metaphor is so completely bizarre and obscure (I mean, is that more or less difficult than fitting an elephant through a paper towel roll? Just asking…), but the lesson is is almost as inscrutable to me.  Is it really impossible for a rich person to get into heaven?  Why should that be so?

I heard an explanation today (from a Rabbi Michael Oblath) which explains away both of these confusions. It seems that, in ancient walled cities, the main city gate (which was always large) would have a smaller door built into it. That way, if the gate needed to be opened for a single person, that smaller door could be used, and the larger, and much more difficult to open (and, much more assault-able) full gate could be left closed. And, as you might guess, the name for that smaller door-within-a-door was: a needle’s eye.

The needle’s eye was the size of a normal door, more or less. Which means that you or I could fit through it easily. But, a camel? That would be harder. It would have to be coaxed through and, in all likelihood, all of the various items which it was carrying would have to be jettisoned, at least temporarily. Even then, it might take some pushing and shoving to get the beast through.

Upshot? If you’re rich, you can still get into heaven. Just be prepared to put in some extra effort. And, don’t be surprised if you have to leave all of your stuff outside – it ain’t going in with you.

A great teaching from a Rabbi who probably had his High Holy Day sermons all done on time, a few thousand years ago.

Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Book Burning, redux

An old friend posted a comment to my recent posting about International Koran Burning Day, and his comment really got me thinking. Most people tend to read, and comment on, this blog on Facebook, rather than on the original site, and so wouldn’t see his comments. But, they’re really interesting, and I want to respond (and hopefully, hear other responses as well). So, I’m going to include his comment here:

Behind on my blog reading as usual, so my apologies for being a bit slow on the uptake here, but I'll take opposite (or perhaps more correctly the agnostic) position.

Who gives a $#!% what a bunch of fanatics (of any stripe) burn? Burn the Bible, the Koran, the Book of Mormon, the Talmud, the U.S. Constitution (include the Bill of Rights for Extra Irony!), Catcher in the Rye, the Collected Works of Shakespeare, Where the Red Fern Grows, old copies of Mad (or Playboy) Magazine, or the stupid advert circulars that fatten our Sunday newspapers (my favorite for camp fires), what difference does it make? If -- IF -- there is "[T]truth" in any of those publications, how could it or its ostensible accompanying wisdom possibly be diminished in any way by the mere childish symbolism (for that's all it is at the end of the day) that some people insist upon attributing to (or seeing in) a pointless act of arson? Truth, if indeed it exists as such and especially if it ever could be expressed in the scribblings of people, by definition cannot possibly be that fragile. Human feelings, sensibilities and egos, of course, can be and usually are, but who ever found any [T]truth worth knowing in those places?

Unless you're talking about the destruction of literally the last copy of something that cannot be replaced in any form or format (or a burn protocol that violates common sense or local fire safety regulations including "Spare the Air" days here in California), I simply cannot be bothered to summon the energy to care any less about what someone burns, when or why. I only ask the burners please just don't disrupt traffic, thank you very much, as you make a fool of yourself and generally prove the very point you probably set out to protest in the first place.

And finally, I'm constrained to identify the obvious: The sort of outrage expressed in posts like this (as genuine and heart-felt as it was I'm sure) is exactly what these ridiculous people are hoping to provoke. There's a reason why they don't show the ball-park streaker on TV....

Sorry, but there it is. Peace from NorCal (where we loves a good book burnin'!).

So, there are two basic complaints here – one is that it’s silly to worry about burning a book. The other is that, by complaining, all I’m doing is drawing attention to these idiots, and helping them accomplish their goals. I actually think that both of these points have a ton of merit, and I agree with them, up to a point. But, there are other points to be made, as well.

First, let’s talk about book burning. In principle, I really agree with Mike. A book is, after all, just a book. Paper, ink, glue. What really matters are the ideas contained in those books, and those will not be harmed by some bigots burning some copies of it. Especially in our day of mass communication, the idea that we can stop anything by burning a book is, on some level, silly.

But, at the same time, can we so easily write off the human side? Rationalist though I try to be, and agreeing in principle with Mike as I do, I have to admit that seeing someone burn the Talmud or the Hebrew Bible would be incredibly distressing to me. It may be a human failing, and it may be one that I should strive to rise above, myself. But, is it useful, and is it kind, to tell others who are feeling distress, to just get over it? It’s an imperfect analogy, but I have a watch left to me by my grandfather. It’s one of the few objects that I hold dear in life*, and I’d be crushed if something happened to it. Is that so wrong? And, if something did happen to it, would we want to be so dismissive of my emotions? I guess that what I’m getting at is that, rationally speaking, I mostly (fully?) agree with Mike’s comments. But, there’s an emotional side which I think is valid, as well.**

* for some reason, I’ve been thinking lately about objects which I care about. Near as I can tell, I have two watches, one tallit and one ketubah which mean something to me. The rest of the “stuff” that I have, I may like and enjoy, but I don’t think I really care about very much. I wouldn’t be very upset if I lost them.

** Although, I just re-read the last part of Mike’s comment, about how human egos are a terrible source of truth. It’s an incredibly important (and, I think, valid) point. I think I’m kind of stuck between two truths here – on the one hand, we’d be better off if we could just get over stuff like this. On the other hand, there’s a human, emotional side which has to count for something. I think.

So, what about the “don’t draw attention to them” argument? I thought of exactly that before writing my post, but I figured that, since I saw this thing on the front page of, that horse was already out of the barn. I don’t think that my prattling on about it is going to have much of an impact there! But, that misses the larger point I was trying to make.

Maybe Muslims shouldn’t care when someone burns their books. But, they do. And, it’s not irrelevant to point out that a book burning is rarely just a book burning – it’s just one expression of a larger hate, and often of larger plans. I can’t help but think (and many others have made this connection) that the Nazis included book burnings in their early stages. Watching a book burn isn’t only about watching the physical pages be destroyed; its symbolic of something much more pernicious. It hurts, and it’s truly, deeply frightening.

Imagine what it must be like to be a Muslim in America today. Hearing national politicians declare that your religion is evil. Watching that become part of the national debate (as if, even if it’s not true, it’s still a point with some merit). Being harassed on the street, or in your homes, simply because of your name, or your skin color, or your faith. Watching a religious leader burn your sacred book, and then watching as the world shrugs.

Jews often lament that, as the Nazis built up their persecution of our people, the rest of the world remained silent. We’ll never know, but maybe some unity against the evil would have had an impact – small or large. Anyone who’s ever been persecuted, on any level, knows that it’s a lonely experience. Simply having someone else stand by you and say “I’m with you, not with them” can be incredibly empowering. More than anything, that’s what I wanted to get out there. Again acknowledging that few Muslims are likely to read my words, I just felt the need to let them know that I was on their side. They aren’t alone.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Burning with hatred

If it wasn’t such a sick and tragic issue, I would have found the headline from CNN’s website quite funny:

‘Burn Quran Day’ an outrage to Muslims

Next thing you know, CNN will feel the need to tell me that it gets hot in the summer here in Florida. Or, that it tends to be darker at night than it is during the day.

Occasionally, I use this blog for “shooting fish in a barrel.” That is, for speaking out against statements or events which are so egregious that I can’t imagine anyone not objecting to them. At least, not anyone who might be reading this blog. Even though it might be a bit self-congratulatory, I still think it’s worth it – how many times have we heard “where were the voices of dissent from X on issue Y” after the fact? It seems that, as a religious leader, it’s important to go on record (however small that record may be) as being against horrifically awful things, especially at a time when many are not against those horrifically awful things. This is such a time.

What possible justification could there be to burn the Quran? What religious impulse drives someone to condemn all Muslims, of all stripes, as a religion “of the Devil”? What possible good can come of this? It is, plainly and simply, disgusting.

I’ll admit, I usually get a rather mild sense of self-satisfaction from these “fish in a barrel” posts. It feels good to be out and vocal on issues of tolerance. It feels good to condemn bigots. Usually. Not this time.

This time, for whatever reason, it feels inadequate.

I don’t know what else to do, so I’ll do this blog for now. I am, in all likelihood, modifying my sermon tonight to include this. And, like I am right now, I’ll call on people to do something. Write a letter to your paper. Post something on Facebook. Blog about. Talk about it.

And, if you happen to know any Muslims, make sure that they know that you find this sacrilegious, and disgraceful. I can’t imagine how painful and lonely it must feel to watch someone burn your sacred book, and call you evil*. Make sure that our friends and neighbors know that they are not alone, and that we won’t stand for hate.

* As I finished typing those very words, I went back and read the rest of the CNN article (it was too sickening to read entirely, at first). I discovered that, ever the ecumenical hater, Pastor Terry Jones has agreed to also include a couple of copies of the Talmud in his little extravaganza. So, I may get the chance to find out exactly how it feels, after all.

From the CNN article:

The Founding Fathers were also inspired by Christian thinkers like John Locke, who declared that the true Christian's duty was to "practice charity, meekness, and good-will in general toward all mankind, even to those that are not Christians."

Pastor Jones, should you happen to read this, please, be American, and be Christ-like, and practice good-will in general toward all mankind.

Friday, August 13, 2010

Driving Forces

I recently subscribed to Jewels of Elul, a daily e-mail offering teachings and spiritual tidbits for every day of Elul (the Hebrew month which started on Monday night, and which leads up to the High Holy Days). If you’re looking for a nice way to inject a little bit of High Holy Day prep into your routine, it’s a nice little resource.*

* Today’s Jewel is a quote from…Lady Gaga. Not my usual source of learning or religious inspiration, but I’ll try to keep an open mind.

The Jewel also includes a question of the day. Today’s question is:

If you had to name the # 1 motivating force driving your life forward, what would it be?

Hmm. Interesting one. I quickly decided that I have two answers…which, of course, isn’t right. I’m supposed to name one. But, I’m not sure how to pick. On the one hand, I’d say that “truth” is, and has long been, a driving force in my life – certainly, it’s the driving force in my religious life, and in my personal philosophy.

But, in many ways I am more driven by my family than by anything in my religious life. And, without some serious mental gymnastics, I can’t really claim that “truth” is a dominant part of that part of my life. Love, I’d have to say, unsurprisingly, is much more of a driving force with them.

I know that the “rules” say that I’m supposed to pick 1, but I’m not going to.* I’ll leave it, for now, with the observation that this is one of the biggest differences between how I approach religion and how I approach family. And that both are incredibly integral to my life.

*I always hate false dilemmas, even if they’re just a thought experiment. “If you could eat only one food for the rest of your life, what would it be?” What, exactly, is that supposed to tell me about myself, anyway?

How about you? What is the biggest driving force in your life?

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, August 6, 2010

Steroids and Orthodoxy

Steroids have nothing to do with homeruns.

OK, if you follow baseball at all, then that statement will, in all likelihood, seem beyond ridiculous to you. Everyone knows that steroids are the biggest reason that there has been a surge of homeruns in God’s Most Perfect Game. Everyone knows that the only reason that Mark McGuire beat the single-season record, only to have it smashed by Barry Bonds, who also stole the all-time record, is because they were juicing like a High School kid working at Orange Julius. Steroids have ruined the game, and corrupted everything in baseball. It’s obvious.

Except, that it’s probably utterly wrong. Joe Posnanski* wrote a blog post which summarizes and comments on a much larger piece – Eric Walker’s ongoing study of Steroids and Baseball. Walker has, for some time now, been doing a serious investigation into the reality of steroids.

* I think that this point, I have to add Joe P to my list of people whom I quote way too often. That list now looks like this:

  • Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
  • Rabbi Larry Kushner
  • Joe Posnanski

I’m hoping to get Joe ordained as a Rabbi, so I can balance that list out.

As Walker says, everyone “knows” a few things about steroids, including that they are dangerous, and that they give baseball players and unfair advantage and let them break records they couldn’t otherwise break

Using actual science (as opposed to just rhetoric and “it’s obvious”), Walker manages to seriously challenge, if not utterly dismantle, each of those claims. In essence, he shows that by using steroids (and similar drugs), baseball players are probably giving themselves no material advantage, while doing no substantial harm to themselves, either. It’s all a big nothing. If you are now saying to yourself, “but, then how do you explain Bonds, or McGuire, or X, Y and Z?” then click through and read Posnanski’s blog, at least. I’m not smart or knowledgeable enough to comment on the research, but it sure seems compelling to me.

But, why am I posting about this on my blog? Well, there are at least two reasons. One is, I get overly invested in baseball issues, especially this one, and I never promised that this blog would be only about Jewish topics.

But, there is a larger point to be made, one which is essential for any religious person to remember: don’t trust orthodoxy. Please notice, I didn’t say, “don’t trust Orthodoxy.” I’m not talking about a particular movement of Judaism, which has some wonderful things about it, and some problems (like all of us). What I’m talking about is the very concept of orthodoxy – the idea that there is One Truth, and everyone must believe it, without questioning it.

This should be pretty obvious, but there is a staggeringly long list of things which everyone once knew to be true. The Earth is flat. The Sun is pulled across the sky by a giant, golden chariot. Disease is caused by sin. God created every species exactly as they exist today, 5770 years ago. The Red Sox will never win a World Series.

And, it’s pretty darn clear that each of those things has been proven to be factually wrong (I’m almost over that last one). What we once knew, for sure, patently and axiomatically, is false.

Things which are obvious to anyone who cares to look are sometimes false. Things which have been proven beyond a doubt are regularly disproven. No one ever got to truth by starting from the assumption that they already knew it. No one ever encountered revelation by assuming that everything has already been revealed. If someone tells you that something is undeniably true, the first words out of your mouth should probably be, “how can you be so sure?” If someone tells you not to question a belief, then run like hell from that belief.

In the words of Tommy Lee Jones, “Imagine what you’ll know tomorrow.”

Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Organ Donation

I doubt that this made the news anywhere, but I just read (on one of my e-lists) of an Orthodox congregation which recently refused to bury a woman – on the grounds that she was an organ donor.

I’ve often said that there are two things that everyone seems to know about Judaism, which are both absolutely false. One is that you can’t get buried in a Jewish cemetery if you have a tattoo. That’s not true – tattoos are forbidden in Judaism, but there is no connection between them an burial. The other factoid* is that Organ Donation is forbidden.

* did you know that “factoid” originally meant a non-fact which is repeated often enough, and authoritatively enough, that everyone starts to believe/assume that it’s true?

Nothing could be further from the truth. As Dr. Michael Chernick, my teacher in Rabbinical school (who happened to be an Orthodox Rabbi and an expert on Jewish legal texts) taught us, Organ Donation is not allowed in Judaism, it is required. It is in the most literal sense of the word, a mitzvah*. It’s a requirement of Jewish law.

* another factoid: mitzvah does not mean “good deed.” It means “commandment.”

I could go on and on about this, but I’m supposed to be doing other things right now, like working on sermons for the High Holy Days. Luckily, a couple of years ago, I gave a Yom Kippur sermon on this very topic – the mitzvah of Organ Donation. If you’re interested in learning more, it’s a decent place to start. Of course, there is plenty more to learn, as well.

But, if you’re looking for an executive summary, here it is: for God’s sake, register as an Organ Donor.


Rabbi Organ Donor

Tuesday, August 3, 2010

What you don’t know

I’ve written before, probably a few times, about how much I enjoy reading about baseball, especially things written from the new-think, stats-oriented world. It’s not just that I find this kind of analysis interesting (I do, but that’s my problem), it’s also that I find there to be some really thoughtful people involved with it. Basically, these are people who are dedicated to challenging old orthodoxies and assumptions, and to finding new ways to think. Even though the topic may be, to some, trivial, the approach is fascinating, and the “battle” between old-school and new-school writers is a nearly perfect parallel to the battles that go on, for example, in religious circles*.

* this shouldn’t be the least bit surprising. Baseball is, after all, a religion.

Bill James is the Godfather of this kind of baseball thinking and writing, and I recently came across a quote from him which I love:

You don’t learn by studying the stuff you know. You learn by studying the stuff that you don’t know. So, if you divide the world into (stuff) that you know and (stuff) that you don’t know, and you study the stuff that you know, then you’re not going to learn very much. All of the progress comes from studying the stuff that you don’t know. So, that’s really what’s interesting. And that’s where most of your focus should be. Studying stuff that you can’t agree about.

Speaking as someone who, like most of us, often reads things which serve mainly to confirm what I already know and believe, I have to admit that this wouldn’t be a bad definition of learning, would it? Studying stuff that you don’t know.

So – what don’t you know, that you’d like to know?

Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Dancing away the Holocaust

I take it that this has been making the Internet rounds, and stirring up some controversy along the way, but I just saw it for the first time.

Some group made a (very low budget) video of people dancing at various sights connected with the Holocaust (such as the gates of Auschwitz) to Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive.

Now, I completely understand why this offends many people. The Nazis killed 6 million Jews (and 6 million non-Jews), and almost wiped out our people. It’s arguably the single greatest act of evil in history. Seeing people making light, on the very grounds where so many died, will strike many as deeply, deeply inappropriate.

But, I have to admit, I find something very Jewish about this response. One of the most repeated Jewish one-liners is that every Jewish holiday can be summarized as “They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.” We tend to react to tragedy and oppression with a kind of ironic humor. We dance on the graves of our oppressors, generations after they are gone. Purim may be the clearest example of this – around the anniversary of the planned murder of all of the Jews in a kingdom, we throw a big party, dress up, get drunk, and make fun of our would-be, long-gone killer. Singing “I Will Survive,” while doing a really pathetic dance, precisely on the spots where the Nazis tried to wipe us out – it just seems to be part of that same spirit.

Of course, in this case, many, many people did die. Even though our people, as a people, has survived, and will survive, there are plenty of people alive today who can remember family members who were murdered in the Holocaust. I will survive. But, they didn’t. Is it too soon to celebrate this way? Does decency require that we wait a few generations, before making a new version of Purim? I don’t think so, but, again, I understand those who disagree.

If you’re not the type who gets offended at these things, watch the video. And celebrate that we’re still here – dancing as badly as ever.

The 10 Commandments and Morality

I recently saw, on YouTube, a clip from a talk given by Dr. Joel Hoffman. Some of you may remember Dr. Hoffman as our Scholar In Residence from last spring, and the author of the wonderful And God Said: How Translations Conceal the Bible's Original Meaning*. In this clip, he’s talking about the 10 Commandments, and what makes them so special. He gave this same talk while he was here, and I found it intriguing, in part because it seemed to confirm something which I had previously heard, and found interesting, and important.

*I’ve been re-reading parts of Dr. Hoffman’s book, and I have to say that I find it utterly fascinating. If you have any interest in religion, OR if you have any interest in languages and, especially, translation, then you really owe it to yourself to pick up a copy.

If you want a tiny example which shows how hard it is to translate an ancient (dead) language, let me give you a favorite example from the book (I think – it might have been from his talk. But, it’s in there, somewhere). If you didn’t already know, would there be any way to tell, from the words themselves, that a garbage truck takes away garbage, but an ice cream truck brings ice cream? And, if you didn’t know that difference, how confusing would it be to try to understand, and translate, a book which talked about both?

It’s well known by now that the 10 Commandments were not original or unique, as was once thought. We used to believe (I’m told) that, until the 10 Commandments were handed down, murder was not illegal. That was the great contribution that those laws made – the content of the laws themselves. But, we now have plenty of evidence that murder (and theft, and adultery, and so on) were outlawed in many ancient societies (if my memory is right, it was the discovery of the Code of Hammurabi which destroyed this myth about the originality of the 10 Commandments). The Big-10 (as I’ll call them) were just restating old, widely accepted laws.

But, it’s possible that they are unique (or, at least were unique, when they first came to us) in a different, more subtly important way. They state, categorically and absolutely, what is right, and what is wrong.

Ancient law codes worked very much like our modern law codes, in that they are “if-then” statements. If you commit murder, then you go to jail (or are put to death). If you steal, then you must return what you stole and pay a penalty. But, nowhere does the law make a moral statement. Nowhere does American law (or most/any civil legal codes, or ancient legal codes) say, “it’s wrong to kill. You shouldn’t do it. Even if you don’t get caught, it’s still wrong.”

In other words, the 10 Commandments might have been unique, and still might be quite exceptional, in that they separate the morality of an action from the results of the action. To use Dr. Hoffman’s example, in America, if you decide that the fine for illegal parking is worth it, then nowhere does American law tell you that you are wrong for parking there. If you’re willing to pay the fine, then you can do the crime! There is no moral problem.

But, according to the Torah, it is never ok to break certain laws. Even if you’re willing to pay the penalty, even if you think it’s “worth it,” it still remains, in an absolute way, wrong to do so. The wrongness of an act exists in and of itself. The penalties are there to highlight or enforce the morality; but, even in the absence of those penalties, the acts would still be wrong.

Now, leave aside, for the moment, the question of the originality of the Big-10. I would say that this distinction, between “allowed/not-allowed” and “right/wrong” is an incredibly important one. In fact, it’s really at the core of the entire discussion of what morality really is – some things are just wrong. Results be damned, there is such a thing as right and wrong. Or, to quote Frasier, “morality is what you do when no one is looking.”

But, at the same time, I do wonder about the role of the Big-10 in all of this. Were they really the first attempt to write down morality, as opposed to penalties? Is it true that most/all legal systems still live in the world of if/then, and not in absolutes? I know that I’ve got historians, lawyers and other smart people who sometimes read this blog, so I’m interested in their takes on this.

In the end, that’s just a footnote; from wherever this distinction came, it’s a fundamental one. To me, it might be the single most important distinction in the entire world of religion. But, that footnote is still an interesting one to me. Anyone have any insight?

Wednesday, July 14, 2010

Getting back to…manliness

So, this blog has been quiet for a while now. The reasons are pretty simple – the normal end-of-the-year craziness kicked into gear, and my available time, and mental energy, were kind of scarce. Then, I went away for about 3 weeks – I had a week of vacation, followed by a week and a half at Camp Coleman (one of the summer camps run by the URJ (the main institution of the Reform movement); this one’s in Cleveland, Georgia).

As I try to get back into the blogging rhythm, I’ll share a little moment from camp. Let me say that Camp Coleman is a wonderful place. It’s physically beautiful (set in the foothills of the Appalachian mountains) and the daily schedule is filled with all of the camp-type activities that you’d expect – swimming, sports, arts and crafts (although, I don’t remember any camp I ever went to having an organic garden to tend, so that’s a bit different, I suppose). But, the really wonderful thing about Coleman is that, like all URJ camps, Jewish life and learning are a big part of camp life. There are regular programs where campers get to explore, in fun, creative ways, a huge range of Judaism. They might do a simulation of living on a Kibbutz, discuss Judaism’s views of using Steroids in sports, or have a silly-but-educational debate. Lots of fun learning going on.

So, one of the last nights I was at camp, one of the older boys’ units was doing a program on manhood. And, more specifically, on the different ways that we can all understand what it means to be “a real man,” beyond what our society usually says*. Now, these were teenage boys who were coming to the end of a session of camp (which is always an intense month of bonding), so they were incredibly willing to have this discussion – you could tell that some of them were really concerned with what it meant for them to be a man, and whether they could ever be “a real man.”

* I’ll admit that I found it wonderfully ironic that I was incredibly proud of myself because, at this program on thinking differently about manliness, I was the only one who could get the fire started properly.

It gave me a chance to share one of my favorite insights. In our culture, a “real man” is usually understood to be something like John Wayne. Tough. Strong. No nonsense. Few words; fewer words about emotions. But, the Yiddish word for “man” is “mensch,” and a “real mensch” is not a tough guy at all. That phrase always refers to a good, kind person. I think that difference says a lot about our societies and cultures, and what they value.

While the campers were discussing this difference between “a real man” and “a real mensch,” one of the boys offered an insight which struck me as pretty profound. He said, “A ‘real man’ does something because he thinks that’s what a ‘real man’ should do. A ‘real mensch’ does something because he knows that it’s the right thing to do.

Couldn’t say it any better myself.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

Friedman on the Flotilla

Thomas Friedman wrote a column in which he said, much more eloquently, what I was trying to say in my last post:

There is no question that this flotilla was a setup. At the same time, though, the Israeli partial blockade of Hamas and Gaza has been going on for some four years now. It is surely not all Israel's fault, given the refusal of Hamas to recognize Israel and its own repeated missile attacks on Israel.

But I sure know this: It is overwhelmingly in Israel's interest to bring more diplomatic imagination and energy to ending this Gaza siege. How long is this going to go on? Are we going to have a whole new generation grow up in Gaza with Israel counting how many calories they each get? That surely can't be in Israel's interest. Israel has gotten so good at controlling the Palestinians that it could get comfortable with an arrangement that will not only erode its own moral fabric but increase its international isolation. It may be that Hamas will give Israel no other choice, but Israel could show a lot more initiative in determining if that is really so.

I will say again and again that, on whole, this terrible situation is not Israel’s doing, and it’s not their fault. But, it’s still incumbent on Israel to do everything it can to end it. And, not only is it the right thing for Israel to do, but it’s the smart thing.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

The Flotilla, again

I’ve been reading as much as I can about the Flotilla incident in Israel. As I try to make sense of what I’m seeing, I came across Rabbi Paul Kipnes, who had an interesting entry in his blog:

There is ample evidence:

Five steps to begin to judge for yourself:

  1. Watch this video of how the soldiers were beaten as they boarded the boat.
  2. Examine this history of the flotilla and peaceful attempts to turn it back.
  3. Read this Jewish Journal article addressing concerns on the flotilla but also on the blockade.
  4. Explore the legality of a blockade in times of war.
  5. Consider this Haaretz Israeli newspaper critique, appropriate but balanced.

Taken together (especially with the Haaretz article) a picture starts to emerge (which seems, for me, to jibe well with the other pieces I’ve been reading). Israel was clearly in a no-win situation with this one, particular incident. They were enforcing a blockade (which, according to most of what I’ve read, is legal). They were trying to do so without violence, and they were attacked. This flotilla, in large part, was intended to do exactly this – provoke a response, and an international incident.

But, that Haaretz article, along with this piece by Amos Oz, puts some important perspective on the backdrop of this incident. Let me be clear that I think that the Palestinian leadership deserves the lion’s share of the blame for the lack of peace. But, it’s fair to wonder if Israel has done everything that it can to keep itself out of this terrible situation.

The blockade may be (probably is) legal, but that doesn’t mean that it’s a smart move, either politically or militarily. Israel’s larger approach to the ongoing conflict (see the Oz article, which I have real criticisms of, but nonetheless makes some important points) is not the main reason for the ongoing strife, but it may be one reason, among many, that it continues.

Similarly, I wholly believe that Israel has almost always lacked a partner in peace – it’s often been said that we make peace with our enemies, not with our friends. But, it’s also been said, not as pithily, that making peace with someone who wants to use that peace to kill you isn’t a good idea. But, as much as I believe that, can any of us say that Israel has done everything it can to promote the possibility of peace?

Strange as this is to say, I don’t want to be overly evenhanded here. As I keep saying, I do not believe that this is a “cycle of violence” with both sides equally to blame. But, I also don’t think that we gain very much at all from pointing fingers solely at one side, or from pretending that Israel is perfect.

I’ll continue to post materials here that I think shed light on this incident. I’ll hope, probably against hope, that the mainstream media starts to be less biased against Israel. I’ll pray, against all odds, for peace.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Israel and the Flotilla incident

Many of us have been following the unfolding developments in Israel. Israeli’s navy moved to intercept a flotilla of ships which were on their way to deliver aid to Gaza. Violence broke out on one of the ships, and 10 of the people aboard that ship were killed by Israeli commandos. The international community moved swiftly to denounce Israel, and some (such as the Turkish Prime Minister) have gone so far as to declare this to be murder.

Whenever these types of horrific incidents occur, I seem to have a predictable pattern of thoughts and feelings. My first is simply sadness – it saddens me to no end that this country which I love so much is constantly involved in these terrible incidents. Whomever you blame for them, any Zionist (a supporter of Israel) would give anything for this kind of violence to end.

On the heels of that sadness, very quickly I often become worried that Israel might have, in this case, done something truly horrific and wrong. The early reports said that the Israelis had opened fire, completely unprovoked, on the unarmed civilians who were simply joining together in solidarity with the people suffering in Gaza. There have certainly been cases of wrongdoing on the part of the Israeli forces in the past, and I worry that this might be another terrible example, which will haunt our people, and Israel, for years to come.

Quickly, then, I start to remember to take everything with a grain of salt. It seems that whenever Israel is involved in violence, the international community condemns Israel for it, and accuses it of horrific violations of morality and International Law. And, in the course of time, it’s almost always revealed that the facts didn’t exactly match the initial reports, and that Israel wasn’t, in fact, killing indiscriminately, or whatever terrible crime they’re being accused of this time. Despite the outcry from the United Nations and the Hypocritical Country of the Day (Turkey, which is occupying Cyprus in clear violation of International Law, seems very concerned with the legal status of the blockade – a blockade which Israel imposed because Hamas has been importing weapons, which they can do because Israel pulled out of Gaza and ended its own occupation of it. Turkey – home of  hypocritical irony, I guess), Israel is usually justified in the actions in took.

As the facts have started to emerge, the picture of Israel as evil aggressor has, once again, become less clear. If you accept the account of, say the Turkish Ambassador, then things remain very clear – Israeli soldiers opened fire on unarmed civilians, for no good reason. They are evil. If, however, you listen to other accounts, then some uncomfortable facts emerge. To name just a few:

  • The flotilla had been ordered by the Israeli Navy to dock in Ashdod (in Israel) so that the cargo could be inspected, and then delivered by Israel to Gaza. Israeli wanted to make sure that weapons and other military supplies weren’t being delivered under the cover of humanitarian aid (as has happened before). The response to the order to divert was, as caught in a live broadcast, “F$%K off.”
  • Before you say, “we can’t trust Israel to do deliver aid,” remember that Israel currently delivers 15,000 tons of aid to Gaza every week. The flotilla was carrying 10,000 tons of cargo.
  • The Israelis boarded 5 ships without incident. On the 6th, the Israelis claim (and video supports the claim) that they were attacked as soon as they got on the boat. They were attacked with knives, metal rods and chairs. Several of the passengers on the boat try to take guns from soldiers (one of the soldiers suffered a gunshot wound). The Israelis opened fire only after they were attacked, and felt that their lives were in danger (they didn’t even open fire immediately once the beatings began).

You can get more such details here, or you can read a good summary and commentary by Rabbi Daniel Gordis.

As I try to always do, let me make clear that none of these deaths are a good thing. I don’t want violence, and I don’t want Israeli soldiers to be killing people. Some of those people, undoubtedly, truly thought that they were doing the right thing and helping people who desperately need help. But, let’s never confuse a tragedy with a crime, or make the mistake of blaming the wrong side.

Israel was presented with a terrible situation, and horrible things happened as a result. But, the organizers of the flotilla could have prevented it all, and still accomplished their stated goal of getting aid to Gaza. Of course, if their true goal was to once again put Israel in a no-win situation, and to gain a p.r. victory, even if it cost lives, then they did exactly what they set out to do.

I pray that Israel’s version of events is closer to the truth than the one being presented by Israel’s enemies. If history is a guide, then I’ll have my prayer answered. But, I’m sad to say that I don’t even hope anymore that the world will see through the lies. The world seems all to eager to blame Israel whenever possible. One more reason that those of us who love Israel had to stand by her.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Friday, May 28, 2010

An Exorcism

The latest issue of Reform Judaism magazine contains an article about a Reform Rabbi who, at the request of one of his congregants, performed an exorcism on their house. It seems, from the article, that the Rabbi in question did not believe in the literal need for the exorcism. He didn’t think that there were malevolent spirits which lived in the house, which could be banished through the proper recitation of a ritual. Instead, he believed that the ritual was going to fill a need for these congregants, one which they were going to get filled somehow, so it might as well be through him, in a way which was as honest as he could manage.

Those who know me will, no doubt, be very unsurprised by the following two opinions: I think it’s a bad idea to do something like this. And, I see a lot of merit in the other side of the argument.

First, the bad. Spirits aren’t real. Ghosts aren’t real. Religion is a great way to be superstitious, but that is, in my not-as-humble-as-it-probably-should-be opinion, not a good thing about religion. As religious leaders, or as generally intelligent, thinking, religious people, I think part of our job is to get people away from the superstitious aspects of religion.

Ultra-Orthodoxy (the extreme, reactionary, fundamentalist, literalist version of Judaism) is infamous for telling its people that all sorts of horrors will befall them if they make ritual mistakes. Someone in your house sick? You must not have a kosher mezuzah on your door. Got into a car crash? You must have driven that car on Shabbat. And so on. It’s a patently ridiculous theology. It is demonstrably untrue, and it’s not even something we should want to be true. As I’ve said before (more or less), if God really does give people cancer because the parchment inside their mezuzah is defective (an actual claim I’ve heard), then I don’t want to work for that God anymore!

As a Rabbi, I’m often called on to do something which skirts the line of this kind of superstition. The best example is the Mi Sheberach, the prayer that we often say for healing (technically, that’s just one form of that prayer, but don’t worry about that for now). I know that the intent of that prayer, when we say it, is to give people strength and hope. To make people feel supported, and thought of. But, I also know that many people think of it as a kind of totem – if the Rabbi says my name before Mi Sheberach, then I have a better chance of being healed. In these cases, I do my best to teach, clearly and repeatedly, what is, and what isn’t, really going on (that is, I say often that this isn’t a magical healing prayer). And, I acknowledge that some will see it has magic, anyway. I don’t like that, but I can’t control how people interpret their religion.

But, at some point, a prayer, or a ritual, becomes too “magic-ish” to explain away. I don’t know what the line is, or if there is even a exact line at all, but somehow doing an exorcism, for a family which has explicitly told you that they believe that there are spirits infecting their house*, and using elements of a ritual which was clearly, by our definition, superstitious – well, again, everyone has their own line, I suppose, but this is just over it for me. I am a teacher, not a miracle worker. As my Rabbi, Rabbi Jerome Malino (z”l) used to say, “Sorry – I’m in sales, not management.”

* as I think about it, this may be the dividing line in this case. I can pretend and/or hope that people reciting Mi Sheberach won’t see it as magic. This family, based on their own statements, clearly will. Thus, were I to conduct the ritual, I’d be doing it fraudulently.

But, that brings me to the good. The Rabbi in question does a decent job laying out the arguments – to him, it’s not that different from things like Mi Sheberach:

Most Reform Jews don’t believe in intercessory prayer, the idea that God will necessarily give us what we ask for. When most of us ask God to heal those who are ill, we do not expect the Eternal to automatically grant cures; we are really asking God to give them and their healers strength, courage, and hope. This house blessing would then be a personalized misheberach. I would simply be asking God to bring health to a family in need of healing, and try to bring some light into the darkness that surrounds them.

I also heard from another Rabbi, by the name of Geoffrey Dennis (feel free to check out his blog at who defended this practice, and in a fairly convincing way. In the end, I still don’t think that I would do this ritual (I’m not giving an absolute “no,” because these things are always more complicated when you’ve got an actual person making an actual request). But, (with his permission) let me let Rabbi Dennis make his argument:

I love the Enlightenment and endorse the insights of the rationalist tradition, but we are not creatures of pure reason. We are creatures of paradox, like the world itself. Rationalism does not address every need in the human experience. Rituals and their efficacy can be explained rationally if one likes - see Catherine Bell's extensive works, for example, or read some of the work published in the Anthropology of Consciousness journal. To quote Erika Summer Efller,

"Rituals generate group emotions that are linked to symbols, forming the basis for beliefs, thinking, morality, and culture. People use the capacity for thought, beliefs, and strategy to create emotion-generating interactions in the future. This cycle, interaction → emotions → symbols → interaction, forms patterns of interaction over time. These patterns are the most basic structural force that organizes society"

In my (limited) experience, these purgative rituals, judiciously used in conjunction with the more modernist rituals of clinical psychology, help displace negative "emotion-generating interactions" with feelings of confidence, security, and solidarity with the tradition that affirms the values expressed in such rituals.

Human beings are ritual creatures – we’ve always structured our world, in large part, through the creation and performance of rituals. And, those rituals can have a powerful, meaningful, positive effect in so many ways. But, at the same time, rationality can’t be thrown out the window. We can’t claim to believe that which we know to be false, and we shouldn’t be affirming that which we don’t believe.

You know what? It’s hard being an ardent rationalist who believes in the power of ritual. It really is.

But, I guess that’s exactly what I am. So, I’ll have to keep trying to figure out what exactly that means.

Shabbat Shalom!

Wednesday, May 26, 2010


I often make fun of (or, have fun made of) how often I quote Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel (in fairness, if you’re going to quote one Rabbi, he’s really one of the obvious choices!). So, when I was perusing a colleagues blog (which I just came across), I was amused, but not at all surprised, that the most interesting, challenging and inspiring post was about something that Heschel said:

"Why are graven images forbidden by the Torah?" I once heard 20th century Jewish thinker Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel ask. Why is the Torah so concerned with idolatry? You might think (per Rabbi Moses Maimonides) that it is because God has no image, and any image of God is therefore a distortion. But Heschel read the commandment differently. "No," he said, "it is precisely because God has an image that idols are forbidden. You are the image of God. But the only medium in which you can shape that image is that of your entire life. To take anything less than a full, living, breathing human being and try to create God's image out of it-that diminishes the divine and is considered idolatry." You can't make God's image; you can only be God's image.

If you think about it – why the heck would God care if we made a statue? I mean, sure, in ancient times, people were likely to worship those statues, and to think that they were, truly and literally, gods. But, not so much anymore. Is there really any chance that many people in, say, my synagogue are going to start worshiping a statue which looks like a person?

Of course, there are other ways to understand the prohibition against idolatry. Even though few of us will throw stones at Mercury’s statue (that’s what the Talmud says that pagans used to do), it is possible to find someone who thinks that touching a mezuzah will bring them luck. Or that a Rabbi’s prayer will mean more than their own. Or that money will bring them happiness. These are all idolatry, of a sort.

But, as always, Heschel reveals a totally different way to think about things. The problem with idolatry isn’t what it says about God. It’s what it says about us.

You can’t make God’s image; you can only be God’s image.

Middle Politics

I get a bit nervous whenever I let this blog venture towards politics. Partially, that’s because, no matter what I say (or, how wonderfully intelligently I may say it) I know that I’m going to anger at least a few people, and probably start a long, often interesting, but often frustrating comment stream*. Mainly, though, it’s because I’m not a political expert, nor am I a political pundit, and I try to stay away from pretending that I am. Too many Rabbis have gone wrong by assuming that, just because we’re experts in one area, and get to talk about it, publically, quite a bit, we must equally be experts in other areas, as well.

* interestingly, my Facebook feed of this blog tends to get many more comments than the actual comment section on the blog. Someone should figure out how to unify those two into one stream…

But, that apology aside, I’ll risk another foray into political-land. I read an article this morning in The New Republic which I found interesting, in large part because it says something about politics that I’m often trying to say about religion: it’s best when it lays somewhere in the middle.

In talking about Libertarian Rand Paul, who has been in the news quite a bit of late, the article tries to deconstruct what, exactly, is wrong with his politics. And, in doing so, it describes all politics as the balance between two valid desires: the Hobbesian desire for a government to protect us from injustice in the world, and the Lockean desire to protect us from injustice perpetrated by the government itself.

Taken to an extreme, the Hobbesian pole leads to totalitarianism, while the Lockean pole terminates in the quasi-anarchism of the night watchman state.

One of the recurrent themes in my teaching (including here on this blog) is the utter importance of balance, of finding the truth between the two extremes. The world is never black and white; it is always gray. Truth always lies away from the edges – the extremes contain truth, to be sure, but it’s a truth which is usually wrong because of it’s single-mindedness. Think of it, if you like metaphors, as an overwhelmingly powerful spice: disgusting if taken alone, in its pure form; wonderful and enriching if used in moderation along with other flavors.

Well, as someone who always likes to see the virtue in “the other side” I really appreciate the way that this article points out that political disputes in this country are often not between right and wrong; they’re more often between which of those two poles will win out. Do we want to err on the side of the government protecting us, or on the side of protecting ourselves from government? Do we want to risk the government oppressing us, or do we want to risk the world oppressing us?

Most of those debates will continue to go on, of course. How we balance those two poles will always be one of the factors which divide our political world. But, seen through this lens, it becomes apparent that the only guaranteed mistake is to not seek a balance at all, and try to find the answer in either extreme:

Those who give up on that effort and seek instead to realize one notion of justice to the exclusion of the other are history’s political mischief-makers. When untempered by Lockean considerations, the pursuit of Hobbesian justice justifies tyranny in the name of moral righteousness. It is thus a serious danger and a potent threat to civilized life and human freedom. The single-minded pursuit of Lockean justice, by contrast, with its paranoia about imagined wrongs and relative indifference to expressions of actual human suffering, is merely callously ridiculous.

It’s as good of a guideline as any: don’t trust the extremists. Ever.

Tuesday, May 25, 2010

The Religious Problem

I just heard the first few minutes of a radio interview with Stephen Prothero, the author of the book God Is Not One. The thesis of the book is that the common claim that “all religions are the same, at their core” is actually patently false. From the bit I’ve heard, it actually sounds like an interesting book, and I’m hoping to read it over the summer. Since I haven’t read it, I’m not going to comment on the larger idea behind it, yet. But, one thing he said got my attention.

In the interview, he offered one insight as to why he thinks that it’s silly to claim that we’re all the same. He says that each religion is actually attempting to solve a different problem. And, since that’s true, the answers they give will be radically different.

I found that framing to be really interesting. Christianity, he claims, is trying to solve the problem of “what do we do about sin,” or, perhaps, “how do we gain salvation?” Buddhism is trying to answer, “why is there pain, and how can we stop it?” Those two religions are going to be totally dissimilar, because they have totally different goals. It would be crazy to expect them to wind up in the same place.

In the interview (at least, in the part which I heard), he didn’t offer what Judaism’s problem might be. I have a theory, but I thought it would make for an interesting discussion. What problem do you think Judaism is trying to solve?* If you’re part of a different religion, what problem is that religion trying to solve? And, if you’ve read the book, feel free to offer a quick book review!

* answer: does anything NOT taste better if it’s pickled or fried?