Friday, April 30, 2010


OK. I’m going to get into a topic which can easily turn ugly. If you can’t talk about things like Arizona’s recently passed immigration law without getting strident, nasty or crazed, then please stop reading now. There are some wonderful baseball blogs to occupy your time. And, yes, for the record, this is a non-Jewish post, so if you only care about my thoughts regarding Judaism…well, those baseball blogs are really, really good.

Still here? Good. Deep breath. Let’s continue.

As most of us know, Arizona just passed a law which states that if a Police Officer is “reasonably suspicious” that a person might be an illegal immigrant, they can (in fact, they must) check that person’s papers to verify their legality.

Not surprisingly, the liberal voices in the media started protesting immediately. The New York Times has called on President Obama to nullify this law, as an act offensive to Civil Rights. The New Republic has argued that this law is really all about irrational hysteria and political posturing. And, of course, John Stewart has weighed in, mocking Arizona all around.

To a liberal, such as myself, the arguments were obvious – this is an open invitation to racial profiling (which is, I believe, illegal, although I hear different opinions about what that actually means), to oppressing minority groups, just because they share a physical appearance with other people who are coming into our country illegally, and to creating a kind of Police State, giving the police the power to harass whomever they want (which circles back on the profiling argument, since no one is worried that that Arizona police are going to start harassing blond men in Polo shirts). There are also some side arguments, such as the legality of a state enacting immigration laws.

Then, yesterday, The New York Times ran an Op-Ed by Kris Kobach, one of the authors of the legislation. Kobach offers a cogent, calm rebuttal of the major claims being made against the law*. In response to the “racial profiling argument,” he argues that “Reasonable Suspicion” is a well defined term, legally speaking, and that the law expressly prohibits using race as the sole determinant of suspicion. There’s no real danger of the problems being floated by the law’s opponents, he claims. There is nothing to actually worry about, if you use logic, rather than rhetoric. If you oppose the law, then it’s well worth giving this short piece a read.

* Major kudos to the Times for being willing, as they often are, to give space to someone who’s views expressly contradict the stated editorial opinion of the paper.

Well, that leaves a bleeding heart liberal, who tries to stay fair-minded and avoid knee-jerk reactions (such as myself) in a bit of a quandary. As is often the case, both sides actually seem to have a point (if you want to read a wonderful sermon sermon I gave on Yom Kippur on this, check this one out).

I tried to do some poking around on the ol’ Intertubes, to find some reasoned, balanced arguments. Something which would analyze the claims being made by both sides. Something that was addressing the arguments from the other side, rather than just talking past them. Hard to find.

Then, it dawned on me. I may not have many readers, but they surely are the smartest bunch of people out there! So, I’d ask them for an opinion.

My instinct is that, while Kobach’s arguments sound logical, they’re not realistic. Saying that “Reasonable Suspicion” cannot legally, and therefore will not, lead to Racial Profiling might work on paper, but will never actually hold up in the real world. Arguing that all that this law is doing is creating a framework of enforcement around established law (that is, it’s helping police illegal immigrants – who are, by definition, here illegally) and isn’t about any kind of racial battle is naive (at best), given the type of nasty, racist rhetoric which has been part of this debate. In other words, when people talk about “those people destroying our country” and such, and then claim to be unbiased – well, let’s just say that I view that claim of neutrality with a bit of suspicion.

So, what do you say? Knowing that I’ve got some lawyers and academics and thinkers and good people and smart people looking at this, what do you think of the law? Of Kobach’s defense of it? Of my reaction to it?

Please keep in mind – this is a call for rational, respectful debate. Disagreements are, as always, welcome. Respect and decency are mandated.

Truly looking forward to your opinions.

Thursday, April 29, 2010

Kosher Sex

So, as I mentioned in my last post, I just taught a couple of sessions on Kosher Sex, a book which describes itself as, “A Recipe for Passion and Intimacy.” Actually, the class was only partially based on the book.  Because, in the end, I have a number of reservations about the book, I decided, instead, to make the class a more generalized look at Jewish views about sex and sexuality.  But, I will say that one of the more interesting insights which I came across while preparing for this class did come from the book.  And, that had to do with the role of sex in a relationship.

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, the author of the book, maintained that our culture misunderstands the relationship between love and romance on the one hand, and sex on the other*. Generally speaking, he points out, we tend to to see sex as the pinnacle of a relationship.  The romantic ideal is that we meet, we fall into like, we fall into love, and then we have sex.  Sex is the ultimate expression of, and fulfillment of, a loving relationship.

* anyone who attempts to make a joke out of the fact that I just said, “on the one hand” in this posting will be docked points for a lack of originality.

Actually, Boteach maintains, that's not how things really work.  The reality is that sex becomes one of the ways in which we deepen our relationships with each other, and allow them to grow into love.  Looking at the Adam and Eve story, that he points out that the Hebrew term which is used for sex is, “to know.”

Even if they were best friends, they were only acquainted with their externalities.  They did not possess the kind of knowledge that linked and hooked them together forever.  They knew only each other's most revealed aspects.  They knew what kind of cuisine the other liked, the holiday destination each preferred, whom their favorite artist were, and which music they most enjoyed listening to.  They even knew the main issues that troubled their childhood and how the other got along with their respective parents.  In short, they knew what the other did, but did not know what the other was.  They didn't know how the other would behave when all inhibition and social adjustment had been surrendered.

Love came only through physical intimacy.  As Adam and Eve took off all their outer garments and inner restraints and behaved around each other in the exact same fashion in which they behaved around themselves, that was the moment when they came to know each other.  Only then did they fathom each other's essence, peering deep beneath the outer layers into the heart and through the windows of the soul.

This is just one example of how different Judaism's view of sex really is from what most people expect from a religion (I would say, “from Christianity,” but I've learned that some Christians feel that the true teachings of the church in this arena have been misunderstood and misrepresented.  I'm certainly not in a position to judge that, so I'll stay agnostic on this one). The truth is that Judaism, in many different ways, believes that sex is not only healthy, but sacred.  It is a way in which we can most deeply know another person, and, not coincidentally, a way which we can learn to know God, as well.

Kosher Sex and the Vatican

OK, the title of this entry might seem like a cheap attempt to get Google hits, but there is a connection.

Last night, I taught the second session (of two) of a class on Kosher Sex. If you don’t know, Kosher Sex is a book by Rabbi Shmuley Boteach, a Hassidic/Lubavitch/Chabad Rabbi who has become very well known for his book and his related talks. In very quick summary, the book proposes that sex be seen as a powerful force in our lives – one which can be destructive if abused, but which can incredibly holy if used properly (that’s what “Kosher Sex” means – sex that is within proper, religious boundaries).

For what it’s worth, it’s an OK book. He does a lot of asserting that “X is true” or “Judaism believes Y” without actually providing sources, so it’s hard to know where his instincts/insights end and established knowledge begins. In other words, I can’t tell you how much of his thinking is backed by modern psychology, how much is backed by Jewish thought, and how much is just what he thinks is true. That’s a real failing in a book like this. But, he makes some points which are interesting, and it’s worth checking out if you’re interested.

I’ve been aware of the book for a while, and of Rabbi Shmuley, as well. He’s been starring in “Shalom in the Home,” a show where he goes and helps couples rekindle the love in their marriages. He’s been on Oprah. He’s been everywhere. I’ve always had a hard time pinning down exactly what he was. Sometimes, he seems very reasonable – a smart, dedicated religious Jew who really believes, not without reason, that our modern sexual ethic leads to a lot of unhappiness, and that reclaiming the sanctity of sex is good for all of us. Sometimes, he seems like a wolf in sheep’s clothing – someone trying to package old-world thinking into a more palatable form, in order to convince us all to live by one version of Jewish life. Sometimes a moderate; sometimes a fanatic.

Then, today, I see a headline on*. Shmuley went to the Vatican and suggested to the Pope that he start pushing Catholics to have family dinners. Why? Because that will make the Church seem more family-friendly, and will help dissipate the anger over the ongoing child-abuse scandal.

* you know, years ago, was the best site on the web for updated news. Now, it seems the best place for celebrity gossip and life/culture stories, with a bit of news thrown in. I can’t seem to stop using it to check in on the news, though. Habits die hard. Anyone have any suggestions for a better news site?

Would that work? I’d like to think it wouldn’t, but I can imagine things stranger than a “look how nice we are” campaign actually distracting a very distractible public. But, that isn’t the point, is it?

I think (hope?) that we’d all agree, Catholic, Christian, Jew, atheist, whatever, that the Church’s main problem isn’t a public relations one. The reason that people are appalled by the way that the church has dealt with pedophile priests is that it’s appalling. Outrage is the proper reaction to any religious organization covering up sex abuse.

I would have hoped that we could expect better from a Rabbi. I would have hoped that a Jewish leader would never suggest that the way to deal with a scandal is to distract people from it, rather than dealing with the underlying matter. I would have hoped that someone who claims to be an expert in Judaism would never suggest that PR was more important than substance.

Of course, he got on So, that’s cool. I guess.

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Like me, only more spiritual

I’m going to start with a disclaimer – I’m not quite saying what I want here, I think. Or, at least, a topic like this deserves more thought, more organization than this. But, I’ve been trying to get this down for a while, without any success, so I’m going to just do it, and trust that, as inadequate as it might be, it will be an honest stab at something. Maybe it will turn into something more, later. But, in the spirit of blogging, I’m just going to put it out there, as it comes out, without trying to get it “just right.” That being said…


A little while ago, I read Eat, Pray, Love by Elizabeth Gilbert*. I’ll admit two things: first of all, I was hoping to not like it. I knew just enough about it to know that it was the memoir of one woman’s spiritual journey, and that it had gained a lot of popularity in the pop-spirituality world. Those who know me know that I’m, shall we say, a little bit cynical about that world. My religious life tends to be a bit more – well, I’m not sure what the right word is here. Centered? Rational? Sarcastic? Any of my friends want to help me out here?

* Thanks to F.M. for convincing me to read it

The other thing I’ll admit then is that, despite my best efforts, I really did like the book. I could complain about this or that – legitimately – but if nothing else, it was a well written, honest, enjoyable account of an important time in someone's life. Well worth reading, if you like this sort of memoir.

But, I’m not writing this as a book review. I’m writing it because of one specific moment in the book. Lizzie, who is (by her own admission) something of a flake, spends several months in an Ashram (an Indian spiritual retreat center). There, this chatty, bubbly, social butterfly tries to find a spiritual center. She tries to become more serious, in the hopes of finding greater truth and serenity. She tries to change, for the better.

Then, one day, she is asked to become the social greeter for the Ashram. Kind of like Julie, the Cruise Director on Love Boat, she is to greet all of the new guests, make them feel welcome, and help them get oriented. She is given this job because she is so chatty, bubbly and social. She is being asked to use exactly those parts of her personality which she felt were at odds with her spiritual growth. She’s frustrated beyond belief – not even her spiritual guides can see past this breezy exterior to the more serious, profound person trying to get out.

Then, it dawns on her. Her guides are seeing something which she can’t:

If there is one holy truth in this Yoga, [it is that] God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are. God isn’t interested in watching you enact some performance of personality in order to comply with some crackpot notion you have about how a spiritual person looks or behaves. We all seem to get this idea that, in order to be sacred, we have to make some massive, dramatic change of character, that we have to renounce our individuality…To know God, you need only to renounce one thing—your sense of division from God. Otherwise, just stay as you were made, within your natural character.


When I entered Rabbinic school, I was fairly well known to my friends and classmates to be a non-spiritual type. That may sound strange coming from a Rabbi, but in a world where people occasionally led services while swaying in ecstasy (which, fairly or not, I always experienced as mock ecstasy), and where some people tried to talk like a living embodiment of a spiritual self-help book – well, let’s just say that I wanted none of that. Like I said, I’m slightly sarcastic. Moderately irreverent. And, apparently, somewhat given to (sarcastic) understatement, if you know what I mean. I didn’t want to become “God’s Little Instruction Book” on feet. I didn’t want to walk around, telling people that I loved their auras, or that I could see into their souls. I still don’t. I don’t like it. I don’t trust it.

But, a funny thing has been happening to me: I find myself, more and more, drawn to questions of spirituality. I’m not even sure exactly what the word means, but “an awareness of the presence of God” is a pretty close definition. I’m going to avoid trying to define, for now, what that pursuit has looked like, because it’s hard to describe with anything approaching conciseness. Maybe in another posting, some day. My reason for talking about it is, I’ve been nervous.

I’ve been nervous that I’m going to start, slowly, turning into someone else. I’ve been at least as nervous (probably more so) that people will think I’ve been turning into something else. One of those ethereal spiritualists who walk around on a cloud of worshipful eminence. Some people might not agree with me, but I kind of like the sarcastic, irreverent me. Maybe a more sincere, reverent version would be better, or would be a better Rabbi*. But, it wouldn’t be me. It took me more than a few years to be comfortable with who I am. I don’t want to change, at least not fundamentally, now.

* please don’t comment with a “oh no – we love you the way you are!” I’m really not fishing for complements with this!

That’s why I loved that section of Eat, Pray, Love so much. It encapsulated, perfectly, the tension I was feeling. The desire to be more spiritual, while still being me. To grow, but not to change, at least, not fundamentally. To be able to be profoundly spiritual – or, more likely, to profoundly search for the spiritual in the world – without having to create or embody a new persona to do it.

Or as Sextus, the ancient Pythagorian philosopher, said, “The wise man is always similar to himself.”

Tuesday, April 20, 2010

Happy Birthday Israel

In honor of Israel's Independence Day, here's a little bit of "rah rah!" for anyone who's interested:

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Logic. Logic?

As I've probably mentioned before, I receive a daily e-mail, giving a quick overview of some (usually picayune) aspect of Jewish Law. It's rarely useful, in any practical sense, for me - I just enjoy learning these little tidbits, is all. On Sunday, I got one who's topic was "Determining the Validity of Accepted Customs." In short, it deals with Jewish Old Wives Tales, or common superstitious practices. You know - the kind of things which people pick up along the way as little protections against the evil eye, or whatever. Some of them, such as spitting between (on?) two fingers while saying "kinahara" (roughly speaking - "get away, evil eye!") when something bad is said, are incredibly widespread.

You see, the problem is that, in Judaism, a practice which is done for a very long time by a lot of people becomes something like law. It isn't really law, but it takes on the same power. So, should we consider these superstitions as valid acts? Required acts? Or, should they be forbidden, because, officially speaking, Judaism frowns on superstition (since it's, in essence, a power other than God)?

The answer is, at first, a very reasonable one. Any practice which has a rational, reasonable basis should be continued. In other words, if something is done because of a superstition, but it also happens to makes sense, we don't outlaw it just because it's a superstition. Great! Makes perfect sense. Until, of course, we get to their first example:

Some people have the custom to ensure not to walk over a baby or child, and to require somebody who did walk over a baby or child to walk over him again, backward. The Be'er Moshe writes that this is, indeed, a legitimate practice that is based upon a valid reason. There is a concern that walking over a child will have the effect of stunting his growth, and therefore if one did walk over a child, he should walk back over him to eliminate the effect. (Accordingly, there would be no problem with walking over a person who has already grown to his or her full height.)

Sigh. As I said to someone recently: Logic. It's like nuclear power. It can accomplish great things. But, in the wrong hands, it can create disasters. Not everyone should be allowed to use it.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

God's little instruction book

I've got a small list of blog topics I'm trying to get to, but in the mean time, here's a little something for y'all. I received a list of religious aphorisms - kind of "God's Little Instruction Book" things. I'll admit to sometimes being a sucker for these pithy little numbers, so here are two that I really liked:

"It's easier to preach ten sermons than it is to live one."

"Coincidence is when God chooses to remain anonymous."

And, one that I think they got wrong:

"Don't put a question mark where God put a period"

Anyone who reads this blog knows that I think that this last one is exactly reversed. The question marks are much more important than the periods or, especially, the exclamation marks. And, while we're at it, anyone who knows ancient Hebrew knows that there was no punctuation, anyway. So, it's totally possible that we've misunderstood a lot, just based on punctuation.

[an aside off of an aside: don't think punctuation matters? Check out these two sentences:

A woman without her man is useless.
A woman: without her, man is useless.


Tuesday, April 6, 2010

7 or 8?

Last night, I had a calzone and a beer for dinner. Many of my friends were “enjoying” a last night of matza-based “food”. What gives?

For those who don’t know about the 7 vs. 8 controversy, and for those who care, here is a brief primer…

About 2000 years ago, there started to be some confusion about the calendar. It’s a long story (it involved some people who wanted to purposefully disrupt the calendar), but all you need to know for now is that people couldn’t be 100% sure when certain holidays fell. So, being Jews, they came up with a solution that could only make sense to Jews – celebrate the holiday for 2 days, so that we’d be sure to get the proper day in there, somewhere. The 7 day festivals similarly got expanded to 8 days.

That went on for a while, until the calendar got fixed*, and there was no more doubt about dates. Now, there was no need for a 2nd day of any of these holidays. But, in Judaism, past practice has an enormous power – something which people do for a long time (minhag is the Hebrew word) can even become as powerful, and as mandatory, as a written law. So, even when the original need for the 2nd day went away, there was still a tendency in the religion to keep observing it. If it had been good enough for generations, then it’s good enough today!

*the short version here is that we went from a calendar based on observing the moon to determine the start of each month, to one where the calendar was set in advance, and you could predict, as far into the future as may want, when any month would begin. That’s what we still have today.

This was one of the many changes which the first generation of Reform Jews (working in the mid to late 1800’s) made. They said that minhag was well and good, but when the very logical reason for a practice has clearly, and undeniably, vanished, then it becomes illogical to keep observing that practice. It, in essence, makes an idol out of the past – it gives the past the same power as the word of God. So, it is not only illogical, but somewhat sacrilegious, to keep doing something, and keep thinking of it as mandatory, simply because we’ve always done it that way. I suspect that the simple symbolic power of doing things differently was also at play here – it was one of the markers that we were different from the Jews who came before us.

So, for as long as there have been Reform Jews, more or less, the official position of Reform Judaism has been that it is unnecessary, and maybe improper, to observe 8 days of Passover (and Sukkot, and two days of Shavuot, and so on. Rosh Hashana gets a bit trickier, which is why many Reform synagogues still observe a 2nd day of that holiday).

It would be untrue to say that all Reform Jews follow the 1/7 rule for holidays, rather than 2/8. Minhag and habit play an enormous role in Jewish life, and for some people, it just feels wrong to eat bread on the 8th day. That’s fine – Reform Judaism is much more interested in people making thoughtful decisions than it is in dictating practice. But, as a synagogue, we only observe 7 days – hametz (grainy, non-Passover foods) are welcome back in the building today.

Unfortunately, I’ll be eating Passover eggplant parmesan for lunch. Passover may be over for me. But, it’s still a sin to let that much food go to waste.