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?

Friday, May 14, 2010

Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace

I’ve long considered myself to be both Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace.

Israel: I strongly support Israel, and I generally (but not always) think that Israel does the right thing (or, if you prefer, the least-wrong thing) in its handling of the ongoing conflict with the Palestinian people (and the other Arab nations). I’m a strong believer that the conflict, while certainly exacerbated at times by Israeli actions, is fundamentally the result of decisions made by the Palestinians.

Peace: If I were in charge of the world, then there would be some version of a Two-State Solution in place tomorrow. I believe that the right thing is to have Israel and a Palestinian State, living side-by-side. I believe that not only because it seems to be the only way to achieve a long-term peace, but because I think it’s just – both peoples deserve a country to call their own.

Many people think that it’s impossible to be both Pro-Israel and Pro-Peace. So, I often try to find ways to express how and why I am definitely both. Today, I saw an e-mail by a Rabbi from Israel (whom I know only through his writing and reputation) by the name of Micky Boyden, which says what I often want to say, only more clearly (and, by virtue of his living in Israel, with perhaps a bit more authority). With his permission, I’m posting the majority of that e-mail:

Earlier this week I received an invitation from J Street to join their ranks. (I don't know who gave them my Email address, but that's another matter.) [Ed: J Street is a somewhat new pro-peace advocacy group which feels that the mainstream Israel Lobby is too right-wing, and wants to put forth a more Liberal version of political Zionsim]

Let me put my cards on the table. I believe in a two-state solution and view the parts of the West Bank currently held by Israel as being occupied territory. That having been said, I have lived in the Middle East for too long to be naive. There is no room for Israel on the maps in Palestinian schools, they deny that there was ever a Temple in Jerusalem and they frequently name streets and soccer teams after their so-called shahidim ("martyrs").

I view the rapprochement between Turkey, Iran and Syria with grave concern.

I see that, with all of the best intentions, the United States and her allies have to date failed abysmally to dissuade Iran from pursuing her nuclear ambitions, or Syria from re-arming the Hizbollah in spite of the presence of UN forces in Southern Lebanon.

Against that background, J Street's assertion that "engaging with problematic leaders and states is the basis of a smart and tough foreign policy" rings somewhat hollow and reflects President Obama's stategy that, if we are honest with ourselves, has failed to date to produce any tangible results in rogue states such as Iran, North Korea or Syria.

While I am unhappy that innocent Palestinians in Gaza suffer because of the government they chose to elect, I am more concerned for my family's safety and am worried when Russia suggests (in a view shared by J Street) that we need to bring Hamas into the peace process, knowing full well that they and their Iranian patrons are intent upon the destruction of my country. The fact that much of the international community, encouraged by Israel's enemies, is currently pressing us to divulge information that would bring an end to any ambiguity about our nuclear capability is hardly coincidental.

It has become fashionable, even among many Jews, to blame us for the lack of stability in the Middle East and to liken our actions to those of South Africa during the days of apartheid. Meanwhile, Ambassador Michael Oren is characterized by some at Brandeis as a "rogue state apologist".

I believe that the time has come for Reform Rabbis, who share the middle ground in the political spectrum, to establish an organization of their own to counteract the leftward drift among Jews attracted by the likes of J Street. That does not mean that we should automatically support Israeli government policy on every issue, but rather that we have our feet firmly on the ground and understand that, while idealist considerations should be central to our thinking, the road to hell is paved with good intentions.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Washing the doubt away

Here's an interesting tidbit to start your day: according to a study recently published in the journal Science, washing your hands after making a decision can actually reduce the likelihood of second guessing that decision.  In other words, if after making a decision you wash your hands, you're more likely to be confident and content with your decision.

For me, this brings up two overlapping thoughts.  One is, as the article touches on, that religious ceremonies involving water, such as immersion in a mikvah (ritual bath) are probably based on something more profound, and more interesting, than mere ancient superstition.  This isn't just some silly folk-way. There seems to be something deep within us (whether it’s biologically or societally based, I can’t even guess) that responds to water, and sees it as a boundary of some sort. I always learned that the mikvah is supposed to symbolize the womb – coming out of it is not a cleansing, but a rebirth. When we wash our hands, or come out of the water, we’ve entered a new stage, and we don’t have to look back at the old one (or, at least, we don’t have to be beholden to it).

This idea also brings up the overarching issue of ritual. Many have pointed out that human beings are ritualistic beings. We need ritual in our lives, as a way to mark time and transitions. I’ve even heard some of the popular Angry Atheists (I think it was Richard Harris) say that, in a perfect, atheistic world, we’d still have to find appropriate, non-religious rituals to mark these moments*. It’s pretty close to a universally accepted truth – ritual is important, and ritual is powerful. Ritual, at it’s core, speaks to something deep inside of us – it gives voice to something that we can’t quite express ourselves.

* I’ve heard others comment that, inevitably, we’d need people who were experts in conducting these rituals, and in establishing/managing the rules for these rituals. And, people would fight over the rituals, and their meanings, and the officiants, and so on. Sound familiar. So, if that’s all true, I’m not sure that we’d actually have anything different than we have now.

If I had to guess, this is probably why most Jews that I know respond more powerfully to lifecycle events (births, weddings, etc) than to holidays – the lifecycle rituals are marking a time which is already significant to them, while the holidays are marking a time on a calendar which is only theoretically relevant to them, at best. When a ritual is closely paralleled to an internal reality, it’s bound to be meaningful. When it’s detached from any substantial personal connection, it’s almost bound to be empty, right?

It’s hardly a new insight, but one worth remembering. Religion which speaks to our lives, religion which connects to that which is already precious to us, is much more likely to be relevant, powerful and transformative than religion which comes at us from the outside. Religion should reflect the spirit, not be foreign to it.

But, on occasion, religion might just offer practical advice. So, here it is: if you’re not sure about something, make a decision, then go wash your hands of it – literally. It may not be, classically speaking, a religious insight. But, if you heard it here first, then I’ll happily take credit for it.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Israel on our campuses

This year, Brandies University invited Michael Oren – scholar, author and currently Israel’s ambassador to the US – to be their Commencement speaker. A number of students have been protesting this selection, because they feel that Oren represents a right-wing government whose views and policies are antithetical to their own.

If you read the petition, I think that there are actually some valid points (even if I disagree with the gist). They aren’t protesting Oren’s views per se. Rather, they claim that Commencement, a communal time, is not the appropriate venue for so polarizing a figure. They point to many other occasions when speakers, on all sides of the Palestinian-Israel conflict, have spoken.

Rabbi Daniel Gordis, however, has written a piece explaining what is really, in his mind, so sad about this. It’s not that people dislike this or that policy about Israel. It’s that, based on the rhetoric you hear (and, I’d add, often hear and see on campuses), you’d think that Israel is solely a target of protest for these students. That they find nothing positive to say, think or feel about our homeland:

This is where we are today. For many young American Jews, the only association they have with Israel is the conflict with the Palestinians. Israel is the country that oppresses Palestinians, and nothing more.

No longer is Israel the country that managed to forge a future for the Jewish people when it was left in tatters after the Holocaust. Israel is not, in their minds, the country that gave refuge to hundreds of thousands of Jews expelled from North Africa when they had nowhere else to go, granting them all citizenship, in a policy dramatically different from the cynical decisions of Lebanon, Syria and Jordan to turn their Palestinian refugees into pawns in what they (correctly) assumed would be a lengthy battle with Israel.

Israel is not proof that one can create an impressively functioning democracy even when an enormous portion of its citizens hail from countries in which they had no experience with democratic institutions. Israel is not the country in which, despite all its imperfections, Beduin women train to become physicians, and Arab citizens are routinely awarded PhDs from the country’s top universities. Israel is not the country in which the classic and long-neglected language of the Jews has been revived, and which produces world class literature and authors routinely nominated for Nobel Prizes.

Like I said, a good case can be made that a polarizing, political figure is not a good choice for a time like Commencement. Of course, a case can also be made that Oren is a high ranking representative of the Jewish State, and to protest him is, on some level, to repudiate the state as a whole.

But, whatever you feel about the Commencement issue, it’s true that Israel is a hard sell among many Jews in college. It’s true that too many of our youth see Israel only as a negative or, God forbid, evil country. And, that’s sad, and tragic.

I’ve said it before, but it’s worth repeating. There is plenty that I could criticize Israel for (and have done so). But, on whole, I can easily and passionately defend Israel. They are in a conflict which is not of their own making. They have dealt with it very imperfectly, but far better than almost any other country has dealt, or would deal, with a similar situation. And, despite their failings, they remain an extraordinary country, and an immense source of pride for me. It saddens me that so many students, many of whom are the future leaders of the Jewish people, can’t seem to see this.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.