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?