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.