Tuesday, December 20, 2011

How the Washington Post (among others) distorts the Middle East

I've said plenty of times that the press does a terrible job of reporting on the ongoing conflict in the Middle East, particularly with Israel (it's not exactly an opinion which is original to me). For some reason, the Washington Post has been one of the worst offenders in this regard, and I recently came across this description of exactly how they get it so wrong.

The Washington Post consistently mischaracterizes the Arab-Israeli conflict as: (1) primarily a dispute over land in the West Bank and Gaza, rather than what is, in reality, a continuing attempt by the Arabs to annihilate Israel that began long before Israel was in control of the West Bank and Gaza; (2) then, mischaracterizes the land as "Palestinian land,"illegally occupied by Israel, instead of disputed territory to which Israel has legitimate claims; and, (3) finally, mischaracterizes Israel's military and security tactics as inhumane and in violation of international norms, when they are probably the most protective of human rights in the history of warfare. All three of these fundamental mischaracterizations by The Post are developed in more detail below.

It goes on from there to give a lot more detail. It's not exactly a nuanced article, and even a strong supporter of Israel like myself can find ways in which it goes too far in the other direction (for instance, there are plenty of ways in which the Israeli Army has clearly stepped over the line from time to time. Even if (importantly) these are isolated incidents, rather than planned policy, it's still important to acknowledge them, if you're going to say/suggest that all innocent Palestinian injuries were reasonable accidents). But, it gives a strong summary of how the press can often use omission and distortion to make Israel look bad.

If you're one of the many who want to support Israel more vocally, but are often confused/frustrated by what you see in the press, this is a good place to start.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Israel: still not an Apartheid state

I don't usually reference Dennis Prager, but I have to admit that this five minute video does an excellent job of debunking the “Israel is an Apartheid state” nonsense:

Israel is not perfect. Far from it. Israel has some very serious problems, with its internal politics, as well as with its relations with the Palestinians. That statement is so obvious that it's almost ridiculous to have to say it, but I never want to be accused of being in the “Israel can do no wrong” camp. Israel can do wrong, and it has. And it's the right of anyone, Jewish or not, to criticize Israel when it does so.

But, when that criticism become so ridiculous, so disproportionate, so completely disconnected from reality, we have to ask ourselves about the motivation for that criticism. Is it an honest concern for the country, or for those who are being wronged by the country? Or, is it an attempt to demonize that country, and cut off any reasonable debate?

So then, why is Israel called apartheid state? Because by comparing the freest, most equitable country in the Middle East to the former South Africa those who hate Israel hope they can persuade uninformed people that Israel doesn't deserve to exist just as apartheid South Africa didn't deserve to exist

Imagine, for moment, that you do something wrong. Something serious, but not egregious. And then I call you on it—I point out what you did wrong, and hold you to account for it. We can disagree on whether or not you did it. We can disagree on whether or not you are wrong. We can disagree on how bad it was. All reasonable.

But then, imagine instead that I just begin the conversation by calling you, in all seriousness, an evil, worthless scumbag who deserves a painful death. Would you consider that to be, in any way, a reasonable approach? Would you try to engage me in a rational conversation, explaining that, in fact, you are not an evil worthless scumbag? Or would you assume that I was crazy, unreasonable, and/or just out to get you?

When someone calls Israel and Apartheid state, they aren't engaging in reasonable discussion. They're screaming at the top of their lungs that Israel is evil, and they don't want you to think, and they don't want to listen.

Friday, December 2, 2011

Keeping Kosher

So, skipping a long back story, I wrote an essay explaining why as a Reform Jew I keep kosher. Why would someone who is part of a movement/philosophy which allows him to eat, say, bacon, decide not to. I thought I'd share my first draft with y'all for two reasons. First, you might find it interesting (you are, after all, the ones reading this blog). But, I would also love some feedback. This will, potentially, a ways down the road, get published, so anything you have to say about where it's good and, more importantly, where I'm not getting my point across, or where I'm not very clear, would be appreciated!



My awakening as a serious, adult Jew began while spending a semester of college in Israel. During that time, I encountered Jewish law, Jewish philosophy, Jewish history and much more from the Jewish world for the first time ever on a serious, intellectual, challenging level. As much as I had always identified strongly as a Jew, I was taking my Judaism, and my Jewish practice, seriously for the first time.

It wasn’t easy for me—I grew up in a family which was extremely nonobservant. So, I had little to fall back on in the way of family tradition or previous practice (or, practical knowledge). In many ways, I was building my Judaism from scratch. I was open to everything, and questioning and challenging everything, as well.

Well, not everything. Certainly not kashrut—the dietary laws of Judaism. I remember being rather dismissive of those. Maybe it was just a lifetime of eating shellfish and pork*, but I couldn't imagine a world in which I give them up. I distinctly remember telling a friend, also a Reform Jew, but much more observant than I was, that I would never keep kosher.

* bloggy addition - I've often said that the closest that that family ever came to discussion kashrut was in asking whether it was allowed to put the shrimp with lobster sauce on the same plate as the roast pork fried rice.

The answer, by the way, is "yes."

During our Spring Break, two friends and I traveled to Turkey and Greece. Somewhere along the way, we stopped at a street cart and ordered gyros. Looking at the meat, I found myself asking the cart owner what was in them. Among other things, he told me, there was pork. It suddenly dawned on me—I hadn't eaten pork in months. Living in Jerusalem, sharing an apartment with students who were much more committed to Jewish practice than I was, keeping kosher was just the default behavior. I had been doing it, more or less, without thought.

I don't know that I can explain the reasons any better now than I could have then, but I was suddenly overcome with an intense, unmistakable desire to not eat pork. Although it came, clearly, from a Jewish place, it felt more nonspecific than that. I just knew that, at that moment, I wasn't supposed to break kashrut. I threw the gyro into the trash, and bought something else to eat.

I didn't commit, at that moment, to a lifetime of keeping kosher. I decided, instead, to take a day by day approach, and to keep an open mind to this new practice which I had suddenly, totally unexpectedly, taken upon myself. I started to learn more about the laws of kashrut, talk to people who kept kosher (for the first time with an open mind, rather than with an eye toward refuting their arguments), and to actively engage with the mitzvah—to make conscious decisions about what I ate, from a Jewish point of view, and to pay attention to how it felt, and what it meant to me.

To my great surprise, it felt good. No—that's not quite right. It didn't feel good. I missed (and continue to miss) the foods I gave up. I often don't “like” keeping kosher. But, it felt right. More than anything, I remember the power of turning eating, an act which had been, up until that time, totally mundane, into a religious event. That's not to say that, every time I ate, I felt the presence of God, or heard angels sing. It's just that now eating had become part of my religious life. Which meant that, every time I ate, I had to shift my mind into “religious mode.” Keeping kosher was the first way that religion became a regular part of my life, and it remains, for that very reason, one of the most important.

I do not keep kosher by Orthodox standards. That might be partially because of a lack of willpower or discipline, but it's mostly because it felt inauthentic to cede my decision-making to authorities who see Judaism so radically differently than I do. The details of my practice have changed over the years—at first, it was mostly a case of “doing more and more.” But, with time, that changed, too as I began to learn which specific details spoke most powerfully to me as a Reform Jew, and which ones didn't seem as if they had a place in my practice. I imagine that these details will continue to change as I learn and grow. But, the larger decision to keep kosher is no longer one which I make on a daily basis. It's simply a part of who I am.

The philosopher Franz Rosenzweig taught that, if we do a Jewish practice with enough sincerity, and enough thoughtfulness, we might discover that it's moved from a practice to a commandment. To something which we have to do. I know that, were I to stop keeping kosher, I would not suffer physically—God will not punish me for eating pork. But, given how integral keeping kosher has been in my own Jewish practice, stopping would definitely come with a penalty. It would both symbolize and create a break between me and my religion, my tradition, and my God. Through my practice, then, I can safely say that keeping kosher has become a mitzvah.

A Liberal Jew - and proud of it

I just came across a bunch of articles which I had put aside to blog about, but never got to. They're old, but still relevant, so now I've got some excuses to do some more blogging…

Here's the first one—it's an article by Alex Sinclair, about Liberal Judaism (which, for those who don't know, can more or less be defined as non-Orthodox Judaism), and it's one of those articles that says something that I've been trying to say for years: not only do liberal Jews need to be more comfortable with, and proud of our version of Judaism, but we have to be clear about some fundamental facts, as we see them:

Liberal Judaism makes a powerful claim, and the claim is that Orthodox Judaism is, at its core, wrong. Orthodox Judaism is built around a narrative that contains a foundational error: “The Torah was written by God and given to Moses on Mount Sinai”. This statement, and the orthodox religious narrative that emerges from it, has been disproven by generations of Biblical scholars, archaeologists, sociologists of religion, and historians. These scholars have demonstrated “beyond a reasonable doubt,” in the late Rabbi Louis Jacobs’ words, that the traditional, orthodox understanding of Jewish history is false. The origins of Judaism are much more complicated than that.

Liberal Judaism is, in my opinion, and in the opinion of many (all?) leaders of Liberal Judaism, correct. True.

I don't expect everyone to agree with me, but all of us who are liberal religionists need to make it clear that we are at least as sure in our beliefs as our more conservative (not to be confused with “Conservative Jews,” who are, ironically, liberal jews) brethren. I am not a Reform Jew because I don't have the commitment, or energy, or knowledge to be an Orthodox Jew. I am a Reform Jew because I believe that Reform Judaism comes closest to the Truth.

Sinclair argues that there are three reasons that Liberal Jews are not more vocal about this: first of all, we fool ourselves about how dangerous it is to let the Orthodox control the conversation. I'd say that this is more true in Israel (where Sinclair is writing) because of the overlap of the religious and political worlds, but it's true here, as well. First of all, we all know that our religious and political world aren't actually so separate in America these days (or, I guess, ever). But there's also a religious danger to this—it leaves many Liberal Jews feeling as if they are “less Jewish” than Orthodox Jews. It drives many people who would benefit greatly from a modern, open, rational Judaism towards a less fulfilling (for them) version of Judaism, because they believe it to be "more authentic." It's not, ulitmately, as pressing as questions of settlements in disputed territories or ceding control of marriage to religious extremists, but it's still real.

The second reason that Sinclair gives for our meekness is our desire for Jewish unity:

A second reason that we allow the orthodox narrative to hold center stage is our own fear of Jewish disunity. We tread on eggshells for fear of saying that others’ opinions might be “wrong” or “false”. We nod our heads when we hear absurd and historically ridiculous statements spouted by orthodox friends, because we believe in everyone’s right to their own opinion, and because we want to be nice. We think it’s important to be united as a people, so we swallow our pride and allow the orthodox narrative to become the default Jewish position.

He makes an interesting point, but I'm not really sure how much that still a relevant motivator. Sure, we may shy away from confrontation in social settings, but I'm not sure that it's a big deal when we're talking more seriously. Or, maybe it is, and I'm in the minority on this one.

His third reason is, to me, the most interesting, and troubling. He says that we fear that, even though we believe in Liberal Judaism in principle, it might lead to assimilation and the loss of Judaism:

The third reason we tolerate the orthodox narrative as default is because we are concerned about assimilation, and deep down we wonder if the narrative, even if it’s false, might help stem the tide of Jews leaving the Jewish people.

I've touched on this before, because I really do find it troubling: it is not unreasonable to believe that orthodox religion has more staying power than liberal religion. That orthodoxy, of any sort, might be more effective, by many measures. I wouldn't say that it's a closed argument, but there is a lot of research which seems to say that more extreme groups are more and more successful, while more liberal, open groups will tend to dissipate and fade away.

I'm not going to give up on my convictions and become Orthodox just because it's a good “business plan” or anything like that. But, it's an issue that we can't ignore: what if Liberal Judaism, as powerful as many of us find it, isn't sustainable?

In the end, it's probably a question which has to be ignored, on some practical level. All I can do is live the most sincere Jewish life that I can, and try to express to others why I find this version of Judaism so powerful, so sacred, and so true. I may be a practicing a kind of “boutique Judaism” that will never have mass appeal, or that will eventually be put out of business by “big-box Judaism.” But, I really don't believe in their product, so I guess I'd better keep selling mine.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

The Liberal Case for Israel

For some time now, it's been fairly standard among the Left to be Anti-Israel/pro-Palestinian. It's certainly not universal, but it's incredibly widespread. Anti-Israel sentiment has become very common in other liberal groups, even when they have absolutely nothing to do with Middle East politics.

I've really never understood where this bias comes from. Some ascribe it to good, old fashioned Anti-Semitism, but I think that's far too simplistic. Others say that the Left has a strong bias towards the weak and oppressed, and that the Palestinians are, or have been effective at portraying themselves as, weak and oppressed. These, and the few other explanations I've heard, never really seem convincing - the strength, and often virulence, of Anti-Zionism on the Left is hard to account for.

As someone who is so strongly Liberal in almost every way, but also passionately pro-Israel, this anti-Israel bias has always frustrated me, but it's also confused me. Especially when, in so many ways, Israel is actually a model of Leftist, Liberal society. It's not perfect (what country is?), but in so many ways, it embodies the causes espoused by the Left.

This point is made, clearly and strongly, by Jonathan Miller. He argues that Leftist groups really should be supporting Israel, especially since Israel is almost infinitely more likely to support their particular cause than any likely Palestinian State would be. I won't pull any quotes from it - it's too good, so it's worth the click-through.

Economic Justice, Civil Liberties, Gay Rights, Women's Rights and more - Israel is, in many ways, a model country on these issues. Her neighbors are anything but.

As always, there are valid complaints about Israel, some of them very serious. But, for (for example) a LGBT group to support the Palestinians over Israel is ironic, to say the least. 

I wish someone could explain that to me.

Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Are all religions equally kooky?

Rabbi Schmuley Boteach has written a piece, arguing that it's not fair to pick on Mormons as being weird, because all religions are weird, when you get right down to it. As per usual with Schmuley's writing, I find it a mix of interesting, thoughtful ideas and easily picked apart nonsense.

First, where we disagree: It's true that probably every religion makes claims which are, at least on some level, irrational (of course, he all but ignores non-literalist, highly rational approaches to religion, but that's a different complaint). But, are they all equally irrational?

This is an interesting question coming from my evangelical brothers and sisters whose belief that a man, born of a virgin, was the son of G-d, only to die on a cross, and then be resurrected, is, with all due respect, not exactly the most rational belief either. It is equally interesting coming from Orthodox Jews, like myself, who believe that the Red Sea split, a donkey talked to Balaam and the sun stood for Joshua.

Again, this doesn't apply to those of us who don't take our sacred text literally. But, even if I did, I'm still not sure that every literalist belief is equally rational or irrational. There is no way that I can disprove that God split the Red Sea. There is no way that I can disprove that Jesus was resurrected. I can disprove (even if not to the satisfaction of everyone) that dinosaurs never existed, or that they existed at the same time as human beings. And, I can disprove that ancient Israelites came to America.

Simply saying “we all believe crazy stuff” sounds very reasonable, and it might be a nice way to dispel tension at a cocktail party, if the conversation turns to religion. But, it really shouldn't be considered a serious analysis of religions!

Boteach also tries to claim that highly scientific people believe crazy things, for example by pointing to Richard Dawkins, a famous and vocal atheist, who believes that life could have been seeded on earth by aliens. Of course, Dawkins doesn't believe that. He actually proposed it as a thought experiment, showing how crazy he thought Intelligent Design actually was. He didn't believe it—he was using it to mock people who believe things like it. Oops…

So, what do I like from the article? Well, first of all, I agree that being kooky is not the worst thing. Even though I am always eager to jump in and defend rationality, ultimately, there might be better ways to judge a person, whether as a religious figure, or a political figure:

Nor should it matter. It is what a person does, rather than what they believe, that counts. It took four years for the Dalai Lama to be identified as the reincarnation of his predecessor in a process that to Western eyes can appear highly arbitrary. Yet, the Dalai Lama remains one of the most respected men alive because of his commitment to world peace and good works.

There are flaws with that approach, to be sure. I do think that “Are you rational?” is a relevant question to ask anyone who is assuming a leadership position, especially one as important as President. But, it also seems relatively clear to me that a person can be, at least partially, irrational and still be a good leader. So, I wouldn't think that these kinds of questions are out of bounds, in the political arena, but nor do I think that they are the end all, be all of campaigning.

But, where I think Schmuley has something most important to say is when he discusses Religious Fundamentalism. I often make the mistake of conflating Fundamentalism and Literalism, but they aren't exactly the same:

The religious fanatic is the man or woman who has ceased to serve G-d and has begun worshipping their religion, making their faith into yet another false idol. Religion is solely the means by which by which we come to have a relationship with our Creator. But when it becomes a substitute for G-d it becomes soulless and fanatical, seeing as there is no loving deity to temper it. It is in this light that we can understand why an Islamic fundamentalist is so deadly, seeing as he is even prepared to go against G-d's express commandment not to murder in order to strike a blow for the glory, not of the deity, but Islam.

Again, it's an incomplete analysis. I would argue that, depending on a number of factors, it's often an incredibly short leap from Literalism to Fundamentalism. After all, if God spoke the words of your religion, then following that religion, even to the extreme, is following God, right? But, it's hard to argue that you can't be a Literalist without being a Fundamentalist; there are many, many people who are exactly that. I clearly don't agree with their literalism, but it would be ridiculous to claim that they are exactly the same as the Taliban, Westborough Baptist Church or Baruch Goldstein. I've heard it said that a non-fundamentalist literalist is just a fundamentalist without conviction. I can see the logical argument behind that, but reality proves it wrong, I think.

Comments are always welcome, of course, but I'd be especially interested to hear people's thoughts about the relationship between rationality/irrationality and leadership potential!

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

A moment of mindfulness - and of living

A nice little piece from Leon Wieseltier in today's The New Republic e-mail talks about the importance of taking the time to do something, even if it might be done a bit more efficiently:

I am interested in more than outcomes. I am wary of finding myself in the middle of an existence too busy, too arrogantly busy, for elementary things. I inhabit a universe in which busyness is a measurement of importance, but really what is taking place is an exchange of one variety of importance for another. It is often a bad bargain. 

Living really should be about more than just getting things done. Sometimes, taking the time to do something carefully, even if it doesn't demand it, is a miraculous thing to do. Focus on the doing itself, not just on getting the task done.

In a little bit, I'm heading out to have lunch with a congregant. I'm looking forward to the lunch (and, especially, to the conversation). But, it also means that I'll have 20 or 30 minutes in my car to listen to a podcast, or some music. And, to just look around. I'm going to enjoy that, too.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Heterodox prayer

So, I just posted a blog entry about heterodox/heretical belief. Almost immediately, someone wrote back (on Facebook) asking whether I truly meant that I don't believe in prayer being literally answered. Because it's such an important question, and one which takes a longer answer than I could give there, I want to say a bit about it, here, instead.

First of all, I'll make it very clear: I don't believe in the literal efficacy of prayer. I don't believe that there is some Being listening in on my prayers, and that, if I pray well, I am more likely to receive something from that Being.

I don't believe that for at least two reasons. First of all, it doesn't seem to comport very well with the reality which I see. Lots of people pray for things; many don't get them. There is, as near as I can tell, no correlation between a person's sincerity/piety/worthiness and their likelihood of having their prayer “answered.” And, at the risk of offending some, I'm very unmoved by some of the standard responses to this such as, “God works in mysterious ways” or “sometimes God answers, but the answer is, 'no.'” if there is a God who is capable of, say, curing an infant of cancer, but that God chooses not to, for some “larger” reason… well, as I've said before, I need a new career, because I'm not working for that God.

I also don't believe in that kind of prayer because it doesn't make logical sense to me. If there is a God who is capable of listening to prayer, then that God is already aware of everything that I want and need. What possible purpose could there be of conditioning the fulfillment of those needs on the proper execution of a ritual? In other words, why would God wait for me to pray for something, especially through a formal act of prayer, before deciding whether to grant it?

My responder asked a very important follow-up question—if I don't believe in the literal efficacy of prayer, then what purpose does prayer have? Well, I may not believe that our prayers are “answered” in the way that a parent can decide to grant, or to not grant, a child's request. But, clearly, prayer can be effective in other ways.

I hate to again fall back on "it's too much to go into here," but I have to, at least for now. The purpose of prayer, if you don't believe in simple, literal efficacy, is an incredibly complex topic. In fact, it's really the impetus behind our new monthly session on personal prayer called “Making Prayer Real.” Those workshops are based around the book of the same name, and it says a great deal of what I think/believe.

In fact, one of the reasons for this blog post is that I wanted an excuse to share a paragraph from it:

It's very surprising for people to learn that very few rabbis, Jewish philosophers, or theologians really have a conventional view of prayer, namely, that we ask for something and God gives it to us, or doesn't. It's really striking. The Kabbalists [ed: Jewish mystics] have all kinds of ways in which prayer can have an effect, but not the standard “you speak and God listens” model. Likewise in the philosophical tradition, and even in the rabbinic tradition. In the last two thousand years, reflective Jewish religious thought actually does not give a lot of space to what 99 percent of us would immediately assume is the point of prayer.
Jay Michelson

I'm realizing that for myself, and for anyone who actually reads this blog regularly, I really do have to start explaining what I do believe about God, prayer and all that. And, I'm thinking about how, exactly, to approach that. So, I promise that, in the near future, you'll hear plenty about what I do believe, along with what I don't.

But, while respecting the fact that there are a great number of sincere, devout, intelligent people who do take a much more “standard” view of prayer than I do, I want to make sure that anyone who's reading this, who either questions or rejects that kind of prayer/God, knows that they aren't alone. There are many of us who value religion, but not religion the way most people mean.

Thank God, there's room for all of us.

What is God - a semi-heretical, Christian approach

A few times recently (and, many times in the past), I've referenced the fact that I am an extreme non-literalist believer. I don't believe in the kind of God who literally listens to our prayers and then decides, based on some semi-known criteria, whether to respond positively, or not. For some reason, these past few times, I've had a number of people, some of whom know me quite well, ask what, exactly, I do believe.

I was a bit surprised by the question, because it often feels to me that I'm always talking about that these days. But, I've realized that that's only true with a small number of people - I've had some sporadic, and some ongoing, conversations with some people, but there's no way that many others would really know what I believe.

I've been meaning to write specifically about it, but it's hard - as much as I talk about it, trying to get it down into a cogent, relatively concise form is tricky. I'll do it, but I'm not sure exactly how or when. Maybe I'll make a series out of it, here on this blog.

But, interestingly, I came across an article a couple of days ago by Andrew Sullivan. Sullivan is a relatively well known writer, and it turns out that he's also a very devout, but very non-literal believer. He obviously views Jesus much differently than I do, but a great deal of what he says resonates strongly with me:

Nonbelievers need to let go of anthropocentric, grey-bearded beings in the sky for God itself, the highest consciousness of all, and the force that gives this staggering beauty, available to us all, love.

This kind of belief is criticized on several levels. The most common, although it comes in various forms, is that it's not valid in whatever religion we're talking about - it's heresy. It's a new, convenient way to think that has nothing to do with this ancient tradition. But, there are at least two very important responses to that. First of all, it's not new. People of (nearly?) all religions have been thinking this way for centuries:

Go read the Nicene Creed. Then try to understand it. You can do so with a nineteenth century literalism; or you can do so in manifold ways that have varied throughout the centuries. They are flawed human words trying to express the inexpressible; language to convey the ineffable.

But, maybe more importantly, we have the second response: so what? So what if it's heresy.

Look, I love Judaism, and I think that our tradition is an inexhaustible source of mening and inspiration. But, just because something is Jewish, or is old, doesn't make it true. My goal in a religious life is to uncover truth. If that truth comes from tradition, then that's wonderful - there are many advantages to finding truth in tradition. But, if that truth is novel, then so be it. Truth is truth.

Seeking God is seeking truth. That much, I believe, has always been true.

Wednesday, November 9, 2011

Abraham, Journeys and Conversion

A couple of weeks ago, one of our members, Jerry Nepon-Sixt, went to the mikvah to complete his conversion to Judaism. As I do with all new converts, I encouraged him to come to services soon to receive a Mi Sheberach—a prayer which asks for God's blessing on this happy occasion, and which also serves as a way for us to “announce” his conversion to the community. Jerry, being Jerry, said that he be happy to, but only if he could give the d'var torah that evening, too.

Well, that all happened this past Shabbat, and I thought that his d'var torah was absolutely wonderful. And so, with his permission, here it is, for your enjoyment:

Sometimes it feels like my life is a series of disconnected stories. The stories are pretty good - funny, dangerous, engaging and with enough resolution that they give a gift to the listener. The stories have been honed by years of telling into finely crafted works, every word carefully selected, the dramatic pauses timed perfectly, and the twists revealed in a way that draw a gasp or a laugh from the listener. I've probably told each of you a few of those stories, and I apologize if I’ve told you the same stories over and over again. The person in the stories is often a distant me, rougher, younger, more adventurous, and a lot more stupid. People have a hard time reconciling my current image with the somewhat crazy man described by the tales I tell.

I travel a lot on business. If you travel at all you know that most of your time is actually spent in line. I spend a couple hours in line in some way every trip. Sometimes my time in line exceeds the flight time. And standing in line is a great place to talk with strangers. With all my travel I am equipped with a geographic reference for any occasion. If you’re from New Jersey I can tell about living on Gropp’s lake outside Trenton when I was a boy, and how my mom learned how to make pasta fazul from Claire Quatromanni. If you're from the San Francisco bay area I can tell about sailing on the bay with the police chief of Berkeley, who grew opium poppies and smoked dope outside what he termed territorial waters – which he defined as having left the dock! If you're from Louisiana I can tell you that my mother once owned Tippitina's, that historic New Orleans nightclub where the Neville Brothers got their start. If you're from Natchez I can ask you about Pilgrimage and the concurrent Indian Pow-Wow at the fairgrounds south of town. If you’re from Boston…You get the picture. I've done or seen something in every state but Alaska.

I hope these stories are interesting to people. I find it interesting when people learn I'm from Florida and they tell me about a fishing trip or a wild weekend on Key West. If they tell me how miserable their July trip to Disney was I give them low marks - Disney in the summer is miserable. Any children under 5 make it doubly so. It's pretty unoriginal to complain about the heat and humidity and sweaty, cranky kids at the Magic Kingdom. I’m sure some of my stories are like that.

But it's also true that some people seem never to have done a whole lot in their lives. I find it so amazing when people tell me they've never left their own state, much less their county or even town. They've stayed in one place, married, raised children, worked, and will probably die in the same place, often within a few miles of their entire sedentary families. In our mobile society it's very easy to forget that this was the norm not so long ago. Yet, even those people have some great stories.

But to me, the best stories are about traveling...not just traveling, but journeying. There is a difference. This week I flew to Nashville and Columbus, OH. That was traveling. In two days I'll ride my bicycle from Tampa to Orlando for a conference...I hope that's a journey. What's the difference? Traveling is a temporary condition. One travels as a means to an end - get home for the holidays, meet with clients, even take a short vacation. In the end, you return home. It is often the case with me that I really have to try to remember where I was and what I did, even a week later.

A journey implies a transformative experience. It is a process. You are left profoundly changed at the end of a journey, even if in the end you return physically to where you began. Sometimes you begin a journey with the promise, the intent, or at least the hope that the experiences along the way will be meaningful. And sometimes a mere trip unexpectedly becomes the journey of a lifetime.

Think about all the classic adventure stories that had journeys at their core - "The Odyssey," "The Call of the Wild," "Huck Finn," "Moby Dick," "The Hobbit," "On the Road,"... "Thelma and Louise." Through the experience of different lands, or just the experiences of meeting new people and living through the adventures of the journey, the characters and the readers are changed forever. What is required is to remove oneself from one's normal existence and to be open to the experiences and the changes that a journey can deliver.

Somewhere around 2300 BCE a man from Ur of the Chaldeans began a journey that would take him thousands of miles, and transform not only him, but the world. God called to him with the words that give the Parsha for this week its name. "Lech L'cha." "Go forth from your native land and from your father's house to the land that I will show you."

This is the start of every great adventure story - a quest. In Abram 's case it was not a magic ring or a great whale, it was the promise God made to "make of you a great nation, and I will bless you, I will make your name great, and you shall be a blessing." And his name was great - Abram became Abraham of course. And we're his spiritual descendents - a great nation.

But why Abraham? There is no mention in Torah to this point of any particular qualities that Abraham possessed that would cause God to single him out as the founder of a people. At the end of Noach we read a lot of "begots" of the lineages of Noah’s sons - finally ending with Terah begetting Abram, Nahor, and Haran. And at the beginning of Lech L'cha the last of this lineage is repeated. In a single verse Abraham's journey with his family from Ur to Haran is recounted. Then suddenly, "The Lord said to Abram..."

What did we miss? I had to go back and read this a few times myself since I was sure I'd missed the something. Abraham has to be described as a righteous man, as having a special relationship to God already...but no. Of Noah it is said “Noah was a righteous man, he was perfect in his generations.” Of Abraham, "The days of Terah came to 205 years, and Terah died in Haran." Then, "The Lord said to Abram."

You may have heard some of the midrash that describe Abraham at this time. Abraham was hidden in a cave for three years to protect him from Nimrod the king. Abraham defied Nimrod and was thrown into a furnace from which he was released unharmed. There is the story of the young Abraham smashing the idols in his father’s idol shop and catching his father in a logical conundrum. There is the story of Abraham challenging an elderly buyer of idols on his beliefs. It is claimed in some commentaries that Abraham invented or received astronomy and other great advances. He was given access to secret books that contained God’s wisdom, and taught Hebrew so he could read them. Even Mohammed contributed to the explanations of this moment in Abraham's life in his writings. But the text of the Torah is silent at this critical moment on this critical question. Out of all the people, why Abraham? Why then? Why, "The Lord said to Abram…?"

One of the difficulties with Torah is that the motivations and qualities of the characters are often obscure. This is to be expected in a book that takes its influences from the oral traditions of many people in the region of the nascent Iron Age Hebrews. There is a lot in that tradition that was likely understood in the context of the times and the culture, and seemed unnecessary to include in the text. Torah is telegraphic in its style at the very times you wish it would tell you just a little bit more. Imagine the picture people would have of you knowing only a dozen or so stories from throughout your life.

And the ambiguity of the Hebrew itself can lead us down confusing paths in our understanding. Even the title of the Parsha this week, Lech L'cha, can have several readings. Two words, but the meaning of God's commandment to Abraham can change based on our interpretations of those words.

Commentators have looked at these words in different ways. Some have interpreted them as "Go by yourself." Abraham, Sarah, Lot and their households had to go on this mission alone, because only then could they start fresh. As in the adventure stories I mentioned earlier, the heroes were required to venture alone in new lands to affect great change in their lives.

Some have read Lech l'cha as “Go for yourself.” “Go for yourself" implies that God is going to improve Abraham 's lot through his obedience. Dude, I'm gonna give you a whole land, make you rich, and give you lots of children..." God lays out a fantastic career move for Abraham at the very least.

But it can also be interpreted as "Go TO yourself." "Go to YOURSELF." God is not just calling on Abraham to pick up and go. God is giving Abraham a clue as to the nature of the journey ahead. It will be personally transformative for Abraham himself, and Abraham better understand that his role in the enterprise would require self-understanding and inner strength. Abraham would have to know himself in order to fulfill the mission that God was giving him, and face the challenges ahead.

Now, we don't know if Abraham was that introspective. He doesn't argue with God about this or the other trials in his life. Instead he seemingly says, "OK, let's go!" Later in the Parsha God commands Abraham to circumcise himself and all the male members (no pun intended) of his household. We learn earlier in the Parsha [in the story of the War of the Four Kings against the Five Kings] that Abraham was able to muster 318 men to help him free Lot, so that must of been a particularly, er, vivid scene! But Abraham just does it.. No questions. Later when God commands him to sacrifice his son Isaac, Abraham again just picks up and takes Isaac to the place of sacrifice.

Maybe the quality most required at that moment was someone who would simply do what he was told? It would be odd, given the number of times that leading characters in the Torah argue with, cajole, and bargain with God, but perhaps that was what was needed at that time.
The text is so sparse that we can't make a judgment about what Abraham felt at those moments when God presented him with his trials. But, "Lech L'cha..." whether it's go by yourself, go for yourself or go TO yourself, or just go!...at that moment Abraham could have no illusions that a great responsibility was falling to him if he was to follow this command. And he must have known there was a great adventure ahead.

About 30 years ago I began a journey in my life when Janice and I formed our family. It started suddenly at midnight on a New Year's eve and has taken me through many adventures that I've shared with my family, and some I've had to face alone. One of the most remarkable things about that journey is that it's led me to stand before the congregation today for the first time as a Jew. To a lot of people my motivations to convert now, after so many years, must be as opaque as those of Abraham are to us. That’s natural – we can only really understand each other so well. I can try to explain, but really, it's only telling more stories and stories, while powerful, can only explain so much. Besides, Abraham was 75, so I’m 21 years early!

You should know that I am taking this step on my journey in all the ways that lech L'cha can be interpreted. Lech L'cha - I am going by myself, of my own will and desire. Lech L'cha - I am going for myself. The pleasures and rewards have already been great. Lech L'cha - I am going to myself, with introspection, study, self-awareness and the knowledge that it is the right thing for me. I am fully cognizant of the responsibilities - and the privileges - of the choice I have made.

It doesn't stop here...it didn't for Abraham. But today I really do feel that I am joined to his great nation, that I am truly Yirmiyahu.

Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Believers, Atheists, Agnostics and Penn Jillette

I'm going to break a rule of thumb to which I generally subscribe: don't comment on, and definitely don't criticize, a book you haven't read. But, I did read a review of a book, and I just need to say something about it…

The book is God, no!: Signs You Might Already be an Atheist and Other Magical Tales by Penn Jillette, and I saw it reviewed by Steve Wiggins. If anything I say is unfair to Jillette, then I'll just blame Wiggins (and, even if Jillette didn't say the things attributed to him, many others have, so just apply this towards them!). For what it's worth, I hope to read the book. Jillette is hysterical, very intelligent, and often very insightful. And, based on the review, much of the book sounds wonderful. Despite its premise.

The first part of the premise is this: atheism is more common than we would think. That, actually, doesn't seem very controversial to me. There are probably a lot of nonbelievers who, either because they can't admit it to themselves, or because it's not socially acceptable in their world, don't “come out” as atheists. It's where he defines atheism, and agnosticism, that he loses me:
 “If god (however you perceive him/her/it) told you to kill your child—would you do it? If your answer is no, in my booklet you’re an atheist.” He later qualifies this a bit, asserting that anyone who can’t answer a solid “Yes” to “Does god exist?” is an atheist. Religious specialists, however, tend to be sticklers for precise definitions. Those who don’t know about the existence of god are agnostics. Toward the end Jillette has a few choice words about those who refuse to give a clear answer. Either you believe, or you don’t. Agnosticism is for cowards.
I've read a fair bit of atheist writing these past few years, and I plan to read some more. I find a great deal of what some of them say to be true and compelling. I think I've mentioned before that Letter To A Christian Nation by Sam Harris should be required reading for just about everyone. It states, clearly and cogently, if not always politely, what is wrong with literalist belief.

But, that's exactly the problem—when many of these writers, and it seems that Jillette is included, talk about belief, they're talking about literal belief. About belief in a God who has a personality, is an active agent in our world, responds (or doesn't respond) directly to prayer, talks to people, has moods, and so on. Not believing in that kind of a God does not, automatically, make you an atheist. Or, more to the point, it doesn't make me an atheist, because I most certainly don't believe in that kind of a God, and I am most definitely not an atheist!

For thousands of years, religious thinkers have struggled with God, Struggled to understand what "God" means, who God is, how we know, and so on. Struggled to understand the Bible, even in light of the progress of science. Struggled to articulate a sense of higher meaning which doesn't rely on a Bronze-age image of divinity. From ancient mystics to the great thinkers of the 20th and 21st centuries (Buber, Heschel, Kushner and more), the word "God" has been used in so many different ways that one could complain that the word has lost all meaning! What Kushner, for example, believes is radically different from what a Rabbi living 2000 years ago might have believed. But, he still believes.

There are a lot of people in this world who believe in the kind of God which Jillette rejects. But, there are also more than a few who believe in God very differently. There's a lot of space in between literal belief and atheism. A lot.

‘Personhood’ Agenda is Theocracy

A quick hit, because an article just articulated something I've been thinking, and trying to say, for a while.
Whenever any "right to life" discussions come up, remember, as Carlton Veazy (a Baptist Minister) says, that these are, inherently, religious arguments. And, choosing one religion's definition of life is to be enshrined as law is, also inherently, a theocratic act:
We should also be aware that this amendment would enact in law a specific religious view about “personhood” that is in conflict with views held by most religious denominations and many people of faith—a clear intrusion by government into decisions of conscience.
I, as a religious Jew, don't believe that life begins at conception. Therefore, I don't believe that abortion is murder. Any law which codifies life as beginning at conception establishes that view as legally valid, and all others as invalid. I'm fairly sure that the Bill of Rights forbids that.

In the end, it might be more important to remember that this personhood movement would:
effectively [end] access to reproductive health care in Mississippi—including banning all abortions, with no exceptions for rape or incest or the life of the woman; some forms of contraception; and in vitro fertilization. Not to mention the frightening possibility that doctors would not be able to provide life-saving medical treatment to a pregnant woman, for example, in the case of an ectopic pregnancy.
But, let's not also forget that it's unconstitutional, and very, very un-American.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Are Jews Smarter? And, more importantly, am I allowed to ask that?

I recently came across an article which explores the question of high IQs among Jews. It's well known that Jews are vastly overrepresented among Nobel Laureates, and substaniallly, if not quite as drastically so, in higher education, and many fields, such as law and medicine. The article mainly tries to look at the question of "why?" Can we say why Jews are more accomplished in these intellectual fields? Are we actually smarter? And, if so, is that a result of nature or nurture?

What I find most interesting is a meta-question: are we even allowed to ask this question?

Every now and then, someone comes out with some study which says that one group is better or worse at some activity. There was "Intelligence is partially determined by race. And, guess who's the smartest!" There was "Women aren't as good at math or science." There are many, many more, of course. Needless to say, after every such "discovery," there is a chorus of condemnation. People claim that the reports are wrong, and that they are driven by explicit or implicit prejudices.

What always fascinates me is that it seems that these kinds of condemnations are, at some level, unfair. Mind you, I'm not saying that I accept the findings of these studies. I'm saying that, if we're going to reject them, we should do so because they are wrong, not because they are impolite.

I have no idea if Jews are actually smarter, on average, than other people. And, if we are (or, if we're actually less intelligent), I have no idea why that's so - if it's nature or nurture, or some combination. But, it seems to me that those are facts, and that those facts, by definition, are independent of my feelings about those facts. In other words, it might be true that Jews are smarter (on averge) than non-Jews. But, whether that idea offends me doesn't have any impact on the correctness of that idea.

I know that biases can affect research - it's possible that someone will come to false conclusions, at least in part because those conclusions support a prejudice that the researcher holds. That's pretty obvious. But, even in those cases, it still seems more effective to attack the research, and the evidence, rather than the researcher.

At the risk of drawing too straight of a line, religion used to do this all of the time - if someone made a scientific claim which undermined religion (think, for example, of Galileo. Or Darwin. Or...), the religious institutions would respond not with "Wrong!" but with "Heresy!" It seems to me that claims of "racist!" are just an updated version of that: assaulting the morality and motives of an argument, rather than the content.

The author of the article is, of course, aware of this danger, which is why he ends with:
Political correctness and accusations of racism will restrict the academic discourse, but, as is often the case with Jewish history, this case study will tell us much about broader topics: What intelligence really is, how it is fostered, what factors promote intellectual achievement—and whether we as a society are mature enough to debate these questions honestly.
It would be nice to think that we can debate these questions honestly. We should never be afraid of the truth.

Israel is NOT an Apartheid State

One of the recurring themes of this blog, as in many other places, is that Israel is not perfect, but Israel is far from evil. And, refusing to see any nuance, or proportionality, with regards to Israel is one of the more effective ways that Israel's enemies slander her, and try to undermine Israeli legitimacy. 

One of the more common, and more disgusting, examples of this is the oft repeated "Israel is an Apartheid regime*." Well, that canard is taken on in yesterday's New York Times by none other than Richard Goldstone. The same Goldstone responsible for the Goldstone Report, a report that criticized Israel harshly for its actions in Operation Cast Lead. A report that was so distorted by Palestinian propaganda that it was later repudiated by Goldstone himself

* It does, however, come a distant second to the disgusting "Israel is a Nazi regime."

So, it's pretty well established that Goldstone has no problem with criticizing Israel, harshly and publicly, when he feels it's warranted. Yet, still, he outright rejects the "Israel/Apartheid" claim. Goldstone says what many have said before: Israel may do some things wrong, but it is utterly and completely wrong to call it an Apartheid state:

In Israel, there is no apartheid. Nothing there comes close to the definition of apartheid under the 1998 Rome Statute: “Inhumane acts ... committed in the context of an institutionalized regime of systematic oppression and domination by one racial group over any other racial group or groups and committed with the intention of maintaining that regime.” Israeli Arabs — 20 percent of Israel’s population — vote, have political parties and representatives in the Knesset and occupy positions of acclaim, including on its Supreme Court. Arab patients lie alongside Jewish patients in Israeli hospitals, receiving identical treatment.

Those seeking to promote the myth of Israeli apartheid often point to clashes between heavily armed Israeli soldiers and stone-throwing Palestinians in the West Bank, or the building of what they call an “apartheid wall” and disparate treatment on West Bank roads. While such images may appear to invite a superficial comparison, it is disingenuous to use them to distort the reality. The security barrier was built to stop unrelenting terrorist attacks; while it has inflicted great hardship in places, the Israeli Supreme Court has ordered the state in many cases to reroute it to minimize unreasonable hardship. Road restrictions get more intrusive after violent attacks and are ameliorated when the threat is reduced.

Not only is it wrong, but it's counterproductive:

The mutual recognition and protection of the human dignity of all people is indispensable to bringing an end to hatred and anger. The charge that Israel is an apartheid state is a false and malicious one that precludes, rather than promotes, peace and harmony.

Israel is not an Apartheid state. Anyone who tells you differently either has no idea what they are talking about, or is out to slander Israel.

Friday, October 28, 2011

Religions have to be spiritual...duh!

Crazy observations, from David Briggs

Men would rather watch Monday Night Football than go shopping. Eating too many Hardees Monster Thickburgers is linked to obesity. Texting while driving is a bad idea.

There are times when research findings are so obvious they are almost beyond questioning. So it is puzzling that growing evidence showing the importance of congregations cultivating the spiritual lives of the faithful is so routinely ignored.

As I've said before, it is amazing how easily many of our synagogues (and, as always, I'm sure this includes churches, mosques and other houses of worship) forget this basic truth. We exist, more than anything else, for religious purposes. Spiritual purposes. I'm not suggesting that all we should do is sit around and explore our inner spiritual lives. Social Justice, learning, socializing and much more all have a place in the religious world, and they always will.

But, a synagogue which doesn't help people to explore their spiritual lives simply isn't doing its job.

Hey - have I self-servingly mentioned recently that, starting in November, we'll be holding a monthly session before Shabbat services, in which we'll explore personal prayer? Or, that it's called Making Prayer Real?

Come to our first session on Nov 12 at 9:00 a.m. or come to an information session on Nov 1 at 7:30 p.m.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

A Blessing for Social Action

I haven't been able to post my sermons from the High Holy Days on our website, yet, because of some techincal difficulties (I know… I know… you're all waiting, desperately). Hopefully I'll be able to do so, soon, but in the meantime, let me share one little tidbit—one of my favorites from all the sermons.

Judaism seems to have a blessing for almost everything—from lighting Shabbat candles to going to the bathroom. But, traditionally, there is no blessing for acts of Tikkun Olam (Social Justice). It seems like a strange omission. Why wouldn't Judaism offer a blessing at a moment which seems ripe for blessing?

...traditionally, there is no blessing for acts of social justice. A blessing is used in order to elevate a non-sacred act into a sacred one. To turn the simple lighting of a candle into a religious act. But, we never need to turn an act of Tikkun Olam into a sacred act; it already is.

To me, it's such a simple, lovely idea. Saying a blessing over an act of Tikkun Olam is like adding water to the ocean: utterly redundant.

Want to experience a bit of holiness today? Just help someone in need.

Wednesday, October 19, 2011

Rational Religion - Still not just for Jews

This past summer, I wrote a little bit about Christians who take a rationalist view of religion. I remember being very happy to read the article which led to that post, because it made me feel a little bit less lonely. Very often, it seems that being a rational religionist is a minority position. The religious people that we see in the press tend to be extremists—that's not surprising; most people who get press coverage tend to be extremists. But, it's easy to start thinking that most people in this world who are religious take an extreme, fundamentalist view about religion. You know—the Bible is the literal, perfect, unchanging Word of God. Anyone who deviates, at all, is a sinner, and is bound for hell. And, most of the atheists who get press coverage are reacting to this kind of extremist religion. They are, in a manner of speaking, extremist atheists. I don't mean just that they are extreme in their atheism (although, many are), but that the religion that they reject is an extreme religious. No one, it often seems, is speaking up in favor of, or even against, moderate, liberal religion.

This (false) sense of religious isolation is heightened by a quirk of my profession. Not surprisingly, I meet a relatively large number of people who want change religions—they come to me to convert. Which pretty much means, by definition, that they're not happy with the religion with which they grew up. So, they often tell me what they didn't like about that religion. And, something I've noticed since moving from Canada back to the states (I'm not sure if it's the States, or the part of the States in which I live) is that the most common complaint is the extremism, and lack of rationality in that religion. This is all a long-winded way of saying that I hear many people complaining that the Christianity of their youth was irrational, and therefore unacceptable to them. Given that, in my daily life, I don't have a lot of other interaction with Christianity, it can start to create a skewed view of their religion: Judaism is, at least potentially rational. Christianity is, inherently, a rational. I don't really believe that, you understand. It's just that it sometimes starts to feel that way.

Which is probably a big part of why I love coming across another article about rational Christianity:

In the world of Christian scholarship, for example, to read the Bible literally is regarded as absurd. To call the words of the Bible "the Word of God" is more than naïve. No modern person can still believe that a star can wander through the sky so slowly that wise men can keep up with it, that God actually dictated the Ten Commandments -- all three versions, no less -- or that a multitude can be fed with five loaves and two fish. No modern person understanding genetics and reproduction can believe that virgins conceive, nor can those who understand what death does to the human body in a matter of just minutes still view the resurrection as the resuscitation of a deceased body after three days.

The author of the article, it has to be noted, isn't just an academic. He is an Episcopal priest—a bishop, actually. I'm going to go out on a limb here, and assume that he is a sincerely religious, devout men. He takes his religion seriously. He believes. But, he doesn't believe uncritically. He doesn't accept every word as unfailingly true. He doesn't believe that rationality needs to (or can) take a backseat to faith.

Christianity is, I believe, about expanded life, heightened consciousness and achieving a new humanity. It is not about closed minds, supernatural interventions, a fallen creation, guilt, original sin or divine rescue. I am tired of seeing the Bible being used, as it has been throughout history, to legitimize slavery and segregation, to subdue women, to punish homosexuals, to justify war and to oppose family planning and birth control. That is a travesty which must be challenged and changed.

You don't have to be Jewish to be religious and rational. You just have to be rational. I've always known that, but it's nice to be reminded. And, it's nice to have company.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

A Rabbi supports LGBT causes?

OK, this is (for me) a long, somewhat rambling post. I had trouble getting it out, and didn't really have time to edit it. But I wanted to publish it today, because today is National Coming Out Day, and this is about LGBT issues. So, pardon any incoherence. But, please, give it a read!

A number of times on this blog, and quite often on my Facebook page, I've spoken out in support of same-sex marriage, as well as other LGBT issues. Depending on what religious background you hail from, you might find this somewhat surprising (or, maybe, very surprising), or completely expected. But, knowing that at least some people don't expect a rabbi to be on this side of the issue, I have been thinking for a while about posting my reasoning for being pro-LGBT rights and, especially, why I think it's a Jewish issue—why I support this not just as a person, but as a religious Jew, and as a rabbi.

Interestingly, I recently came across another blog post which explained why its author (who describes himself as "A Heterosexual, Married, North Carolinian Father Of Three") supports LBGT equality. It says so much of what I think, that I almost decided to just scrap my own blog post, and link to it. He debunks many common arguments against equality:
Religious arguments against same-sex marriage do not pass the Lemon Test, a three-pronged legal requirement which stipulates that a) the government's action must have a secular legislative purpose, b) the government's action must not have the primary effect of either advancing or inhibiting religion, and c) the government's action must not result in an "excessive government entanglement" with religion. I am not sure I have heard anyone make a case against same-sex marriage that did not invoke religion. 
Kids do just fine in families with same-sex parents. "All of the major professional organizations with expertise in child welfare have issued reports and resolutions in support of gay and lesbian parental rights" (Professor Judith Stacey, New York University). 
He also talks about some of the positives of acceptance:
Acceptance of LGBT folks helps protect against depression, substance abuse, and suicide. Why in the world would anyone want to cause suffering in others? If the answer lies in your religion, then you need to re-evaluate your religion. Its ancient morality is flawed at best. 
As always, there's lots more to read, and I recommend clicking through (it's not a long article, but it's a good one). But, not surprisingly, given his atheist identity, he doesn't talk about the religious reasons for same-sex support. So, that still gives me room to add something, right?

I'm clearly not going to be able to explain the entire matter, here. The question of whether it's appropriate for rabbis (or other religious leaders) to be pro-LGBT is complicated, to say the least. But, there are at least three interrelated reasons that I feel compelled to not only support LGBT issues, but to do so vocally and forcefully.

First of all, religion changes, and that's a good thing, If you're part of a religious tradition which believes that your revelation came directly, and perfectly, from God, then you probably won't see the world the same way that I do. But, as part of religious movement which embraces the fact that our texts, practices and traditions all have human origins, I have no choice but to also admit that those human origins have influenced our texts, practices and traditions. In other words, they don't only reflect God's will, but human biases and prejudices, as well. They reflect the society from which they came.

Well, society changes (thank God). Our values change. Our understanding of human nature changes. Trying to apply, uncritically and unwaveringly, an ancient set of laws and restrictions onto a modern world, without accounting for those changes—well, that's precisely the kind of thinking which got Galileo into so much trouble. Not exactly a shining moment for religion, was it?
Our understanding of the world changes, and a religion which doesn't change along with it, is writing yet another embarrassing chapter in its history. Religious leaders refused to see the world changing were the ones who tried to justify slavery. Who resisted women's rights. And so on. I really don't want to be part of the next round of that.

And that brings me to my second reason for feeling obligated (one might even say: commanded) about all this: I am part of a system which has been, throughout its history, and still continues to be, one of the single greatest forces against same-sex equality. Religion, especially organized religion, has been a driving force behind homophobia in our world. So, on the one hand I feel a need (which might not come from the most exalted place, I admit) to distance myself from the views of the religious homophobes. To put it simply (and honestly) I want to make sure that people know that I'm religious, but that doesn't make me homophobic. Call it apologetics, call it insecurity, but at least I'm directing it in a good direction.

But, in addition, I guess I also feel the need to do some makeup work. My own history of homophobia is minor and, thankfully, ended long ago. But, as part of the “religious world,” I guess I still feel I have some repentance to do. If religion has been so awful to gays, lesbians, bisexuals and transgender people, and I'm religious, then don't I, at least a tangential way, share some of that guilt? Without becoming too self centered, or too melodramatic, isn't part of being connected to a larger group sharing responsibility, at least in part, for that group?

It's debatable. The same types of arguments happen around America's history of oppression of African-Americans, Native Americans and so on. And, as usual, I see both sides of the argument—on the one hand, I have benefited, indirectly at least, from those injustices. I am part of the institution which oppressed, and therefore somewhat obligated to make restitution. On the other hand, I did nothing wrong myself, so I shouldn't feel guilty or responsible. Both make sense, but there's not much harm in erring on the side of compassion, is there?

And, that brings me to my last religious point. There is no harm in erring on the side of compassion. Especially in Judaism (not comparing it to other religions, so feel free to insert your own here). One of my favorite teachings in all Judaism came (I believe) from Rabbi Irving Greenberg. The oft repeated ethical injunction to care for the stranger, because we were strangers, is a reminder that our own history of oppression is supposed to make us more sensitive to others. We have been treated badly, and we have been marginalized, and we have had our rights (and our lives) suppressed. And, because of that, we're supposed to look at others who are being similarly treated, and help them.

It's that simple. To be a Jew is remember how terrible it feels to be weak and oppressed, and therefore to act on behalf of the weak and oppressed. Right now, in our society, there is probably no group which is more openly oppressed than non-straight people. Gay rights has been called the next/last great frontier of civil rights. It's the last group about which it's ok to speak publicly about the desire to annihilate them, or deny them basic rights. If I were to do so, then I'd be accepted, and applauded, by large swathes of our society. I'd like to be a small part of changing that. It seems like an awfully Jewish thing to do.

Today is “National Coming Out Day.” Let's all pray for, and work towards, the day when that won't be necessary. The day that no one will feel unsafe, unloved, or disenfranchised simply because they love someone of the same gender. It really doesn't seem that complicated.

Friday, October 7, 2011

Why do we fast?

As we get ready for our Yom Kippur fast, I came across this brief article, asking why, exactly, we fast. The author lays out 4 different explanations, all of which find support in our tradition (one one constant in Judaism: there is never only one answer to any question!). But, there is only one of them, he claims, which finds Biblical support:

Isaiah's prescription for the fast that God desires addresses precisely these elements: when you gather in the town square to call out to God, think of the people who sleep there at night because they have no home. When you feel the pangs of hunger after not eating for a day, think about those for whom this is a regular occurrence. When you don your sackcloth and ashes and take off your comfortable shoes, remember that there are those who do not have what to wear. The point of fasting is to sensitize us to those for whom such denials are a daily occurrence, and not by choice.

The entire point of our fast is to sensitize ourselves to those who are in constant deprivation and need, so that we will be more likely to help those people, when our fast is over. Which means that our fast is judged not by how hard we pray during it, but by how hard we work to help others, when we're done.

Funny. That's almost exactly what I'll be saying tomorrow morning. Hope to see you there, so you can hear all about it (out of towners - I'll post it after the holiday, so you can read it, too!).

G'mar Chatimah Tova - may you be sealed in the book of life.

Thursday, September 22, 2011

Should Troy Davis have been executed?

There's been a lot of chatter these past few days, and especially today, about Troy Davis. Last night, Davis was executed for murder of which he was convicted a few decades ago. This execution, in particular, has become quite a flash point, obviously. My Facebook feed is filled with people who are in sincere angst and anger over this execution. Me? To my great surprise, I find myself somewhat confused, and ambivalent, in a way.

Let me be clear—I opposed this execution. But, I opposed it because I oppose all executions—I am against the Death Penalty. I've written about my reasons before, so I won't go into them in detail, here. My colleauge Larry Bach has a blog post about the Jewish view of this - a lengthy look at the Rabbinic approach, which is to essentially remove the Death Penalty from consideration, because of the impossibiilty of applying it morally.

My confusion is about this specific case. People are pointing to it as a crystal-clear example of why the death penalty is so bad—because, in this case, a seemingly innocent man was executed. One of the arguments against the death penalty (it's my argument, along with Rambam's, in Bach's post) is that, so long as we execute criminals, we run a real risk, and eventual near certainty, of killing an innocent man. And that is, simply, unacceptable. Better to let 1000 criminals go free than execute one innocent man. And, in these cases, we wouldn't be letting them go free–we'd be keeping them in jail, for life. It seems almost ridiculously obvious to me.

But, let's imagine for a moment that I didn't accept that argument. That I believed that it was possible to perfectly implement the death penalty, or that it was worth the risk of innocent death. Were that me, I'm not sure I would have opposed this case.

Everyone (at least everyone I've been reading) seems absolutely sure that Davis was innocent (at least of this crime). And, there are good reasons for those beliefs—witnesses who recanted, lack of physical evidence, other people who may have confessed, etc. Pretty damning stuff.

But, yesterday, I read an article from the cases prosecutor:

"This is fuzzy thinking. This is what happens when you try a criminal case in the streets, when it becomes a public relations campaign," the former D.A. said. "When it's in a court, you get disciplined thinking. We've won every time the thinking has been disciplined."

If you care about this case, it's worth a read. Essentially, he's saying that the counter evidence is what's deeply flawed. The shallow treatment it gets in the press makes it seem valid, but when put under proper, rigorous scrutiny, in court, the truth becomes clear. Guilty, without a reasonable doubt.

You know what's scary? I have no idea what to believe. I have not read the legal documents, nor would I be likely to understand them, if I did. That's probably true for you, too. I haven't read a single piece which tries to look at both sides of the issue. Which takes the prosecutions case, along with the defense, seriously. Which tries to understand, rather than just advocate. Does anyone have anything like that? I'd really love to read it!

In the end, this is just a small plank in my anti-death penalty stance - the unavoidable nature of uncertainty, which therefore makes it impossible to fairly impose the Death Penalty. But, on a less important level, this is just one more reminder, in an endless stream of reminders, that certainty is usually there for those who want it, but is usually lacking when we look carefully.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Should Rabbis give political sermons?

Dennis Prager (radio talk show host, author, pundit) has written an article, slamming Rabbis for giving political sermons on the High Holy Days. He says that, on these holiest of days, Rabbis should be focussing on spiritual issues, such as personal growth, teshuvah (repentance), and such. To focus on narrow, partisan political issues is wrong:

But those rabbis who do use Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur to offer their political views are doing their congregants and Judaism a real disservice.

Rabbis who have used the holiest days of the Jewish calendar to give a sermon on behalf of the Obama health-care bill or to excoriate the Christian right or to expound on any of the many other left-wing positions have cheated their congregants. The primary purpose of the High Holy Days is to have the Jew engage in moral and religious introspection: What kind of person have I been in the past, and what do I need to do in order to be a better person?

He's especially upset because all Rabbis who give political sermons are on the left, and support only leftist causes:

Because separation of pulpit and politics is a conservative value, not a liberal one. Therefore, rabbis with conservative political beliefs do not use their pulpit to advance their political agenda. And because no conservative believes that advancing the conservative political agenda makes you a good person. Like Judaism, we know that becoming a good person demands arduously working on one’s character, not having the right politics.

Now, this latter idea that only Liberal Rabbis give political (and, therefore, liberal) sermons is borderline farsical. It's true that most Rabbis are politically liberal, so most political sermons will lean that way. But, the idea that only non-Orthodox and politically liberal Rabbis (which, he believes, are nearly identical categories) will ever speak politically on the High Holy Days? Come on. NO Rabbis have spoken out against Same Sex Marriage, for example?

Look, I try very hard not to be political in my sermons. I want to make sure that I'm speaking authetnically Jewishly, and even when I believe that my liberal values come from a very Jewish place, I try to err on the side of caution. And, I am extra cautious of partisan politics - I might speak about a cause, but I would be very wary of speaking about a particular bill or program, and I would (almost?) never speak about an individual candidate.

But, would I ever talk politics? Absolutely.

Supporting Same Sex marriage is politics. Supporting caring for the poor is, partially, politics. Opposing slavery was (and is) politcs. Does Judaism have nothing to say, from either side, about health care, or abortion, or war, or...anything which overlaps with politics?

When Isaiah, in a reading which we use on Yom Kippur, said:

Is not this the fast I look for: to unlock the shackles of injustice, to undo the fetters of bondage, to let the oppressed go free, and to break every cruel chain? Is it not to share your bread with the hungry, and to bring the homeless poor into your house?

Is it not possible that there is a least a teensy bit of politics which overlap with that thought?

Look, it is incredilby hard to know where to draw the line - to know when a truly religious issue crosses over into a much more truly political one. It's also incredibly difficult to know when we (who are both Liberal (non-Orthodox) Jews as well as political liberals) hold a belief because it's Jewish, vs. because it's liberal (or, how much of each). When we should be willing to speak our positions, and when we should say, "there are mutliple valid opinions on this, and we have to honor them all." Very, very tricky. Like I said, I err on the side of caution, as I think I should. But, Prager takes a complicated issue, and falsly makes it simple: liberal/politcal=bad. Orthdoxox/Conservative/non-politcal = good.

I'd be curious to hear what you all think - when can a Rabbi (or Priest, etc) talk politically, and when is it wrong? How do you know when a line has been crossed? What would make you walk out of a sermon, if anything?

By the way - during one of my sermons during these High Holy Days, I'll be talking about Israel. Is that ok, Mr. Prager? Or, is it too political?

Wednesday, September 14, 2011

Will Palestine be Judenrein?

I will admit a bit of ambivalence (or, possibly, timidity) about this post, as well as several others which I've written, and probably a couple which I haven't.

You see, I really am still, in my heart, a peacenik, especially when it comes to Israel. I've said before (on this blog, I'm sure) that, were I in charge of the world, the Palestinians would have a state tomorrow, living in peace with Israel. Not simply because it's good for Israel (I believe that, in the long run, it is), but because it's right. The Palestinians have suffered greatly through all the conflict, and even though it's fair to discuss who exactly is to blame* among the Palestinians, it's clear that there are many, many among them who have suffered needlessly (if you're about to ask “who?” then I remind you that some very young children have tragically died along the way. At the very least, I hope we can all agree that they didn't deserve it).

*I often say that the leadership is to blame, and the people simply suffer because of the leadership's awful and cynical decision-making. But, that's really a gross oversimplification. The people themselves are largely, by most accounts, virulently anti-Israel and anti-Semitic. Now, you can blame that, to a very large degree, on the constant propaganda and miseducation of the populace, by those same leaders. You can also say that, ultimately, people who support terrorist attacks and genocide have to be held responsible for those views. I think that, in reality, it's terribly circular and confusing, and probably not addressable in this space, right now.

But, quite often (and, it seems, more and more) I come across an article which talks about some deeply disturbing, often horrific insight into the Palestinian world. The peacenik in me doesn't want to talk about it. I don't want to sound like I am ever suggesting that Israel should just steamroll the Palestinian people, and dispossess “these scum.” I don't want to ever say, or imply, that Israel should let off the hook for anything it did, simply because its enemy is so bad. But, at the same time, nothing good can really come from hiding from the truth, and sometimes the truth is ugly.

According to an article in USA Today, the PLO's ambassador to the US has stated that any future Palestinian state should be judenrein“free of Jews.” There should, by law, be not a single Jew living on Palestinian soil. It might be somewhat provocative, but not inappropriate, I think, to use the word which the Nazis used for “Jew free” land. Because, Nazi Germany was the last time there was such a law anywhere in the world*.

*that's what the article says; I actually thought that, at the very least, Saudi Arabia had a similar law. True or not, I don't think it really matters here.

Besides the fact that it is, on its face, disgusting, it's also remarkably, shockingly disingenuous. The ambassador says that the reason for this policy would be that 44 years of occupation requires a separation of these two peoples, in order for the Palestinian people to develop their national identity. But, you can be sure that he wouldn't accept (nor should he) the same argument from the Israeli side—because of 60+ years of conflict, Israel needs time to develop its national identity, and is therefore expelling all Palestinians, or all Arabs. It would be disgusting thing for Israel to even suggest. It's no less disgusting coming from a Palestinian.

Decades ago, Golda Meir said that there would be peace between Israel and the Arabs when the Arabs love their children more than they hated us. I don't think that has changed. There are clearly many, many issues to be resolved, if Israel and the Palestinians (or, Israel and the Arab nations) are ever going to have peace. But, a basic acceptance of Israel's right to exist, of the Jewish people's right to exist, and of our basic human rights simply has to be one of the principles of that peace.

Wednesday, September 7, 2011

The meaning of the shofar

Probably the best known, and most beloved, symbol of the High Holy Days is the shofar. Hearing the sound of the ram's horn is one of the high points of the year for many of us. But, as is often the case, many of us aren't aware of why we blow the shofar, and what it's supposed to mean. And, as is also often the case, there isn't one reason, but a whole host of explanations given by our tradition.
There are those who say that the shofar reminds us of the Akedah, the binding of Isaac. At God's command, Abraham almost sacrificed his beloved son, and so proved his devotion to God (as moderns, this story makes us very uncomfortable, and it should. But, to our ancestors, it was a beautiful, although possibly hyperbolic, example of faith). At the last second, Abraham is told to substitute a ram for his son, and so the sounding of a ram's horn reminds us of that animal. Although we will never be called to make such a great sacrifice (and, we would never kill anyone, let alone our own children, in the name of God) it is important to ask ourselves what we would give up in the name of some One higher than ourselves.

The shofar was also sounded, we are told, when we received the Torah at Mount Sinai. So, hearing that sound again brings us back to that moment, and calls on us to reaffirm our commitment to our tradition.

Finally (for now) tradition has it that the “Great Shofar” will be sounded when God is ready to bring the Messiah, and perfect all of creation. And so, the sound becomes one of hope—hope for a better day, an end to strife, and a world in which we can all live in peace.

There are so many memories and meanings which are associated with the sound. When we hear the shofar this year, may we dedicate ourselves to sacrifice in the name of others, may we reaffirm our commitment to Judaism, and our tradition, and may we all pray, together, for a better day.

L'Shana Tova.

Thursday, August 25, 2011

Fasting and more on Yom Kippur

Yom Kippur is well-known as a fast day in Judaism. From sundown until sundown, we are not supposed to eat or drink anything at all (of course, exceptions are made for health). In fact, fasting is only the best-known of the Yom Kippur restrictions—there are actually five major ones:

  1. Eating/drinking
  2. bathing (for pleasure, not for basic cleanliness)
  3. sex
  4. wearing leather shoes
  5. anointing (which was probably more common couple of thousand years ago than it is now, although, if you include lotions and such, then it's still pretty relevant to a lot of people)

Together, these five restrictions are supposed to constitute “afflicting the soul,” in the words of the Torah. Why do we do that? Well, as usual, the Torah doesn't tell us, explicitly, so we don't have one answer. At the simplest, most obvious level, it's a form of punishment—a kind of self-flagellation. This is our Day of Atonement, so we symbolically punish ourselves (or, I guess, not so symbolically) for all the things that we did wrong this past year.

The explanation which I remember most from my childhood revolved around learning to appreciate what we have, and being more sensitive to those who go without. Whenever I would complain about being hungry, it seems that someone would always say, “Just think about those who are this hungry every day.” Our own small act of sacrifice can remind us of how fortunate we are, and drive us to help those who are truly needy.

Fasting can also be, for some of us, a form of concentration. I remember being told, many times, that we don't eat on Yom Kippur because we don't have time—we are supposed to be so busy with our prayers, our personal reflection, and our teshuvah (repentance) that we can't even take a break to take care of ourselves. Even though that's probably never the literal truth (I doubt that anyone is really capable of focusing solely on those lofty topics for every waking moment of an entire day) it's still a valuable teaching. The work of Yom Kippur is substantial—it's not something we can complete in just a couple of hours. If we really want to do teshuvah, and we're going to have to seriously dedicate ourselves to it during the time leading up to the High Holy Days, and especially on those days, themselves.

We'll be able to eat when the sun goes down. Until then, we'll have more important things to be doing.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Reform Judaism and traffic laws

I don't usually quote myself, but I was just looking at an old sermon, one which tried to explain what Reform Judaism is really about. That it's not, despite how it's sometimes portrayed, "Judaism Light." And, I have to admit, I like the metaphor I use towards the end:

Compare it, for a moment, to traffic laws. What if I told you that, in reality, the government had never passed, and doesn’t have the authority to pass, any traffic laws? How would this affect your driving? Would you drive like an irresponsible maniac, just because you’re now legally allowed to do so? Would you continue to obey every traffic law, just because they’re printed on nice signs? We’d all probably still agree that the idea of traffic laws still makes sense. But, knowing how to behave on the road becomes much more complex. Sure, you could decide to follow the posted signs, as if they were authoritative. But, what if you found yourself on an empty highway? Would you still obey the posted speed limit? Would you feel bad if you didn’t? What if someone else told you that they never obeyed speed limits? That they drove however they wanted, whenever and wherever they wanted. Can we now say that they are wrong? That, in some way, they are obligated to drive more responsibly? Speed limits still matter; traffic laws still matter. But, agreeing on that is one thing. Knowing what to do behind the wheel, and knowing that it’s the right way to drive, has gotten much more complex.

That’s the world that we inhabit as Reform Jews. We know that our tradition has value. We know that its laws can offer us meaning and guidance. But, we also know that the tradition, and its laws, are neither perfect nor absolute. And, we can’t pretend that they are. To do so would be a violation of our own God-given intellect. And, very importantly, it would also be pretending that something that isn’t divine, actually is divine. And that is, in a word, idolatry. Knowing that the old truths aren’t perfect, but pretending that they are, is nothing to be proud of. It’s not “true religion.” It’s sacrilege. Being willing to face the truth, even if that truth is complicated, and sometimes unsettling, is sacred. That’s the key to our right, even our obligation, as Reform Jews to not blindly follow Jewish law. To do so is not inconvenient. To do so is a religious lie.

At the core of Reform Judaism is a rejection of extremes. A refusal to say that Judaism, and Jewish law, are useless, but also a refusal to say that they're perfect, and divine. 

If you want to read the whole thing, you should be able to get it here.

Friday, August 19, 2011

Elul and Heshbon HaNefesh

Our sages tell us that the month of Elul, the month which precedes Rosh Hashana, is meant as a preliminary time, during which we are supposed to prepare ourselves for the Yamim Noraim, the High Holy Days.


Why do we need preparation? Well, if all that we want to do is show up for services and (hopefully) enjoy them, then we probably don't need to prepare. At least, not very much. But, just showing up isn't the point of these holy days. The point of these holy days is to have a deeply meaningful experience which transforms us. The point is to emerge from this time as a better person than we were when we entered it.


That's not easy to do. It's easy to talk about, and it's easy to want to do, but those are different things. But, actually making changes in our lives, and ourselves, is difficult. It takes effort and concentration. It takes a willingness to seriously evaluate ourselves, and to be honest with ourselves about our faults and failings. It takes a willingness to look inward in a way which will make us uncomfortable.


One of my teachers once taught me that, in a synagogue, the first step to making a change is to make people uncomfortable with the status quo. That's not just true for institutions. That's true for us, too. The first step to making a change is to find those things which need to be changed, and convince yourselves that they really do need to be changed.


That's why the rabbis of old mandated that the month of Elul is a time of Cheshbon HaNefesh, literally translated as “an accounting of the soul.” We're supposed to spend time, every day, looking inward, and being honest with what we see. Thinking back over our deeds from this past year, and not glossing over the ones of which we've aren't so proud.


And, then the hard work really begins. Because everything we can think of that we've done, which we shouldn't have (and which our ancestors would have called “a sin”) we have to atone for. We have to find the person we've wronged. We have to apologize—an actual, specific apology, not a wishy-washy “I'm sorry if I hurt you.” And, if appropriate, we have to make restitution. Only then do we have any right to go to God and ask for forgiveness.


I'm not sure how many of us actually do this. I wonder how many people in our community really spend the month leading up to Rosh Hashanah regularly turning inward, identifying and remembering our failings, and especially going to the people we've hurt, and asking for forgiveness. But, imagine if we did. Imagine if Rosh Hashanah wasn't just another day with a long service, but was the culmination of months of serious, intense, often painful personal, spiritual work. Imagine how much more meaningful would be to stand before God, to stand with our community, if we had really done that.


I promise you—it won't be easy. An athlete, even a very good one, who wants to run a marathon doesn't show up on race day without having prepared, and then expect to win. Anything worth doing takes preparation, and that preparation is almost always hard.


But worth it.

Elul begins at sundown, August 30th.