Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Values

Whenever Rabbi Shmuley Boteach writes, he invariably says some things which strike me as deeply insightful, and some which strike me as equally naive or distorted. His latest article in the Jerusalem Post about the dearth of values in modern society is no exception. When he complains about the high divorce rate, I have absolutely no idea why he includes that 3/4 of all divorces are initiated by women - I can't imagine why women initiating a divorce is any worse then men doing so. And, when he claims that 40% of Americans now claim that marriage is obsolete, and that 70% of straight couples opt to cohabitate rather than marry*, I wonder where he's getting these facts. 

*I'll bet that the stat actually includes those who cohabitate before marriage, not just instead of marriage.

But, I try to see past all of that, and appreciate his main point:

WHAT WENT wrong? My Christian brothers and social conservatives adopted a narrow definition of values that centered almost exclusively on opposition to gay marriage and abortion, to the exclusion of virtually everything else. Gone was any discussion of civic virtue, of quiet acts of selflessness being superior to publicity stunts, of thrift over consumption and time with family over time at the mall. 

There is not one set of "values issues" out there. And, ignoring the fact that my own support of (for example) same-sex marriage is very much a values-issue, anyone who claims to be concerned with values but is only focussed on the two or three hot-button issues out there shouldn't be taken too seriously. 

Over the past few weeks the nation has watched the Grammies and Academy Awards without one public call for an awards ceremony for soldiers earning a Purple Heart or the Medal of Honor. Nor have we heard any call for a year of community service for all high-school graduates to combat the growing narcissism of our youth.

As he says, why do we fixate on the relatively small portion of the population which happens to be homosexual, while ignoring incredibly important issues like those?

If social conservatives really want to strengthen the family, they would propose legislation making marital counseling tax-deductible.

Hey - if you're for lower taxes and family values, that one seems like a no-brainer, doesn't it?

Let's face it. More or less, we're all values-oriented. Let's start making sure that we're focussing on the values that will have the largest impact on our society.

Inspiration

I've been too busy to get to a bunch of posts that I really want to write. Hopefully, I'll have time, soon. But, in the mean time, I just want to point everyone towards another (long) post from my favorite blogger, and one of my favorite writers in the world, Joe Posnanski.

If you, at all, like sports, or like inspiration, or just like damn good writing, just click here, and enjoy.

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

A Tale of Two Ships

I was going to try to add some commentary to this posting by Rabbi Micky Boyden, but it's so short, and to the point, that I'd rather just quote it, whole:

Everyone knows about the Turkish Mavi Marmara flotilla ship that attempted to break the Israeli naval blockade of the Gaza Strip. If the intentions of all of those on board had been peaceful, the episode would, of course, have ended entirely differently without any loss of life.

Turkish Prime Minister Recep Erdo─čan reacted to the outcome by demanding an immediate apology and compensation from Israel, while President Obama supported a U.N. Security Council statement condemning the acts that had led to civilian deaths.

It should be recalled that the protesters aboard the Mavi Marmara resisted attempts by Israeli naval commandoes to board the vessel and attacked them with fire hoses, knives and crowbars – hardly the acts of peaceful human rights demonstrators.

Contrast their actions with those of the captain of the cargo vessel Victoria, which was intercepted last week some 200 miles west of the coast of Israel. In this case, the crew co-operated with the instructions they received from the Israeli navy, and even lowered a pilot’s ladder to enable forces to board the ship peacefully and inspect its cargo.

Given the current political turbulence in the Middle East and the tragic events unfolding in Japan, the boarding of the Victoria received relatively little media attention. However, concealed within its innocent cargo of lentils and cotton, were some 50 tons of weapons, which included some 2,500 mortar shells and anti-ship radar equipped missiles with a range of 20 miles.

For the IDF video of the incident, go to http://www.youtube.com/user/idfnadesk

Those who question the legality of the naval blockade on the Gaza Strip should understand why such a policy is essential when not a day passes without mortar shells and rockets raining down on Israel’s towns and villages.

 

Friday, March 11, 2011

Pooping and Praying

Recently, I was talking with some of our students about favorite prayers, and I mentioned that mine was probably “Asher Yetzar.” It's a prayer which is said as part of the morning ritual, and at one other time, which I'll mention later. Gates of Prayer, the prayer book with which most of us are most familiar, as a “translation” of it which I really don't like:

Blessed is our Eternal God, Creator of the universe, who has made our bodies with wisdom, combining veins, arteries, and vital organs into a finely balanced network. Wondrous Fashioner and Sustainer of life, Source of our health and our strength, we give You thanks and praise.

There's nothing wrong with that prayer, itself. It's actually quite lovely, I think. My problem with it is that it doesn't reflect the Hebrew. It's not really a translation, rather a different prayer, on a somewhat related theme. Here's the translation from the Reform movement's newest prayerbook, Mishkan Teflilah, which is much more faithful to the Hebrew:

Blessed are you*, Adonai, our God, Sovereign of the universe, who formed the human body with skill, creating the body's many pathways and openings. It is well known before Your throne of glory that if one of them be wrongly opened or closed, it would be impossible to endure and stand before You. Blessed are You, Adonai, who heals all flesh, working wondrously.

*Actually, Mishkan Tefillah has “Praise to You” here. But I really don't like translating baruch as “praise.” I'll give you my diatribe about that some other time.

It's a pretty yucky prayer. Pretty gory, I mean. Think about what our “pathways” and “openings” really are. Most of them aren't so pleasant. And, more to the point, if something which is supposed to be open gets stopped up, or if something which is supposed to be closed bursts open, all sorts of unpleasant, biological things are bound to follow.

And, much more importantly, you're probably going to die.

Well, not in our day and age. If the clogging/bursting isn't too bad, and you can get medical treatment, you'll probably make it. But, that definitely wasn't so for our ancestors. Either of those malfunctions would lead to a very unpleasant, very messy, and very painful death. The Talmud even mentions somewhere that of all the ways to die naturally, bowel troubles are probably the worst. I guess a lot of people really did suffer and die this way, back then*.

* Let's add this to the long list of reasons we should all be happy were alive today, not then.

So, if our body stopped working—if something clogs or bursts—Then what can't we do? Lots of things. I asked those students to list some of those things, and they quickly fired them off: watch TV, eat, do sports, and more. They quickly realized that the real answer is: all things, actually. If something clogs or bursts, that we can't do anything, because we're dead.

But, the genius of the prayer is that it skips over all of these relatively mundane activities, and jumps to one: standing before God. Praying. The most basically sacred act of human existence. In some ways, the ultimate act of humanity—trying to be with God. Trying to feel God's presence.

The things that we do in the bathroom are among the most base of all human activities. They're awfully yucky. We don't like to talk about them; we don't like to even think about them. But, without them, we couldn't do anything else, including the most exalted of all human activities, whatever you think those are. Without the gross stuff, we can't do the holy stuff. Which means that the gross stuff is actually holy, itself, because it enables holiness.

As I told the kids, and as I love to say, if you can't poop, then you can't pray. And that means that pooping is holy. In a way.

We tend to naturally divide the world into the sacred and the profane. But, on some level, it's a false distinction. Because the sacred and profane are inextricably mixed and inseparable. That which is profane is inherently sacred. We just don't always think of it that way. But, we can learn to.

Oh, the other place we say this prayer? After going to the bathroom. We walk out of the bathroom (traditionally, we don't say prayers and bathrooms) and remind ourselves that without that room, we couldn't walk into any other rooms, including the most sacred.

Give it a try—even if you don't want to use this prayer, or any other prayer. Next time you go to the bathroom, take a moment and be thankful. Think how incredibly lucky, how blessed, we are to be healthy, and thus to be alive. Think how, if we were born just a few centuries ago, our lives could be so different, and so utterly dependent on our biology. Give thanks for everything in our lives, even for poop.

Especially that.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Jewish Military Chaplains

Yesterday, for the first time in my life, I stepped foot on a military base.

You see, a year or two ago, my family met a new Tampa resident. She was a new parent at the Hillel School where my son is a student. I met her, her son and her two daughters. I didn't meet her husband, though, until a couple of weeks ago. That's because he is an officer in the Army Special Forces, and he's spent most of his time during these past two years in Afghanastan. He's there a lot. I think he said that he's done 8 rotations in that country.

Yesterday, I was invited, along with my family, to attend the ceremony for his promotion to Lt. Colonel. I went with my family down to MacDill AFB, about a half-hour drive due south of my synagogue. Once we got on the base, we were amazed at the size of it - even though I knew this wasn't true, I always picture baracks and other military stuff when I hear "Military Base." But, this was really a small town. Houses. Schools. Shopping. A golf course. Playgrounds. You get the idea. It made an impression, I guess, because it made it clear how big this thing is - the military, I mean. And, I don't just mean big in numbers. I mean how all-inclusive, all-involved it is to run a military in this day and age. It's more than just soldiers, marines, sailors and airmen, more than guns and ammo and trucks and planes. It's life - all of it.

The ceremony itself was unbelievable. For me, it was deeply moving. The new Lt. Colonel's superior, a Colonel whose name I've forgotten, spoke about how our friend had responded to the attack which famously resulted in the capture of Jessica Lynch. Realizing that, in part, this had happened because of a lack of preparation on the part of the soldiers, he created a training program for non-combat soldiers, to keep them well prepared, in case combat did break out around them. The program took off, and spread throughout the Army. The Colonel made it clear - this program has, without a doubt, saved lives. Probably many.

I looked around the scene, and saw a few dozen men and women in dress uniform and, mostly, fatigues, and realized that each of them (they were, I believe, all officers) had dedicated their lives to serving our country. They had, it seemed likely, each been involved in life and death in a way in which I never have, and probably never will (for which I am pretty darn grateful). They had risked their lives, saved lives, and possibly taken lives. All in the name of protecting us.

I'm a Rabbi, which people tend to think of as an "Important Job." On my good days, I can really make a difference in someone's life. On a really good day, I can make a small difference in the world. I am, through my title if nothing else, respected, because of my position in the community. But, I have to admit, I felt somewhat silly standing there surrounded by Special Forces soldiers. My job felt inconsequential. Certainly somewhat self-indulgent, and self-important.

You don't have to convince me I'm wrong. I certainly know about the value of, the power of, religion. I accept that. I love it, and I embrace it. But, it's all relative. Compared to what these men and women are doing, it really is pretty trivial. And very, very easy. Because of my job, I miss a lot of dinners. Our friend just got back from something like 5 months over in Afghanastan.

Remembering something that a Rabbinic Chaplain/recruiter told me in Rabbinical School, I did some quick Googling. According to the Union for Reform Judaism, in 2005 there were about 1,500,000 men and women in the US Military. 

There were 29 Active Duty Jewish Chaplains.

I'll admit that I'm proud to tell you that I gave my card to that Colonel, and asked him to pass it on to someone who might find a use for me. Some way in which I can volunteer my Rabbinic services to them. It would be such a drop in the bucket, such a miniscule gesture, compared to what they give. But, I couldn't help but feel that I owed them at least that much. I really, truly hope that they find something for me to do. I was deeply, deeply impressed by the people standing around me yesterday evening, watching one of their own receive a great honor. If I can give back in some small way, it would truly be a great honor, for me.