Friday, December 28, 2012

Reacting to Tragedy

It's become a commonplace, almost a cliché, that we have an incredibly short attention span for even the most important stories in our world. But, as hard as it may be to believe, we seem to have almost moved on, as a society, from the tragedy in Newtown, which took place just two weeks ago. The conversation about gun control, and to a lesser degree mental illnesses, rages on (thankfully), but it seems to me that the conversation about the tragedy itself has mostly waned. Maybe that's just because there isn't much left to say — how many times can we shake our heads and say, "there are no words"? Maybe it's because we have a need to protect ourselves, and dwelling on this tragedy is just too hard.

This morning, I read an article by Anthony Pinn, talking about the theological and humanist responses to Newtown. "Humanist" is a word that gets used very differently in different contexts, but here I think he's using it in the basic sense of "human centered." As in, let’s talk about this tragedy not in terms of God and "why God would let this happen," or, "what God can do for us now," but rather talk about the human side — what have we, as a society, done to enable this kind of tragedy? What should we, as human beings, be doing in response? How can we properly mourn, and how can we act to make a better world?

Why? Well, it's a pretty deep article, especially considering how short it is (so, you really should read it). But, in part it's because he believes that attempting to bring God into the conversation actually exposes weaknesses of theology: 
At best we might suggest that God “dropped the ball”—failed to do what a loving God is supposed to do. Instead, it seems to me, as we read the stories of the victims we are also reading God’s obituary. By this I mean that such extreme human tragedy makes it impossible to talk about God in any useful way.
 Don’t read this statement as a selfish demand for comfort, for an easy life. No, it’s recognition that nothing explains away the destruction of life’s integrity; but instead it highlights the fact that we labor in this world without cosmic aid that can protect us from us. Appeals to free will (as my comments are bound to generate) might not be a limitation God imposes on God’s self. It may simply be a weak way of saying we are in control, or what the late William R. Jones—philosopher of religion—called the “functional ultimacy” of human activity in the world. 
I like that phrase, "functional ultimacy of human activity in the world." Whatever you want to believe about God — God could prevent such tragedies, but chooses not to; God can't prevent such tragedies — the fact remains that God doesn't prevent such tragedies. At least within this limited scope, the world behaves as if there isn't a God. We, human beings, are the ultimate actors.

[Those of you who know my own theology know that this doesn’t drive me away from God, but it does drive me away from classical,dualist images of God]

He also believes that theological justifications do nothing to ease the pain of those who are suffering: 
I write this not to deny comfort for those who have been directly and indirectly touched by this unspeakable act of violence. Mine is an effort to acknowledge and respect grief without so quickly pushing to find some reason behind such tragedy. This loss of life is really beyond our limited human language. The loss experienced by those families, by those associated with the school, and by the collective American and human family is so intense, so absurd, so real that it calls for our full humanity beyond any talk of God. 
That actually matches up, incredible closely, with my own experience. I'm sure that there are people who react differently, but when I've encountered people who have suffered a tragedy, the question of, "Why did God let this happen?" usually comes up. And, they almost invariably find comfort when I use the message of Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik who said (in my hopelessly inadequate summary) that that's the wrong question to ask. But not because, in the popular phrasing, "we can't understand God's plans." No, Soloveitchik says, don't say that God has plans, and that this tragedy was a part of those plans. Because, what that really says is that this tragedy wasn't a tragedy at all — it was good.

Saying, "it was all part of God's plans," pretends that we are children suffering through, say, the pain of surgery. For us, there is only pain. But, our benevolent, omnipotent Parent knows that this temporary pain serves a greater good. And so it is, itself, good. We may think that the surgery is bad; they know better.

No, Soloveitchik says, this pain, and this tragedy, were not good. And, there's no good reason to pretend otherwise. Denying that awful things are awful, and evil things are evil, is not sophisticated, intellectually or morally. It is vapid. It is lost. Our ability to know the difference between good and bad, between good and evil, is the one thing which makes us fundamentally different from other animals (that's the real lesson of the Garden of Eden story). Quashing that knowledge isn't high-minded. It's a flight from reality, and from our own essence.

Pinn and Soloveitchik, a humanist and a devout theist, agree on what the proper question actually is: What do we do now? 
Those who struggled to protect, to safeguard, those young lives—and those who lost their lives to the insanity of murder are more important than any appeal to God. We humans alone must remember them, keep the beauty and value of their short lives ever present through our memorials, through our reflexive words, but also through our resolve to determine and then change the patterns of socio-political and economic life that contribute to collective misery. Think gun control as impulse control, and as a reasonable effort to preserve the integrity of life by making it a little more difficult to destroy it.
 I’m not taking anything away from those grieving, but rather I am calling for greater attention to the framing of life, to the regulations, and dangers embedded in our social relationships that undergird our loss. How many guns are necessary to prove we live in a democracy? How many must die before we recognize collective life requires constraint, a humility and discipline that our pleas to a special relationship with God often damage. 

I've gone in a bit of a circle, here. I started off by talking about how we stopped talking about the tragedy, itself, and only talk now about our longer-term reactions to it. And then, I shared overlapping humanistic and theological responses which, in essence, say that the proper thing to do is to focus on longer-term reactions. Maybe there's a deeper meaning to that, or maybe I'm just having trouble making sense of my thoughts this morning. Maybe, like I said, everyone's still thinking about Newtown, but has nothing left to say, so we are trying to do something productive with our pain. Maybe that’s what I’m trying to do, too. 
Sometimes it is in silence that we are best able to eulogize our collective loss, and to mourn our lack of power over the circumstances that lead to such destruction.

Wednesday, December 19, 2012


I hate organ music.

Well, I don't mind it so much at sporting events. But, generally speaking, I'm not really a fan of the sound of an organ. And, when it comes to praying in a synagogue, I'm really not a fan. I feel more or less the same way about it than I do about choirs — besides a simple aesthetic preference (we like what we like, and there's not too much to do about that), I'm a big fan of participatory prayer (in fact, I'd argue that "participatory prayer" is probably a redundancy), and the kind of "High Church" music that is usually being played on an organ (and sung by a choir) is among the least participatory types of prayer that we can find in Judaism. In other words, organs don't generally lend themselves to the type of prayer which I prefer.

A lot of people who don't appreciate organ music and synagogue complain that it reminds them of church. I grew up with an organ being used in synagogue, so it doesn't seem that foreign to me. But, I certainly understand the association, and why it makes some people uncomfortable*. But, that nearly universally accepted association might be ironically erroneous**.

Not that there's anything wrong with church. It's just that most Jews want synagogue to "feel Jewish," rather than feeling like a church.

** Try saying that 10 times fast…

Benjamin Ivy suggests that, actually, organs are a well-established musical instrument in Judaism. In fact, for a long time churches forbade the use of organs, because it was so strongly associated with Judaism, and Jewish worship!

...musicologist Tina Frühauf, notes that “until the Middle Ages, the organ was not officially permitted in any Christian liturgy inasmuch as instrumental music was associated… with the Jewish services once held in the temple at Jerusalem.”
I'm not saying that this makes me want to start using an organ in synagogue. I still don't like it (personal preference), and I still don't think it invites participatory prayer (rabbinic preference). But, it's a good reminder that almost any time someone says, "that's not Jewish" or some such, what they really mean is, "that doesn't feel like the Judaism with which I'm familiar." There's nothing wrong with having our preferences, or with having those preferences grounded in what we find familiar. But, let's not make the mistake of elevating those preferences to objective fact.

You know, "let's not make the mistake of elevating those preferences to objective fact" might be a rabbinic motto of mine. I sure do wish a lot of other religious people felt similarly. But, I guess that's for another day…

Tuesday, December 11, 2012

The Miracle of Hope

[This is a version of the sermon I gave on Friday night]

Last week, Rabbi Richard Birnholz had a column in the Jewish Press. In it, he juxtaposed and compared two ancient, Jewish stories: the Chanukah story and Masada. I had never seen these two stories linked before, but doing so was interesting, and revealing. First, a quick review of the stories. We’ll start with Hanukkah, since it came first.

The full story is actually quite complicated and interesting, but here’s an incredibly simplified version that will suffice for now: our people were being oppressed by the Syrian-Greek empire. Led by King Antiochus, they were imposing a foreign form of religion on our people (which is something that we’ve never appreciated, to say the least). A rebellion started, led by Judah the Maccabee (“the Hammer”). It was, to say the least, a ridiculously audacious act. There was almost no chance of success — what hope was there for a small band of under-armed, untrained Jews against the mighty Imperial Army? But, of course, they were successful — they drove the Greeks out, reclaimed and rededicated the Temple, and established Jewish sovereignty in the land. It was, quite literally in their eyes, a miraculous victory.

Masada is a very different story. This time, it was the Roman empire which was oppressing us. Towards the end of their brutal suppression of our rebellion, a group of fanatics took over the fortress at Masada. It was a impregnable palace built years before by King Herod. Up there, well supplied, they were able to survive three years of siege by the Roman legions. But, it eventually became clear that there was no hope — they were going to fall to the Romans, soon. Death would be the best that they could hope for, probably. More likely, torture, slavery and God knows what else were in store for them. So, they made a desperate decision, and committed mass suicide, rather than be taken by the Romans.

Rabbi Birnholz compared these two stories as a way to talk about how difficult it is to know when to fight, and when not to fight. How, looking in our past, we find examples of both. It’s impossible to say that “Jews always fight back” or “Jews never fight back.” It’s more nuanced, and more complicated, than that. He was talking about it particularly vis-à-vis Israel and its current dilemmas, but it applies more widely, of course.

But, the juxtaposition got me thinking about another valuable insight from this comparison: one is a story about hope, while the other is a story about giving up hope.

Masada is, at the simplest level, the story of a people who had no more hope. I want to make it clear — I’m not judging them for this. I’m not going to stand here, 2000 years later, in the comfort of my own synagogue, and say that they didn’t the wrong thing, or the right thing. That’s a discussion for another time. What I’m saying is that, clearly, this was the act of the people who felt that there was no possibility of any kind of victory, save for this one — the victory of denying the Romans the victory that they wanted.

For many years, Masada was an important symbol in Israel — members of the Army were sworn in there, and declared “Masada shall never fall again.” That sentiment is still alive in Israel, but they’ve become more reluctant to use Masada as a symbol. Again, without judging the actions of those people, there’s been a growing discomfort with using this terrible, desperate situation as a symbol. Is this what we want to evoke and remember at some of our most powerful, sacred moments?

Compare that to the story of Chanukah. This is a story of a people who had every reason not to hope. But, in spite of that, they never lost faith, and they never stopped hoping. The war itself was an act of audacious hope. There really was no way anyone could have expected them to win. By all rights, it should have been a minor rebellion, completely unnoticed by the larger empire, and lost to history. But, it wasn’t. It was one of the most improbable victories you’ll ever read about.

Chanukah is about a lot of things — the balance between religious fundamentalism and acculturation, for example. But, at its core, Chanukah is about hope in the face of hopelessness. That might be one of the great lessons in all Judaism: the fundamental, absolute necessity for hope, no matter what. The constant, ever-present possibility of miracles, so long as we believe that they might still happen.

We’ll never know what would have happened to those poor souls on top of Masada if they had decided to surrender, or fight back. We do, however, have a pretty good idea of what would have happened if the Hasmoneans hadn’t fought back. There would have been no victory, no Temple restored. It could have been the end of the Jewish people, and even if we had survived, we certainly would not have our annual celebration of their great victory and so, tragically, there would be no excuse to eat fried latkes and doughnuts all week! The Maccabean victory relied on quite a few factors, but it began with hope. Without hope, nothing is possible.

I may have finally come to realize the true meaning of a famous rabbinic aphorism. Rabbi Nahman of Bratzlov once said, “All the world is a very narrow bridge. The main thing is not to be afraid.” There are always good and valid reasons to be afraid. To lose hope. We live in a world which, sometimes seemingly constantly, gives us ample reason to fear and doubt. We can pick up the papers and read about war, famine, looming financial crises, potential environmental catastrophes, superbugs and drug-resistant diseases, and more. We can look around our own lives and see people who have lost loved ones, lost their livelihoods, lost everything. We can look anywhere we want to and, without a bit of melodrama or paranoia, find lots of reasons to be afraid, to be absolutely, unequivocally sure, that there is no hope.

But, there’s one thing I can tell you for sure. If you let that fear overtake you, then there is no hope. You’ve already lost. The only way to live is to acknowledge the chasm — acknowledge the very real pitfalls and the dangers — and then take a step forward, anyway. We don’t pretend that the dangers aren’t there; we just choose to move ahead, in spite of them. Miraculously, we rarely fall.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, the godfather of what we now call Modern Orthodox Judaism, noticed that the first born Jew, Yitzhak, was named after laughter. His parents, Abraham and Sarah, had grown so old that when God tells Sarah she’s going to have a baby, she laughs. It’s an utterly ridiculous idea, at her age (and, frankly, she’s more concerned with Abraham’s age than hers!). So, when she eventually has a baby, she names him after that laughter. That’s because, Hirsch teaches, from our first moments, our people’s history has been so ridiculous as to be laughable. Our patriarch and matriarch didn’t have a child until they had reached a ridiculous high age. The idea that we could survive 400 years of slavery and 40 years of wandering the desert, conquer a hostile land, establish a kingdom — it’s laughable. Survive 2000 years of exile and dispersion — and not just survive, but thrive? Laughable. Revive a dead language? Drain the swamps, make the desert bloom and create a modern state out of almost nothing? Survive the death camps and outlive Hitler? Become one of the great military powers of the world at the same time that those who remain outside of Israel become a thriving, vibrant people? Ridiculous, and utterly hopeless.

That’s who we are — we are the people who regularly do that which is so impossible as to be laughable. We are the people who never lose hope, no matter what.

The Maharal of Prague has a beautiful teaching about Chanukah. Why, he asks, do we talk about an eight day miracle? When the Hasmoneans entered the temple, they found enough oil for one day, but it lasted eight. We all know the story. But, that’s only a seven-day miracle — that first day wasn’t a miracle, at all. It was just lighting a light. That’s true, the Maharal says. But, before we could get to that seven-day miracle, we needed another miracle, first. You see, there was no reason to think that lighting the light was a good idea. They knew there was only enough oil for one day. Lighting the menorah and letting it go out, would have been a major religious violation. Logic would have dictated that they simply wait another week, until there was sufficient oil.

But, they were unwilling to wait. They were unwilling to delay rekindling the menorah, and their sense of holiness, for one more moment. And, despite having no reason to think that it would work out well, they trusted that it would. They acted on hope, even when the world gave them little reason for it. On days two through seven of Chanukah, we celebrate the miracle of the burning. But, on the first day, we celebrate the miracle of the lighting.

On the first day, we celebrate the miracle of hope.

These Lights Are Holy — And Nothing Else

Tonight is the 4th night of Chanukah. When we light our candles tonight, will say the two blessings, and then all recite a short paragraph, "HaNeirot Hallelu." it reads:
We light these lights for the miracles and the wonders, for the redemption and the battles that you made for our forefathers, in those days at this season, through your holy priests. During all eight days of Chanukah, these lights are holy, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them, but only to look at them; In order to express thanks and praise to Your great Name for your miracles, Your wonders, and your salvations. 
It's kind of nice to have this little piece which describes the reasons for the ritual we just did — sometimes I wish that every ritual came with an explanation! But, there's one sentence in here which I love more than the rest*. "These lights are holy, and we are not permitted to make ordinary use of them."

* I can't remember for sure, but I'm fairly certain that this insight came from either Dr. Larry Hoffman or Dr. Joel Hoffman. Most of my good ideas are pilfered from one of them, anyway…

The lights of the Chanukah menorah have one purpose, and one purpose only. They are there to "proclaim the miracle." They are there to advertise God's greatness, and our gratitude for it. That's it – that's their complete and sole purpose in life.

By the way – that's the real reason for the shamash (the helper candle). It's not there, primarily, too light the other candles (not too long ago, all menorahs were oil lamps; it would be pretty hard to use one oil lamp to light the rest, the way we use a candle, now!). Is there to provide light for use. You see, it's forbidden to use the Chanukah lights for any practical purpose. But, it's always possible that we'll accidentally use it — that, for example, we'll read a book nearby, and inadvertently use the menorah as a source of light. So, we light one extra light so that we can claim (who doesn't love a legal fiction?) that we weren't using the holy lights, rather this extra, ordinary light, instead.

Or, another to frame that is that the shamash is there to guarantee (and I'd add, to remind us) that the Chanukah lights cannot serve any purpose, other than their primary one – holiness.

I love this simple idea that we have something in our homes, even temporarily, which serves no practical purpose. It is there only, and adamantly only, to remind us of holiness. To proclaim God's presence. To remind us to, in Heschel's words*, stand still and consider.

* both Hoffmans and Heschel in one blog post! I think I get bonus points for that! Let's see if I can squeeze Kushner and/or Green in here, just to round things out…

I think it's an incredibly important, and powerful, idea. All of us should have something in life which is there to remind us of that which is greater than ourselves. Of that which is holy. If you aren't a religious person, then it doesn't have to be a classically religious symbol, like a menorah. But, find something in the world which you can set aside as a touchstone of holiness. Something which serves no purpose other than to remind you that there is holiness in the world. That holiness is always present, even if we sometimes forget to look for it.

These lights are holy. They are nothing else. Thank God!

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Can There Even Be A Perfect God?

I've talked before (heck, I talk a lot) about how I don't believe in the "traditional," Biblical image of God. Yoram Hozony, has written an article taking on that image of God in a different way.

First of all, what most people think of as the "Biblical God" isn't:
The second problem is that while this “theist” view of God is supposed to be a description of the God of the Bible, it’s hard to find any evidence that the prophets and scholars who wrote the Hebrew Bible (or “Old Testament”) thought of God in this way at all. The God of Hebrew Scripture is not depicted as immutable, but repeatedly changes his mind about things (for example, he regrets having made man). He is not all-knowing, since he’s repeatedly surprised by things (like the Israelites abandoning him for a statue of a cow). He is not perfectly powerful either, in that he famously cannot control Israel and get its people to do what he wants. And so on.
And, philosophically speaking, the very idea of a perfect God might be borderline nonsensical:
What would we say if some philosopher told us that a perfect bottle would be one that can contain a perfectly great amount of liquid, while being perfectly easy to pour from at the same time? Or that a perfect horse would bear an infinitely heavy rider, while at the same time being able to run with perfectly great speed? I should think we’d say he’s made a fundamental mistake here: You can’t perfect something by maximizing all its constituent principles simultaneously. All this will get you is contradictions and absurdities. This is not less true of God than it is of anything else.
The whole idea of there being some "being" who is "up there" hasn't really made sense to me for a long time. I agree with Hozony who seems to be saying that it's well past time for us to be thinking about God differently. As he says, would it be so bad to talk about a God who actually make sense?

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

No Slippery Slope For Same Sex Marriage

The Catholic Church has again weighed in against same-sex marriage using the old slippery slope argument:
If not, why not contemplate also freely chosen polygamy and, of course, not to discriminate, polyandry?

Rather than take the time to explain why this is such a ridiculous line of argument, I'll just defer to Jay Michelson:

Same-sex marriage is meaningfully different from the other examples always mentioned:
we do not as yet have any evidence of millions of people whose sole path to emotional and physical intimacy is polyamory. We do have that data for gays and lesbians. ...There may be some polyamorists who feel the same way, but we haven’t heard from them as we have from millions of gays and lesbians who have pleaded for equality in public squares, courts, and churches. To analogize the visible to the invisible, the real to the unreal, is absurd—and thus offensive.
Slippery slopes aren't, usually, all that slippery:
Societies often permit one thing while prohibiting another similar thing. Driving 55 is legal—75 or even 85 on one Texas highway—but driving 95 is not. There are differences in degree, not in kind; and yet, societies sit on the slippery slope all the time, and don’t slip. 
And, let's also remember that this is simply not about religious freedom, because we're talking about civil marriage, not religious marriage:
No one is telling the Church what to do within its magisterium (misleading rhetoric about “religious freedom” notwithstanding). I would appreciate it if it would stop telling New York what to do with ours.
Programming note: I'm going to be a guest on the "Sunday Simcha" radio show this Sunday at 12:15  to talk about the Tampa Rabbinical Associations statement in support of LGBT rights. 88.5 FM in Tampa; I don't think they stream on the Internet, but it will be archived later at

We're Not All The Same

Recently, my friend in teacher Dr. Joel Hoffman blogged about a common, but ultimately incorrect, belief: the belief that we are all, at our core, similar:
Obviously, there were differences: financial, cultural, religious, and more. Some people owned private jets and others couldn’t afford dinner. Some children grew up with families in homes and others on the street. Some religious leaders worshiped one god and others worshiped many or none at all. Some languages and cultures demanded formality while others all but precluded it. And so forth.
But I thought that when it came to what really mattered, most people were certainly like me. And — the other side of the same coin — I thought that I could figure out the differences without leaving my home.
I was the modern anthropological equivalent of the 19th-century armchair scientist.
As he points out, as violence continues in and around Israel, it's especially important to remember this: not everyone is the same, deep down. I'm not claiming that it's genetic — that one group of people are inherently, irrevocably different (or better) than another. But, whatever its source, reality seems to be that some of us are deeply, fundamentally different from others. The feeling that, at our core, we're all alike, and that if we could just sit down and talk to each other, we could always get through our differences, might be noble. But it might not be true. And, if it's not true, pretending that it is can have real, life-threatening consequences.

That same point was made, more explicitly, in a recent op-ed by David Horowitz (someone who, it must be noted, is generally seen as pro-peace) in The Times of Israel. The members of Hamas are not like us. They are not generally good people who, driven by hopelessness, do terrible things but who, if only given a chance, will gladly see that we're all brothers, and will make peace.

They are evil.

I try not to use that word lightly, ever. But, it's hard to argue that it doesn't apply to Hamas:
Actually, we are grappling here with people who have lost “tzelem elohim” (the image of God), who have spurned the divine gift of life, rejected the sheer joy of drawing breath on this planet. The terrorists of Hamas and others like them – inspired, armed, funded and trained by the ideologically and territorially rapacious rulers of Iran – do not ultimately seek to live and let live. They strain to kill and be killed.
It may be difficult to accept, but the evidence is everywhere. It was clear when Hamas killed its own people while seizing power in Gaza in 2007. It is clear in a terrible history of suicide bombings against Jewish, Christian and, again, Muslim targets. It is clear in Hamas’s ruthless deployment in Gaza – its savage readiness to open fire from right next to mosques and schools, and to take children out with its rocket crews in the cynical appreciation that its decent, humane enemies might then hold their fire and thus enable it to continue to wreak destruction.
Every decent person wants to see an end to violence in and around Israel. Every person I know, however much they love and support Israel, would love to see an end to the fighting, and a drawing back of Israel's troops from the border with Gaza. But, suggesting that, if Israel's and Hamas's leaders would just put down the guns for a moment, have a cup of tea together, and share their stories, somehow this will lead to peace — well, that just sounds naïve. And, frankly, if Hamas's leaders are evil, then that's exactly what they'd want. Because, that's exactly how the keep getting away with acts of terror.

I'm not saying it as well as Horowitz — but give his article a read and, in all sincerity, tell me if there's a flaw in the thinking. Because, this is one of those times when I'd love to be wrong. I'd love to go back to a world in which I could believe that, deep down, we're all good. Because, I really can't look at Hamas, and other similar terrorists, and believe that.

As always, I want to be perfectly and explicitly clear — I don't think that every Palestinian is evil. And I believe that the death of every single innocent, whatever side they may be on, is a tragedy. It breaks my heart to see pictures of people suffering in Gaza, especially knowing that the immediate cause of that suffering was Israeli military power. But, wishing and praying that the fighting may end is not the same as thinking that Israel is wrong to fight. Despite pithy slogans to the contrary, sometimes it really does make sense to fight for peace. Sometimes, it's the only possible way to peace:
For anybody who genuinely seeks to preserve innocent lives,everybody‘s innocent lives, should long since have faced the fact that doing so requires marginalizing and ultimately defeating Hamas and its ilk.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Responding to a critic of Israel

Sarah Posner is a writer for Religion Dispatches, a blog/e-letter I read. Today, she criticizes Israel for its actions in Gaza:
Obviously Hamas’ rocket launches into Israel are unacceptable. But so is the occupation, which Yoffie conveniently fails to mention in his homage to war. What’s more, as Haaretz reports this morning, Israeli peace activist Gershon Baskin was close to negotiating a cease-fire with Hamas. The Israeli government knew it, but assassinated its leader Ahmed Jabari anyway:
She criticizes former Union of Reform Judaism President Eric Yoffie for his belligerence:

Yoffie, though, seems to revel in Israel’s aggression, writing that “Israel came into being so that Jewish children would never again have to huddle together in fear, terrorized by enemies of the Jewish people.” Do Gaza’s children huddle in fear, in Yoffie’s view? Are they hungry, without jobs, without economic possibilities, without a future, and fearful of Israel’s military might?
I responded on the blog (and, I'm unfortunately awaiting the vitriol which seems inevitable on the web). Here was my response:

Ms. Posner makes some valid points, but she also leaves out very relevant information.
Yes, Palestinian deaths and casualties have been, and continue to be, higher than Israel's. That sounds quite damning for Israel. But, we must account for two factors:
a) Israel has avoided many casualties through its "Iron Dome" anti-missile system. The low casualty numbers have nothing to do with Hamas' "fairness" or some such, but with Israel's ability to defend itself. Do we praise Hamas because they haven't figured out how to kill more effectively, yet? 
b) Hamas deliberately hides its operations in dense civilian centers, thus guaranteeing civilian deaths in any response. These civillian deaths are a direct (and possibly deliberate) result of Hamas' policies. 
As for Baskin and the possible truce on which he was working with Jabari, Ms. Posner reverses the blame. She asks, "Why did Israel attack when they were close to a truce?" Instead, we must remember that Israel's actions were a reaction to unprovoked hostility from Hamas in Gaza. What we should be asking is why Hamas chose this time, as a truce was being worked on, to start shelling Israel. And, once they did, what was Israel to do, once the shelling started? Trust that Hamas, despite the attack, was actually, finally interested in peace?
I am sorry if the leaders my movement seem to "revel" in Israeli defense (which Posner calls "aggression"). I don't think that's the case. But, in a world in which every Israeli act, however justified, is vilified in the press and the wider world, it's important for our leaders to be full throated in standing up for Israel.
Finally, Posner refers to the "occupation" and implicitly balances it with the shelling - the shelling from Gaza is wrong, but so is the occupation. Tit for tat. Of course, she doesn't point out that there is no occupation in Gaza. Israel pulled out in 2006. The result was a strengthening of Hamas' position in the region, and the beginning of a constant assault on civilian centers in Israel's south, notably Sderot. It was Israel pulling out of Gaza which led us here; it makes clear what is explicit in Hamas charter - their goal is not the end of the occupation, but the end of Israel.
I honestly and deeply believe that every civilian death, on either side, is a tragedy. As soon as Hamas stops seeking the destruction of Israelis, and of Israel, they can be safe. I pray for that day.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Tired, cranky and grateful

My connection isn't good enough to find and link to it, but if you've never seen it, Google "Louis C.K. And everything's great." Hysterical, and a really important point to remember.

I'm exhausted. I just figured out that, by the time I get home, it will have been just over 24 hours since I left for the airport in Tel Aviv. Almost no sleep. Bad food. Achy body.

But, you know what? I just got to spend an amazing 10 days in Israel. I got to tour around on a comfy bus, and sleep in nice hotels. And, my "long" trip is nothing compared to what people, just a generation or three ago, would have had to put up with to get to Israel.

So, I'm tired, and I'm cranky, and I'm dying to be home already. But, I'm also feeling very, very lucky.

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Israel - The North

Today was one of those days where, when you look back at the start of the day, you can't believe that it wasn't a week ago.

We started out from our (very lovely) kibbutz hotel, and headed up to the Golan Heights. I've been up there many times, but it never, ever fails to take my breath away. There's something about the terrain - the hard, rocky land, covered in brush; the rolling hills; the gorgeous valley, visible end-to-end - which leaves me near tears, every time. Plus, there's no better way to understand what security is really all about -- looking down on the valley, seeing how narrow, how fragile, how in-reach it is, really drives home how scary life in Israel can be.

We went to a couple of different locations, and so we got a couple of points of view (literally). When you can easily see Lebanon and Syria, pretty much at the same time, well...

I think that contrast - the natural beauty tied to the existential fear - is part of what I find so powerful up here.

Then, we got to do something really special - something I've never done before. The other Rabbis on this trip, Rabbis Flip and Laurie Rice, have a connection to "Friends of the IDF (Israel Defense Forces)," an organization dedicated to supporting the Israeli soldiers. They arranged a meeting with a tank squad. We got to see the tanks up close, got to see a tank driving by (pretty impressive!), got to talk with the soldiers (all of whom seemed, to these old eyes, to be about 12 years old. Except the commander - he must have been a least 14), and we even got to get into a tank (pictures to come, of course). It was fun, but it was a strange kind of fun. We were tourists. They were taking a break from preparing for the ever-present reality of war.

Again - it's that contrast of reality. Were these kids American, most of them would be thinking about college. Instead, they're all toting around M-16s and teaching gawking Americans about the difference between this shell, which is normal, and this shell, which is armor-piercing. There's so much more I want to say about that, but I really don't know how to begin. But, I hope you understand what I'm trying to say.

And then, we got to go to Tz'fat (or Sefat, or Safed, or however you want to spell it). It was, in a way, the hardest and most disappointing part of the trip for me. Don't get me wrong - it was still wonderful. But, we had to be in and out in a couple of hours. We got to see the synagogue of the Ari - the Rabbi who created Kabbalah. We got to see the artists shops in the Old City. We got to see the sun set. But, it was like only having an hour to spend with a long-lost friend -- there was so much more, and I longed for it. But, my biggest worry was that what we saw wouldn't be enough for the people on the trip, that they'd be disappointed. I shouldn't have worried -- they were all wowed by one of my favorite places on earth, so I felt great about that.

After a long day, and another delicious dinner, we gathered for some debriefing -- a chance to share, in just a few words, a thought or impression from the trip, so far. People talked of feeling connected to the land. Of being amazed at how complicated it is. How beautiful it is. About how moved they were by the kids from yesterday's youth village, or today's soldiers. About how amazed they were that artillery shells could fall in this country (which they did earlier today), and life could just continue -- about how much courage and love of country that must take. And, something someone said reminded me of a poem I love. Through the magic of Google and Wi-Fi, I managed to find it on the spot.

I read it first in Rabbinical School, but I don't know that I've read it, or at least really thought about it, since having a son. Like everything in life, it meant so much more this time:

An Arab Shepherd Is Searching For His Goat On Mount Zion

An Arab shepherd is searching for his goat on Mount Zion

And on the opposite hill I am searching for my little boy.

An Arab shepherd and a Jewish father

Both in their temporary failure.

Our two voices met above

The Sultan's Pool in the valley between us.

Neither of us wants the boy or the goat

To get caught in the wheels

Of the "Had Gadya" machine.

Afterward we found them among the bushes,

And our voices came back inside us

Laughing and crying.

Searching for a goat or for a child has always been

The beginning of a new religion in these mountains.

-- Yehuda Amichai



On our itinerary, we're officially on day 5 of our Israel trip. But, not really. Day 1 was travel, and because of the overnight flight, day 2 was mostly travel, followed by dinner and sleep. Day 3 was a lot of fun - exploring Tel Aviv and Jaffa.

But, day 4? On day 4, this trip really started.

I don't have time to go into detail (I hope to, soon), but suffice it to say that every bit of geek in me (especially the geek-who-loves-Judaism) gets going when we go to places like Caesaria. Caesaria was an ancient Roman city (and, I learned/was reminded, the capital city back in Roman times). It's right on the Mediterranean sea. So, you can sit in the theater (which is not, I learned, an amphitheater - know the difference?) and look out at the water. You can walk past the floor of King Herod's palace, with its mosaics and (honest!) fresh-water pool. You can stand within the hippodrome*. You can walk on Roman streets.

* Where I, while knowing that a hippodrome was for racing, not fighting, nonetheless felt compelled to spread my arms and yell, "Are You Not Entertained?!?"

I'm sorry, but I never get tired of this. To stand in an actual Roman city? To, as I keep saying, step on the same stones where, long ago, men walked in togas - without any irony! That it, to me, mindblowingly wonderful.

Today, we're off to meet a tank battalion, tour the Golan heights and then head of to Sefat -- one of my favorite places in the whole world. A good trip just keeps getting better.


Tuesday, October 30, 2012

The Semi-Omnipotent God

Richard Mourdock has been getting a lot of press for some highly controversial comments he made about rape. In a recent posting, Sara Sentilles takes apart his argument, but not as most others have been. Most people speaking out against Mourdock have been focusing on how morally offensive the comments are. Sentilles instead focusses on how theologically, and logically, wrong-headed they are.

Underlying Mourdock's comments are the not-infrequently held belief that God is the ultimate Puppet Master. God is in complete, direct control of everything in our world. In the context of that belief, Murdoch's comments actually make a great deal of sense: God controls everything, and if a pregnancy results from rape, then God, ipso facto, made that pregnancy happen:
Imagine God up there looking down at the world and planning our days: Should the Giants go to the World Series or should it be the Cardinals? Giants. Should that woman make it through the intersection safely or should she wreck? Wreck. Should that child suffering from malaria live or should he die? Live. If God allows certain things to happen and prohibits others—if God intends certain things instead of others—then it follows that God approves of what God chooses. Then it follows that God intended you to get pregnant by being raped. He planned it; He asked for it; He wanted it.
I've spoken, many times, about the fact that you don't have to believe in that kind of a controlling God in order to be religious, or to be a believer. In fact, my theology, which is in no way similar to Mourdock's, was the topic of my Kol Nidrei sermon. I could talk at length (in fact, I have!) about why I think that that kind of a theology (which most people seem to think is "traditional" and therefore somehow better) is wrong. But, Sentilles point is that people like Murdoch themselves are often rather ambivalent about that theology, or at the very least, are unwilling to see it through. Are we really willing to look at all of the evils of the world, and declare them God's will (and, therefore, to imply that we shouldn't be intefering)?

The logic is circular: whatever happens, God meant it to happen. The very occurrence of something, then—snow, a home run, illness, rape—becomes its own kind of justification, a way to prove it’s what God wanted, which means all kinds of oppression can be cast as God’s will. So where does it end? What can’t be justified by appealing to God’s intention in this way? This essay? God intended it (as if that will stop all the hate mail I’m likely to get when this posts). Flood? God intended it. Pregnancy? God intended it. Environmental destruction? God intended it. Mass extinction? Hate crimes? Slavery? Genocide? God wanted it all.

Are we willing to accept the policy implications of this theology?
Would Mourdock call erectile dysfunction part of God’s plan? If a man can’t get it up is that God’s way of telling him not to reproduce? Not to have sex? And if it is, shouldn’t we make Viagra illegal? 
Ultimately, thinking like this relies on a theological mistake: the idea that we can really know God, or God's will, at all:
This is exactly why the notion of God as mystery appeals to me. Our words about God will always fall short. Because they’re our words, not God’s. We need, therefore, to be careful when we appeal to belief to justify any political position—because when we invoke God’s name, we don’t entirely know what we’re talking about.
If God is transcendent, then we can't really know God's will, or God's opinion on anything, with complete certainty. And, if God isn't transcendent, then God isn't really God. Either way, relying on God's will to frame policy is, shall we say, rather fraught. Combine that with our prohibition against establishing any religion as the law of the land, and you get to my favorite quote of the day:
"Every time a politician invokes a religious justification for a policy position, he or she should be compelled to articulate a non-religious one." -- Sarah Posner

Wednesday, October 3, 2012

Who Shall Live, and Who Shall Die?

The High Holy Days maybe over, but it's not too late to think a bit about one of the most powerful, and troubling, parts of the High Holy Day liturgy: The Book of Life. God deciding, during those 10 days, who shall live, and who shall die. It would be a gross understatement to say that these passages, which talk about a predetermined death, a God who is in direct control of everything, and a world in which everyone gets what they deserve, good and bad, are troubling.

They're troubling logically – they don't seem to reflect the reality that most of us see. And, they're troubling theologically – most of us have trouble accepting, or wanting to accept, the idea of a "puppetmaster" God*. Do we really believe in, and do we want to believe in, a God who could, for example, wipe out childhood cancer, but chooses not to because of some higher plan?

* I don't accept this idea of God. At all. If you want to know more about what I do believe, I gave a sermon about it on Kol Nidre.

So, no, it wouldn't be an exaggeration to talk about the Book of Life as, possibly, the single most troubling part of Jewish liturgy.

Over the years, there have been many, many attempts to reinterpret and/or reclaim this part of our service. And, one recent, powerful one was recently posted on
After losing my brother, two breasts, and almost three years of my life to illness and hospitals, I was over these platitudes. I stood up to speak.
“This is all fine. I get it. But my problem is that I am mad at God.” I even talked about the Unetanah Tokef, which had been a grueling part of the High Holiday liturgy since Jeremy died. Who shall live and who shall die?
A surge went through the room. I had uttered the unspeakable. Afterwards people came up to thank me for my honesty. One was a hospice chaplain, himself a cancer survivor.
“Remember,” he said, “there is a such thing as holy anger. Think of the prophets. Anger can be a spiritual feeling.”
This is, to me, an incredibly important insight. It was first expressed to me in Rabbinical School by Rabbi Larry Hoffman. He taught us, many times, to not make the mistake of thinking that religion is entirely about feeling good. About being happy. Religion is about finding meaning in the world, and finding a system and a language for understanding our lives, and our world. Sometimes, sadness, anger or other "negative" emotions are called for. Are appropriate reactions to a situation. And, in those cases, religion should give us a way to express, and even sanctify, those emotions.

Anger can be holy. Sadness can be holy.

That doesn't mean that we embrace them, in the sense that we seek them out. Of course we prefer happiness to sadness. But, we also acknowledge that anger, sadness and so on are real, and we can't hide from them. That's called denial, and it's not healthy – mentally or spiritually.

But, the author then goes on to express another idea, one of which I think is the most profound in Judaism. You don't have to believe in a literal, specific Divine Plan in order to find meaning, or growth, in our suffering:
Fate is not a meritocracy, with good people reaping the best outcomes of health and wealth. We do have free will and are expected to use it. In Deuteronomy, we are famously told, “Justice, justice shall you pursue.”
Justice is something we must seek. And holy anger may be the fuel for doing so.
For whatever reason–randomness, divine will–cancer has entered my life. Out of this pain, I have inadvertently become an advocate for young adults with this disease and for educating patients and caregivers, particularly about the social and emotional aspects of treatment and survivorship. I don’t pretend to know if I am just making meaning out of suffering or fulfilling some important pre-ordained path. But I do know it brings me comfort.
As I learned from Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik in his book Fate And Destiny, there is an enormous difference between two similar approaches to tragedies:

  1. God made this happen. It's part of a divine plan. There's a reason for it, and I must find that reason. Once I do, I'll be able to accept it, and even grow from it.
  2. We'll never know why this happened. There may be no reason. But, it did happen. Now I have to ask myself, "what can I learn from this?"
Answer #1 sounds very wise and sophisticated. But, there are all sort of problems with it. There's a logical problem of an unprovable assertion, of course. But, there's a larger problem: if God really wanted this to happen, if God made this happen, but it wasn't bad. It was good. No matter what it was – childhood cancer, nuclear war, massive deaths through natural disaster – it's all good. It has to be, if God ordained it. In asserting this, what we're actually doing, Soloveitchik observed, is denying the reality of badness. Of evil. And that, he teaches, isn't sophisticated at all. Because it's not true.

Tragedies are not good, disguised as bad. Tragedies are bad. Cancer is bad. Tragic deaths are bad. Suffering is bad. We don't have to pretend otherwise.

Answer #2 doesn't pretend to know. It doesn't assign any motives to an unknowable God, because how could we? And, it doesn't pretend that things that we know to be awful, are actually good. It doesn't ask us to embrace, and pretend to enjoy, the suffering and death of loved ones. It allows us to hate those things, to rail against them. And then, it begs us to move forward. And to not get stuck in that hate, or that anger.

Some people ask, "why?" Some ask "what now?"

The world is unpredictable place. Awful, tragic, terrifying things happen to people, every day. We don't know why they happen, and we certainly don't know how to stop them from happening. But, if we can find the strength, we can learn what we have to do, once they do happen.

We will never explain or justify the terrible things in our world. But, through our faith, and strength, we might be able to redeem them.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Torah is a myth

Our Torah is a myth.

The idea that an all-powerful God shaped our world in six days? A myth.

The idea that God led our people through a split sea? A myth.

The idea that God dictated the Torah, word for word, to Moses? A myth.

But, I believe in them all.

I recently came across a book review, entitled The Orthodox rabbi who considers Torah a ‘myth’. It's about the book Torah from Heaven: The Reconstruction of Faith, by Rabbi Norman Solomon. In it, Rabbi Solomon takes the (hardly new) position that the Torah could not possibly have been handed down directly by God to Moses. From the review:
It is no longer possible in the wake of academic research to believe that the text of the Torah is God’s precise word-for-word dictation, he argues. We cannot read as the ancients or medieval did. “The classical doctrine of Torah from Heaven, such as that of Maimonides, with its erroneous historical claims and occasionally questionable moral consequences, cannot be upheld by the serious historian, scientist or philosopher,” he writes.
People often refer to religion as "a myth," but they include the word "just." As in, "religion is just a myth." But, there is nothing "just" about a myth.  The World English Dictionary defines "myth" as:

  1. a story about superhuman beings of an earlier age taken by preliterate society to be a true account, usually of how natural phenomena, social customs, etc, came into existence
  1. a person or thing whose existence is fictional or unproven
  1. (in modern literature) a theme or character type embodying an idea: Hemingway's myth of the male hero
  1. philosophy  (esp in the writings of Plato) an allegory or parable

So, colloquially, we tend to use "myth" in the sense of definitions one and two – a false, probably primitive story. But, it's those other definitions which I'm thinking of, when I call our Torah "a myth." A myth, at its core, is a story (true or not, factually speaking) which embodies and transmits some higher value, and which stands near the core of some larger tradition. A myth is a story which we tell about ourselves, in order to tell something deeper about ourselves.

There is nothing "just" about a myth.

People who argue about the accuracy of the Bible (probably any Bible) are missing the point. I've often said that I firmly believe that if our Torah contains a single accurate fact, it's only by accident. The Torah (probably) doesn't contain any facts. The rest of the Bible contains many accurate facts, and almost certainly many which are inaccurate, as well. But, through and through, our Torah, and our Bible, contains Truth. Meaning. A way to understand our world.

God gave the Torah to Moses. That's a myth. And, like all myth, it's very, very True.

You Can't Disprove God

This morning, I came across an article on Huffington Post. It was titled Science & God: Will Biology, Astronomy, Physics Rule Out Existence Of Deity? And, the article seems to be answering "yes." The more we learn from science, the less room we leave for God. We used to believe that God created the world; now, we know about the Big Bang. We used to believe that God created all of the animals, including human beings; now, we know about evolution. And so on.

It's hardly a new idea. I've heard it described as "the God of the Gaps. We use God to fill in the gaps of our knowledge. Anything we don't know, we ascribe to God. There are plenty of problems with this approach. The most obvious is reflected in this article: every time we learn something new, we essentially diminish God. We replace God with the Big Bang, et cetera.

There's also some more fundamental logical fallacies here, I think, even if I'm having trouble finding the precise words to explain them. But, there's something rather ad hoc, and maybe overly convenient, about this way of conceiving of God.

But, I'm getting off track. That's not what I really wanted to comment on. What I really wanted to comment on was the incredible fallacy underlying the entire article, and almost every refutation that you'll see about God and religion these days. And that fallacy is that this, or anything close to it, is the only valid way to think about, or believe in, God.

Essentially, all of these pundits who are railing against God and religion —Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, even Bill Maher -- are always (and, as far as I can tell, never explicitly) talking about a Dualist God. A God who is "out there," and "other."

Now, I will admit, that's a very common conception of God. But, there are other ways to conceive of God that are radically different from that. And, it just so happens that that other way is how believe. And, there's no way to disprove God, in this theology. None. Because, there's nothing to prove.

Want to know more? Stop by for Kol Nidrei.

Guess what my sermon is going to be about...

p.s. of course, if you can't make it, join us online. And, please spread the word to anyone you know who needs a place to pray. We're happy to give tickets to anyone who needs (no fee; just a suggested donation), and anyone can catch the Livestream, of course!