Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Obama, Assassinations and Israel

As you may have heard by now, Andrew Adler, the owner of the Atlanta Jewish Times got himself into some hot water recently, by suggesting that Israel might consider assassinating President Obama, since he's such an obstacle to their security.

To say that this is disgusting is an enormous understatement. Thankfully, condemnation from around the Jewish world was swift and vehement. Adler has been forced to resign from his post as publisher, and has already put the newspaper up for sale. The buzz and expectation are that he's gotten himself into legal trouble, too, since threats against the President are criminal. No one that I've seen is supporting his loathsome "hypothetical."

But, the JTA published an interesting article today, asking why the Jewish world, even if it thankfully usually falls short of this kind of incitement, so often sees Obama as not just bad for Israel, but as outrightly sinister, and hell-bent on Israel's (and the Jews') destruction:

While few of those critics might go as far as Adler, it doesn’t take much discussion in certain Jewish circles to find those who see something far more sinister in Obama than a president whose policies are bad for the Jews and Israel.
“I think Obama’s overriding goal is to have Israel destroyed,” said XXX*. “He puts steps in motion to bring about the destruction of the State of Israel.”
One New Yorker who insisted on anonymity said, “He’s not a Hitler in the sense that he’s anti-Semitic and wants to put every Jew into a concentration camp -- at least not as we see things right now.”
* I was just contacted by this man, and at his request, I've removed his name (even though I obviously can't do so from the original article). He feels that he was unfairly misrepresented in the original JTA article, and that it's easy to infer from his inclusion that he supports or defends a call to assassinate Obama. He does not. So, out of respect to him, I've removed his name. I sincerely thank him for taking the time to contact me, and speak to me about this.

I guess it's easy (and possibly correct) to write this off as simply another example of the standard overheated rhetoric of our day. The combination of vicious partisan politics in Washington, and the nasty echo-chamber of the Internet just makes moderation impossible, and all but guarantees that the most extreme views imaginable will get voiced, and get noticed.

But, this kind of rhetoric (the fairly common "Obama is evil," not the even more extreme "let's kill him") still bugs me. As someone who (proudly) can usually see both sides of any issue, I just have trouble imagining believing anything this extreme.

Is Obama bad for Israel? He may be. He clearly is not as supportive of Israel as George W. Bush was. In my opinion, he falls far too easily into "cycle of violence" rhetoric, which doesn't acknowledge that this is not an equal conflict. He's made some troubling, subtle comments against Israel (such as inexplicably leaving them off a list of terror victims in a speech last year). And so on.

Of course, I've heard multiple times, once from an Israeli government official, that the cooperation between the US and Israeli militaries has been better under Obama than it ever has been, and significantly so. There are also those who believe (possibly through Rose-tinted glasses) that Bush's extreme pro-Israel stance made it harder for the Palestinians to even come to the table, since they felt that the deck was stacked against them.

So, I guess that reasonable people can disagree about, and even argue about, whether Obama is good for Israel or bad, and how much so. I'm open to that.

But, can't we also agree that, even if his views and policies aren't too good for Israel, that that doesn't make him Anti-Semitic, Hitler-esque or otherwise evil?

Is that so radical?

Wednesday, January 18, 2012


[This was supposed to be a quick hit about Tim Tebow and praying. It's a bit more of a ramble. But, hopefully it makes some sense. If you want a more organized (but, even longer) take on this subject, check out]

There's been a good amount of talk in the popular press, and a great deal more in religious circles, about Tim Tebow and his religiosity, especially as it relates to sports. As I'm sure you know (and if you don't, where the heck have you been?) Tim Tebow is the quarterback of the Denver Broncos, and he is a deeply religious Christian. He is also extremely open about his religion–he speaks publicly about it, used to write religious references on the black-tape under his eyes, and most famously regularly kneels down for an obvious moment of prayer during games (a practice which has become known, and often mocked, as “Teodowing.”)

This has led to a rash of discussions of (among others topics) whether it is appropriate to ever pray at a sporting event. I'm not so much interested in the “I'm offended if you intrude on my Sunday sports watching with a religious moment” approach. Live and let live, I say, and if someone wants to pray while the camera happens to be on them, or someone wants to take out an ad for a religious organization or issue, even one with which I strongly disagree, more power to them. That's what it means to live in a free society, and that's why we talk about “the marketplace of ideas.”

No, what's interesting to me is the theological/philosophical question about whether it's appropriate to pray to God at these times. The arguments against this practice are (like everything else, it seems, these days) often offered sarcastically: Do you really think that God is a [insert your least-favorite sports team here] fan? Don't you think that God has bigger things to worry about than whether a field goal go through the rights or not? Why would you waste your prayers on something as silly as a sporting event?

I'll admit to agreeing with the sentiment behind the first of those—no matter what you believe about God, it seems to me to be ridiculous to think that God will favor one team over another. If for no other reason than the obvious fact that whenever a bunch of people are praying for one team to win, a roughly equal number are praying for the other team. Unless you're going to assume that God does some kind of headcount, or some slightly more involved measure of combined spiritual intensity (“well, Giants fans have reached 9.7 on the prey-oh-meter, but Packers fans only mounted a 9.2…”), it just doesn't make any logical sense to believe that God will directly influence the game in favor of one team over another. Maybe it's the computer geek in me, but the math just doesn't work out.

But, at the same time I have to admit that those other objections ring hollow to me. Don't get me wrong—I don't believe that God influences games directly. But, if you believe in a God who can, and does, directly influence events here on earth, then why is it impossible to believe that God would use that influence on sporting events? I mean, I assume that God doesn't have a limit on available influence, or on attention span. God could influence the flight of a football while having absolutely zero impact on God's ability to influence the progress of a drought or other natural disaster. There should be, almost by definition, I would think, nothing which is so small as to be irrelevant to God. We're told (I can't remember where I read this, but I can't find it…) that a gnat doesn't beat its wings on earth without God taking notice on high. If God can influence anything, God can influence everything. Right?

But, what if God can't influence anything? What is the point of prayer isn't to change the world, but rather to change the pray-er?

In the book of Deuteronomy were told that one of the great spiritual dangers of life: the belief that we are responsible for what we have accomplished. It was looking around and saying, “Look at what I've accomplished with my own hands.” Because, one of the great religious truths of life is that we have accomplished nothing solely with our own hands. We are a messy mass of dependencies, and everything that we do—absolutely everything—was accomplished only because of others. And, ultimately, because of the One who lies behind it all, about whom we know almost nothing, but without whom there would be nothing. For me, and for many Jewish sages, a prayer of “thanks” is not a statement about cause and effect. It's not saying that I think that God stepped in and altered the flow of history in some small or large way, the way that I thank someone who does a favor for me, here on earth. For me, a prayer of “thanks” is a prayer of humility. It's a prayer of perspective. It's a reminder that I can't take very much credit, if any at all, for anything that I accomplish. It's a reminder to think about the intricate web of connections which led to the possibility of me doing the final act in an infinitely long chain which led to some result.

Do you like this blog post? If so, I'm glad, and I'll admit that that makes me a little proud. But, if we're going to get thoughtful about this for a moment, it's easy to think of endless number of people and things upon which I was dependent to write this. We can bring up the teachers who taught me all the ideas contained here (since not one of them is original to me). We can think of the people who wrote the software which I'm using to write this. We can think of my parents who—among 1 billion other things—had me. We can think of the soldiers in the American Revolution who gave us the country in which I grew up—a country which allowed me to pursue my education, and to watch football. We can think about the first animals who crawled out of the sea (an event which Rabbi Arthur Green refers to as the greatest act of bravery in history) to allow land-based creatures to develop. I could literally spend this entire day writing this blog, rambling on about all the things about which I can think which had to happen in order to give me the opportunity to ramble on.

I very much don't believe in a God who intervenes in the world. I don't believe in a God who chooses whether to heal someone, protect someone, or grant some success, based on the beauty, intensity, or quantity of their prayers. But I've talked to some people who do believe in that kind of a God, and at least some of them will still tell you that the kind of humility that I am describing here is a purpose, if not the purpose, of prayer. Not to change God, but to change ourselves.

It's pretty obvious that Tebow believes in a personal, active, intercessionary God. But, because I've never heard him speak about it, I have no idea if, when he kneels, he's asking for specific things, or merely trying to get in touch with his own humility. And, you know what? I don't really care. What matters to me is not going on when he prays, but when I pray. And when I pray, I thank God for everything in my life. Even the things I did myself.

Especially those.

Friday, January 6, 2012

In Defense of Materialism (?)

Just before Christmas, Jewish pundit and author Dennis Prager wrote an article suggesting that, contrary to most of what we read during the Christmas/holiday season, we should actually embrace the buying and acquisition of material things.

Now, let me just say that, for starters, I think that this is a terrible message to attach to Christmas/Hanukkah/whatever. There are incredibly valid, important, powerful arguments to make that focusing on materialism, while supposedly celebrating what are supposed to be sacred, spiritual times, is wrong on so many levels. That's not exactly a novel argument, so I won't bother repeating it here.

But, taken out of the context of the holidays, I think that Prager makes an interesting point. And, it's one which might serve to highlight one of the differences between Christianity and Judaism (acknowledging that my own knowledge of Christianity is obviously very limited, so I apologize in advance if I misrepresent anything here).
Before defending material things, let me make clear where I do agree with the joy-deniers. First, there is no question that no material thing can compete with love, religion, music, reading, health and other precious non-material things. And second, experiences contribute more to happiness than things do. If you only have x amount of money to spend on yourself, traveling to new places is usually more contributive to happiness than a better car. When I had almost no money through my early 30s, I still traveled abroad every year — which meant that I could only afford an inexpensive car. I have now visited a hundred countries, and that has given me more meaning and happiness than a luxury car or any other material thing.
But having said all that, material things matter. They can contribute a great deal to a happier and more meaningful life.
Very often, we are sent the message that material things are bad. But, at least in the Jewish point of view, material things are not bad. They are not important—at least not very much so—but that's a very different thing. Everything else being equal, it's better to have things than to not have things. There's nothing wrong with being rich, or with enjoying its benefits.

That's where I think Judaism and Christianity differ. Although I know there isn't exactly unanimity on this point, I think that Christianity leans towards the belief that material things are, ultimately, corrupting. That they're bad. That, all things being equal, were better off not having things than having them.
And, I learned somewhere along the way that this reflects a fundamental difference in our two religions.

At its core, Christianity is concerned with the next world. This world is, more than anything else, a prelude to that world. And so, that which attaches us to this world is, consequently, bad. Our focus should be entirely on the next. You can certainly find this view within Judaism, but it's not the dominant view. The dominant view is that this world is what we should be worried about, at least while we're in it. The next world is important, to be sure. More important, even. But, for now, what we have is what's around us, and it's good. What else could it mean in Genesis when, while creating the world, God pauses from time to time to declare the latest piece of creation “good.”

The world, and that which it contains, is good.

The Talmud teaches that a person will be held accountable for everything in this world which they could have enjoyed, but didn't.* God put these things here so that we could enjoy them. Not enjoying them is seen as a little bit of a slap in the face to God.

*obviously, the “which they could have enjoyed” is important. Things which have been outlawed need not apply…

This perspective seems to me to jibe pretty well with reality. Protest though we may, most of us find some real pleasure and happiness in the material world, even (especially?) in the little things:
With all my love of family, of friends, of music and of the life of the mind, I have always loved material things, too. On any happiness scale, it would be difficult to overstate how much joy my stereo equipment has given me since high school. I so love music that I periodically conduct orchestras in Southern California. And I now own a system that is so good that its offerings sound only a bit less real than what I hear from the conductor’s podium. I bless the engineers and others who design stereo products, and it is my joy to help support their noble quest of reproducing great music in people’s homes.
Since high school, too, I have written only with fountain pens. Buying new pens and trying out new inks are among the little joys of life that contribute as much — and sometimes more — to one’s happiness than the “big” things. There is incomparable joy at attending a child’s bar mitzvah or wedding. But those great events last a day. I write with a beloved fountain pen every day, listen to music every day, smoke a pleasure-giving cigar or pipe every day (except Shabbat, for the halachically curious). I love these things. What a colorless world it would be without them. So, too, I love my house. And I love the artwork and furniture and library that help to make it beautiful.
The danger, Judaism teaches us, is in going too far. In confusing “enjoying things” with “needing things.” With elevating things to a higher level, one of which they don't belong:
Can people overdo purchasing things? Of course they can. People can also overdo taking vitamins, exercising and even reading books or studying Talmud.
So, then, when do we need to control our buying things?
a) When it becomes a compulsion — when one cannot stop buying things because the buying gives more pleasure than the things that are bought.
b) When the primary purpose of the purchase is to impress others with one’s wealth.
c) When one cannot afford what one is buying.
Judaism tends to view the world as a balancing act (one more reason that "Jewish Extremist" should be an oxymoron. If only). So it is here. Enjoy the little things, but keep them in perspective. After all, God made them, too.

"These and These" on Israel

One of my favorite topics (on this blog, and in life) is ambiguity - the idea that truth is rarely precise or absolute. It lies not so much between the extremes, as it does over the entire spectrum, including the extremes. Everyone is, at least in part, usually right. It's summed up in the famous Talmudic statement that "Elu v'elu devarim elohim chayim -- these and these are the words of the living God."

One of my favorite writers about Israel is Rabbi Daniel Gordis. I think that he's clear, honest, and usually right on the issues.

So, I was particularly happy when Rabbi Gordis wrote an article about the need to acknowledge the validity of all parts of the spectrum, when it comes to Israel:

That’s why some of us who write about Israel take a different approach. We don’t care about being neatly classifiable as “left” or “right”; because to love a country is not that different from loving a person. It means defending but also critiquing. It means loving unconditionally but knowing that love does not mean overlooking serious flaws. To love Israel, I believe, is to know that the Jewish state is not just a flag or an army or some holy place. To love Israel is to love the real Israel, with all its many warts and imperfections. And to love Israel is to know that there is a difference between a wart and a serious disease; when an imperfection is so serious as to threaten the entire enterprise, then the most loyal thing that one can do is to insist that Israel be better.

I am incredibly pro-peace. I believe that the Palestinians deserve a state of their own, and that ongoing occupation (or whatever you want to call it now) serves the interests of no one. 

I am incredibly pro-Israel and pro-security. I think that the Palestinians, not Israel, have overwhelmingly been the obstacle to peace. I think that making peace with a people which is openly and actively dedicated to your destruction is foolhardy, and untenable, if not ridiculous.

Am I a leftist or righty? A hawk or a dove? In the words of Gordis' article, a prophet or a guardian?

I am a Zionist. A lover of Israel, Which makes me all of the above.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

Speaking out against Jewish extremists

Jewish extremists in Israel have been making the news again and, not surprisingly, it hasn't been for good things (is it ever?). These self assigned defenders of the faith have continued to harass women who—horrors!—dare to go out in public in clothes which don't meet ultra orthodox approval. And they even—yes, it's hard to believe—want to sit at the front of the bus, in plain view of the men. There's been a lot more than that, but you get the idea.

Liberal Jews have been quick to condem these despicable acts. And, Israeli politicians have been, too (if you're cynical, you might think that has to do with upcoming elections). But, it's nice that some Rabbis from the Orthodox world are speaking up, too, as Rabbi Shmuley Boteach did recently on Huffpost*:
There is a common thread uniting these stories. Religious extremism festers when decent lay people are cowed into submission by fanatics whom they falsely believe to be more religious than them. But there is nothing holy about Rabbis refusing to teach 2500 young Jews who are pining for Jewish knowledge. More importantly, it is an abomination to faith for men to treat women abusively. A black coat will never redeem a dark heart and a long beard is poor compensation for a shriveled soul.
Their defenders pointed out that these heinous acts are perpetrated by only a small number of Haredim. True. But in the face of Islamic terror outrages we in the West rightly demand that mainstream Islamic leaders condemn the extremists, lest their silence make them complicit in the violence. The Jewish community must be judged by the same standard and Rabbis of every stripe must condemn this abuse as sickening and contrary to the core of Judaism.
* If you click through, then be warned - I have NO idea why he starts talking about the UK Chief Rabbinate, about halfway through. But, until then, I'm all-in with him.

Yes, it may be another case of shooting fish in a barrel, preaching the choir or whatever you want to call it. But, it's worth a second to speak out and say that narrow-minded, petty, hateful, destructive people do not speak for me. And they certainly don't speak for God.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Speaking out about depression

Amidst my musings on various Jewish topics, I'd like to insert a bit of a public service announcement.

The Blogess is (if you couldn't guess) a blogger who has recently gotten some fame in the blogosphere. I find her hysterical, but she's beyond irreverent and completely inappropriate, in terms of her language. If you don't like that kind of thing, please don't click through to anything of hers!

But, one of her most recent posts is incredibly important, because it deals with her depression (about which she has talked freely) and even her self harming behavior (about which she hadn't talked until now). Here's the whole of the first part, in case you don't want to click through:

If you follow me on twitter you already know that I’ve been battling off one of the most severe bouts of depression I’ve ever had.  Yesterday it started to pass, and for the first time in weeks I cried with relief instead of with hopelessness.  Depression can be crippling, and deadly.  I’m lucky that it’s a rare thing for me, and that I have a support system to lean on.  I’m lucky that I’ve learned that depression lies to you, and that you should never listen to it, in spite of how persuasive it is at the time.
When cancer sufferers fight, recover, and go into remission we laud their bravery.  We call them survivors.  Because they are.
When depression sufferers fight, recover and go into remission we seldom even know, simply because so many suffer in the dark…ashamed to admit something they see as a personal weakness…afraid that people will worry, and more afraid that they won’t.  We find ourselves unable to do anything but cling to the couch and force ourselves to breathe.
When you come out of the grips of a depression there is an incredible relief, but not one you feel allowed to celebrate.  Instead, the feeling of victory is replaced with anxiety that it will happen again, and with shame and vulnerability when you see how your illness affected your family, your work, everything left untouched while you struggled to survive.  We come back to life thinner, paler, weaker…but as survivors.  Survivors who don’t get pats on the back from coworkers who congratulate them on making it.  Survivors who wake to more work than before because their friends and family are exhausted from helping them fight a battle they may not even understand.
Regardless, today I feel proud.  I survived.  And I celebrate every one of you reading this.  I celebrate the fact that you’ve fought your battle and continue to win.  I celebrate the fact that you may not understand the battle, but you pick up the baton dropped by someone you love until they can carry it again.  I celebrate the fact that each time we go through this, we get a little stronger.  We learn new tricks on the battlefield.  We learn them in terrible ways, but we use them.  We don’t struggle in vain.
We win.
We are alive.

Depression is an evil, insidious, brutal disease. And, it can strike anyone—absolutely anyone. Man, woman. Young, old. Smart, not so smart. Popular, outcast. Anyone.

Someone you work with is struggling with depression.

Someone in your school is struggling with depression.

Someone in your (extended, at least) family is struggling with depression.

All these statements, and countless more like them, are almost undoubtedly true. Depression is all around us, yet somehow it's still not out in the open. Not completely. People feel shame about fighting depression. People feel guilty for suffering it. Like it's a sign of weakness.

It's not weakness. It's a disease.

If you are depressed, or you think you may be, or someone you know and love is—speak up. Reach out. Get help. Tell someone you love. Tell a counselor, or a social worker. A Rabbi, or other clergy. A teacher. A friend. Tell anyone.

No one should have to fight this disease alone. No one does.



It's probably one of the best known words/expressions in Judaism. I'm sure it's in large part because of Fiddler on the Roof, but it seems that even those with almost no knowledge of Judaism now that "L'Chaim!" is the Jewish version of “Cheers!” And that it means, “To life!”

It turns out that this innocuous little phrase is actually the source of some scholarly debate. I've seen recently some questions about the grammar—that isn't actually a proper phrase. But, there's even more debate about its origins. If you like quirky little explorations of folkways, click on through—it's an interesting, short article.

One aspect of the article which I found interesting, almost as an aside, is that among the several most likely incorrect explanations of the term is one which connected it to potentially poisoned wine.
The opinion asked for was whether the wine might be harmful or even poisoned, as it was in the case of several assassinated monarchs of the Byzantine period — i.e., whether the drinker of it was destined for life or death. Only after the assembled company responded resoundingly ‘L’chaim,’ ‘For life,’ was the wine drunk.
So, it was a symbolic way of warding off evil/poison before we drank: to life; not to death!

As the article shows, it's incredibly unlikely that this reflects the actual origin. But it does accurately reflect a Jewish preoccupation with negative explanations for customs of unknown origin. Why do we whisper the line after the Shema*? Because the Romans didn't like the statement, which could have been interpreted as rebellious. Why do we read Haftarah (a reading from the Prophets after the Torah reading)? Because the Romans (there they are again—those dastardly Romans!) outlawed the reading of the Torah, so this was the next best thing.

* Most Reform synagogues don't do this, actually. Ironically, that's because we rejected the original reason for the whispering, except that like the "poisoned wine" theory, it was probably a completely false explanation! 

One of my professors (I'm 99% sure that it was Dr. Carole Balin) referred to it as the “Lachrymose Theory of Jewish History.” Everything in Jewish history could be explained as something tear-filled. Everything goes back to something negative, and painful.

Clearly, Jews have had our share of misfortune. In fact, we've had several people's shares. But, we've also had some good times. We've had more than our share of joy, when times are good, too. “L'Chaim” is probably nothing more than a polite way of gathering everyone before a joyous blessing. Sometimes, raising a glass and toasting to life is enough.