Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Ramah and Inclusion

An important postscript.

Recently, I Facebooked and blogged about an incident at Camp Ramah in Canada, which had gotten a lot of attention through Social Media. After a somewhat officious response (which I can't find), Rabbi Michael Cohen, the National Director of Ramah, has come out with a much fuller, more heartfelt response.

Although they are still unable to respond to the specifics of this case*, he offers a much fuller explanation of Ramah's commitment to inclusion. And, very importantly, he speaks about the need to avoid rushes to judgment, especially when they are based on 1-sided reports.

* the reality of all such institutions is that privacy laws, and Jewish law, prevent them from doing so. We usually can't talk other perspectives, nuances or valid defenses, because they're rely on those specifics. That often makes our instituions looks bad, like we're being purposefully obtuse, which is often unfair. Another important point to remember whenever we read about a grievance against an institution!

I tried, in my own responses, to be as balanced and non-histrionic as possible. But, I know that I wasn't perfect, and many others certainly rushed in to draw lines between the "good guys" and the "bad guys." We all should remember, as Rabbi Cohen reminds us, that we are commanded to judge others with the benefit of the doubt.

The reality is that, in most of our lives, there are few true villains. Thank God, most people are trying to do the right thing. If we'd remember that, I think that our discussions, to say nothing of our interactions, would be far, far better. And, dare I said, holier.

Friday, July 20, 2012

A Thought about Teshuvah

Yesterday, I shared on Facebook another Rabbi's blog post which had started to go somewhat viral. Basically, his son is a blind camper at Camp Ramah in Canada, and the family was told that the boy would not be allowed to stay for 2nd session - it was too hard for the camp to accomodate him.

Many people posted about it, clearly upset that Ramah would do such a thing. The injunction to "not put a stumbling block before the blind" is usually taken metaphorically - it means that we should't make it hard for people to do what they need to do, especially in pursuit of their Judaism. But, its applicability here was unavoidably, and painfully, ironic. In this case, the boy was truly blind, even if the stumbling block was still metaphorical.

Today, Rabbi Krishef followed up with a resolution of sorts. The director of the camp has (apparently with complete and deep sincerity) understood that he made a mistake, and has apologized, as well as tried to make things right. A sincere yasher koach (job well done) to him, and to the camp, especially all of those who rallied around this camper.

But, this whole episode got me thinking about a couple of things. First of all, the tricky nature of judgment. From the little bit I've read, it still seems like the camp made a terrible, hurtful decision. But, after I read the initial post, had my initial reaction, and then shared it on Facebook, something interesting happened - I was reminded that the new director, who was clearly "the villian" in all of this, was a friend of mine. I knew him when I was working at Holy Blossom in Toronto, and I considered him a friend. We were never that close, but I liked him very, very much. More to the point, I knew him to be a real mensch. He's kind, thoughtful, and committed to Jewish values. 

I'm not saying that what he did was right. I'm saying that, when you know the person involved in something like this, it adds nuance. It's harder to think of this as simply right and wrong, good and evil. Ron (the director) surely did the wrong thing. But, he's still a very, very good man. He must have believed that he was doing the right thing, and he was, and still is, trying to do what's best for everyone. The fact that he got it wrong doesn't change that. Again - not apologizing for him. Just trying to find some gray.

The other thought I've had is about the limits of teshuvah (repentance). Solomon, the camper in question, is still leaving camp, even though he's been invited and urged to stay. The entire episode has apparently been too much for him, and he's just not comfortable there. At least, not this summer.

There are some acts which simply can't be undone. At least, not completely. No matter how deeply we may regret what we've done, and how profoundly we may have changed our outlook, sometimes the genie just can't be put back in the bottle. The bell can't be unrung. Restitution can be made. Forgiveness can be granted. But, our actions leave a trace, and sometimes a scar. 

Good people do bad things, and we make mistakes. And, fair or not, we live with those mistakes, and those deeds, for our entire lives. It's an Awesome thought, in the true sense of that word.

I wish this family, whom I don't know, and this director, whom I do, nothing but peace and hapiness for the rest of the summer, and far beyond. May we be careful in everything that we do. And may our own mistakes be a spur to not only make us better, but also more forgiving of others who have missed the mark.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Towards a Spiritual Judaism

I promise (as much to myself as to anyone) that I'm not going to say a lot about this one. But, Danny Cohen has a great article on Huff Post about the need for a more spiritual Judaism:

The 2008 National Survey on Spirituality by Synagogue 3000 says 50 percent or more of Jews want to know how spiritual exploration, meditation and sacred text can relate to their lives. Seventy-eight percent want their rabbis to talk about spiritual issues. People are yearning for a sense of context and groundedness for their lives. They want structure to build communities and relationships around intimate connection and caring for one another, having and celebrating joys, and also to have space to share and be supported in their struggles. 

I've mentioned before that I imagine that those on the “outside” must be pretty surprised when they hear calls for religion to be “more spiritual.” Aren't all religions supposed to be spiritual? Isn't this like asking the ocean to be more wet?

Would that it were so.

The reality is that the majority of people who are members of synagogues (and, as always, I suspect this is true in all religions) are not deeply engaged in spiritual matters. They're not spending much time or effort asking the core questions of a spiritual life:

Traditional theology asserts that God is everywhere, but today's listless spirituality needs more than the mere assertion of theological truths. Rather, we must provide people the tools and pathways to experience the transformative power of awakening to their own deep potential, to the presence of the Divine in all spaces, closer to me even than my thoughts. We must engage questions that are alive and do practices that make us more alive. How do I learn to see the miraculous in the mundane? How do I live close to my soul? How do I deal with anxiety, stress and depression? How do I connect to the confidence that is at my core, beyond failure and independent of accomplishment? How do I come to actually care about the other and feel our unity? What does humility mean? What is my purpose? How do I come to awe? How can I learn to be vulnerable and honest, and despite imperfection to live with the dignity that comes from honoring what is essentially human?

As is often the case, few have been talking about this more cogently or convincingly than Rabbi Larry Hoffman. Put simply (and he has a gift for saying important things simply), synagogues, like all institutions, will only survive if they can offer something that no one else can. Or, at the very least, offer it better, or cheaper, etc. Well, synagogues offer lots of things—community, entertainment, learning and more. But, each of those can be gotten elsewhere and, in most cases, can be had for less money, with less tzurris. What we can offer our people is authentic, meaningful, Jewish spirituality.

It doesn't mean that it's bad if we offer those other things, as well. It just means that if we aren't offering meaningful spirituality, then it's not clear why we're here at all. And we may not be here for much longer.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Vegetarians and Starter Pistols

[You know, sometimes I sit down to try to fire of a quick blog. Sometimes, that goes awry...]

As you may know, I'm kind of a vegetarian.

Well, technically I'm a “flexitarian,” which I describe as being a vegetarian with commitment issues. I try to eat as little meat as possible, and when I do eat meat, I try to make sure that it's humanely, sustainably raised, and so on.

There are several reasons that I have drastically reduced my meat intake. Part of it is environmental—it takes more natural resources to raise meat than to raise plant-based food, and there are far fewer side effects to that kind of farming (read a little bit about the “waste management” on animal farms, and it may change the way you think about eating meat!). And, there's a basic morality issue for me. Put simply, I figure that the fewer things that I kill, even indirectly, the better. Clearly, I don't think that killing a chicken, or one which someone else has killed, is a terrible sin. If I did, I'd be a complete vegetarian. But, it seems that not killing something is generally morally and spiritually superior to killing something, and so I try to minimize the killing.

Like most non-extremist positions, it gets tricky. Convincing myself that I shouldn't eat chicken today, when I let myself do so yesterday, always involves dealing with some inconsistency. But, I find the most cognitive dissonance when I think about the impact that I, by myself, am having. Yesterday, I passed on some delicious looking chicken, and had a veggie sandwich instead*. But, I asked myself if a single chicken was saved by this decision? I mean, given the amount of food that they process at that place, did my decision have any impact, whatsoever, on the overall food orders that this chain will place? And, if not, did my decision really make any difference, at all?

* by the way, if you have an “Earl of Sandwhich” near you, try the veggie sandwich. It's really delicious!

What about when I'm at an event where meat is being served, and any meat which isn't eaten will be thrown out? What possible benefit (I'm ignoring health reasons for being a vegetarian right now) is there to not eating meat in that situation?

This is part of why I'm not a complete vegetarian, and part of why I don't judge those who do eat meat. Given how complicated and ambiguous the larger reality actually is, it just doesn't make sense, to me, to be that extreme. But, for me, personally, it still makes sense to lean vegetarian. And, to use a cliché, there's a simple reason for it:

I'd rather be part of the solution, then be part of the problem.

That's really what it comes down to, for me. I don't think that my decision to avoid meat will have an enormous impact on the world. I acknowledge that it may often have zero impact, whatsoever. But, I feel that, often in a way which I can't articulate well, there's a benefit to doing the right thing, even if there is no practical impact. I prefer, when I can, to make a decision based on what I believe to be right, even if the “effects” are only symbolic.

I was thinking about this because of an op-ed in the New York Times today which talked about the culture of narcissism, and used the example of people who use tricks to benefit themselves in air travel:

if you must a check a bag, pack an unloaded starter pistol in it, so that the Transportation Security Administration will flag the piece of luggage, thus diminishing or altogether eliminating the possibility of its loss. It’s extra work and fretting for them but, hey, you get peace of mind. Isn’t that what counts?

The problem, obviously, is what happens if everyone starts taking this advice? What if our airline security is completely jammed up by thousands, even millions, of people using this trick? In this case, that's unlikely to happen, but there are plenty of other examples we can think of, as well. If I cheat on my taxes, there is no discernable impact on the government, or on society. But, if we all cheat, then there is a major impact.

What we're really talking about here is what's known in environmental circles as “The Comments Problem.” What happens when an improper act on my part creates large benefit for me, but has no discernible negative impact on the whole? But, that's only true if few people partake. For example—imagine a common meadow (“common” in the sense of “shared”) which is off-limits to grazing. If I let my sheep graze there, there are no ill effects, but I benefit from free grazing. But, if all shepherds did this, then the meadow would be ruined, and we'd all feel the effects. How do you go about protecting the commons? How do we convince the shepherds to behave altruistically, when any objective analysis of personal benefit would tell them not to do so.

The standard answer, at least in modern times, seems to be through the use of penalties—if we catch you grazing in the Commons, or parking in handicapped spots, or otherwise gaming the system, we'll fine you, or maybe arrest you. But, there are all sorts of problems with that, including the difficulty of enforcement.

Better would be to create a culture of communal responsibility, and altruism. A culture in which the idea of caring for others as much as for ourselves is a core value. In which we instinctively believe that “what's best for me?” is not the first, or most important question.

It's especially hard to do hold to this viewpoint, when others aren't being as communally-minded. It's always tempting to abuse “the commons,” no matter what others may be doing. But, committing yourself to proper behavior, when everyone else is benefiting from non-communal, narcissistic behavior is difficult—it makes you feel like a sucker. Why should I be the only one who's doing the right thing? It takes a lot of discipline, and a lot of commitment, to stay true to principles in these situations.

I don't have any magic answers, any silver bullets. Not surprisingly, I think that religion can, and must, play a part in this. Judaism places a high value on community, and on sacrifice in its name. On thinking of the corporate whole, before we think of ourselves. And, Judaism also emphasizes doing what is right, regardless of reward or benefit. As always, that's not to say that Judaism is better than other religions in this regard, or that religious people in general are better than secularists. It's just to say that this is one area in which my religion espouses values that resonate with me deeply, and move me to try to be a better person.

Ultimately, though, it comes down to the personal. All that a religion, or a blog, or an Op-Ed can do is to try to convince us. We have to make our own decisions. And, hopefully, we'll learn that when we make a decision for the greater good, it's almost always the right thing to do. And, hopefully, that will be reward enough.

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

"Spiritual But Not Religious"

David Webster has a book out called Dispirited: How Contemporary Spirituality Makes Us Stupid, Selfish and Unhappy. I haven't read the book, yet, but I did read a short interview with him about it, and it definitely got me thinking.

There's always a lot of talk about the idea of being "spiritual but not religious." It certainly is a fairly common refrain, and it's no surprise that proponents (and leaders) of organized religion are often against it. I'll admit to having pretty mixed feelings on the matter*. On the one hand, I'm really not all that eager to attack people who are, more or less, minding their own business. It's one of the ways in which religious people like myself often allow themselves to engage in mean-spirited pettiness. Not very religious, or spiritual, frankly.

* If you read this blog at all regularly, this should come as no shock to you!

And, maybe more significantly, it's often not fair. At the very least, it's using the same broad brush that many of us religious types hate being used on us. I mean, when someone says, "religion is all superstitious nonsense," I usually protest about the word "all." It's manifestly true that some religion is superstitious nonsense. Maybe much of it. But, I say, there's no reason to judge my version of religiosity, which is firmly grounded in non-superstitious rationality, based on those. It's like judging all music by what you hear on the radio. You might be missing the best stuff (even if it's not the most popular)!

So, while there is a lot to dislike about some/much of the "Spiritual but not Religious" world, let's also remember that there may be much to appreciate, as well. That being said, Webster does raise some good points which are, at the very least, worth considering.

First, let's talk about "stupid." This one is a personal favorite of mine.

One of the hallmarks of much of this kind of Spirituality is a "whatever works for you is good" approach. There are some merits to that, but there are also some serious problems. One of them, maybe the biggest, is the question of truth (or, if you prefer, Truth):

Stupid—because its open-ended, inclusive and non-judgemental attitude to truth-claims actually becomes an obstacle to the combative, argumentative process whereby we discern sense from nonsense. To treat all claims as equivalent, as valid perspectives on an unsayable ultimate reality, is not to really take any of them seriously. It promotes a shallow, surface approach, whereby the work of discrimination, of testing claims against each other, and our experience in the light of method, is cast aside in favour of a lazy, bargain-basement-postmodernist relativism.

One of my professors in Rabbinical School, Rabbi Leonard Kravitz*, used to love to say that some things are nice, and some things are true. Some people are happy with nice. Some require true.

* Yes. I studied in Rabbinical School with Lenny Kravitz. It's cool to be a Rabbi.

I require true.

I acknowledge (and even embrace) that truth is often confusing, contradictory, fluid and ineffible. It's hard to achieve. But, that's different from saying that everything is true, or that all "truths" are equally valid. There are things that we wish were true - "nice" things, in Kravitz-speak. But, wishing doesn't make it so.

One of the great things about Religion, when done well, is that it acts as a way to check our experiences - to analyze them, and try to understand them. To start with the personal, but through study and other contemplation, try to understand it as part of something more universal, more Eternal. Of course Religion often falls short of this goal. But, it can often be a very effective way to get to it. And, for me, it's one of the most important parts of a Religious life. I want to experience and feel, for sure. But I always want to understand and, hopefully, ultimately, to know. And, I'm not sure that much of what gets labelled as Spiritual tries to get to that same place.

So, let's talk about "selfish." Because this one, too, I think is very important. Let me again qualify this - I am not claiming that all Spiritual but not Religious people, or all non-religious people, are selfish. I have, as I'm sure you do, countless counterexamples. But, there is a potentially selfish strain to Spiritual that's worth considering:

Selfish—because the ‘inner-turn’ drives us away from concerns with the material; so much so that being preoccupied with worldly matters is somehow portrayed as tawdry or shallow. It’s no accident that we see the wealthy and celebrities drawn to this very capitalist form of religion: most of the world realizes that material concerns do matter. I don’t believe that we find ourselves and meaning via an inner journey. I’m not even sure I know what it means. While of course there is course for introspection and self-examination, this, I argue, has to be in a context of concrete social realities.

Now, this is certainly a claim that can also be laid at the feet of some more traditional Religions, but I think that it's one of the greatest thing about Judaism. As much as Judaism may be concerned with our inner lives, it is also concerned, perhaps more so, with our world. It's not enough to love God; we must also love each other. And, more to the point, we must take care of each other.

True spirituality, however it is achieved, must result in a greater concern for the worldly needs of our fellow human (and, I suppose, the whole earth). In fact, I learned recently that that's one of the standard tests of many mystical traditions - if you don't come out your mystical, spiritual encounter as a kinder, more caring person, than you didn't have a true mystical experience.

It's all well and good to feel close to God. But, if you aren't going to take care of God's other creations, then I don't think God feels all that close to you. And, I'm not sure it was actually God to whom you feel close.

At the risk of being a broken record here, I know that everything I'm saying, or that Webster is saying, can be aimed at Religion, just as easily as it can at Spirituality. So, I guess, in the end, ultimately this is more about what makes for good Spirituality and Religion, as opposed to bad Spirituality and Religion. That's fine. But, I think that just brings us back to another angle on "truth." If you aren't willing to seriously examine your self, and your religious life, then how can you possibly know that you've arrived at anything true? And, if you haven't, then what, exactly, are you worshiping?


Monday, July 2, 2012

In The Woods

There are services pretty much every day at Camp Coleman. On Mondays and Thursdays, they are held in the morning, just after breakfast. Today, the camp was divided up by unit for "kavannah" service - these are usually very informal services, not relying on fixed prayers or anything standard. They're often more of a "spiritual time," as opposed to formal services.

I'm attached to the Solelim unit, which is made up of rising 6th graders. The girls are off camp, so it was just the boys. The counselor in charge wanted to do a slow, mindful walk through the woods - a chance to really enjoy nature, and to maybe talk a bit about what is spiritual about the natural world.

I was thrilled - I'm a firm believer that nature is a great source of spirituality, and this morning, thanks to some good thunderstorms last night, it was actually pleasant outside. But, I got a bit discouraged when I saw the campers gathering - I tend to remember kids as older than they really are, and seeing a few dozen actual 6th grade boys grouping up, running around and telling jokes (many of which involved words like "fart," of course) didn't exactly fill me with confidence in the efficacy of a quiet, contemplative time.

We started out as best we could - the counselor explained what we were doing and why, and just after we got into the woods, I told one of my favorite quick stories - about how the woods can change us. And then, we were off - traipsing through the woods, trying to get the kids to quiet down and pay attention. Trying to get 20 or 30 11 year old, video-game obsessed, fart-joke-telling, "I'd rather be playing sports" boys to quiet down. And pay attention.

And then, the most amazing thing happened.

They did.

A bit at first, but more and more as we went into the woods, the boys started to quiet down. And look. And listen. We had asked them to quietly ask for our attention when they found something wonderful. One called us all over to look at a yellow lady bug ("the rarest kind of ladybug!" he assured us). One found a bowl-shaped spiderweb which had collected dew, and another noticed that, on the pine branches, every needle had a drop of dew on the end. We discovered together that, if you were very gentle, you could touch one with the tip of your finger, and the droplet would transfer to you. A tiny gift from the branch, we agreed.

At one point, a counselor and I noticed that almost every kid was huddled in a group, utterly and completely fascinated by something that a unit-mate had found - a bright green beetle, some decomposing wood. They wanted to talk about what they found beautiful (and these young, often cynical boys were willing to use the word "beautiful," and no one snickered). They looked at the light pouring in from between the trees. They squatted down in silence, and listened as a single bird sang. They talked a bit about God. About how they felt in nature. About science.

I will gladly admit - it quite literally brought a tear to my eye. It was beautiful.

We were late to our next activity (just a bit!), because it was so hard to get some of these kids to walk without stopping to notice another spiderweb, or a tree pocked with holes from boring insects. And maybe, just maybe, that counselor and I weren't so eager to speed them along.

There really is something about being out in a beautiful, natural spot. About thinking about God while staring right at Him. About paying attention to the smallest detail, while realizing that there are no small details. Heschel teaches that anyone can experience spiritual uplift while standing at the edge of the Grand Canyon. It takes practice, though, to realize that all of that, everything contained in that moment, can be found in an average leaf, or a drop of water, clinging to a needle.

Oh, and the story?

When he was a child, Reb Nahman (a great spiritual master) used to sneak away during services. His father, a Rabbi himself, decided to follow him one day, and found that Nahman was heading out of town, into the woods. When he got deep enough in, he would recite the service, exactly as it was being recited in synagogue.

"Nahman," his father gently said. "You don't need to come into the woods to pray to God. God is the same in synagogue as here in the woods."

"Father," he replied. "I know that God is the same in the synagogue as in the woods.

"I'm not."