Thursday, February 28, 2013

Perlos of Wisdom Moves to Kosher Salt

Dear friends and faithful readers,
With the relaunch of Sixth & I's blog, Kosher Salt, I'll be moving my weekly efforts over there. Please keep reading and sending us your comments!

Rabbi Scott

Friday, December 21, 2012

Who’s That Trip-Trapping on My Bridge?


8 Tevet, 5772
December 21th, 2012

Publishing these days means receiving a slew of hateful, anti-Semitic, misogynistic, anti-religious, and otherwise bitterly hateful comments. Content is irrelevant. You could post a video of cats cuddling, and someone will tell you to F-off and die, or that the LORD G-d forBade cats wE must live By HIS Word.

But the tragedy in Newtown really brought out the trolls.

Take that article, “I am Adam Lanza’s mother,” written by Liza Long, a journalist with amentally ill child. Though Gawker removed the comment, one writer hoped that she “rot[ted] in hell, you stupid b*tch.”

Or take the President’s speech at the interfaith memorial service. I thought he spoke beautifully. However his words delayed coverage of the ‘Niners-Patriots game, and people took to twitter to lace their disapproval with racial invective. 

These days, if a thing can be thought, it will be said, and then posted or tweeted. If a thought is possible, we will hear it in public discourse. I am frightened of such a world.

The Torah teaches, “The words a person speaks are deep waters, a flowing stream, a fountain of wisdom.” (Proverbs 18:4). The verse doesn’t seem to make much sense: considering the amount of blather we hear, how can a person’s words be a fountain of wisdom?

The verse means wise people exercise considerable choice when speaking. Being wise means filtering out 90% of what goes through our heads, and choosing, with care, those thoughts that deserve to be seen.

Every one of us is half crazy. Every human being has parts of his or her soul – considerable parts – that are undeveloped, twisted awry, and malformed. Crazy, inappropriate thoughts go through our heads every second. Rav Kook teaches that the spiritual journey is one of clarifying, healing, and growing the stunted sections of our souls.

But when people have an outlet to express pure id, the soul grows more twisted. Even online, even anonymously, it matters which parts of ourselves we allow to speak.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Boycott Black Friday

This entry was originally posted in 2011. It has been updated for time and circumstance.

It happened for the first time in 2009. Customers, lined up since 9pm the night before, literally burst through the Wal-mart’s doors at 5am, and trampled an employee, Jdimtyai Damour, to death.

This year, a women pepper-sprayed 20 others in the face. Her reason? To clear a path to the Xbox display.  A 63 year man collapsed in a Target when his heart failed. Shoppers stepped over his fallen body so they could continue shopping. He later died in the hospital.

Largely in order to deal with these incidents, retail chains started opening for 24 hours on the Friday after Thanksgiving, meaning that their employees leave their Thanksgiving tables to go straight to work, or lose their jobs.

Societies are defined not only by the values they promote, but also by those they tolerate. The toleration of the culture that Black Friday has spawned is one of the worst insults we can level at ourselves. What we allow is the statement, yearly, on our national day of gratitude, that the consumption of non-essential goods at rock bottom prices far outranks our valuation of human decency. Don’t believe me? Here’s how we feel about towels. 

I have a paperweight that reads, “kol yisrael arevim zeh lazeh” – all of Israel is responsible for one another. It’s from the Talmud - a lovely sentiment, just looking at it.

But the dirty little secret of the phrase is that, in context, it means that all of Israel is legally responsible for one another: that is, we bear culpability for each others actions simply through because part of the same nation. What our neighbors do reflects upon us.

This is deep wisdom about what it means to be a nation, about the impossibility of eschewing mutual responsibility, and it is true here as well. What is allowed to happen on Black Friday speaks volumes about us all, and is destroying the only truly ecumenical holiday in this country. It’s time for the end of Black Friday.

Friday, November 2, 2012

The Power of Fear

Parshat VaYera
17 Heshvan, 5772
November 2nd, 2012

People who live in safety enjoy putting themselves in danger.

Well, maybe not in danger – more like next to danger. You know what I’m describing: boxing, surfing, skydiving, rock climbing, backpacking, scuba-diving, skiing; what links them all is exhilaration and the possibility of getting messed up in the process.

I won’t criticize too much – I’m one of these types, suburban born, seeking opportunities to leave safety behind.

There is a method behind this modern madness; sitting next to danger is a way of choosing healthy fear.  While we’re alive, fear cannot be banished. Instead what one can do is respond well in its face. And one can choose which kinds of fear dominate one’s life.

Fear is all around us. Unfortunately, most of it is stupid: the fear of parents who worry that their child may not be eternally exceptional (and blackmail teachers to make it so); the fear of young professionals who fret whether we’ll leave the right kind of mark; the fear that those from different social and national strata will somehow invade our lives for the worse. We are gripped by useless fear.

And what I can tell you is that, when in the clutch of dumb fear, getting hit in the face is a wonderfully clarifying experience; being tossed off a wave prioritizes life beautifully.

Within Torah communities, people talk about yirah – fear – quite positively. To have yirat shamyim (fear of heaven) is a virtue. Most moderns view the idea with distaste: what kind of God would want to be feared?

But I think we miss the point. To say someone has yirah means that she has chosen what to fear: not the boss, nor the opinion of neighbors, nor the kids’ academic future. Yirah is fear of two things: what account she will give to the Creator, and whether the Master of the World will bring life-threatening danger in her lifetime.

No one asks for a hurricane, but there is something set free in the soul when communities make sure that people have food, clothing, power, safety, and medical care: real things. God bless those who are afraid for their neighbors’ in Sandy’s aftermath.

Friday, October 26, 2012


10 Heshvan, 5773
October 26, 2012

When I was a freshman in college, Rabbi Eli Schochet asked a question that stuck with me: “Scott,” he said, “how are you surviving the East Coast intellectual culture?”

He meant: was I surviving in a society where intellect is the medium of competition for status? Where I’m from, there are plenty of status indicators, but who sounds smarter isn’t generally one of them.

Though many ridicule Los Angeles culture, I want to point out that the smart competition isn’t a boon to humankind. Rabbi Schochet (who is very, very smart) derided the intellect games. He felt that they were wind without a sail – pointless and without gain.

I thought about his question during the debates, not just because I learned nothing, not just because strategy devoured thoughtful content, not only because I had to turn to a political comic and a loudmouth pundit for thoughtful consideration, but because, as the debate was live-tweeted, I saw us all (myself included) seize rather than listen.

We do not listen to words anymore, we only seize upon them. Anything said in the public, political sphere becomes a chip in the game, points on the board, fodder for our truth management (an unfortunate D.C.ism) and a facebook meme. We look to our leaders to enforce our opinions, not to ask meaningfully of us. Their words exist to avoid obstacles and outstrip the opposition. We aren’t running candidates; we’re running horses.

I wish that I had some grasp on how to change our reality; I find myself caught up in the cycle I’ve described. All that I have to offer is Talmud: “Rava says, first a person learns Torah, then s/he picks it apart.” (Talmud Brakhot 63b) Perhaps a moment of understanding before salvos would make a difference.

Friday, October 12, 2012

Sex at Dawn

Shabbat Bereishit
26 Tishrei, 5773
12 October 2012

I’m reading a very unrabbinic book, Sex at Dawn – a book on the prehistory of human sexual relationships. The book has a clear agenda: to destroy the notion of monogamy as writ into the genes of humans.

I love books like this one, whose effect is to poke holes in what everybody surely knows to be true. Whether one agrees with their conclusions, it is delightful to open the windows on values grown musty after generations of unquestioning assumption.

There is a disease of humans in which personal instinct is construed as universal truth. The authors quote George Bernard Shaw on this idea, “[H]e is a barbarian, and thinks that the customs of his tribe and island are the laws of nature.” Nowhere is this tendency more strident than when it comes to sexuality. My culture’s sexual behavior is normal. Yours is aberrant.

To my mind, the opposing tendency is no better. In declaring sexual mores outmoded and crusty and embracing a universalist sexuality (whatever feels good as long as there is consent), we abandon to anarchy and chance the most powerful way we create relationships with one another. Anyone who has been to college can tell you that few leave the free-for-all without some very serious regrets.

 I believe the world would be a better place if we separated our life-choices from the kinds of lifestyles we accept. People should invest in their particularity. They should invest in creating frames for sexuality (and most other things) that ground them in their values and fill their lives with meaning. But they should never mistake their choices with the necessity that, for all others, this is the way things should be.

Friday, October 5, 2012

Of Sukkot and Cell Phones

5th Day of Sukkot
19 Tishrei, 5773
October 5, 2012

I have a serious Sukkah problem, chronic even.

My Sukkah problem is that I have not had one. The last apartment in which I lived kindly banned them. After I signed the lease. Now that I’m in DC, I have figured out enough space to have my efficiency Sukkah, but was in L.A. for most of the holiday.

This has afforded me a strange opportunity – to watch the holiday from the outside, participating but not fully immersing myself. I am grateful for the unusual lesson.

What I’ve learned is that there is a thick line between doing and not doing. This line is not the end of the world, but it is real and cannot be rationalized away. The difference between doing and not doing is the import of what I taught over Yom Kippur, “[Rabbi] Shimon his son says…it is not the sermon which is the essence, but rather the story told by the action.” (Avot 1:17) We often get caught up in the explaining of things, the lovely words used to describe them, the rhetoric of their value. There is no substitution for the weight and solidity of doing.

Being sukkah-less does not abdicate my worth as a Jew. But I must argue against self-delusion – thinking and doing are different. One cannot be substituted for the other. My sukkot with and without huts were radically different experiences.

Which brings me to my soap box: cell phones. This Yom Kippur, a cell phone went off during Musaf. I only note this as setting a record for the fewest times a cell has rung during Shabbat or the Days of Awe. I count on five or six. I’ve had 15.

Every brand of Judaism values what we call negative space – the clearing out of everyday activities in order to make space for holiness. Spiritual depth requires the elimination of clutter. But in our addiction to smart phones, our brains convince us not to leave them behind.  Like all addictions, the reasons to take the drug are damn persuasive in the moment, but resolve themselves to be total nonsense.

No matter how we spin it, there is a thick line between davenning with a phone or without one. And no matter what we say, we probably don’t need one. Leave the thinking about behind, take a firm step towards real meaning, take Shabbats from your phone.