Wednesday, October 27, 2010


19 Heshvan, 5771
October 27th, 2010

I believe that we live in a time of anger. It is not, I think, that the beliefs that people hold are so radically different than those they’ve held in ages past, but that the expression of those beliefs is quick to extremism, that it flares hard and with vitriol. Every day I hear politicians screaming at each other. I see religionists whose finest expression of faith is to cause as many deaths as possible. I see a church whose divine messages are: “God hates fags,” “God hates Jews,” “God hates Muslims” grow popular. You can see its members too, mocking the funeral of an American soldier near you. These are some of the signs of our times.
 In the past month, three gay teenagers have committed suicide, all as a result of either school bullying, or, in the case of Tyler Clementi, massive public humiliation. Though such bullying has been around for a long time, I believe that their deaths are connected with the cycle of our anger. Collective anger is acted upon by a society’s youth, who have far fewer inhibitions about putting what they’ve learned into practice. When kids and teenagers abuse and demean they are enacting what they’ve absorbed from a broader society.
When the mark of our times is that we are quick to anger, lacking in patience (the opposite of God’s virtues, as an aside), we have a special responsibility. Our Talmud calls us rahmanim bnei rahmanim – the compassionate children of compassionate parents. We also say that one who is compassionate to cruelty, will end up being cruel to those who deserve our compassion. The arc of our compassion must increase dignity and deny cruelty. As long as there are gay and lesbian young people who feel that death is their only option, we are not as we have been blessed to be. 

Friday, October 22, 2010


14 Heshvan, 5771
October 22nd, 2010

Two scenarios.

Scenario the first: a non-Jewish man is engaged to a Jewish woman, and has been flirting with conversion but cannot seem to pull the trigger. During the wedding itself, said man wears a tallit during the ceremony because it is personally meaningful.*
Second scenario: a group in Israel, known as Women of the Wall, regularly meets at the back of the Western Wall plaza. These women, as a sign of their deep commitment to Torah and God, wear tallit and tefillin, and read from the Torah. Their presence often incites the Ultra Orthodox Jews around them to throw both animal and human feces at the Women of the Wall, and occasionally to attempt physical violence.

These two scenarios are not alike - the second defaces human dignity - but they are linked by a central symbol and they ask the same question: to whom do powerful symbols belong?

There are two truths about symbols that we should recognize. The first is that every symbol that means anything at all is honored by a community, not just by an individual. Symbols take on profound meaning precisely because they are shared between people. To publicly claim a symbol in a way that grates against its common understanding can be quite painful for the community which loves it.

But it is also true that communities do not own their own symbols - they live in the public domain. Almost every creative, inspiring advance in Torah or religion at all has come through the reinterpretation and re-expression of central symbols. The dictation of their expression by force or by degradation is an anathema.

There is always another person on the other end of a symbol that we find meaningful, another set of eyes, another heart. They join us together, join us to God. These are the things we have to remember to use them well.

*Tallit, in Torah, is specifically a sign of the acceptance of all the commandments laid upon Jews.


8 Heshvan, 5771

Jerry Springer's career just won't die, destroying the possibility of rational thought in the universe. He has a new dating show called, "Baggage," whose hook is that people choose partners not by what's most attractive, but by the baggage and hang-ups that they bring into the relationship. 

 This show is evilly brilliant, and not only because it expands the frontier of how gleefully people will humiliate themselves in front of a camera. It also exposes a truth of life: that baggage is really important. Much of loving another person means accepting their baggage. Indeed, it reveals just how much our own issues and trauma set the course of our lives.

The Rambam teaches in the Eight Chapters that all human beings are free, that none are born either good or evil but have the obligation to direct themselves; but how can we be free knowing that what is imposed upon us from the outside, especially when we're young, has so much to say about how we live our lives? Especially when those impositions are negative and hurtful, they leave an imprint upon us forever.
Freedom lies in how every person responds to his or her own trauma. What hurts us demands a response, but it does not dictate what that response will be. What is put upon us is not in our hands, but our response to our baggage is. Our baggage is what we make of it.