Thursday, November 18, 2010

Why Living in The Modern World is Difficult

Parshat VaYishlah
11 Kislev, 5770
November 18, 2010

We’re going to dredge up some of what we were taught in Philosophy 101. Yes, I know the class met unconscionably early. Yes, no college student should have to get up at 10:00 am. I promise it won’t hurt too much.

This piece of college trivia is about Aristotle’s four causes. Every object has these four causes. A chair, for instance, has a material cause (wood), a formal cause – the pattern of its construction (the shape of a chair), an efficient cause – what caused it to be made (a carpenter, tools), and a final cause – the reason for its existence (something to sit in). Every thing we own, every car we drive, every piece of food we eat, the jewelry we give – literally every material object can be defined in these four ways.

What’s confusing about contemporary life is that the efficient cause of things – how they get made and who makes them – is found very far away from us. There is often good reason for this: my beloved coffee grows much better in a South American climate than it does here.

But my delicious bean’s distance from me also means that the conditions of production can be easily obscured. And opacity makes injustice a whole lot easier. The following is from a French traveler in the 18th century (this is an old story):

“I do not know if coffee and sugar are essential to the happiness of Europe, but I know well that these two products have accounted for the unhappiness of two great regions of the world: America [the Carribean in that time] has been depopulated so as to have land on which to plant them; Africa [which provided the slaves] has been depopulated so as to have the people to cultivate them.”*

There was a time in which rabbis in the 19th and early 20th centuries protested the first matza-making machines (of all things), because of their effect on the poor in their communities (matzas were traditionally made by the Jewish poor). But in that case, the problem was right next door. We live in the world of globalism, and have to shoulder the added burden searching for justice at a distance.

But perhaps this is the reason for our most oft-quoted of Torah texts: Tzedek tzedek tirdof – Justice, justice, shall you pursue.” (Deut 16:20) Justice is elusive. One has to run after it.

For those who are interested in fighting this good fight, the work of Jewish World Watch (Adat Shalom is a member synagogue) on minerals and gems from conflict regions is extraordinary. P
Please get involved at

For those coffee-lovers who are worried about the efficient cause of their beans, look for the Fair Trade label.
*as quoted in Uncommon Grounds, by Mark Prendergast (17)

Wednesday, November 10, 2010


Parshat VaYetzei
2 Kislev, 5771
November 9th, 2010

If you pass by my office on particular mornings, you’ll see me studying Talmud with a good friend. It may also look, at first glance, like we’re trying to kill each other.
There is a kind of learning relationship that, superficially, doesn’t make any sense: it involves a lot of pacing, contradicting, occasional shouting. Our body language would say to any outside observer: “conflict;” unless, of course, you watch our faces, which are often smiling.
That hour that we spend together is one of the most life-giving of my week. It’s space for unfettered curiosity, where every question is fair game; it’s a space of honesty, where opinions are not held back for fear of offending one’s partner – when we think the other is right or wrong, we say so, when there is evidence to contradict, we do so; it is a time to work together to answer difficult questions, to be intellectually and spiritually creative, not to hold back. It is, in short, amazing.
But relationships of this intensity are also exceptionally fragile, and the only way that havruta (learning partners) are able to sustain them is by creating boundaries that keep the interaction, as well as the two people interacting, safe. One of the biggest is that the relationship is about Torah, not about our individual selves – being in shared service to a larger ideal places ad hominem attacks outside the pale. The other is learning partners strive for radical equality within the boundaries of learning – hierarchy doesn’t work when one isn’t holding back.
The point is that real relationships – in which the content is authentic and alive – require real boundaries. The center cannot hold when such interactions have no frame. Respecting the boundaries of another person or of an important relationship is a precious gift, and it is the only true way to let real connections grow between people.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

Why Country Music is Amazing


Parshat Toldot
27 Heshvan, 5771
November 4th, 2010

I have absolutely no natural connection to Nashville. I am everything that a country music fan is not supposed to be: a pure-d, citified, left-coast, Hollywood-bred, not-making-living-with-his-hands kind of guy. I do not own a truck. But I absolutely love country music.

Let me explain.

            Country music has a special kind of Torah. It, as well as bluegrass and the blues (my true favorite genres), makes an art of the plain. It celebrates the beauty of the simple and the emotionality of everyday life: how much he loves his truck; the view of his wife and kids from his front porch looking in; being young and dumb, driving fast and in love; the pain of heartbreak.

            Country music celebrates real things. It believes that everyday things are deserving of song.

            The insight that the everyday can be made holy is the root of a powerful spirituality. For those of us who hold on to this mode, realizing the holiness of simple things is more than a suggestion – it is an imperative. More Torah and mitzvot and prayer than most people realize are grounded in this realization. The challenge of this path is to turn the time we spend in holy community into a crucible for the everyday, in which the basics of our lives are questioned, exalted, transformed, celebrated. “…take your shoes from off your feet for the ground you are standing upon is holy” (Exodus 3:5)

            May we all be blessed with a country kind of life.