Thursday, May 26, 2011

The Majesty of Brokenness


Parshat Bamidbar
38th Day of the Omer
22 Iyyar, 5771
May 26th, 2011

God knows our yetzers (urges), and remembers that we are dust
Psalm 103:14

A man pulled up next to me on Westwood, and gestured that I should roll down my window. Then he started yelling.
            It’s the reason he started yelling that prompts this retelling. I had not cut him off, nor had I blocked his way, or done anything having to do with traffic. Rather, his anger was prompted by a political bumper sticker on my car (a fairly parve one, at that).
            Almost every day, during Shaharit, the guys at the Minyan and I pray the words above. They are meant to remind us of our frailty, our overwhelming tendency to give in to our temptations and inclinations, and the fact that so much of what we want is prompted by our basest instincts.
            These words are also some of the most life-giving I know.
            Pirkei Avot teaches that what defines a hero is conquering of one’s urges, and this is true. Restraint is heroic because our yetzer never tires of convincing us that it is in fact warranted, that it is justified. Anger’s genius is its success at explaining why other people deserve ours. Be it politics, or family issues, or perceived slights, or work disagreements – more of us are like the Westwood yeller than we might admit. The yetzer hara is an implacable foe.
            Salvation lies in the consciousness that our urges are both flawed and fleeting. We are more than our impulses. Beyond the acceptance of brokenness lies majesty.

Wednesday, May 11, 2011

The Beaver

Parshat Behar
23rd day of the Omer
7 Iyyar, 5771
May 11th, 2011

I’m likely about to make the least significant principled stand of my career. I have tried to resist for months, but a man does not always defeat his yetzer hara and pique has taken over my soul.  I ask for Jodie Foster’s forgiveness ahead of time.

Please boycott The Beaver.

Our Rabbis thought incessantly about public space. They knew that the realm of publicity changes the laws of psychology. The reactions of an individual and those of group are quite different, and it matters not how crazy, baseless, or offensive behavior is - if it survives long enough in the public eye, it will have carved out a perverse longevity for itself. There is a tenacity to public evils, when given enough of our shared attention.

For this reason people who have made bad names for themselves cannot serve, say, as representatives of the community to God during prayer. (Shulhan Arukh, Orekh Hayyim 53). The Sages knew that the best way to destroy notoriety is to kill the attention that feeds it.
Now, I have no special expectation of the rectitude of celebrities -- I was, after all, raised in Los Angeles -- but just how far does a person have to fall before his career is a non-starter? Anti-Semitism, racism, domestic abuse -- are there any shoes left to drop?

I realize that by writing these words I work against my own purposes. So don’t boycott the Beaver, just don’t see it. Don’t talk about it; don’t discuss it; don’t review it; deal with it in the only manner effective in our sadly corporatized society: let it die the ignominious death of the box office flop.

In fact, I refuse to let my words add to his notoriety one whit -- this Torah will self-destruct in 30 seconds.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011


Parshat Emor
16th Day of the Omer
30 Nisan, 5771
May 4th, 2011

     Of the unbelievable volume of e-articles, blog posts, and facebook status updates in response to the killing of Osama bin Laden, there is one argument - almost an obsession - that stands above all the rest: how should we feel about his death? Is it appropriate to be happy that he is dead? Does celebration somehow mar our dignity or give in to baser impulses?
    This ambivalence is fascinating. That the world is better without Osama brooks no debate, yet many have deep concerns (and very strong opinions) about what kind of emotion people should express in response to his execution. 
     Even Torah is conflicted about this.* The book of Proverbs, the seat of Torah wisdom, says, “When the wicked perish there are shouts of joy.” (11:23) It also says, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, nor let your heart be glad when he stumbles. (24:27)
     Those two quotes come from the very same book.
     I understand the root of our concern. We consider that the emotion we display is the sign of why we killed him: celebration means that we were pursuing revenge; stoicism means that we were upholding justice.
     I believe, though that how we feel after such an event is irrelevant to understanding its rightness. What matters are the emotions that preceded the act - the motivations that led us to kill him - and the fact of the action this country took. Actions and motivations cannot somehow be emended by how we respond after the fact.
     That our emotions were murky cannot be denied. Is it possible to edit out the rage that a parent feels for a child’s murderer? that a spouse feels for the killing of a partner? We are not dispassionate creatures.
     The comfort I offer is that, in the final accounting, killing Osama bin Laden was a moral act. Though our Torah envisions a future of perfect peace, it was born with a very earthy justice, and it says:
“Whoever sheds the blood of a man, by a man his blood will be shed, for in God’s image did God create man.” (Bereishit 9:6)
Osama bin Laden set the destruction of God’s image as his life’s work. His death is just. 

* In this, I find the proof of Torah’s wisdom, for to be decisive one way is to be too ethereal, ignoring basic realities of what human beings are. To be decisive the other is to condone the basest of sentiments.

God's Voice

Parshat Kedoshim Tihiyu
8th day of the Omer
23 Nisan, 5771
April 27th, 2011

Next month marks the 400th anniversary of the King James Bible. Charles McGrath writes in the New York Times ( that not only was the King James written by committee (usually an excellent recipe for mediocrity), but it was intentionally written archaically. Nonetheless, it remains one of the masterpieces of the English language.
            McGrath, himself an atheist, spends some time belittling modern Bibles that render into more colloquial English. Apparently, the God he does not believe in is very formal.
            However, he asks a profound question: how does one translate God’s voice? It is a question worth investing in.
Translating Torah well is essential. Connection to Judaism depends on being drawn into a world of holy words. If such words are opaque, the handicap both to students and teachers is enormous.
But as a student of the Rabbis, I want to contradict a basic assumption of biblical literalists – that God’s voice can be directly translated. In fact, the opposite is true: God’s voice is inherently difficult to understand. Take this midrash for example:
            “Said R. Yose ben R. Hananiah: according to each person’s individual capacity did [God] speak [each of the ten commandments]. Pesikta d’Rav Kahana 12:25
Or this one:
            The commandment to remember Shabbat and the commandment to keep Shabbat were said the same utterance…something that human beings are incapable of doing (i.e. God said one thing, but human brains can only understand it as two separate things). Midrash Tannaim 25
            There are those who assume that if we just followed what God told us, the world would be a better place. Jews believe, though, that the trick of it is first trying to understand what God was saying. Looking at the world, I’d say we have yet to hear the Holy One right.