Thursday, August 25, 2011


Parshat Re’eh
25 Menahem Av, 5771
August 25th, 2011

    All through my childhood my father refused to take what my siblings and I called “real vacations.” The slightest whiff of ostentation meant instant rejection, and merely saying “Hawaii” would have produced gales of laughter. However, Dad was willingly and equivalently generous on trips that he considered character building.
    This meant that I spent my childhood and adolescence packed into our family motorhome, listening to books on tape, exploring a surprising amount of the western United States: up and down the coast of California, Sequoia, Mammoth, the Grand Canyon, Bryce and Zion National Parks in Utah, Nevada, Lake Havasu, Yosemite, and one extraordinary trip to Yellowstone and back.
    As is the way of grown children, I am now grateful to my parents for destroying my chance at teenage popularity. I have never seen Waikiki beach, but I feel a rootedness in the land on which I was raised. When I leave town to camp, or simply to drive to a conference up north, I find a part of myself waiting for me in California’s landscape, whether beach, sierra, or farmland. This gorgeous state is my home, and a grand home it is.
    You and I are urbane people. Connection to the land is something that we wonder at, not that we experience daily. 
    But while driving it occurred to me that our disconnection occasions the loss of something essential. Nature and that which comes from it - primarily all that we eat - have lost their depth for us. We are unable to see the seed sown to raise the wheat for our bread. We do not remember the sweat wiped from brows when the grain was harvested, milled, made into flour, baked in ovens. We do not know whether the hands which rolled the dough were treated humanely or abused. All that which comes from the land has deep history indeed. 
    Rabbi Ahai ben Yoshayah stated: One who purchases grain in the market—to
what may such a person be likened? To an infant whose mother died, and they pass him from door to door among wetnurses and [still] the baby is not satisfied. Avot d’Rebbe Natan 31:1
    The danger is seeing the land, and the food which comes from it, as flat - somehow without history - for this builds an insensitivity and rapaciousness. We act as a baby never truly full, caring only about getting more, not where that “more” comes from. 
    May we all be blessed with finding our roots in the land around us.

Wednesday, August 17, 2011

The Burden of Choice


Parshat Re'eh
17 Menahem Av, 5771
August 17th, 2011

The New York Times Magazine this week published an article on a startling dilemma of medical ethics. The introduction of In Vitro Fertilization (IVF) has made it common that women seeking infertility treatments will become pregnant with multiple embryos. In a number of cases, women carry more fetuses than they can safely bear to term. In order to protect the mother’s life, doctors terminate all but two or three.
As is the case with so much of medical progress, new technology has brought unprecedented choice. In the words of the article, “…what began as an intervention for extreme medical circumstances has quietly become an option for women carrying twins. With that, pregnancy reduction shifted from a medical decision to an ethical dilemma.” Women now may choose to reduce twins or triplets to a single fetus.
The Torah’s view of abortion maps very poorly onto contemporary discourse. It would understand neither Catholic/Protestant ideas that life begins at conception, nor the idea of a “right to choose.” Depending on circumstance, Torah permits, forbids, and even compels abortion.* But I do not believe that the criticality of this ethical question – whether one may electively reduce a pregnancy – is found in a discussion on abortion. Rather, this is a question about the will of God.
The will of God is a powerful idea in Torah. It most often means accepting that which is placed before us and relinquishing control. Death, for example: every time a person dies we say a prayer, the tziduk hadin (acknowledging the righteousness of the judgment), which understands that mortality is the will of God.
But in IVF-related pregnancies, the problem is that multiple embryos are not the will of God.** They are the direct result of human intervention, an acknowledged statistical possibility of a medical technique. The situation has evolved from accepting what God ordains into the question of making Godly decisions between the possibilities available to us.
These decisions are not simple: since the pregnancy was artificially initiated, should women have more choice about how it progresses? Which reasons for doing so are moral and which not? The stakes are high.
Our headlong hurtle into undreamed technologies is changing our fundamental relationship to God and the world. We are vastly more powerful, but still just as corruptible. We carry an unheard of burden of choice, but are moving so quickly that we do not bear the burden easily.
I think it foolish to believe that we could just take a breather from technological progress. But we do need to spend much more time understanding what is happening to us and what we are becoming. Not doing so means morally abandoning those confronted by the difficult decisions that progress occasions. We owe them, and ourselves, and God more.

*Two well-grounded synopses of halakhic views of abortion:

**Except in the sense that everything (literally everything) is the will of God. This is some deep theology, so catch me in the halls and we’ll talk about it.

Thursday, August 11, 2011

Death by Committee

Parshat VaEthanan
Shabbat Nahamu
11 Av, 5771
August 11th, 2011

400 years ago, a group of bishops under the guidance of one of England’s most quirky and brilliant kings, James, came together to create an English translation of the Bible, now known as one of the great masterpieces of English literature. Originally without title (other than Holy Bible, of course) this translation is known to us as The King James Version.
The King James was such a powerful force in the English language that the turns of language invented therein are a lasting part of our life, four centuries later: “a bird in the hand is worth two in the bush,” “a drop in the bucket,” “a fly in the ointment,” “labor of love,” “skin of your teeth,” “the powers that be,” and on. A full list of these phrases can be found here
            The story of the King James’ creation is extraordinary. It was written by committee: six directors and 48 separate translators. Those who have sat on boards should imagine accomplishing anything with 48 separate members, let alone translate the entire Bible.
            Moreover, Jacobean England was a religiously fractious time. Not only had England just separated from the Catholic Church only sixty years before, but there were significant divisions within England: The established Church of England, reforming Puritans, outlawed Presbyterians, and Calvinists.
Yet out of this mess came what became known as the English Bible. And as one who works in committee regularly, all I can say is – I would give almost anything to know their secret.
Adam Nicolson wrote God’s Secretaries: The Making of the King James Bible. And here’s what he writes, “The currency of this world was talk between people who had known each other all their lives, and the intimacy of those relationships was crucial to the nature of the conference…and to the qualities of the Bible that would eventually emerge from it…These were the people in whose hands the future of the Church of England lay and they all knew each other. They were deeply opposed on important issues but a single envelope, what would nowadays be called a single discourse, contained them, and much of the peaceableness of England can be explained by that.” (46-47)
It matters not that we disagree with each other. It fact our disagreement may be a great asset. What matters is that we know each other well, intimately, and that our issues are shared issues. The unity of shared life is far more important than the unity of our thoughts. 

Thursday, August 4, 2011

Give What You Have

Parshat Devarim
4 Menahem Av, 5771
August 4th, 2011

When Rabbi Isaac Klein was an Army chaplain during World War II, he was brought through an orientation for religious leaders to Army life. His assumption was that succeeding as a chaplain would require sacrificing chunks of his personal religious life.

He assumed incorrectly. His superior, a Catholic priest, quoted a legal principle to the budding chaplains: Nemo dat quod non habet -- one cannot give what one does not have.* Invest, he meant, in your own religious practice so that you can give of your spirituality to your soldiers.

I believe this to be powerful Torah. Sometimes we assume that being of service to others -- helping them -- requires forgoing ourselves what we wish others to receive. It seems to us the selfless thing.

The opposite is true. In order to give of wisdom, we must learn to be wise. In order to give of community, we must first know its warmth. In order to give of passion, we must first find where we are passionate. In order to love, we must know what it is to be loved.

Self-deprivation is not selflessness. To provide others with what we have worked to achieve --to give what we have -- is the true Torah of love.

*Because I can’t resist, know that this same rule exists in halakha - Jewish law. See the Rambam “an object which is not in the possession of the seller - he cannot sell it.” Hilkhot Mekhirah 22. See also Talmud Bava Kama, 68b.