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.

Monday, September 24, 2012

The Extraordinary Sarah Lawson

These words were written for Sixth and I's Rosh HaShanah davenning by the talented Slam poet, Sarah Lawson. Find out more about her creation, The Beltway Poetry Slam at,

We have all had the experience of finding
that our reactions and perhaps even our deeds
have denied beliefs we thought were ours.- James Baldwin

If everyday activism is the rent I pay
for living on this planet,
I am not always the most remarkable tenant.

I have broken leases on far too many simple moments
where my beliefs are perched on my tongue
but never seem to escape my lips.

I am learning the difference between
holding the things we believe
in our teeth and having them be
the only language we are fluent in.

It is the beginning of the year
we are all making that long journey back inside our skin
to discover the months we tucked away in there
In this year of unseasonable warmth,
of Spring without Winter,
of Hunger Games and Avengers,
of Occupy Tents and convention floors

It is a time to weave back over the patterns
that have stitched us into this place
and we cannot possibly do all the reflecting alone.

So I asked my friends to help
answer the question of what they believe in-

Their responses; A thing called love, quotation marks, one person’s ability to make a huge difference, the Chicago teachers union,  Unicorns and Spider-Man, our inevitable demise, mermaids, sushi, a childs infinite capacity for joy, peanut butter filled pretzels, God, family, democracy, equality, diversity and that none of these should be mutually exclusive, love. Slurpees, and you.

 I believe in you.

But this year, I don’t want to just declare my beliefs
I want to wear them like my favorite outfit
I want them paved and cemented
The only path on which I can move
through this world.

So when someone asks me what I believe
I won’t just say 'marriage rights and equal access to healthcare
old school hip hop and paying artists for their work
I believe that one day my friends are really going to change
this world, In a woman’s rights to everything
poetry, epic romances and family.'

No, this year, I don’t just want to just hold my beliefs
I want them to hold me too
The way an ocean holds a tide
The way High Holiday prayer books are held-
for some, the comfort of an old friend
for some, a new and scary path.

But my hope for us all is this
May the moments we have not spoken up
now be filled with our music
May the times we are soft be calcified
May we always find the words to say the things
that mean the most to us
and if we cannot find words
let us find action
If we cannot find action, let us find learning.

Let us find that for every crack
discovered in our foundation
that we already possess the mortar
for a new beginning.

Sarah D. Lawson
© September 2012

Friday, September 7, 2012

Break My Organic Heart

Parshat Ki Tavo
20 Elul, 5772
September 7th, 2012

Drs.Dana Bravata and Crystal Smith-Spangler at Stanford University (takeh), after reviewing thousands of papers on the subject, “did not find strong evidence that organic foods are more nutritious or carry fewer health risks than conventional alternatives…”

Oh boy.

Had they criticized farmer’s markets, had they flown in fruit from Zimbabwe, had they pointed out that kale tastes really, really bad – these researchers could not have angered organic food advocates more.

Personally, I love studies like these. Having one’s conceits busted is good for the soul.

Every great idea, organic farming included, attracts intellectual detritus. It’s just what happens. When we believe in a principle, we will muster every proof we can think of in its support. About half the time, those proofs turn out to be, ahem, complete bullshit. Unless one periodically clears out the false hypotheses, precious pieces of wisdom gather the smell of manure.

My beloved Rav Kook valued atheism. He wrote,“Atheism has the right of temporary existence because it is needed to digest the filth adhered to faith for the lack of intellect and service” (Orot 126)

I hesitate to point out that, just over a week away, are two holidays designed for the very purpose of cleaning spiritual house. When it comes to beliefs – better not to be a hoarder. Time to roll up our sleeves and start scrubbing.

Friday, August 31, 2012


Parshat Ki Tetze
13 Elul, 5772
August 31st, 2012

When I lived in Israel, I visited Bethlehem and the Palestinian side of Hevron with an outfit called Encounter

It’s hard to get one’s head around what they do. They are dedicated to transforming the Palestinian-Israeli conflict, but they do not advocate a political point of view. Encounter isn’t about debate, nor strategy, nor positioning. The only task of an Encounter participant is to listen. Palestinians from the area tell their personal stories, their history, their priorities, their beliefs. The participants just sit and listen. That’s all.

Accordingly, Encounter is an incredibly frustrating experience. Listening is aggravating – always wanting to speak up and contradict, to yell and to argue. Moreover, it’s not like these Palestinians are shining angels. They are people – prone to plenty of truth and delusion. One Hevron dweller said to me, “the Jews and the Arabs – we are one. We all agree that it’s the Zionists that are the problem.” Afterwards, he and I had a talk about that little gem.

But I will tell you that Encounter was one of the most powerful experiences of my life, and for the better. I strangely came away more committed to Israel than ever, but with an appreciation for these enemies as full-blooded, life-sized people. There is a power to personally told stories that I cannot adequately articulate. I did not become more or less of anything on Encounter, but it was as if my mind stepped half around a circle and sat down in a new vantage point. I will remember those stories till the day I die.

My colleagues and I take flack for going on trips like these. People natter about how such an experience is accommodation with the enemy. Some of them once had my respect, though it has since flickered out like a broken light bulb.

Whatever your political path, know that these people are wrong.

I had Azerbaijanis today. Religious scholars and journalists from Azerbaijan visited Washington D.C. on a State Department program. They came for a tour of Sixth & I.

Most Azerbaijanis are Shia’a Muslims, as was this entire group. After they were done being polite, they asked about Israel. “Are you a Zionist?” I said I was. “Why do you believe you belong in Israel?” I paused.

This was the moment of truth. And there were a thousand ways to respond: I could have been aggressive, defensive, principled, or argumentative. But because I had been on Encounter, this time I chose a different path.

I told the story of our people. I talked about how we had been exiled, and still pray for Jerusalem three times a day and at every meal. I talked about what it was like for us among the nations: that in every place we had settled we had experienced moments of peace and prosperity, but that those moments were dwarfed by our pain. I talked about the Crusades, and how we have records from the survivors of parents killing their children and then themselves, rather than be raped and tortured, or burned to death. I talked about how, in the Enlightenment, we had hope for a new kind of life. That in one place in particular Jews felt so redeemed that they called their country a “new Zion.” That country was Germany. I said that after such experiences we were no longer willing to surrender ourselves to the bitter kindnesses of history.

This is not a new story. You’ve heard it – so much so that it might even be hackneyed (though I believe it). But as I finished the woman who had asked the question shocked me.

She started to cry.

Now I am just a little rabbi from America. There is, in this vignette, no diplomacy, no tikkun, no overblown expectations that we’ll all just get along. There is no grand finale, nor seeds of peace. But this woman (and a number of her colleagues) understood. They got it. They understood why I and others care. They saw it through our eyes.

And when they asked me about Palestinians dying, and how could I support Israel’s policies, I responded that I disagreed with certain of Israel’s policies (housing demolitions, checkpoint treatment), but that I had also been there in 2001 when something exploded every single day, and how terrifying it was. I explained that they needed to understand that a mutual solution had to be found, or we were going to destroy each other. And then questioner looked at me, and he nodded.*

Many will not understand, but today’s story meant something. In a conflict that drags on with no appreciable end in sight, in times of proposals and counterproposals and counter-counterproposals that end in nothing, when facts volleyed back and forth only serve their expositors and never understanding – the power of getting an enemy to understand one’s perspective means something. So before (or after) you arm yourself with all the facts, before you memorize all the talking points, before you paint the protest signs, figure out why you care and why Israel is important. And then go grab an enemy and tell your story. Maybe even listen in return.

*The Azerbaijanis did not speak English. I communicated through an interpreter.

Friday, August 24, 2012

Virtue is the Fruit of Irritation

Parshat Shoftim
6 Elul, 5772
August 24th, 2012

My friend Shawn Landres and I were part of a Muslim-Jewish dialogue in Los Angeles. At some point, we were asked to present an overview of Jewish history to the Muslim participants

In half an hour.

4 millennia of history in a half hour is damned hard, nigh impossible. Shawn, who is among other things a scholar of religion, accepted the challenge and did a beautiful job. Another teacher and I were stunned.

Of his half hour, Shawn spent 10 minutes describing American Judaism, including the Reform, Conservative, and Orthodox movements. As he finished (again having done brilliantly), another Jewish participant stood up.

Irate, this man decried that Shawn had not described his experience of Judaism – that that was not how he had been raised as a Reform Jew.

I wanted to throw my hands up. Of course Shawn had not replicated his experience. Shawn was succinctly describing the experience of millions, over thousands of years.  

This man’s words frustrated me. His assumption was that teaching should mirror his internal feelings. But words that parrot personal experience are not teaching, they are sycophancy.

Since we’re talking Muslim-Jewish dialogue, let’s quote Rumi: “if you are irritated by every rub, how will your mirror be polished?” People increasingly value the power of subjective, personal, authentic experience. We choose for the spiritual “I” to be paramount.

However, the price of the “I” is irritation when people speak of the spiritual “we,” for it will not map perfectly upon personal experience.

Our work is to treasure annoyance: to realize that its presence reveals the opportunity to learn, to  broaden and deepen our individual spirituality by incorporating that of others. The fruit of irritation is virtue.

Friday, August 10, 2012

Lines Straight and Crooked

Parshat Ekev
22 Av 5772
August 10th, 2012

I have to warn you that politics will be mentioned in this post. These days, politics are like the sex in the movies:  people should know before the feature so that they can take their kids and leave.

Anyways, NPR interviewed an unemployed man who blames the president for the economy. Such a conceit is reasonable, whether accurate or not. However, he went on to say that the President and his wife hate white people. This idea is not reasonable at all.

People forget that our President is bi-racial: half African, half Caucasian. To say he hates white people forgets that fully half his family, and his mother, are white. So from where does such a claim come?

The answer, I think, lies in the power of stories. The story of America is of racial divide. Despite all of our progress in the last century, black and white in this country do not yet trust each other. Racial divides remain, and the narrative of racial divide is so strong among us that circumstances which do not fit neatly into its categories are forced to conform. Thus any person who combines black and white is shunted fully to one side of the race debate regardless of inclination, and is slapped with the narrative that applies to African-Americans, no matter how specious.

The ultimate point is not about the president, nor our political furor. The point is that we are willing to sacrifice the identities of others to the needs of our own stories. Case in point: would any man or woman in this country who comes from both black and white parentage, and whose skin is noticeably dark, ever be called anything but black by the outside world?

One of my favorite images from the prophets is of the plumb line – ankh in Hebrew. A plumb line is a simple builder’s tool – a string with a weight at the end. By holding it out, one determines whether a building is truly vertical. Here’s the prophet Amos: “And HaShem said to me, ‘What do you see Amos?’ And I said ‘A plumb line.’ And my Lord said, ‘indeed I am placing a plumb line on my people Israel, and I will no longer let them off.’”

Our charge is to break through the insular circles of life with a plumb line. We should not suffer that which is crooked to remain.

Friday, August 3, 2012

Pride in Prejudice

Shabbat Nahamu
Parshat VaEthanan
15 Av, 5772
August 3rd, 2012

I end up thinking about guilt a lot.

This is not by choice.

Guilt is the disease of those whose cultures have survived long enough to abrogate their own expectations. It is the byproduct of being told what to do since time immemorial, but choosing to do something different. So, for Jews, Catholics, and many others, it’s mother’s milk.

It is also a major motivator of human behavior, and I am confronted with it daily. As a rabbi, I represent the segment of life about which people have the deepest ambivalence. Thus I have developed the superpower of inducing guilt merely by walking into a room, and I have become quite a student of how it manifests.

By far, guilt’s most interesting expression is through pride. One sees this, especially in the states: a prideful, often scorning, relish in a real or perceived deficiency: “book-learning is a waste of time;” “I would never lower myself by thinking of something so common as money;” and my personal favorite, “I’m a terrible Jew – I’ve broken the entire Torah.” (which is not possible, and really, all I wanted was some ice-cream from your shop.)

What links all three is the admixture of a choice – not to pursue higher learning, not to learn business, not to be observant – and an unconscious fear that somehow one is living in error. How else to explain the aggression towards those who have walked said path?

The incomparable Rav Kook, writing to his students, once said, “One who is inclined towards piety, to the highest possible spiritual wisdom, should know that it was for this [purpose] that he was created…and therefore be happy in his lots; however, never should they be despised in his eyes, nor should he demean the lots of others – even though they are very far (from this wisdom), for in certainty they have other vocations which are good and useful, and are very far from [the student].

It is our ability to accept the lots of others with grace and joy, different though they may be from ours, that attests to the rightness of our own lives.

Friday, June 22, 2012

Jews Against Korah

2 Tammuz, 5772
June 22nd, 2012
Parshat Korah
            A few years ago, at a Coffee Bean, I watched a young woman put her stuff down, and then go in to order. A few older gentlemen arrived afterwards and, seeing that she had claimed their favorite table, surreptitiously moved her belongings to the ground. When she came back, they claimed that they had not seen her possessions.

            Now I have a bit of a superhero complex, so I stood up and, in public, told these gentlemen that the seat was hers, and that they should not have disregarded her (let's just say my wording was different).

            To their credit, the men moved. But afterwards one of their number confronted me. I'll never forget how livid he was.

            What remains with me from the incident is that we were both justified. The men lied to that woman and tried to take advantage of her. But in order to confront them, I took them apart in public. There is no way to experience such a situation except as deeply humiliating, and I can understand his anger.

            It seems to me that we have no real way to politely critique social behavior. As far as I can tell, all that's available to us is either to ignore the peccadilloes of others or confront them. The confrontations rarely yield the desired result.

            This lack is a problem. Everyone offends, even egregiously. No person lives blamelessly. But when our only two options are to suck it up or go toe-to-toe, life becomes an unpleasant combination of repression and aggression - rarely reconciliation.

            In 1994, Bogota, Colombia was a mess. The murder rate was triple that of New York City. The traffic fatality rate more than quadruple. There was so little acceptance of traffic laws that to cross the street was literally to take one's life in one's hands.

            That year, a very quirky man named Antanas Mockus became mayor. Mockus implemented policies that would make him a laughingstock. He positioned, of all things, mimes at traffic lights. When a person would run the light or similarly be a jerk, the mimes would follow their car (Bogota is congested), and silently mock the driver to the amusement of those around. He also sent the citizens of Bogota red and green cards, just like in soccer, and told them to thrust the appropriate card in the air when someone acted for good or ill.

            People thought this was hilarious. When traffic fatalities dropped by 50%,  and homicides by 70%, they stopped laughing.

            The point is that when there are relatively harmless and inoffensive ways of communally critiquing social behavior, life gets a lot better. I would take a mime over a furious email every day of the week and twice on Shabbes.

            In the Book of Judges, the Bible describes people doing, "ish hayashar be-einav,"   - every person doing that which was right in his/her own eyes. Please understand, Tanakh means this as an insult. To act without regard for the feelings of others is boorish, not independent.

            To build a community of learning is our mission. And Jewish learning is not academic. We must ask the question how do we, communally, make ourselves better. The rewards reaped by the answer will be enormous.

Friday, June 15, 2012

Mountains and Molehills

Parshat Shelah
25 Sivan, 5772
June 15th, 2012

In New Orleans, it’s a huge deal. The Times-Picayune is stopping its daily print editions, opting for a more internet-heavy publishing approach.

This is not small. The Times-Picayune, which has been in publication since 1837, actually kept writing during Katrina with only three days of online-only coverage.

However, the newspaper laid off about 600 people yesterday. By any means, the layoff is a tragedy for the New Orleans community, and a troubling sign of more to come in journalism.

It is not, however a national disaster.

Mark Schleifstein, one of the reporters who shared the Pulitzer for Katrina coverage, referred to the layoffs and publishing shift as, “a sort of Katrina without water.”

And I have a serious problem with that simile.

I have noticed that, when serious trauma affects a community, the memory of that trauma gets trotted out at the most insignificant, inappropriate moments possible.

A couple of colleagues, recounting staffing crises in their synagogues, told me that various people had said to them over the firing or leaving of a clergy member – and I quote literally – “this is like the Warsaw ghetto,” and “if more people had spoken up, the Holocaust would not have happened.”

Now I’ve beat this hobby horse of mine to death before, but it was not like the Holocaust. Inter-synagogue politics, no matter how nasty, are not like the Ghettos. Firings at a newspaper are not like the worst American civil disaster of our time.

The Talmud teaches, “[Rabbi Meir] said to [Akher], ‘everything that God created, God created something in opposition to it: God created mountains – and created hills; God created seas – and created rivers…” Bavli Hagigah 15a.

Though it may seem obtuse, this is a very important point. Rabbi Meir teaches that meaning is creating by treating distinct objects differently from one another. The point is not academic: when one conflates big with small, one actively destroys the meaning of both, and people become unable to respond well to either. To call a firing a “Holocaust” or a “Katrina” means stopping the atrocity, not resolving an employment conflict. To continually wear down the sharpness of a disaster may leave people unable to respond when actual tragedy hits.

The first thing that Adam haRishon (the first person) did when created was to call God’s creatures by their true names. It’s an action worth emulating.

Friday, June 1, 2012

Gut Instinct


Parshat Naso
11 Sivan, 5772
June 1st, 2012

I occasionally ask people how God lets us know whether an action is moral or immoral. What I mean is that, when a person has a moral dilemma, what source should she trust to tell her whether she is acting well? Most people answer, “trust your gut,” and believe that God has put an innate sense of morality inside all of us.

I have found, after much experience, this belief to be untrue.

As Proverbs says, mikol melamdai hiskalti – I have learned from all who teach me. And what I have learned is that plenty of people have exactly the opposite gut instinct over precisely the same dilemma. Just think about various cadres’ reactions to homosexuality.

Secondly, I have found over the course of my life that my gut has changed. I remember the first time I saw a female rabbi, and how much I hated the experience. Last year I was unsettled by a promo picture for an Orthodox yeshiva: why were no women learning in the beit midrash?

The point, I think, is that the gut is trained.

Here’s an analogy: when people stumble, it is natural instinct to put their hands out to block their fall. It’s also a really stupid idea. The lower arm bones, caught between the ground and the weight of the body, shatter easily. But if you go to an Aikido or Ju-Jitsu class, you’ll see people being thrown all over the place, and falling from six feet or more without ill effect. This is because they have trained themselves to fall.

To live morally is to live one step beyond the gut: to train one’s self in compassion, in wisdom, in understanding, in Torah – and then to let the intuition free.

Friday, May 18, 2012

When I Say “Dawn,” You Say “Idiot”

26 Iyyar, 5772
May 18th, 2012
41st Day of the Omer

By now, most have heard of Greece’s “Golden Dawn,” - the neo-Nazi party that recently won 7% of Parliament in elections. 

Now, it’s clear that Golden Dawn’s power came through its opposition to the Greek Austerity Plan. However,these charming individuals are also known for opposition to foreign “filth”(read, immigrants), Holocaust denial, and general thuggery. 

On days like this I think of Aldous Huxley’s Ape and Essence: “The leech’s kiss, the squid’s embrace,/The prurient ape’s defiling touch./And do you like the human race?/No, not much.”

There is a prayer that Jews every morning: “May it be your will, our God and God of our ancestors, to keep us from insolence in others and arrogance in ourselves; from an evil person, an evil friend, an evil neighbor, an evil encounter, and from destructive accusations.”

This prayer is not the height of optimism, but this week I understand it. May God keep us far away from such people. May God reduce tolerance for their views in our midst. May God change their hearts.

I am forced to point out that the prayer mentions others and ourselves. Such mention is not accidental. A few weeks ago, this came across my desk. 

For the many who do not speak Hebrew, this gem is a mock wedding invitation between a Muslim man - Muhamad, son of Navil and Oum Jihad - and a Jewish woman, whose name rendered means “You should hope that this isn’t your daughter.”

The e-postcard, put out by an Israeli “anti-assimilation organization” called Lehavah, therefore urges:
“Do not let your daughter work with Arabs. Do not let her do National service with goyim. Do not buy from stores that employ enemies (Arabs); Do not let goyish workers into your home.

This, of course, goes hand in hand with a recent-years decree from rabbis not to sell or rent to Arabs.

What must be said is that the Israeli-Palestinian conflict is beyond complicated. There are no butterflies or rainbows. We are talking about deep hatred and enmity. However, how we respond in our anger is of paramount importance. And before one goes to justify the sentiments behind such an ad, please read the following. They are from various German laws and speeches of the late 1930’s. My hope is that, seeing them, your blood will run cold.

Ultimately, we will be judged not only for what we believe, but for which beliefs we benignly tolerate. 

  1.  Marriages between Jews and nationals of German or kindred blood are forbidden.  Marriages concluded in defiance of this law are void, even if, for the purpose of evading this law, they are concluded abroad.
Jews will not be permitted to employ female nationals of German or kindred blood in their households.
Article 7
1. Jews cannot legally acquire real estate and mortgages.
Deutsche! Wehrt Euch! Kauft nicht bei Juden (Germans! Defend yourselves! Do not buy from Jews) – Slogan from the Nazi boycott against Jews.

Friday, May 11, 2012

The Dumb Tongue

19 Iyyar, 5772
May 11th, 2012
34th Day of the Omer

My grandfather, of blessed memory, was a man of few words but remarkably strong convictions. Now one must understand: I basically talk to people for a living; I was an English major; words are my bread and butter. One might think the disparity drove a wedge between us.

But my grandfather never had trouble making himself understood. I knew his principles with clarity and felt the boundlessness of his love. Without saying much, he was the most righteous and kind man I have ever known.

Watching him taught me a lesson that is one of my treasured possessions: words are a means, not an end. The ability to produce great words amounts to nothing of itself.

There is a rampant misconception that, in the sphere of public debate, the person with the best words wins. Remember that the victor should be the one who has the best ideas, not the glibbest tongue.

What I know is that the strongest of our convictions, the best of our ideas, our most deeply held values are extremely difficult to articulate. People like me spend a lifetime just learning to give them voice.

However, because one cannot articulate them well does not mean that such convictions are invalid. Prettier words should not take away what you believe.

The inverse is true as well. Just because someone has an elegant way to express dishonorable feelings, inhuman in their intent, does not somehow give them an advantage. Finding a fancy way to transmit ugly sentiment is of no avail.

The substance of ideas matters more than their verbal expression. Thus the heart matters more than the mouth. So do the Psalms say, “[God is the One] who created all their hearts together, and [therefore] understands their actions.” Psalm 33

Friday, May 4, 2012

In Praise of Honored Dead

In Praise of Honored Dead
12 Iyyar, 5772
May 4th, 2012
27th Day of the Omer

A few weeks ago, Rex Huppke (hell of a name) published a brilliant, tongue-in-cheek obituary in the Chicago Tribune in memory of...facts. 

He believes that facts died when Rep. Allen West “steadfastly declared that as many as 81 of his fellow members of the U.S. House of Representatives are communists.”

Know that Huppke’s point is not partisan. Rather he points out the decidedly across-the-aisle degradation of facts’ health over the decades, including the Clinton-Lewinsky affair. To my mind the beginning of the end may have come in 1982, when the nation watched opposing psychiatrists find John Hinckley both legally sane and insane, respectively, in his attempted assassination of President Reagan.

I saw facts’ fatal wound came at a Shabbat lunch a few months ago. A very intelligent woman, a former teacher of physics, far more observant than I, claimed that “the theory of evolution has been all but discredited by academics.” Thoroughly shocke, I asked her to produce evidence. Sure enough she presented me with an academic citation claiming that evolution had been debunked.

The problem with her assertion and her paper is that they’re both nonsense. The vast, preponderant, overwhelming majority of the scientific community accepts evolution as valid. Whether or not one thinks the theory is valid, one should not deny this reality of what most scientists think.

However, the explosion of information that is at the heart of our new society makes it possible that, no matter what my point, I can find statistical, academic, and journalistic work to support me. And thus we’ve arrived at a place in which facts inevitably work to support our own opinions, which is to say that facts are now irrelevant, which means that they are truly dead.

It is possible to resurrect them from this backwards existence, however. The Psalms say, “Who can live in Your tent, who may dwell on Your holy mountain? (i.e., who’s a good guy?) who swears to his own detriment and does not abdicate his vow.” Psalm 15

The point being that a tzaddik is one who keeps his word, even when his word works against him. So in memory of honored dead, I propose we do the same thing. If we believe in facts, let them work against us. It’ll be a sign of our righteousness.