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.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012


5 Iyyar, 5772
April 27th, 2012
20th Day of the Omer
Parshat Tazria-Metzora

“Says the author: I did not compose this essay to teach people what they do not know, but rather to remind them of that which is already known to them and hugely wide-spread between them. For you will only find in most of my words things that most people know and about which they have no doubt; only, it is because they are so famous and that their truth is obvious to everyone that their absence is prevalent and the forgetting of them is great.”

These are the words that begin one of the most famous popular works of Jewish spirituality in history, the Mesillat Yesharim, The Path of the Upright. Written by the immensely brilliant and highly eccentric Moshe Haim Luzzato, this book is the precursor to the Mussar movement - the 19th century ethical/spiritual movement that focussed on perfecting the self and radical improvement of one’s virtues as the greatest way to serve God.

At the heart of these words is a prescient realization - human beings are likely to forget precisely that which is most obvious. We take quite a bit for granted, and unless we actively remind ourselves of that which is unambiguously important - family, courtesy, kindness, helping others, making a positive impact on the world, investing in spirituality, giving to charity, etc. - we simply will not devote the time to these values that we would wish.

So I want to draw your attention to the second of two words that always go together: spiritual practice. These two words cannot be separated, for the path to a more noble life begins with constantly reminding oneself of that which is important. Thus every spirituality is grounded in daily practice.

It is sometimes thought that one must realize the importance of a practice before beginning it. But those who are wise know that the opposite is true - important realizations only come through practice.