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.