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.