Saturday, April 28, 2007

Who will save your soul?

Today on, there's an article talking about how Christian Jewish and Muslim houses of worship are struggling with the problem of what to do when a sex offender wants to worship.

Of course, many significant stories have been in the media over the past few years - notably there were the problems with the Catholic Church hiding its offending priests by relocating them to poor communities and refusing to deal in other ways, but the Jewish community, too, has had it's struggles: the question of Whether R. Shlomo Carlebach, during his lifetime, was extremely inappropriate with women (reported first in Lilith magazine), the highly publicized case of David Kay (who, when caught in a sting resigned his membership in the Rabbinical Assembly and claimed to be "defrocking" himself) who was featured on "Dateline NBC" for seeking a sexual encounter with an underage boy in a chat room, and not least of all the case of R. Kolko and others whose abuse of students in their care has been documented by Failed Messiah and The Truth About Agudah.

But the question that is raised in the Salon article is both simpler and more difficult: what to do when someone who is a known, say, child molester, comes to the community, and wants to join it?
According to the article, one synagogue decided that
Rather than bring it to the congregation, the temple's executive committee made the decision about how -- and whether -- to welcome offenders to its temple. The verdict: The men could worship with them -- "My house shall be called a house of prayer for all Peoples," explained the rabbi, quoting Isaiah 56:7 -- but could not have any contact with children.

but another went quite a different way,
Rabbi Elie Spitz of Congregation B'nai Israel in Tustin, Calif., faced the same problem many years ago, when he was rabbi of another temple. In that case, the offender, just out of prison, had molested children in a neighboring community. "I told him I wouldn't prevent him from coming to services, although I would rather he didn't. He came to worship and there were people in the congregation to whom it was so deeply upsetting to have him there, they couldn't pray. People came to me in pain over it," recalls Spitz. After that initial reaction, Spitz did some research into the nature of sex offenders and consulted a psychologist who specialized in the subject. "I wound up writing [the offender] a legal letter saying he was not welcome." Spitz is doubtful it would be different with his current congregation. "Realistically, I do think it would be a problem. A congregation is a very big family and some people are more secure in dealing with danger than others."

At one church, the pastor was shocked to discover,
the normally progressive, welcoming congregation balked at the notion, and the resulting firestorm forced pastor Madison Shockley to tearfully ask Pliska not to come to services until the church could sort things out..."Nothing in my almost 30 years of ministry has prepared me to turn somebody away," Shockley told the local paper. But Shockely's biggest surprise wasn't that a sex offender wanted to worship, but that so many members of his congregation had been sexually abused as children; he estimated one in four of female congregants and one in 10 men. Having an offender in the pews with them on Sunday -- even one who had served his time, registered with the authorities and voluntarily identified himself to the pastor -- was too big a hurdle for these former victims, Christians or not.

1 in 4 women and 1 in 10 men. I suppose that isn't much of a shock to those who have been following feminist claims about this sort of thing for years (albeit this seems to be a particularly victimized congregation), but it does make one wonder just how dilatory we have been in our attempts to address the problem specifically as one of, not people in power, but of a scourge of society in general.

Of course, as the Salon article points out, the identified offenders are the least of the problem. Indeed, once you know that someone has served time for such an offence, one can at least make some kind of arrangements to make sure that they're not, say, allowed to run a youth group program. It's the unidentified, those who have not yet been caught, who are the danger - and isolating offenders who are identifiable, or even who make themselves known, only serves to make it harder for those trying to go straight to do so, since they will also have to fear not being able to find anyone to be in community with - even if their risk factor is, or can be made, very low.

More to the point, as Ebrahim Moosa, an associate professor of Islamic studies and director of the Center for the Study of Muslim Networks at Duke University, says in the article, "In Islam, there is a doctrine that says someone who repents from their sin, it is as if they have no sin anymore. This is the tension you have with the issue. Can religious communities overcome their fear of this man's psychopathology and accept that he has paid society's penalty or does he have to suffer the consequences of his crimes forever?"

Judaism, too, has such a -we'll keep with calling it a doctrine. But the rub is, how can a human being know if someone has truly repented? Especially with a sin such as this type, where we know
there are personality components that are not easily cured. Jail time alone just doess't do it - sometimes even when the offender really wants to do right.

So what should we do? What is our obligation as Jews to receive the one who has done tshuvah? What are the obligations of our communal leaders to both protect us and to show that tshuvah is accepted for those who seek it? And most importantly, how?

Tuesday, April 24, 2007

A very important thing to do

Dr. Aryeh Cohen, my teacher and friend, told me some weeks ago about this new organization that he was starting together with a small group of exceptional folks (Dr. Adam Rubin, Rabbi Joshua Levine Grater, Sarah Newman, Dr. Shaul Magid) who are just dog tired of not having this matter addressed. One of my favorite quotes from the Talmud introduces the statement of Jews Against the War, "One who is able to protest against a wrong that is being done in his family, his city, his nation or the world and does not do so is held accountable for that wrong being done."
–Talmud Bavli Tractate Shabbat 54b

Jews Against the War is bringing the war to the American Jewish table. It is long past high time that it is known that Jews overwhelmingly disapprove of the Iraq war. According to a recent Gallup Poll 77 percent of American Jews think that going to war in Iraq was a mistake, compared to 52 percent of Americans overall. Yet for some reason, Jewish groups have shied away from discussing this disgraceful, continuing tragedy.

JTA reports, "'We couldn't continue to remain silent on one of the most catastrophic, immoral and tragic foreign policy decisions in the history of our country,' Cohen said in the press release. 'The Talmud teaches that silence is akin to assent.'"

Please read the statement here, and sign the petition here

Jews Against the War

Here is a video from VideoVets, which will be sponsored by with veteran (sergeant) John Bruhns speaking of his experiences in Iraq.

Monday, April 23, 2007

In Praise of Anger: Part I

We don't like anger. We're scared of it. And with good reason. Anger unfocused, at loose, is a plague that rides us here in the USA, a society filled with guns and impulsiveness - not an excellent combination.
The rabbis in particular have much to say about what anger tells us about a person:

The talmud tells us, (Eruvin 65b)
אמר רבי אילעאי: בשלשה דברים אדם ניכר: בכוסו, ובכיסו, ובכעסו
ואמרי ליה: אף בשחקו
Rabbi Ilai said, by three things is a person known, "Koso, kiso, ka'aso" by his cup (alcoholic drink), by his pocket (his generosity and giving of tzedakah) and by his anger. and some say: By his laughter also.

And also (Pesachim 113b),

שלשה הקדוש ברוך הוא אוהבן: מי שאינו כועס ומי שאינו משתכר, ומי שאינו מעמיד על מדותיו.

תנו רבנן: שלשה חייהן אינם חיים: הרחמנין, והרתחנין, ואניני הדעת.

Three the Holy One, blessed be He, loves: he who does not display temper, he who does not become intoxicated, and he who does not insist on his rights [does not insist upon retribution].

... Our Rabbis taught: There are three whose life is not life; the [over-] compassionate, the hot-tempered [the boiling, or effervescing], and the [too] fastidious;

And yet there is a difference between a person who is angry and an angry person.
The rabbis are right to warn us against the angry person, who is not simply unpleasant to be around, but often dangerous.

The Talmud warns:
He who rends his garments in his anger, he who breaks his vessels in his anger, and he who scatters his money in his anger, regard him as an idolater, because such are the wiles of the Tempter: Today he says to him, 'Do this'; to-morrow he tells him, 'Do that,' until he bids him, 'Go and serve idols,' and he goes and serves [them]. Rabbi Abin observed: What verse [tells us this]? “There shall be no strange god in thee; neither shalt thou worship any strange god;” Who is the strange god that resides in man himself? Say, that is the Tempter! (Talmud Bavli, Shabbat 105b)

All of us have seen, in our own lives, or in the papers, the results of the person who makes an idol out of their own impulses and nurses their grievances to an absurd end. But anger isn't a useless emotion.

Maimonides makes the interesting point:

And so, anger is…an exceptionally bad quality. It is fitting and proper that one move away from it to the opposite extreme. He should school himself not to become angry, and even about things for which it is fitting to be angry about them. If he should wish to arouse fear in his children and household…and he wants to be angry upon them in order to [motivate them] to return to the proper [path], he should present an angry front to them in order to punish them, but his mind should be inwardly calm, like one who acts as if in the hour of his wrath, but is not himself angry."

The sages said: 'All who are angry are like one who does idol worship,” and they said that all who are angry, if one is a wise man, his wisdom leaves him; if he is a prophet, his prophecy leaves him. And the [perpetually] angry, their life is not life. Therefore, he is commanded to distance himself from anger and accustom himself not to feel [any reaction], even to things which provoke [anger]. This is the good path." (Maimonides' Mishneh Torah, Laws of Character, chapter 2)*

That is, Maimonides is warning us not to allow a lack of control in one's anger. He doesn't recognise the ability to feel strongly about something without it becoming a monkey on one's back - but he does recognise that there are things for which one must act as though one feels passion for it in order to make things happen (let's put aside the particular ends he has in mind of putting the fear of God, as it were, into "his" family)

And societally, at least here in the USA, we do recognise some piece of that - the importance of passion as a motivator. Yet we don't seem to be able to separate out the selfish, self-idolizing piece that allows people to kill one another as "a crime of passion" versus the kind of anger that allows people to take risks to make justice happen - to get angry at societal wrongs, unjust laws, racism, sexism, - and act in the passion of those feelings, to repair and make holy.

Can one separate those things? Are they the same, just different by degree? Or are they a different kind of anger? If they are the same thing, then is that why our God is a "jealous" God? Are we, in that respect, made in God's image - where the holy anger and profane anger are both refletions of one emotion, which has holy and profane expression - and how, how, do we harness one without being roped to the other?

*רמב"ם הלכות דעות פרק ב
, וכן הכעס: מדה רעה היא עד למאד. וראוי לאדם שיתרחק ממנה עד הקצה האחר, וילמד עצמו שלא יכעוס, ואפילו על דבר שראוי לכעוס עליו, ואם רצה להטיל אימה על בניו ובני ביתו או על הציבור אם היה פרנס ורצה לכעוס עליהן כדי שיחזרו למוטב יראה עצמו בפניהם שהוא כועס כדי לייסרם ותהיה דעתו מיושבת בינו לבין עצמו, כאדם שהוא מדמה כועס בשעת כעסו, והוא אינו כועס. אמרו חכמים הראשונים: כל הכועס כאילו עובד עבודת כוכבים, ואמרו שכל הכועס אם חכם הוא, חכמתו מסתלקת ממנו, ואם נביא הוא, נבואתו מסתלקת ממנו, ובעלי כעס: אין חייהם חיים, לפיכך צוו להתרחק מן הכעס עד שינהיג עצמו שלא ירגיש אפילו לדברים המכעיסים וזו היא הדרך הטובה

Vote early and often...

Seems I've been nominated for a few of the Jewish and Israeli Blog Awards... thank you, thank you, to all my fans.
Voting is now open. I'm listed for three best in class awards:
Best Jewish Religious Blog
Best Jewish Torah Blog
Best Personal Blog

What the heck. A little kvelling nerver hurt anyone did it?
I accept no donations, but would be pleased to get a few votes...
YOu can vote here:
For the first round,
I'm group "D" for best religious
group "C" for best Torah
and group "C" for best personal

Wednesday, April 18, 2007

S***** wearing purple

...when I am an old woman; I wanna rock. I mean, I wanna rock now, too, but the Zimmers definitely are cool. IMO: they look better than the Rolling Stones do now.

See them here -don't miss the band pics!

Hattip: BoingBoing


What I'm not going to say: what a senseless tragedy.
It may be horrible, but it was not, unfortunately, senseless.
It is perfectly sensible given what we know about both suicide and homicide in our culture, that this happened. Moreover, it's going to happen again.
Unless - as the lorax said.
There is an unless:
The media needs to stop reporting so thoroughly on such murders as these: if we want, its fine to talk about the victims, but say nothing about the killer. If you must, mention the name of the suspect or whatever- but don't talk about his (and so far it's been all "his," which doesn't mean it will continue that way - but again, it may), neighbors, his family( who are most probably not to blame for his psychopathic actions - they may be, but in any case, at this point it's unlikely to do any good, but most often, they're not), his depression, his this, his that. That's what the murderer wants, and worse, it's what prompts copycats.
At most, maybe a mention of how sad and pathetic this mentally unstable loser is. Perhaps being pitying and superior will encourage fewer copycats. Certainly what's been done so far is not good, and only encourages others.

Second, yes, gun availability does make a difference. As Australia pointed out: when this started happening there, they passed laws that tightly controlled guns - and guess what, it hasn't happened again there - not in 30-odd years, anyway. Not saying it won't again, but that's a lot less than us.
And for all the nuts out there who rant about the right to bear arms, let's face it, even the legal right to own automatic weapons wouldn't do you much good if the government decided to turn the army against us. My friends, they have tanks. Not to mention - bigger things. SO that argument doesn't much cut it with me. As for "self-defense": turns out in the majority of cases, an intruder is more likely to turn the gun on you. Or will turn out not to be an intruder, but your wife, boyfriend, or cat. Oops. Sorry about that George.

As a colleague of mine, Rabbi Shamai Kanter, noted:

"a noted american jurist (was it Oliver Wendell Holmes?) once declared,
'the constitution is not a suicide pact.'

but thanks to second amendment absolutists, it appears that our
constitution has indeed become a suicide pact."

SO, I feel deeply for the students of VT, and wish that none of them would have to wake up tomorrow missing their friends. I wish that someone had had the foresight to do something about this profoundly deranged individual. But if we are to make this mean anything, the only thing we can do is to act to curtail it happening again, and most of us are not willing to do that.
Are you?

Friday, April 13, 2007

Kurt Vonnegut ZTz'L

What can I say? He died last night - one of the finest, funniest, most incisive writers of American fiction - and a peculiarly American fiction at that - is gone from us, at 84. Who will puncture the gasbags now?
Wikipedia bio
see also the Boingboing post

Wednesday, April 11, 2007

May you grow like an onion, with your head in the ground

Technically, I believe that would be an imprecation
Languages excellent for swearing (colloquially in this region known as "cussing," or more correctly "cussin',"which is how I grew up calling it):
Yiddish (creative, earthy); Russian ( wonderfully specific - a Russian can tell you in a word, or possibly two, without breaking a sweat what to do, with whom, how and when. A fabulous language for swearing as I learnign back inthe days when I was fluent and er. Nevermind how I learned to swear in Russian. I've forgotten it all now anyway); Arabic; English. Hebrew and Aramiac aren't so good, but the talmud records a few - yoshvei kranot is one of my favorite talmudic insults.
But what the...?

Naamah's Swearing Workshop begins with a screamingly funny explanation, and continues with a relatively serious essay on the value and process of swearing. Very worth reading. But not if your panties bunch at foul language.
A (work safe) example:

The articulate approach is always popular with the intelligent. If you are the sort of person who tries not to use actual foul language, or if you especially enjoy confusing your enemies, then this is the style for you. It is quite possible to swear articulately and never use a single off-color word. Using this approach, it is also possible to swear copiously without anyone realizing it.

That said, when swearing at someone (not just near them) you should never be so purple that the meaning of your words is not immediately apparent, unless you are trying to get away with insulting someone to their face (in which case you had best watch your tone of voice and hope that they are very stupid – and that you are out of reach once the meaning filters through).

If you ever get someone to say "thank you" after you have insulted or threatened them in this fashion, you deserve a medal. Truly, you are a master.

The articulate blends easily with all classes of swearing, from imprecations to plain old profanity. It is, however, stultifying for anything other than short bouts.

Take this example, composed by my dear sister many years ago, and memorized by me for use in junior high:

"You intoxicate me with the exuberance of your vociferance, but your highly grammatical prognostications are a trifle too copious for your diminutive intellect."

I rest my sesquipedalian case.

...Swearing is not something you employ as a last-minute way to try to save face. It is how you end a conversation. Completely. Rarely, and I do not advise this, it is how you provoke someone into a fit of apoplectic rage so that they will escalate, embarrassing themselves and/or giving you an excuse for walking away. It's possible that they might die of an aneurysm.

If more people swore this way, deliberately and with inventiveness, it would be respected, instead of relegated to the linguistic ghetto reserved for drug dealers, pirates, prostitutes, villains, teenage punks, unfashionable minorities, and the Punisher.

hattip to D. Glenn Arthur

The easily offended should skip this post.

This is weird. It's weirder if you check out the text of the person who posted it. He says, "
"Family Condom ". So very wrong on all levels. Apparently the entire family can enjoy Family Condoms together (as the illustration clearly shows). The implications of the illustration, and indeed, the whole concept, become more horrendous the more you think about it (and look at it). Also, condoms are supposed to prevent kids from manifesting, ne?" But hmmm. Maybe you're just supposed to pull the thing down over everyone's entire body. It is an awfully large package after all.

See original here
Hattip to boingboing

Thursday, April 05, 2007

In the "What's the world coming to" files...

Nice to hear about decency showing itself, these days - disgusting to hear about why they had to be such folks. Three cheers for people acting decent. And a boot to the head for the date.

After seeing the white powder, Bridgeman-Oxley said she "panicked a little bit. We had to figure out a way to keep her away from this man."

Their chance came when Tatiana went outside to smoke a cigarette. Cormican grabbed the beer with the white powder and followed her. It was a mild night in May 2005 -- the wheels of justice in this case, as one courtroom observer said, have ground exceedingly slowly.

Tatiana was stunned -- she said it was their first date, and they had met at a salsa dancing class only weeks before. Earlier, he had picked her up in his BMW after her classes at City College. "She's a trusting young lady," says David Merin, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted the case.

Cormican had to repeat herself several times before Tatiana absorbed what had happened. And then things got even worse.

The bartender rushed outside to tell the two women that while they had been talking, Szlamnik had dropped two pills into the new beer Tatiana had left behind on the table.

"He did it again," she said.

All three women looked through a window and saw Szlamnik trying to wipe up beer that had foamed over the edge of Tatiana's glass and was fizzing as if there were Alka-Seltzer in it....

...Bridgeman-Oxley stalked back into the bar with Tatiana following, swiped the foaming glass off the table and looked the stunned Szlamnik in the eye when he began to protest that she had served him a second bad beer.

He said to Tatiana, "Let's go."

"Your date's over, mister," the bartender told him. "She's staying with us."

Full story

hattip to Merde

Wednesday, April 04, 2007

Hilchot Ugiot

The perfect post-Pesach post. A return to the spirituality of the chol.

from: Owain F. Carter, "The Year That Oreos Became Kosher", 2000, adapted from an earlier version of unknown origin.

Although many significant events have shaped 5758 [1997/1998 c.e.] so far (U.S. troops in Bosnia, an erratic stock market, septuplets in Iowa, increasing tension the Middle East) certainly none can compare to the really big story this year, a genuine blockbuster that will change the lives of American Jews dramatically and cataclysmically. Unless we merit the coming of Mashiach, 5758 will go down in history as The Year That Oreos Became Kosher. Now that Nabisco has made the commitment to providing Jews (and the world at large) with kosher Oreos, we Jews have a responsibility to consider the halachic implications of this remarkable coup. I am not referring to the reliability of rabbinical hashgacha within Nabisco's factories, chas v'shalom.

Rather, my concern is income-based (how it's ingested) and outcome-based (digested). Halacha covers even the most picayune details of a Jew's everyday life. The reliance on seder, a certain order as part of the process, is integral to implementation. For example, the way we put on our shoes and tie them: we first put on the right shoe, then the left shoe, then we tie the left shoe and finally tie the right shoe. The reasons behind these halachos are beyond the ken of the average Jew. It may be best left to kabbalists to divine their significance. Nevertheless, we take this shoe-fitting decree seriously, a case of na'al v'nishma.

This concept of seder is no different for kabbalistic Oreo-eating. Which should come first? A straightforward bite into the whole cookie? Should one first break apart the two sandwich halves and concentrate on the creme? One can postulate that if white represents purity and goodness, and black evil and darkness, then perhaps one should eat the white first, as an example of the yetzer hatov triumphing over the yetzer hora? Or should one save the best for last, so to speak, by first destroying, via consumptive powers, the Darkness (the cookie part) and be left only with Light (the creme)? Or perhaps, this sort of binary weltanschauung is not healthy at all it may be preferable to take the centrist position and bite into the intact cookie, representing the real-world mix of good and bad, light and dark, moderation versus extremism.

A fresh insight and hint may be garnered when analyzing the Hebrew form of Oreos, Ori-oz (aleph-vav-resh-yud-ayin-zayin), translated as "my light is the source of strength." Assuming that the "s" in Oreos takes on the Ashkenazic pronounciation, it may also be interpreted Ori-os, or my light shall be a sign. Thus the Hebrew appears to favor the creme-first eating process, although it's advisable to check with your local rabbi for a p'sak. And then, of course, comes the question of which blessings to say. 'Borei minay mezonos' seems the obvious choice, unless one first chooses to excise and consume the white creme center (in which case, a shehakol would be the way to go, followed by a 'mezonos' when the cookie part is tasted.)

Or, since the creme is subjectively the mehudar, perhaps a 'shehakol' is sufficient for both creme and cookie, provided that the creme is eaten first? And if one has a glass of milk with one's Oreo, does the 'shehakol' that one first said over the Oreo's creme center suffice? Clearly the introduction of Oreos and all the shaylos it presents allows us the opportunity to triumph over lust, by exercising control over the Oreo, versus the Oreo having control over us. Cooperation between Nabisco and the Orthodox Union has given Jews the opportunity to take the everyday act of noshing on kosher Oreos, and raise it to a whole new level of holiness.

We see that Oreos enrich our bodies with a perfect blend of ruchniyus and gashmiyus, the transitory (a taste of Heaven) and the permanent (a waistline that holds no secrets).

Hattip to D. Glenn Arthur