Saturday, October 01, 2011

Forgiveness: Notes for Shabat Shuva

This is what happens when you don't write it all out of ahead of time.
My friends, who requested a copy of this dvar torah, here are my notes, but it's not, I'm afraid, exactly the dvar you got. I hope this will do for you:

Recently, I spent some time on a caravan driving around the country with Clergy Beyond Borders’ on our Reconciliation tour. I spent a ridiculous amount of time in a very small van, driving around from synagogue to mosque to church – by some oddity, the section of the trip I was on was the “mostly mosques” part of the tour- with a Franciscan brother, an evangelical minister, another rabbi, and a Muslim imam. The purpose of the tour was to talk abut how we, as Americans, can heal our country, bring it together in unity and love. We spent a lot of our driving time talking – well, at least when we weren’t all playing with our phones and netbooks, anyhow. But all that driving left us with hours and hours of discussion about our respective religions’ views on all kinds of things. The time I spent talking with my fellow clergy often circled around to the process of forgiving, and so I found myself thinking a great deal about it over the last week.

For all the time we spend this time of year talking about forgiveness, we spend a remarkably little amount of time talking about the process of forgiving, as opposed to the process of requesting it.

On the face of it, it would seem as though asking forgiveness would be a lot more difficult. After all, it is an act of humility to go before someone and ask their forgiveness. It can be difficult to bend oneself to ask for forgiveness. But offering it, can also be difficult.

Imam Yahya Hendi was one of my companions on the trip, and in hearing his personal story, I have to say that I was moved and made hopeful about the possibility of humans forgiving one another – I don’t want to discuss politics too much – that’s not really the point, but Imam Hendi was born in Nablus, and experienced things that would have made a lesser man hate. But Imam Hendi spends his life working to make Muslims, Christians and Jews tolerant and loving of one another – more than that – (this is the “Beyond Borders” part) not just recognizing that we have differences, but that we should celebrate them, because we have different perspectives and we can learn from one another. This is a message he brings to Muslims as well as Christians and Jews; I have heard it. He quotes the Koran, a passage that if God had wanted all people to be the same , God could have arranged it, but rather we were made to be different, so that we could learn to know one another.

Although we don’t hear as much about it, there are in fact directives from Jewish law about how we are to forgive others.

The Rambam (Hilchos Dei’os, ch. 6), who is good at this sort of thing, outlines the procedure for the mitzvah of forgiving others. He teaches that you should not hate a person in your heart, but you should privately ask him or her outright, “Why did you do such and such to me?”

Elsewhere he also notes, "It is forbidden to be obdurate and not allow yourself to be appeased. On the contrary, one should be easily pacified and find it difficult to become angry. When asked by an offender for forgiveness, one should forgive with a sincere mind and a willing spirit. . . forgiveness is natural to the seed of Israel." (Mishneh Torah, Teshuvah 2:10)

[One who sincerely apologizes three times for a wrong committed against another has fulfilled his or her obligation to seek forgiveness. Shulchan Aruch OC 606:1]. The corollary is, of course, that if one doesn't forgive a sincere person who asks forgiveness three times, the wrong now rests on the person who refuses to forgive.

But, notice something that’s quite different here than the process of asking forgiveness: unlike repenting, offering forgiveness requires governing one’s own heart. For repenting, much of the process – after one realizes one has done wrong- is action. Admit your wrong and confess to God, confess and apologize to the victim, make restitution, and then refrain from doing it again. But for forgiving… how does one make oneself sincere and open? What if the offense was a serious betrayal?

How can an abused child forgive the parent who abused them – even if they no longer are abusing them, and even if they have begged forgiveness? Must they? What about someone whose husband or wife has cheated on them? Or the child of a murder victim; can they forgive the murderer?

How can one genuinely turn one’s heart with sincerity towards such a person and say, “I forgive you for the wrongs you have committed against me?”

For me --and I am ashamed to admit it-- I think it’s far more difficult to forgive, than it is to ask forgiveness. I don’t mean trivial things: people cutting me off in traffic, or mild irritations or offenses. But there are offenses that I’ve felt in my life that I’ve had a terrible time letting go of. There is a certain level of pride that one has to let go of to forgive, as well as to be forgiven. I struggle with it, all the time.

There’s an international charity that is known for their work in British prisons, called The Forgiveness Project. There are several videos that their participants have made as part of their learning process. I was struck by this quote in a video made by one of the participants Declan Kavannagh – he doesn’t say, but from clues in the video, I would guess that he was an IRA member:

“Forgiveness means giving up all hope of a better past.”

Forgiveness of a serious wrong is difficult because it requires us to admit two things – first that we have no control over much of what happens in the world; it is the same humility that shabbat’s prohibitions are supposed to inculcate within us – that ultimately, we are creatures in the world, whose fortunes are not in our own hands. If we refuse to forgive, we can hold onto the myth that we are in control, that we can protect ourselves. Being angry can give us the illusion that we are in control, even if we aren't Letting go of that... is very difficult.

But in love, there is no protection. Love requires us to be open and to risk hurt. Intimacy can only happen when we are willing to stand unmasked and truthful before another.

Forgiveness requires us to admit the risk that comes with love. When we are betrayed – as eventually we all will be, one way or another, by the imperfections of other humans-- we have to risk being hurt again. The only other choice is to stop being in relationship – with anyone. There is no choice, other than this – to risk other people whom you love hurting you, or hurting you again, or not being in relationship with other people. Only God will never betray us – humans will – if only because in the end, we die and leave our loved ones alone.

Even when the person does tshuva, we cannot know if their tshuva is sincere, or if it will ever be complete – that if they are in the same position again, they won’t repeat their action.

Forgiving another person means we must recognize that the person we thought we knew, might become someone else, might, in fact, already be someone else. But forgiveness also frees the other person to walk down a fresh path if they choose it. If we don’t forgive them, they are held in one moment of their lives forever, unable to leave it. Only when we stop holding them in that one moment of wrong are the free to choose another path and walk down it.

Perhaps that is why the Talmud tells us that one who forgives, is himself forgiven.

Raba said: He who forgoes his right [to exact punishment] is forgiven all his iniquities, as it says, Forgiving iniquity and passing by transgression. Who is forgiven iniquity? One who passes by transgression [against himself]. (BT. Rosh Hashana 17a)

If we don’t free the one who wronged us, by forgiving them, it becomes our sin, as well – because we prevented them from becoming a new person, and held them back, in a sense making more sinners in the world. In psalm 121 (:5) it says, יי צלך על יד ימינך God is your shadow (tzel) at your right hand. The Baal Shem Tov understands this to mean that if we are compassionate, God will be compassionate, as well. The Maor eynaim (commentary on Brachot) says,

האדם הוא כמו שמראה בעצמו כך מתראה למעלה אם בגדלות הוא מעורר למעלה בגדלות, ואי אפשר להאיר לעולם גשמי כזה

“a person is a mirror, just as he reflects himself, so is that reflection made above: if he is full of greatness (gadlut) then so it will be above and it is impossible to bring light into the world this way.

The context of this is that when there is gadlut in heaven, and gadlut on earth in the tzaddik, there is no conduit to bring down that which allows the world to continue – the kabbalists called it “shefa,” English speakers might call it “divine grace.” To bring down shefa, we have to have someone who does katnut – makes themselves smaller, like God did tzimtzum to make room for the imperfection of creation to exist outside of God. To partake of humility is to allow God’s grace to flow through us.

But I also like the simple, out-of-context reading, which reminds me of something the Christian writer Anne Lamott wrote:

In writing about acceptance of grief – which is perhaps similar to acceptance of the possibility of hurt—she said this, “The thing about light is that it isn’t really yours; it’s what you gather and shine back. And it gets more power from reflectiveness; if you sit still and take it in, it fills your cup, and then you can give it off yourself.”

I think it is hard, hard to accept our lack of control over the world. Forgiving others means admitting that we can’t make ourselves safe in this world. And it’s true, we can’t. But we can help make others safe, by forgiving them, and letting them be free to make new choices, instead of holding them in their old ones.

In doing so, it doesn’t make us any safer, but it does connect us to God, both in modeling God’s compassion for the world, but also in being a conduit for that shefa, that flow of the divine that allows the world to continue to exist. When we forgive, we can channel a little of it into that person, even if only for a bit, and perhaps that will make all the difference.

This doesn’t much help us in figuring out the “how,” though, so I want to suggest two things. First, When you’re getting ready to follow Rambam’s directive and go ask the person, “Why did you do this?” or when you’re getting ready to meet with someone who has wronged you, and you know they want to make things right, have a plan in mind – figure out for yourself what kind of resolution or restitution would satisfy you. Be realistic, of course, But ask yourself, “what can I accept?” What would make this specific wrong, right?

Second, It is customary to say, each night before going to bed, a repetition of the shema. There is a prayer that many people join to it:

“Master of the universe I hereby forgive anyone who has angered or vexed me or sinned against me either physically or financially, against my honor or anything else that is mine, whether accidentally or intentionally, inadvertently or deliberately, by speech or by deed, in this incarnation or in any other; may no one be punished on my account. May it be your will, Lord my God and God of my ancestors that I shall sin no more, nor repeat my sins, neither shall I again anger you more do what is wrong in Your eyes, The sins that I have committed, erase in Your abounding mercies but not through suffering or severe illnesses. May the words of my mouth be acceptable before You, Lord my Strength and my Redeemer.”

Much of this comes straight from the Talmud – (BT Yoma 86ff). It is, I think, a way to practice being forgiving. Most of the time, there will be little or nothing to forgive. But when some time comes, perhaps being in the habit of saying the words, will help each of us feel a way through the hurt towards releasing our control over the harms of the world towards us, and releasing a little reflection of light, instead.

The Talmud comments on a verse that comes from this week’s haftarah, “Great is penitence, for it brings healing to the world, as is said, “I will heal their affliction, generously will I take them back in love.” (Hos. 14:5) (BT Yoma 86a)

We live in a broken world. The sparks of creation are still scattered, and it is up to us to find and restore them. In the act of forgiveness, perhaps we are able to lift up a little of the spark of holiness in both ourselves and the one who wronged us, as they join together for a moment, and shine.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

Why are these dolls so creepy?

Don't get me wrong, I'm a fan of creepy dolls of all kinds. But something about this ongoing controversy about the Spanish breastfeeding baby doll just won't leave me alone. Salon's Mary Elizabeth Williams opines that the worst part about it is the price, and portrays Fox commentator Dr. Keith Ablow's comment that the doll is "another way of turning little girls into adults," and "Contributes to the sexualization of children and it makes them targets of assailants." as crazy (Although she doesn't actually explain why. Well, okay, it is kind of crazy.

But the problem isn't the scream-downs between breastfeeding advocates saying that breast-feeding is the only alternative for a mother who loves her child and thus a doll that promotes breast feeding over bottle feeding is GOOD! and those who think that breasts are for men to ogle.

The problem is one that no one likes to talk about which is twofold: 1. The whole baby doll thing is problematic. Do we really need to be giving little girls baby dolls to play mommy? How many boy dolls (yes, boys play with dolls, we just call them "action figures") teach boys to stay home and parent children? As the parent of a young (male) child, I have noticed since he was born that children's toys remain disgustingly gender segregated. Even lego, which really used to be such a great toy, now is separated by sex, with girls having pink homebuilding kits with ponies, and boys have war and exploration games. These boy legos are clearly not for girls, since the figures which used to be yellow and only vaguely humanoid are now Caucasian and mostly male - occasionally one will throw in a side character that is female, but she's clearly side-kick at best. The lego website is chock full of boys, and hardly a female to be seen. Et tu, lego? Toy stores, too, - at least the chains - yes, Toys R us, I'm talkin' to you- are separated by aisles of pink and blue, with all the role modelling of interesting careers happening in the boys aisles.

But that's almost a minor quibble. After all, no one really objects to girls playing with babydolls, at least, as long as dolls are encouraged for boys too, and there are non-doll alternatives for girls in which they see themselves portrayed (by the way, my son, when small, used to take cars and all kinds of other non-animate toys and set them up into families and play house with them, with the little boy car or whatever, inviting Ima home to make salad for her. But he wouldn't play with things that had faces in this way).

NO, we do mostly feel a little queasy about this breast-feeding doll. Why? Well, not because little girls are trying on adult roles. No, all kids do that. But because the adult-ness of little girls reflects a real, underlying problem with the way we view women and girls, which is that we still primarily believe -and reinforce in many ways- the idea that women are primarily sexual beings here for the pleasure of others. It's because Ablow isn't a pedophile that this doll gives him the raging squicks. Somewhere within, we are unnerved by the idea of girls breastfeeding because we do, underneath it all, think that breasts are for sex, and sex is what girls are for, and when that comes face to face with little girls playing at having breasts, it's like pulling aside the curtain of Jon-Benet Ramsey and the pageant culture of sexualizing girl-children, the completely inappropriate clothing that is sold for little girls to wear that sexualizes girl-children's bodies, the younger and younger ages at which we find girls dieting and wearing make-up, talking about boyfriends; not to mention the standards of beauty for women that emphasize child-like-ness- blonde straight hair, hairless bodies and so on.

I'm not opposed at all to breast-feeding; I did it for my child, and would have continued longer had he not made his own wishes clear as a year old that he wasn't interested. And let's be real, there is a measure of physical pleasure and closeness about breast-feeding. But this doll isn't really making us worried because of breast-feeding; rather, it's because underneath it all, we do believe that women's bodies are for others, and not themselves, and we are just starting to be aware enough of this that it troubles us - as it should.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Not bringing sexy back...please

Over on Salon, Tracy Clark-Flory declares that sexlessness (or at least articles about it) are officially a trend. Which strikes me as funny, because the article just below that one in the queue is all about the rise of non-monogamy (which together with Dan Savage's proclamations that people should consider non-monogamy and today's JTA headline that an Israeli group of Orthodox rabbis (c'mon, you knew this was coming!) is trying to bring back polygamy (a trend that even the Torah implicitly warns against while not forbidding) definitely qualifies as a trend.

So what to get to first? I'm impressed by the ridiculousness of Erica Jong's complaint. I'm not sure why Clark-Flory concludes that her complaint is that technology has taken over for the actual messiness and intimacy of sex - from what I can tell, her real complaint is that this younger generation prefers monogamy and childrearing to the raunch that she claims her generation championed. Look at the utter condescension:

Punishing the sexual woman is a hoary, antique meme found from “Jane Eyre” to “The Scarlet Letter” to “Sex and the City,” where the lustiest woman ended up with breast cancer. Sex for women is dangerous. Sex for women leads to madness in attics, cancer and death by fire. Better to soul cycle and write cookbooks. Better to give up men and sleep with one’s children. Better to wear one’s baby in a man-distancing sling and breast-feed at all hours so your mate knows your breasts don’t belong to him. Our current orgy of multiple maternity does indeed leave little room for sexuality. With children in your bed, is there any space for sexual passion? The question lingers in the air, unanswered.

Right. Just where does she think those babies come from... what, they were decanted from a tube? The irony is so thick - she seems to be arguing for people to uncouple sex and intimacy even while her subtext is that people are rejecting intimacy. I wonder if she actually remembers any of the people who were engaged in those wonderful open marriages? I'm- thankfully- nowhere near old enough to remember those times, but I have mentors who were, and their stories would make anyone seeking love and intimacy feel faint: men who wanted open marriage... for themselves only; men who wanted someone to raise the children... while they went out seeking younger, newer sexual partners... for whom they eventually left their wives; relationships in which one partner (of various genders) said okay to the other one's having sex with other people...because they loved them so much that they couldn't bear to stand up for themselves because their partner might leave them or feared being left impoverished with children) - even though the idea of sharing their partner sexual left them heartbroken day after day; relationships where there's no rest and no real intimacy, but ongoing competition, forever, because one or both partners aren't really committed to the relationship, but are settling for what there is... until they can find something better. Anyone who thinks the message of an open marriage to the partner is anything other than, "you're a commodity, and you're replaceable" is fooling themselves.

Polygamy makes perfect sense in a world where women are chattel and their purpose is serving their husband. In any world where women matter as anything other than breeding stock, it's vile. Open marriage and non-monogamous relationships only makes sense in a world where not just women but everyone is commodified (Although lets be honest: it affects women differentially - women are still the primary caregivers, they still bear the brunt of the effects of childbearing and rearing on their careers, they still earn less money for the same work, meaning that when Mr. open marriage ups and leaves for his next partner, the children and women's level of survival will drop. Ms. Open marriage leaving for her next conquest won't affect his actual health and life so much, just his heart). That's vile too.

Human beings are not commodities. As a rabbi, I am disgusted with these "trends." Admittedly, they are the logical outcome of several other trends in our society - the trends of treating everything as a fee for service exchange and the idea that all we are responsible for is our own individual self, and that our own pleasure in this moment is the only good worth valuing.

Although the Torah permits polygamy, it's pretty clear that it never has a good outcome. As we assume that nothing else in the Torah is accidental, I must insist that the comparison of the three families of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob is also not accidental. God does not approve of open marriage, nor of polygamy. It is, at best, to be suffered. the failures of King David and King Solomon are traceable to the same failings that multiplied their wives.

Our tradition teaches that we are to increase the light: we move towards greater goodness, towards more equality, towards better understanding of God's desire for us. God models the behavior for us: God and Israel in one marriage together as expressed beautifully in the second chapter of Hosea: Israel runs after other gods, thinking that they will give her pleasure, but ultimately Israel will remember the love of her youth, and return, and on that day (with the verses that an adult Jew says daily as he or she puts on her tefillin in the morning) God and Israel are betrothed with tzedek, mishpat, chesed and rachamim -righteousness(and charitability), justice, gentle-lovingness and mercy; with faithfulness, "and you shall know the Lord." -And this is followed by a universal covenant with all creation - and to God, the Torah tells us, Israel will no longer say "Ba'ali" -my master, but "Ishi" - my partner.

that "And you shall know the Lord,: uses the language of da'at - knowing another being. Knowledge is the language of intimacy -sexuality is implied when it is used about humans. Intimacy comes from perseverance, steadfastness, faithfulness. Sexuality is a stripping bare of the self. To treat it like just another fun activity is sad. Sex should be pleasurable, but that's not all it is. It is the recognition of the divine in your other self - the half of adam that was stripped away at creation in order to create within us a longing for conjunction.

In the second chapter of the book of Genesis, when God says that it is not good for the adam to be alone, our midrash tells us that the adam (the word the Hebrew uses is "HaAdam," with a definite article) was not in fact a man, but a two-sexed creature which God split into male and female. The adam was imperfect, and to become a fit partner for God, needed -unlike animals- to have a sense of longing for another. When we find our partner, we find the other part of ourselves, and then we are fit partners for God, as well.

When we seek sexual pleasure as its own end, with no "knowing God," we cheat ourselves and our partners. Of course one-to-one partnership isn't always going to be easy: nothing worthwhile ever is. Having children isn't always easy, a career isn't always easy, doing the right thing isn't always easy: should we abandon children, careers, honesty and integrity?

I'm sure that between "Big Love" (feh), continued patriarchy and homosexism/heteronormativity and our American belief that the individual is more important than another human unit, there won't be an end to this "trend" any time soon, but Erica Jong is wrong about her daughter's generation. it seems to me that - at least as she explains it- they understand that sex is not only intimate, but private, and that far from being bloodless, human urges that are given boundaries are holier and more powerful. All human urges are boundaried by ritual - whether it's religious ritual, or secular ritual, it is part of being human to seek meaning. Getting rid of meaning doesn't make us free, it makes us amoeba.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Planes, Trains and Automobiles

In the Summer Issue of CJ: Voices of Conservative/Masorti Judaism, Rabbis Aaron Alexander and Daniel Greyber wrote a commentary on two incidents that had happened over the past year and a half in which Jews praying on planes with tefillin aroused suspicion and worry, causing in one case, for the plane to be diverted and in the second, for the plane to be met at LAX by fire crews, foam trucks, FBI agents, Transportation Security Administration personnel, and police.

Greyber and Alexander express this as the outcome of the blessing and tension of "unparalleled freedom of religious expression," and ask how, given that tension, Jews (and other people of faith) can navigate the responsibilities that come with that freedom. They review the halacha - that it is not necessary to pray on the plane with tefillin, but can put off the wearing of tefillin until later in the day, and that if one cannot avoid praying on the plane, that one is permitted to pray while seated. Their conclusion?

We believe it is best to pray quietly before the flight or, if necessary, when you are seated, where you can focus and not disturb others. If you can arrange with airline staff and fellow travelers to pray undisturbed – and without disturbing others – great. Until then, best to put on tefillin later, not in flight.

While I agree that it might be best to pray in one's seat so as not to inconvenience the flight crew (although I can't see why one couldn't just as well stand at one's seat to stay out of the aisles), Greyber and Alexander are missing something in their take on thee two incidents: these two incidents have probably done more to publicize the Jewish practice of tefillin than any campaign that any organization has ever had - and not just to non-Jews, but to Jews as well.

What if, instead of scaring the flight attendants, before getting on the plane, the Jew who planned to put on tefillin and pray went to the check-in desk, introduced themselves, told the flight attendant what they were going to do, and asked them to let the other flight attendants know. What if they gave a little flyer to them explaining what was in the tefillin? There are all kinds of possible ways to handle the situation with scaring or inconveniencing people - and which have the added benefit of letting the people around us know a little bit about Jewish customs.

The idea I disagree with in Alexander/Greyber's post is that we should hide ourselves so as not to scare people, but that's not going to be successful. If it isn't tefillin on a plane, it will be shofarot in customs (as actually happened to me some years ago). It's better for people to understand what they're looking at - they may even come to see the beauty in it that we do, instead of being frightened. Granted one doesn't want to make a nuisance out of oneself in the aisles, but I think that their middle ground, isn't actually in the middle - it's simply at a different "end," one which reminds me of our ghetto days - but we don't live there anymore. There's nothing for us to fear - or for anyone else to fear, either.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

What's on the menu?

Two quick articles that I read last month: The first is an article that groans about how Jewish eaters are getting so picky that it's getting to be impossible to invite Shabbat guests. The second is an article which advises all those people who create meaningful programming for Jews to quit it, will ya? because they're actually enabling whiny, entitled Jews (the study that he quotes is about Baby Boomers, but I think he's generally aiming this for everyone)to continue to view Judaism as a consumer product.

Both of these articles have a familiar tone: "What a bunch of whiners Jews today are!" And to some extent, there's something to be said for that. In the shabbat meals article, towards the end, Rabbi Rebecca Joseph comments, "This is a problem of an affluent society and an affluent group within that society." Again, true. Indeed, homeless Jews, poor Jews and Jews struggling to make ends meet aren't going to be picky about what is served to them at a shabbat meal - or any other (I was reminded of recently rereading the book Rachel Calof's Story about a Jewish woman who emigrated from Russia to be a pioneer bride, and while they certainly cared about kashrut, which is demonstrated throughout the book in various ways, when her husband comes home with a tin labeled herring and it turns out to be pickled pigs feet.. well, she doesn't say that they ate, but she certainly hints at it. When there's no other food, you eat what there is).

Nevertheless, there's a certain oddity about these two articles. For example, let's take the shabbat meals article: The title is, "With increasingly particular eaters, Shabbat meals get tough." And yet, that isn't actually the sense I get at all from the actual content of the article - let alone from my personal experiences. Of course, we should all be familiar with Miss Manners' (the irrepressible Judith Martin, whom somebody ought to give smicha just for her consistent common sense, her dry wit, and her sustained feminist bent) dictum that guests don't make a fuss about food placed before them - either eat it, or push it around and make it look eaten, but for God's sake, don't talk about it! -you're there for the company! but on the other hand, when I host a meal, I don't usually have so many people that I can't manage to try to find out what their preferences are. It isn't always possible to make a meal that contains no onions, okra or grapefruit, as well as being parvetarian and kosher ( the latter two of which are consistent standards in my kitchen), but if I know that my guests detest okra and onions, I generally try not to serve them. And actually, except for a comment or two about life in the Bay Area (meaning San Francisco, not the Chesapeake or the assorted other Bays around which Jews congregate) it doesn't seem to be a big deal to anyone else either, as the article notes - it's common for hosts to ask if there's anything guests can't eat.

So what does this have to do with whiny Baby Boomers? Well, perhaps there's a little more to chew on there (heh heh, get it? chew? Chew eat? Jew eat? ..forget it). The point that Panzer ultimately makes - that offering programming, or even worse, asking people what programming they want, makes Jews less involved, not more, because it promotes Judaism as an extra, competing with other extracurricular activities. Once that's done, you've set Judaism up to fail, because then we're offering something that takes work and long term commitment, as well as is time-consuming, and that isn't going to pan out for most people as a hobby, anymore than most adults are going to commit themselves to becoming Olympic medalists. a few will learn to love the sport in childhood and commit themselves, some additional will do it occasionally, without much effort, and the rest, not at all.

But Panzer's response strikes me as all wrong too, even if his analysis is right. He says,
At the Judaism 2030 conference last week in New York, a novel alarm was sounded by Dr. David Elcott and Stuart Himmelfarb (I quote from their article, As the Generational Winds Blow: “[I]n a recent study of highly affiliated Jewish Baby Boomers, two-thirds said that if they do not find what they want in the Jewish community, they have every intention of going elsewhere.

They conclude that Boomer support cannot be counted on automatically, and Panzer responds
If you are a Jew who is affiliating only as long as you can get “the next meaningful experience,” then, please, stop paying your temple dues, burn your ketuba, grow back your foreskin, marry a goy, and demonstrate against Israel. We don’t need you.

What I get from this is something quite different (and I admit, I haven't read the study, but...), which is that if baby Boomers find nothing in their Jewish communities they won't stay there, or give money to them. I agree that creating meaningful programming for "their own, more narrow interests," is probably a waste of time, but not because these are consumer-driven people who will go find some other hobby, any more than because "young people"(or pick your Jewish demographic of choice) are selfish, consumer driven people who are (fill-in your epithet of choice). Well, so what? Is Panzer saying that even if he found his community chilly, its goals unpromising, and its rituals flat, that he would hang around anyway? perhaps as a more committed person, he'd try to fix it, or find another Jewish community, but I'll bet that there's something in the community that he already finds worthwhile and meaningful and it's that which drives him.

The Jews of America have plenty of choices. We live in a nation which is overwhelmingly welcoming to us as Jews, which doesn't, by and large, consider Jews an ethnicity (no "purity of blood" issues here), which makes it easy for us to have relationships with our neighbors of any religion or ethnicity, we can find meaning in any number of places - our jobs, our wider community, and God in this country is a buffet: people can believe in whatever they want, or nothing, which includes a very strong inclination towards "spirituality" - a word which I dislike for its meaninglessness, but which seems mostly to be: "a vague, happy God-feeling which requires no work on my part." Nevertheless, if someone feels no meaning in the community, why *should* they remain in it?

What I think these two articles have in common is the attitude that the way people act has no real purpose, that people are picky for the sake of being picky, that they don't commit to Judaism, or demand special foods, because they're a bunch of spoiled whiny brats.

That may be partially true, or true of some people. Certainly there are people out there who make their diets a constant subject, howeversomuch it bores the rest of us, who would rather discuss that great LOLcat we saw today. But the truth is that most people are searching for meaning, and if we have to create "meaningful programming" -especially for specific target groups- we've already failed. Because one thing Panzer is right about: "programming" already tells those whom it's aimed at that this is something else, in addition. the key is for people to understand that all that stuff which we're calling programming is already part of Jewish life. That "meaning" is an emergent property of committing oneself to a community which is put here for a holy mission. This is the same the point to be made for Repair The World's report "Volunteering Plus Values:" and good for them! instead of saying, "Those whiny millenials who have no connection to Jewish values," what they report is that the way forward is to make clear that their Jewish values are what have led them to care about service, and to make the point that Judaism has a great deal of wisdom to help us figure out what we need to do .. in other words, show them Judaism's mission is their mission already, and that doing Jewishly provides added benefit to their work - in other words, that it matters to be Jewish!

As far as the food article, well, okay, that's pretty much just a light piece - I don't most of us really care if people are eating only locally sources organic carrots (although the article itself expresses that even in the bay area this doesn't seem to be much of an issue), but I think we ought to be taking away from it a certain skepticism about the attitude portrayed in the Jewish press, in our institutions,in our "leaders," about how we think about the Jewish people. It's the same attitude reflected in the institutions that claim J Street and any of its supporters are anti-semites rooting for the destruction of Israel, or at least ignorant Jews who don't know any better. To the contrary: the millenials, the baby boomers, the J street supporters - all of these are the Jewish people, and every time we discuss them as though they were a bunch of ignorant fools who need to be programmed for so they'll continue pouring money into (fill in your favorite institution here), we have not only missed the point, but we have betrayed Judaism, by -not them, but we- making it, against thousands of years of tradition, meaningless.

Sunday, May 22, 2011

How often can one start over?

I don't often quote Shlomo Carlebach; I'm not, I have to admit, a huge fan. In general, I am instantly suspicious of people who are that adulated.
Nevertheless, I am in the midst of job transitioning again - every few years, I reconsider what my original intention in becoming a rabbi was, and try to move myself into that track. For various reasons, I haven't been able to commit myself to that kind of work professionally (although I do a LOT of it for free), but I really someday hope to be able to do so, and so every few years, I look around myself and say what am I doing here?

At the same time, though, I have to think: is this really what I ought to do? Shouldn't I pick something and stick to it, even if it isn't exactly what I was aiming to do? Is "liking" enough, or does one have to be "in love" (especially in this economy)?

So, although, I don't think I can take this as any kind of final answer, I recently stumbled across this story, which I am taking as encouragement to try again - and even if I don't get it this time, maybe try again later - until I do:

Apparently Rabbi Shlomo was notorious for always being late, pretty much all the time. One time he arrived at a wedding at which he was to officiate, as usual, quite late. The father of the groom was extremely upset, and only got more so, as the rabbi worked his way around the room greeting people and talking to them. Finally the grooms' father stomped up to him and angrily yelled, "DO you realise that you're late? Rabbi, you're late!"
But Rabbi Carlebach merely handed his guitar to someone standing nearby, seized the groom's father with both hands and yelled back, "It's never too late! Never!"
For a long while, the groom's father merely stood there, silently crying.

Monday, May 09, 2011

Parshat Emor: What is it to be holy?

What does it mean to be holy?
The portions we have been reading for the last couple of weeks include a section known as “the holiness codes.” They open with the commandment
קְדשִׁים תִּהְיוּ כִּי קָדוֹשׁ אֲנִי יְהוָֹה אֱלֹהֵיכֶם
You shall be holy, for I, Adonai your God, am holy.

This week we close that parenthesis saying (22:31-33):
לא וּשְׁמַרְתֶּם מִצְוֹתַי וַעֲשִֹיתֶם אֹתָם אֲנִי יְהוָֹה
: לב וְלֹא תְחַלְּלוּ אֶת-שֵׁם קָדְשִׁי וְנִקְדַּשְׁתִּי בְּתוֹךְ בְּנֵי יִשְֹרָאֵל אֲנִי יְהוָֹה מְקַדִּשְׁכֶם
: לג הַמּוֹצִיא אֶתְכֶם מֵאֶרֶץ מִצְרַיִם לִהְיוֹת לָכֶם לֵאלֹהִים אֲנִי יְהוָֹה:
You will guard My commandments and do them; I am God
Do not profane My holy name, but I will be made holy among the children of Israel; I am God Who makes you holy
The One Who brought you from the land of Egypt to be God to you; I am God.

If we had to boil these verses down to their essence, they seem to be saying that it is we who make God holy, even while God makes us holy. But.. what does God need us to make Her holy for? What can this possibly mean?
The great commentator Nechama Liebowitz connects this to the midrash Pesikta deRav Kahana one of the oldest of the homiletic midrashim:
פסיקתא דרב כהנא (מנדלבוים) פיסקא יב - בחדש השלישי ד"ה [ו] אנכי הגדתי

ואתם עדיי נאם י"י ואני אל. תני ר' שמע' בן יוחי אם אתם עדי נאם י"י, אני אל, ואם אין אתם עדיי כביכול אין אני י"י.

The midrash quotes Isaiah, “You are My witnesses… that I am God; before Me there was no God formed, neither shall there be any after Me.” Then Rabbi Shimon bar Yochai explains: “If you are My witnesses, then I am God, the first One, neither shall any be after Me. But if you are not My witnesses, I am not, as it were, God.”

“IF you are not My witnesses, I am not God..” that’s a pretty astonishing statement. Our torah portion says that we make God holy, and the commentary says we make God, God.
How is this possible? What can this possibly mean?

There are two possibilities:
The first is a more or less common sense way to understand it:
The rabbis come up with a few different variations on the theme.

The rabbis tell us that the recitation of the shema (Talmud Berachot 14b) is our witnessing of God’s unity (in the first Paragraph), that is one very practical sanctification of God’s name, literally.

Elsewhere in the Talmud (Yoma 86a via Ein Yaakov) gives a more detailed discussion of how one can sanctify God’s name, focusing on our behavior, and how people witness us behave either honors or disgraces God- i.e. if we act in a way that is shameful, people will take note and say, “look at those Jews, and how badly they act, what a bunch of rotters – they must have a rotten God too – I’m glad I’m not one of them – and this profanes God’s name, conversely, if Jews act well, people say, “Look how honest those Jews are, they must have a great God,” in other words sanctifying God’s name.

One final example from the Tosefta (Bava Kama 10:15) succinctly sums up the above idea, “It is a more serious crime to rob a gentile than a Jew, because of the profanation of God’s name that that causes.”
תוספתא מסכת בבא קמא (ליברמן) פרק י הלכה טו

הגוזל את הגוי חייב להחזיר לגוי חמור גזל הגוי מגזל ישראל הגוזל את הגוי ונשבע ומת חייב להחזיר מפני חילול השם

In other words, in Judaism, mitzvot are given to make our every action holy – that’s why our three verses about holiness begin with a reminder to guard them. Jewish tradition commands us not to separate anything we do from the realm of holy action.

Holiness isn’t something you do in shul, it isn’t lofty thoughts, asceticism, or any kind of belief: it’s every single thing you do, from being mindful of what you eat and where it comes from and who made it, through kashrut, being grateful that you have food by saying blessings, being aware of time and of our limited nature by observing Shabbat, being modest in dress and speech, being honest in business and decent in your treatment of your employees – all things elaborated for us through Jewish law – halachah – mitzvot. When we choose to live through mitzvah, we hallow God – we also have the choice to make ourselves profane, to ignore mitzvot and erase God from the world.

The second possible response to the question of how do we make God holy is a mystical one. The word Kadosh comes from the word for separation.
The primary metaphor for the relationship between God and Israel is that of marriage.

When God tells us in this week’s portion,
Make Me holy, as I make you holy,” it isn’t merely a commandment – it’s a plea. Put Me first, says God.

There are a whole list of things that most of us prioritize before we get to God.
Well, what happens in a human marriage when we start putting things on our priorities ahead of our partner? It’s not that we intend to abandon God, but that as She gets lower and lower on the list, She slips from our mind, and one morning we wake up and She is no longer there.

When God says I make you holy, you must make Me holy – kadesh as related to the word “kidushin,” marriage – God is reminding us that it is impossible to put other gods – whether they’re money or vacation, fame, power, whatever – ahead of Him and still be in the relationship.

Practically speaking, this isn’t really so different than my first point: that in our lives, everything we do has the potential to be blessed and holy if we do them through mitzvot- but in the higher level, this is a profound reminder of how our every choice brings us the opportunity to receive the divine love – or turn away from it.

When we love someone, we see through the eyes of the beloved – we think ‘Oh, look at that, I’ll have to tell him about that later,” or, “Oh, I wish she were here to see this!” and so the beloved is with us all the time. That is what mitzvah is: not a set a bothersome obligations, but the quick thought that God is here, with me, now, and with God, unlike with a human, God really is here, with us, now – to so to speak – keep the lines open by keeping God in our every action and keeping our actions holy.

There’s a story about the famously cranky rabbi, Menachem Mendel Morgensztern of Kotsk. He was walking with his students and he asked them, “where is God?”
They all looked at him in astonishment, and finally one of them was brave enough to pipe up and say, “Rebbe, even the littlest child knows that God is everywhere!”
To which he roared his response back, “Fool, God is only where you let Him in!”

The famous Chasidic master Elimelech of Lizhensk put it more positively, “ In every place where you dwell, in your house and everywhere you go, through the great holiness of your actions, you will increase light and holiness and bring divine grace into the world.

Sunday, April 24, 2011

More Pesach trivia: Sephardic tea boiled eggs

Aren't they pretty?

ready for your close-up?

Also, found while shopping for Pesach last week (there were a lot of pricks there, I have to say)

Sunday, April 17, 2011

Everything Counts in Small Amounts

Those who are familiar with the oddities of the Jewish calendar may be aware that a largish holiday begins tomorrow night (called Passover). Fewer people may be aware that on the second night of Passover begins... well, it's not a holiday exactly, but it is a holy period, called the Omer.

Beginning the second night of Passover, every adult Jew is supposed to count off the 49 days (seven times seven weeks) that make up the period between Passover and the holiday of Shavuot, the holiday of the giving of the Torah. I have to say, it's a bit of a pain. Not he counting, which is fine, but remembering to count properly, keeping track of which day it is, and so on. It's enough of a difficulty that the Jewish legal code has instructions about what to do if you forget to count at the right time, or for a full day. You've got to count every day, or you lose your obligation to say the full blessing as you count.
The counting itself is a lovely tradition: each of the weeks represents one of seven traits of God, as does each day, so one develops a spiral of thoughts throughout the counting period (for example the trait of strength during the week of mercy... consider what that might mean as we approach the giving of the Torah... etc.)
Well, I decided that the best way to do this would be a sort of advent calendar, with little treats each day as you opened up the proper box to say the blessing for that day (hey, why should Christians get all the calendar fun?). At one time, I thoght the best way to do this would be through carpentry, but it's been some time since I had any access to the proper tools,a dn I just didn't want to wait anymore this year, so for pretty cheap I made one out of things that one could glue together - namely cardboard, cardboard, and , uh, some glue and glitter paper.

Almost everything came from the container store, and it took me about three days to make (including some glue drying time. Not labor intensive, but pretty sturdy anyway).
I'm happy to share instructions with anyone who wants to build one. I used a hard cardboard ornament storage box and three by three folded gift boxes (seven of which fit perfectly across, although you need two ornament boxes cut to size and glued together to get the height as only five rows tall fit, if you pop open the top edge of the ornament box).
The numbers for the days (written out in blue in Hebrew letters) as well as the blessing on the inside (which has the blessing, the day and date - in other words, everything you need for each day... no looking anything up!) are printed on clear sticky labels cut to size.

For your delectation:

I don't think I"m quite done decorating it - obviously this is pretty simple, but the plus is that the boxes make it so that magic marker will write on them perfectly nicely, so if I go for color, that's probably the way I'll go. Stickers work fine too, but I'll probably eventually go for a large picture that covers the entire front face of the Omer Counter. Happy counting!

XP Jewschool

Friday, April 15, 2011

The New Third World

I've been thinking about this post for a while now.

The article reports on Ikea's treatment of workers at its American plant. Apparently, although in Sweden, workers are well treated, here in the USA, Ikea is treating workers the way, well,let's face it, the way American companies do not just overseas, but here as well. Wages are lower, vacation days are more limited, and in addition, many of those days are pre-determined by the company. That's not counting the temp workers, who have even lower wages and no benefits. Ikea's management says
"That is related to the standard of living and general conditions in the different countries,"
In other words the same sort of thing our companies say about our exported jobs when they pay obscenely low wages in awful conditions. The Salon piece focuses on the unexceptionality of the US in acting like evil overlords throughout the world, but there's a couple things we ought to be paying attention about:

First, we set ourselves up. In undermining unions in this country (in Sweden nearly everyone is unionized, so they can't treat their workers this way, thus, a better standard of living), we are turning ourselves into a third world country. Is it really acceptable to say that we we allow other countries to come here and set up factories to sell products to Americans, but not pay those same Americans adequately?
In allowing the Republican mindset to set the tone for labor in this country, in allowing our government to legislate against unions, against collective bargaining, in undercutting the NLRB so that corporations who violate collective bargaining laws get at most a slap on the wrist, and usually only after many years, expect to see a lot more of this. Which is to say, expect the US to become the next China, Mexico, Vietnam, where workers have no protections and work for few or no benefits, and low wages. And when that happens the standard of living for everyone except the very top will be affected, so don't think your bachelor's degree will protect you. Indeed, this is a matter of degree not kind, at this point - we already are seeing it all over the USA.

Second: Unlike Ikea, who exports its bad behavior, the USA is exceptional: we do it to our own people, within our own borders. This is because of the increasing imbalance of power in this country. The wealthy few own 80% of the wealth, and yet, we keep giving them tax breaks; huge corporations get away with murder- because there is no person held responsible for poor decisions, or even malicious decisions that harm humans, the environment, that interfere with the establishment of just laws, or decent working conditions. What kind of fools are we in this country to allow the wealthy few to convince us that it is in our country's interest to be turned into a sty for a few greedy pigs to wallow in, as they become richer and richer, and the rest of us lost our voice in government, lose our ability to earn decent wages, lose our country to greed?

Thursday, April 07, 2011

Judaism without borders? Or Judaism without Boundaries?

Over the past several years, we have seen quite a number of Jewish or pseudo-Jewish practices picked up by non-Jews. While this isn't exactly a novel occurrence - Christians sort of invented it with the creation of their new religion not quite two millenia ago, and Christian "Passover seders" of various sorts have been going on for some number of decades- it's worth considering how Jews should react to the "democratization" of Jewish practices.

Whether it's the pseudo-Jewish kabbalah center (whose practices misrepresent kabbalah quite a huge amount) and its superstitious practices, or Justin Bieber saying the Shema before concerts, we can expect to see more of this kind of thing.

To a certain extent, a certain amount of syncretism is inevitable. We live in a culture that views religion through a Christian outlook - quite different than Judaism's: Judaism views religion as a system of practices, and primarily through a lens of communal practice for communal relationship,and salvation, insofar as Jews think about it, is a communal salvation. Christianity, on the other hand, views religion as primarily a belief-focused system (which is not to say that it doesn't have behavioral expectation, merely that behavior is the result of belief; in Judaism belief is necessary, but what one must believe is fairly limited: one must believe in one, undivided, disembodied God, who has never been and never will be embodied, also one must believe in some kind of reward and punishment system after death, details unspecified. That's it. All the rest is what you do: go and learn) and salvation is individual. There's a lot we could talk about here, in terms of how Jewish behavior and practices have been affected by the culture, but let's save that for another time, shall we?

The main point is that in a fairly philo-semitic culture, one in which religious affiliation has become extremely transient, and the average person changes affiliation at least once or twice over a lifetime, AND which is full of seekers, AND which views religious discipline as fairly boring, and spiritual fulfillment as something which is not entirely dissimilar from any other kind of consumable, it would be very surprising indeed if we did not see people experimenting with bits and pieces of various religious practices and attempting to grant them on piecemeal to create their own personal spiritual practice.

I already know - before I get a rash of comments saying so- that whatever I say about it here will have no effect on what people do. Jews aren't the only ones who have to suffer through this - Native Americans, and (subcontinental) Indians do as well (want to buy a dreamcatcher, or maybe some nice bindi?)not to mention a whole host of other religions of various stripes.

To begin with, maybe it's worthwhile to look at this from the other end, Jewish syncretism.

Jewish tradition tells us, (Pirke Avot,Chapter 4, Mishna 1)

"Ben Zoma said: Who is wise? He who learns from all people, as it is said: 'From all those who taught me I gained understanding' (Psalms 119:99). Who is strong? He who conquers his evil inclination, as it is said: 'Better is one slow to anger than a strong man, and one who rules over his spirit than a conqueror of a city' (Proverbs 16:32). Who is rich? He who is satisfied with his lot, as it is said: 'When you eat the toil of your hands you are fortunate and it is good for you' (Psalms 128:2). 'You are fortunate' -- in this world; 'and it is good for you' -- in the World to Come. Who is honored? He who honors others, as it is said: 'For those who honor Me will I honor, and those who scorn Me will be degraded' (I Samuel 2:30)."

In terms of"borrowing" from other traditions, I take this mishna as telling us a couple of things: First that it is fine to be aware of what other people do in the search for God and spirituality, and when it isn't inimical to Jewish tradition, that it's fine to use techniques that others have developed before us. Even within the Jewish tradition there are many ways to approach God, and some of them have been developed from seeing cultures around us use their own methods, and then using that kernel to develop a technique that works for Judaism.

In using techniques from other traditions as part of Judaism, the techniques need to be adapted - something that only happens over a long time- before they work, in the context of Judaism. More importantly, notice what I haven't talked about: importing wholesale rituals. Using techniques - meditation, song, additional restrictions on diet, etc- from other traditions, can over time, be brought into a generous spiritual practice fruitfully. But bringing in a specific ritual is unlikely to be a good idea: spiritual practices develop as part of whole disciplines, and one can't just take out a piece and expect it to help connect you to the universe.

Which is why learning from others isn't the only thing the Mishna talks about: it also warns us that we need to respect what we already have - until one actually has some decent knowledge of one's own traditions, running after others isn't going to be spiritually enriching, at least not in the long term. For one thing, taking bits and pieces out of context from other traditions denudes them of their power. Rituals - in all traditions, as well as Judaism- grow up in a holistic context. They are part of a system, and without the system, the pieces are merely magic, or even worse, products. Any spiritual practice requires discipline - doing things over and over, including things that might be difficult, or boring, until the parts come together to make you whole.

American culture has the unfortunate tendency to view everything as a product. If you spend your money, you should get something for it - and everything is for sale.

Buy a dreamcatcher, presto, you're a Native American Shaman (never mind that there are hundreds of nations each with their own traditions), buy some incense and beads, voila, you're a Hindu guru. But The hundreds of Native American traditions, Hindu spiritual practices, Voudoun, or whatever other religion- aren't products, and it's not enough to think that they're cool to get results from them.

Many Jews have decided that their own tradition is boring and needs to be tarted up with a little magic paint, but what they're missing is two things: first, that they probably don't actually know that much about their own tradition, and their decision that it's boring is a little premature.
When I was in college, I spent a lot of time thinking that Judaism needed to be rewritten here and there. I had the good luck that my temperament led me to do a lot of reading while I was busy working on this project. As I came to learn more about the extraordinary variety, various threads of tradition and how they work together, the tensions and richness of the incredible numbers of texts and commentaries that there are in Judaism, I came to see more and more that there was so much already there, that borrowing and changing from the outside wasn't really a project that needed to happen -sure, no tradition is perfect, but the seeds of renewal are already inside Judaism.
Second, that simply dropping your own traditions to go haring off after someone else's doesn't solve your problem: that you bring you with you. Spirituality isn't magic, and anyone who tells you that you can just run your finger over a string of letters and you'll be protected from harm is a charlatan, who may understand the desire that people have for easy answer and not putting much effort into something, but does not understand God.

Finally, the last part of the mishna offers, "Who is honored? He who honors others." The final thing is that we should honor the traditions of others. But using them without understanding their place in the system they come from is not honor. To the contrary, it's essentially telling the followers of that practice that their spiritual system is just a grocery store for you- you can go in, pick out what you like, and buy it and leave.
"Honor" is to respect that different religions have spiritual meaning, and to learn from them and honor them means to let those who are deeply embedded in them tell us their experience, explain their systems and meanings, and when invited, to participate as a guest. Each tradition may have things to tell us about the way the world works, or should work.

When I think of what wisdom Judaism can bring to people who are not Jews, I think of teaching, for example, Jewish textual traditions on how workers and employers are obligated to one another: In Jewish terms, mitzvot, obligations to other people, delineated carefully and thoroughly are spiritual practices just as much as lighting candles on Friday night, or praying in a minyan (group of ten Jewish adults). There are many kinds of things that Judaism can offer as learning to others without having them say the Shema. Respect and honor -for those who are interested in Judaism, but are not interested in being Jews- would be to learn about Judaism - perhaps attend a seder, but attending a seder is different than a non-Jew having a seder and attaching their own meaning to the event. Seders and the Shema are Jewish practices, not Jewish techniques.

Now, I don't think that Justin Bieber is a bad kid - in fact, I think it's sweet that he respects his manager enough to pay attention to the fact that he has a different religion, and to try to take some of it on. In my opinion, what he's doing is slightly different than some of the other reported celebrity syncretism that we hear about: Bieber does not appear to be seeking anything - he just wants to find some religious common ground. Nevertheless, while his motivation is purely sweet, I'm not sure that the way he's found to carry it out is a respectful one (unintentionally, I'm sure). For millenia, Jews have said the Shema not only as part of our daily prayer, but also in bad times, while being tortured or killed by people who were trying to force us to accept other religions. For a non-Jew to take on saying this prayer that declares the unity of God (by a practitioner of a religion that holds that God is not a unity, but a trinity) is problematic, and I can't say that I'm comfortable with it.

If non-Jews want to learn from Judaism, the same thing applies to non-Jews as to Jews looking to enrich their own experience - first of all, learn your own tradition better - you may find that it has what you are looking for within it already. Judaism tells us that the righteous of all nations have place in the World to Come, QED.

Secondly, if you still want to honor Judaism, or use it in some way in your own practice, borrow the techniques, not the rituals: learn about the Jewish idea of obligation as spirituality, think about how Judaism uses mitzvot, obligations, to make every (allowable) mundane thing you can do holy - there's a blessing for not just eating, but for elimination of waste (do I have to elaborate here?) -think about that! (Almost) anything can be made holy. The idea of separation- I could go on, but I'm sure you get the idea. (Justin, if you want something to do to include your manager during your prayers, or something you could do together, perhaps you could make a short prayer that isn't the shema, but which declares that you wish for all people to respect one another in their love for God).

Ultimately, while, I'm sure that people will go on borrowing practices whether I think it's a good idea or not, I would encourage people to think harder about what they are doing. Spirituality isn't there to make you feel good. In fact, sometimes it's there to make you feel bad. Doing someone's religious practice because it looks cool, is probably not a good way to develop spiritually. Religion is not a consumable, and you can't buy it. It is work, and you have to be committed to it.

Thursday, March 31, 2011

Pornoscanners and Israel

I know that most of us have forgotten all the fuss about the new(ish) scanners in airports because we all have the attention spans of gnats, but they haven't gone away. The problem that travelers (including the parents of young children) still have to make a choice between being seen naked by persons with whom they have no intimacy, or being groped intimately by the same people -still remains.

And it is curious how quickly we have become inured to this violation of dignity, tzniut (modesty) and personal space (note that I'm not even binging up the question of health and safety, even though it is still unclear how safe these machines are particularly for pregnant women and children). The argument that has been offered is that it is needed for our safety, but the truth is that it is needed mostly for two things: 1. to increase profits for the company that produces the scanners (Rapiscan - a rather infelicitous name, which by the way, was promoted by Michael Chertoff while Secretary of Homeland Security, and was a a company that was one of his clients, a coincidence? Really?), and 2. to continue the process of slowly lulling us into giving up more and more of our rights as citizens in the name of "security."

As we move towards Pesach, I have been thinking about this in reference to "B'ferach." The Torah tells us in the first chapter of Shemot (1:13) that the Egyptians made the Israelites work "b'ferakh." Although the literal meaning is "ruthlessly," the Yalkut Shimoni (and others) understand this term to "b'peh rach," in other words, with guile and gentle speech (שמות - פרק א - רמז קסג) . At first they said, "well, just make a few bricks, will yah?" and by the end, they were doing all the work of the field, all kinds of hard labor. They oozed the new changes in so that no one noticed - the proverbial frog in boiling water. Moshe Chaim Luzzato in Mesilat Yesharim says it more plainly, "This is one of the strategies of the of the negative inclination and his craftiness, to increase the work with constancy upon the peoples' minds until there remains no time for contemplating or observing in which direction they are going...This is one of the advices of the wicked Pharaoh, as it says; 'Increase the work load upon the people...(Shemos 5:9).' His intention was not to leave any space for them to think at all and discover a method of resisting."
In this case, we're talking about physical labor, but the principle is the same: distract and increase slowly - they won't notice how quickly their freedom slips away.

And am I some kind of conspiracy nut, that I'm saying that our government is doing this? Well, first of all, no - I don't think it's because of a power grab, per se - it's just the usual: greed, and lots of it - Chertoff taking kickbacks, Rapiscan wanting profits, etc. (same thing in Wisconsin. Scott isn't evil, he just likes his luxuries, and doesn't care who else's basic needs he has to take away to increase them).
But mostly this: we don't need pornoscanners OR groping to keep us safe. Asa matter of fact, the scanners are easily fooled - a pancake shape will do it. They don't register plastics as dangerous, they don't see under fat - so if you want, just feed up your terrorists before sending them out, and so on... but best of all, there IS a very good method of catching risky travelers, and we already have the technology, if we're willing to spend the money. The catch is that you have to give them decent pay, good training and benefits, because minimum-wage thralls probably won't work. Bur Israel does just fine using - yes, people.
They use something called "profiling," which is not what we mean when we say "profiling." People always get weird when I say that word, but what it means is that the guards ask targeted questions, and watch the behavior of the people when they answer; it has nothing to do with race. Well, it's a little more than that. First of all, the screening starts before you ever get into the airport - there's a drive through checkpoint before you come into the precincts of the airport - which one could do by essentially setting up a toll booth (I'm thinking of Dulles airport here, which has toll booths - but not for people going to the airport....). That would already address the question which a lot of people have brought up, which is that if someone was determined to harm large numbers of people, it would actually be more effective to target them before they got on any given plane. The toll booth checkpoint - asks two questions - how are you, and where are you coming from. That's it. Again, what they're watching for is behavior.
Then you are watched by guards as you come in, in several places; and then, you are asked a series of questions by a trained screener, who looks you in the eye, and - yes, watches your behavior.
This much faster, non-electronic set of interactions is far more effective than the set up we have, doens't violate anyone's modesty, and the only drawback? You have to actually pay people and train them to do it.
You have to put some thought into the process. You have to think forward, instead of reacting the previous mistake. Probably why we haven't done it yet. The only question I have really, is "Why haven't we done anything about the pornoscanners?"

XP Jewschool

Wednesday, March 30, 2011

Washington DC, population change

Perhaps this question will mark me as a hopeless racist. I hope not, but yesterday there was an article in the Post talking about the dropping numbers of African Americans in DC.

I understand that we don't want African Americans driven out of DC, and that we should work to make it so that middle class people - like firefighters and nurses- can afford to live in DC, and support a black middle class, but it looks to me like the people that are coming in are replacing people that have already left over a rather long period of time. So, while I think that we definitely should make DC not just for the very poor and the very rich, isn't it sort of a good thing that DC isn't necessarily only (or mostly) African-Americans? Won't it improve city services and schools to have a more balanced population? Am I being totally racist to think that if we could focus more on how to integrate the city it would be a good thing for the African-American community, too?

If I'm being really racist, could someone please point this out to me?

New and perhaps improved

Welcome to the new and ...perhaps...improved KRG site. More streamlined anyhow. I miss the old, self-designed site, but I have to admit, that I have no eye for these things, and this does look more streamlined. Whether I post more now... hard to say.