Monthly Archives: February 2012

A Data-Driven Eulogy for a Data-Driven Life

“Humans make errors. We make errors of fact and errors of judgment. We have blind spots in our field of vision and gaps in our stream of attention. Sometimes we can’t even answer the simplest questions. Where was I last week at this time? How long have I had this pain in my knee? How much money do I typically spend in a day?”

Thus begins Gary Wolf’s New York Times Magazine article “The Data-Driven Life.”    As our lives converge with machines, data, in mass amounts, becomes the new wisdom.

Here is a bit of satire for those of us who approach that future with a bit of trepidation.

…The Lord is my Shepherd, I have zero needs.

We gather here in a moment of great sadness to mourn the passing of someone close to us all. The actuaries were right. What can we say – the numbers tell the story.

In health:  His numbers were not so good. His blood pressure was 140 over 90 with a resting heart-rate of 72. His cholesterol was 330, with a frighteningly low HDL of 19. As many of you know, chromosomally he did have a few recessive abnormalities on chromosomal pairs 4, 23, and 24. But did they do him in? Unlikely, everyone could see that his BMI was well over 33!

…Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Asymptote Limit of Negative One, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.

This funeral brought to you with condolences from the College Board

His high school GPA was 3.7 (3’s and 4’s for his AP scores), 2110 for his SAT score, 3.4 at a 3rd tiered college, no GRE score to speak of (this technical mystery will be corrected in time for the obituary). He graduated without honors from a 2nd tired Graduate School. Such was his education.

… Your staff and Your rod, they comfort me.

"We will miss him/her" - Google

Of course his consumer habits have been readily searchable. He shopped mostly at Mega Shopping Grocery. He accounted for approximately $95 of weekly average purchase they with a slightly elevated purchase quotient in the salted Snack aisle. Google reports that his interests were roughly evenly split between on-line fantasy games, sports, especially Indonesian Cricket, and Googles’ own World News Digest. Sadly, he had three outstanding bids for collectible Disney watches on eBay. He would have won. Nonetheless, those watches have already been sent to the next highest bidder. His digital life is otherwise unremarkable, with the exception of a single visit to a porn site. Google Notes suggest that it is statistically possible that he reached the site by searching for Morgan Spurlock’s documentary film “Super Size Me,” and by then clicking their search feature “Feeling Lucky.”

…You set before me a table against my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.

He was married for 34.6 years and had 2 girls and 1 boy. His favorite song was Bob Seger’s “Feel Like a Number.” His combined FICO score was 678. The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, kindly make a digi-donatation to their favorite cause, IRS Approved Non-Profit Mobil Code XH35G. That code number is now being broadcast to your phones and also appears on the screen above the casket. Please use this moment of silence to transact now.

… Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, as I dwell in the Infinite Loop of the Lord forever.
So it is that we bury Social Security number 456-89-9987. Let me add, unorthodox as it may be in our data-driven life, and at such an intimate setting no less, that he was my closest friend. I will always remember him. Bit by byte, he will be missed.

Yitgadal V’itgadash Shemei Rabbah …

Posted on February 28, 2012

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Ending the Day

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Often I find I need some time at the end of the day to reflect on the day, calm my mind, and get ready to sleep. I am not the kind of person who falls asleep the instant my head hits the pillow. I find having a bedtime ritual helps bringing the day to a close.

My ritual involves saying the Shema at bedtime each night. I typically recite it after I have turned off the light and gotten in to bed. I take a deep breath, center myself, focus on the words I am saying.

In Hebrew the words are: Shema Yisrael Adonai Elohainu Adonai Echad
The meaning of these words can be translated in a variety of ways:
Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, The Lord is One.
Listen Israel, The one God is your God.
I am your one God. I listen to you.
I hear you Israel. I am your one God.

Understanding the exact meaning of the words is not necessary. The words can be used as a chant or mantra, the very cadence of the words themselves can give comfort. After I say the Shema, I think back on my day. I thank God for the things that went well, and ask for help on the things I am struggling with.

Sometime I use this quite time to journal or I just sit in silence meditating on the ideas in the prayer: God, oneness, listening.

This ritual has become so important to me that I do it with my daughter at bedtime as well. We say the Shema together and then I ask her to think of something that happened that day that she wants to thank God for. There are evenings when she relates wonderful stories about her day, and sometimes she is silly. But either way it is a special moment in the day that we share together. If I am rushing to get her to sleep and forget to prompt her, she always remembers, “Mommy, we need to say Shema.”

This ritual of calming one’s self before sleep and feeling grateful for the good things in our lives, brings nice closure to the day.

Posted on February 27, 2012

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How Should We Talk About Science and Religion?

As someone who loves both religion and science, I often struggle with how they interact.

Are they in opposition to each other? Do they need to be reconciled? What happens when new scientific knowledge challenges the tenets of my faith?

Part of the difficulty in talking about science and religion is that there are several different ways we can discuss their interaction. Dr. Jennifer Wiseman, the Director of the Dialogue for Science, Ethics and Religion at the American Association for the Advancement of Science, outlined several different models in an outstanding talk. Therefore, inspired by her, I want to share four different ways we can frame the discussion about how we talk about science and religion.

Contrast

The Contrast model is probably the most common way people speak about the interaction of science and religion. Often, this view is boiled down to the idea that “science deals with ‘how’ and religion deals with ‘why.’”

Stephen Jay Gould popularized it with the phrase “Non-Overlapping Masteria” (NOMA), which he describes as follows: “The magisterium of science covers the empirical realm: what the Universe is made of (fact) and why does it work in this way (theory). The magisterium of religion extends over questions of ultimate meaning and moral value. These two magisteria do not overlap.”

But there are two problems with this paradigm. First, religion has theories about what the universe is made of — for example, Jewish tradition has statements about the way the world came into being and why the world is the way it is. And science is now talking about morality and even meaning, with books like Sam Harris’ The Moral Landscape about the science of morality and The Brain and the Meaning of Life by Paul Thagard about neuroscience and meaning. Thus the magesteria, in fact, do overlap.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, it’s simply not true that science talks only (or even primarily) about “how” — there’s a lot of “why” in there, asking questions like, “Why is there something instead of nothing? Why do our brains work in the way that they do?” Similarly, religion doesn’t talk only (or even primarily) about “why” — there’s a lot of “how” in there, asking questions like, “How do did humans come to be? How should we act in this world?”

So for people who view themselves as both scientific and religious, the Contrast model often makes them comfortable. But as science enters into the realm that has historically been the purview of religion, and especially if we look more deeply at religion and at science, this model stops working very well.

Concert

The Concert model is the opposite of the Contrast model, as people try to directly reconcile science and religion. It is another attractive outlook to those who are both dedicated to their faith and committed to reason, since it means they would not have to reject either. This model makes claims such as the concept of a “day” in Genesis may actually be billions of years, or that the crossing of the Red Sea was actually finding a swamp that could be crossed at low tide.

But here, too, there are problems with this view. After all, science is always changing, discovering new data and revising theories. If science and religion are in concert, what happens to religious faith when new scientific evidence arises? Indeed, not only physics and biology but also human sciences such as archaeology, political science and history are helping us understand who we are, why we do what we do, and our place in the universe. So if religious faith is based on science, what happens when science presents new evidence?

Indeed, this model makes it hard to do a critical analysis of Biblical texts, and that type of study frequently leads to a crisis of faith. In order for it to work, this model requires significant mental gymnastics, and forces people to maintain only a surface understanding of both science and religion.

So while this view may be appealing at first, it is actually quite fragile. All that needs to happen is for science to discover something that contradicts a deeply-held belief, and people will easily elect either atheism or fundamentalism.

Conflict

The Conflict model is the paradigm that gets the most press, and it claims that religion and science are inherently incompatible. It’s the idea that if you buy into one, you must reject the other. This worldview is exemplified by Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens on one side, and people who deny evolution because it contradicts the Bible on the other.

But while this outlook generates the most passion from people on the extremes, there are a vast number of people who do not buy into it.

An article in the Huffington Post describes recent work by sociologist Elaine Ecklund, who

…interviewed 275 tenured and tenure-track faculty members from 21 research universities in the United States. Only 15 percent of respondents said religion and science were always in conflict, while 15 percent said the two were never in conflict. The majority, 70 percent, said religion and science are only sometimes in conflict.

Similarly, a study from Pew Research Forum showed that “a solid majority of Americans (61%) say that science does not conflict with their own religious beliefs. Even among those who attend worship services at least once a week, a slim majority (52%) sees no conflict between science and their faith.”

Thus while zealous advocates on each side often dominate the discussion, there is a large silent majority who do not see science and religion as inherently in conflict.

The bigger problem is that while the Conflict model produces a lot of heat, it rarely creates light. It regularly devolves into unproductive arguments and ad hominem attacks, and causes both scientists and religious people to become either overly aggressive or feel themselves to be “victims” of the other side.

So even though for some people, this is an outlook they hold strongly to, it is much more likely to shut down conversations than to open them.

Contact

This is the outlook that I find most resonant. In this model, science and religion can remain in their own spheres, but when it is appropriate, they can also mutually inform each other, and provide us with a variety of ways to help us know what it means to be human. Indeed, its great value is that it reminds us that both religion and science have to be understood in the context of human experiences, because both religion and science are human endeavors.

The Contact model reminds us that science is not independent of the scientists who pursue their field of inquiry. After all, while the universe may be 13.7 billion years old, and humans may have evolved on the African savannah, it has only been since modern times that human beings have sought to undertake a rigorous understanding of fields like cosmology, paleontology, psychology, neuroscience and biochemistry. We have to remember that not only does scientific knowledge provide information, it is deeply influenced by the passions, the curiosity and the personal experiences of the scientists who pursue it.

Similarly, our own personal experiences influence our religious outlook. People’s feelings about religion are naturally affected by how they were raised and what has happened in their own lives. In the words of Rabbi Laura Geller, “All theology is autobiography.” And while religion is older than science, it is still a human creation, helping us structure our human experiences, and asks deeply human questions like, “How should I act? What should I value? Who should I choose to associate with?”

When we place science and religion in the context of human experiences, we recognize that both science and religion are driven by human needs and are victim to human foibles. The Contact model thus encourages humility in both science and religion, reminding both sides that there are things we do not know, and things we will never know.

So the other crucial piece to bear in mind for the Contact model is that “religion” and “God” are two separate things. “God” is bigger than any one human being or group of people; “religion” is our particular attempt to understand God, and is necessarily limited. As Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “[R]eligion for religion’s sake is idolatry…The human side of religion, its creeds, its rituals and instructions is a way rather than the goal. The goal is ‘to do justly, to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God.’ (Micah 6:8)” (I Asked for Wonder, 40-41)

So for those of us who feel connected to God, when we forget that religion is not Divine, but human, we can easily fall into the trap of arrogance and narrow-mindedness. Micah thus reminds us that justice, mercy and humbleness are truly the most important values.

Indeed, our ultimate purpose in life is to strengthen ourselves, both as individuals and as a society. Science does that by giving us a fuller understanding of the world, by advancing knowledge, and by examining the relationship between theory and evidence. Religion does that by giving us a sense of purpose, by strengthening communities, and by giving us a potential glimpse of the Divine.

When we remember that both science and religion are human enterprises, we can remember that the most important question isn’t whether they need to be viewed separately, or if they can be reconciled, or if they are inherently in conflict.

The most important question is: how are they being used?

(This post also appeared on Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on February 23, 2012

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What rights do we have to our soul?

Last week, while checking in on the latest articles on the Religion page of the Huffington Post, the following headline caught my eye: Proxy Baptism Seekers Eyed Holocaust Survivor Elie Wiesel For Posthumous Mormon Rite.

For those who might have missed it the details, in summary are as follows: There is apparently a long-standing tradition of Mormons submitting the names of deceased people for a post-humous proxy baptism into the Mormon church.  A researcher found among names submitted via an online site that is accessible to Mormons only the name of Elie Wiesel – still very much alive.  Among the names submitted for this Mormon ritual has often been those who died in the Holocaust.

In fact, Mormon church rules mean that one is only meant to submit the names of your own direct descendants.  After previous examples of famous Jews being included in these proxy baptisms, negotiations between Mormon and Jewish leaders led to an agreement in 1995 for the church to stop the posthumous baptism of all Jews, except in the case of direct ancestors of Mormons.  But researchers have demonstrated that the practice did not stop.  The church did apologize for these latest events this past Monday, calling them a serious breach of their protocol.

I was going to dismiss the story as just one of those things that often irk us but are so fringe as to be unworthy of great debate, but I was prompted to pause and think about some of the broader questions that arise from this.  Before thinking about matters of the soul, I want to first turn to questions of ownership regarding other aspects of our ‘person’, namely our personal data.

In recent weeks there has been a lot of press coverage about the rights we have to our own personal data and information in the era of facebook, twitter, etc.  You might have been aware of some black-out days on some services, like Wikipedia, protesting against new proposed legislation that would make it illegal to post any information online without verification that it is yours to post.  It would make the sharing that many of us do on facebook of videos that ‘go viral’ or cute cartoons etc. potentially illegal and would hold the services that facilitated this sharing accountable.  This, most agree, is taking ownership of data a step too far, bringing the whole online crowd-sourcing, sharing world of cyberspace to a grinding halt.

However, there are also stories of iphone and Android apps that, without your permission, access your address book and collect the data found there.  There are questions about the ways that Facebook makes whatever you are posting available as data for their advertisers, which is why ads that might be more pertinent to you pop up on the right side of your Facebook wall.  On the one hand, I rather like that the system is smart enough to only show me things that I might actually be interested in rather than the more indiscriminate advertising I am subjected to every day I turn on my TV.  On the other hand, I do have concerns about how my data is being stored and who is getting access to it without my knowledge.

How is this relevant to the ‘baptism by proxy’ story?  I find it interesting to contemplate whether these debates about who owns some of our essential data in life can also be carried over to thinking about who might make a claim to our essential souls in death.

If we are horrified by the mormon church story, is it because we find the idea that they believe that they are actually doing something of material impact and worth by these rituals utterly preposterous, or is it that we are truly offended that they should claim the rights to any souls that are not their own?  If the whole thing is just ridiculous, then perhaps we should all just buy tickets to the Book of Mormon, and have a good laugh at the strange practices of another faith tradition (its not like we don’t have enough of our own, and Purim is coming so we have plenty of opportunity to make fun of some of our own stranger practices).

But I suspect that most of us aren’t finding this a laughing matter.  And I think it might be because, whatever we think we believe about what happens to our souls after death, the idea that another faith group has the right to any part of us suggests that we are somehow deficient in their eyes as we are.  In their eyes, there is something about our identity, faith tradition, and the way that we are walking through life that is incorrect and, hence, we need to be saved.  That they seem to be especially concerned about the souls of those who died or survived the Holocaust just adds to the insult.

There is an old Jewish morality tale, the source of which I haven’t pinned down (but please provide it in the comments if you know it!, but it is the essence of the message that is relevant here:

A story is told about a pious Jew who boasts to his rabbi that he saved another Jew’s soul. A beggar had asked him for a meal and he agreed, but insisted that first they must pray the afternoon minchah prayers. And before serving him a meal, he ordered the beggar to wash his hands and recite the appropriate blessing, and thereafter to recite the motzi prayer over the bread.

The rabbi showed his annoyance with his pious disciple. “There are times, my son, when you must act as if there were no God.”

The disciple, taken aback by this counsel, protested, “How could I, a man of faith, act as if no God existed?”

The rabbi replied, “When someone comes to you in need, as this beggar came, act as if there were no God in the universe, as if you alone are in the world and that there is no one to help him, except yourself.”

The disciple asked aloud, “And have I no responsibility for his soul?” The rabbi replied, “Take care of your soul and his body, not visa versa.”

We are commanded by God to feed the hungry and clothe the naked; to do what we can to make existence for each other better in this life; to alleviate suffering when we have the ability to do so.  When we die, many of us believe in a soul that continues into eternity; a soul that is reunited with the Source of all existence.  But what actually happens and where we go, we do not know.  We leave it in God’s hands.  We don’t need any intermediaries and we respectfully ask that, like our personal data online, that others keep their hands off!

Posted on February 22, 2012

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Stewardship or Service?

Rick Santorum’s recent theological musings will likely prove to be an irresistible teaching moment for clergy of all sorts. Here’s my take on his take on President Obama’s take on the Bible’s take on nature.

First, let’s go to the tape…

On Saturday, at an event in Ohio, Santorum contrasted his own views with Obama’s “phony” theology, which is “not a theology based on the Bible, [but] a different theology.” A day later, on CBS with Bob Schieffer, he clarifed that he was not questioning whether or not Obama was Christian, but was speaking specifically about the President’s environmental policy:

Well, I was talking about the radical environmentalists…That’s what I was talking about: Energy, this idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do – that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth, but we’re not here to serve the Earth.

In contrasting “stewardship” with “service,” Santorum is alluding to the divergent creation stories at the beginning of the Bible. Yes, “stories.” Biblical scholars have long noted that there appear to be two stories about the creation of the world in opening chapters of Genesis. In the first, God creates the heavens and earth majestically, with divine speech; in the second, God is more of an artist, fashioning people out of clay. Many people (including many people of faith) accept a theory known as the Documentary Hypothesis which posits that several different written sources existed independently of each other, in some cases for hundreds of years, before they were finally edited together sometime after the Babylonian Exile. People who see the Bible through this lens would see the two different creation stories as reflecting the understanding of two different authors or schools, and would be interested in what the differences between them can teach us about their respective writers.

Scholars assign Genesis 1-2:4a to the source known as “P,” whose major claim to fame is the book of Leviticus. The “P” Creation story has God imposing order upon chaos, a process culminating in the creation of human beings “in God’s image.” Humanity is charged with subduing nature and ruling over it (or “having dominion” over it)…which is to say, humanity is charged with continuing God’s work of majestic mastery.

The version which begins with the second half of Genesis 2:4 is typically assigned to the “document” known as JE. It seems to reflect a more rural worldview. JE’s first human is a farmer, placed in the Garden of Eden l’ovdah ul’shomrah, to “work” it (or even, without betraying the original Hebrew, to “serve” it) and to “guard” it. Limits are placed on humanity’s dominion over the planet in this creation story.

One need not accept the Documentary Hypothesis in order to learn from the contrasts between these two chapters of Genesis. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s “Lonely Man of Faith” (also part of this week’s zeitgeist…thank you very much, David Brooks, for acquainting your readers with The Rav) sees in “Adam I” and “Adam II” contrasting, but necessary, expressions of a sound relationship between humanity and nature (and God). The “majestic man” of Genesis 1 and the “covenantal man” of Genesis 2 are both incomplete pictures of a human being. Taken together, they begin to describe us in our complexity. Indeed, for Soloveitchik, one couldn’t exist without the other, and the presence of the two of them is evidence that one very talented Hand wrote both stories.

Are we to master the world, subdue it, have dominion over it? Or are we to guard it, preserve it, perhaps even “serve” it? The Bible doesn’t answer that question; it merely helps us know how to ask it. And while Rick Santorum speaks the helpful language of “stewardship,”  by placing that term in opposition to “service,” he seems to be leaning toward a view that is shaped primarily, if not exclusively, by “Adam I” thinking. For his part, President Obama’s environmental policies may lean more “Adam II” than Candidate Santorum’s (or not — ask some environmentalists what they think!), but to brand them as the product of a “phony theology” is to demonstrate a weak understanding of the full breadth and complexity of religious teachings on humanity’s relationship to this vast and bountiful, but by no means infinite, home.

Posted on February 21, 2012

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It’ll be Good….

These days the pundits and analysts say that the peace process is over. Remember Oslo? Remember the Roadmap for Peace back in 2002? It is now one more memory on the heaping pile of “almost” peace deals. Now, 10 years later, as much has changed as has stayed the same, including the fact that some of you will surely disagree with me about even that statement.

I was reflecting on this when I recently had a chance to see my favorite singer-songwriter, Israeli superstar David Broza, in New Jersey. It was a unique setting – just about 100 people in a small, informal performance space at the NJ Performing Arts Center (NJPAC.) More than a performance, it was a “conversation with the artist”, conducted by the director of the arts program at NJPAC, who brought the audience into the conversation as well. For long-time Broza fans like most of us in that audience, it was a thrill to sit at the master’s feet, so to speak. Here is why: Broza is not only a beloved and influential popular artist for two generations of Israelis. He not only earned an international reputation for his music, but he is one of us. He is not only an incredibly talented singer, composer and master of his guitar, he is also a living example of a commitment to peace that one can only wish the politicians should learn.

As his website, rather humbly, I think, says:

More than a singer/songwriter, David Broza is also well known for his commitment and dedication to several humanitarian causes, predominantly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

“Beginning in 1977, Broza has been working to bring the message of peace to the masses by joining peace movements, and singing what has become the anthem of the Peace process, his hit song, Yihye Tov.

In a recent project, Broza has written and recorded with the Palestinian music group, Sabreen, the song ‘Belibi’, that featured Broza and Sabreen’s Wissam Murad, and two children’s choirs, one from each side of the conflict. In Search for Common Ground presented awards to both artists in November of 2006.”

Broza’s music is inspiring, and made that much sweeter when you meet the artist in person and learn his story. By working on behalf of tolerance, justice and co-existence, Broza is an example of “lived” Jewish values that we look to Israeli society to represent as its very raison d’etre.

A few years ago I made his song “Yihye Tov” the ringer on my IPhone.  I wanted to remind myself to never to give up hope that the world can be healed, that things will be better, and that we must keep our dreams of peace alive in our everyday moments. The song movingly envisions:

“I look out of the window 
and it makes me very sad, spring has left, 
who knows when it will return.
 The clown has become a king
 the prophet has become a clown 
and I have forgotten the way
, but I am still here. And all will be good
 yes, all will be good
,  though I sometimes break down 
but this night
oh, this night, 
I will stay with you.

We will yet learn to live together
 between the groves of olive trees
 children will live without fear
 without borders, without bomb-shelters 
on graves grass will grow,
for peace and love, 
one hundred years of war, 
but we have not lost hope.”

A few years ago we heard Broza perform at NJPAC, and while he gave a fabulous performance of a wide range of his music, he left me sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for “Yihye Tov” in vain.  We were fortunate that night to be invited to a “chat with the artist” after the show and, of course, a fan hastened to ask Broza why he hadn’t sung his signature song.  He said, sadly, that he was a bit tired of it. There is still no peace.  I left with such a heavy heart.

But I refused to give in to despair. Like a prayer, I have sung the song many, many times since then.  And I continue to support and engage in Arab-Israeli peace projects, though I have been called naïve, or worse.

This time, when Broza was asked to sing “Yihye Tov”, he happily obliged.  I smiled thinking about how he had brought the song back to life this past summer with new words for the Israeli “social justice” protests that swept the country. Yes, I felt, there is hope, things will be better.

After the show I had an opportunity to personally say hello to David Broza. I reminded him of that show a few years ago when he didn’t sing “the” song. He didn’t remember that until I reminded him of it.  Not bad, I thought, that his hope has so overcome his sadness that he doesn’t even recall that moment.  That made me happy. I so appreciated the very human, open-heartedness that Broza brought to the stage, and to our conversation. I’m grateful to him for yet more inspiration.

Yihye Tov. It’ll be good – we have not lost hope.

Posted on February 20, 2012

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An Unorthodox Shiva Minyan

The important thing is not how many separate injunctions are obeyed but how and in what spirit we obey them. -Baal Shem Tov

The purpose of the shiva minyan is to comfort the mourner.

Last week I was called upon to facilitate a shiva minyan for a woman whose brother had died in another city. Now that the mourner was back home, she wanted to complete her seven days of mourning with her own local community.

The Hebrew prayer said at shiva minyan.

People poured in during the day, but as the seven o’clock evening hour approached, only a few people remained. So we waited for a minyan, the obligatory quorum of ten to be able to pray. When seven-thirty arrived, so did the tenth person.

I assessed the situation.  Two Jews, two Hindus, two Baptists, two Evangelical Christians, one Catholic — and me, the rabbi.

Shiva is the most therapeutic of Jewish mourning rituals. It honors the journey of the bereaved by providing friends, family, and co-workers a proscribed setting in which to express their sympathies and condolences.

“‘Shiva’ means seven, the holy number of the days of creation and the number of days Jews withdraw from daily life to mourn a beloved,” I explained.

“Has anyone been to Jerusalem?” I asked, not knowing what the response would be.

“Oh, yes!” came the feedback. “Several times,” echoed the African American couple sitting directly across from me.

“As you might remember, there are seven open gates in the Old City. In ancient times, there were eleven gates, and the Temple in the ancient city of Jerusalem had a separate path set aside for the mourners. As the mourners came through this selected gate, they came face-to-face with other members of the community, and the people expressed the recognition of their loss by reciting this Hebrew verse.”

HaMakom y’nachem etkhem b’tokh sh’ar aveilei Tzion v’ Yrushalayim.

The mourner's shiva ribbon.

I had them repeat the words after me and focus on their friend who stood with a torn black ribbon on her jacket above her heart indicating externally her internal private grief.

We formed a circle around the mourner and recited the verse in unison.

May God comfort you among the mourners of Zion and Jerusalem.

Suddenly and in harmony, we were all on the same page of the heart. We have all traveled on the same path of loss and bereavement. Language was not the barrier. Faith traditions didn’t separate us from the realities of life and death. How easy it is to create a sacred comforting space among our diversities.

Posted on February 17, 2012

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Magnifying Life

Two weeks ago I wrote about the tragic loss of little Ayelet Galena z”l. I discussed how one young life was able to literally save the lives of twenty one other people. We can not and must not lose hope in our own potential in the face of all the goodness that was brought about due to the inspiration of one two year old girl and her valiant struggle.

This week I am reminded of the loss of yet another young life. Last year our community at Harvard suffered the tragic and sudden death of a beloved member of our student community, Ilya Chalik z”l. Ilya would have graduated along with the rest of the members of the class of 2011. His dream was to enter the medical profession, which fit his driving character trait of serving others perfectly.

Members of the community who knew Ilya gathered on campus this week to reflect on the one year anniversary since his death. As I listened to people share their stories and how they are coping one year later, I was struck by the same thought as I was a year ago: One life, one relatively young life, was able to bring together such disparate sectors of the broader community into conversation with each other. I thought of this a year ago when I flew with his Harvard tai-chi instructor to his funeral. I thought of this when I heard his friends from his diverse high school in Chicago reflect on how he impacted them. I thought of this when friends from college discussed their interactions with him from house life; from Hillel; from trips to Colombia and to Israel and from his work with various Asian societies on campus.

Ilya, through his friendships, his life and his deeds, wove threads linking people and magnified life for all who knew him. Students, reflecting on how Ilya impacted their life, commented that because of him they now have come to appreciate how beautiful a tree in fall is or how serene an afternoon in Harvard Yard could be. They have come to see life can mean more than performing well, it can be just as much about living well.

The lessons imparted to us by Ilya are shared by the single most defining ritual of the Jewish year of mourning, the Kaddish. The prayer traditionally recited daily by mourners has very little to do with mourning and with death. Rather, its central themes rest on the world that ought to be, glorifying God and optimism for the world and its inhabitants:

May the great name of God be exalted and sanctified throughout the world… May His kingship be established in your lifetime and in the lifetime of all of Israel… May there be abundant peace from Heaven and a good life upon us and all of Israel…

Kaddish is a daily reminder that the deceased lives on, in a sense, through the ways in which his or her striving for a more holy, more peaceful and more abundant life become a part of our ways and our lives. Death is an end, sometimes abruptly so, to the potential of one life, yet our ability to magnify that life and be magnified by it, can be tremendously realized through finding times to reflect and come together to remember.

And so as I left the space this week where fellow students, friends, teachers and mentors of Ilya gathered to reflect on one year since his loss, I felt a deep pain and sadness. I remember his warm presence at our Shabbat table. I remember his excitement about seeing the world and I remember the intense pain and mourning of his parents, his friends and the entire Harvard community. However, I also left that space feeling inspired and uplifted by hearing the ways in which Ilya’s life left a mark and forever changed the lives of so many others; how his ability to bring unique parts of society together in harmony has become stamped on the hearts and minds of so many others who knew him.

May the memory of Ilya Chalik z”l and all that he strove for, all that he believed in continue to inspire all who knew him and who have come to know him through hearing the stories of his life, to magnify the connections between people and the beauty of life.  May we continue to work towards a day of abundant peace for us and for all people as Ilya worked so hard for in his short life.

Posted on February 17, 2012

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Hysteron Proteron

And Moses read the Book of the Covenant to the people and they said “All that God has commanded we will heed and do! (Exodus 24:7)

Jewish tradition takes pride in these words, we will do and heed-na’aseh v’nishmah and one Talmudic passage even have God wondering who revealed this great secret, these words to the Jewish People. The context of course is Sinai and these words are seen as the great acceptance of Torah. The technical term for these words is hysteron proteron, “latter before” where the first term actually occurs after the second term, for example, put on your shoes and socks, but is placed first to emphasize its importance. Israel commits herself at Sinai to the totality of practice, even without necessarily knowing the extent of the laws.

Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, author of the Netivot Shalom, offers an additional reading of these words. He sees na’aseh as a commitment to do God’s will, even in the absence of specific details or legal injuctions. While fully faithful to traditional Jewish practice as legally binding, Berezovsky still understands that even in the most strict attention to observance, one must ask am I doing God’s will. While one could use this idea in an antinomian direction, for Berezovsky the question might be as I observe a particular practice, am I doing it in a way pleasing to God and one that really reflects the will of the Divine?

One of the best examples where this insight can be seen is in the case of Maimonides. In his legal work, he discusses the laws of slavery. While many would initially recoil from imagining that such laws should play a role in our tradition, nonetheless they are firmly rooted in Biblical practice. While the laws associated with Jewish slaves serve as a way for a slave to pay off enormous debt, Jews were permitted to own non-Jewish slaves. Even while acknowledging this, and codifying it, Maimonides says as follows:

It is permissible to have a Canaanite slave perform excruciating labor. Although this is the law, the attribute of piety and the way of wisdom is for a person to be merciful and to pursue justice, not to make his slaves carry a heavy yoke, nor cause them distress. He should allow them to partake of all the food and drink he serves. This was the practice of the Sages of the first generations who would give their slaves from every dish of which they themselves would partake. And they would provide food for their animals and slaves before partaking of their own meals. And so, it is written Psalms 123:2: “As the eyes of slaves to their master’s hand, and like the eyes of a maid-servant to her mistress’ hand, so are our eyes to God.”

Similarly, we should not embarrass a slave by our deeds or with words, for the Torah prescribed that they perform service, not that they be humiliated. Nor should one shout or vent anger upon them extensively. Instead, one should speak to them gently, and listen to their claims. This is explicitly stated with regard to the positive paths of Job for which he was praised Job 31:13, 15: “Have I ever shunned justice for my slave and maid-servant when they quarreled with me…. Did not He who made me in the belly make him? Was it not the One who prepared us in the womb?”

Cruelty and arrogance are found only among idol-worshipping gentiles. By contrast, the descendants of Abraham our patriarch, i.e., the Jews whom the Holy One, blessed be He, granted the goodness of the Torah and commanded to observe righteous statutes and judgments, are merciful to all.

And similarly, with regard to the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He, which He commanded us to emulate, it is written Psalms 145:9: “His mercies are upon all of His works.” And whoever shows mercy to others will have mercy shown to him, as implied by Deuteronomy 13:18: “He will show you mercy, and be merciful upon you and multiply you.”

In effect what Maimonides has done here is to be honest with what exists within Jewish tradition in a specific case and then asked what really the will of God should be in this case. Looking at the tradition as a whole, Maimonides transform the question of what is permissible or forbidden to rather one of how does my behavior best reflect God’s will. For Maimonides it is to emulate God’s practice of mercy which effectively undoes what one is theoretically permitted to do. The righteous statutes and judgments, our commandments, must lead us to be merciful in all our actions.

This being the case, then we can suggest na’aseh v’nishmah is not a revolutionary call, but rather one of evolutionary development. It seeks to move us in a direction that does not undermine past practice as primitive or lacking authority, but rather pushes us to ask the broader religious question. It is not a commitment only to mechanical practice, but to a deep moral conscious behavior.

Posted on February 16, 2012

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The Singularity vs. the Gift of Death

“A gift is something that cannot appear as such.” – Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death

And God came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the God said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (Genesis 11:5-6).

What was it that the builders of the Tower of Babel did that was so wrong? Could you imagine a moment when the entire planet’s human population actually got along long enough to do something together. Here we were one planet, one people – can you imagine? John Lennon would be so proud (“Imagine”). Only, what? God doesn’t see it us coming together as all that good. In fact, He thinks its dangerous. Wait till 2045, the date that Ray Kurzweil, the 1999 National Medal of Technology award winner sets for the singularity.

What is the Singularity?
In short, the singularity is the moment in time, at the current rate of acceleration, that the technology we create, computers, will actually “think” faster than we do.

Click to read the Time Magazine article from Nov 2011

One of the major implications for faster, smarter, and smaller computers, may very likely be nanobots, artificially intelligent inventions that can be made as small as our blood cells. Could we have such nano-cells floating inside of us to keep us healthy? Could we live, 150 years? 200? Forever?

If we could continually renew and/or replenish our cells through technology would we? Why wouldn’t we? It is certainly Judaism’s point of view that we are partners with God, even in healing the body. If we could get rid of illness, rid of death, shouldn’t we?

I’ve recently watched the documentary Transcendent Man, which details Kurzweil’s expectations for our near future (if I keep my body moving, and if I survive my son’s driving lessons, and if I stop eating whatever deliciousness my wife bakes, I should make it). There is a compelling, yet disturbing argument being made that through faster and smarter technology our lives will be extended beyond the simplicity of one decaying body that ends in 80 to 90 years. If if happens, its because we built the technology to make it happen. The possibility is closer than some think. I’m pretty sure that the bio-tech company a few miles from my house already has the technology to clone me.

What would God say?

They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4).

The rabbis teach that it was not the building that was an affront to God, it was there motivation: “A name for themselves”. In a famous midrash, a rabbinic tale, the people would climb a ladder on one side of the Tower, place their brick and climb down the other side. When someone would fall, the people would mourn the brick that should have been placed, and not the person.

We are told that God already had the Torah, the lessons and the Law before creation came into existence. This is a good model for science as well. We should get a handle on the issues (can does not mean should) before we reach points of no return.

I suggest that the same issue is at hand with the singularity and life-extension (or even re-animating the dead; Kurzweil hopes to bring back his deceased father). Motivation is an issue. There is no question that we will be able to do amazing things -beyond what you and I can imagine today. But the question of ethics, has never, and will never, be overcome by technology.

The most precious commodity we have is life. It is painful enough to see it wasted. A time when life extends forever? Well, that would be worse. Life would be rendered insignificant, meaningless.  Death always feels like such a tragedy, but it may very well be better than the alternative.

Posted on February 14, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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