Monthly Archives: October 2012

Why It’s Okay That Politicians Flip-Flop

“When Did I Say That?”

Countless times I’ve stepped off the bima, and a congregant has come to me puzzled.

“Nice sermon, Rabbi.”

“Thanks,” I say, waiting for the but.  There is always a ‘but’.

“But, a few weeks ago I though you said the opposite.”

I scan my memory.  Nothing.  Who is this lady? Who asked her to pay attention?  I thought our tacit agreement was that rabbi talks and people politely sit, and then the service continues.

Finally, I ask, “What did I say a few weeks ago.”  After being reminded, I say, “And I meant that too.”

We often say contradictory things… and politicians, as the word suggests (representing the polis – the people, citizens), and for better and worse, are no different from the rest of us. We change what we say from moment to moment for a number of reasons.  We’re all flip-floppers.  First, most conversations we have are not about conveying a truth or a fact. If human conversation was that simple, we would speak almost exclusively in lists and bullet-points. In fact, most of human conversation is about making a connection, or at least something more elusive than “truth”. This is an idea gleaned from Kamran Nazeer’s remarkable book, Send in the Idiots: Stories from the Other Side of Autism. This is why a teenager, in describing a surprising anecdote to her friend, can string together twenty sentences in a row without taking a breath and at breakneck speed pepper in between the question, “…You know what I mean?” a few times, and her friend, “Like, totally does.” Conversation may very well be more about tone and intension than content. If you know the other person well enough, even if they say the wrong thing, you know what they mean.

In the Talmud (Berachot 42b) Rabbi Abaye was seen saying a blessing over each cup of wine he drank at the Shabbat table – implying that he held the opinion that one blessing at the beginning was not enough (which is the general practice). So Rabbi Isaac ben Josef asked him about this, “So I guess you don’t hold by the rule that one blessing covers the blessing for Shabbat and any subsequent cups of wine during the meal?!” To which Abaye replied, “ I changed my mind.”

“I changed my mind…” From the context it seems that Abaye simply changed his mind about wine, first he planned on only having the one cup, but since he then latter wanted a second cup with the meal, and therefore didn’t have that second (or third, or fourth) cup in mind, he needed to say another blessing.  Flip-flopper!!

This seems to be a question of personal preference but not of law… Can one simply change one’s mind in more substantive things?

Second, context changes everything.
One of the most common phrases in the Shulchan Aruch, the great compendium of Jewish Law is the phrase of the introduced in explaining changes in law and practice between the basic text, and the Ashkenazi variations: B’medinot Elu, U’Bazman H’Zeh, “In these land, and in this day and age, we do things differently.” And with that the idea of context, the reality that is lived and is understood to be fluid takes a guiding role in shaping Jewish law. Bob Dylan sang that “the times they are a changing,” and he was right. If you haven’t read his most recent Rolling Stone interview, you’ve gotta try – He argued that ‘you can’t change your present, nor the future, but you could change your past,” (bizarre, but provocative).  Nonetheless, context, especially time, especially time, changes everything.

Context is Everything…
The late PLO leader,Yaser Arafat, was once caught on tape saying something impolitic about Israel. “That’s not fair,” he suggested, “I said that in Arabic! To an Arab audience!”

The Daily Show has turned the “you said this, but then you said that” into an art form that “real” news organizations are using competing video clips more and more. Where once the subtleties of context was understood, maybe even celebrated, now it’s the political kiss of death, and context is most often left on the ‘news’ room’s cutting room floor. No wonder political punditry so often feels so homogenized and bland.

If You Never Change Your Mind, Why Have One?

The Observer Effect, whether applied to Physics or Psychology, or Politics, or Economics, suggests that mere fact of observing an effect has an effect on that which is being observed. The truth about a specific economic sanction, or a large stimulus, or a large scale public health policy, is that we don’t really know until we try it, and the likelihood is that tweaks or a change of direction altogether will be needed. The idea that a person’s words have to be spoken like the Book or Proverbs, or the Art of War, each sentence a golden and impermeable ‘Truth’, is impossible. There were Hassidic masters who forbade the printing of their talks. Sure facts matter, and so is honesty, but something about the power of context dies a little when it can be fact-checked.

Changing what one says because it’s expedient is disingenuous and usually people can tell. So, that’s not what I’m thinking about. Politically speaking, I am less concerned about a modification of one’s position on a specific topic – changing times and changing context require it – I am more concerned about a consistency of character, and honesty about why a person changed position. Let the reporters ask, “Why did you say ‘X’ this week and ‘not X’ before that?” Let us hear them when they explain the change of context and the necessary development of their ideas.

If in a fit of honesty a politician says, “I changed my mind,” let us not freak out.  Let’s just ask a question.
“You know what I mean?”

Posted on October 9, 2012

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Rolling, Rolling, Rolling

I don’t know how or when it happened. But somehow, in the not too distant past, the pinnacle of the Simchat Torah celebration moved from the Hakafot and Torah readings to a new, and visually-impressive, presentation — the unrolling of the Torah in its entirety.

More and more congregations have embraced it and I find it both perplexing and troubling.

Traditionally, the Torah is treated as if it is nearly alive. It is NOT alive, but we accord her a great deal of respect. We do not touch the parchment as the oils from our hands will rub away the ink and render it unusable. When we open the scroll for a reading, we open it not more than three columns in order to maintain some semblance of modesty. If we are moving the Torah from one location to another, we would not place her in the trunk. Rather, the scroll would ride inside the car. Nor would we leave the Torah in the car overnight. If a Torah is rendered unusable, we bury her. We stand when the Torah is removed from the ark (Kitzur Shulchan Aruch 28:3). And, God-forbid, should the Torah should be dropped, the one who dropped her is required to fast. As are those who have witnessed the incident (Orach Chayim 3:3).

Unrolling a Torah in its entirety seems to defy our customary ways of handling the scroll.

What is troubling is that there are long-standing rituals associated with Simchat Torah. The Shulkhan Arukh, not to mention a number of Sages, provide clear instructions regarding the ways in which we read the scrolls on this festival. Why toss out the mandated practices only to replace them with something new?

Innovation can be a wonderful thing. It keeps stasis at bay. It seems to me, however, that unrolling the Torah is simply a gimmick to get folks interested in participating. When I read descriptions of this practice as “the highlight of the Simchat Torah experience,” I am saddened. Saddened that we have become so jaded that our traditions are perceived to be both uninspiring and antiquated. Saddened that we seek more thrilling, more “meaningful” rites. Perhaps that is what so compelling about Chabad. They are seen as delivering “the real thing” rather than re-branding it or re-imagining it. How is it, then that instead of seeming outdated, the ways in which they practice their Judaism are seen as “authentic”?

*this post appeared on in 2010. The discussion that followed in the comments are worth a read.

Posted on October 5, 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

The Expansiveness of Joy on Sukkot

Think about an activity you love to do that gives you a good challenge. Maybe it’s playing tennis. Maybe it’s sailing. Maybe you’re like me, and it’s working on the Saturday New York Times crossword.

Whatever it is, when you’re deeply involved in that activity, you’re in a state that’s known as “flow” — a state of pure enjoyment. Time seems to run at a different speed, you’re totally focused on your task, and afterwards, you feel a real sense of accomplishment.

“Flow” was first described by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi, and he argues that flow arises when we find challenges that are just ahead of our skills. And beyond the fact that being in flow just feels really good — it’s a state of pure enjoyment — there’s another very important aspect to it: flow pushes our skills to a new level.

If you are a tennis player, for example, you had to work your way up from getting the ball over the net (or not hitting it so hard so that it went over the fence) to improving your serve to nailing your backhand. Each new challenge was also an opportunity to improve your ability.

As Csikszentmihalyi phrased it:

Pleasure is an important component of the quality of life, but by itself it does not bring happiness. Sleep, rest, food, and sex provide restorative homeostatic experiences that return consciousness to order after the needs of body intrude and cause psychic entropy to occur. But they do not produce psychological growth. They do not add complexity to the self. Pleasure helps to maintain order, but by itself cannot create new order in consciousness…

[In contrast,] enjoyable events occur when a person has not only met some prior expectation or satisfied a need or a desire but also gone beyond what he or she has been programmed to do and achieved something unexpected, perhaps something even unimagined before.

Enjoyment is characterized by this forward movement: by a sense of novelty, of accomplishment. (Csikszentmihalyi, Flow, 46)

In other words, joy expands who we are. And that’s a message we need to remember for Sukkot.

Sukkot, along with Passover and Shavuot, are called the “three pilgrimage festivals” because they were the three holidays when all the Israelites were commanded to come to the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. Each of the holidays also has their own name in our liturgy. Passover, understandably, is called “the time of our freedom.” Shavuot, which marks the giving of the Torah, is naturally called “the time of the giving of our Torah.” Sukkot’s title, however, is a little more mystifying — it is called “the time of our joy.” Why is that?

There are any number of reasons, but one of the explanations recalls an ancient tradition from Temple times. On Sukkot, there was a ceremony called “the drawing of water,” and the Rabbis taught, “One who has not witnessed the celebration of the water-drawing ceremony has never seen real joy.” (Sukkah 51a)

What was that “real joy”? Well, according to the Mishnah, people danced and sang, and the wisest and most pious men would juggle torches. While that sight would certainly make people smile and be happy, I think there’s a deeper lesson.

Because Sukkot was one of the three pilgrimage festivals, the population of Jerusalem would increase dramatically, so before the holiday, the priests and Levites would make major renovations to the outer courtyard. They would add some extra balconies, and the courtyard ended up being a little bigger than about the size of a football field.

But lots of people were coming for the holiday. Lots of people. Probably more than what the courtyard could handle. If you want an image, think of MetLife Stadium, but instead of everyone being in the stands, everyone is on the field. But, the Rabbis said, “Miraculously, tens of thousands of people were able to crowd in.”

Now, since thousands of people were coming, they certainly may have been a little physically cramped. But these thousands of people were not coming at any time. Instead they were coming at a specific time — Sukkot, “the time of our joy.” And joy has a miraculous quality to it, because when we are feeling joy, we can somehow always find room for more.

Think about this way: if you have a child, when your child was born, you didn’t say, “Well, since I have only 100 points of love, let me now figure out who I’ll love less.” No! Instead, the joy you felt caused your heart to grow. Miraculously, that joy led you to find room for more holiness, more specialness and more love than you ever thought possible.

Indeed, as Csikszentmihalyi taught us about being in flow, when we are doing anything that gives us real joy, we are learning new things and we pushing ourselves. We discover that joy helps us grow — and that there is no limit to its expansiveness.

So on this Sukkot, may we strive to create a little more joy in this world. We’ll find the room.

(Cross-posted with Sinai and Synapses)

Posted on October 4, 2012

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Here’s to Being “Happy”

A documentary film called “Happy” came out last year, following a considerable amount of research and writing on the newly popular field of Happiness studies. It explores what it is that makes people happy. In a little over an hour, it tells an inspiring story of the path to happiness.

I watched it a recently in preparation for the Days of Awe, the High Holy Days. The film shows people who not only appear to be very content, but joyously proclaim how happy they are. This is contrasted against pictures of many of Japanese workers who are literally working themselves to death.  Those who are happy are typically of modest means, and some are poor – that is – economically. But they are rich in a very important way – they are happy with who they are.

The keys to happiness documented by the film include:

  • Being content and grateful for what we have,
  • Having plentiful time with friends and family – indeed, lives that center around close and nourishing relationships,
  • Close connections within community – and a shared communal life,
  • Regular experiences of helping others.

All this contributes significantly to happiness.

In our often overworked, overstressed, sometimes fragmented lives, these lessons are important. The question is – how to get there?

The day after I watched the documentary, I went to the post office to mail a homemade Rosh Hashanah cake to my son who is in California. I was a little stressed because I didn’t have time to get packing supplies in advance. I asked the clerk behind the counter for help, and he grabbed everything I needed and offered to pack and seal the box for me. As he did, he started to tell me about how happy it made him to be helping people, and he was really glad to do this for me. And he went on to tell me how he holds three jobs and struggles to make ends meet, but he really does have enough, and he is grateful for it. All he really needs, he went on to say, are his wonderful family, especially the joy he gets from his kids. I just stood there nodding, nearly gaping at him for his perfect recitation of the themes of the “Happy” film.  I asked him if he’d seen the film “Happy” and he said he hadn’t, but was so grateful for the suggestion. “Tonight,” he said, “is family TV night. I can’t wait to watch it with my kids.”

During the season of Jewish holy days, I am thinking about happiness as a Jewish value, experienced as wholeness and contentment.  How does Judaism help us to achieve this sometimes-elusive goal?  One significant way is through the weekly celebration of Shabbat. Another is through the rhythm of time marked by the festivals of the Jewish calendar, offering us an opportunity at the start of each season to feel and express gratitude, and to be fulfilled through community celebration.  All of these days offer us a separation from the stresses and pulls of ordinary days, and a chance to truly “be” in our own quiet space and in the pleasure of company with family, friends and community.   How much more joy can be experienced when we stop to experience this wholeness that comes from the cessation from striving!

This week we are celebrating the festival of Sukkot.  It is a time to share meals in the Sukkah, the fragile hut reminiscent of the wilderness tents our ancestors inhabited.  Sukkot customarily is a time for invited guests to share meals in the Sukkah.  As I enjoyed my first two meals with community and family in the Sukkah at our synagogue and at my home, I was filled with contentment.  This is what happiness is about – gratitude and sharing, relationships and memories.

No wonder the Sukkah is a symbol of peace.  With a little more time together for Shabbat, and our years punctuated by joyous seasonal festivals like Sukkot, we can palpably feel that we are all part of one family.  On this Sukkot, that is my hope and prayer.   May the source of Peace spread over us all a Sukkah of peace.

Posted on October 1, 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