Monthly Archives: January 2013

Hand me my tiara, please

As a rabbi and an activist, I often get called upon to speak at interfaith events of various sorts.  Over the years, I’ve been jealous of the fact that clergy from other faith groups are easily recognizable. tallit-e1319482273707

Run a list through your head: what does a priest or minister wear? A Buddhist monk? a nun? OK, then think rabbi. Often rabbis will wear a tallit. And that bugs me.

Initially, I just thought to myself, that it “looked funny.” But the more often I saw it, the more it bothered me. A tallit isn’t a rabbinic garment. It’s a Jewish garment. All Jewish adults should be wearing their tallit daily.

So, if we don’t wear a tallit, what should a rabbi wear to identify herself?  Perhaps the answer is that we ought not to be trying to single out the rabbis. Although the Jewish tradition views the rabbi (or at least the tzadik, which is, as well know, not necessarily the same thing) as a kli kodesh, a holy vessel, a rabbi  is not really supposed to be different from the rest of the Jewish population. She is someone who,  yes, models behavior for the community, but her primary role is to be deeply immersed in the laws and traditions of Judaism, and to teach them. Rabbis are just people who have learned the intricacies of Jewish law and practice and the attitude should be “If only all the Lord’s people were prophets, that the Lord would bestow His spirit upon them!” But  she is not apart from the community – anyone can be that person, if they are willing to put in  the time and study, if they are willing to make their life a holy vessel.

At the same time, our tradition does recognize that the rabbi should be respected for the role they play. But it seems to me that perhaps the way to do it is not to repurpose a garment which during prayer serves the purpose of making the individuals wearing it almost anonymous – when one looks up after completing one’s prayer of Amidah and sees a sea of wool tallitot around one,  there is a certain sense of being a single part of a larger organism. And perhaps this should instead of serving as an opportunity to demonstrate our importance- look, I’m a leader! – maybe we should reconsider, and as clergy, instead of  pointing ourselves out, maybe we should take off the tallit, and when we represent the community to the world, be just another Jew, without a special costume, to represent that we could indeed be any Jew, that all of us should be working toward a more perfected world, and that anyone who wants to do so, can, just by stepping up.

And if that doesn’t work, well, when I proposed this on facebook, a friend told me he’d get me a mitre. But I have to say, I’d really prefer a tiara. Or maybe a cape.

Posted on January 30, 2013

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

Everything is Rent

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“Everything is rent.” – Rent, by Jonathan Larsonimgres

This week our Jewish high school put on a production of Rent, a rather bold choice for a religious institution. I was very proud of the kids. Their performance was spectacular, but better, through dialogue with teachers, rabbis, surviving families and friends of people who lived and died of AIDS, they understood the message, and it’s a core, it’s a Jewish one: Life is the most precious gift we have, so let us not waste it.

The message reminds me of a favorite story:

A few hundred years ago, a Jewish merchant came upon a shtetl he had never visited before. The times we difficult, many of the usual towns in his travels had been ravaged by plague, or abandoned after a pogrom. Thinking about all the people in all those places broke the peddler’s heart. It broke again at this new town as he wound his way along the path to the gates of the town that led past gravestones and markers through a sprawling cemetery. It was not the enormity of the graveyard that stuck him, he had seen the fields outside of Cracow, Prague, and even Warsaw. No, it was the numbers on the graves: 9, 25, 12, 13. Oy gevalt! My God, he thought, these were children. This is a town that is bereft of her young!

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When he reached the synagogue, he was warmly greeted by a few elderly gentlemen who were just leaving the great building in the town’s central square.

A gutn tag,” one said to the peddler.
“Good afternoon to you sir,” he replied. “Tell me, what calamity has befallen your lovely community?”
“It’s too awful to speak of. Please ask the rabbi.”
The peddler entered the synagogue and found the rabbi at the front of the hall, he was seated at a long wooden table.

“Rabbi?”
“Yes, my friend,” the rabbi said over the brown leather volume he had been pouring over.
“Rabbi, I am a peddler, a visitor to your town. I have visited many towns and cities that have been afflicted by war, by plague, and even pogrom. Rabbi, I have seen and heard of many tragedies, but your town, what horrid thing has befallen your townspeople?”
“You have seen our cemetery?”
“I have, and I cried for your children and for their parents too.”
“ I see,” said the sage, “ You were right to weep, but you may have misunderstood. It is the custom of our town not to list on the gravestone a person’s age, but rather to list on the marker the number years a person really lived.”

As an encore, the players in the show invited the audience to sing along to one of the show’s signature songs; Seasons of Love was printed inside the program. “Five Hundred twenty-five thousand, six hundred minutes”. We reminded ourselves and each other to count the blessings of each minutes of every day, month and year we are privileged to share. Likewise, we reminded ourselves to make each and every minute count.

Posted on January 29, 2013

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Taking The Plunge

It was January 2007, almost exactly six years ago. I was sitting in my office, reviewing a dense corporate document retention proposal, when I realized it was time for a career change. I had questioned whether I wanted to remain a lawyer for several years. On the one hand, the law firms where I practiced treated us like indentured servants. We worked extremely long hours, were yelled at, and spent most of our time toiling away at menial tasks like reviewing boxes of emails or proofreading our bosses’ work. On the other hand, the pay was great and the risk was low. All we had to do was sacrifice our time and our pride and we could do quite well. For years, the financial benefits of the job and the uncertainty about what else I might want to do held me in check. But by 2007, the drudgery of the work and the sense of how meaningless it felt became too much for me. I decided that the risk of switching careers—even to something as dramatic as becoming a rabbi—was worth it.

The_Crossing_fo_The_Red_Sea

This dilemma of accepting an unpalatable status quo or taking a risk on an uncertain but potentially transformative new direction is basically what the Israelites confront in Parashat B’shalah. The Israelites have just fled from Egypt and have journeyed as far as the Sea of Reeds when God rouses Pharaoh to chase after them. God is looking for the big finish to the Exodus drama, a climactic battle in which God can once and for all establish supremacy for all to see (Exodus 14:4). The Israelites, however, are not amused. In fact, they are terrified. Whatever faith in God they might have developed from experiencing the ten plagues quickly evaporates in the face of charging chariots and alarming battle cries. They beg Moses to let them return to their former lives of slavery in Egypt. But Moses tells them to have faith, and God, through Moses, parts the waters of the sea so that the Israelites can pass through to the other side. We all know what happens next: the Israelites make it safely across the sea, and once they get to the other side, God causes the waters to crash down upon the Egyptians who are in hot pursuit, drowning them in the sea.

In a fascinating commentary, though, our Sages did not just assume that the Israelites had the courage to march into the parted sea. Even though this event, the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, would become a seminal moment in Jewish history which we recount twice a day in our liturgy (in the Mi Chamocha prayer), the Talmud (Tractate Sotah 36b-37a) depicts the Israelites as being hesitant to take the plunge:

Rabbi Yehudah said: When the Israelites stood by the Red Sea, the tribes strove with one another. This tribe said. “I’m not going into the sea first.” And another tribe said, “I’m not going into the sea first.” [Finally,] Nachshon the son of Amminadav jumped and descended into the sea first.

Rabbi Yehuda reflects how we often feel when facing a life-altering challenge. The fear of making change can often be paralyzing. Inertia is a powerful force, as is the psychological comfort of predictability, no matter how unpleasant the predictable may be. We can—and do—come up with a multitude of justifications for staying right where we are. We are conditioned, both culturally and biologically, not to go into the sea first. But Rabbi Yehuda’s account also expresses the truth that it only takes one leap, one chance, one moment of action, and our whole world can change.
We each face these crossroads in life. For some, it might be whether to remain in a relationship that has gone stale or whether to endure the pain and anguish of ending the relationship with the hope of finding a better one. For others, like myself, it might be whether to remain in a job that lacks fulfillment but provides a steady paycheck, or to pursue a dream job that might not work out.

Israeli_legislative_election,_2013_ballots

We even experience this crossroads at national levels. As the Israeli election on January 22 showed, Israel is almost perfectly split between center-left and right-ultra Orthodox parties (each bloc received approximately 60 out of the 120 seats in Israel’s parliament). Israeli leaders, in picking a new government, will have to choose between retaining the status quo coalition of the past few years or forming a new coalition that embraces socioeconomic reform, equal treatment of Haredi and Hiloni Israelis, and an engaged peace process.  Will a Nachshon ben Amminadav emerge to lead Israel into a new, dynamic, and possibly redemptive future, or will Israel’s leadership remain entrenched on the shore, arguing among themselves and unwilling to take the first pivotal step forward?

Change is always hard. We yearn for stability, structure, and continuity in our lives. Yet the wisdom of our tradition is that God will support us if we are willing to take the plunge into uncertainty. The narrative of the Israelites standing at the Sea of Reeds offers us more than just an historical/mythical account of our people’s origins. It empathizes with the difficulties we face, today, between taking risks on an unknown but potentially meaningful future versus remaining mired in an unpleasant, yet known, present. And it offers us hope if we are only bold enough to claim our own redemptive path.

After the Israelites realize their freedom from the Egyptians, they break out into raucous celebration. The people unite in a triumphant and jubilant song, known as Shirat ha-Yam, the Song of the Sea, which we recount each year during the Torah reading for Parashat Beshallah. May each of us be blessed with the courage to follow our own paths of meaning in life. And may our decisions enable us to sing with joy about the lives we create for ourselves and our people.

Posted on January 27, 2013

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

What I’ve Learned from Crossword Puzzles

nytimes-episodeEvery day, I do the New York Times crossword puzzle. It truly is a ritual for me, almost as sacred as Shabbat: every night before going to bed, I load up the crossword on my phone or my computer, and try to plow through that mental challenge.

I’ve discovered that there’s a deep satisfaction that goes far beyond filling in that last box to complete the puzzle, and what I’ve learned is more than just the fact that Charles Lamb was also known as “Elia” and a whole long list of four-letter European rivers. What I really love about crosswords is the struggle, trying to figure out how I’m going to go about solving it.

And what the process of solving crosswords has truly taught me is how easily success can become failure, and how easily failure can become success.

Quite often, I come across a clue whose answer I feel certain that I’ve filled in correctly. And then I discover that one of the crosses doesn’t work. But I was so sure I was right! But it’s not working.

That’s usually when I get frustrated, because what I “knew” to be right actually turned out to be totally wrong. At that moment, my apparent success is preventing me from making further progress on the puzzle. And so the only way to break through that struggle is to say, “Maybe my assumption was wrong.”

That’s not easy to do in life — to be able to say, “Perhaps I was mistaken.” But what I’ve discovered is that when I have to re-think my approach, I gain new knowledge that I wasn’t expecting. I become a better solver for future puzzles. I begin to think in new and innovative ways.

To put it another way, I’m learning.

There’s an important distinction between knowledge and learning. Knowledge is something to have; learning is something to do. And in Judaism, the emphasis is much less on knowledge and much more on learning. As Rabbi Bradley Artson says, “Learning is not a possession, something to have. It is a process of growth and unfolding that is a permanent accompaniment to human life.” (The Bedside Torah, 238)

In other words, learning is a life-long process, and it is never a simple journey from A to B to C — it’s a zigzag journey, and often requires several false starts. Indeed, making mistakes — and learning from them — is crucial for our sense of growth. In fact, building from our mistakes is what allows us to transform failure into success.

This past week, Camille Sweeney and Josh Gosfield wrote a piece in the New York Times called “The Secret Ingredient for Success,” where they shared some of the research they had done on high achievers, including David Chang, owner of Momufuku, Martina Navratilova, and the band OK Go. As they noted:

In interviews we did with high achievers…we expected to hear that talent, persistence, dedication and luck played crucial roles in their success. Surprisingly, however, self-awareness played an equally strong role.

The successful people we spoke with — in business, entertainment, sports and the arts — all had similar responses when faced with obstacles: they subjected themselves to fairly merciless self-examination that prompted reinvention of their goals and the methods by which they endeavored to achieve them.

It’s never easy to accept the fact that we may have been going down the wrong path. Anyone who does crosswords knows how frustrating it can be to write, erase, re-write, re-erase, and start a whole section over again. But sometimes, if we take a step back and re-think what we’re doing, we can figure out that one word (or even one letter) that causes the whole puzzle to fall into place. What had seemed like abject failure just a few moments earlier has now become a completed grid.

So if we can become aware of our own shortcomings, if we can realize that at times our assumptions need to be revised, and if we can open ourselves up to new ways of thinking and new perspectives, then we can grow, learn and maybe even succeed.

As my colleague Rabbi Laura Baum recently wrote, “If we are not making mistakes, we are not pushing ourselves hard enough…But here’s the catch: Let’s try to make new mistakes. And each time we mess up, let’s consider what we can do differently next time.”

Indeed, crosswords can teach us more than just the first name of “NYPD Blue” actor Morales. They teach us how to fail — which is what we need to learn how to do in order to truly succeed.

Posted on January 24, 2013

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

Leave my bar mitzvah alone!

Last week I was following the dialogue and reflections of two of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues on the topic of the ‘Christian bar mitzvah’. Jason Miller first shared the story of the episode of ‘The Sisterhood’, a reality show on TLC, that featured the decision of two Christian pastors to give their son a Christian bar mitzvah.  The father was born Jewish, but converted to Christianity prior to his marriage.  Rebecca Einstein Schorr subsequently wrote about her reactions to the segment and had the opportunity to discuss the issue with the couple on Huff Post Live.

Pastor Brian with his son, on TLC’s ‘The Sisterhood’

Last night, I had the opportunity to share part of the Huff Post Live interview with my 10th grade students in Chai School.  As students, aged 15-16, who had their own bar or bat mitzvah just two years ago, I was interested to hear their take on the debate.  They were not at all receptive to the idea of a Christian bar mitzvah.  They raised many of the same issues that my colleague, Rebecca, had raised during her interview.  In particular, they completely understood and supported the idea of creating a coming-of-age ceremony within the context of another religious tradition, and the thought that this might be inspired by Jewish practice.  But using the term, ‘bar mitzvah’ indicated to society a specific Jewish ceremony in a Jewish context, so they did not approve of using the same label.

My students were also comfortable with the idea that a father who was Jewish might wish to share his heritage with his son by educating and exposing him to that Jewish heritage and educating him in order to have a Jewish bar mitzvah.  They were less concerned and interested in some of the ‘who is a Jew’ debates that Jewish organizations and leaders sometimes engage in.  If someone wanted to claim their Jewish heritage, they were cool with that.  What they were not cool with was the co-opting of that heritage and blending it with a different religious belief system, namely Christianity.  They listened to the pastor’s explanation of how they understood Jewish heritage to be an integral part of their Christian identity and practice, but they did not agree with it.

My class included students who had one non-Jewish parent.  But when I investigated further, these students were happy to have participated in the family celebrations of that parent when Christian holidays came around, but they were very clear about their own religious identity and they appreciated that their parents had maintained a clarity and distinctiveness around their respective religious traditions – it seems that they appreciated the individual who followed the path of one faith tradition – they saw an integrity in that decision.

I found myself playing devil’s advocate to better understand to what extent we were coming from a place of gut reaction or whether there was a consistent logic being applied to my students’ thinking.  This class will end the year with Confirmation.  I asked them if they knew the history of the Confirmation ceremony.  They understood that the Reform movement had borrowed the term from Christian communities.  The difference, they felt, was that the content of our ceremony was 100% Jewish – we had not borrowed the rituals or forms of the Christian ceremony.  And the word ‘Confirmation’ they recognized as an English term that is commonly used and was an appropriate term to describe the confirmation of one’s religious identity and practice.

So then I tried them on weddings.  What about weddings where one person is Jewish and one person is Christian and they want to blend rituals and practices from both traditions in their ceremony?  Isn’t the potential end-point of that a Christian bar mitzvah for their son down the line?  ‘No’, my students told me.  If two people who identify with different religious systems want to get married, it is appropriate that they draw on the practices of their religion when they create their wedding ceremony.  Each of them is being authentically connected to their own heritage.  For my students, that was different to imposing a mix of two religious systems – systems that they did not see as being integrally compatible with each other – on a third individual  – a child.

Now, I have read plenty from people who consciously identify as ‘both’, or have decided to raise their children with two faith heritages.  I have heard them explain those choices in ways that have their own integrity to them.  So I am not seeking to dismiss that choice. There is also plenty of commentary out there on the increasing number of people in American society who reject any specific religious label, but who are mixing and blending from many places to construct their own, personal spirituality.  We see the beginnings of new seminaries and new communal gathering places that celebrate the ‘interfaith’ and the ability to draw from multiple traditions in the search for spiritual wisdom and practice.  So I recognize that there are many alternative ways that individuals are choosing to navigate the path that my students described, even while my own practice and understanding is most similar to my students.

I’m not surprised that some of these more contemporary trends were not voiced by my students.  The fact that they are in our Chai School program and preparing for Confirmation makes them more likely to strongly identify with the wisdom heritage that we have shared with them all of these years.  But the deeper insight that I gained from listening to them articulate their arguments was the value that they saw in traveling one’s spiritual path using just one vehicle for the journey.  While most progressive faith traditions do not make ‘truth’ claims that elevate them above other faith traditions, there is something to be gained from choosing just one path and diving deeply into its wisdom teachings and practices as one develops a personal faith and spirituality.  This was the approach that my students chose.  I think they are ready for their Confirmation.

Posted on January 23, 2013

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Make the Pledge…Equally

With Purim just a month from now, the internet is just starting to entertain with the usual, and welcome, plethora of videos, jokes, and other expressions of frivolity. A rather lively, and creative, one was brought to my attention by a colleague and, after a preliminary viewing, I showed it to my nearly-thirteen year old son.

He thought it was pretty cool. I did too. But what was troubling was this:

Me: Those cantors did a fantastic job with the vocals, don’t you think?
Ben: There were cantors in that? I didn’t see any.

Ben didn’t see any because he has only attended synagogues that have female cantors. Additionally, he is used to rabbis who sing. Really sing. So when he said he didn’t see any cantors, it wasn’t a conscious statement of gender-bias. It was an innocent statement based on his life experience.

To me, there is little difference between a child growing up to think that all rabbis are male and a child who grows up thinking that all cantors are female. Both beliefs are problematic — not mention incorrect in the liberal Jewish community — and some serious education is required in order to rear future generations whose beliefs regarding gender accurately reflect the vocational landscape. Because such gender-exclusivity exists in every discipline.

Earlier this month, The Atlantic ran a piece “A Simple Suggestion to Help Phase Out All-Male Panels at Tech Conferences” with a follow-up, “The Panel Pledge: A Follow-Up,” a few days later. Senior Editor, Rebecca Rosen, brings attention to a pledge, developed by Advancing Women Professionals and the Jewish Community, for men to take. This pledge asks men to forswear participation in any all-male panels in an effort to stem the homogeneity that so frequently occurs.

empty conference chairs

Having sat through many single-gender presentations, I see great value in this and I especially appreciate the approach. Having our male counterparts partner with us in challenging the status quo is a powerful statement. But I can’t sign the pledge. I can’t sign it because, of course, I am not a man. And I would not sign it because I think that it does not go quite far enough. A simple expansion of the parameters would call for a gender-balanced panel; one with men and women, with no all-male or all-female panels. There are, certainly, some legitimate exceptions to the mixed-gender panel. As a general rule, however, we need a pledge that calls upon women, as well as men, to take a stand. Because an all-female panel does a disservice to future generations as well.

Posted on January 22, 2013

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

Excuse Me, Do You Know What Time It Is?

puppies 2 

There is an old joke about the Israeli fellow who would always ask people for the time. People would get irritated, but would tell him the time. Finally at one point somebody asked/told him: “Why not get a watch?”  

The fellow responded: “Why should I pay for a watch, I have you to tell me the time. ”

“But what do you do at night when you need to know the time?”

The fellow responded: “At night I blow my shofar”

“Your shofar, how does that help?”

“Easy”, the fellow responded, ” I open my window and blow the shofar. Before you know it people are shouting out to me: why are you blowing your shofar? Don’t you know it is two in the morning!”

As a side point today the fellow would probably now own a phone as who owns a watch anymore? But can you imagine an Israeli not owning a cell phone?

Be that as it may, we all know the power of time marching on and the need to know the time as it determines our schedule and where we have to be or what we have to do.  The ability to determine your own schedule is a great luxury. The opposite extreme borders on slavery.

The first commandment to the Jewish people in the Torah is understood to be the command of a calendar whose first month will be Nisan, the month of the Exodus from Egypt. “This month shall be to you the head of the months; to you it shall be the first of the months of the year.” Exodus 12:2. The first sign of freedom is determining the flow of time on your terms, and not the terms of the oppressor.  Over the past years, numbers of for profit companies and non-profits have moved to allowing flex time for people to set up their schedules. This enables employees to better adjust their schedules and balance their work and family responsibilities and employers have discovered the benefits this can provide to the company itself.

For Jewish tradition, Nisan becoming the first month means Passover and the Exodus are foundational, orienting events. History is meaningful, memory is crucial and one day all will be free. In addition, the Biblical scholar William Propp in his Anchor Bible work on Exodus, makes an acute observation. In Genesis 1:14-18  “no calendar is instituted. God establishes the day, the week and the year-but not the month….The implication may be that the birth of the Israelite nation and the concomitant establishment of the calendar are themselves acts of cosmogony completing the unfinished creation”

14. And God said, “Let there be luminaries in the expanse of the heavens, to separate between the day and between the night, and they shall be for signs and for appointed seasons and for days and years.

15. And they shall be for luminaries in the expanse of the heavens to shed light upon the earth.” And it was so.

16. And God made the two great luminaries: the great luminary to rule the day and the lesser luminary to rule the night, and the stars.

17. And God placed them in the expanse of the heavens to shed light upon the earth.

18. And to rule over the day and over the night, and to separate between the light and between the darkness, and God saw that it was good.

In making this observation Propp teaches us that a key Biblical idea is Israel’s role in creation. Partnering with God, Covenant and Tikkun Olam in its classical mystical or current connotation, all assume this notion of our role. Our challenge is know what time it is now and what does the current time demand of us to accomplish.

Posted on January 17, 2013

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But the Children of Israel had Light in their Dwellings

scubadivingI recently was reading an article that happened to mention an interesting study. In the study, researchers in the 1970’s had collected New Year’s resolutions from two groups of kids — one of average middle class kids, and another group made up of Amish and Mennonites. They happened to notice an interesting difference between the two groups (which was not relevant to the study they were trying to do). In the “average” group, the kids were focused on goals such as “getting an “a” in class. In the Amish group, though, even though the kids also were focused on goals, they phrased their resolutions very differently. Instead of focusing on the achievement, their resolutions spelled out the process of what they would do to get to the goal. In other words, instead of resolving to get an “a,” the Amish child would resolve to spend more time doing homework. In addition, the Amish kids were more likely to be about things that they were already doing – getting faster at doing chores rather than one of  the “average” kids who would be more likely to express a goal of doing something new, such as learning to scuba dive.

As I was reading this, I couldn’t help but think of another article I had read recently which discussed the seemingly endless research into happiness, and the pursuit of happiness by Americans – and asks whether, in fat, happiness is something that can be pursued at all. The article, drawing on psychological research and the writings of Victor Frankl concludes that rather than pursuing happiness, we should be pursuing meaning. It suggests,  “the single-minded pursuit of happiness is ironically leaving people less happy, according to recent research.” Continue reading

Posted on January 16, 2013

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

“What if I can’t spell Hope?”

Heschel and King

“I propose that you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency.  A Marshal Plan for aid to negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” –  Abraham Joshua Heschel, in a telegram to President Kennedy.

“A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. – in a 1967 Address, Beyond Vietnam.

January always renews my admiration for, and the inspiration I draw from, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and from his rabbinic friend, Abraham Joshua Heschel. January 15th was King’s birthday, and  January 11th was Heschel’s.

 In the quote above, King was speaking against the war in Vietnam as a distraction from the needs of our own citizens. How might it apply now?  President Obama drawing down troops in Afganistan, perhaps on a quicker schedule than earlier planed (WSJ), might address the issue of war, but will it mean anything to improving the lives of our nations struggling middle class and the inflating number of working poor – the jobless rate is now down to 7.8% (Bloomberg), but the jobs are not paying the way they were before. I hear King’s challenge and ask: What are the programs that provide social uplift and secure spiritual vitality?

To my mind the answer lies in the 2008 Obama Campaign: Hope and Change. Upon his reelection, the President was right to say that “there is more to do,” and while I generally give him high marks, especially given the largely dysfunctional congress – what do they have against the UN passing guidelines that resemble our own to improve the lives of the disabled, I can’t help be disappointed.  After all, where does hope come from? Hope comes from the belief that something better is possible. The soul, or spirit, is such an amazing part of being human. While the brain calculates probabilities of outcomes – what percent of kids born into poverty escape it; the soul can take merely “possible” and expand it into a dream, and under influence of a dream (“I have a dream”) the engine of hope roars to life.

The book title, The Audacity of Hope, one of the books penned by our eloquent president, has always reminded me of the the famous quote that Rabbi Heschel sent by telegram to President Kennedy regarding the issue of civil rights, “The moment calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” The issue is no longer one of race, but of class. While race is certainly still an issue in this country, and a complication to the issue of class, people of the same class, regardless of race, have more in common than people of the same race but of different socio-economic class.

The key to unlocking the issues of class, and perhaps by extension the issue of race: Education – a gap between the rich and the poor is widening (New York Times: Education gap between the rich and the poor). The degree of education a person has is a greater predictor of success and of class in the United States. And what was true for the past several decades is still true – a good education remains a privilege, and not as it should be, a right.  Technology, such as on-line classes and degree programs, has the potential to democratize access to knowledge and wisdom.  Nonetheless, technology is not a panacea, by example the University of California Online program has not attracted many students outside its current student population (San Francisco Chronicle).

January ushers in a new year, but also a chance to calibrate our moral compass to those of Rabbi Heschel and of Dr. King. Among the many messages that need to be heard as the President’s inaugurations draws near (Jan. 21, 2013), I add the following:

  1. Free pre-school for the working poor.
  2. Smaller classes for our students, and therefore more teachers.
  3. Continuing education requirements for our teachers.
  4. Free high education all at public institutions of higher learning (we saw how the GI Bill lifted up an entire generation after WWII).

Mr. President, you believed that healthcare was a right, and you fought for it, remember that access to a good education should also be a right and that education is the key to unlocking this country’s potential and lift its citizenry with hope and “social uplift.” Without a serious plan to tackle the inequalities of education we risk “spiritual death.” I propose the you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency.  A Marshall Plan for education has become a necessity.  The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.

Posted on January 15, 2013

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

Is Freedom A Jewish Virtue?

Are you on the freedom bandwagon yet? Celebrations of the concept of freedom seem to be permeating the cultural-political zeitgeist these days. Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery, just received a leading 12 nominations for best picture of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights hero who helped lead African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression, is just around the corner (January 21).

Martin_Luther_King_Jr_with_medallion_NYWTS

And have you seen the Piers Morgan-Alex Jones interview yet? In a clip that has gone viral, Jones, a radio talk show host and gun enthusiast, launches into a vitriolic tirade about guns, freedom, and potential revolution that makes one wonder how he qualified for a gun permit in the first place.

All of this happens to be coinciding with the time of year in which Jews read the Exodus narrative. At first glance, it appears to be perfect timing. After all, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom formed the moral and linguistic basis for Kin’’s civil rights oratory and is inextricably intertwined with Western society’s development of a natural right to liberty (which underlies both the 13th Amendment and gun owner’s claims to liberty from government intrusion into gun ownership). Continue reading

Posted on January 14, 2013

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