Author Archives: Geoff Mitelman

Geoff Mitelman

About Geoff Mitelman

Rabbi Geoffrey A. Mitelman is the Founding Director of Sinai and Synapses, an organization that bridges the scientific and religious worlds, and is being incubated at Clal - The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. He was ordained by the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion, where he received the Cora Kahn Prize from the Cincinnati faculty for the most outstanding sermon delivery and oratory. An alumnus of Princeton University, he received multiple prizes for outstanding scholarship in Biblical and Judaic studies. In addition to My Jewish Learning, his writings about the intersection of religion and science have appeared on the homepages of several sites, including The Huffington Post, Science and Religion Today, and WordPress.com. He was interviewed by BBC Radio’s World Have Your Say about the religious implications of the Higgs Boson, and is also on the planning committee for the new URJ 6 Points Science Academy. For seven years, he served as Assistant and then Associate Rabbi of Temple Beth El of Northern Westchester. He lives in Westchester with his wife Heather Stoltz, a fiber artist, and their daughter Caroline.

Who Will My Daughter Be?

On October 1 (and about four and half weeks early), my wife and I welcomed our daughter into the world. It truly was every bit as incredible, miraculous, joyous and nerve-wracking as everyone told us it would be. We can’t quite believe we have brought a new person into this world, and every time I hold her, or feed her at 3:30 AM, or bless her on Shabbat, when I look at her, all I can think of is, “Who will she be?”

As a rabbi, I live in a world where I regularly experience a whole lifespan in the stretch of just a few days. I hear young parents sharing their hopes for their brand-new child on one day, and hear grown children sharing their memories of their recently-deceased parent on the next. I see parents cry with joy as their children become bar or bat mitzvah, and see people of all ages cry with anger and frustration as they struggle with the challenges life throws at them.

But while I have had the title “rabbi” for a few years, I have had the title “daddy” for just under a month. Naturally, this new relationship is causing me to think of all sorts of questions: “What are things that my daughter will say and do that will crack me up? What challenges will she face in life? Will I have any chance of keeping it together when she becomes bat mitzvah? And what will my daughter say about me as a father when I am gone?”

Caroline Looking at DaddyWhat compounds all of these questions is the fact that right now, her communication consists of eating, sleeping, crying and pooping. Yes, I am thinking about the life she is going to lead, but the truth is, neither of us have any real idea of what she will sound like, look like or act like three months from now — let alone three, thirteen or thirty years from now.

My sister — who has a 15-year-old and a 12-year-old — once told me that, “When it comes to children, you can’t interpolate out, but you can extrapolate back.” In other words, when we are looking at the next generation and wondering what children will look like, sound like and act like years down the road, there simply isn’t enough data to make any sort of accurate prediction. But when we look back, when we study old baby pictures or tell stories about when kids were even younger, we can often say, “You were like that from the time you were a baby.”

So whether it was the way they loved to be rocked, or that they always hated being cold, or how if they had a choice between eating and sleeping, sleeping would win, there seem to be certain personality traits that stay consistent throughout life. But the only way we recognize them is when we reflect back — we can’t predict them in advance.

That’s why one of my favorite quotes is from Soren Kirkegaard: “Life must be lived forwards, but can only be understood backwards.”

After all, we humans are meaning-making creatures. We have all sorts of things happen to us, and we don’t always understand why. It is only when we can put them into a story that they start to make sense. I don’t believe that “Everything happens for a reason,” because that creates a very challenging theology (did God really look down on the earth and say, “I’m going to give that person cancer”?). Instead, I believe that no matter what happens, we can look back on events and try to make sense and meaning out of them. What can we learn from our experiences and how can we grow from them?

As Jonathan Gottschall explains in his book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, “The storytelling mind is a crucial evolutionary adaptation. It allows us to experience our lives as coherent, orderly, and meaningful. It is what makes life more than blooming, buzzing confusion.” (102) The reason I have no idea what kind of person our daughter will be is because at one month old, her story is just beginning to unfold. Only after she has more life experience will she be able to tell it and tell us “who she is.”

And there is another level to the story of who our daughter is, as well. Like most Jews, my wife and I named our daughter after people we loved who have passed away. Yes, their lives have ended, but the values that they taught us are inspiring the way we are trying to raise our daughter. And so God-willing, she will lead a life that will inspire the values of those who will come after her. Our daughter’s personal story is in the context of a larger narrative.

Indeed, for all of us, while our past has guided us towards who we are, we are the ones who construct our life story. And when we see ourselves as one link in a long chain of tradition, we miraculously bring both the past and the future into each and every moment of our lives.

Because ultimately, the answer to the question “Who am I?” is a dynamic one. It is always changing. So who will my daughter be thirty years from now? Ask me in 2043. All I know is that right now, she is someone my wife and I are simply loving getting to know.

Posted on October 31, 2013

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A-Rod May Be Guilty, But We All Are Responsible

I’ve been a die-hard Yankees fan ever since I was 8 years old, when my dad took me to my first game right after Hebrew school one Sunday morning. I grew up in the mid-80′s and early 90′s, back when the Yankees had luminaries such as Mike Pagliarulo, Wayne Tolleson and Eric Plunk, and when they were closer to last place than to first.

As I grew older and they started winning, I naturally loved the Yankees who had come up through the farm system, like Bernie Williams, Derek Jeter and Mariano Rivera. But I also was excited about the players the Yankees brought in — people like Paul O’Neill, Mike Mussina, and even Roger Clemens. After all, they were great players who were coming to play on my favorite team.

So in 2004, when Alex Rodriguez signed with the Yankees, I was ecstatic. Yes, I had known about his tiff with Derek Jeter, and yes, I had heard he was difficult in the clubhouse, but he was the best player of his generation, and I wanted to root for him. Unfortunately, he made it difficult to do so.

A-Rod has always created a media circus wherever he went, and these latest allegations (and potential suspension) for using PEDs and obstructing Major League Baseball’s investigation are, unfortunately, not all that surprising to me (or anyone else who follows baseball). But so much of what has been written about this Biogenesis scandal has been oversimplified to “A-Rod is a rich, selfish bum who cheated and so he should be kicked out.”

I think the situation is more complicated than that because we have to remember that A-Rod’s actions didn’t occur in a vacuum.

Baseball SteroidsJim Caple of ESPN recently wrote an insightful piece entitled “Understanding A-Rod’s Infractions,” and he reminds us that steroid use — and indeed, cheating in general — is rarely done out of malicious intent:

Athletes don’t dope because they are bad, evil people. They dope because there is a very strong incentive to do so.

Consider this…scenario: You can take a substance that might carry a slight risk to your health…but that could also make you a better player. If you take it, you might help earn yourself millions upon millions of dollars and the acclaim of fans. Your friends and teammates also will benefit from your improved performance. And you know many others in your profession are already doing so. In fact, there is a decent chance you’ll need to take it to offset the advantage opponents have gained over you by taking the same thing.

Do you take it? If you are even tempted to say yes, you shouldn’t be so venomous in your judgments of Alex Rodriguez.

Yes, A-Rod deserves to be punished. And yes, we should try to rid the game of PED use. But while we’re casting judgments on A-Rod and Braun and the others implicated in the Biogenesis scandal and past steroid stories, we might want to consider casting that same harsh judgment on previous generations of players.

And on ourselves.

Obviously, A-Rod has issues, and there is no excuse for his behavior. But the larger issue for us to reflect on is our own views on cheating, morality and ethics.

One of the great moral voices of the 20th century, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, reminds us that “in a free society, few are guilty, but all are responsible.” In other words, while Rodriguez is the person who has to own up to his actions, we are all complicit in creating a system that encouraged it.

Indeed, social norms can easily trump even the strongest internal moral compass. Dan Ariely, author of the book The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, has done research that shows that people tend to cheat when society views their actions as “normal” and “acceptable.” As he says, “In many areas of life, we look to others to learn what behaviors are appropriate and inappropriate. Dishonesty may very well be one of the cases where the social norms that define acceptable behavior are not very clear, and the behavior of others…can shape our ideas about what’s right and wrong.” (Ariely, 201)

This is a particularly powerful message for us as we prepare for the High Holy Days, and think about how we have acted in this past year. While we do reflect on the particular actions that we want to atone for, most of the prayers that we say are in the plural — “We have sinned, we have transgressed.”

In other words, we atone not only for our individual mistakes, but for the ways we have allowed (or even encouraged) immoral behavior to flourish. And so whether or not we ourselves have lied, cheated or used PED’s, we all have played a part in shaping the social norms that will define “ethical behavior,” which then provides the model for how others will behave.

So yes, A-Rod will have to answer for his own actions. But we all helped create the system that incentivized steroids.

We will soon find out if A-Rod is guilty. But regardless of outcome, we all are responsible for creating the society we live in. And it’s the task of all of us to ensure it’s a moral one.

Posted on August 8, 2013

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Why I’m an Agnostic Theist

Researchers at The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga have just published a new study about atheists and atheism, and interestingly, the authors argue that non-belief in God is just as variegated as belief in God. At least initially, they have identified six types of non-believers: Intellectual Atheist/Agnostics (IAA), Activist Atheist/Agnostics (AAA), Seeker Agnostics (SA), Antitheists, Non-theists and Ritual Atheist/Agnostics (RAA).

The way these different groups defined themselves show how many different ways there are to think about God, even if people don’t believe in God — the Antitheists actively try to convince people that religion is harmful; the Activists pursue social justice work (such as environmentalism or LGBT rights); and the Intellectuals tend to love to study science, philosophy, sociology and politics.

One group, however, seemed to encapsulate a large segment of the Jewish community: the Ritual Atheist / Agnostics. As Christopher Silver, co-author of the study, notes:

Ritual Atheist/Agnostics find utility in tradition and ritual. For example, these individuals may participate in specific rituals, ceremonies, musical opportunities, meditation, yoga classes, or holiday traditions. Such participation may be related to an ethnic identity (e.g. Jewish) or the perceived utility of such practices in making the individual a better person.

Ritual Atheists / Agnostics, in other words, are less interested in whether or not religion is “true” than whether it “works.” Considering that Judaism is religion much more about action than about faith, perhaps it is not surprising that so many Jews would fall under this category.

Agnosticism AtheismYet I have one major problem with this study. While the authors articulate distinctions among many types of non-believers, they lump together atheists and agnostics. In fact, atheism and agnosticism are almost totally independent of each other — and in fact, many Jews (myself included) would likely self-identify as “agnostic theists.”

Here’s why:

First, the question of God’s existence is ultimately an unanswerable one. After all, different people think of, talk about and experience God in different ways, so the word “God” means different things to different people. Since we don’t all agree on what God is, we can’t accurately talk about whether or not God exists, because depending on how we define “God,” the answer to that question will be “yes” for some people and “no” for others.

Secondly, if we have any supernatural elements in our definition of God, we can’t use natural means to answer the question of God’s existence — by definition, such questions would be outside the realm of scientific knowledge. Indeed, even some of today’s greatest scientists and philosophers who call themselves “Antithesists,” such as Lawrence Krauss, Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens, have all said that they cannot say definitively whether or not God exists.

So because we can’t know the answer to God’s existence with certainty, the only intellectually honest answer to the question about whether God exists is “I don’t know.” And so that makes me an agnostic.

But even though we can’t know about God, we can certainly create our beliefs about God. We can decide how we use our religious outlook in our every day lives. And for me, theism is the language I want to use. When I meet a person for the first time, and believe that they are “created in the image of God,” it impacts the way I will treat them. When I experience the awe and majesty of nature, I can say that I “feel God’s presence.” And when I do social justice work, I can say that I am “partnering with God to make our world more whole,” which adds a level of spirituality to my actions.

Indeed, as my friend and colleague Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu recently wrote in her piece “Where Does God Fit In?“: “We do not talk about God in the liberal Jewish community. We talk about the importance of community itself, showing up for services, and giving charity.” So perhaps if we focused less on the question “Does God exist?” and more on the question “How do my beliefs about God impact my life and our world?”, we could begin to have deeper and more meaningful conversations about God in a Jewish setting.

As the Yiddish saying goes, “If I knew God, I’d be God.” So even as we don’t know about God’s existence, we can still explore what we want our relationship with the Divine to look like.

And if we look at God in this way, we are “agnostic theists” — which I have found to be the most intellectually and emotionally satisfying way to look at the world.

Posted on July 25, 2013

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Why Time Isn’t Money

time-money-see-sawWe often tend to use the same language for time as we use for money. We “spend” it. We “save” it. We “buy” it. We use those same words because both time and money are very precious resources to us.

But while money is always money (the same 20 dollars can used to buy food, movies, or in my case, a new book), time is a little more nuanced.

In fact, the Greeks had two different words for time: chronos and kairos. Chronos was the quantitative sense of time. It could be measured and dissected, and most importantly, was undifferentiated.

Kairos, in contrast, was the qualitative sense of time. It was psychological, how we felt time, and it reminded us that not every moment was exactly the same — some moments were more powerful, more important and more holy than others.

To phrase it another way, if chronos is the date of your wedding, kairos is your wedding day.

So time is paradoxical. Sometimes we look at it through our daily or weekly schedules, placing all our obligations and opportunities into our calendar. When we look at time in this way, it is something we use, and has value only to the extent that it can help us achieve other goals. But sometimes we look at time through the lens of what is most special and important in our lives. When we look at it in this way, it is something we experience, and has value in and of itself.

Our view of money, however, doesn’t have this challenge. Money doesn’t have value in and of itself — its power comes in what it allows us to do. The question then is, are we using our money to help us do what we truly want to be doing?

Happy MoneyIn the new book Happy Money: The Science of Smarter Spending, Elizabeth Dunn and Michael Norton outline the different ways we can use money to increase our well-being. While money doesn’t buy happiness (at least not directly), if we use our money correctly, we can find opportunities for more joy and satisfaction in life. And one of the primary ways we can do that is to use money to buy time — but it has to be a specific type of time.

We all are busy with our lives, and we often think that buying a new time-saving gadget will make our lives better because it will “save us time.” Instead, these new gadgets often force us to do more work in the same amount of time. But that’s because when we are looking to “be more efficient,” we are looking for more chronos time.

What Dunn and Norton argue is that we should use our money to find ways to experience kairos time. So, for example, how can we make sure that we have a date night with our spouse? How can we strive to volunteer with organizations that give our lives meaning? As Dunn and Norton explain:

Transforming decisions about money into decisions about time has a surprising benefit. Thinking about time — rather than money — spurs people to engage in activities that promote well-being, like socializing and volunteering. In a 2010 study, more than three hundred adults completed a simple task designed to activate the concept of either time or money. One group unscrambled sentences related to time, such as “sheets the change clock” (possible answers: “change the sheets” or “change the clock”). Another group unscrambled sentences related to money (“sheets the change price”). Afterwards, everyone decided how to spend the next twenty-four hours. Individuals who unscrambled sentences related to time were more inclined to socialize and engage in “intimate relations” and were less inclined to work. Those who unscrambled sentences related to money showed just the opposite pattern, reporting enhanced intentions to work and diminished intentions to socialize or have intimate relations.

Why? Time and money promote different mind-sets. We view our choices about how to spend time as being deeply connected to our sense of self. In contrast, choices about money often lead us to think in a relatively cold, rational manner. Focusing on time frees people to prioritize happiness and social relationships. Even a simple sentence-unscrambling task is enough to induce these different frames of mind. (Dunn and Norton, 74-75)

In Judaism, the paradigmatic kairos time is Shabbat. During the six days of the work week, we are supposed to be productive, to be working hard in order to support ourselves and our family. But on Shabbat, we are told to take a break. To rest. To be with friends. To be with family. To go for a nice, long walk. To read and to learn. To pray. To be reminded that time can be special.

Indeed, while every dollar we earn is the same, not every moment in life is the same. And while we can always potentially gain more money, we never gain more time. While you can always potentially get a refund on your money, once your time is spent, it’s gone.

So let’s make sure we’re spending it wisely.

Posted on June 13, 2013

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The Torah of Space Exploration

NASA_Mars_RoverWill humans ever land on Mars? Quite a number of people are trying to make it happen.

Buzz Aldrin has just published a book Mission to Mars: My Vision for Space Exploration. About half a million people are expected to apply for a one-way trip to Mars through the Dutch company “Mars One.” And even though it was a robot doing the landing, over 3 million people watched Curiosity land on the red planet.

Over 50 years ago, the nation (and the world) were riveted by NASA’s attempts to land a person on the moon, and bring him back safely to the earth. And when NASA succeeded, the whole world felt a sense of pride and awe when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin stepped out of the LEM and onto the Sea of Tranquility.

In its way, space travel is its own reward. Yes, the space program has provided us with concrete benefits: GPS navigation, meteorological forecasts, and even treatments for osteoporosis. But what it truly offers us is inspiration and a drive to expand our knowledge.

Neil de Grasse Tyson, director of the Hayden Planetarium, reminds us that the real value of space travel is how it captures our imagination, and how it motivates us to continue learning:

My favorite quote, I think it was Antoine Saint-Exupery who said, “If you want to teach someone to sail, you don’t train them how to build a boat. You compel them to long for the open seas.” That longing drives our urge to innovate, and space exploration has the power to do that, especially when it’s a moving frontier because all traditional sciences are there.

We humans are naturally curious creatures — we are born to explore. A mission to Mars excites us because we simply don’t know what we’ll discover, or how exactly it will add to our knowledge, or what new technologies will arise as a result. Even if we don’t immediately sense its benefits, it still has value, because the journey of learning is its own reward.

That’s the same message we get on Shavuot, our celebration of Torah, because the study of Torah, too, doesn’t always provide an immediate return on its investment. Instead, we study Torah lishmah, for its own sake.

Why? Because Torah is not designed to train us how to build a boat. It is designed to make us long for the open seas.

Jewish learning is never supposed to give us a final and definitive answer. Instead, it is supposed to inspire us, and to push us to explore beyond what we already know. Rabbis Michael Katz and Gershon Schwartz even titled a book Swimming in the Sea of Talmud because Jewish study leads us into the vast, challenging, and compelling unknown, which we do for the pure joy of learning something new. As they teach us, when we learn one text,

…there are a dozen new questions arising from [it]: Can this lesson be applied to other, similar situations? Is this lesson still applicable today? What would the Rabbis of the Talmud say to our particular situation, which differs slightly from the case they presented? Is the conclusion reached and the lesson derived from the text the most relevant and meaningful message? (Katz and Schwartz, 6-7)

True learning never stops; it pushes us out ever-farther into uncharted territory. As both space exploration and Torah study show us, each new discovery spurs new lines of inquiry; each new challenge forces us to create innovative solutions; each new venture helps us push the boundaries of knowledge.

Now, it is true that as vast as the open sea may be, it is not infinite. And neither, most likely, is space.

But human curiosity — our drive to explore and learn and grow — just might be.

Posted on May 16, 2013

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How Fear Brings Us Together

As a native New Yorker and a die-hard Yankees fan, the year I lived in Boston was not always an easy one. When I braved the T wearing my Yankees jacket, I definitely got more than a few dirty looks.

New Yorker CartoonBut I was in Boston on 9/11, and was amazed at how Bostonians rallied around and supported New York City. Though my memory might be faulty and I may have imagined it, I think I might have even got some smiles and nods when people saw my Yankees jacket in the weeks following 9/11.

It’s a same way people are feeling now about the relationship between New York and Boston. Jon Stewart said it well: “New Yorkers and Boston obviously have kind of a little bit of a competition. Often, the two cities accusing each other of various levels of suckitude. But it is in situations like this that we realize it is clearly a sibling rivalry, and that we are your brothers and sisters in this type of event.”

Indeed, even as scary events raise our anxiety levels, one of the unexpected benefits of fear is that it causes us to spend more time focusing on what unites us than on what divides us.

On the day after Election Day, psychologist and author Jonathan Haidt had writtne an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times entitled “We Need a Little Fear.” In it, he reminds us that in times of crisis, we come together in ways we would not have done otherwise:

A Bedouin proverb says, “Me against my brother, my brothers and me against my cousins, then my cousins and me against strangers.” Human beings are pretty good at uniting to fight at whatever level is most important at a given moment. This is why every story about a team of warriors or superheroes features an internal rivalry, but all hatchets are buried just before the climactic final battle in which the team vanquishes the external enemy.

There’s a reason that one of the great Hebrew songs says, “Behold, how good and beautiful it is when brothers and sisters dwell in unity” (Ps. 133:1) — when we come together united to support each other, when we see our former rivals as “brothers and sisters,” it truly is good and beautiful.

So even as we are afraid, even as our world seems to be ever-more broken, we can take this moment to transform our fears into a vision of brotherhood and sisterhood.

After all, if Red Sox and Yankee fans can join together in harmony, anyone can do it.

Posted on April 18, 2013

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“As If”: The Two Little Words We Too Often Ignore

“Each generation, people must see themselves as if they themselves went forth from Egypt.”

That quote is the essence of why we celebrate Passover, read the Haggadah, and hold a Seder. When we think about that sentence, we naturally focus on how Passover should inspire us to work for freedom and justice. But often, we overlook two crucial words in that sentence: “as if.” And those two words may, in fact, be the most important ones.

As If PrincipleThe words “as if” inspired psychologist Richard Wiseman to write a new book called The As If Principle, based on William James’ idea that “if you want a quality, act as if you already have it.” Wiseman highlights some fascinating research that shows that change doesn’t always come from the inside out — sometimes, change comes from the outside in.

In other words, if we act “as if” we were trying to improve who we are and how we behave, we actually do improve who we are and how we behave.

One striking example he brings up was a method to get heavy smokers to give up cigarettes. There have been all sorts of attempts to get people to give up smoking over the years, and most have used the scare route, such as public service announcements featuring people who have lost their voice box or ever-increasingly-ominous warnings on cigarette packs. But John Mann, a researcher at Harvard, decided to try something different: role-playing.

Twenty-six very heavy smokers were randomly assigned to two different groups. One group was asked to behave “as if” they had been diagnosed with lung cancer, and even went into a room that looked like a doctor’s office, complete with an actor in a white coat, X-rays and medical charts. This group was asked to think about how they would behave now that they “had” cancer. In contrast, the control group simply were simply presented information about how awful it would be to have lung cancer, but didn’t do any role-playing.

What happened to the two groups? Before the study, all the participants were smoking about 25 cigarettes per day. At the end, the control group had cut back by five cigarettes. But the role-playing group had cut back by 10. Even years later, the group that had to act “as if” they needed to change their lives actually did. (Wiseman, 123)

Role-playing, acting “as if” we were someone else, changes our outlook and our behavior, and so that is why the Seder commands us to act “as if we ourselves went forth from Egypt” — because Passover, at its heart, is truly an act of role-playing. We have props (the seder plate, Elijah’s cup), stage directions (recline, drink wine) and a script (the Haggadah). And they are all designed to help us act as if we ourselves went forth from Egypt.

So what outlook or behavior is Passover trying to get us to change? Rabbi Lawrence Hoffman, who calls the Haggadah “the script for a sacred drama” in order to help us to role-play more effectively, argues that it’s to help us connect to our history, our community, and our obligations to others. As he says, when we host our Seder and act “as if we ourselves went forth from Egypt,”

[we] do not just “play” the roles, [we] are the roles, and [we] take the roles so seriously they [we] internalize them as [our] identities. When the actress playing Lady Macbeth leaves the theater, she is not expected to murder someone on the way home; when Jews put down their Haggadah, they are expected to have a heightened sense of Jewish identity and to be more attuned to their Jewish responsibilities. People, that is, who leave the Seder and ignore the plight of the homeless have missed the point. (Hoffman, My People’s Haggadah Vol. 1, 5-6)

The “as if” principle teaches us that “once you behave as if you were a type of person, you become that person.” So on this Passover, when we act “as if” we ourselves went out from Egypt, we are also leading ourselves to act like people who care deeply about the oppressed, who fight for justice, and who extend a hand to those less fortunate.

And when we act that way, we soon realize that we aren’t simply role-playing; we truly are changing ourselves and our world for the better. Indeed, those two little words that we too often ignore — “as if” — are truly what allows us to transform our hopes and dreams into our reality.

Posted on March 21, 2013

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Our Life: Based on a True Story

argoWhile there were quite a few excellent movies in 2012, my favorite, far and away was “Argo.” I saw it with my wife and another couple, and the film was so well-crafted that my friend was quite literally curled in his seat, covering his eyes and holding his breath during a scene where the only thing happening was the printing of plane tickets.  The whole ending was tense, taut and exciting.

It was also completely fabricated.

Yet when I learned about that, I actually wasn’t all that upset. It was a great movie that prompted me to read Tony Mendez’ personal account how he got six Americans out of Iran, so that I could learn what had been true, what had been adapted, and what had been made up whole cloth.

We know that no movie that is “based on a true story” is ever the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth. The editors decide what stays in, what gets cut, and what order the story should be told in. What we forget is that our lives are “based on a true story,” as well.

Jonathan Gottschall is the author of the book The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, and he reminds us that we all edit our life story. As he describes it:

A life story is a “personal myth” about who we are deep down — where we come from, how we got this way, and what it all means….[I]t is not, however, an objective account. A life story is a shaped narrative that is replete with strategic forgetting and skillfully spun meanings. (161)

It’s important to remember the real purpose of a story — and it is not simply to relay facts. It’s to put those facts into a meaningful context. A good story doesn’t simply tell us “what happened,” it tells us how and why it happened. In other words, a story — whether that’s a movie like “Argo” or our own personal narrative — is not designed to be a perfectly accurate record of history. Instead, our stories are much more like “memory.”

While history is an attempt to correctly portray past events, memory is a reconstruction of past events, some of which are going to be inherently distorted, overlooked, or even completely rewritten. And for our day-to-day lives, memory is much more important than history — and that’s an idea that resonates with a Jewish perspective.

Avraham Infeld, who served as President of Hillel International, once said that there’s no such things as Jewish history; there is only Jewish memory. What’s the difference? “History means knowing what happened in the past. Memory means asking how what happened in the past influences me, and my life today. It is for that reason that we do not teach our young that our ancestors left Egypt. We teach them that ‘every human being must see him or herself as having left Egypt.’” Memory, in other words, is the driver for the story we tell about ourselves here and now.

So yes, we do need history. We do need accuracy. We do need to make sure that we trying to act with intellectual integrity. But we also shouldn’t conflate history with story. After all, our personal and communal myths are rarely historically accurate, but that doesn’t mean that they don’t have value.

Indeed, there’s a line that my friend and colleague Cantor Ellen Dreskin often says that is equally true about “Argo,” our collective Jewish memory, and our own life story: “Something doesn’t have to be factual for it to be true.”

How very true that is.

Posted on February 21, 2013

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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

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How Many Unread Books Do You Own?

There are definitely times when I feel like I am single-handedly keeping Barnes and Noble in business. It was very dangerous when I lived walking distance from a store, because I’d go there several times a week, and almost always came away with at least one book in my hand.

I realized that as much as I love reading books, what I truly love is owning books. When I look at my overflowing bookshelves in my house and my office, I smile.

I had always wondered why that was the case, until Rabbi David Wolpe shared this thought from A.E. Newton a few weeks ago: “The buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity.” So perhaps the many, many unread books on my shelves are not simply gathering dust. Perhaps all those unread books are there to help me to nourish my soul.

How so? First, unread books remind me that even if I gain some modicum of knowledge and insight, there will always be more to learn. In fact, Jewish learning even intentionally makes it impossible for us to learn everything — every tractate of the Talmud, the great collection of law and learning, begins on page two, never on page one. Why? To teach us that we should never assume that we have found all the answers.

Similarly, owning dozens (or hundreds!) of unread books is a very physical reminder that there is always more wisdom being added to the world. It is both inspiring and humbling to know that whatever we learn, there will always be new facts, new interpretations, and new ideas to discover.

Second, a library filled with unread books gives us the freedom to go browsing in the comfort of our own home or office — and we often overlook the value of browsing. As author Leon Wiseletier wrote beautifully in a piece in the New Republic:

When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations…[and] serendipity is how the spirit is renewed…

Too often, we search only for the information we need. We type in a Google search, and are very happy when we find the answer we’ve been looking for. But searching is limiting — we have to know in advance what we’re looking for. Browsing, in contrast, opens up our horizons, and helps us develop connections or inspirations that we may have otherwise missed.

So if you, too, have books that are now laying horizontally on top of other books because your shelves are too full, that’s a good thing. They are reminding you that wisdom and knowledge are an ever-expanding enterprise, and they are giving you the opportunity to come across insights you may have otherwise missed.

Unread books do not add to our store of information; to do that, we do actually need to read them. But unread books do add to our store of humility and the broadening of our worldview — and so even if they are never opened, they help our soul reach to infinity.

Posted on December 27, 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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