“Because I am a Jew,” one person said. I had asked the participants of a class to tell me why we should care about Israel. This response in many ways summarized the sentiments of the group, who were mostly middle-aged, and highly selective. After all, they showed up in synagogue to have this conversation.
I pointed out that this response reflects an assumed value of peoplehood – that we, the Jewish people, are a mutually bound family. As a family, our identities are rooted in shared history and lineage, and we feel responsible for each other. Israel, as the nation of the Jewish people, belongs to all of us. Right?
Well, maybe. It turns out that one’s emotional, spiritual and intellectual reaction to this question depends on how we each understand our identities. Are we part of the “family” known as the Jewish people? Does being a “member of the tribe” bind us to any certain responsibilities or obligations?
There is a good bit of hand wringing in the Jewish community about the eroding sense of Jewish peoplehood. Do Jews feel responsible for each other? Do Jews continue to prioritize charitable giving to Jewish causes as we did a generation ago? Do Jews choose to affiliate with Jewish communities to be among “family,” as my parents did 50 years ago? The entire Jewish world is being rocked by shifting views of Jewish peoplehood.
For that reason, I was particularly interested to read a fascinating column in the NY Times this weekend, “The Myth of Universal Love“, but Stephen T. Asma. Asma argues for “favoritism,” and what he calls a “small circle care” and family preference. By rebuffing the social scientists whose universalist values have deeply influenced our culture, he demonstrates that commitment to our “small circle of favorites” is actually a crucial ingredient for human happiness. “Favoritists … are very good at selflessly giving to members of their inner circle.”
Wouldn’t we all want to be the beneficiaries of selfless generosity? Doesn’t it feel good to offer kindness to those who matter most to us?
Asma builds his case by punching holes in the theories of two of the leading liberal social theorists, Jeremy Rifkin and Peter Singer, who “think we can overcome factional bias and eventually become one giant tribe.” These universalist “utilitarian ethics” were developed by an early nineteenth century thinker, William Godwin. Check out this logic:
Godwin asked us to imagine if you could save only one person from a burning building. One of those persons is Archbishop Fénelon and the other is a common chambermaid. Furthermore, the archbishop is just about to compose his famous work “The Adventures of Telemachus” (an influential defense of human rights). Now here’s the rub. The chambermaid is your mother.
Godwin argues that the utilitarian principle (the greatest good for the greatest number) requires you to save the archbishop rather than your mother. He asks, “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth?”
Singer extends this to the ultimate universal idea: that “we should do everything within our power to help strangers meet their basic needs, even if it severely compromises our kin’s happiness.”
I bristled with displeasure to imagine anyone choosing to leave their mother to die or harming their own family by prioritizing strangers over them in apportioning resources. My thinking is not just a reflection of my training in Jewish texts and ideas – it is simple logic. We are most satisfied when we sustain mutual relationships with others. As Asma points out, studies show that “the most important element in a good life is close family and friendship ties – ties that bind.”
I didn’t need studies to tell me this. Being a part of the Jewish people has taught me well. And that is worth saving.
I couldn’t stop thinking about the opening scene from the Wizard of Oz –where the house spins wildly in the air and lands with a crash. In the next scene, Dorothy wakes up and learns that she is in Oz, opening an adventure. The scene that made me remember this childhood image was very real, and it is no adventure at all. The houses that spun and landed were real houses picked up by Hurricane Sandy just weeks ago. Unlike their fictional movie counterpart, these houses didn’t land intact. They broke into thousands of pieces, some tiny and some amazingly large, some sweeping through the nearby reedy marsh.
This was the scene in Union Beach, New Jersey, where I spent a day volunteering with a group from the Jewish Federation of Metrowest, NJ. Our community has adopted Union Beach and made a special effort to assist this devastated community less than an hour’s drive from my home.
The town manager outlined the extent of the devastation – 1600 modest middle income homes comprise this small, hardworking shore town, and virtually all were either flooded, badly damaged, devastated (needing demolition) or completely demolished by the storm. 50 houses were destroyed, while another 300 are beyond repair. The needs are enormous.
We worked on cleaning a marshland wildlife habitat adjacent to the shore. One street on the bay side of the marsh suffered a direct hit from storm surge, and every single house was destroyed. Much of the debris landed across the marsh. In one section we pried household plumbing and parts of walls out of the tangled marsh. We cut and removed sections of wooden framing from houses, alongside an entire outside deck. We discovered what appeared to be the pieces of an entire house along with its contents, uncovered piece by piece from the mud. A child’s toy truck. A refrigerator. A couch. A hat. A section of a kitchen table. A storage bin for toys. A mailbox attached to the post, #168. A box of love letters, the top one addressed, “Dear Honey-Bunny”, from thirty years ago. Photographs, some in albums, many alone in the debris, attested to whole lifetimes of family and special times. One baby picture looked eerily like my son as a baby. Each item brought tears to my eyes – this was their whole lives, and it could have been mine. I grieved for their loss.
The town manager told us that they don’t know how many people are currently living in the town. Many are sleeping on couches and floors with family, friends and neighbors. FEMA has yet to provide housing for any of the displaced residents.
The AmeriCorps team leader told me that she had just come from working in a section of New York that was a worse disaster than Union Beach. There is plenty of misery to go around in New Jersey and New York.
I wished I could cut just write checks to these homeowners to get their lives rebuilt. I thought of the politicians in Congress playing politics with the request for emergency funding that is facing opposition in the House. I felt sick about it.
I came home and told my son about our work. I was achy and tired, but glad I did it. He said, “Yea, but its only one day.” He’s right. The need is so much greater.
As I scrubbed the mud from under my fingernails and nursed my aching back, I thought of the politicians whose help is desperately needed. All the volunteers can’t do what our government can do to help these communities. As I drifted off to sleep I imagined a fantasy – every politician who must decide whether to fund the Emergency Fund as requested by local officials ought to have to spend a week sleeping on floors and couches in these cramped quarters, spending the daytime not debating, but digging, sawing, lifting, and removing debris. And then rebuilding—wouldn’t that be nice! Maybe if they got their hands dirty they would think twice about saying “no.”
After all, there is no place like home.
I have always loved telling the Chanukah story because it is so much about the strength of the Jewish people. My own Jewish identity is nourished by powerful pride in our improbable survival for all these many centuries of challenges. Chanukah is an opportunity to celebrate the courage, smarts and drive of the Jewish people. Not only did our ancestors find a way to prevail during the Syrian Green conflict of the second century BCE, but we have also been inspired by their story at many subsequent crucially challenging moments.
How does that story relate to us today? In our increasingly individualized society, how many of us have the kind of commitment to any cause that we would risk our lives for it? How much are we willing to fight for what we value? Do we value our people enough to be courageous and selfless for the preservation of Jewish civilization? What would that courage and devotion look like?
Last week was a significant anniversary on the Jewish calendar. December 6 was the celebration of the 25th anniversary of the huge march on Washington to Free Soviet Jewry. 250,000 participants came from all over the country, even from other countries. Their presence, coinciding with the White House meeting of President Reagan and Soviet Premier Mikhail Gorbachev caught the attention of the American president. He told his guest that he could not ignore these constituents. American aid to the Soviet Union would depend on freeing Soviet Jews. Slowly but surely the doors opened and our brothers and sisters were permitted to emerge from behind the Iron Curtain. We did it – courage, drive, devotion, sacrifice and intelligence won again.
It can be easier to find the resolve to respond in a crisis. But what about the in-between times? In many ways our people has thrived and contributed to the world out of day-to-day devotion to our shared destiny. We are in it for the long haul. Our covenant with God has inspired us, our belonging to the Jewish people has grounded us; we have lived for the “us.”
American culture presents a renewed challenge to Jewish peoplehood. This calls for transformed commitment to the “us,” to the ideals of the Jewish people. It’s worth fighting for our people – it is really not so selfless – after all, we are the beneficiaries of this great Jewish civilization.
Chanukah celebrates the victory for religious freedom that the Maccabees won for us. In every age we have new opportunities to renew that victory, as the Student Struggle for Soviet Jewry and the National Council on Soviet Jewry did in 1987. Every year Chanukah gives us an opportunity to celebrate pride in being Jews. We are the newest Maccabees, fighting for “us.”
Victory will be seen by the gifting of our talents, time and resources to make our Jewish organizations as engaging and soulful as the next generation needs them to be. Chanukah means “dedication.” Renewed dedication to the Jewish people’s well-being would be a triumph worthy of the celebration of light that we enjoy.
Best wishes for a joyous Chanukah, filled with light, inspired by courage and devotion.
For some of us in New Jersey and New York the last couple of weeks post-Sandy have been very difficult. Tensions have been high among those who have endured considerable disruption in their lives. Some people have suffered terrible losses.
Every time I heard complaining about the stresses of living without power or heat, without fuel for our cars or mass transit, I thought of the many people who were living in dark apartment buildings without elevators or heat. I thought of the poor and infirmed, and I thought of those who had no family or friends to help them.
I was reminded of the tremendous challenges of income inequality and the growing divide between the haves and the have-nots in our country. Will this storm’s aftermath teach us to create a more equitable society? Will we remember the outpouring of compassion in the days post-storm and work to help those who are struggling in the months ahead? Will the hard hearts of the self-protected be softened?
Many people in my area are talking about installing permanent generators onto their homes. The “new normal” for the middle class who can afford it will now include storm preparedness. But what about those who can’t afford it?
These thoughts consumed me as we struggled to return to normalcy in my area this week. But that is not what I heard as the lead story on the news this morning. The airwaves were filled with the scandalous story of our CIA director’s affair. With every possible angle of analysis being discussed on the radio, I became more and more agitated as I listened. The personal tragedy of the Petraeus family is sad. But it is just that – a personal tragedy.
When one commentator emphatically exclaimed that Petraeus’ indiscretion was “morally reprehensible!” I winced. It is not that the general’s extramarital affair wasn’t a sin. Of course it was immoral. But for goodness sake, if we are going to invest such intense emotional energy in decrying “morally reprehensible” behavior, why not direct it at the greed and insensitivity to human needs that is so rampant in our culture? Continue reading
While driving to work the other day I heard a woman interviewed on the radio asked about the “Rape” comments of some particular politicians running for office. The reporter asked if those comments would influence her vote. “No,” she replied, rather dispassionately, “he is entitled to his opinion about that, even if we disagree.” In other words, she would still support candidates associated with those views, as well as those who articulate them.
I gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles, channeling my anger into the tightness in my hands. This is RAPE we are talking about — not taxes, not health care or energy policy – all issues about which I have strong feelings, but not nearly as potentially personal. Yes, I know that these issues and several more are serious reflections of our values and therefore personal on many levels. But rape – the heinous act of violence against a woman – is a step above these issues in its import.
Rape is an act of violence. There is no qualifying it. It is a forceful act, a violent imposition of power over a woman. It is as wounding, or more, than a physical act of harm that leaves external wounds. The internal wounds, the spiritual, emotional, psychological wounds left by rape can be longer lasting and more difficult to heal than many other wounds. For the women I have counseled as a rabbi, along with their loved ones, I am anguished by their pain.
Politicians who have used terms like, “legitimate rape” or who have legitimized the violent and forceful act of rape by labeling resulting pregnancies as “God’s will,” are just plain disdainful of women. They may think they are nice people and they may say they are compassionate, but make no mistake about it – the men who have made these crude statements are neither compassionate nor nice. They are soldiers in a war against women.
Partisan politics ugliness has reached a new crescendo with this war on women. It has become acceptable for politicians to speak in crude and demeaning ways about women’s bodies or our ability to make choices for ourselves. How can a bunch of politicians — who appear to know nothing about women — make choices for us? Yes, some of their supporters are female politicians. I have just one thing to say to them: Shame on you!
Personal decisions about birth control and pregnancy are spiritually and emotionally serious and challenging. Rabbis, ministers and therapists are equipped to guide women who are facing difficult choices. But politicians are not, and I think they know that. This is not about helping women. It is about power.
To those who support these insensitive brutes, who say, “It’s just a difference of opinion,” I say: Shame on you. Women waited too long and fought too hard to win our right to equality and respect. We owe each other vigilance to make sure we don’t turn the clock back.
Oh, if only “men and women could be gentle, and women and men could be strong,” in the words of Judy Chicago. Then “everywhere will be called Eden once again.”
My childhood memories of the festival of Simchat Torah center around a paper flag topped with a candy-apple and candy canes. I loved the joyous dancing and the candy was a real treat. Yet, I can’t remember anything of the ritual of the ending and beginning of the reading from the scroll and any prayers we recited long ago receded into the background.
After years of trying to hold onto all of ritual the elements – the evening prayers, the rituals of the ending and beginning, and the dancing and singing, I felt we needed a different focus. In keeping with other ritual innovations in my community in the last two years, I reimagined the experience. We started and ended with food – always appreciated! And with a room full of kids of all ages and adults, I led a brief guided meditation of evening prayers, sealed with a blessing, and closed in song. Then we got the music going and danced joyously. Moving all the chairs away for a full space, we took off. And as the energy flagged, we slowly switched into a different ritual mode – we unrolled an entire Torah scroll around the room, as silence fell and everyone cooperated in carefully and respectfully handling the scroll. The sense of awe was palpable.
I called two teens for the blessings, the honored roles of bridegrooms of Torah and new beginnings, followed by the briefest of readings from the ending and beginning of the scroll, and everyone was rapt in attention. Then the real fun began – “Stump the Rabbi” – a learning game envisioned by Jay, our spiritual life committee chair. I had suggested that we ask everyone to think of their favorite story or teaching in the Torah so we could find together them in the unrolled scroll. But Jay’s idea was that the community would ask me to find their favorite sections of the text within a 60 second time limit. They came ready and couldn’t wait for me to find their chosen quotes and stories. We lost track of time and I had to apologize that it was time to end when worried parents began to realize that it was time to get the kids home on that school-night. The kids weren’t the least bit interested in stopping. They were having too much fun.
I got stumped once – by a seventh grader who wanted me to read the story of Moses hitting the rock. I didn’t locate it fast enough – and he was delighted. But for all the stories that I did find and read, the joy of learning was just as strong. Everyone left with anticipation of next year’s Simchat Torah, and came back on Shabbat morning talking about the fun.
We didn’t have candy-apples or candy canes. But the pizza, apples and cookies were just fine. And the experience was a new generation’s joy – engaging, meaningful and memorable. How wonderful that it left us all waiting for more!
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.
On this Rosh Hashanah, we pray for renewal of spirit.
May this New Year refresh our commitment to the values we hold most dear:
May we turn and return to our souls,
May we perceive the Divine light within ourselves,
May we be steadfast in remaining conscious that all people are created in God’s image,
May our days be grounded by prayer and meditation, and nourished by an inner life of gratitude,
May Shabbat rest bring us joy each week, infusing the rhythm of our time with meaning,
May kindness, mercy, justice and love guide our interactions,
May we enjoy and nurture friendship and family and caring community,
May our prayer-life and Shabbat rest provide guidance in our daily choices,
May we find focus and satisfaction and success in our chosen endeavors,
May we vigilant to fulfill our commitments and be faithful to sustaining our sacred community with dedication,
May we be infused with the spirit of generosity toward all those in need,
May our appreciation for the sacredness life fill our days with gratitude, humility, compassion and love.
May this New Year renew our lives for good,
And may it bring us joy and sweetness.
Leshanah Tovah, Happy New Year!
It’s the week between the Republican National Convention and the Democratic National Convention and I’ve checked out. That’s not usually my way. Politics have always drawn my attention and been important to me. I cherish the opportunity to participate in our democracy and I don’t take it for granted. I find it distressing to hear people who say that they haven’t voted, or don’t vote, either out of apathy or simply because they don’t like the candidates. Someone has to lead and legislate – and if we don’t voice our choice, we lose the chance to make any difference at all. In any election, outcomes could be far worse if we don’t exercise our right to vote.
Politics are, after all, about what kind of democracy we will shape together. It is about being part of nation comprised of citizens who care about the collective state of our communities and our nation. It is about how we shape our world. It is ultimately an expression of our values. At its best, politics is about how we strive to reach consensus or compromise about critical issues that impact our lives.
Which is why I am so saddened by the state of American politics today. Many of the values I hold dear are pretty hard to find. The current uncompromising culture of American politics is counter to all the potential offered to us by our founders. It’s a theatre of battles that are win-lose – there is no win-win; there are few compromises. Even when there are compromises, they are often achieved after nasty and bruising battles, resulting in compromises that are so mangled as to be nearly worthless. Name-calling has devolved into nasty demonization. I can’t bare to listen to it most of the time.
It hurts – so much is at stake that will impact all of our lives and our world. It’s painful to hear the speeches; I hardly read the political news in the morning paper. The TV and radio attack ads just suck the air out of the room. The distortions and rampant dishonesty are sickening. This is what our country talks about, when the world is facing so many serious problems? This is how we conduct ourselves when so many people are suffering and need help?
So I checked out. I have been salving my broken heart with immersion in an honest competition – the US Open Tennis Tournament. I don’t play the sport – but I love watching these two weeks of games. This year I am especially addicted to it – it’s so much more satisfying than the show being presented by the politicians. Couldn’t everyone have the sportsmanship of Kim Clijsters, who ended her celebrated career with a mixed doubles loss — offering smiles and hugs?
I know — there is a big difference between tennis and politics. But at least tennis has manners. In Jewish tradition we call that derekh eretz. If only our political discourse and its decision-making could have some derekh eretz. It’s recognition that we are all equal at our core — we are all created in the image of the Divine.
That should be the guiding principle of our politics –not ego or self-enrichment. With the guidance of derekh eretz our political discourse would be about how we govern our society with regard for all people; men and women, all races, poor and rich. How can we best offer opportunity while caring for the needs of all Americans?
Our country desperately needs campaigns that are about the character of our country. They should be guided by the values of compassion, justice and mercy, and please – humility. It is up to us to demand it.
I love watching the Olympics. This summer, I even watched reruns for a week after the games were over as my entertainment while I exercised. Watching the athletes’ amazing prowess motivated me to go faster and longer and stronger.
What is it that so fascinates us about the Olympic games? Why are we so gripped with emotion over who wins and who misses their moment?
Like other sports, the Olympics give us a vicarious surge of emotion for the effort, the competition, the feeling of winning. We imagine the athletes as extensions of ourselves. What a sense of accomplishment when our team or our favorite athlete wins!
But it does not stop there. Some of us try to get there. Even knowing that almost all of us will never reach professional heights, many still try. I am talking about team sports for kids. When I was a kid, team sports were about the game. We took the competition in stride, while learning sportsmanship – in playing, in winning and in losing. While a spirit of competition drove us, it didn’t define us.
I think things have changed dramatically since my childhood in the 60’s and early 70’s. Today the attachment to sports among many of our kids is much more serious and intensely competitive, and often not about “play.” It is about winning. It is about performance. That’s not bad if it is a part of a child’s identity formation. It can surely boost a child’s self esteem.
While in a previous era most kids developed their identity through their religious community and extended family, today sports can take center stage. Perhaps that’s an indictment on religious communities and our ability to be a compelling force in the lives of emerging young people. But it is also a comment on the values of our culture and its priorities.
Today, the coach often plays the clergy role as an authority and guide. The power of coaches in dictating schedules and priorities for families is stunning. My generation reveled in the insistence of baseball player Sandy Koufax that he not play on Yom Kippur when he would have pitched for the first game of the 1965 World Series. He was our hero.
Times have changed. In today’s culture, sports routinely take precedence over religious school, Shabbat and holidays. Many kids and parents worry about being left out of games or even the team if they miss practices or games. Today’s heroes win on the field, and rarely by declining to participate.
But coaches and games, no matter how good, can’t help us with core questions of life the way our religious traditions can – as a foundation for our whole lives.
We need to get back to a better balance – where religious schools, which have mostly become quite nimble at adapting to the sports-conflict phenomenon, provide experiences so compelling that it would be harder to miss it. But more — coaches also need to understand that other activities are equally important to a child’s development. Coaches and parents need to teach their kids perspective – the game is just a game. Life – that’s a different matter. Four thousand years of Jewish tradition offer an inheritance that teaches us to live a life that matters. That takes practice and coaching too.