Author Archives: Tsafi Lev

Tsafi Lev

About Tsafi Lev

Rabbi Tsafi Lev, is a CLAL Rabbis Without Borders Fellow. He is the Rabbinic Director of New Community Jewish High School in West Hills, CA, and a Lecturer for the Fingerhut School of Education Master of Arts in Education program at the American Jewish University.

Empathy for a Convicted Aryan Brotherhood Killer

Todd Ashker

If we fail to treat others, even the worst among them, humanely, than it is we who ceed the ‘moral high ground’, and the greatest values of our country will be undermined.

California Prison Blues (Johnny Cash is dead and he ain’t comin’ to play at Folsom)

I woke up this morning feeling empathy for an imprisoned, convicted killer, an Aryan Brotherhood member, Todd Ashker of Pelican Bay State Prison in California. What the hell is wrong with me! He’s a killer. He’s an anti-semite. And, he’s joined three other gang leaders in the prison to start a second hunger strike against conditions in the California prison system. 600 inmates have joined them. These are men who have tried in court and found guilty of killing innocent people – they shouldn’t get to dictate terms.

Still, the conditions in solitary confinement have long been under the scrutiny of our legal system. “Conditions in [solitary] may well hover on the edge of what is humanly tolerable,” wrote U.S. District Judge Thelton Henderson in 1995.

Recently, Israel approved the transfer of 104 Palestinian prisoners as a gesture of good-will before renewed peace talks begin. To be sure, these are some of the worst of the worst. Some have been imprisoned for more than 20 years. It must be painful for families to watch the killers of loved ones go free. How can we let them go?

NetanyahuTo this Netanyahu said, “There are moments in which tough decisions must be made for the good of the country, and this is one of them.”

Guantanamo Bay opened way back in 2002. It became an international symbol for America’s failure to exercise due process, a bedrock of it’s own legal system. Five years later candidate Obama said we needed to shut it down. Then in January 22, 2009, soon after his first inauguration, he signed an Executive Order that was to begin the shut down of the prison. He said, “We think that it is precisely our ideals that give us the strength and the moral high ground to be able to effectively deal with the unthinking violence that we see emanating from terrorist organizations around the world. We intend to win this fight. We’re going to win it on our terms.”

By his account, we have not reached the ‘moral high ground.’

Guantanamo

A Guiding Tale: In the worst cities that ever were, the cities of Sodom and Gemorah, there was murder, rape, theft – and those were good days. Of the inhabitants of these two cities there was only one, just one righteous man who did not murder, rape or steal.

“Stop what you are doing. Don’t do that,” He would say to his townsmen. They would just laugh. Still, every day, he would go out and plead with them to stop the evil, and end the pain they were causing each other. Every day they would laugh at him.

After years and years of his appeals to their better selves and their laughing at this lonely morally grounded man, one brute asked the man, “Old man, why do you come out here and tell us to stop every day, when you must know by now that we never listen to you?”

“At first,” said the man, “ I kept repeating my message to try and change your ways. I continued to say them so that you would not change me.”

The President said of closing Guantanamo, that we would ‘win it on our terms.’ I understand that to mean that the United States of America would not be cowed by terror, that the hideous acts of terrorists would not change the character of our country. Twelve years after 9/11, we are still a country that is unsure of the balance of security and privacy that we are comfortable with.

The President said that we would “win on our terms,” but without due process, and without humane care – even in prisons for the hardest killers in the system – “We may be human beings, but we cease to be humans.”

In every case, perhaps especially those cases that draw on our anger and desires for revenge, let us not become what we despise.

Posted on July 30, 2013

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The Passion/Compassion of the Jews

imagesEvery year on the 9th of Av it’s the same arguments in my head. Should I fast or not? On the one hand, the Temple was destroyed, and more. On the other, the State of Israel is reborn, and we Jews live in tremendous freedom. Besides, do we not look forward instead of back? The Judaism I practice helps me build toward a better future, not recreate the past. Between these poles I bounce all 24 hours long – and then, well then the fast is over, and I’ve made no resolution, no progress of how to mark the 9th of Av next summer.

“This is the Day of Destruction.” It’s a phrase my father uses to describe this date in Jewish History, the 9th of Av. Indeed, it was on this date that the First Temple fell (587 BCE) as well as the Second Temple (70 CE). Additionally, on the 9th of Av. It’s also the date of the negative report of the 12 spies that Moses sent (Num. 13-14), the date the Romans put down the Bar Kochbah Rebelion (132) and plowed over the Temple Mount (133) – All of the above constitute the 5 calamities of the described in the Mishnah Taanit 4:6 (200 CE). And there is more: The first crusade (1096), the expulsion from England (1290), the Expulsion from France (1306), and the Expulsion from Spain (1492). Closer to our own age, it was on the 9th of Av (Aug. 2, 1941) that Heinrich Himmler received approval from the Nazi Party for “The Final Solution.” the following year the mass deportations from the Warsaw Ghetto began.

Such a day… Traditionally, the 9th of Av is marked by fasting from food and drink, not bathing, not wear leather, and abstaining from sexual relations. In synagogues we sit on the floor, and by candle light we read the Book of Lamentations, “Shall the women eat their fruit, the children that are dandled in the hands?” (2:20). Blood in the streets, dead babies, young and old dead in the streets.

Why such anguish? I ask the same question about the passion of Jesus? What is the religious point of dwelling in such torture, blood, and murder? Why should I stomach such Biblical torture porn – the gore of Lamentations and of Jesus’ brutal beating and crucifixion remind me more of movies I choose not to see than of the religions of Love which I see in Judaism and in Christianity.

I believe that the case of the 9th of Av echoes the Christian understanding of the Passion of Jesus. To bear one’s cross is to feel the the very human pain of loss and hurt and loneliness and betrayal. Feeling the full force of the worst day(s) of one’ life is a powerful human connection to the Jesus story. Yet to focus on the horrible things that happened to Jesus or to the Jews on the 9th of Av is only half of the point. Can’t I try to see it from God’s perspective? What does it mean to loose your children right before your own eyes? Can I also cry for God?

Why should I cry for you? Why would you want me to?” – Why Should I Cry For You, Sting (Soul Cages).

The Mishnah in Sanhedrin teaches that even when a criminal is hanged, God cries out ‘woe unto Me.’ Mankind is made in the image of the divine, and by extension whatever we do to others, it is as if we do it also to God. “When I injure my fellow man, I injure God.” -AJ Heschel.

This year, I see the 9th of Av as a day on which to feel the world’s pain: From the unrest in the streets of Syria and Egypt, the pain of strained race relations in the wake of the Zimmerman/Martin case, but also the acute sadness of friends in my circles who are mourning the deeply personal loss of loved ones. And everything in between. From broad and distant to particular and close by, my heart-strings are pulled by human tragedy. With every hurtful and hateful thing mankind is able to inflict upon each other, we diminish the image and the presence of God in the world.  When we give heed to the suffering of others, we also hear God’s lament, “woe unto Me.”  This, I believe is an important step in shedding Godly light into the broken places of our world.

candle

Posted on July 16, 2013

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Overheard but Under Listened

Captain’s log, Stardate July 2112:

Fascinating! Unearthing the massive data storage facility here in Utah must be very much like what finding the Dead Sea Scrolls in the caves of Qumran was like. What a snapshot into a previous era!

imgresIt’s 2112. This is the year that the rock band Rush imagined that the brotherhood of man would need to be set free from the tyranny of the Priests of the Temple of Syrinx. They imagined a man named Anonymous would find a guitar, make music and set humanity free. Well, they were partly right,  it was 2110 and her name was not Anonymous.

What our earliest human ancestors understood was that words have the power to build or to destroy. Thus, they attributed to their ancient understanding of the Divine the power of speech and thus creativity: “And God said, ‘let there be light’ and there was light (Gen 1:3). The great Chafetz Hayim, from whom we base our holy practice is Shemirat Halashon (guarding the tongue) understood that the right words lift people up. My favorite:

Yes. Yes. Yes! Yeeeeessss!

But when people are at their most vulnerable, the wrong words can shape the ego in ways that can take decades to undo:

You are so stupid.
What were you thinking!?
You’ll never be able to do that.
No.

Thank heavens we in the year 2112 know better. To be generous, our ancestors from the early 21st century began to understand that words indeed have meaning and real power, even if they were very bad at knowing which words were positive and which were negative. Their comical solution, amass large stockpiles of communication. Here in Bluffdale, Utah, the US National Security Agency built a then massive storage for email, phone records, and other digital information. The hope that they would someday be able to find meaning in their treasure proved greater than their laws protecting privacy. They stored Zettabytes and even Yottabytes of records. Alas.

In 2013, the now famous, Ed Snowden,helped bring brought data treasures to greater light. A mighty conversation about privacy took place.2013628172236962734_20 Indeed, as opined in the New York Times (The Service of Snowden, 6.27.13), history has treated his actions favorably. From our vantage in 2112, is is clear that the government and its contracted agents in 2013 did not know what they had caught in their massive data sweeps. Why else did they leave so many vital messages unexplored as unimportant? Consider the following unsent emails we have collected from those unearthed stockpiles:

I’m sorry.
I still love you.
Why me?
Will I find a way out?
I hope I can keep my home.
Please don’t take the kids.
I hope they find that son-of-a-bitch.
I really need that job.
I’ve never been so scared.
Why won’t somebody help me?

Every word has power. Everything we say has meaning.
In the 21 century they heard everything, but they never listened.

Captain’s log: sign off.

Posted on July 2, 2013

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Silence or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the NSA

imgres

The NSA Know-it-all (click to see in theweek.com)

Sooner or later, everything you say or do will be recorded.  The internet, like an elephant, never forgets.

I’m sure that I could have gone far in Miss America competitions, not the bikini part of course. Nobody needs that! I mean the interview part. I’m pretty good at saying partially interesting-partially idiotic things such as these gems from listmania’s 10 (True) Stupid Comments Miss America Contestants Have Made:

“My most important role model is Mother Teresa, because she’s just so awesome!”
“No, I don’t think the Miss America Pageant denigrates women. Well… maybe the ugly one…”
“I have always admired you, Mr. Parker. Especially your drive to get dogs neutral.”
“The world would be a better place if all blind people could see.”

The need to say something is so great that a person might just blab on and say something stupid, or worse. I’ve been present when someone asked a woman who was no longer a size zero, “When are you due?” And sure enough, the woman was not pregnant. I didn’t say that awful thing, but the horror of that moment stopped the earth it’s orbit. It was a long moment, seared into my neural pathways. In that pregnant pause one could hear the angels of heaven’s choir collectively gasp. Since that moment I never comment on a woman’s pregnancy, not even a “you look great!” I imagine a day when a friend’s water might break and will be on the phone with 911 for an ambulance, and I’ll say, “Oh, you’re pregnant?”

In the Mishnah (200 C.E.) Rabbi Shimon taught the following lesson: “I was raised among the wise, and I have found that there is nothing more becoming a person than silence” (Avot 1:17). (The literal translation reads ‘nothing is better for one’s body (tov la’guf) than silence).

Yes, silence is golden. I knew that, but I forgot it a decade ago when I was asked to volunteer at a charity golf event. I’m not a golfer. The deal was to ask each golfer at the tee of the ninth hole for another five bucks toward the charity or let me, the non-golfing rabbi, tee off for the player. imgres-1Everybody paid – golfers are dumb. In any case, another volunteer was stationed there with me and as it was, we quickly ran out of things to say. Why did I have to be leaning on the Par Aide golfball washer? Why, in that moment, did I have to be mindlessly playing, up and down, with its plunger? More importantly, why couldn’t I keep from speaking just for the sake of speaking?
“Why don’t any of these guys stop to wash their balls,” I asked? The horror on the face of the other volunteer, a woman I had never met, snapped the rewind of the previous five seconds and I realized just what I had said. Why don’t any of these guys stop to wash their balls? Did I say that? Shit!

indecent-exposureThe National Security Agency is listening to our phone calls and tracking our internet usage. Google Now (aka,Today) knows everything about us, and is learning to monetize your likes and dislikes, as well as every search you’ve ever done – ever! It seems safe to say that everything you say is being recorded and will live on forever as some horrid proof of Neitzche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence.
images-1Woody Allen: “Great. That means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again.”

To my mind, there are two likely outcomes to the showdown that modernity is having between the right to privacy and the amassed personal data now available in digital age:
Just as the Beastie Boys would for their right to party, people are going to fight like mad for their right to privacy. It’s already happening.  Laws for privacy will stand, but we are so addicted to what interconnectivity can do for us that we will continue to willingly forfeit our privacy.
Some people will embrace that there is no such thing as privacy anymore. These people have never run out of things to say on a golf course or have have greater powers of denial than I.  They simply hope that technological security will keep one step ahead of the digital- ne’er-do-wells. It hasn’t and it won’t. The announcement that the Pentagon’s Cyber Command plans to form thirteen offensive teams by 2015 should dispel us of that naive mindset.

I’d like to suggest an alternative. We should become practiced in the wisdom of Rabbi Shimon, who taught that silence is healthy for us humans. Isn’t silence precisely the counterbalance to the pathology of needing to fill every moment with having something to say? Since the digital-age seems bent on preserving every idiotic thing we say along with the brilliant and quotable. I wonder about the moment in the not so distant future in which we have learned to accept that everything we say is heard and being recorded -will we also learn to be more intentional in what we say? Maybe then I’ll be allowed back on a golf course. Until then, the virtue of appreciating silence as wisdom is needed more than ever before.

Posted on June 18, 2013

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Rescuing Grace

I was speaking with a friend who was trying mightily to do the right thing in a tough situation. She was visiting Senior Living apartments with her ailing mother who both did and didn’t want to move. She was trying to balance intervening on her mother’s behalf with letting her mother make her own choices. My friend was doing everything she could, but still was not sure she was getting the balance right. There are no graceful ways through the messy chapters of our lives. When I told her that I would pray for grace on her behalf, she asked, “Is grace Jewish?”

Some words, some ideas, especially where religion or politics are involved, fall out of favor when they become associated with something ‘other’. “Grace” is such a word. Is ‘grace’ a Jewish idea? It is – the Biblical Hebrew term “Hen‘ means ‘grace’ – but we don’t talk about it much because it sounds so christian (which is not in and of itself a bad thing).

Grace: Unmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).

We are, we humans, such a confounding species. While we are capable of lofty thoughts and complex reasoning, nonetheless we also have our reptilian brains – associated with the functions of the basil ganglia.reptilianbrain The evolutionary functions of our reptilian brains account for our jealousy, our anger, our aggression, our survivalist selfishness. It also accounts for our fears, our desire for revenge, our protectiveness of our tribe (why we feel close to our smaller circles and suspicious of others) and our base desire to keep what is ours (my favorite example from childhood: “See with your eyes not with your hands”).

To be sure, we are also capable of kindness, of love, of forgiveness, of understanding, of patience, and of acts of selflessness. It can often take great effort and will to listen to the calling of these higher attributes of our humanity over and above the din of our fears and insecurities coursing through our basil ganglia.

It seems to be our biological lot to bounce between the persons we are and the persons we wish we could always be. Try as we may, and successful as we may sometimes be, what it means to get the balance of our lives just right, is to find, or more accurately to accept the grace that God extends to us. It is impossible for us to balance our animal-selves with our angelic-selves on our own at all times. By simple example: We might fast on Yom Kippur to be like angels, but inevitably we get hungry. We are humans after-all, with a biology, a physiology, a psychology that keeps even the most saintly among us from being perfect all the time.

Why must I feel like this today
I’m a soldier but afraid sometimes
To face the things that may
Block the sun from shinin’ rays
And fill my life with shades of grey
But still I long to find a way
So today I pray for grace – Pray for Grace, Lyrics by Michael Franti

Degas_BallerinaWe are not inherently graceful. We may get close to controling our impulses, but we are never rid of our baser selves. We are bound to be less than perfect. The idea that grace is a human trait is an illusion. Grace is inherently divine and is a gift of God’s love. By extension, gracefulness, is the act of embracing God’s love of our imperfect selves. Grace is something granted to us, not as a reward for our right actions, but whenever we are able to receive God’s love – even when we fear we don’t quite deserve it.

GraceUnmerited divine assistance, a virtue coming from God (such as kindness, courtesy, thoughtfulness).

Within the Priestly Blessings described in the Book of Numbers, famous words used to this day to bless the people, including on Friday nights our children is this phrase:

Ya’er Adonai Panav Elecha v’Chuneka
May God’s illumined face enlighten you and grant you grace.

It is difficult to believe in a God this unconditionally loving and accepting of us. This is our on-going challenge: Rescuing grace not from Christianity, but from our own suspicion that such acceptance of our imperfections is possible.

Posted on May 21, 2013

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Accidentally 1%

E Class“There will be no poor among you…” – Deut. 15:4

Last night I was stranded in a Mercedes E Class in the parking lot of my favorite vegan restaurant. It was the most expensive car in the lot by tens of thousands of dollars. Other than the new, sleek black Benz with the dead battery that I was sitting in, the newest car in the lot looked to be a late 90’s Subaru splattered with lefty bumper-stickers and a license plate that read “MS YOGA”.

I called Mercedes’ Roadside Assistant. Katie answered.

YOGA jpeg

“Mercedes Benz Roadside Assistance, this is Katie. Can I help you?”

“I’m in a loaner care from Mercedes Benz of Encino,” I told her, and then I explained that the cool car I had been driving for two days simply would not start.

“Oh, darn,” she said. “I’m so sorry this is happening to you,” and I believed her. She was upset on my behalf.

Sure there are fancier cars, but you have to understand that everyone inside the Follow Your Heart Cafe is perpetually working on being eco-everything, organic-everything, and decidedly against conspicuous consumption like luxury cars.FYH Though there is a prominently hung quote by His Holiness, the 14th Dali Lama extolling the wisdom of tolerance just inside the doors, nonetheless, I can confirm more than a handful of off-put faces through the restaurants’ windows. I felt I had two choices: A) Try and defend my predicament to every quizzical customer who entered or exited, or B) I could keep my head down and pretend to be on the phone.

I chose B. For the record, I waited just fifteen minutes, but that was long enough to reflect just how it is that I ended up stranded in front of the Follow Your Heart Cafe.

Here is the short version: My teenager crashed our Honda Civic – Nobody hurt. Thank God! The insurance company considered it totaled, wrote us a check, and I bought another Civic, a used one, from our local Mercedes dealer. They assured me that a nice, little old lady had traded it in for a new Mercedes. I drove it around, negotiated the deal, drank two free Diet Cokes from their lobby cooler and then I drove off with it. Two days later, my new-used Civic wouldn’t start. I called AAA to jump the car and while I waited I called the Benz place. “Will you fix it.” Long pause. Please, please, please. “Yes, drive it in.” Yes! I brought it in, they gave me a Diet Coke, but after twenty minutes they informed me that they couldn’t fix it for two days, so they offer me their loaner car in the meantime, a Mercedes E350.

The first place I drove to was my kids’ Jewish private school. My black Mercedes looked at home. As I step out of the car, I smile about the surprise my boys would get when they saw the car. I was still smiling as the driver in the Mercedes next to mine also stepped out. It was one of the school’s board members, and I’m pretty sure he sits on the financial aid committee that I’ve appealed to every year. He wasn’t smiling.

The next place I went was home. My in-laws were there visiting. Let me quote my favorite part of the conversation between my father-in-law and mother-in-law:
“Those Nazis make great cars.”
“Marshall!”
“What? I’d never buy one, but it’s a great car.”

As I sat in the Follow Your Heart parking lot I realized, that, “hey man” (if you’ve ever visited this retro hippie joint, you understand sounding like The Dude from the Big Lebowski and saying things to yourself like “hey man”). “Hey man, you’re lucky,” I said into my phone to no one but myself. “These are First World Problems.”

Of course it’s true. John Edwards turned out to be a well quaffed liar and cheater, but he was right, there are “two Americas”. In a recent Times’ opinion, Charles Blow cited two studies in this regard:

From 2009 to 2011, average real income per family grew modestly by 1.7 percent but the gains were very uneven. Top 1 percent incomes grew by 11.2 percent while bottom 99 percent incomes shrunk by 0.4 percent. Hence, the top 1 percent captured 121 percent of the income gains in the first two years of the recovery.” -Emmanuel Saez, professor of Economics at the University of California, Berkeley.

During the first two years of the nation’s economic recovery, the mean net worth of households in the upper 7 percent of the wealth distribution rose by an estimated 28 percent, while the mean net worth of households in the lower 93 percent dropped by 4 percent.The Pew Research Center, April 2013.

“For the poor will never cease to be in the land…” -Duet 15:11

Soon enough the tow truck Katie sent was behind me in the lot. I liked the driver, Henry, right away.

“Trouble with your car, Boss?” He said as we shook hands along side the beautiful dead tank.
We talked for the entire fifteen minutes it took him to jack it up, turn it backwards, and fill out the paperwork. I explain the whole crazy scenario to Henry. Tried to buy a used Civic but end up with a Mercedes. Henry said his wife drives a Civic, but that he drives a 68 VW Bug when not in his tow truck. “It got me back and forth from Compton twice this past weekend. No worries with that car,” he said.

I had a great time driving that car for a few days, even with the trouble it caused me. I was also happy to see the Benz hanging backwards off of Henry’s tow truck.

“Who is truly rich? The one who is happy with what he has.” – Pirkei Avot 4:1

There are at least two Americas. Some of us are duel citizens.

Posted on May 7, 2013

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Illness: Beyond the Boundary of Faith

Years ago, a Jewish woman, a 15-year survivor of cancer, came to me with a confession.
“Rabbi,” she said, “When I was getting chemo, the woman next to me said to bury a picture of Saint Jude (the saint of desperate situations) for good luck, so I did it. I was so scared. I bought a picture of St. Jude and buried it in my backyard.”
“Huh.” That’s official rabbi speak for “This topic does not appear in the Talmud.”

“So, there’s more, Rabbi.”

There is always more.

St. Jude

St. Jude

“Anyway,” she continued, “I told a different Catholic friend about burring St. Jude in the backyard, and she asked me, ‘did you bury him face-up or face-down?’ I told her ‘face- up.’ She told me that it has to be face-down. So what was I to do rabbi? My first friend insisted that St. Jude be face-up and the second one said face-down. So 15 years later, guess how many saints are buried in my backyard?”

You guessed it. There is at least one nice Jewish woman with two St. Jude’s buried in her back yard – And given the alternative she was worried about, thank God!

I shared this story this past Shabbat in a Torah Study group. I asked for help exploring the boundaries of sanctioned Israelite religion. Why on Yom Kippur would Aaron, the High Priest, offer one goat to God and another to Azazel (Lev 16)? Whether “Azazel” is a “desolate place,” or the name of a  “goat demon of the wilderness” – What does this non-normative practice tell me about the boundaries of my religion’s, Judaism’s, practice today?

I went on to share the odd story of the serpents God sent down to bite the Israelites that were wrongfully complaining. When they admitted guilt God told Moses, “Make a snake and put it on a pole, anyone who is bitten can look upon it and be healed.” So Moses made a bronze snake and put it on a pole. When any bitten person looked upon it, he lived.” (Numbers 21:4-8).

The Ten Commandments are pretty clear, and they make the above two stories, and a handfull of others patently problematic:

  • You shall not have any gods before Me.
  • You Shall not make any graven images – not of the things of the heavens, not of things of the earth or the waters below.

My question is not a history question of the actual belief of ancient Israelites. I am not presently interested in the rich rabbinic commentary that explains these difficulties away. I am familiar with them – I love them, but my interest today is this:

Is there a thread that ties together these breaks in ‘normative’ practice?

There is: Illness.

My read on these texts, and my pastoral practice in desperate health issues is “Anything Goes.”

If you are in a dire situation – do you care to which god people who care about you pray to on your behalf? I say keep ALL the prayers coming. Bring in Mary if she’ll help. Send in Mohamed, Azazel, St. Jude, a picture of a snake etched in copper. Send in all the light.  If “it” works, wouldn’t you do it to save a life or to remove a serious illness?

We are taught that one should accept death rather than these 3 things:  Idolatry, sexual crimes, or murder. There is president to fudge on the first, and I’m fine with that.

To those of us open to a reality that is beyond rational explanation, don’t we also have admit some naiveté’ about how that mysterious reality is really accessed?

I’m aware of the slippery slope just before me. I’m not ready to put up a cross in the synagogue or replace the seats with prayer mats (still, yoga mats are finding their way into synagogues).  but I’ll defend a Jewish woman keeping two St. Judes buried in the backyard.

Our_Lady_of_Lourdes_Basilica

Our Lady of Lourdes Basilica

One person at the table asked, “How about the healing waters of Lourdes?”
“Funny you should mention that.” It was one of my dear friends, who has recently lost his vision. “Some Catholic friends of ours sent me some water from the Sanctuary of Our Lady of Lourdes,” he said.  “I put on a few drops on my eyelids each night. After a few nights, I could actually make out the numbers on our bedside alarm clock. It was the first time in I don’t know how long since I could do that.”

For sure there are boundaries in Judaism. I’m not advocating any changes – but when illness faces us with the existential realities of life and death those same boundaries often become permeable and we would be foolish not to notice.

Posted on April 23, 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

I Can See North Korea From My Backyard

0316-US-warning-North-Korea-over-missile-test-plan_full_600-600x265 I am writing this blog from my bunker in Los Angeles, so if it doesn’t make perfect sense when you read this I’m blaming the poor internet connection I have. Also Anonymous, the hacker group which has recently targeted the State of Israel. I’m Israeli, so typos and meandering sentences in my post can easily be understood as causalities of cyber attacks – please be patient, these are tough times.

Listen, North Korea said it has nukes and that its missiles are aiming for Hawaii and California.  Vladimir Putin said, “If, God forbid, something happens, Chernobyl which we all know a lot about, may seem like a child’s fairy tale.” imgresPart of me read Putin’s analogy as wishful thinking on his part, “Finally something to make chernobyl seem like a child’s fairy tale!” As I was thinking about this, I realized that this is a guy known for hunting down a tiger without a shirt on, and whose former KGB agents are linked to poisoning the food of a Soviet dissident in London with a mysterious radiation. CNN, NBC, and Fox all say that North Korea can’t hit the West Coast of the United States, but because I fear disagreeing with Putin,  I agree with him.

Please, Anonymous, don’t scramble the following: “I agree with Putin!”

I have a history of not taking threats seriously, but finally, fear has motivated me to act. In Israel my late grandparents built a bomb shelter beneath their home. It was a 10×12 foot concrete storage room with steal enforced air vents that opened and also sealed shut in case of a chemical attack from Sadam. We were not to go in there, were not to disturb the food rations stored there. But, well, a kid can get hungry. Sure enough, a SCUD missile did hit a half mile away from their home a few weeks after I left back to the States. My family in Israel didn’t complain much about those attacks, so I didn’t take the missile threat seriously. If I were in Southern Israel a few months ago, when it was raining rockets from Gaza, I’m sure I’d be one of the people running to get his camera instead of to a shelter – they said that seeing Iron Dome at work was beautiful like fireworks on the Fourth of July.

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I remember comparing California earthquakes to roller-coasters. Wheee! Until the Northridge quake in 1993 scared the beep out of me. If you want to know what the end of the world is going to sound like. Imagine God banging continents together like dusty chalk erasers. California is due for another big one – we’re constantly warned. You’d think I’d have a fully developed earthquake plan for my family after that, but I don’t. Here are my notes:

1)Turn off the gas line to the house.
2)Remember that the water in the toilet tanks is clear. We have three toilets, so a family of six should be able to make it 2 days.
3)Try to call brother-in-law Mark. Mark has a smaller, younger family.  They don’t look like they eat much. Remember that Mark has full earthquake supplies for six months. Remind him that he once said that it’s more than they need.
4) Set up a Google alert for Mark to keep gas in his Jeep so he could come and get us if he doesn’t hear from us after an earthquake and roads are closed.
5) Ask my wife when Mark’s birthday is so that I can send him a card and stay on his good side.

Anyway, with Anonymous, and Putin, and, well, Kim Jong Un – fear has been a great motivator. I’ve built my own bunker. So far it’s just a tent and a lawn chair. But I’ve got plans, and I’ve put up a sign – a quote I saw out front of a cafe in Jerusalem. I was living in Jerusalem when a bomb went off on Ben Yehuda Street, the crowded pedestrian mall. The next day I went to the scene of the attack to reclaim the space. The Israeli perspective is that living in fear is hardly living. There was still blood on the cobblestones, and there was shattered glass everywhere, but there was also a sign in the blown-out window of a popular cafe. My sign:

“Life is short. Eat dessert first.”

Posted on April 9, 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

Wicked Son: “Because I knew you…”

imgresWe had reached one of those loaded moments in our family Passover seder where all my acumen as a parent, an educator, and as a rabbi are tested simultaneously. See, I have four sons, and hence a problem. We had already sung the Ballad of the Four Sons to the tune of My Darling Clementine, and it was now time to assign passages in the hagaddah to each of my boys, each of which, on any given day shows streaks of wisdom, wickedness, simpleness, and a lack of being able to ask a question much beyond “is dinner ready? (While technically a question, I refuse to count it). The danger in assigning parts is that I could unwittingly play into a fraternal competition of “See, Abba likes me best!” This is how I played it this year: I assigned the readings randomly, and before they could read into which part they were assigned (“Hey, why did I get the wicked one?”) I said the following:

Let’s read these straight through and as we read them pay attention to clues, I am going to ask you which child do you think I like best, and why (for a wonderful contemporary/traditional take on the Four Sons, check out this G-Dcast video).

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The Wise Child asks, “What is the meaning of the laws, statues and customs which the Lord our God has commanded us?”

Answer him with all the laws, to the very last detail of the afikoman.

The Wicked Child asks, “What is the meaning of this to you?”

Answer him, “You have denied a principle of our faith. This was done for me, and not you!”

The Simple Child asks, “What is this about?”

Answer him, “God took us out of Egypt with a mighty and outstretched arm.”

To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, say, “This is done because of what the Lord did for me when I came forth from Egypt.”

To my delight, they gave me the answers I wanted.

“The wise child because he is wise.”

“The wicked child because he asks tough questions.”

“The simple son because he is open to anything you say. You said that last year.”

“I did?”

“Yes, you did,” two others guests at the table corroborated.

“I think it’s the One Who Doesn’t Know What to Ask, because he is polite and let’s you start the conversation.”

I know that each of us carries each of these traits within ourselves, and I pointed that out, with the use of a helpful and provocative paper-cut image in one of our haggadot (plural for haggadah)

69-ReisingerThis year I said that I preferred the wicked one – “He asks the best question,” I answered. And, I believe he does. I was also struck, more so than other years, that the Wicked son gets a bad rap, not only for asking a fair and pointed question – which we otherwise applaud (It is said that a Jewish parent does not ask a child, “what did you learn at school today,” but rather, “did you ask a good question today?”) The problem with the wicked child is that he has a crappy teacher, who slams him for showing up to the seder and being himself, for wanting some integrity in the system? “Do you believe this stuff?” “Is this still relevant?” “Why are you so Jewish all of a sudden?” The response to the Wicked child got me thinking about what I would say as a high school teacher, if I could say anything I wanted to these four archetypal students:

To the Wise son, “What are the statues, laws, and customs? Why are you asking me? Go read the Tenth Chapter of the Talmudic Tractate on Passover, and then we can discuss it, then you can explain about the Afikoman to your brothers.”

To the Wicked son, “What does this mean to me? Good question. I think it is an individual challenge to understand the duality of confinement and freedom. Ask yourself, what constraints on your life would you want to be free from? What obligations do you have to yourself and others as you exercise your freedom?”

To the Simple son, “Dig a little deeper. Yes we are commemorating an event that has long past, and whose memory still inspires us today, but go a little further – Why? Why should we bother with this? What lessons are we trying to hold on to? What implications does it have for the world we live in today?”

To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, I want to answer along the lines of Sterns Professor Scott Galloway, in his “Get your S–t Together” email to a student a few years ago – here is an excerpt:

…Let me be more serious for a moment. I do not know you, will not know you and have no real affinity or animosity for you. You are an anonymous student who is now regretting the send button on his laptop. It’s with this context I hope you register pause…REAL pause xxxx and take to heart what I am about to tell you:

xxxx, get your s–t together.

Getting a good job, working long hours, keeping your skills relevant, navigating the politics of an organization, finding a live/work balance…these are all really hard, xxxx. In contrast, respecting institutions, having manners, demonstrating a level of humility…these are all (relatively) easy. Get the easy stuff right xxxx. In and of themselves they will not make you successful. However, not possessing them will hold you back and you will not achieve your potential which, by virtue of you being admitted to Stern, you must have in spades.

So To the One Who Does Not Know What to Ask, I find myself wanting to say, “Hey, Judaism, like being part of this family around this table is not a pass/fail course in which you can just hide out in the back. We need your voice in the mix too. You can ask picayune questions about tiny details, you can ask pointed questions in an antagonistic tone, you can even ask a basic question that you think everyone but you must know the answer to, but passivity is never a substitute for actual learning – doing nothing, saying nothing doesn’t just hurt you. You don’t have to be the smartest. You don’t have to be witty, you don’t have to leave your skepticism at the door, or anything like that, but keeping your personal Torah, your deep inner wisdom to yourself, deprives us all of sparks of the divine that only you hold. We are not at the movies, silence is not golden.

The Four Sons by Eli Valley

The Four Sons by Eli Valley

The Four Sons by Eli Valley.Click to see the full-size image.

First posted on April 10, 2012

Posted on March 26, 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

Porn in the City

Porn in the City: Are the kids really alright?

imgresWhat does it mean to grow up in the age of sexting, of Instagram and Snapchat (which lets you show a picture on someone else’s smart-phone, and then have it ‘disappear’)? I think about this because I work with teens, and their natural curiosity mixed with super-charged digital lives kinda freak me out.  I wonder: Are we equipping them with what they need to live in an easy access, easy self-satisfaction world?

“Pornography should interest us, because it’s intensely and relentlessly about us. It involves the roots of our culture and the deepest corners of the self…” – The Eloquence of Pornography, Laura Kipnis. ( As part of a special report on PBS Frontline on Pornography way back in 2002).

For Eugene Jerome, Neil Simon’s semi-autobiographical main character of Brighton Beach Memoirs, sex was an adolescent obsession. At the end of the play his brother gives young Eugene a foldout picture of a topless woman. In reaction to this, Eugene write down in his journal: “A momentous moment in the life of I, Eugene Morris Jerome. I have seen the Golden Palace of the Himalayas…. Puberty is over. Onwards and upwards!”

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The line gets an appropriate laugh, as it should. The play is set in 1937 when a picture of a topless woman might be a rarity, but this is 2013, an age when there are approximately 200,000 commercial porn sites. This means that an introduction into sexuality no longer begins with a picture of a toplesswoman, but of a video of a couple having actual sex. I can’t imagine what it would be like to be a young man or woman with the expectation that porn-star sex is the norm.

Martin Buber taught that there were two natures of the self. The “I” which is we might sum up as shallow, and surface oriented. This is the “me” that is involved in world of doing things. This surface “I” in relation to the everyday, he calls “I-It”. There is, Buber taught, also the “I” that is experienced as “whole-being,” fuller, more complete, perhaps we could say “more alive.” This whole-being “I,” Buber calls I-Thou. A fair simplification is to say, sometimes we relate with our soul, and other times we do not.

A mistake of modernity, a poison, is to ignore the depth experiences that humans need (I-Thou) and focus completely on the surface experience of the mundane (I-It). We see this everyday – and with technology, we see this “shallowing” in potential escalation.

Our popular culture seems to be polarized on the topic of pornography. On the one hand it is scandalous and predatory (which it certainly is) and on the other its seen as the new normal (and what does it say about us if it is?).

“And yes, pornography is a business — as is all our popular entertainment — which attains popularity because it finds ways of articulating things its audiences care about. When it doesn’t, we turn it off. Pornography may indeed be the sexuality of a consumer society. It may have a certain emptiness, a lack of interior, a disconnectedness — as does so much of our popular culture. And our high culture. (As does much of what passes for political discourse these days, too.) But that doesn’t mean that pornography isn’t thoroughly astute about its audience and who we are underneath the social veneer, astute about the costs of cultural conformity, and the discontent at the core of routinized and civilized lives.” - The Eloquence of Pornography, Laura Kipnis. ( As part of a special report on PBS Frontline on Pornography way back in 2002).

What does porn tell us about ourselves, our culture?

Among other things, I think modernity’s great porn addiction speaks to the fact that we, in the age of speedy technology, and infinite private access, have grown selfish.

In an age that worships business, sexuality has continued to grow as a commodity; sex, from one perspective of our popular culture has become a transaction. There is little training of the self these days about being relational. Satisfaction of the self rather than another is the value these days. Sex, and satisfaction becomes transactional, self-absorbed, and to that extent non-relational, Buber might say, decidedly I-It, and I would add “less human.”

“If love is only self-interest, than love is a fake, a pretense… And can you imagine a life without love?” – A J Heschel

No wonder than, that porn is on the rise and marriage is on the decline. We haven’t given any value to the idea of generosity to another, or to love, and without that, what are we?

Sex is a natural human drive. Freud was right about that. Cheap, fast, and easy, are all hallmarks of the 21st century, so I doubt that porn is going away any time soon. Modernity gives us instant access to I-It. But our souls crave something deeper.

The solution has to be to teach our kids about love, about romance, about desire, about the ecstasy of your soul that can be.  They need to learn that this can happen when you give of yourself, when you are a self in relationship to another self, when you think, and feel, and act for not only “me” in a particular moment, but about what is right and beautiful in “us.”

I and Thou.

Posted on March 12, 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

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