“The Messiah will come only when he is no longer necessary.”-Franz Kafka, Parables and Paradoxes.
In the up coming, and probably final installment of director Christopher Nolan’s Batman run, The Dark Knight Rises, Batman returns to save Gotham once again (starring Christian Bale as the Caped Crusader – to be released July 20th, to see the trailer click here). In the story, it’s been eight years since New York, I mean Gotham City, last saw Batman. Eight years prior he branded himself a criminal in place of Harvey Dent (Two-Face), because, he felt, the city’s need to see Harvey as a hero was greater than the truth. Now he can’t help but come back again, this time to fight a new super villain, Bane.
So, I guess we need our heroes - or do we?
[For the real comic book nuts, eight years might be nothing compared to Batman coming out of retirement at age 55, dealing with aging and mortality as he fights for justice in Frank Miller’s 1986 instant classic, The Dark Knight Returns. Click the above book cover to read more about it.]
There is something biblical about the least likely hero (see Time magazine’s piece the Anti-hero where TV’s hit Breaking Bad is set center stage). My favorite Biblical outcast turned hero: Jephthah.
Jephthah the Gileadite was a mighty warrior. His father was Gilead; his mother was a prostitute. Gilead’s wife also bore him sons, and when they were grown up, they drove Jephthah away. “You are not going to get any inheritance in our family,” they said, “because you are the son of another woman.” So Jephthah fled from his brothers and settled in the land of Tob, where a gang of scoundrels gathered around him and followed him.
Some time later, when the Ammonites were fighting against Israel, the elders of Gilead went to get Jephthah from the land of Tob. “Come,” they said, “be our commander, so we can fight the Ammonites.” (Judges 11:1-6).
In just six short verses the Bible establishes Jephthah as an outcast and then quickly pivots him to be a hero (Brilliant writing! Better, divine!). Whether it’s David fighting Goliath, Batman saving us from the sadism of the Joker, or even Rocky fighting a Russian killing machine in a boxing ring, there is something biblical to the sense that at the brink of catastrophe a Chosen One will rescue us at the last possible second. The Hanukkah Song, Mi Yimalel (Who Can Retell) makes the point explicit:
Mi yimalel gevurot Yisrael, Who can retell the things that befell us,
Otan mi yimne? Who can count them?
Hen be’chol dor yakum ha’gibor In every age, a hero or sage
Goel ha’am. Came to our aid.
In the case of the song, the reference is to the Maccabees who fought back the Greek
Assyrians, and rededicated the Holy Temple that had been made impure by the enemy (Hanukkah means “dedicate”). Perhaps it’s America’s deep grounding in Biblical tradition that we so often fall for the super hero. Or maybe it’s something in the nature of man. It could be that we just want someone to look up to. When things look their worst, don’t worry – someone will step up and save the day. Personally, I fear that we have that expectation with regard to climate change, that some super scientist will invent some technology (cloud seeding, or metal trees that oxygenate the air), and hence our misguided lack of urgency. I worry about our craving and reliance on radical, heroic fixes. The Talmud teaches the dictum: “Ein somchim al ha’ness,” don’t rely on miracles. And while the theme of the the hero is so central to the history of the religious mindset, it exists as a paradox. There is a perversion, an abdication of responsibility, that comes with falling for the hero – Don’t worry, be complacent, someone, somehow will fix things.
When Queen Esther fears speaking to the king to save the Jewish people, her uncle, Mordechai chastises her:
“Do not think that because you are in the king’s house you alone of all the Jews will escape… And who knows but that you have come to your royal position for such a time as this?”(Esther 4:13-14).
And hence the paradox of the hero:
Salvation will come at the hand of a hero – but the hero is you.
While I too fall for the hero and plan to see the new Batman this week, I know deep down that it’s just entertainment. Real life, especially a religious life, one where I feel ultimately accountable to God’s expectation to love, to uplift, to care, requires a message of personal responsibility antithetical to the super heroic. It asks us to find the heroic within ourselves, to step up to challenges instead of being frozen by them, or waiting for someone greater to save us. The need to step up to human responsibility, and not wait for a greater power to fix things, to redeem mankind, may even be central to ultimate salvation, and the ultimate redemption of the world. Rabban Yoachanan ben Zakkai (90 C.E.) said it like this: If you are holding a sapling in your hand and someone tells you, ‘Come quickly, the messiah is here!’, first finish planting the tree and then go to greet the messiah’ – Avot D’Rabbi Natan 31b. Rabbi Heschel taught that God was in search of man. “God is still waiting for a righteous generation, who will live by justice and compassion,” he said.
In other words: It’s up to us to save us, or, at the very least, it’s up to us to live lives noble enough to be worthy of saving.
A few posts ago, while the Supreme Court was still hearing arguments on the legality of the Healthcare Act, I said, “If the Supreme Court strikes-down the Health Care Act, and we have to start health care reform all over again, instead of fixing the imperfect beginnings that are already underway, I’m just going to freak out.” So, it has passed, as a tax and not under the Inter-State Commerce Clause, but in any case, now we’ll have it- Obamacare (properly referred to as The Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act).
What does this mean to congress? Not much. And that’s the nature of sinat hinam, baseless hatred. The rabbis of the Talmud said that it was for baseless hatred that the Second Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed in 70 C.E. If the Democrats like something than you can be sure the Republicans will hate it, and vice versa.
This type of tit-for-tat bickering is not just exhausting for the country to watch, but it’s downright destructive for our society, which, before politics became so partisan and divisive, prided itself on the strength of our diversity.
Consider the classic cautionary tale about why Jerusalem was destroyed. There was a mix up on the invitations to a party. Two men whose names sounded awfully similar each thought that they were the rightful guest at a party. The problem is that that hated each other, couldn’t stand each other, and nobody set them straight. Even the sages that were present at the affair said nothing. You can read the whole story here, but to get to the juicy part, one of the men incited the Romans against the Jews. He told Caesar to send the Jews a goat to sacrifice at the Temple, a goat that would seem perfectly fine by Roman standards, but that the Jews would find blemished, unfit as a holy offering at the ancient Temple:
The Rabbis wanted to offer it, despite its disqualifying blemish, to preserve good relations with the authorities.
Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said to them: “People will then think that blemished animals may be offered upon the altar.”
They wanted to kill the person who brought the animal, so he could not go and inform on them. Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said: “People will say that anyone who places a blemish in a sacrifice should be killed.”
RabbiYochanan said: “The humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus destroyed our temple, burned our sanctuary and exiled us from our land.” (Gittin 55b-56a)
By analogy, the debate regarding Obamacare , even after Chief Justice Robert’s tie-breaking vote to affirm the legality of the law, is likewise so toxic that it feels like we’ve been boxed in. In truth, nobody loves the law as it stands, Democrats wanted more, and Republicans in the House have already set a date to repeal it (July 11th).
What we know will happen with this admittedly (by everyone) imperfect law, is that when the cracks start to show, Conservatives will say, “we told you so.” You can set your clocks to it. And, they’ll be right.
But here is where we should learn the lesson of baseless hatred: When the costs rise instead of fall, or coverages shift in ways we did not predict and do not want, let us not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Let’s just make more calculated adjustments.
The truth is, the middle is messy. The law that was passed was built on the Centrist idea that a few steps forward are better than waiting for the perfectly crafted bill to be born, which would never have happened in the polarized system we currently have. When we become intrenched, clinging to one good ideal over any other (“I will never raise taxes”, “Everyone should have healthcare coverage”) we freeze up; we fail to act in the best interest of those we care for, and when that happens, society’s moral compass falters.
Republicans should not waste time trying to repeal Obamacare (a repeal will never pass the Senate even if it passes the House), they should be trying to improve it, and Democrats would be wise to listen to them.
According to the NY1-Marist poll, 53% of New Yorkers believe that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest proposal is a bad idea. The Nutritionist-in-Chief of the “World’s Capital” proposes a ban on the sale of soda in cups exceeding 16 oz. 42% of New Yorkers say it’s a good idea; and 6% are unsure. Manhattan was the only borough in which those in favor of the proposal, 52%, outweighed those opposed to it, 44%.
Is it an intrusion on our freedom? Not at all. Feel free to get 20 oz. of soda if you’d like, but you’ll need two cups. This forces you to visualize, and therefore stop denying, that you are one person drinking enough for two. What the mayor has done is created a bit of “choice architecture” that would “nudge” us in the right direction. He did a similar thing a few years back when he required the printing of calories on menus. You could have that lemon iced carrot cake with your latte if you’d like; your choice, but just know that it has all the rest of the calories your body will need to fuel you from breakfast until bedtime. Your choice.
In Richard Thaler’s and Cass Susstein’s wonderful book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, the two describe ways in which choices are offered that lure us to better decisions.
When you walk into a super market and you are statistically more likely to buy the cereal, or pretzels, or salsa that has been shelved at eye level. That’s prime real estate in the market business. Without a word, our choices are influenced by big and tiny nudges.
Certainly my favorite example, found in the introduction to Nudge, is that of the tiny image of a little black housefly etched into each or the urinals in the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam:
“It seems that men usually do not pay much attention to where they aim, which can create a bit of a mess, but if they see a target, attention and therefore accuracy are much increased…fly-in-urinal trials found that etching reduced spillage by 80 percent.”
What we know about human nature is that we are fully capable of making choices against our best interests, especially when we feel a competing value threatened. Right now some New Yorkers might feel like their freedom to buy and drink however much soda as they please is threatened. Yet at the same time, we are dealing with a national epidemic on the way to 1 in 4 Americans having diabetes. Freedom and health are the competing values here. It is very hard to change one’s habits, yet alone that of a city or a nation, but we know we need to change. I for one applaud the nudge toward smaller sizes of sugary drinks – empty calories that the body does not even recognize as food. Will I still have a soda at the movies? Yes, I will, but I won’t have two – and my waistline will thank me.
A nudge makes it easier for us to make the right choice. This is an application of the verse, “Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind.” -Lev. 19:14.
…And to be clear, in the following analogy, Chase is the prostitute.
At a time when two-income families struggle to make ends-meet, 50% of Spanish young adults are unemployed, much of Europe is bucking austerity measures, and a generation closer to home questions the the financial value of higher education, I think it a timely service to provide a solution to very public multi-billion dollar losses: Very long tzitzit for Wall Street bankers (be they Jewish, non-Jewish, male or female).
Sure Chase can take the hit, but we’re talking about earning back the hearts and minds of the the 99% to boost back consumer confidence, so trust in big banks still matters. As a quick reminder, Tzitzit are the knotted dangling threads tied to each of the four corners of a garment (either on a prayer shawl, tallit, or often on the undergarment). The tzitzit are meant to remind a Jew of the 613 commandments enumerated in the Torah. A talmudic analogy is in order; this might take a moment, and to be clear, in the following analogy, Chase is the prostitute:
There was once a man who was meticulous in the observance of the mitzvah (commandment) of tzitzit. He heard that there was a prostitute in a faraway city who charged four hundred gold talents for her services. He sent her the exorbitant fee and set an appointed time to meet her. When he arrived at the appointed time … she prepared for him seven beds, one atop the other — six of silver and the highest one was made of gold. Six silver ladders led to the six silver beds, and a golden ladder led to the uppermost one. The prostitute unclothed herself and sat on the uppermost bed, and he, too, joined her. As he was disrobing, the four fringes of his tzitzit slapped him in his face. He immediately slid off the bed onto the floor, where he was quickly joined by the woman.
“I swear by the Roman Caesar,” the harlot exclaimed, “I will not leave you until you reveal to me what flaw you have found in me!”
“I swear,” the man replied, “that I have never seen a woman as beautiful as you. However, there is one mitzvah which we were commanded by our G‑d, and tzitzit is its name… Now the four tzitzit appeared to me as four witnesses, testifying to this truth.”
“I still will not leave you,” the prostitute said, “until you provide me with your name, the names of your city, rabbi and the school in which you study Torah.” He wrote down all the information and handed it to her.
The woman sold all of her possessions. A third of the money she gave to the government, a third she handed out to the poor, and the remaining third she took with her — along with the silver and gold beds — and she proceeded to the school which the man had named, the study hall of Rabbi Chiya.
“Rabbi,” she said to Rabbi Chiya, “I would like to convert.”
“Perhaps,” Rabbi Chiya responded, “You desire to convert because you have taken a liking to a student here?” The woman pulled out the piece of paper with the information and related to the rabbi the miracle which transpired with the tzitzit. “You may go and claim that which is rightfully yours,” the rabbi proclaimed.
She ended up marrying the man. Those very beds which she originally prepared for him illicitly, she now prepared for him lawfully. – Talmud Menachot 44a
Could We Imagine JP Morgan Chaste?
Some will argue that as long as Chase doesn’t need government money to cover its loss than it shouldn’t matter – investors understand the risks. But if that is so, than Chase shouldn’t have needed the practically free $55 billion loan from the Treasury to buy-out Bear Sterns or the $25 billion TARP money. If only Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, and his Wall Street compatriots took the MBA Oath. Back in his time at Harvard’s Business School there was no need to make statements such as: “I will report the performance and risks of my enterprise accurately and honestly.” Instead it seems that many on Wall Street went to the same university as a past congregant of mine. Behind his desk the old high school dropout, who became a very successful hardware manufacturer proudly posted his diploma from Screw U.
If corporations such as Chase insist on being treated (when it suits them) as individuals (such as during campaign season), than when they break the trust of the public, they should do Teshuva (repent). The initial step in true repentance is refraining from the previous errors (this should be followed by contrition, confession before God, and a responsibility for future action). What already seems clear is that the stench from Chase’s recent $2-5 billion dollar loss is that it smells a lot like the security swaps that finally collapse the teetering world economy just a few years ago. Wall Street has learned nothing.
A Talmudic Solution to Chase’s Embarrassing, Cringeworthy, and Irresponsible $2 to 5 Billion Dollar Loss.
It would be nice to feel trust that Chase, and other banks, were not just waiting us out so that they could go back to their goal of world domination. I for one would feel reassured if all the Wall Street bankers would wear really long tzitzit to remind themselves not to screw us again. If that seems distasteful, perhaps too religious, let them take the route of the righteous prostitute in the story above. Let Chase take their total wealth (approx. $380 billion in total cash or cash equivalence) and distribute it as she did: One third to the government (for creating and then taking advantage of loopholes), one third to the poor (because ultimately, the profits made were on the backs of the 99%), and only then should they be allowed to keep the remaining third.
I can’t seem to decide, do I want to move America “Forward” or do I “Believe in America”? I’m not sure if it matters that I back President Obama or Governor Romney because what I really worry about is what they can or can’t get done. Congress seems so divided that precious little can ever get done. According to Gallup, Congress’ Approval Rating was at 10% in February; now it is up to 17% (April). By comparison, BP’s approval rating during the horrible oil spill in the Gulf was 16%. I won’t be surprised when I see“Congress, we’re kinda like cheap gas” on the bumper of the Subaru that keeps my neighborhood politically informed.
The system of checks and balances that we have in this country looks to the Justice System, the Supreme Court, when the other two need sorting out. With life-time appointments, our highest justices are suppose to be the adults in the room. Are they? Before the Supreme Court, right now, is the best Health Care bill our great nation has been able to produce since the creation of Medicare. It’s not perfect, but I believe in incremental progress when the alternative is gridlock and argument while those in need suffer.
The need for progress in health care is startling, and marks a divide be in our county between those who have and can afford access and those who cannot. The journal Health Affairs, recently presented us with this stark reality:
“…Access to health care and use of health services for adults ages 19–64—the primary targets of the Affordable Care Act—deteriorated between 2000 and 2010, particularly among those who were uninsured. More than half of uninsured US adults did not see a doctor in 2010, and only slightly more than a quarter of these adults were seen by a dentist.”
The central role of government is to keep us safe, which includes much more then external military or terrorist threats, but also our physical and mental health. The Talmud teaches that a rabbi is prepared to interpret law, when he or she can prove that which is unkosher to be kosher in twenty-four different ways. I assume the same thing of Supreme Court Justices, civil jurists of the highest ability. Activists or strict Constitutionalists, I believe that they can find what they want in the law to say whatever they want. Which brings the issue to a moral question – Everyone deserves medical coverage. In one of the most affluent nations in world history, it is an embarrassment that 5000 people have to wait once a year outside a sports area to get free health care (a big “thank you” to the volonteers at CareNow LA, now called Care Harbor).
If the Supreme Court strikes-down the Health Care Act, and we have to start health care reform all over again, instead of fixing the imperfect beginnings that are already underway, I’m just going to freak out. If the Health Act tanks, Obama won’t save us, and Romney won’t either. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught that “in a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.” So if they mess it up, its on us, people. We’ll have to act. If they do strike it down, this is what I want you to do: ”I want you to go to the window, open it, and shout, ‘I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it any more!‘”
No matter how much we “believe in America”, it may take a collective crescendo of rage to move us “forward”.
I recently made my first exploratory college visit with my high school aged son. My initial reaction during the tour of this elite liberal arts college was the same as my visit to an Israeli army post a few years ago: “God help us! We’re screwed if our future is entirely dependent on the success of these highly-libidinal teens and twenty-somethings.” The truth is, I loved the small campus, the 1:10 ratio of professors to students, as well as the personalized study programs that they offered. For almost $50K per year my kid would get access to great professors, small class sizes, incredible opportunities for selective, character-shaping internships, plus free-massages, and, get this, puppies in the quad to relieve stress during finals week. As our sophomore Theater Arts major tour guide said, “because who doesn’t love puppies.”
It was easy to picture my kid there, thriving, making life-long friends, generally “becoming”. Sadly, the $50K/year price tag only gave me slight pause. It should have stop me dead in my tracks, but it didn’t. Why not?
First, I was told by our college guidance office that “you just can’t tell what a college’s real cost will be” until you see how much scholarship and aid money they are going to give you. If they really want you, a private college tuition can sometimes even be less than a state school’s (so I’m told). So, why not apply to the schools you really want to go, and then deal with the money part latter?
Second, I’ve bought into the idea that your child doesn’t need to go to the best school she can get into, but to the college that fits her best. What’s the point of going to college if your kid will just be miserable there. Can he thrive there if he feels lost? Won’t she learn more, and live better, in the near future and even well into adulthood if she builds a strong foundation during her first foray in independence? And, how can she do that if the coursework is so overwhelming that she can hardly breath?
Third, and I know that this will sound simultaneously idiotic and self-serving and high-minded, I don’t really care about money, what I care about is people. Can I afford NOT to make a strong investment in the people I love? Apparently after reaching the Jewish age of wisdom (40), and after collecting almost $200K in graduate school debt between my wife and myself, I haven’t learned a damn thing. I have figured out that my student loans might finally get paid off when my youngest kid finishes graduate school. If he goes. If it still makes sense to still go to graduate school in a decade. [My sense is that educational life is changing so rapidly that it’s too hard to accurately predict what is or isn’t necessary to “make it” in the near future.]
Alas, such is the disconnected-from-reality mindset of a parent raised in the 80′s and 90′s, an era so seemingly prosperous that even though I know better it is hard to fathom that this “economic down-turn” can last much longer. Intellectually I believe that we’ve likely got almost a decade of unravelling to go and perhaps a full generation to recover from as a nation.
Reading Jefferey Eugenides The Marriage Plot (it should have won him a second Pulitzer) and watching the new HBO series Girls (working with high schoolers and only have sons, I found the first two episodes so mesmerizingly current and concerning that my wife had to remind me that it was a comedy) I am reminded that college does not guarantee a successful “launch”:
“I don’t want to freak you out, but I think, I may be the voice of my generation. Or at least, a voice of a generation… Okay, all I’m asking to finish this book is $1100 a month for two years.” (Girls character, Hannah Horvath, to her parents who are cutting her off after two years at an unpaid internship).
I believe that the desire for our kids to “just be happy” is a relatively new phenomenon, no more than one or two generations old. It was not so long ago that parents just wanted their kids to “make it,” to survive. Once the relative risk of survival diminished, a new goal came into play – happiness, and happiness, as an end in itself, has brought for many a wave of depression, an eclipse of the holy dimension, and a deadening sense of total relativism in all aspects of life. It’s the difference between living for something larger than the self (think God and country) verse the living for one’s ego.
The Talmud provides a short template of parents’ obligations to their children:
“A father is obligated to do the following for his son: to circumcise him, to redeem him if he is a first born, to teach him Torah, to find him a wife, and to teach him a trade. Others say: teaching him how to swim as well,” (Talmud Kidushin 29a).
The brief checklist suggests that one must provide for the spiritual as well as physical well-being of one’s children. Circumcision (brit milah), redemption of the first born (pidyon haben), and the study of Torah all sustain the soul, while finding a spouse, learning a trade and swimming speak to the physical survival of one’s children. We could also read into the list temporal (physical, this-worldly )and eternal (heavenly) survival.
Could the right college possibly provide my son with spiritual and physical fulfillment? Is that what I’m hoping for?
In the recent book, Academically Adrift: Limited Learning on College Campuses, sociology professors Richard Arum and Josipa Roksa question what it is that undergraduates are really learning, and how exactly we would know:
In a typical semester … 32 percent of the students did not take a single course with more than 40 pages of reading per week, and 50 percent did not take any course requiring more than 20 pages of writing over the semester. The average student spent only about 12 to 13 hours per week studying — about half the time a full-time college student in 1960 spent studying, according to the labor economists Philip S. Babcock and Mindy S. Marks.
Not surprisingly, a large number of the students showed no significant progress on tests of critical thinking, complex reasoning and writing that were administered when they began college and then again at the ends of their sophomore and senior years. If the test that we used, the Collegiate Learning Assessment, were scaled on a traditional 0-to-100 point range, 45 percent of the students would not have demonstrated gains of even one point over the first two years of college, and 36 percent would not have shown such gains over four years of college.
Why is the overall quality of undergraduate learning so poor?
Remember Robert Fulghum’s All I Really Need To Know, I Learned in Kindergarten? I’ve always found the title apt. I would add, and if you didn’t learn it in kindergarten, don’t worry, it’s on the web! If the findings of Academically Adrift are correct, than wouldn’t it be absurd to spend something approaching $50K/year if my kid wouldn’t really learn anything? I don’t expect my son’s intellect to grow considerably; he’s already smart enough (smarter than I, the real measure between fathers and sons). It’s not the money either, though according to the Wall Street Journal college grads should still expect a considerable pay bump over high school grads, between $450K to $1 million over a lifetime. I’ve been so deep in debt because of my own student loans that such numbers feel like Monopoly money.
What I really want in a college for my son are “mastery experiences” that build him up and opportunities that will deepen his understanding of the world and of his place in it. College is not the only place finding one’s causes and path in life can happen, and there are no assurances in the calculation, but as it stands right now, college still seems like the best bet, besides, who knows, there may be puppies.
We 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).
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.”
“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)
This 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 shit 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.
There has been a desire to pin down the central complaint of the 99%, which the Occupy Wall Street organizers purport to represent. So, in preparation for the group’s General Strike on May 1st, International Worker’s Day, the annual commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, I am adding my rabbinic voice to help clarify their message.
The problem begins with the opening lines of the Constitution, a document almost 236 years old – long enough to make its intentions debatable. Making ancient texts intelligible and relevant is the central role of the rabbi, so as as rabbi I feel especially qualified to clear up the issue.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The American Legal system approaches the Constitution in such a Jewish way, it makes Talmud scholars out of every judge and lawyer. The Talmud, formalized between 500CE and 600CE, atomizes the words of the earlier Mishnah, codified in 200CE. The intervening hundreds of years require of scholars deep exploration to decipher the intent of the of the original words, words which when they were set down were perfectly clear to the rabbis of the older Mishnah. The discrepancy in years between the authorship of the Constitution and the presence have made decoding its intended meaning equally onerous. “Well, what do you mean ‘We the People?” “What was the intent of ‘general Welfare’?” “What level of disagreement is meant to be rectified by ‘insure domestic tranquility’?”
I was studying for a rabbinical school Talmud exam when the case of Bush v. Gore was broadcasting on the radio as background noise. I was struck by the similarity of argumentation of the lawyers before the Supreme Court and the sages on the Ancient page in front of me.
My thoughts at the time are still clear to me: 1) Yes, I could have been a lawyer. 2) David Boies and Ted Olson, counsel for Gore and Bush respectively, are hacks. They should try the whole case again in Aramaic!
As a rabbi, trained in the circuitous logic of hyper-analysis of ancient text, I’d like to take a shot at interpreting a specific phrase of the preamble of the Constitution, “secure the Blessings of Liberty.”
“Secure”: A sense of safety, to exist without threat, to person or property.
“Blessing”: Usually translated from Barech (for Hebrew speakers -like Baruch atta Adonai), is a sense of divine oversight. Is the use of the word ‘blessing’ in the constitution a breach of the intent to separate church and state? A fair talmudic question, which deserves a talmud response, no?
For those who have an issue with “In God we trust” on our currency or “one nation, under God” added into the Pledge of Allegiance (when, by whom) – Yes. However, we should rule with the majority, who consider ‘blessings’ to mean expressly the following: ‘with good fortune and ability to effect an outcome that, if we all did agreed about the existence of a divine being, and about the nature of that being, as well as how to worship said deity, we would ascribe the attribute of oversight and agreement to said action. In the case of the Constitution, the good fortune and ability to secure liberty.
But what is ‘liberty’?: Freedom, yes, but we need to consider the intent of the term in its sitz im leben (academic speak for time and place). So we turn to the inscription on the Liberty Bell, Leviticus 25:10:
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and you shall return every man unto his possession, and you shall return every man unto his family.
Our best rendering of this clause of the Constitution’s preamble seems to mean that there will be either divine, or empowered human oversight, to ensure that everyone should feel safe and secure, that as far and wide as they may venture out, they can always return home. If we are to also take the idea of the jubilee seriously, the idea of a re-set of property and wealth, every fifty years, than we might extrapolate that every fifty years we ensure that no one, no segment of the American population has sunk to far, and if they have, that they should be restored to possessions and family.
Which brings up yet another issue (for the uninitiated, please appreciate the meandering brilliance of rabbinic logic): In a society that prides itself of upward mobility, does anyone really want to be restored to the way things were? Consider the fantastic 2005 series on Class which apeared in the New York Times (written before the national and world economic bubbles burst):
“A paradox lies at the heart of this new American meritocracy. Merit has replaced the old system of inherited privilege, in which parents to the manner born handed down the manor to their children. But merit, it turns out, is at least partly class-based. Parents with money, education and connections cultivate in their children the habits that the meritocracy rewards. When their children then succeed, their success is seen as earned. The scramble to scoop up a house in the best school district, channel a child into the right preschool program or land the best medical specialist are all part of a quiet contest among social groups that the affluent and educated are winning in a rout.”
In a nutshell, there may be a real cap to what is possible for even a well intentioned American to achieve. On the other side of this equation, there may not be any limit to how far an American can fall – you can loose your home and even the ability to maintain your family.”
Which brings us to the current mood of the country, and what I believe it means to be part of the “99%”: With the exception of the most wealthy, the 1%, the financially most ‘secure’ Americans, there is a sense that our “blessings of liberty” are not secure. There is little confidence that one will not loose all possession and the ability to provide for family. Too many families are one major illness, one more month of unemployment away from loosing everything.
Some have complained that the message of the Occupy Wall Street crowd has been variegated and muddled, but in talmudic and constitutional terms, I believe the message is clear and profound:
We the bottom 99% of the people of the United States, do not believe that we have the ability to secure the blessings of liberty, not for ourselves nor for our posterity.
If the above rendering rings true for you, than you may be a 99%er, and you should seriously consider joining the General Strike on May 1st.
“Humans make errors. We make errors of fact and errors of judgment. We have blind spots in our field of vision and gaps in our stream of attention. Sometimes we can’t even answer the simplest questions. Where was I last week at this time? How long have I had this pain in my knee? How much money do I typically spend in a day?”
Thus begins Gary Wolf’s New York Times Magazine article “The Data-Driven Life.” As our lives converge with machines, data, in mass amounts, becomes the new wisdom.
Here is a bit of satire for those of us who approach that future with a bit of trepidation.
…The Lord is my Shepherd, I have zero needs.
We gather here in a moment of great sadness to mourn the passing of someone close to us all. The actuaries were right. What can we say – the numbers tell the story.
In health: His numbers were not so good. His blood pressure was 140 over 90 with a resting heart-rate of 72. His cholesterol was 330, with a frighteningly low HDL of 19. As many of you know, chromosomally he did have a few recessive abnormalities on chromosomal pairs 4, 23, and 24. But did they do him in? Unlikely, everyone could see that his BMI was well over 33!
…Yea, though I walk through the Valley of Asymptote Limit of Negative One, I will fear no evil, for You are with me.
His high school GPA was 3.7 (3’s and 4’s for his AP scores), 2110 for his SAT score, 3.4 at a 3rd tiered college, no GRE score to speak of (this technical mystery will be corrected in time for the obituary). He graduated without honors from a 2nd tired Graduate School. Such was his education.
… Your staff and Your rod, they comfort me.
Of course his consumer habits have been readily searchable. He shopped mostly at Mega Shopping Grocery. He accounted for approximately $95 of weekly average purchase they with a slightly elevated purchase quotient in the salted Snack aisle. Google reports that his interests were roughly evenly split between on-line fantasy games, sports, especially Indonesian Cricket, and Googles’ own World News Digest. Sadly, he had three outstanding bids for collectible Disney watches on eBay. He would have won. Nonetheless, those watches have already been sent to the next highest bidder. His digital life is otherwise unremarkable, with the exception of a single visit to a porn site. Google Notes suggest that it is statistically possible that he reached the site by searching for Morgan Spurlock’s documentary film “Super Size Me,” and by then clicking their search feature “Feeling Lucky.”
…You set before me a table against my enemies. You anoint my head with oil. My cup overflows.
He was married for 34.6 years and had 2 girls and 1 boy. His favorite song was Bob Seger’s “Feel Like a Number.” His combined FICO score was 678. The family has asked that in lieu of flowers, kindly make a digi-donatation to their favorite cause, IRS Approved Non-Profit Mobil Code XH35G. That code number is now being broadcast to your phones and also appears on the screen above the casket. Please use this moment of silence to transact now.
… Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, as I dwell in the Infinite Loop of the Lord forever.
So it is that we bury Social Security number 456-89-9987. Let me add, unorthodox as it may be in our data-driven life, and at such an intimate setting no less, that he was my closest friend. I will always remember him. Bit by byte, he will be missed.
Yitgadal V’itgadash Shemei Rabbah …
“A gift is something that cannot appear as such.” – Jacques Derrida, The Gift of Death
And God came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of man had built. And the God said, “Behold, they are one people, and they have all one language, and this is only the beginning of what they will do. And nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them.” (Genesis 11:5-6).
What was it that the builders of the Tower of Babel did that was so wrong? Could you imagine a moment when the entire planet’s human population actually got along long enough to do something together. Here we were one planet, one people – can you imagine? John Lennon would be so proud (“Imagine”). Only, what? God doesn’t see it us coming together as all that good. In fact, He thinks its dangerous. Wait till 2045, the date that Ray Kurzweil, the 1999 National Medal of Technology award winner sets for the singularity.
What is the Singularity?
In short, the singularity is the moment in time, at the current rate of acceleration, that the technology we create, computers, will actually “think” faster than we do.
One of the major implications for faster, smarter, and smaller computers, may very likely be nanobots, artificially intelligent inventions that can be made as small as our blood cells. Could we have such nano-cells floating inside of us to keep us healthy? Could we live, 150 years? 200? Forever?
If we could continually renew and/or replenish our cells through technology would we? Why wouldn’t we? It is certainly Judaism’s point of view that we are partners with God, even in healing the body. If we could get rid of illness, rid of death, shouldn’t we?
I’ve recently watched the documentary Transcendent Man, which details Kurzweil’s expectations for our near future (if I keep my body moving, and if I survive my son’s driving lessons, and if I stop eating whatever deliciousness my wife bakes, I should make it). There is a compelling, yet disturbing argument being made that through faster and smarter technology our lives will be extended beyond the simplicity of one decaying body that ends in 80 to 90 years. If if happens, its because we built the technology to make it happen. The possibility is closer than some think. I’m pretty sure that the bio-tech company a few miles from my house already has the technology to clone me.
What would God say?
They said, “Come, let us build ourselves a city and a tower with its top in the heavens, and let us make a name for ourselves, lest we be dispersed over the face of the whole earth” (Gen. 11:4).
The rabbis teach that it was not the building that was an affront to God, it was there motivation: “A name for themselves”. In a famous midrash, a rabbinic tale, the people would climb a ladder on one side of the Tower, place their brick and climb down the other side. When someone would fall, the people would mourn the brick that should have been placed, and not the person.
We are told that God already had the Torah, the lessons and the Law before creation came into existence. This is a good model for science as well. We should get a handle on the issues (can does not mean should) before we reach points of no return.
I suggest that the same issue is at hand with the singularity and life-extension (or even re-animating the dead; Kurzweil hopes to bring back his deceased father). Motivation is an issue. There is no question that we will be able to do amazing things -beyond what you and I can imagine today. But the question of ethics, has never, and will never, be overcome by technology.
The most precious commodity we have is life. It is painful enough to see it wasted. A time when life extends forever? Well, that would be worse. Life would be rendered insignificant, meaningless. Death always feels like such a tragedy, but it may very well be better than the alternative.