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.

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

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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

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America: Killer Food and Hospitals Making Killings

Cheetos

“This,” Witherly said, “is one of the most marvelously constructed foods on the planet, in terms of pure pleasure.” He ticked off a dozen attributes of the Cheetos that make the brain say more. But the one he focused on most was the puff’s uncanny ability to melt in the mouth. “It’s called vanishing caloric density,” Witherly said. “If something melts down quickly, your brain thinks that there’s no calories in it…you can just keep eating it forever.” -The Extraordinary Science of Addictive Junk Food, by Michael Moss (NY Times Magazine).

Is it a surprise to hear that food companies painstakingly, scientifically manufacture the taste and textures of our foods and drinks to make them addictive? No. Moss quotes Bob Drane, the brains behind Kraft’s Lunchables, who explains how the food industry got to where it is today: “Our limbic brains love sugar, fat, salt… So formulate products to deliver these. Perhaps add low-cost ingredients to boost profit margins. Then ‘supersize’ to sell more…And advertise/promote to lock in ‘heavy users’.”

“When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another” - Lev. 25:14.

From the Torah verse above our sages learn the prohibition of Ona’ah, overreaching – “the act of wronging another by selling him an article for more than its real worth.”

Are food companies withholding what they know about our tastes and therefore making a profit from our lack of knowledge about food science? We like to think that America was built on Judeo-Christian morals, but that is not the case. The reason that there are no warning labels on bags of chips or cans of soda is because our moral code, when it comes to business anyway, is the moral code of Rome not of Jerusalem (an analogy often made by one of my mentors, Dr. Bruce Powell):

Rome teaches: Caveat Emptor – “Let the buyer beware.”

From the perspective of the food company it is the business of the consumer to find out about a product and make her own decision.

Is such a business plan criminal? No. Is it moral? Again, no.

Jerusalem teaches: “It is forbidden to cheat people in buying or selling or to deceive them.” – Mishnah Torah, Laws of Sales. Judaism teaches that buyer has the obligation of full disclosure to seller.

“So,the food and drink around me, that is cheaper and tastier than healthy food and water, is killing me?” Buyer beware, indeed!

I will admit that some will say that ona’ah, overreaching, on the part of Big Food is a stretch. Nonetheless, I stand my ground, but that ona’ah is taking place in hospitable bills is paramount to anyone who has bothered to ask for an itemized bill from their last hospital visit.

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This week’s Time Magazine cover article by Steven Brill is a must read for every American. Hospitals, even non-profit hospitals, have such complex guides for deciding payment, which can seem so arbitrary. How do they decide? Hospitals have different pay rates for cash, insurance, and Medicare. Brill give the example of a chest x-ray. A patient might be charged $333, but if it’s billed through Medicare, that same x-ray would pay the hospital $23.83.

Of course, the hospital should be allowed to make a profit, make up for non-payment, or low payment, but it seems that the mark-up something controlled by the secretive “chargemaster- the mysterious internal price list for products and services that every hospital in the U.S. keeps.”

Why are Americans paying so much more for healthcare than other well-off nations without the results? We value the right of hospitals to make money without us fully knowing what we are being charged for. Alas, such is life in Rome. Healthcare costs would not be so bloated if true Judeo-Christian values ruled. Consider this teaching:

“One who has medications, and another person is sick and needs them, it is forbidden to raise their prices beyond what is appropriate.” - SHULCHAN ARUCH, YOREH DE’AH 336:3.

In choosing Rome as our ethical compass, we have led ourselves to a crisis point.  Protecting the right of companies to profit at the knowing expense, in dollars and in health, of our citizens is a sure sign that America no longer lives by Judeo-Christian values.

Posted on February 26, 2013

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Pope versus Pal

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Pope Benedict says that he’ll be stepping down at the end of February. It’s been 600 years since a sitting pontiff has taken such an action, usually you die in service. There were days on the bima, in front of the congregation, when I thought the same might happen to me.  Alas, a story for another day.

I remember when this pope was elected, the plume of smoke that rose from a Vatican chimney signified that the Cardinals had made their secret selection. Such ceremony!

The opportunity to elect a new pope reminds of a recent article written by my dear colleague, Brad Hirschfield, on the ordination this past November of the Coptic Pope, of Egyptian christians, Pope Tawadros II (Washington Post):

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“The 60-year-old, English-trained pharmacist born as Wagih Sobi Baqi Suleiman, became the head of the Coptic Church when a blindfolded child picked his name out of a bowl…
Following three days of fasting and chanting, a child is selected to reach into the bowl and draw out the name of the person who will serve as the new leader.

We Jews do not have such an elaborate process in choosing our rabbis. Instead, we are taught lessons such as “Make for yourself a rabbi (teacher), and earn for yourself a friend.” (Avot 1:6).

What a crazy teaching? You mean, unlike the Coptic church or the Vatican, the religious leaders we get are not chosen by God, however understood by the Cardinals in the case of the Rome or by the young boy in the case of the Copts? Instead, we choose? We, fallible, imperfects choose our own leaders. So we’ll choose a rabbi who already agrees with us, who won’t push us where we don’t want to be pushed. And this is indeed the case. Where given a choice of synagogues, the number one reason for choosing a synagogue is “like the rabbi.” This is a problem and blessing.

One the one hand, congregants in most synagogues have an unusual power over their religious leader. So how cutting edge can your rabbi be, if the threat of disapproval and the threat of an unrenewed contract looms over his or her head?

On the other hand, there is a lesson here as well. Judaism seems to prize a relationship with a teacher who can also be your friend over one who hold religious, moral, perhaps Godly authority over you. In this complicated relationship, that of rabbi-friend, is a religious secret:

You already know everything you need to know about God and how to be a good and happy person in the world. You don’t need a higher authority to tell you this. What you need is a friend to support you as you take what you know into your heart and out to the world.

Is your rabbi also your friend?  If not why not?  Is it him or her?  Or, is your expectations that keep your rabbi at arms length?

Posted on February 12, 2013

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Everything is Rent

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

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

The message reminds me of a favorite story:

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on January 29, 2013

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“What if I can’t spell Hope?”

Heschel and King

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Posted on January 15, 2013

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WTF and Other Essential Prayers

I’ve always been suspicious of the “when life gives you lemons, make lemonade” crowd.   Generally, the eternally sunny scare me. When do they let it out? Also, what does the good-tripping type do with out-and-out tragedies such as 20 first and second graders killed for showing up to school; the murder of 7 adults who cared for them, one of them the mother of the murder. How do you make lemonade out of that?

WTF?!

That is the only honest response I have. “God, WTF?! Here we are, all of us, most of us, trying the very best we can in life – and where are You?”

Yes, “What The F***!” is a prayer.  Sure Psalm 13 says it differently, but the sentiment is the same. The prayer asks God, ‘where are You when I suffer, when the the world’s pain echoes through me like a deafening roar?’

How long, O Lord; will You ignore me forever?
How long will You hide Your face from me?
How long will I have cares on my mind, and grief in my heart all day? -Psalm 13:2-3.

When something troubling happens, such as the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting, I get angry, angry at God. Anger at God is one of the most potent prayers I know. My friend Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu alluded to this in yesterday’s Rabbis Without Borders blog.

Of course, anger, red hot accusatory anger at God is not the entirety of Psalm 13. It opens with the startling finger-pointing accusation of God’s indifference, but it ends:

I will sing to the Lord, for God has been good to me.

I love this prayer. It allows me the honesty I need for the healthy relationship with God that I crave. Please don’t ask me to hold on to blind goodness and blessing, because then I feel especially lost and scared and angry when real trouble comes. But let me rail about: Murder, bloodshed, hunger, homelessness, parents burying their children, young girls in Pakistan being shot for wanting an education, women in the Congo being raped, and mind-bogglingly re-raped, their bodies part of the battlefield, and more, so much more…

God, if you let me say all that, let me spill my heart’s ache, well, then there is a lot left, and it’s good.

God, I am thankful for the health of my children, the gift of my wife’s love, the appreciation of my students, the feel of the ocean when I swim, the tightening of my skin as it warms in the sun, smiles, laughter, my dog, Matzah’s birthday, and I can go on and on.

I am filled with gratitude. Above all the troubles and trials of being human is a deep thankfulness for all that I have. Sometimes the world is upside down, and the troubles pile over the goodness. Expressing both my frustration and my joy is the only honest way  to right the earth’s axis and move forward once again.

Posted on December 18, 2012

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RULES WERE MEANT TO BE BROKEN

“Start working on this great work of art, called your own existence”- AJ Heschel

A Life well lived is an art: with guides on perspective, scale, composition, ect.

The great artists know when to break the very rules they follow, it’s the breaking of pattern and expectation that creates interest, wonder, and awe.

Such is life.

So what is religion?  Specifically, what is Judaism?  What is Halacha, Jewish law,  “THE way,” “THE path?”  To be sure, there is more than one set of rules to follow in order to make great art, just as there is truth to be found in more than one religion.  Great art borrows from other great art. Similarly, ‘no religion is an island’ (again Heschel); we borrow and share, and are deeply influenced by the religion and culture that surrounds us. Halacha then, is “a set of rules” that gives life structure and meaning.

But we have to remember that rules, patterns, are appreciated more when disrupted, challenged.  It is the disruption of pattern that makes us take note of both the new and the expected.  Fundamentally, our psyche is trained to take for granted the expected and to pay attention to the unique, the surprising, the break in a pattern. Such is the excitement of new love (as described in a New York Times piece on marriage, “New Love: A Short Shelf Life.” The summary: exciting for 2 years, boring and expected for about 20, with a renewed excitement at empty nest. –I’ll simply disagree for now – there is so much more to blissful married life).

In any artform, including Life, including specifically Jewish life, the better you know the rules, the more masterful the impact in breaking them.  An analogy: Consider the power of a well placed single word paragraph.

Crap.

English teachers can’t teach you that.

Consider Spielberg’s girl in the red dress at the end of Shindler’s List.  The color adds meaning both to the innocence preserved and to the ominous nature of the otherwise black-and-white film.

In the Bible, the law of primogeniture, the rule that says that the oldest inherits, is constantly overturned: Abraham is not the oldest, Isaac is not the oldest, Jacob is younger than his twin Esau and has to trick and steal to inherit. Even King David, the rightful king of Israel, is the youngest. Why does the Bible so often highlight the breaking of this rule? Because rules gain meaning when the possibility of breaking them also exists.

It is said that there was once a very pious Jew who when he would read the verse, “…and do not be seduced by your heart or led astray by your eyes,” he would start crying (Numbers 15:39, the third paragraph of the Shema prayer said twice daily).

“Why do you cry,” he was asked?

“Because,” the pious man replied, “my entire life I have done exactly what the letter of the law has required of me, and in so doing, I’ve never had the opportunity to fully understand this verse.”

Years ago I chose not to wear my kippa (head covering). I wear it everyday, just about wherever I go. I wear it as a reminder of God, as a symbol of humility, that God is above me, and as an identification with the Jewish people. Driving a U-Haul across the country almost twenty years ago, I pulled into a truck stop in Oklahoma. I decided to put my kippa in my pocket. I wondered to myself why I was doing that? Am I not proud of being Jewish? So, I was wondering about this as I approach the register inside the station. The man in front of me was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt – just like me! I’ve always wanted to be a long-haul trucker. I had this great sense of authenticity. I fit in – until he turned around. His shirt was open and revealed a giant swastika that covered the entirety of his barrel chest. I became very conscious of the kippa in my pocket. All of its symbolism was somehow all the more powerful in my pocket than it is day-to-day in my life in Los Angeles, or New York, where I was headed.

“Profane one Shabbat so that one can keep many Shabbatot” -Yoma 85B

It seems that our religion, so often associated with the strictures of laws, might be better described as teaching the artful breaking of laws.

I content that there is an essential paradox at the heart of a meaningful life: Breaking with tradition and law, has the very real possibility of strengthening tradition and the power of the very rules being broken.

Posted on December 4, 2012

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My Very Own Fiscal Cliff

In the spirit of Thanksgiving, let me be sure to say that I am thankful for everything and everyone that I have – with the obvious exception of my debt. The natural and man made crises of Hurricane Sandy and the Gaza/Israel stand-off are all the reminder I need that my problems have the unique fingerprints of truly fortunate.


A Debt Ceiling to Call My Own.

What is clear to me is that nobody thinks that I’m “too big to fail”. Be that as it may, but as of late it feels like I’m going over Niagara Falls without even the protection of a barrel. Worse, it feels like the soon to be met (again) National Debt Ceiling (12 Trillion) and the expiring Bush Era Income Tax cuts are of such monumental concern, that the citizens who make up the nation, and yes, our debt, can easily be forgotten. So, I’m going over the cliff alright, and like Wile E. Coyote fifty feet beyond the edge of the abyss, I’ve finally looked, and there is no where else to go but down. This wasn’t the American Dream I signed up for.

“However, there will be no poor among you, since the LORD will surely bless you in the land which the LORD your God is giving you as an inheritance to possess” -Deut. 15:4

Between my wife and I, we’ve got graduate school loans in the six digits. I remember the loan officer at my school saying, “don’t worry about it, your congregation will eventually take it over.” They did not. After the economy tanked, they could not. I bought a house in 2005 which is worth just over half the amount of the loan I took out on it. The mortgage broker said things like, “Let’s just see if we can get you into that home, and then we can refi later.” The value of the home was suppose to go up enough to pay off the student loans. Instead we were forced to work with the bank to modify the mortgage – but it’s still more than 50% of my take home pay from a good job that I love. The extra work that I used to have, that helped us get by, has dried up and gone the way of everything extra. Then there are the medical bills. Even with relatively “great” insurance, I’m in payment plans with a small handful of M.D. Sometimes patients have to teach their doctors patience. On top of all that, I’ve got to figure out how to pay for college for my four kids, so they can keep this cycle going – I guess.

“For the poor will never cease to be in the land; therefore I command you, saying, ‘You shall freely open your hand to your brother, to your needy and poor in your land.’ – Deut.15:11

Talk about a “debt ceiling”, I’m the epitome of a twenty-first century millionaire, I owe a million dollars, the ceiling of debt that by working hard every day every dollar I make can go to servicing that debt. Every month is dedicated to paying bills, not paying off bills, just keeping them current. Will John Boehner and Paul Ryan work something out with Nancy Pelosi, the Senate, and President Obama? I believe so. Will it help me? I know it won’t. Maybe if I was “too big to fail,” but I’m afraid that I’m too small to notice. Although I’m not innocent in this whole picture, I don’t believe the my situation is all my fault. There is something seriously wrong with a system that can allow well intentioned, well educated, hard working people, fall so deeply and so completely. On every front, student loans, housing failures, medical bills – I know I’m not alone, but it sure feels like it some times.

While the government tries to keep the country from going over the fiscal cliff, will they notice the tiny plumes of dust rising from the valley floor. Some of us have already gone over.

Posted on November 20, 2012

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It’s Not Over Until …

It’s not over until…

When the Simpsons go to see Carmen at the Springfield Opera House Homer asked Bart when the show will end. Bart replied, ‘it’s not over till the fat lady sings.’ To which Homer then points to a zoftig soprano on stage and says, ‘is that one fat enough for you, son?’

If you are glad that it is finally Election Day because you think that ‘it will finally be over’, then you’re wrong. “It” being the mind-numbing, ping-ponging Romeny-said-then-Obama-said twenty-four hour news cycle and the billion dollar ad campaigns. And the idea of it being over is wrong. As it stands right now, even in a country where 25% of us are clinically obese there isn’t a fat lady large enough to end this show. The Infotainment industry will not allow it.

My fear is that regardless of who is elected the division created and divisiveness employed in the last two elections have created a powerful schism in the fabric of our country. Regardless of the results of this election, we will remain a country divided.  See Thomas Friedman’s piece, ‘The morning after the morning after,’ in the Sunday NYTimes.

Rabbi A. J. Heschel taught, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”

Rabbi Heschel’s insight should remind us that we must put pressure on our elected leaders, in control of government or in opposition, that we demand action on the 99% of issues where there is agreement. We will not tolerate inaction for the sake of political point scoring or posturing for the next round. As a nation we are above that.

In the Talmudic academy of old, as hot and contentious a place as the US Congress can be, rabbis of diametrically opposed view rallied hard against the other’s position. But there are rules for such a machloket, such a disagreement. First and foremost, the two sides must list everything regarding the issue at hand on which they agree. The Talmud might use the term “chulei alma” – ‘the entire world agrees’, even these two seemingly opposing rabbis about 99% of the issue at hand. Than, ‘mai benaihu’- ‘what is between them’. It is on the minutia of the tiny 1% of a problem that rabbis might agree to disagree.

Regardless of my fear that the battle is done but the war that divides us politically will continue, I pray and hold out hope.

Based on the wisdom of the Talmud understanding of how we go about disagreeing, we must demand two things after this election, regardless who wins the Presidency and who controls Congress: A) Left and Right must publicly and honestly debate the 1% of issues upon which they disagree. B) Right and Left must not use the 1% of issues upon which they disagree as hostage to acting upon the 99% that they do agree upon.

Posted on November 5, 2012

Note: The opinions expressed here are the personal views of the author. All comments on MyJewishLearning are moderated. Any comment that is offensive or inappropriate will be removed. Privacy Policy

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