Category Archives: Justice

Should We Care About People Not Like Us?

tikkun-olamThe context was a class on the gun violence epidemic in Chicago. I had finished the presentation by mentioning some of the grim statistics of people injured and killed by gun violence throughout the city. After the class an individual approached me and said, “Rabbi, why should I care if people who aren’t Jewish are dying because other non-Jews are shooting them?” I was, of course, flabbergasted by his question. It occurred to me though that while this person had the audacity to ask the question, many more people probably quietly think along similar lines, even if not exactly in the same formulation. The question remains for many: Why should I care about people who are not part of my community? Is there a Jewish mandate to care about others?

This is an important question primarily because those of us who do believe there is a value to caring for people who are not like us need to spend time unpacking that priority. It is always worthwhile to explore our own value systems and be able to more clearly and cogently articulate why they are so. People can turn to many different sources for inspiration and guidance, as a rabbi I turn to Jewish texts and to Jewish tradition.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first Chief Rabbi of the British Mandate over the Land of Israel and the great 20th century Jewish philosopher and mystic, in his work Orot HaKodesh links the commandment to “love God” with love of the world. A person who truly loves God cannot help but love the world and God’s creations. God as Creator saw fit to create each and every human being and was therefore deserving of His love, thus how could we not love all humanity?

Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik, the eminent leader of Modern Orthodoxy, articulated a philosophy in his essay, Confrontation, of existing in two “confrontations:” the universal human struggle to overcome wickedness and the things that bring humanity down and an equally powerful connection to our own unique covenantal relationship with the Divine. Neither confrontation is abrogated by the other. Both are vital.

The early rabbinic text, the Tosefta, states that “we [Jews] eulogize and bury the dead of non-Jews because of the ways of peace, and we console the mourners of non-Jews because of the ways of peace. (Gittin 3:14)” Maimonides in his legal code, the Mishneh Torah, extended it further and stated it was a commandment to visit non-Jewish sick and feed the non-Jewish poor because “God is good to all and His compassion is on all His creatures” and “The Torah’s ways are ways of pleasantness and all its paths are peace. (Laws of Kings 10:12)”

This is by far not an exhaustive examination of the subject. It also does not represent the entire spectrum of Jewish thought. There is a strand of thought that does diminish our obligation to care about those not like us. However, the objective here is not to present a complete exercise in the study of the subject from all angles but rather to make the case that believing there is an inherent value to caring about people who are not Jewish and devoting oneself to the betterment of all people is an integral part of Jewish tradition.

As our urban centers are plagued with gun violence (particularly in Chicago) and as people face numerous challenges related to poverty, access to quality education and discrimination we ought to be a part of the work towards a solution. We must be involved not just because it is the good thing to do but because it is very much the Jewish thing to do.

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Posted on July 18, 2014

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

Corporations Are Not Religious

The Supreme Court gives corporations Freedom of Religion protection. Absurd.imgres-1

At the close of this season’s Supreme Court rulings, the justices voted that corporations had a right to exercise their freedom of religion. The vote was 5-4. Who would have guessed it?

The right-leaning judges of the majority argued that “closely held for-profit corporations” running on religious principles, such as Hobby Lobby, had a right to exempt themselves from federal laws that impinge their religious sensibilities.

The left-leaning judges challenged, but lost. “The court’s expansive notion of corporate personhood,” Justice Ginsburg wrote, “invites for-profit entities to seek religion-based exemptions from regulations they deem offensive to their faiths.” (New York Times).

Are corporations people?

The Citizens United case, which allowed corporate money in campaigns, sure suggested “yes.” Now, I guess its clear. Corporations are certainly and absolutely persons. Persons, yes.  Perhaps more specifically, zombies. Consider: Corporations never feel pain, loss, or ever die (so vampires?).

While in recess, the Supreme Court should prepare for the onslaught of questions that will soon be rolling in. If corporations are persons, and persons have a right to practice their religion—thus exempting such religiously constituted corporations from having to provide federally mandated services, such as birth control in the case of Hobby Lobby—what constitutes religion?

What is a religion?

I’d like my Jewish corporation, which, on religious grounds is closed on Saturdays, to be exempt from one-seventh of its tax burden. Sure the company’s on-line store is open, but nobody is working (its forbidden on Shabbat). For us, to pay taxes that would be collected on Saturday would constitute our business as “working.” According to our rabbi, automated mechanisms set before Shabbat do not constitute working on Shabbat. You see the issue. I claim Religious Freedom for Jewish businesses that are open/not-open from sundown Friday to nightfall on Saturday.

noodledoodlewall

Is Pasta-farianism, a “real” religion, likewise recognized by the government, and thus protected? Would a company whose corporate leaders organized their for-profit business around the values of the Flying Spaghetti Monster be exempt from taxation of Rolling Rock? After all, the official website of the Pastafarians’ Church of the Flying Spaghetti Monster clearly claims, “We are fond of beer.”

Would George Costanza, of Seinfeld fame, and his family be exempt from paying taxes on unadorned metal poles? The Festivus Pole is central to the celebration of Festivus (“Festivus, the holiday for the rest of us.”). Similarly, anything having to do with the “Airing of Grievances” or the “Feats of Strength” should likewise have Freedom of Religion protection for any individual or corporation that identifies itself as striving to live good, clean Festivus values.

My son, a musician, has left our synagogue and joined the “Rhythm of Life” Churchfirst established by Daddy Johann Sebastian Brubeck in the broadway musical, Sweet Charity:

“Daddy started out in San Francisco,Tootin’ on his trumpet loud and mean. Suddenly a voice said, “Go forth Daddy,Spread the picture on a wider screen.” And the voice said, “Brother, there’s a million pigeons Ready to be hooked on new religions. Hit the road, Daddy, leave your common-law wife. Spread the religion of The Rhythm Of Life.”And The Rhythm Of Life is a powerful beat, Puts a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feet. Rhythm in your bedroom. Rhythm in the street.” (1969 film version, with Sammy David Jr. as Daddy).

My wife and I are devastated, of course. As a Rhythm of Lifer, can he still be considered Jewish? Can he be buried in a Jewish cemetery? Most importantly, does his incorporated band have to pay the thousands of dollars they have incurred in noise ordinance fines?

I expect that the Supreme Court will need to answer these questions in the next session. Clearly the absurd is part of the Court’s new religion, so they’ll be no stopping them.

The Jewish world is full of debates. Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.

Posted on July 1, 2014

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

A Dog at the Seder

Dog SilhouetteAs a child, the great Jewish philosopher Emmanuel Levinas noticed that dogs appear in Torah at a crucial moment. On the night of the tenth plague, Torah says, “not a dog was barking” (Ex. 11:7). Young Manny wondered at this. Why do dogs deserve to be mentioned? How could they have known what a momentous night it was for both Israelites and Egyptians? Are dogs really “man’s best friend”? What does the Torah know about this?

Levinas found his answers during World War II. He, a French citizen, was drafted into the French army in 1939. Early in the war, German soldiers captured Levinas along with his regiment, and placed him in a POW camp in a special block for Jewish prisoners. Guards treated the Jews as non-persons, interacting as little as possible, never calling them by name.

One day, as the prisoners were returning from work, a dog came by. They called him “Bobby.” Bobby made friends with the Jewish prisoners. Each time they returned from work, Bobby greeted them with joyous canine passion. Eventually, Bobby moved on in his travels, but he remained a treasure in the hearts of the prisoners. Bobby the dog was the only one who recognized them as human beings.

Sometimes, Levinas concludes, dogs can be more humane than human beings. In the Exodus story, their humanity contrasts with Pharaoh’s hardened, de-humanized heart. Unlike Pharaoh, the dogs responded to human feeling, and sensed the presence of the Infinite God. Unlike the German soldiers who murdered Levinas’ parents and brothers, or the French officials who sought his wife and daughter hiding in a monastery, Bobby saw past ethnicity into a living heart.

Bobby’s visit echoes through Levinas’ mature philosophy. To be alone, writes Levinas, can be terrible. Sometimes it seems that even God has abandoned the world. The way out of this loneliness is to respond to others. Traces of God are found in this response-ability. Some people feel God’s infinity through their infinite sense of social or interpersonal responsibility. They know that responsibility must be taught and modeled at every level of relationship—first at home and then on the world stage—in order to make a lasting difference.

As Bobby’s friendship with the prisoners shows, we do not have to know other people well in order to respond to them. Sometimes, says Levinas, we don’t even know the inner lives of our own family members, yet we reach out to them in love. Good spouses understand they cannot fully know one another, and embrace this interpersonal mystery. Good parents recognize they cannot control or predict their children’s future, and cherish the surprises children bring.

Yes, Passover with all its surprises is upon us this very Monday night. But it is still possible to bring Bobby’s spirit to your Seder, in some small, but emotionally huge, last-minute ways.“Let all who are hungry come in and eat,” says the haggadah. Can you set aside some very real everyday differences to reach out to a last-minute guest? “Originally, our ancestors were idol worshippers,” adds the Haggadah, reminding us that nobody has a perfect history. Can you get beyond habitual negative judgments of the spiritual levels of your least favorite relatives, to greet them with joy?

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Posted on April 14, 2014

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Looking Back on Newtown With Sadness, Anger and Love

800px-Sandy_Hook_Memorial_12-26.jpg-largeOn Friday, December 14, 2012, I heard the news in the car. Shots were being fired in an elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut. Little information was yet known.

I was seized by a sick feeling of sadness, worry, and a familiar anger that has unfortunately been all too frequent – anger that our country remains gripped by a culture of violence and politics that glorifies guns.

Amidst deep worry for the people of Sandy Hook, another fear took hold. A dear cousin of mine who is a lower-grade elementary school teacher lives in that community. We had just visited over the Thanksgiving weekend. I didn’t recall the name of the school where my cousin teaches, so I went into a panic. I couldn’t reach my cousin by phone and tried to find the faculty list on the Sandy Hook school’s website, but it was down in the midst of the crisis. My sister called me in panic – we felt so helpless without any information.

Hours later my cousin called. Its turns out he teaches in a nearby town. His cell phone held dozens of voicemails and text messages from worried friends and family — he had been teaching, not using his phone. We breathed in a deep and grateful sense of relief.

Then I felt guilty for our feelings of relief. In deep sadness, I watched the scenes on TV, grieving for the 20 children and six adults; such unspeakable losses. These families would not ever experience the sense of relief that my family enjoyed. I viscerally recall the terror generated by this horrible violence. It could have been any of us, or our children. For some, it was their children; we feel such deep sympathy for them.

Where is the rage? What has happened to our country and our world?  Why do mentally ill people not get the treatment they need? Why do people feel they need these instruments of death?

So much needs to fixed: mental health awareness and treatment; violence in our culture: movies, video games and TV; a 24/7 media culture that sensationalizes, to the point of (unintentionally) glorifying perpetrators – especially to “would-be” committers of the next shooting; and a political culture that is bought and sold by the gun lobby.

We are out of control. A late 19th-century prophetic European social critic, Max Nordau, wrote of his fears for society’s fall into “public drug peddling, random shootings, graphically violent popular entertainment, and a massive reduction of the human attention span” (Degeneration, 1895). We have been warned; we know the problems. It is time to fix them.

The people of Newtown have asked for privacy and quiet at this sad first anniversary.  Still, The New York Times, reporting on the anniversary, offered insight into the ongoing process of grief and healing in Newtown:

“Ms. Lewis, Jesse’s mother, begins every day by pulling on three or four or five of her Jesse bracelets before heading out. The bracelets read, ‘Nurturing, Healing, Love’ — three words her son had written on their kitchen chalkboard shortly before 12/14. The phrase became the title of her book about her son and the aftermath of the shooting, published in October. ‘Anyone who needs a pick-me-up or seems nice, I always offer a bracelet,’ she said.”

The Torah teaches us to love our neighbor as ourselves. The commandment is not to feel love; it is a commandment to action. We have the courage – this is America! We must use it – to infuse our world with nurturing, healing and love.

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Posted on December 16, 2013

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Mandela and Messianic Time

133380518_mandela_435954bIn less than a week, so much has been said to eulogize Nelson Mandela. Together with Frederik Willem de Klerk, he was responsible ”for the peaceful termination of the apartheid regime, and for laying the foundations for a new democratic South Africa” (Nobel Foundation).

Mandela was a world icon, showing that nonviolent progress towards justice is possible. 

Reading the eulogies has helped me as I struggle day after day to find hope. Generally, I don’t believe that humanity is evolving morally or spiritually. I find it tragic, in fact, that the wisest people are retired, while young learners lead the world. Human history seems a repetition of terrible mistakes.

Frankly, I cannot wrap my mind around the vision of Messianic time, even though the great Jewish philosopher Maimonides insists that hope is a pillar of Jewish spirituality. On Yom Kippur, I had a quick glimpse of hope. The idealism of my son and his friends, the liturgy’s endless prayers for peace, and the community’s yearning for self-improvement seduced me. But the glimpse soon faded into memory…

Until this week.

Last week, Rabbi Tsvi Blanchard commented on the story of Joseph’s reconciliation with his long-lost brothers. What a risk Joseph takes when he reaches out to these men he knew only as bullies! He reveals himself, literally and figuratively. Literally, he cries and cries. Speaking his brothers’ language, he says “I am Joseph.” Figuratively, he opens his heart, showing that he hopes to be received with love.

Where does Joseph get the courage to take the risk? He actually explains it in his own words. He tells his brothers, “Don’t feel bad that you sold me into slavery, because God put me here to save lives. God sent me ahead of you, to keep you alive ” (Genesis 45:5-7). Joseph believes in a grand narrative where everything ultimately turns out for the better.

Rabbi Blanchard says: Often we secretly hope for reconciliation, but fear taking the risk. Could we, he asks, follow Joseph’s lead? Could we allow ourselves to believe that the rift is part of a larger story with a happy ending? If we believed that was where we were headed, would we be more willing to take a risk?

This week, Rabbi Julie Danan says: Nelson Mandela must have believed in a greater good, too, as he became the public face of “Truth and Reconciliation.”

Hillary Kaplan adds: It’s easy to draw parallels between the Biblical character Joseph and the real man Mandela. Both were harmed in their youth; both served long prison terms; both were skilled politicians; both took risks for reconciliation; both were criticized for compromising too easily with the seat of power, and for failing to broaden economic opportunity.

Compromising is a risk, too, when you’re a politician. But you compromise in order to reach a vision of a greater good.

The great midrash collection Genesis Rabbah explains that the world was created for the sake of such a vision. In the mind of the editor, everything that happens leads ultimately to the flourishing of the Jewish people.  And, of course, the flourishing of the Jewish people is necessary for the redemption of the world. History has a plan; the plan is set out symbolically in the Book of Genesis; and it is being realized even now.

Normally, this kind of thinking seems ludicrous to me. It’s irrational, it’s patently false, it’s ethnocentric. Nothing in my mindset resonates with this at all.

But this is not a normal week. It’s the week of Mandela’s passing and the anniversary of Joseph’s reconciliation.

I hold Mandela in high moral esteem. His belief in social evolution seems beautiful, blessed and true. And, like Joseph, I do believe in interpersonal healing, and I do sometimes take risks to achieve it. Sometimes rupture is only a chapter in a story of deepening friendship.

Through these reflections, I receive another glimpse into the reality of Messianic time. Hope is visionary. It does not have to reflect current conditions to be real. When it motivates people to move forward personally and socially, it is real.

I want to grow my hope, to string together glimpses into a clear vision. But I need help. Can you tell me: What makes hope real for you?

Image: the times.co.uk. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.

Posted on December 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

Terror in Afula, Seen from Afar

ein-dorA numinous dream, last Wednesday:

I am on Kibbutz Ein Dor, near the city of Afula in Northern Israel, visiting my 18-year-old son, a participant in the HabonimDror Workshop program. A road lined with trees circles the kibbutz. My late cat Yogi – my dreamtime wisdom guide — and I sit on a bench by the road, quietly contemplating. The air is still; the sky glows with twilight; the temperature is neither too hot nor too cold; the world is absolutely perfect for a human being.

Cosmic, messianic; a perfected world of beauty and peace; good for the human body, heart, and soul; the kind of dream I want to dwell in forever.

Until my alarm clock – an iPhone app — rings.

As I reach to turn it off, I see the notification: an unusual early morning email from the HabonimDror office. What parent would not be concerned?

Hi Everyone,

I just wanted to inform everyone who may have heard about the suspected terrorist incident in Afula today that all of the Workshoppers are safe and on kibbutz. Nothing to worry about.

B’shalom,

J.

In an instant, my cosmic dream turns practical. My parent radar had received J’s reassurance. Relief at my son’s safety and trust in my parental connection fill me. Who needs email when your dream guide takes you astral traveling?

When I enter the kitchen, my husband says, “A stabbing on a bus. I noticed it in The New York Times. You might get more info from Haaretz.”

Sure enough, Haaretz, a liberal Israeli newspaper, already has a full article posted. There I read that a Palestinian who entered Israel illegally has stabbed an Israeli soldier, claiming revenge for his jailed relatives. A 16-year-old Palestinian and a 19-year-old Israeli. The 16-year-old is in custody and the 19-year-old is dead.

What parent would not be concerned?

Strip away all the politics and that’s what you have here: children. Motivated by terrible beliefs, traumatic experiences, a sense of responsibility, a desire for meaning, or a social current beyond their control, children take on what they imagine to be adult decisions.

At least, that’s how I see it through my parental eyes. Through my eyes still heavy with the dream of a world perfect for all human beings. I see two boys, not two representatives of countries or social movements, caught in tragedy. A universalist perspective, to be sure.

Just one year ago, the blogosphere buzzed with commentary on an exchange between Rabbis Sharon Brous and Daniel Gordis. Rabbi Brous suggested we try empathizing with our enemies as fellow human beings. Rabbi Gordis wrote that if we do so, we betray our own people.

Their exchange raised a familiar philosophical problem: moral vs. ethical commitments. And the double demand they place on us.

Israeli philosopher Avishai Margalit defines morals as imperatives based on our connection with a group. A moral mode disposes us to favor those closest and most like us. Ethics, Margalit says, are formulated when we step outside the group’s perspective. Ethics express a reasoned view about what is best overall.

Margalit does not favor one approach over the other, but notes that both have a role to play in healing trauma. Group solidarity gives meaning to loss and turmoil; universal awareness makes clear that evil anywhere affects all human life.

On Wednesday morning, I felt a double demand. My first concern was for my own son. When that was satisfied, I stepped into a larger view. The relationship that connects me so deeply with my son became a basis for empathy towards the sons of others.

Of course, I am not in Israel or Palestine. My personal traumas come from non-ideologically motivated injuries. Though I try to understand others, I do not stand in their shoes. It might well be harmful to preach empathy when self-protection is needed. Or to preach self-protection when empathy is needed.

Small-group solidarity is only one part of the fullness of human experience.

The symbolism of my dream seems so much deeper now.

I sit at the edge of a circular road. Inside the road sits the kibbutz, home of a tightly knit group. As I look outwards, I see a world perfect for all human beings. I sit with Yogi the cat, who embodies the full experience. She is both inside my family and outside my species. In her calm cat pose, she watches as I shift between seeing her in these two ways. She does not judge either one as better or worse, but understands that both are living parts of our relationship. 

She brought me all the way to Afula so that I could see what she sees.

***

Image: Kibbutz Ein Dor, kibbutzimofisrael.netzah.org. Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.

Posted on November 17, 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

A Halloween With Jewish Values?

Chocolate_Candies_in_Pumpkin_Pail_(5076897960)Lately it seems like Halloween has becomes a Rorschach test for how Jews feel about assimilation. As expressed in this eloquent blog post, some Jews applaud participating in Halloween because, since Halloween has become a secular holiday in America, doing so conveys an “ important feeling of being included, of not missing out and being part of the larger community.” Jewish participation in Halloween is a confirmation of our acceptance within society and is therefore something to be celebrated.

Others, such as my colleague Rabbi Alana Suskin, passionately argue that Jews should refrain from celebrating Halloween because Halloween’s values are not consistent with Jewish values and because Jews should model our counter-cultural values through how we live our lives. Jewish abstention from Halloween is a confirmation of our uniqueness as Jews and should be encouraged as part of our general bulwark against the pernicious forces of assimilation.

I used to fall into the second camp. I used to think that we could teach an important lesson to our kids about the sanctity and importance of Jewish particularism by having them refrain from celebrating Halloween. But after raising three young children and experiencing a decade of life in the suburbs, I have become a Halloween agnostic. On the one hand, stuffing our children with sugar (and then fighting with them about limiting how much they can eat) based on a holiday of pagan origins is not exactly a great idea. But are we really endorsing an erosion of Jewish identity in doing so? Little boys and girls love to dress up, regardless of the reason. And I have yet to meet a child who dislikes candy or chocolate. Plus, despite its pagan background, Halloween today is pretty clearly not observed as a religious holiday for Americans. (And if you want to avoid practices with pagan origins, you might be hard-pressed to comply with traditional Jewish mourning practices like covering mirrors.)

For the vast majority of Jews, the question of whether or not we should celebrate Halloween is obsolete. Of course, just because most Jews have given in to a practice does not mean we should simply condone it (though there are halakhic principles that do say just that). But most Jewish parents today are not looking to their rabbis for permission to let their kids trick or treat. We are missing an opportunity to connect with our people if we remain hung up on this question of the permissibility of Halloween.

If the question of whether Jews should participate in Halloween is the wrong question, then what is the right one? I suggest the real question ought to be: “what is a way for Jews to celebrate Halloween with moral integrity?” Rather than acquiescing to or stridently resisting Halloween’s existence, why not re-purpose it as a means of expressing Jewish values no matter the context? Why not take an occasion of great popularity and infuse it with Jewish wisdom and meaning? Here is one simple yet profound way to do so: boycott Hersheys, Mars, and Nestle chocolate. It turns out that 75% of the world’s chocolate is made in Ghana or the Ivory Coast, where they use child or slave labor to cultivate the cocoa they then sell to Hershey, Mars, and Nestle. So, yes, by handing out M&Ms or Nestle Crunch bars on Halloween, you are supporting the slave trade. And if that isn’t enough, you are also supporting the killing of orangutans in Malaysia and Indonesia.

Instead, you can buy Fair Trade or Rainbow Alliance chocolate, which is produced using certified labor standards that accord with Jewish law and that we can feel proud of. And you can educate your children about why you are doing so, teaching them an invaluable lesson about how what we do as consumers impacts the lives of others halfway around the world; about how the Talmud teaches that saving a single life is like saving the entire world. Plus, when the kids who receive your chocolate get home and empty out their plastic pumpkin buckets, seeing your strange chocolate amongst the more established brands might prompt a “Mah Nishtanah” conversation or a question. It might get them to google Fair Trade chocolate and learn about the horrible implications of buying brand-name chocolate. And who knows, it might even get them to tell their parents to only buy ethically-produced chocolate.

So why not use Halloween as a vehicle to raise consciousness? Perhaps Halloween—yes, Halloween—can become a vehicle for Kiddush Hashem, for the sanctification of God’s name.

Posted on October 29, 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

So Now What?

As a synagogue rabbi, I feel as if we have been running a religious marathon for the past month. since. After the majesty, power, and spiritual rigor of  Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, building a sukkah, celebrating eight days of Sukkot (along with the under the radar holiday of Shmini Atzeret that no one understands), and partying through Simhat Torah, I admit to a little religious exhaustion. I am sure that, for some of us, there is no end to the amount of time we want to spend praying in communal settings. But I get the sense that, for many of us, we are all shul-ed out. Our spiritual and ritual reservoirs are depleted, and the thought of setting foot in synagogue anytime soon is anathema.

So now what? We have nearly two months before we can start talking again about how weird it is that Hanukkah will occur before Thanksgiving this year. We have almost a month before we can start debating the propriety of Jews celebrating Halloween. So where should we put our religious-cultural energies?

nasa-shutdownWell, it just so happens that our political system has gone completely batty since we left 5773. Our political leaders are so dysfunctional that, today, the federal government has been shut down. Why? Though cable news outlets and partisan websites will try to spin the shutdown in different ways, the facts are pretty simple: the leadership of the House of Representatives, including the Jewish Majority Leader Rep. Eric Cantor, refuses to introduce a bill to fund the federal government without simultaneously trying to stop or at least delay the implementation of Obamacare. The actions of the House—re-litigating a law that was already passed by Congress, signed by the President, affirmed by the Supreme Court, and re-affirmed by the American people when they re-elected President Obama—are reprehensible and demand condemnation. Were there no side effects to shutting down the government, the actions of the House leadership could be dismissed as childish. But at a cost of millions of dollars daily, with hundreds of thousands of now-furloughed government workers, shutting down the government because you are mad that a law is going into effect is fiscally and morally irresponsible. As Republican Representative Devin Nunes recently put it, “It’s moronic to shut down the government over this.”

Obamacare, which gives millions more Americans access to health insurance, also is a Jewish issue. Many Jewish legal texts speak the necessity of the community providing access to health care for all. For example, the Talmud teaches that “a Torah scholar should not live in a community unless that community has available medical care.” (PT Kiddushin 4:12 [66b] and BT Sanhedrin 17b). Moreover, “doctors are required to reduce their fees for the poor. Where that is still not sufficient the community should subsidize the patient.” (Shulhan Arukh, Yoreh De’ah, 249).
I think it is time for the Jewish community—clergy and laity alike—to start agitating for common-sense political actions that are deeply steeped in our tradition and that should resonate morally for all of us. We—especially those of us who live in Republican districts—should demand that our representatives pass a simple budget without partisan gamesmanship so that the government reopens. We also should demand that the House pass the Senate’s immigration reform bill, another piece of legislation that is so central to the Jewish narrative of being strangers in foreign lands. And we should demand that Congress pass gun control legislation that imposes more stringent background checks and gun lock requirements.

There are many issues which we, as diverse individuals with diverse viewpoints, can and should disagree. On intervention in Syria, for example, I would strongly caution any Jewish leader from claiming a mantle of Jewish consensus. But where there are issues that are integral to our moral sensibilities—health care, immigration reform, and gun control among them—we should be bold advocates. We should amplify the chorus of the reasonable over the din of the extremists who seek to hold American politics hostage to their radical agendas. Let’s take those spiritual investments of the past few weeks, the existential grappling and the communal celebrating, and channel them into transforming the world in which we currently live into the kind of world we want it to be.

Posted on October 1, 2013

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World Cat Day: A Jewish Perspective

world cat dayTraditional Jewish thought sees the whole world as a laboratory for learning. On the one hand, everything has value in and of itself. On the other hand, everything points beyond itself to teach about something else.

Including cats.

Thursday August 8 was World Cat Day. Sources say that the International Fund for Animal Welfare inaugurated the holiday in 2002, but I can’t find anything about it on the IFAW website. However the holiday came about, it’s badly needed to raise world awareness of cats.

World Cat Day is especially needed to raise Jewish awareness of cats. If I asked you to tell me, off the top of your head, where cats appear in Jewish tradition, you would probably giggle and say, “Nowhere!” But if you were to search MyJewishLearning.com for information about cats, you might revise your answer.

Ordinary house and barn cats are revered as hunters, seers and teachers. Big wild cats evoke the King of King of Kings.

Every year, during the Passover Seder, we celebrate the cat whose bold hunt set history in motion. Yes, the cat that ate the kid that my father bought for two zuzim, chad gadya. The cat who teaches about the persecution of Jews, the folly of revenge, or the omnipotence of God – depending on how you interpret the Chad Gadya poem.

The Talmud honors cats as teachers of virtue. “Rabbi Yochanan observed: If the Torah had not been given, we could have learned modesty from the cat” (Eruvin 100b). Rashi says R. Yochanan praises the cat for its delicate habits of eliminating waste, but I myself learn modesty from the cat’s thoughtfulness. From its hiding place, a cat can observe a situation in careful detail, before finally leaping out to make a bold, intelligent and successful move.

In Perek Shira, the “Song of Nature,” cats teach the world humility by embodying a prophetic verse. “The cat says, ‘If you rise up like a vulture, and place your nest among the stars, from there I shall bring you down,’” (Obadiah 1:14). No one, no matter how high or powerful, can escape the claws of a determined cat. Often, the vulture is a metaphor for imperial power. Through the cat, God teaches that even the most militarized empire is vulnerable to rebellion and decay.

In Hebrew Bible, big wild cats express divine power. Lions appear in Ezekiel’s vision of the heavenly beings attending God’s Presence. The Lion is the symbol of the tribe of Judah, lineage of King David. Members of the royal courts describe their kings as lions. Honoring a lion honors a king; honoring a king honors God.

Lions have been in the news recently. This month’s National Geographic Magazine includes a story about the life of African Serengeti lions. The writing is realistic and balanced; lions are fierce predators, competing with one another for territory and family leadership. (No wonder they symbolize royalty!) When people fence off lands for farming or livestock grazing, they come into conflict with local lions, who attack livestock and their human ranchers. Sharing land responsibly requires balancing many factors. In Africa, many government agencies and private conservations groups are pursuing that balance.

Some factors, however, are out of balance themselves. For example, Friday’s New York Times showcased an article about lion poachers in Africa. Not surprisingly, illegal terrorist organizations raise money through illegal activities. Activities include illegally hunting lions and selling their body parts.

Happy World Cat Day – not.

Of course you can argue that “terrorist” is a pejorative term for organizations that might be fighting a just cause. But still, something is wrong here. Human beings are taking animals and dragging them into our quarrels. We use them as as tools when we should revere them as teachers.

Cats can teach us never to attack without fully assessing the potential damage and to temper our political goals with humility. They can remind us that every creature has value in and for itself; that using any animal as a tool is intrinsically wrong; and that honoring animals honors God.

This year, World Cat Day coincided with day two of the Hebrew month of Elul. Elul is the month of self-reflection. How perfect.

Have we used others without their consent? Have we spoken badly of someone in order to gain advantage? Fired someone without due process? Profited financially by offering lies or partial truths?

Where could we have benefited from modesty and humility, or from ethically assessing a situation before acting?

Learn from our teachers.

Happy World Cat Day.

Image: facebook: black cats

Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.

Posted on August 11, 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

When Goodness Transcends Boundaries

The 70th anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising has created renewed interest in the actions of Polish gentiles who assisted Poland’s Jews during the Nazi occupation.

Some rescuers hid individual Jews who managed to flee the Germans’ murderous “aktions” and ghettos while others joined in the Warsaw ghetto revolt, forged identity papers for Jews and participated in other activities that saved Jewish lives. One rescuer, Irena Sendler, managed to save over 3000 Jewish lives but her activities were almost forgotten until a group of rural Kansas students heard rumors about her wartime endeavors and embarked on a wide-ranging research project to publicize her incredible story.

070314_irena_sendler_vlrg_8a.grid-4x2Irena Sendler was working for the Warsaw Department of Social Work when the Nazis invaded Poland in 1939. The department’s social workers attempted to help the Jews who were displaced and impoverished under the Nazi rule and Irena participated in these activities, expanding on these pursuits as a member of the underground Zagota anti-Nazi organization.

When the Warsaw ghetto was established Sendler obtained forged documents that identified her as a nurse who specialized in infectious diseases. With these documents she was able to enter the ghetto and she brought in whatever food and medicines that she could. Sendler quickly realized that she could increase her effectiveness by helping Jews escape and she decided to concentrate on removing children from the ghetto.

Sendler started smuggling street children out of the ghetto but soon expanded as she tried to bring out children whose parents were still alive. She walked through the ghetto and knocked on the doors of families whose children were still alive to convince the parents that their children’s only chance of survival lay with escape.

More than 50 years after the war Sendler described the agony of those days. “I talked the mothers out of their children. Those scenes over whether to give a child away were heart-rending. Sometimes, they wouldn’t give me the child. Their first question was, ‘What guarantee is there that the child will live?’ I said, ‘None. I don’t even know if I will get out of the ghetto alive today.”

Sendler and her Zagota comrades had several modes that they used to smuggle children out of the ghetto. Some children were sedated and hidden under Sendler’s tram seat, in a toolbox or piece of luggage or in a cart under a pile of garbage or barking dogs.  Older children were often walked out through the sewer system that ran underneath Warsaw or through a break in the Old Courthouse that sat on the ghetto’s border.

Once a child was smuggled out of the ghetto, finding a secure hiding place for the child was as perilous an activity as the actual act of smuggling the child out of the ghetto. Sendler and her Zagota compatriots forged documents, identified sympathetic Polish families and transported the children to safe hiding places including at the Rodzina Marii Orphanage in Warsaw and at convents in Lublin, Chomotow and Turkowice.  Sendler compulsively recorded the children’s names together with their hiding places, hoping that after the war they could be reunited with their families or, at the very least, with their Jewish community. There “records” were stuffed into glass jars and buried in a neighbor’s garden.

The Warsaw Ghetto revolt occurred in April 1943 and within months no Jews remained in the area. Sendler, whose code name for her underground activities was “Jolenta,” was given total responsibility for the welfare of Jewish children by the Zagota underground. She continued to try to find children who had, somehow, been saved from the transports and mass shootings and move them into hiding.

In October 1943 Sendler was arrested by the Gestapo and was brought to the infamous Pawiak prison where she was tortured, but she did not reveal any information about her Zagota comrades or the children’s whereabouts. The Germans sentenced Sendler to death but Zagota members were able to bribe a German guard and she was released just hours before her scheduled execution.

In 1999 a group of schoolgirls from Uniontown Kansas heard about Sendler and embarked on an extensive research project about her life. They created a play about her which they performed in a number of locations. This performance happened to catch the attention of the LA based, Jewish run Lowell Milken Family Foundation who allotted them a grant allowing them to create the Life in a Jar project. This project dedicated to spreading the tale of Irena Sendler, now containing a website, book, film and continuous presentations that have currently been performed in hundreds of locations worldwide.

This is one remarkable example of the goodness that can transpire when we are able to see beyond the boundaries that we think define us and reach across those lines with an open hand. May Irena’s story and the actions of those Kansas schoolgirls come to inspire us to see beyond our boundaries for the welfare and benefit of all people.

Posted on August 2, 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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