Category Archives: Society

Our Girls, the 1 in 5 and the 250

How the United States responds to the kidnapped Nigerian girls and the epidemic of rape on the college campus will define for a generation just how equal women really are.

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Important things are being learned in our colleges, but I’ve still been referring to college as “four-year summer camp with no counselors, for smart kids.” Throughout our culture, for about 40 years or more, we’ve portrayed these years as the pinnacle of freedom. Before college, there is mom and dad, and afterwards, there will be a spouse, and kids, or at least a boss. In that sweet spot of the college years, we have a rare chance to just “live and become.” It turns out, left to their own devices, college kids have enabled a deep rape culture. 1 in 5 women are victims of sexual assault in college. Most students, men and women, are guilty of bystander apathy, or lack of knowing how to intervene rather than assault. Meanwhile, there is small group of repeat offenders whose behavior goes unchecked.

250 schoolgirls in Nigeria have been kidnapped. Their captors, the Boko Haram (may their names be erased), have said that the girls would be sold in the market unless their imprisoned “brethren” are freed. As soon as the world heard this, we were all outraged. The President of Nigeria, Goodluck Jonathan, originally brushed the news aside, waiting an outrageous 3 weeks before reporting this atrocity.

I have four sons, and no biological daughters, but each year I graduate about 100 high schoolers. I am thankful that my part-time daughters do not live in Africa where the wars between tribes, religious or politically defined, have made women’s bodies as much the battlefield as any parcel of land. No, my girls are headed to college. So, I still worry.

White House

From the White House Report (click to link)

1 in 5. This was the finding of the White House Special Task Force. Soon after the publishing of the report there was grousing about the numbers. “The definition of assault is too narrow.” “The study was too small.” “Not every drunken hook up counts as sex.” I am embarrassed about a country that can so easily shift the conversation of sexual violence of epidemic proportions to just another political finger pointing game. This is the United States, not Nigeria.

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

In one of the most horrific stories in the Bible, and yes, there are many to choose from, a woman is raped by “a depraved lot.” She walked back home in the light of day and collapsed dead at the door of the home where she and her husband had been staying. Her husband took her body and quickly continued his trip home, to safety. In agony, and in contempt for the society that would tolerate the actions of the depraved men who raped his wife, he sent a piece of her dead body to each of the 12 tribes. “And everyone who saw it cried out, ‘never has such a thing happened or been seen from the day the Israelites came out of the land of Egypt to this day! Direct your hearts to this! Take counsel and decide.” (Judges 19:22-30).

The story is gruesome, and unbelievably, the above paraphrased version holds back some of ugliest details. I wish that we could just dismiss this grotesque story under the heading of “the Bible contains some outlandish stories,” but what to do with today’s epidemic of rape? Silence has signaled tacit acceptance of the culture of rape in our colleges, not to mention our military. This indifference threatens the fabric of our society; it hurts our boys as well as our girls. This ancient problem has not gone away. 250 kidnapped girls in Nigeria. 1 in 5 US college women. “Direct your hearts. Take counsel and decide” just what kind of a society do we want to be.

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Posted on May 20, 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

Ten Plagues of the 21st Century

“It’s not that I have an issue with her having sex, per se,  it’s just that it should mean something.  You know?”

That’s what a parent I met years ago said about his suspicion that his teenage daughter was having casual sex in his home while he and his wife were away on a brief trip.  That sentiment, that ‘it should mean something’, is what I’m thinking about as Pesach is coming to a close.  It’s not that I’ll miss Passover exactly, it’s that its message is so important that I don’t want to forget about it for an entire year. “It should mean something. You know?”

moses2We are suppose to feel as if we ourselves have been taken out of a dangerous and narrow place, Egypt, and have been liberated.  To make this come alive, at our seder tables we recounted the 10 plagues.  For each plague we took out a drop of wine, reminding ourselves that while each plague was indeed a miracle for the Hebrews, the opposite was simultaneously true for the Egyptians.  We cannot enjoy a full cup of joy while others suffer, even when it was due and coming to them.  So what are plagues that exist today that inspire in me an sense of freedom should I be able to imagine a life without them?

What are the Plagues of the 21st Century that upon the close of this festival of freedom we will still need to contend with?

  1.  Blood.  It is preposterous to me that in a time and age when we know what is happening in almost every inch of our globe that we have grow so numb as to allow so much war and bloodshed throughout world, but especially the African continent.  “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
  2. Frogs.  The incessant croaking of the frogs made it nearly impossible for the Egyptians to even think a clear thought.  Such are many of the TV pundits, who, in the guise of informative journalist, are mere partisan bloviators who confuse partial truths with good policy positions.
  3.  Lice.  Lice, like the spots in Cat in the Hat, lice are little things that once you turn your attention to them, they seem to multiply.  It’s as if they were specially designed to piss you off.  What are the little things in your life that are multiplying and seem to be taking over?
  4. Wild Beasts.  “Who do those animals think they are?” In the realm of animals, we often think of humans as the pinnacle power and control.  During the plague of the wild beast, that was turned upside down.  Hate crimes, such as the one perpetrated in Overland Park, Kansas remind us that it’s not all peace and manna here in the monkey house. When there is a lack of order, when our protections fail, we are fearful, and we know the topsy turvy plague of the wild beasts.
  5. Cattle Disease.  Cattle stock was a measure of value and of security in the ancient world.  Some people put their stock in the  stock market, but so many others, the overwhelming majority of humanity on this planet, have no savings, or are half a paycheck away, or one hospitalization away from being wiped out.
  6. Boils.  Private indiscretions, no matter how well concealed, find a way to come to the surface.  If they’ve been hidden from view, if we’ve tried to hide Truth, perhaps especially from ourselves, the Truth tends to boil over.  This is true for the NSA, for the CIA wiretapping Guantanamo Bay hearings.  When a Truth once hidden comes to the surface, it’s ugly and it disfigures precisely those who tried to hide the truth for personal gain.  It’s true for those who post maliciousness on the internet and its true for cheating Congressmen who run on a platform of “religious values”.
  7. Hail.  In each ball of ice was a tar ball, all aflame.  We can no longer ignore our environment.  When it’s cold, it’s colder.  When it’s hot, it’s hotter.  And, it’s not even hot or cold in the right season any more.  Nature in no longer playing by her usual rules.  It’s disorienting.  The environmental impact of global warming are multi-factorial and so monumental as to seems beyond human ability to correct.
  8. Locust.  Like lice, locust swarm.  There are too many things that need our attention.  The digital age isn’t helping much with this.  There is so much that we can pay partial focus to.   Have you ever missed your stop on the subway?  Or your exit on the freeway?  Have you ever read a page of a book, blinked, and than wondered if you had really read that page?  Now, add in Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and some Candy Crush (of Flappy Bird if you still have that app.).  It’s not all bad, in fact, much of it is good, but our digital life can turn into such a time-suck.  Our bifurcated lives have the potential, much more than any age before ours, to make us less attentive when we should be more mindful.  I see people quickly feeling swamped, overwhelmed, so much so they see only two choices, caring less (F’ it) or pushing on and living with greater and greater anxiety (this really leads back to some level of F’ it, so just one choice).
  9. Darkness: The darkness of the 9th plague was palpable.  Egyptians were physically stuck in the think slosh of the darkness.  This is not the “good darkness” of Barbara Brown Taylor, this is depression.  Depression is a thick tar that coats everything with darkness.  There in no joy, there is no motivation, there is just stuck-ness, meaninglessness, and for some, deep pain.
  10. Death.  The final plague is a culmination of the previous nine as well as a return to the first, bloodshed.  When we ignore bloodshed, when we’ve let our trouble rise and rise such that the world feels upside-down, and all that we can see is darkness, we will have suffocated hope.  Without hope, there is only death.  There is no opportunity to change, no ideal with which to steer a new generation toward.  In the face of any and every obstacle, the greatest plague is the death of hope.  Without hope we sink into absurdity.  Without hope, there is no love, no beauty, and no meaning.  Without hope there is only death.

Posted on April 20, 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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The Inhumanity of “Affordable Care”

public-opinion-supports-new-proposal-in-health-care-reform_largeA few days ago, the distraction of actual governance in Washington was the report on Employment, the economy, and the effect of the Affordable Care Act published by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO). As usual, the talking head of Washington, Republicans and the Democratic White House included, missed the point.

“It confirms what we’ve known all along: The health care law is having a tremendously negative impact on economic growth,” said Sen. Bob Corker (R – Tenn).

“At the beginning of this year, we noted that as part of this new day in health care, Americans would no longer be trapped in a job just to provide coverage for their families, and would have the opportunity to pursue their dreams. This CBO report bears that out, and the Republican plan to repeal the ACA would strip those hard-working Americans of that opportunity.” – White House Press Secretary.

The point missed by both sides, and it happens all the time, so often that many of us have become numb to it, is that they are talking exclusively in numbers of a system which is just as well, if not better, described by the lives of the people they serve.

An analogy:
I had cause to take my friend Sharon to a dermatologist she had never visited before. It was an emergency visit. Sharon had been in and out of the hospital for a few months, and one day, at home, her arm blew up. Her slender arm, where she had a pic-line for IV fluids she had to take at home, suddenly, within hours, inflated almost beyond recognition. She called her nurse, and she called me. What I saw was a Thanksgiving’s Day Parade version of her left arm. We took a picture and sent it to her doctor – anything to avoid going to the hospital, which she had already seen too much of. The doctor called ahead to this dermatologist to take a closer look.

I took Sharon there. She filled out the paperwork. Along with Benadryl, ice, and then heat, the doctor diagnosed her with an allergy to the adhesive of her bandages. After two hours, Sharon was all better; tired, but better. We stopped at the office counter on the way out, so that Sharon could make whatever co-pay was needed. The office accountant happily announced, “Your insurance said that you’ve already met your deductible; isn’t that great!”

I’m sure that the woman meant to say something positive at the end of the long visit. She probably didn’t realize that a fulfilled deductible also meant an exhausting road of illness. How could she know all that Sharon had already endured, and that this was just one more stop in pursuit of better health?

Sharon set her straight, “Do you know how sick I’ve been before I reached the deductible? It’s not worth the savings.”

doctor-photoThe Washington Post points out that the CBO was less partisan in its actual findings:

“In its assessment of the law’s impact on the job market, the agency had bad news for both political parties. In an implicit rebuke of GOP talking points, the CBO said that there was little evidence the health-care law is affecting employment and that businesses are not expected to significantly reduce head count or hours as a result of the law.
But the report also contained a setback for the White House. The CBO predicts that the economy will have the equivalent of 2.3 million fewer full-time workers by 2021 as a result of the law — nearly three times previous estimates.

After obtaining coverage under the health-care law, some workers will choose to forgo employment, the report said, while others will voluntarily reduce their hours. That is because insurance subsidies under the law become less generous as income rises, so workers will have less incentive to work more or at all.”

Just as the secretary at the dermatologist’s office spoke to Sharon with only an eye to dollars spent or saved (which really required high expenditures first), so it is when politicians speak about Health Care, as if the care we are speaking about is not about people at all.

I take for granted that both sides, liberals and conservatives, are arguing not about whether or not health care is important. They (ultimately, at least) are arguing about how we should go about providing it. Either because of the political climate and the need to score-or-punish, or, the abstraction of talking about the systems underling funding, both sides have lost the language of human value which underlies the necessity of a government caring for people – real people, such as Sharon.

A parallel exists between the health care debate and the Tower of Babel story.The_Tower_of_Babel
What did God see at the Tower of Babel that was so infuriating? The Torah never tells us, but it was so bad that God could not allow this first Biblical community to continue. Our sages suggest that it was not the building of tower itself, but rather HOW the people went about building the tower that drew God’s ire. The people were so focused on building the tower, they forgot their humanity.

“The tower was built with steps on the east side and on the west. Single-file, each person would climb up on the east side, place the brick, and descend on the west side. When a person would fall from the great height, they people of Babel would lament, “How long will it be until someone can bring up a brick to replace the one that was just dropped?”

As we continue to discuss the affordability of healthcare, I suggest that we, and the leaders we elect into office, have in mind real people in our lives who have been in need of great care. My hunch is that over the next decade or so, we will indeed develop better cost structures in health care. What we can’t afford is losing our humanity along the way.

 

Posted on February 11, 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

Airing The Dirty Laundry and Jewish Communal News

As someone who has written articles about issues impacting the Jewish community for publications like The Huffington Post, The Denver Post and The Boston Globe I have heard the following complaint several times: “Why do you need to take our internal problems and advertise them to the non-Jewish media? Why do you need to air our dirty laundry to the world?” I have often thought that this particular complaint was a curious one. It has recently once again come up as one of my dear teachers and mentors wrote an opinion piece for The New York Times on what many consider to be an internal Jewish communal issue.

laundry-pinsThere are several layers that need to be unpacked within that particular sentiment. First of all, the notion that Jews have only recently taken their issues to the non-Jewish or secular media is not true. The polemics around the birth of Zionism, the rise of Jewish denominations in Germany and a plethora of other issues have been debated in the presses of the general media and in the halls of world parliaments. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888), the Orthodox rabbinic leader of the community of Frankfurt fought for Orthodox communal independence from the Reformers in the Prussian Parliament, as just one example of many.

Secondly, a significant desired impact of debate around important topics is to influence the hearts and minds of people. In order to do so one needs to reach those people. Jews have for quite a long time not confined themselves to only reading Jewish publications. More Jews read The Wall Street Journal and The New York Times than The New York Jewish Week and The Jewish Advocate (even though they are both excellent publications). If you want to influence public opinion amongst fellow Jews one needs to reach them where they are and for an increasing number of Jews they are not to be found perusing the pages of their local Jewish weekly.

In an era of instant communications and where “internal” Jewish publications like Hamodia or even websites published in “private” Jewish languages like Yiddish can be translated in a moment with Google Translate there is no such thing as private only for the community news and public general media. We fool ourselves when we think that our communal conversations on Jewish blogs, Internet forums and community websites are for our eyes only.

Lastly, and perhaps this strikes at the heart of the issue, we ought not be afraid of arousing either state sponsored or mass popular anti-Semitism in our society. Numerous high profile Jews have been arrested and charged with large money laundering schemes and political corruption that has been splashed across the front pages of every major newspaper in the country and not one anti-Jewish riot, thank God, was initiated because of it. To the contrary, when we seek to cover up our issues and hide them that is when appearances of conspiracies begin to surface. Openness and transparency are important values in our culture and we should not run away from those values.

 

Posted on January 31, 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

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

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

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

Why I Don’t Let My Kids Trick-or-Treat

Below, Rabbi Alana Suskin explains why her family doesn’t trick-or-treat. To hear from another Jewish mom with a different perspective, check out: “Why I Let My Jewish Kids Trick or Treat”

halloween

I feel fairly ambivalent about Halloween. On the positive side: although winter in the DC metro area is an exercise in perfect misery of cold and drippy wet, the end of October is still decidedly fall and can still often be quite nice: not yet rainy, not terribly cold, sometimes there are still bright leaves on the trees. So there’s the mid-autumn thing.

There’s also the neighborhoodliness of all the folks putting on a show for the kids, an opportunity for people to meet and interact with their neighbors, which these days can be a rare exercise.
There’s also a few pagan friends I have who look forward to their religious observance of Samhain (the pre-Christian, Celtic name for the holiday upon which the roman church based All Hallows’ Eve when it couldn’t rid the local populations of their age old observances). I’m pleased for them.
But most of all, with the more recent innovation of making a big deal out of what was a relatively small deal when I was little, I am Thrilled. To. Happiness. about the post Halloween sales of orange fairy lights and other useful sukkah items for the year to follow. (Yay!)

All that said, I don’t trick or treat, and neither does my child. And because we’ve talked about it, and he understands “we don’t observe that holiday,” at least at this point (he’s nine) he doesn’t seem to mind, even though he does have friends—even Jewish friends—who do.

Right now, what we do is help other kids celebrate their holiday by giving out candy (and if he eats a few Snickers bars, that’s fine, although he was sad when I explained to him that even though there are actually no authenticated cases of non-family members harming children with Halloween snacks, we can’t make candy apples or other treats to give out because people are afraid that someone might hurt their kids by giving them something harmful) and if he wants to dress up for them in a costume, he can do that even though our dress up holiday is Purim.

We have also talked about whether the values of Halloween are Jewish values: whether demanding gifts from others is a Jewish value (we didn’t get into the under threat of “trick” part), and we talked about how Judaism views death and dead bodies, and whether displaying “funny” skeletons and ghosts is in line with Jewish tradition, which views the human body, even after death, as holy, which is why Judaism forbids displaying corpses, even those of criminals after execution, and why it is considered a very holy mitzvah (obligation, and good deed) to be part of a chevreh kadishah l’metim (holy society for the care of the dead) in which one takes care, gently and with reverence for the soul which inhabited it, of the recently deceased corpse.

Which is why, when one is sitting with the body after death, making sure it is never left alone, one does not say certain prayers in the same room as the deceased’s body, lest the soul feel mocked because it cannot engage in that mitzvah anymore.

And it is also why, when it was in town, we did not go see the museum exhibit in which the corpses of people who had been preserved were posed in all sorts of positions for display of their inner workings. We talked about how, although Jewish tradition believes that the soul separates from the body after death, the body is a gift to us from God, and is an important part of us, to be treated with respect during life as well as after death, which is why we do not tattoo it, or mutilate it for any reason other than medical necessity, or throw it away until we have fulfilled the missions that God assigned us and then we are taken from it.

For us, the whistling In the dark of Halloween in making light of skeletons and ghosts and displaying them is not in line with the love we should have for those who passed from this earth before us, and whose love sustains us—and are not a threat to us—even after they are gone.

Finally, I find myself enormously disturbed by the sexualization both of little girls in their purchased costumes, but also in the adult celebrations in urban gathering areas (etc). While I firmly hold that the value of tzniut (modesty) is far more about respectful speech, humility, non-conspicuous consumption both in dress and in possessions, and deportment in general, the overemphasis on sexuality for women, let alone little girls, is not a value I share  or wish to.

Which is why, since so few people know or observe the pagan, or even Christian origins of the day,  it could be reasonably considered an “American” holiday, (Thanksgiving’s origins, on the other hand, are decidedly American, but its themes are religious in a way that is perfectly in line with Jewish values), we nevertheless do not celebrate Halloween.

One of my beliefs about Judaism is that as Jews we live and can model countercultural values, and it seems to me that, at least in my own home, Halloween is a time when we can model our difference—in a very quiet way.

I don’t, of course, go around harshing everyone’s mellow—I don’t criticize those who find a bit of harmless fun in it, I don’t even suggest that those Jews who enjoy it ought to refrain and I certainly don’t have anything against cupcakes, chocolate, or little kids spending an evening outside int he dark. But it is an terrific opportunity to have a discussion with your family about Jewish values, about how we view death and life, sexuality (for older kids), and the difference between Purim’s dress up where we are obligated to give food to others, and Halloween’s where we demand it from others.

Posted on October 23, 2013

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

Death and Rebirth: A Holocaust Complex

spy vs spyIf I lived alone on Planet Laura, I would stop writing about the Pew survey, in protest against unproductive, polarized debate.

But here I am, on Planet Earth inhabiting the body of a Jewish communal professional. So I’ll write something in protest, instead. And I’ll argue that, deep down, we are not as polarized as we think.

We’ve seen the first set of Jewish responses to the survey. Some writers prophesied the death of Judaism, and the fulfillment of Hitler’s project of extermination. Others denounced this view as evidence of a “holocaust complex,” and instead celebrated the multicultural reincarnation of Jewry in America.

Personally, I think we’ve all got a bit of a holocaust complex.

Keep in mind that the Pew survey offers a snapshot of the Jewish people. If you look closely, you see it is not a new image. Actually, it dates back to Torah times.

In Torah, quantitative census data only appears in stories about taxes and armies. But qualitative data, in the form of narrative, pops up everywhere. Jews do not believe in God. They marry non-Jews in great numbers. They practice religious syncretism – blending Jewish rituals with those from other religions. Moses brings them back into national religious particularism, and then they fall away again.

This WAS the Jewish people. This still IS the Jewish people. Here we are, 3,000 years later, still living out our pattern.

For Israeli Depth Psychologist Erel Shalit, the lives of all human beings express archetypal patterns. Human psychological growth revolves around a number of key motifs. One, he says, is the “birth-death-rebirth theme of transformation.”

Anyone acquainted at all with Jewish practice knows how important this archetypal theme is to Jewish self-understanding. Over and over again, we move from slavery to freedom; we move from exile to return. We often describe our history as a repetition of this pattern.

Clearly, this is a Jewish national version of the “birth-death-rebirth theme of transformation.”

Does the holocaust fit this theme?

Some postwar Jewish theologians argued that it does not: the holocaust is an absolutely unique event, too terrible to be held by any existing categories or concepts. But the writing of some holocaust era activists argues otherwise.

Zivia Lubetkin, a secular Zionist leader in the Warsaw Ghetto underground, sometimes felt herself shaped by the Exodus from slavery to freedom. On the first night of the ghetto uprising, she wrote, she visited a Passover Seder, and received a blessing from a rabbi.

Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira, a Hasidic spiritual teacher in the Warsaw ghetto, framed his experience in similar terms. During the war, he told his followers: We finally understand the Israelites’ despair under Egyptian slavery. We literally see Isaiah’s vision of Babylonia’s cruelty, and we can share his hope for restoration. Perhaps our oppression will turn out to be birth-contractions of the Messiah.

The “birth-death-rebirth” theme of transformation.

So many of us are caught up in it. As we should be: our last national near-death experience was less than 60 years ago. That’s not even a whole lifetime ago.

For some of us, life events have directed our psychic energy towards the slavery/exile side of the process. When significant events trigger our emotions, we describe what we see.

Some of us were shaped differently; we focuse on freedom/return. When we are triggered, we, too, describe what we see.

We are all engaged in the business of transformation.

We have no choice. In our former European population centres, we were one thing; in our contemporary Israeli and North American centres, we will be different.

Yes, our old identity is dying. Yes, our new identity is being born. Yes.

Slavery and redemption. Exile and return. Death and Rebirth.

It’s an archetypal Jewish framework for understanding our history; let’s use it well.

***

Image: http://maditsmadfunny.wikia.co. Cross-Posted at OnSophiaStreet.

Posted on October 20, 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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