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Why We Love “Throwback Thursday”

keep-calm-its-time-for-throwback-thursday-1Every Thursday, my Facebook feed is filled with old pictures, stories of favorite memories, and statuses that remind people of “where they were X years ago.” Why? Because they all end with the hashtag “#tbt”—a way for people to recall memories on ”Throwback Thursday.”

But why do we love “Throwback Thursday?”

Clearly, when we go through our old pictures or think back on events we experienced, we feel a wonderful sense of nostalgia—a warm, fuzzy feeling. But that just pushes the question one level back: why do we feel nostalgia? What value does does nostalgia have?

It’s actually a very nuanced question. The value of simple memory is very easy to explain, especially for evolutionary reasons. If, on the African savanna, you could remember who in your tribe had helped you take down that mastodon, or which berries had made you sick when you ate them, or where that saber-tooth tiger tended to live, you would clearly have an competitive advantage over others.

But it’s harder to understand why we would want to use memories to evoke certain feelings. especially because nostalgia is often very bittersweet. We smile when we remember a poignant memory, and at the same time, there’s some sadness as we realize that that moment from the past can’t ever be replicated.

Yet it turns out that there is some research that suggests that those feelings of nostalgia can make us better people. As John Tierney explains in a piece in the New York Times, “Nostalgia has been shown to counteract loneliness, boredom and anxiety. It makes people more generous to strangers and more tolerant of outsiders. Couples feel closer and look happier when they’re sharing nostalgic memories. On cold days, or in cold rooms, people use nostalgia to literally feel warmer.”

Nostalgia, in other words, helps us connect to ourselves and to others. As Dr. Constantine Sedikides, one of the pioneers in this field, remarked: “Nostalgia made me feel that my life had roots and continuity. It made me feel good about myself and my relationships. It provided a texture to my life and gave me strength to move forward.”

So if that’s what nostalgia truly is about, then Judaism is very much about nostalgia. We see our child become bar or bat mitzvah, and we see the past, present and future mixed together. We smell the brisket our grandmother used to make on Passover, and it brings us back to our childhood seders. We join a synagogue community and build relationships and memories that sustain us.

So “Throwback Thursday” is a perfect avenue for Judaism. It connects us to our friends and our family. It roots us. And it makes us smile.

Because in the end, our memories are what make us who we are. When we recall our fondest memories, we end up strengthening our sense of self.

And that’s why we love “Throwback Thursday”—it not only lets us relive the past, it truly helps us live in the present and get ready for the future.

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Posted on May 15, 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

To Snip Or Not To Snip? Why I Say “Yes” To Circumcision!

Through Jan. 23, 2011 044To snip or not to snip? That, apparently, is becoming a major question for some 21st-century American Jews.

I have to confess that of all the issues confronting Jews today, I never thought circumcision would be controversial. But it has become so, as a growing number of “intactivists” have raised the profile of being vocally anti-circumcision. I write today not to challenge the Jewish bona fides of those who are not circumcised, nor to condemn those who, after careful reflection, ultimately choose not to circumcise their boys. I write merely to respond to some of the primary claims made by the “intactivists” and to urge parents to make individual, informed decisions about circumcision that take into account circumcision’s deep, resonant connection with Jewish identity and peoplehood.

The biblical origins of the Jewish ritual of circumcision come from Genesis 17:

Then God said to Abraham, “You must keep my covenant, you and your descendants after you for the generations to come. This is my covenant with you and your descendants after you, the covenant you are to keep: Every male among you shall be circumcised. You are to undergo circumcision, and it will be the sign of the covenant between me and you. For the generations to come every male among you who is eight days old must be circumcised, including those born in your household or bought with money from a foreigner—those who are not your offspring. Whether born in your household or bought with your money, they must be circumcised. My covenant in your flesh is to be an everlasting covenant. Any uncircumcised male, who has not been circumcised in the flesh, will be cut off from his people; he has broken my covenant.” (Gen. 17:9-14)

While Jews today vary in our levels of observance of the myriad mitzvot found in the Torah, the obligation to circumcise our male children has retained near-universal observance for thousands of years. Circumcision has become one of the most—if not the most—physical and cultural markers of Jewish identity. The ceremony that has been created around the process of brit milah “covenant via circumcision” ushers the young boy, and welcomes his family, into a powerful sense of community and tradition. I can attest to this personally as the father of two young boys (as well as a fantastic girl). When our sons were born, the question my wife and I had was not whether to circumcise them but how to find the “best” mohel and what kind of ceremony we wanted to construct around the act of circumcision. For us, the question of whether or not to circumcise them was a no-brainer.

So why are Alicia Silverstone and other young Jewish parents opposed to circumcision? Based on my review of many testimonials on the website beyondthebris.com, there seem to be a few recurring objections:

Informed Consent: Some anti-circumcision folks are opposed to the practice because of the lack of informed consent. According to this position, since a baby cannot consent to circumcision, we should refrain from doing so until the child comes of age and can make his own decision. My response to this is simple: part of being a parent is making decisions for one’s children based on what you think are the best interests of the child, whether or not the child consents. For example, we give babies vaccinations, which clearly hurt them, because we believe that the benefits of the vaccinations outweigh the harm. Based on the health benefits of circumcision (below), I see the consent issue of circumcision as pretty comparable.

Pain and Suffering: Many anti-circumcision advocates argue that we should stop circumcising because of the physical and psychological pain circumcision produces. Though they admit that circumcision reduces the risk of males acquiring HIV from infected female partners, they claim that this should only matter in areas of the world where HIV outbreaks remain severe. In America, they argue, the pain and suffering caused by circumcision mandates that we not circumcise. Putting aside my anecdotal experience (neither I nor my sons can recall, let alone feel traumatized by, our circumcisions), in 2012, the American Academy of Pediatrics recently revised their policy to state that circumcision’s positive health benefits outweigh the risks.

Since the last policy was published, scientific research shows clearer health benefits to the procedure than had previously been demonstrated. According to a systematic and critical review of the scientific literature, the health benefits of circumcision include lower risks of acquiring HIV, genital herpes, human papilloma virus and syphilis. Circumcision also lowers the risk of penile cancer over a lifetime; reduces the risk of cervical cancer in sexual partners, and lowers the risk of urinary tract infections in the first year of life.

When it comes to making medical decisions about my children, I trust the AAP.

Many bloggers also claim that circumcision should be rejected because it reduces sexual pleasure for men. This, too, recently was debunked in a landmark study.

Endorsing Imperfection. Finally, Alicia Silverstone, the Jewish actress and vegan activist, just came out with a book on parenting in which she expresses why she chose not to circumcise her son:

“[M]y thinking was: If little boys were supposed to have their penises ‘fixed,’ did that mean we were saying that God made the body imperfect?”

My response is an unequivocal: “yes!” To assume that God made us physically and mentally perfect at birth not only belies reality, it also belies theology. If we already were perfect, what would be the point of our existence? The task of living, as I see it, it to try to improve our selves and the world around us, to partner with God rather than to expect God to take care of everything for us. Circumcision thus serves as an early reminder of our need to inject ourselves as parents into the crucial, if arduous, work of raising our children, of combining nurture with nature to guide our 8 day old boys into becoming the best men they can be.

As with all aspects of Jewish law, there are no absolutes when it comes to circumcision. In certain instances, such as where the health of the baby is at issue, circumcision should not be performed. Moreover, it is critical for rabbis and other Jewish leaders to explain the distinction between brit milah and Jewish status: a Jew is a Jew based on whether one’s mother (or, in Reform Judaism, mother or father) is a Jew, not based on whether or not one has been circumcised.  The absence of circumcision should never be used to impede one’s access to Judaism.

Brit milah has been a sacred act—both of Jewish peoplehood and of the intimate connection between God and parents in raising a child—for millennia, and, God willing, will continue to be for many millennia to come.

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Posted on May 13, 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 Taste of Eternity: Letters from the Front

800px-US_Soldier_with_cattle_dogThe fifth of the Ten Commandments states: Honor your father and your mother, that your days may be long in the land that the Lord your God is giving you (Exodus 20:12).

My brother and I decided to spend Mother’s Day with our late parents.

No, we did not visit the cemetery. Instead, we sat on the living room floor, sifting through boxes of memorabilia. Without my brother’s guidance, I would have avoided the memorabilia forever. My parents are present in my thoughts, dreams, and feelings; that bittersweet ethereal presence is enough for me. My brother, however, feels that each photo and letter carries their imprint. To honor them, we must witness each one.

As we witnessed this Mother’s Day, we did discover for ourselves a longer life. Letters written to and from our parents connected us across the generations, and with significant events in Jewish history.

During World War II, we learned, our uncle wrote frequently to his younger sister, our future mother. Uncle H, drafted into the U.S. army, found himself stationed in Africa. To his 18-year old sister, he spoke frankly: I’ve been seeing quite a bit of North Africa…don’t let anybody tell you different, it’s war torn.

In March 1943, he wrote: I saw that article about Hitler’s supposed death. It is strictly a matter of speculation as to whether he is alive or not. If he did die I hope it was in the same manner some of our people were forced to end their existences.

Uncle H hated Hitler, but had compassion for ordinary German soldiers, required to serve a terrible cause. He wrote: I’ve spoken to many Italian and German prisoners already. The are a nice lot generally speaking but apparently misguided. They are as one fellow remarked “typically GI.” You know, that’s the army expression for soldiers. It is just the fact that they’re fighting under another flag and for a cause of hatred and injustice. I thoroughly despise what any German soldier represents.

Uncle H applied those same democratic principles when he gave his sister dating advice: I was surprised to learn that you have discarded your democratic views in regard to Service men. The only difference between officers and enlisted men is rank. Under the skin they are all the same. Personally I have had very little if any respect at all for girls who would only go out with officers. It is against my principles and very anti-democratic.

No surprises here: I know the U.S. army had knowledge of the horrible crimes against European Jewry. I know that Uncle H was opinionated; that he was close with his sister; and that she was a tough-minded future policewoman. But, coming through the letters, this all seems like precious new information.

Uncle H, as I knew him, was funny and sardonic, a commentator on the human condition. And here he suddenly was, dropped into World War II, reporting just as I might expect. And here was my mom, a future student of political science, receiving his reports; pondering world events; bemusedly accepting his dating advice, though all potential dates were serving overseas.

I know Mom and Uncle H; I know how they thought and felt. As I imagine them in this historical situation, I see it through their eyes. My own life becomes longer. It extends backward into events taking place before I was born. I participate in them, borrowing sensibilities already familiar to me.

In the self-reflective journey of counting of the Omer, we pause this week on the quality of Netzach, eternity. The word netzach is used eight times in the Tanakh. In some places it refers to God, the unchanging one; in others, it describes a human experience of enduring long suffering. Netzach expresses a divine quality, a sense of time as it might exist beyond the boundaries of human perception. Netzach also expresses a human quality, the subjective experience of enduring for a really long time.

My uncle’s letters bring me into netzach.  Not the divine kind, eternity beyond the boundaries of human perception, but the human kind, a sense that something endures longer than one might expect. Today, my life seems to extend beyond its boundaries. Events I once thought mythical become a living part of my experience. For me, that’s a very human taste of eternity.

That’s how I feel about being Jewish in general. The sense that I am part of a community whose narrative extends 3,000 years into the past offers me a sense of eternity. This kind of eternity seems attainable. After all, it is only 30 Uncle H’s ago. But it also seems divinely soul-expanding. To reach it, I imaginatively join with with other minds, experiences, and stories. When I honor my ancestors in this way, my own life becomes longer.

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Posted on May 12, 2014

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Don’t Pray, Communicate! A Book Review of Holistic Prayer

weiss_avi_webTo understand the newest book by Rabbi Avi Weiss one needs to tell a story that appears in the book, Holistic Prayer:

A rabbi was once informed that a crazed woman was in the beit midrash (the study hall, which is sometimes used as a small prayer room). “She is standing in front of the Ark, the Ark is open, and she is babbling and gesturing wildly,” he was told. “She seems to be mentally imbalanced. Perhaps you can go in and help her. The rabbi went in. As he sat quietly in the back, he could see that the woman was deeply immersed in tefilla. The rabbi overheard some of her words as she swayed and cried out: “Dear God, I know I was here just last week, but I am back because I need your help. My daughter is still not well. Please, please, in my hour of need, do not forsake me, do not leave me!” Understanding the privacy of her tefilla, the rabbi left the woman alone. Upon his return, he was asked, “So what did you do with the babbling crazy lady?” The rabbi responded, “This morning I got up, put on my prayer shawl, donned my tefillin and davened. But this woman wasn’t davening, she was talking to God. That’s a whole different world.” (Holistic Prayer, pg. 169)

The goal of Rabbi Weiss’ book is to take the reader on a journey. It is a journey that when finished will lead the reader to transition from a davening (praying) out of repetition to a conversation with God. The book is most appreciated by those who have a familiarity with the mechanics of daily Jewish prayer and have a comfort with the key terminology. It is to this audience that Rabbi Weiss challenges the reader to rethink what they think they know about prayer and to open up our hearts and minds to a reinvigorated and renewed understanding. For example, in discussing a key feature of traditional Jewish prayer, the set times allocated for it, Rabbi Weiss explains:

 ”The idea that love is predicated on action is crucial to understanding tefilla and, more broadly, all of Jewish ritual. If tefilla is an expression of love, why should we be mandated to pray? Why not pray only when we feel like praying? In truth, however, we may not feel like praying for long periods of time. But if we’re obliged to pray, we make a decision to pray. By placing ourselves in the prayerful mode, feelings of prayer may surface… That is the basic idea of ritual. Ritual is an expression of our love for God. Its goal is by and large to do an action from which feelings may come. (pg. 77)”

holisticPrayer1In this journey of Holistic Prayer Rabbi Weiss weaves together a myriad of sources and references. His book is filled with ideas sourced from the Talmud, Halakha (Jewish law), Tanakh (Hebrew Bible) and other traditional places. Yet, it also brings in ideas from thinkers not accustumed to finding themselves referenced in a work of the philosophy of prayer by an Orthodox rabbi. Examples of these out of the box thinkers include: John Powell, the Jesuit priest and author of The Secret of Staying in Love; the humanist philosopher Erich Fromm and the American playwright, Thornton Wilder. In the bringing together the wisdom from classical Jewish tradition and the larger world, Rabbi Weiss exemplifies the very best of the Modern Orthodox approach, in the model set forth by his teacher, Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik zt”l.

I had the unique privilege of being a student in the rabbinical school he founded, Yeshivat Chovevei Torah, while he was conducting his research that would become this book. In our year-long class on prayer Rabbi Weiss would convey his ideas and philosophy with us that would later fill the pages of Holistic Prayer. In reading this book I can not help but bring that experience to bear in my understanding this work. I not only read the words but I can hear them and visualize his excitement, passion and genuineness in conveying them.

In the preface Rabbi Weiss shares that his wrote this book because “for a long time, I have lovingly struggled with prayer.” When I read those words I had a hard time relating to them because as a student of his, someone who has been blessed to know him for almost 10 years, I have never experienced the man who has “lovingly struggled with prayer,” rather, I know a man who has a face that lights up when he is in the midst of prayer and who sways with an extraordinary amount of devotion and commitment. I think that is because this book is as personal for him as it is intellectually rigorous and spiritually rich. It records his own journey through his adult life with prayer. As someone who has at times also struggled with prayer I can very much share in that experience and it only makes this work more important for me and others who experience ups and downs in their own personal prayer life.

I believe this book is a must read for anyone who has committed to taking part in the life of traditional Jewish prayer, or who has ever experienced it, with all of its rigors and demands. It will inject your prayer life with a breath of fresh air and reframe the whole endeavor to provide new possibilities for enrichment and connection to God.

In closing the book Rabbi Weiss offers the following prayer:

“May the tefilla of Rabbi Judah HaLevi — of God and the human being searching for each other — be forever ingrained in our hearts.

I have sought your nearness, With all my heart I have called You, And going out to meet You, I found You coming toward me. (pg. 260)”

May we take up the call of Rabbi Weiss and catalyze our prayer to be a moment of going out to meet the Divine and in so doing discover God coming out to meet us.

Posted on May 9, 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

On Mother’s Day

no_flowersYet another holiday about which I am ambivalent, Mother’s Day seems this year to have engendered rather more commentary than I can remember in past years. I have read several moving essays from women whose infertility has made Mother’s Day painful, as they are forced to watch the omnipresent cute pictures of babies and advertisements directed at heteronormative families seemingly composed of clumps of gooey gazes of young, pretty, thin (and mostly white) women at their offspring, neatly clad, and freshly scrubbed.

Aside from the commercialism of it all,  aside from the very real pain of women who want children and have not  been able to bear them, I wonder if this is the best we can do for women. While honoring one’s parents is a Jewish value, I’m not sure that Mother’s Day offers any real honor.

Of course I wouldn’t dare not show up at my own mother’s house, but as for me, I’d rather see our society make genuine changes to the way we treat women. I would consider it a far greater honor to make sure that no girl need fear rape in her high school or college than to get some paid-for gift every year. It would be a lot more clear to me that our society cares about mothers and motherhood if it made more effort to feed the children of all the mothers in it, and pay women the worth of our work—equal to what a man would make.

Of course, that’s sort of the point. It takes a lot less work to show pretty once a year, and make a few grand pronouncements about how motherhood is the most important job than it does to actually honor women. That would require some big changes in the way we do business, in how we live our lives, and would require more than one day’s consideration.

And I will say this, too. You can’t truly honor mothers if you don’t have genuine respect for all women: before, during, and after the years of her fertility, whether or not she chooses to bear children, whether or not she is able.

So if you really want to honor your mother this weekend, get off your duff and go make the world better for every girl, for every old woman, for any child born of woman, boy or girl. Go on: then you can be the hero your mother always told you you were. And that would be the best Mother’s Day present you could give her.

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Posted on May 7, 2014

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The Pope’s Kippah

So the Pope lost his kippah for a moment. I’ve been there. As a fellow bald man and kippah wearer I totally relate. This story just made me like the guy even more (click here is see the Pope’s wardrobe malfunction).

Thanks to my photographer friend, Bill Aron, for sending this my way. [No, Bill didn't take the shot. In this case he just knew a good shot when he saw one.]

On May 25, 2014 Pope Francis will visit Israel. He’ll be in Jordan the day before, and while in Israel, he will also meet with the Palestinian Authority. He’s been fairly deft at walking the gauntlet. His sticking with a populist message of helping the poor and of contrition for Church leaders’ crimes has made me a fan. I also like lines such as, “who am I to judge?

I have high hopes for this visit. Not for the politics of the moment, between Palestinians and Israelis, but I have hopes for a high profile religious leader modeling that religion does not have to be the central problem. In fact, it isn’t.

Know this, Francis is not the only one. There are many of us out there.

In the history of the world, religion has often been at the heart of wars and bloodshed. People were right to fear and resent religion. But things have changed and continue to progress.  Around the world, right now, the hot spots are driven much more by the usual culprits of greed for control, wealth, and power. Yes, religion still plays a corrupting role, there are extremist, but a) their role is weaker, and b) the voices of the peaceful who respect differences and are not threatened by them are growing.

The strength of religion in the 21st century lies in a moral voice that does not compel through dogma, but rather attracts and embraces through humility and modeling a recognition that everyone is created in the image of the divine.

Pope Paul, whom Francis canonized as a saint, declared Jews “our elder brothers and sisters in faith.” Last year, Pope Francis extended a similar sounding olive branch to “… so many Muslim brothers and sisters.”

It will take patience, humility, faith, and peacefulness, as well as a touch of joy, and hope to find a lasting peace—regardless of what politicians contrive—and the record for good politics right now is poor anyway. The Pope’s visit is not overtly political, but do not underestimate it’s potential. Even with stalled peace talks, there is reason to hope.

The wiser voices within the traditions of Christianity, Judaism, and Islam still believe in a time when “war and bloodshed will cease.” It seems that the secular voices gave up on that possibility.

Could it be that religion will lead the way to a more peaceful world?  I think, “yes.”

Posted on May 6, 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

Today Matters

Credit Charlie Kalech  j-town.co.il

Credit Charlie Kalech j-town.co.il

At a construction site at the Jerusalem bus station there is a multi-paneled chalkboard with space for people to fill in what they are grateful for.

If I were making the list today it would read, the ocean, the stunning weather, my children’s health. A shift in the carpool this morning gave way to an extraordinary view of the Pacific on the way to work. On another day, I might have not even seen it and concentrated on the flowers or trees instead. The weather today is oddly perfect for San Francisco. There is little chance we will have many more days like this. And despite their general good health, I know better than to believe in the false security that this is in any way a guarantee for my children’s future. I am grateful for the graces of the moment. For that which I see, appreciate right now.

We are counting the Omer. It is a strange practice, which I don’t fully understand. I can of course quote the meanings and explanations that the tradition gives but it remains a bit mysterious to me. Why the need to number our days, to account for the passing of time so very carefully?

But I know it is too easy to let time pass. Days go by without notice. One set of flowers, blends into a sunset, into a fight with a loved one, into a day at the office and errands and then a year goes by. Last week when we observed Yom Hashoah, I was struck by how in my remembered lifetime the pervasive presence of survivors has given way to the dominance of memory and recordings. Time, which once stood still in ghettos and camps, has gone by quickly. In my children’s lifetime the Holocaust will pass into distant memory.

Every day and every moment matters, but for these seven weeks, between Passover and Shavuot we stop daily and take a moment to mark the passage of time. We heighten our awareness of the ancient journey that Israelites took from slavery to revelation. Like the passersby near the Jerusalem bus station, we are given an opportunity to consider the gifts that we have. Noticing does not make the time go any faster or slower but it does help us appreciate what we have in the moment.

Posted on May 1, 2014

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Sterling NBA Ban: So It’s Finished?

“So it’s finished?” I heard one commentator on local NPR ask sarcastically in a discussion about the NBA decision to issue a life-time ban on Donald Sterling. Of course, we know that the conversation about racism in our society, how it manifests and how it effects the lives of millions of citizens each and every day, is clearly not over. But while most media outlets are moving on to the next story, it is also quite clear that, if Sterling’s private conversation with his girlfriend was being held up as an example of the kind of racism that our society won’t tolerate, the conversation never really even began.

Because it is way too easy to hold up people like Donald Sterling as examples of racists so that the rest of us can congratulate ourselves on not being racists “like them.” Most people don’t want to look in the mirror when these stories highlight only  a caricature of racism to delve a little deeper into their own, real life experiences.

crossing_coverIt just so happened that, while this story was breaking this week, I attended an extraordinary multi-media one-woman performance called “Crossing the Boulevard“ by Judith Sloan. Sloan engaged youth and adults over several years in what is probably the most ethnically diverse borough in the USA: Queens. Through an exhibit which became a book, which became a stage show, Sloan brings to light the hidden stories and experiences of people of so many different faith and ethnic backgrounds who she met through her project. By telling pieces of their diverse and fascinating stories she brings forth the most important facet within each and every one of them—their humanity.

Her presentation was brought to my town by the Friends of “Facing History and Facing Ourselves” program that is taught in our local High School. The performance highlights how each and every one of us knows so little about our neighbors because of the silence that exists, separating people of different backgrounds. Part of this is due to our uncertainties and anxieties about ‘the other’ and part of it is the way in which we seek to understand ourselves partly through defining with whom we belong. Hence we seek others “like us” as part of that search for meaning. This is not inherently wrong. It is human nature. But it means that it takes an active choice of will to simultaneously exert effort to build genuine relationships with others. Inaction too quickly leads to a separatism within which power exerts itself and racism is easily inserted into the equation.

I yearn for intelligent conversations about difference and diversity. I hold a professional position that makes a great deal of my work about helping Jews hold up, engage with and love things that are specifically Jewish, and require Jewish community coming together to share some of the best of those things. And I also recognize the need to do this in ways that are outward looking, that seeks opportunities to share our specificity with others who will have equal opportunity to share theirs with us. His kind of sharing doesn’t usually “just happen.” It takes an act of will. Just last month we hosted a Shabbat service to highlight the learning that took place among a group of 8th-12th graders learning and leading in a program that provides Jews, Christians, Muslims, and Hindus with a meaningful encounter over six weeks of being together. We need programs like this in our schools, in our communities, and for adults as well as children.

If the story of Donald Sterling is to teach us anything, let it not be what racism looks like—that’s too easy and simplistic. Let it remind each of us to take that active step, personally and individually, to have a conversation with someone we see as “other.” Let it remind us not to hide our own sense of “otherness” in a desperate attempt to fit in to something that we perceive might not accept the fullness of who we are, but gently, and with tolerance and patience, we can help teach others when we share that “otherness” with them. We may not complete the work, but neither can we desist from it.

Posted on April 30, 2014

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Why Jews Should Care About The Donald Sterling Controversy

Los_Angeles_Clippers_2013-14_seasonI have had many reactions so far to the recently leaked audio of comments made by Los Angeles Clippers owner Donald Sterling. For those who have missed the media coverage, Sterling had a lengthy conversation with his girlfriend about why she should remove all photos of herself with African-Americans on the social media platform Instagram and why she should not bring African-Americans to Clippers basketball games.

First and foremost, I am disgusted by his comments. I am disgusted by the dehumanizing hate inherent in his words. I am disgusted that Donald Sterling is a Jew, the son of immigrants who knew what it meant to be hated for what you were rather than judged for who you were as a person. I am disgusted that Sterling can date his girlfriend/mistress (he is not divorced from his wife), who is both African-American and Mexican, while finding her public associations with other African-Americans to be abhorrent. I am disgusted that Sterling can find it fitting to profit from the physical exploits of his predominantly African-American basketball players yet prefer for African-Americans not to attend his games. I am disgusted that a Jew would be associated with these racist comments at the time of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, when we affirm our commitment never to forget what hate and discrimination can lead to. So I join the basketball players, sports columnists, and pundits who have condemned these comments. I hope, once due process runs its course, that if it is confirmed that Sterling spoke these words (thus far he has not denied that it is his voice speaking), that he is forced to sell his team and banned from basketball.

(Update: NBA Commissioner Adam Silver announced today that Sterling admitted to being the speaker on the audio recording and Silver banned Sterling for life from the NBA and was fined $2.5 million)

I further hope that the Jewish community of Los Angeles will exercise tochecha (rebuke) and reject his presence and involvement unless and until he shows true contrition and a willingness to engage in teshuva (restorative repentance).

Yet some might view Sterling’s comments as less abhorrent than the overtly racist screeds we heard earlier this week from Cliven Bundy, the Nevada rancher who illegally grazed his cattle on federal lands and refused to pay for it. Bundy, of course, became infamous last week for telling New York Times reporter Adam Nagourney that African-Americans were better off when they were slaves:

“They abort their young children, they put their young men in jail, because they never learned how to pick cotton. And I’ve often wondered, are they better off as slaves, picking cotton and having a family life and doing things, or are they better off under government subsidy? They didn’t get no more freedom. They got less freedom.”

Seen in this light, Sterling’s comments seem far less jarring. Disregarding the fact that Sterling has a history of explicitly racist comments, in the audio recording, Sterling argues that he is not racist but a realist. At about the one minute mark, he claims that his girlfriend should not publicly associate with African-Americans not because they are inherently bad but because of public perception of minorities as bad. “I’m living in a culture, and I have to live within the culture. So that’s the way it is.”

Yet there is an insidious underpinning to Sterling’s comments that bothers me, as a Jew, far more than Bundy’s noxious harangue. Sterling argues that we stuck with the detritus of our culture, that there is nothing we can do individually to change racism in America. But this idea of acquiescence is anathema to Judaism! It is the opposite of the redemption we have experienced throughout our national history and which we pray for daily in our liturgy. The story of Abraham is the story of a man being willing to leave his homeland, his status quo, for an uncertain future. And, in Genesis 18 (when Abraham argues with God about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah), it is the story of a man who was willing to stand up to no less than God for what he thought was right. The story of Passover, which we just celebrated, is the story of God, through Moses, freeing the Israelite slaves in Egypt from the mightiest empire then on earth. The story of the founding of Israel in 1948 is the story of a people who had been exiled from their homeland for nearly 2000 years yet never giving up hope of an ultimate restoration to that land. As Rabbi Tarfon insists in Pirkei Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) 2:16, “It is not your responsibility to finish the work [of perfecting the world], but neither are you free to desist from trying.”  Standing up to the status quo, fighting for what is just, effecting change in a world of intransigence and stasis—this is what makes Jews Jews.

During the seven weeks from Passover to Shavuot, we Jews count the Omer to symbolize and to embody the ongoing pursuit of personal and collective redemption.  As we do so this year, let us continue to fight for what is right and reject those who claim “that’s just the way it is.” Let us reject the Sterlings who accept the world with all its flaws and re-commit ourselves to creating the world as we aspire it to become.

Posted on April 29, 2014

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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

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