“I propose that you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency. A Marshal Plan for aid to negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” - Abraham Joshua Heschel, in a telegram to President Kennedy.
“A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. – in a 1967 Address, Beyond Vietnam.
January always renews my admiration for, and the inspiration I draw from, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and from his rabbinic friend, Abraham Joshua Heschel. January 15th was King’s birthday, and January 11th was Heschel’s.
In the quote above, King was speaking against the war in Vietnam as a distraction from the needs of our own citizens. How might it apply now? President Obama drawing down troops in Afganistan, perhaps on a quicker schedule than earlier planed (WSJ), might address the issue of war, but will it mean anything to improving the lives of our nations struggling middle class and the inflating number of working poor – the jobless rate is now down to 7.8% (Bloomberg), but the jobs are not paying the way they were before. I hear King’s challenge and ask: What are the programs that provide social uplift and secure spiritual vitality?
To my mind the answer lies in the 2008 Obama Campaign: Hope and Change. Upon his reelection, the President was right to say that “there is more to do,” and while I generally give him high marks, especially given the largely dysfunctional congress – what do they have against the UN passing guidelines that resemble our own to improve the lives of the disabled, I can’t help be disappointed. After all, where does hope come from? Hope comes from the belief that something better is possible. The soul, or spirit, is such an amazing part of being human. While the brain calculates probabilities of outcomes – what percent of kids born into poverty escape it; the soul can take merely “possible” and expand it into a dream, and under influence of a dream (“I have a dream”) the engine of hope roars to life.
The book title, The Audacity of Hope, one of the books penned by our eloquent president, has always reminded me of the the famous quote that Rabbi Heschel sent by telegram to President Kennedy regarding the issue of civil rights, “The moment calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” The issue is no longer one of race, but of class. While race is certainly still an issue in this country, and a complication to the issue of class, people of the same class, regardless of race, have more in common than people of the same race but of different socio-economic class.
The key to unlocking the issues of class, and perhaps by extension the issue of race: Education – a gap between the rich and the poor is widening (New York Times: Education gap between the rich and the poor). The degree of education a person has is a greater predictor of success and of class in the United States. And what was true for the past several decades is still true – a good education remains a privilege, and not as it should be, a right. Technology, such as on-line classes and degree programs, has the potential to democratize access to knowledge and wisdom. Nonetheless, technology is not a panacea, by example the University of California Online program has not attracted many students outside its current student population (San Francisco Chronicle).
January ushers in a new year, but also a chance to calibrate our moral compass to those of Rabbi Heschel and of Dr. King. Among the many messages that need to be heard as the President’s inaugurations draws near (Jan. 21, 2013), I add the following:
- Free pre-school for the working poor.
- Smaller classes for our students, and therefore more teachers.
- Continuing education requirements for our teachers.
- Free high education all at public institutions of higher learning (we saw how the GI Bill lifted up an entire generation after WWII).
Mr. President, you believed that healthcare was a right, and you fought for it, remember that access to a good education should also be a right and that education is the key to unlocking this country’s potential and lift its citizenry with hope and “social uplift.” Without a serious plan to tackle the inequalities of education we risk “spiritual death.” I propose the you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency. A Marshall Plan for education has become a necessity. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.
Are you on the freedom bandwagon yet? Celebrations of the concept of freedom seem to be permeating the cultural-political zeitgeist these days. Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery, just received a leading 12 nominations for best picture of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights hero who helped lead African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression, is just around the corner (January 21).
And have you seen the Piers Morgan-Alex Jones interview yet? In a clip that has gone viral, Jones, a radio talk show host and gun enthusiast, launches into a vitriolic tirade about guns, freedom, and potential revolution that makes one wonder how he qualified for a gun permit in the first place.
All of this happens to be coinciding with the time of year in which Jews read the Exodus narrative. At first glance, it appears to be perfect timing. After all, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom formed the moral and linguistic basis for Kin’’s civil rights oratory and is inextricably intertwined with Western society’s development of a natural right to liberty (which underlies both the 13th Amendment and gun owner’s claims to liberty from government intrusion into gun ownership). Continue reading
The Jewish community needs to gain some self-confidence. We are like the beautiful teenage girl who looks in the mirror and only sees blemishes and imperfections when in reality everyone turns to look at her because she is so pretty. We are no longer a despised minority.
Take a look at two items from popular culture that made the rounds of Facebook posts and Twitter last week. The first is a series of costumes that Walmart is selling so that children can dress up like “A Jewish Rabbi” or “A Jewish High Priest.”
My Jewish friends were amazed that Walmart, the great American retailer would sell such a niche product to the Jewish community. But they are not selling these to the Jewish population of the US, but to the greater American population. The average American, and in particular evangelical Christians, will buy up these costumes. To dress as a Jew is cool. In his book about religion in American, American Grace, Robert Putnam quotes a statistic from his research that Judaism is one of the most favorably viewed religions in the US today. This is hard for many Jews to accept since we grew up in a post Holocaust Era thinking that everyone hates us. We see only blemishes where others see beauty.
Then look at this clip from a new TLC reality show, Sisterhood, about 5 wives of Atlanta pastors. The clip is of a conversation between Pastor Brian, and his wife Tara and their plans to have a Christian Bar Mitzvah for their son. I watched this clip with a combination of horror and fascination. At first glance, I see why Jews might be offended. Pastor Brian grew up Jewish and converted to Christianity. His actions and comments in the clip are the most jarring. He almost seems to make fun of his Jewish heritage by singing Hava Nagila and playing with a tallit, the prayer shawl. But his African- American wife is taking this bar mitzvah very seriously. She has done her research and knows they must have a cake in the shape of a Torah as part of the party. (Yes, I laughed out loud at that.) She honestly wants to honor her son’s Jewish heritage. She is proud of this part of her husband’s past. At the same time, they both want to affirm their Christian faith in the context of the bar mitzvah. They are accurate when they call it a “Christian Bar Mitzvah.”
The more I reflected on this clip, the more I realized that instead of being offensive, this clip show how much Christians like and admire Judaism. Isn’t imitation the sincerest form of flattery? They want to use a Jewish ritual to add meaning to their lives, to mark a lifecycle moment in their son’s life. Isn’t that the root point of a bar mitzvah, to celebrate a child’s movement in to adolescence? Continue reading
“Being a diplomat is no career for a woman who wants to have a family,” said the consul.
“By the time you’re ready to get married he’ll be married,” said my mother.
“Don’t put off having children,” said the prominent professor.
Jane Eisner’s recent editorial Marriage Agenda brought back me to the 80s and 90s. As I finished high school, made my way through college and began graduate school, my elders were filled with advice about family planning. In the Jewish community, where concerns of assimilation reached a fever pitch, there was a very strong chorus that promoted marriage and childbearing. Eisner’s piece, which laments the high rates of intermarriage, the delaying of marriage, or even choosing not getting married sounded eerily like a retro recording of days gone by.
As a young woman, I followed the wisdom I received. I was married by 25 and had my first child in my twenties and my second by 32. I did miscarry but I was young and healthy and conception followed with ease. In my 40s, I have healthy older children and a strong marriage.
But to suggest that this has been an easy path or one that comes without costs is foolish. I was still very much figuring out who I wanted to be when I met the man I married. Instead of going off to Israel and entering rabbinical school, I stayed in the United States. Coming to understand myself in relationship to him would mean nearly a decade before I realized my desire to go to rabbinic school. And realizing that dream –while raising two small children-took a toll on our marriage. Having our children before our careers were launched was financially challenging. Studies have shown that delaying childbearing for educated professionals correlates with significantly higher lifetime earning potential. As we face paying for college this is something I worry about. I do not regret my choices but am realistic about the trade offs. It is too simplistic to recommend that we encourage marriage and early childbearing. Continue reading
I recently returned from an amazing trip to Senegal. I was there to visit my step-daughter who is serving in the Peace Corps. It was incredible to get a taste of her experience living in a village in an inner region of the country. Returning home, as many have asked us if we had a good vacation, I have found myself answering, vaguely, “It was an experience.” I’m so glad we had the opportunity to have this experience and yet it is unlike anything I’ve ever done for vacation before.
There is much that I could say about the trip and all that we experienced, from the landscape, the people and cultures, the food, to the village way of life. But I’d like to share one story that I shared with two of my classes at Religious School last night in the context of our theological, “God Talk” sessions. The topic? Transportation.
Public transportation is quite an experience in Senegal. Aside from our initial trip in from Dakar to the inland region, where we shared a private ride with another Peace Corps family, we opted to use public transport to get around. We found ourselves getting into vehicles that, in any other country, I would never dream of traveling in. There was not a single taxi ride that we took for very local journeys that did not involve a taxi with multiple cracks across the front windscreen. All of the shared 7-seater cars that we took had taken some kind of beating on the severely potholed roads that we traveled. But the most challenging ride we took was in one of the regional minibuses that ride from market town to market town. After a three-hour wait on the side of the road following a beautiful hike to a waterfall in a fairly remote eco-tourist location, this was all that came by, and we decided that it was possibly our only ride back to home base that day.
These buses are loaded with as many people as they can hold, along with any assortment of items up on the roof (in another location we saw three goats that had been purchased in the market town seated up top). After a very bumpy hour-and-a-half ride back to base, one of us seated in the aisle on a bag of rice and one of us with a set of live chickens under our seat, we arrived safely at our destination.
We had planned to take an overnight back to Dakar at the end of our trip so as to avoid traveling in the hot daytime. However, upon arrival at the market town where we expected to make that connection we learned that the reservation that had been made by phone didn’t exist as that particular bus had been rerouted for that one night to Touba for a Muslim pilgrimage. Another lengthy wait ensued and we got ourselves a ride on a 7-seater that brought us safely back to Dakar in plenty of time for our plane home the following night.
The following morning, sitting in a Dakar coffee shop, I picked up one of the French newspapers. My French isn’t what it used to be, but I could translate enough of the front page article to see that the previous night, a bus on its way to Touba had been in a head-on collision with one of the regional minibuses. Not just any bus: the bus we were supposed to take. All 26 occupants of the minibus were killed.
After taking in the tragedy of the story, my very next thought, reflecting back on the previous day’s frustrations as our plans had gone awry and we’d had a long, hot wait for alternative transportation was, “Perhaps it was meant to be.” And in almost the same moment of utterance, I felt ashamed. Meant to be that we were not on one of those buses? Meant to be that we had to change our plans? But surely not meant to be for the 26 souls who died?
As I shared the theological implications of the statement with my students, we reflected on how often we find ourselves, upon seeing the larger picture, or realizing that something good has come out of something that we initially perceived as bad, voicing such a statement. It’s familiar to many. But what do we actually mean by it? Continue reading
The light turned green. But the cars ahead of me stayed still. Perfectly still. The light turned yellow. And then red. Yet, I hadn’t move a single inch.
By the time that the light turned green again, there were more than a few cars behind me. And yet, we didn’t move. Only this time, there was some honking. Impatient drivers with no other way to express themselves.
It wasn’t until the third light cycle that the reason for our lack of movement became clear. At least, that is when it became clear to me. There had been an accident just beyond the intersection. Until the cars could be safely towed to the side of the road, traffic was stopped. But there was simply no way to know this unless you were sitting in the very first car at the light.
I’d like to think think that if those drivers behind me knew that people had been involved in an accident, they might have refrained from honking. And provided a sense of calm to those who were clearly shaken by their experience.
So too it is in life. We encounter people each day, but without seeing or knowing what is happening in their lives that might cause them to behave in a certain way. Without that clarity, their behavior might seem perplexing, rude, or even downright hurtful. If only we were to step back and give them the benefit of the doubt, rather than reacting out of frustration, we might provide a calming force in the midst of their despair.
“Because I am a Jew,” one person said. I had asked the participants of a class to tell me why we should care about Israel. This response in many ways summarized the sentiments of the group, who were mostly middle-aged, and highly selective. After all, they showed up in synagogue to have this conversation.
I pointed out that this response reflects an assumed value of peoplehood – that we, the Jewish people, are a mutually bound family. As a family, our identities are rooted in shared history and lineage, and we feel responsible for each other. Israel, as the nation of the Jewish people, belongs to all of us. Right?
Well, maybe. It turns out that one’s emotional, spiritual and intellectual reaction to this question depends on how we each understand our identities. Are we part of the “family” known as the Jewish people? Does being a “member of the tribe” bind us to any certain responsibilities or obligations?
There is a good bit of hand wringing in the Jewish community about the eroding sense of Jewish peoplehood. Do Jews feel responsible for each other? Do Jews continue to prioritize charitable giving to Jewish causes as we did a generation ago? Do Jews choose to affiliate with Jewish communities to be among “family,” as my parents did 50 years ago? The entire Jewish world is being rocked by shifting views of Jewish peoplehood.
For that reason, I was particularly interested to read a fascinating column in the NY Times this weekend, “The Myth of Universal Love“, but Stephen T. Asma. Asma argues for “favoritism,” and what he calls a “small circle care” and family preference. By rebuffing the social scientists whose universalist values have deeply influenced our culture, he demonstrates that commitment to our “small circle of favorites” is actually a crucial ingredient for human happiness. “Favoritists … are very good at selflessly giving to members of their inner circle.”
Wouldn’t we all want to be the beneficiaries of selfless generosity? Doesn’t it feel good to offer kindness to those who matter most to us?
Asma builds his case by punching holes in the theories of two of the leading liberal social theorists, Jeremy Rifkin and Peter Singer, who “think we can overcome factional bias and eventually become one giant tribe.” These universalist “utilitarian ethics” were developed by an early nineteenth century thinker, William Godwin. Check out this logic:
Godwin asked us to imagine if you could save only one person from a burning building. One of those persons is Archbishop Fénelon and the other is a common chambermaid. Furthermore, the archbishop is just about to compose his famous work “The Adventures of Telemachus” (an influential defense of human rights). Now here’s the rub. The chambermaid is your mother.
Godwin argues that the utilitarian principle (the greatest good for the greatest number) requires you to save the archbishop rather than your mother. He asks, “What magic is there in the pronoun ‘my’ that should justify us in overturning the decisions of impartial truth?”
Singer extends this to the ultimate universal idea: that “we should do everything within our power to help strangers meet their basic needs, even if it severely compromises our kin’s happiness.”
I bristled with displeasure to imagine anyone choosing to leave their mother to die or harming their own family by prioritizing strangers over them in apportioning resources. My thinking is not just a reflection of my training in Jewish texts and ideas – it is simple logic. We are most satisfied when we sustain mutual relationships with others. As Asma points out, studies show that “the most important element in a good life is close family and friendship ties – ties that bind.”
I didn’t need studies to tell me this. Being a part of the Jewish people has taught me well. And that is worth saving.
The other day, I noticed, to my amusement, that Facebook had changed the status update a bit. In place of whatever used to be there (I have to admit, I can’t quite remember, it was so innocuous) there is now a revolving collection of queries, most of which seem to be something along the lines of, “How do you feel today, Alana?”
Now, I am perfectly sure this was done with the intention of making Facebook a warmer, more personal place. But most of the folks I know seem to have had the same reaction as I did: why does Facebook all of a sudden want to be my therapist?
Part of the reason that Facebook is so popular is that it allows us to maintain relationships with people who have gone far from us physically, or sometimes even with people who are near, but we simply don’t have time to actually go to see. But when Facebook starts acting as if it, itself, is the thing we’re interacting with, a lot of us suddenly become uncomfortable. Yet, in truth, Facebook does influence how our relationships exist through its medium. Our interactions are short; on our own terms; they don’t require us to face our friends – or those with whom we tangle in argument. We post pithy idioms, and funny pictures, and those who agree with us “like” them, and those who don’t …slip away, or “unfriend” us.
It’s very different than the kind of relationships a community is made from. I worry that fewer and fewer people join synagogues (and churches, too, have this problem). In “online communities,” we feel as though we are connected, but to whom are we connected, really? Instead of looking into the faces of people who are older than us, younger than us, politically of a different stripe than us, we are peering mostly into a mirror.
I’m as guilty of this as anyone – I recently ran an app that measured my Facebook posts – it told me that over the past year, I’d written enough words for a book. While I am grateful that social media allows me to stay in touch with people who might otherwise have drifted away, in some ways, I rather wish I’d written the book, instead. Granted, I use social media as part of how I make my living. Also granted, I rather like confrontation and argument. I enjoy disagreement and the sharpening of teeth over different opinions, so that when I go to shul, and someone has a very different idea than mine over what the government ought to be doing, well, I relish the discussion – even if neither of us walks away convinced. So, I don’t find Facebook all that comforting.
One of the great gifts of a synagogue, or a church or a mosque is that we come into contact with people who are there at different stages of their life, who have different opinions about everything – and yet we are brought together for a common purpose, and in the task of glorifying God, we are required to set ourselves aside.
I’m not advocating dumping Facebook, or ignoring Twitter. Heck, I’ll even give the new MySpace a try if it offers anything interesting. But it is a relief to be obligated for set times every day, to disconnect from them, and instead of looking at a screen, look at living faces. Even when they’re scowling at me. I think if I decide I need a therapist, I’ll go find one with an actual couch.
There are definitely times when I feel like I am single-handedly keeping Barnes and Noble in business. It was very dangerous when I lived walking distance from a store, because I’d go there several times a week, and almost always came away with at least one book in my hand.
I realized that as much as I love reading books, what I truly love is owning books. When I look at my overflowing bookshelves in my house and my office, I smile.
I had always wondered why that was the case, until Rabbi David Wolpe shared this thought from A.E. Newton a few weeks ago: “The buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity.” So perhaps the many, many unread books on my shelves are not simply gathering dust. Perhaps all those unread books are there to help me to nourish my soul.
How so? First, unread books remind me that even if I gain some modicum of knowledge and insight, there will always be more to learn. In fact, Jewish learning even intentionally makes it impossible for us to learn everything — every tractate of the Talmud, the great collection of law and learning, begins on page two, never on page one. Why? To teach us that we should never assume that we have found all the answers.
Similarly, owning dozens (or hundreds!) of unread books is a very physical reminder that there is always more wisdom being added to the world. It is both inspiring and humbling to know that whatever we learn, there will always be new facts, new interpretations, and new ideas to discover.
Second, a library filled with unread books gives us the freedom to go browsing in the comfort of our own home or office — and we often overlook the value of browsing. As author Leon Wiseletier wrote beautifully in a piece in the New Republic:
When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations…[and] serendipity is how the spirit is renewed…
Too often, we search only for the information we need. We type in a Google search, and are very happy when we find the answer we’ve been looking for. But searching is limiting — we have to know in advance what we’re looking for. Browsing, in contrast, opens up our horizons, and helps us develop connections or inspirations that we may have otherwise missed.
So if you, too, have books that are now laying horizontally on top of other books because your shelves are too full, that’s a good thing. They are reminding you that wisdom and knowledge are an ever-expanding enterprise, and they are giving you the opportunity to come across insights you may have otherwise missed.
Unread books do not add to our store of information; to do that, we do actually need to read them. But unread books do add to our store of humility and the broadening of our worldview — and so even if they are never opened, they help our soul reach to infinity.
On Christmas morning, I’m reviewing the news online and I catch the Huffington Post’s summary of the Pope’s Christmas Eve Mass message. In it, he bemoans the lack of space in our fast-paced lives for God:
“Do we have time and space for him? Do we not actually turn away God himself? We begin to do so when we have no time for him,” said the pope, wearing gold and white vestments.
“The faster we can move, the more efficient our time-saving appliances become, the less time we have. And God? The question of God never seems urgent. Our time is already completely full,” he said.
In the study sessions, the day-to-day conversations, the pastoral visits and other randomly occurring opportunities that I have with many people that touch on consciousness of the spiritual, I find a very different picture to the one that the Pope bemoans. Just this past week, when one of my congregants gave the d’var torah after reading from parsha Vayigash, she took a survey of the congregation that night that highlighted this very issue. At the moment in the Joseph story that Joseph reveals himself to his brothers in Egypt, he responds to their fear that he will seek vengeance on them. He tells them that, while they may have meant their actions to do him harm, God meant it for good. It appears that Joseph believes that every step of his path was intended by God in order to bring him to the position of influence that he now has, without which he would not be in a position to save his family from famine. My congregant rejected this understanding of the unfolding of events. But, in surveying the congregation, she found that most people believed that God does show up in the fabric of our everyday lives, but not in a manner that is engineering every step of our experience, implied by some of our biblical narratives.
And this is what I see in the conversations that I have – many questions and the search for a God that is part of the fabric of our lives, but not the God that is described in the ancient mind of the biblical authors. Unlike the Pope, I do not see a wholesale rejection of God, or lives too busy to engage in the questions. For sure, atheism is a very present strand of thought in our society. But that is just one stage in the evolution of our understanding. What I see is the rejection of outdated God-ideas, but many are looking for part two – the search for new language to replace those ideas that emerge from our actual, lived experiences.
Rabbi Irwin Kula makes precisely this argument in the video short he created, ‘Time for a New God.’ He seeks a new understanding of God and new conversations about God that can emerge from our most intensely felt life experiences. Each and every moment is a potential doorway into something that gets us beyond a mundane interaction with our world and with each other. For, he suggests, ‘the whole world is really just God in drag.’
Time after time, when I don’t start with the presentation of old God-ideas delivered by the philosophers of past centuries, but I start with the powerful experiences that we all have as part of life, and we then try to find language to express something of the ‘beyondness’ that the experience points toward but which we can’t quite encapsulate in words, I find common ground on which we can stand. From there, it is possible to explore the possibilities of reclaiming the word ‘God’ to reflect what the inner reality of those experiences might be. Or sometimes we’ll explore reclaiming the word ‘kedushah’ – holiness – as a doorway into noticing and elevating the importance of our most deeply felt experiences for directing, guiding, or informing our lives. Whether I am having these conversations with adults, who may not have visited the God-idea since their bar or bat mitzvah, or I’m having these conversations with skeptical teenagers who feel empowered when they learn that they can claim a God-idea that jives with their experience of life, the result is often the same. We don’t reach conclusions or serve up pat answers; but there is no lack of interest in exploring the questions.
And so, for many of us it is not a matter of finding room for God. Rather, through the invitation to let go of old God-ideas that no longer work, in order to explore new doorways that can speak to the world we live in today, its more of a matter of finding God in the room.