Earlier this month in The New York Times, Reza Aslan continued an ongoing argument against Bill Maher’s blanket condemnation of Islam, and also criticized those who insist that Muslim extremists are simply practicing Islam wrong. His op-ed says we need to recognize the complexity of any religion’s relationship with the good or bad behavior of its adherents.
He then goes a step further, saying, “It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.”
When I lead Torah study weekly at Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn, NY, I teach that our Torah remains vital and relevant because we bring our own experiences and ideas to it, combining the text with our lives to find new ways to think about both. While I think Aslan might be overstating his case a bit, it is quite true that interpretations of our sacred texts evolve with the times, as do our religious practice and our sense of which passages speak most to us, based on the perspectives we bring to the text. It has always been so.
At our Torah study, then, more than once, this question has arisen: How do we know that we’re not using the Torah, or the Bible, to just tell us what we want to hear? To put a finer point on it, how do we know that we’re not using the Torah simply to justify our own bad behavior?
It’s a tough question. One classic example of the Bible being used to support injustice is when pre-Civil War slaveholders used it to justify slavery. Today we find slavery abhorrent (though it continues to exist), and recognize that it is wrong even though the Christian and Jewish Bibles, as well as the Quran, are uncritical of it. A different, current example is the use of the Bible, usually Leviticus 18:22, to condemn homosexuality. I and many others believe this is using the Bible to support injustice. (A fascinating alternate interpretation of that verse is in the article “Pit`hu Li Sha`arei Tzedeq” by Rabbi David Greenstein.)
In Pirkei Avot, we read that Ben Bag-Bag said of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” That means we can find everything in there—good and evil, and justification for both.
So how do we know that we aren’t supporting injustice when we use the Torah to help us make choices? My answer is that we might not always be able to be sure, but we have to do the best we can. Here’s how to do that: Study the Torah, study the Bible, study whatever your sacred scriptures are, and study them some more. Do it with other people. Study what people before us have thought about it. Bring your own best sense of right and wrong. Pay attention to when you’re supporting something that causes harm to people—that’s a sign of injustice. Wrestle with the text and argue about it, and listen to what others think. Don’t expect black and white answers, and don’t settle for them. Don’t be so sure you’re right. Expect it to be hard.
And have faith. Faith in ourselves, in our study companions, and in our scriptures, faith that we’ll find a way for ourselves, and that we can bring more good into the world.
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“Why do bad things happen to good people” is the most fundamental question of theology. Just about everyone has given it some thought in his lifetime. It’s a simple question, and its outlines are more or less like this: If God is indeed omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful), and if He is just and righteous as well, why does He permit upright and honest individuals to suffer. It would seem to be a contradiction in terms, and this apparent contradiction has brought many to the brink of despair … and beyond.
The issue actually presents itself at the very outset of the Torah, which we are just beginning to read anew this Shabbat. We are told that two sons are born to Adam and Eve. One of them, whose name is Abel, is presented as a fine, God-fearing man, while God is extremely displeased with his brother Cain and as a result the latter becomes angry and sullen. To make a long story short, Cain ends up killing his brother with no apparent provocation.
Why did God let him do it? The Torah says explicitly that God knew something malevolent was brewing. Immediately before the murder, God says to Cain “sin crouches at the door.” So God is right there at the scene of the crime, and he is totally aware of what is going on. Yet He deliberately refrains from stepping in to prevent the homicide from taking place!
Let’s backtrack for a moment. Put aside the question of why. The fact is that God did not save Abel from his brother’s onslaught. The Torah is telling us straight out that God does not see His role as one of intervening to prevent crime or to protect the righteous. If we use the argument of “why do bad things happen to good people” as a basis to challenge religious faith, we are seriously mistaken, for it turns out that “bad things happen to good people” is actually a fundamental of biblical religion! To put it differently, this tragic story of fratricide is right here at the beginning of the Torah to nip in the bud any potential misunderstanding: God is right here, but He is not here to stop us from harming each other.
And why not? – Well, right after God says to Cain that “sin crouches at the door,” He adds that “it endeavors to gain mastery over you, but you may yet overcome it.” There is a mighty struggle going on with us, and apparently, allowing this struggle to run its course is more important to God than ensuring that human events always turn out justly. This struggle is the source of evil – when we fail to overcome temptation – it is also the very source of all good. It is of the very essence of the meaning of being human. God created us to grapple with the evil inclination and to choose good, and that entails the possibility of us choosing evil. We are given free will to make bad decisions, and it is exactly that option that makes good decisions good. If God were to prevent all evil – thereby stymieing free will – good would lose all meaning. Life would be emptied of its primary significance.
God has created an unredeemed world, and it is for us to redeem. He has put within us an imperfect character and it is for us to perfect. God will not do it for us. That would fly in the face of the entire Divine plan. It is man’s job.
So when bad things happen to good people, don’t ask “where was God?” God was most certainly there. The question to be asked is rather, “where was man?” God was there, providing us with the opportunity to better ourselves through choosing good. It was one of us who dropped the ball.
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This week’s stunning headline read “Affluenza Defense Lands Wealthy Teen in Rehab After He Kills 4 People in Drunk Driving Accident.”
The term “affluenza,” popularized in a 2001 a book, Affluenza, the All-Consuming Epidemic (de Graff, Wann, and Naylor) is described as “a painful, contagious, socially transmitted condition of overload, debt, anxiety, and waste resulting from the dogged pursuit of more.”
The headline for the “Affluenza defense” told a horrific story. It was the defense strategy for 16 year-old Ethan Couch, who killed four people and severely injured two more while driving his father’s pickup truck with more than three times the legal limit for alcohol in his blood, along with valium. Driving 70 miles an hour in a 40 MPH zone, the teen was behind the wheel after stealing beer from a store, then taking 7 passengers with him on a drunken ride. Despite the stolen beer, the speeding, the underage drinking, etc.—a long list of offenses—the teen was sentenced to just 10 years of probation and mandatory rehabilitation. The rehab ordered by the judge will cost $450,000 a year, in what seems more a punishment of his parents than a consequence for their killer child.
News outlets reported that a “psychologist hired as an expert by the defense testified in court that the teen was a product of affluenza and was unable to link his bad behavior with consequences due to his parents teaching him that wealth buys privilege.” An anguished man who lost his wife and daughter in the crash observed that Couch’s family’s money was able to pay for the expensive legal defense, and cover the rehab costs—and had this not been the case, the outcome surely would have been different.
They should be ashamed of themselves, all of them—everyone who defended this remorseless teenager—for defending his actions. This defense was a way of saying that he bears no blame. In fact, his facial expressions and body language all bore out an arrogant “you can’t touch me” detachment.
Should the parents be punished for raising a child with such a sense of entitlement, lacking boundaries and lessons about consequences – essentially without morals? Maybe. If only the psychologist had tried to determine the causes for this kid’s malevolent self-absorption, perhaps the parents would bear some guilt. We know that parents can’t control the outcomes of their parenting, and some who try to do their best end up disappointed. Yet, this case does cry out for examination of the parents’ role in producing this outcome.
Shouldn’t this be an opportunity to raise a cultural conversation about parenting with boundaries and consequences—teaching our kids to have a moral compass?
Even more so, the consequences for the teen should have made a different point. If this is a child who was not taught to live with boundaries and consequences, then the court did the worst possible thing by repeating that very same pattern. Ideally, he should be taught that there are painful—and sometimes disastrous—consequences of bad judgment. Perhaps he won’t learn morality at this point, but we have a responsibility to try. And if nothing more, society should make sure he can’t hurt anyone else again.
How about a lifetime ban on his obtaining a driver’s license or purchasing or leasing any motor vehicle?
We owe it to the victims and to all of our children, to do better than this.
It was some 30 years ago that President Reagan signed into law and established a new federal holiday: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to be observed on his birthday. It took a couple years after the passage of the law for it to be first observed and it was only commemorated in all 50 states for the first time in 2000. Every year during this time I try and reflect on the ever evolving nature of social justice and our country. One of the highlights of my previous work at Harvard was the annual event put together by the Harvard Chaplains on this weekend exploring a different theme of Dr. King’s with modern day applications through lecture, poetry and music.
This year I began to re-read Dr. King’s address to the congregation at Temple Israel in Los Angeles in 1965. Three years before he was assassinated he spoke powerfully that evening in California filling the Sanctuary with his prophetic and powerful voice for justice. One paragraph struck me deeply this year:
“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. And what affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And he goes on toward the end to say, ‘Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never sin to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’”
It seems to me that we are witnessing a breakdown in the shared space of society in our current time. The shared public square where divergent views come and meet; where people of differing social backgrounds, educations and religious, ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds gather seems to be disappearing. We live in our own individual silos. It is possible that the only interaction an upper middle-class individual and a poorer individual might have is within the context of waiter/busboy/barista/bus driver and customer.
When we fail to know one another in society we experience a lack of empathy and care. If I can put all the people who are different than me in boxes made by my own lack of personal experience, stereotypes and judgments than I don’t have to worry about their welfare or well being. In the same speech Dr. King also declared the truth that: “A great nation is a compassionate nation.” Compassion grows from an active and dynamic shared society and the empathy, care and concern that it generates.
How do we rebuild a shared society? How do we exit our individual silos and begin to build together? It takes small steps and small victories. It takes getting to know the people who serve you and the people you serve. It takes inhabiting the public spaces of a city together. It takes putting down the smartphone or tablet and not being afraid or feeling it awkward to encounter the person sitting next to you on the bus or subway.
In these ways and in so many other myriad of ways we will cause to flourish yet again the diverse shared society that is one of the keys that made this country so great. During this weekend let us commit ourselves to that important task.
World leaders today have assembled to mourn the death of Nelson Mandela. As tributes are paid to Mandela’s towering legacy and monumental impact in ending apartheid in South Africa, I can’t help but feel the absence of any Mandela-like leader today within the Jewish community.
This is not to say that we lack impressive Jewish leaders today. To the contrary, there are a number of individuals, rabbis and non-rabbis alike, who do extraordinary work at the local level—at synagogues, JCCs, and local NGOs. But we don’t seem to have a leader, or series of leaders, who can rally apathetic masses to support moral causes at a systemic level. We lack the towering leadership of a Heschel, a Soloveitchik, a Wise, a Kaplan. And my question today is: do we need one?
On the one hand, from the perspective of community organizing or democracy building, the answer ought to be no. Real change, from this paradigm, starts from the ground up, at the local level. Leaders are effective when they know what the local issues are and can engage relationally with those in their communities. I, for one, think this model has an incredible amount to offer, and indeed carries the best prospects for the future of an engaged and committed American Jewry.
But, on the other hand, I feel a sense of absence by the lack of national moral leadership. I can only begin to imagine how it might have felt to stand with Heschel and King during the Civil Rights Movement. I recall fondly–though I was only a few years out of diapers–the successful efforts of the Jewish community to free Soviet Jews in the 1980s. And, more recently, Jewish leaders were at the forefront of the Save Darfur effort. But who and where are the Jewish leaders rallying national support for social or economic justice today? From raising the minimum wage to enacting a cap and trade program to stem climate change, I can’t think of a single figure or group of figures who are at the forefront of these efforts, who are working to catalyze the public at a national level and have the moral resonance and strategic savvy to make such change plausible.
So my question to you today, as we fittingly pay tribute to the legacy of Mandela, is whether we still need Jewish national moral leadership to bring about the change our tradition calls us to pursue. What do you think?
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.
Passover has always been my favorite holiday. I love the foods, seeing my family and my friends who are normally far away, and I love the incredible power of the holiday itself - a message that speaks to people of many faiths, throughout the world, inspiring them with an idea that after thousands of years, remains a powerful and inspirational idea: liberation is possible.
And yet this year, I have to admit: I’m tired. I don’t just mean that the cooking and cleaning balanced with a daily job and family life have worn me out, although there’s some of that. It’s that all my life I have been farbrent (on fire, in yiddish, as my father always says) for the very things that I believe Pesach represents: speaking truth to power, that the status quo is neither natural nor inevitable, that God and community working together can change the course of history and dig a new course for the imagination, leading to new ways of doing, and to new ways of thinking, that freedom is not simply an absence of fetters, but a responsibility and an obligation towards the Good.
But last year, although I still put an orange on my seder plate, I called a moratorium on other items: no tomatoes, no olive oil, no olives, no coffee beans or chocolate. This year: no seder inserts. Any extras came exclusively from the talmud or from a more-or-less traditional commentary (we happen to like the meandering stories of the Ben Ish Chai). I felt just completely worn out by the vast number of projects, problems, issues, wars, oppressions to which I’ve devoted time and energy – and which somehow this year, feel as though they’re never going to go away. And no amount of scrubbing has rid me of that chametz – the chametz of – is it despair? Perhaps not so grand as that: let’s just call it – a fading of energy.
And so yesterday, after we returned to chol hamoed – the intermediate days of the holiday, when we’re permitted to use electronics and the like, thus drawing me back to the sucking hole of the internet – one might think that Facebook would only make it worse. And it kind of did, until I saw a post of the marriage equality image with matzah as the symbol. Well, to be truthful, the first time I saw it, I thought it clever, and then ignored it a dozen or fifty times. Until I saw a response to a snarky post pointing out that the SCOTUS was unlikely to take the many facebook posts into consideration in their decision on marriage equality.
The poster said that he was annoyed by the snark. Of course he knew that one’s Facebook icon wouldn’t change a Supreme Court ruling. But simply seeing all those avatars changed into equality symbols of a dozen different kinds, seeing people whom he had never expected to be supporting marriage equality, seeing the sheer numbers of people – reminded him that he was not alone. That that was the value of those images. And more importantly that even though it’s true that SCOTUS doesn’t vote based on facebook images, society changes when the individuals that make it up change, and that that happens one person at a time, but also in waves, as each one sees another, and realizes that the status quo isn’t right, and that even if I myself, can’t change it all, I can be one drop in the sea, and eventually every tear that falls can make an ocean, when they are counted together.
I know that. I do. And, so, okay, I’m still tired. But the message of Pesach isn’t that I’m supposed to be farbrent about everything. It is that I have my part to play in creating that ocean. I don’t have to be even an entire wave – I can have faith that there are others out there, working hard on these problems along with me, and that together, with God’s help, they will be overcome. Maybe not today, or even this week. Maybe it will be 430 years, although I hope it will be someday, soon, speedily in our day.
Earlier this week, Rabbi Shira Stutman wrote a short essay in Slate about her realization that when she was in middle school, she had been a “mean girl.” After seeing it posted several times in my Facebook feed, I went and read it. I don’t know Rabbi Stutman personally (although we move in the same circles, and people I know and respect like and respect her, and I’m pretty sure we’ve met once or twice), and frankly, my initial reaction to the post was …subdued, compared to – well, certainly compared to a great many of the comments posted.
It was the level of vituperation in the comments that led me to spend some time thinking about whether I had missed something. Certainly, her point that we all struggle to be our best selves and don’t always succeed is not novel. Her opportunity to reflect on whether or not there are still parts of her which bully others, is reasonably laudable. So, what was it that so incensed so many of her readers?
Then this paragraph caught my eye:
The Lavender Ladies, by the way, remain my lifelong friends. They are the ones who I would trust with anyone or anything, the ones who danced at my wedding, who flew cross-country when my father died, who hold my deepest secrets. They now are mothers of daughters, too, deeply involved in the work of justice and of building community. They are Good People. We want our bullies to be Bad People, but, like Whitman says, we contain multitudes.
Certainly all the Lavender Ladies were children, and they grew up. But it is enough to say that they are good people because she trusts them, because she has remained friends with them, because they are deeply involved in work she respects?
They were children who -together- were on the cusp of adulthood, and they acted as a group. She asks herself about whether she is still, somewhere within, a mean girl (an appellation I hate, by the way, for its genderedness – my experience is that boys engage in just the same kind of behavior)? But what now bothers me is that there was no examination of the group dynamic – are they good people, if they act well towards one another? Is that enough? I would say no, it’s not. We know that people act differently in groups, that we are susceptible the actions and attitudes of those around us. The rabbis recognized this – it is why we have Jewish law – halacha is intended to build a community where the group dynamic is influenced from the start. That’s why there is such picayune attentiveness to the minutia of daily life as well as broad sweeping principles in halacha. It’s not sufficient of course, but it may well be necessary.
We know from studies that people are inclined to act well towards people who are in their group. We know that groups can be easily led to be not just competitive, but downright ugly towards those “outside.” We also know how those “in” and “out” groups get formed – often by picking an out group and defining ourselves in relation to it. Groups made this way form easily, and are difficult to break down.
It’s actually pretty likely that all the Lavender Ladies did grow up to be decent people. In fact, they were probably all decent people even in middle school – except when they were together, and happened to come upon the wrong person.
What I would like to see is us questioning ourselves not about whether any of them – by which I mean “us” – are good or bad people, but whether we are good or bad groups. Americans have very little sense of ourselves as being defined by group identities – especially those of us who are or can pass as white. And yet in many ways it is our groups which define us most deeply. There is even a social theory that posits that our personalities are actually only a collection of social ties. It is how we act in our social networks that most shows who we are – and perhaps is most truly who we are. It is easy to be a lion when you’re the only cat in the room.
As adults, we engage in this same kind of behavior more subtly – and more powerfully. How does this kind of group think inform the way we talk about what’s going on in Israel? Between different aspects of the Jewish community? The way we talk about poverty? As children, we can hurt one another badly enough, but as adults, the very same dynamic can play into politics on even a global scale. Rabbi Stutman opened a very important conversation, but if we leave it at one individual examining her actions as an individual, it is simply not enough. Because even if we are not each guilty, we are certainly all, together, responsible.