Your Jewish Future: Investing Is for More than Just Your Stock Portfolio

Investing in the Jewish Future

The American Jewish community is getting older. There is a graying of the Jewish community that is happening across the country. I recently sat at a presentation on the findings of new research on the demographics of a major American Jewish suburb right outside New York City. The average age of a Jew in that suburban community: 48. The age trend is only going up. American Jews are having less children and those children are less likely to remain part of the Jewish community in their adult lives than in previous generations. Why does this matter?

The researcher at the findings presentation I attended pointed out that Jewish identity is complex. Jewish families are complex. We used to assume that certain life choices about marriage partners, institutional affiliations and other metrics meant either an increase or a decrease in Jewish commitment. However, this recent research found that the Jewish partner in interfaith partnerships, for example, overwhelmingly reported being proud of their Jewish identity. Regardless of whether their partner or their children reported the same, at least the Jewish partner retained a strong Jewish sense of self.

Yet, Jewish life is more than the singular point of the “I.” Jewish life has always been conceived of as a shalshelet hadorot, a chain of generations. The power and profundity of Jewish life finds its expression in the story that is woven from the early days of a husband and wife “going forth” to a land that God would show them through countless generations. “You shall tell your children” becomes a central clarion call of forging Jewish destiny for every generation in Jewish time, linking the generation that was with the generation that will be.

If the central objective of Judaism is to provide a powerful spiritual, religious, ethnic or national experience for just me than there would no Judaism beyond me. I would be the first and the last Jew. This notion runs contrary to the milieu that we find ourselves in today. In a world where personal expression and the primacy of the individual is dominant, the idea that we have obligations beyond ourself seems outmoded and outdated.

To those who see this striking situation that we find ourselves in and wonder what can we do, there is a simple path forward. When you open up any financial planning book or financial magazine or speak with a financial advisor, they will all tell you the same thing: Planning for the future? Invest! Open up a 401k account. Create an emergency savings account. Do you have children? Plan for their college years with a 529 college savings plan.

Does a lifetime of investing and careful planning guarantee completely a successful future? We have all heard of the stories or known people who have lost it all through one horrible moment. 2008 was a disaster for so many people who had planned all their lives. Bernie Madoff destroyed the futures of many otherwise careful people. However, should the unfortunate moments and chance disasters discourage us from careful financial planning and investing in our future? Absolutely not.

Why is it any different with our Jewish future? Does it matter to you that your children share the value that Jewish living is worthwhile? Do you personally yearn for Jewish meaning that you can transmit to your family and close loved ones? These goals do not happen instantaneously. They require years of investment and of careful planning. The modern life is one of choosing one thing over another. It is impossible to do band practice, soccer league, swim competitions and ballet lessons all in the same afternoon after the school day. We make choices of one item over another. Where does Judaism fit into that matrix?

I am amazed how often I hear from people the following: “I’m not Shomer Shabbat (Sabbath observant) because I am not Orthodox.” Where are denominations written in the Torah? Where does it say “six days you shall work but on the seventh day, if you are Orthodox, you shall rest”? Shabbat is probably the single most powerful transmitter of Jewish identity in the entire toolbox of Jewish life. Yet, for countless Jews, Shabbat is pushed aside, week after week, to the other important day on the Western calendar: Saturday. Saturday is a day of errands, it is a day of movies and malls and beaches and parks. Week after week countless Jews choose Saturday over Shabbat, because they “are not Orthodox.” What would it look life if the collective American Jewish community reclaimed Shabbat?

Abigail Pogrebin, former producer for 60 Minutes and Charlie Rose, has been spending a year documenting her journey towards a meaningful Jewish life. This past week she experienced Shabbat. Pogrebin enjoyed a Shabbat dinner with a group of young adults spending a year in the remarkable Avodah: The Jewish Service Corps program. The fellows live together in communal housing and navigate the process of negotiating an intentionally Jewish and diverse home together. Throughout the meal in the apartment in Washington Heights, an upper Manhattan neighborhood, Pogrebin encounters young Jews staking out and claiming Shabbat as their own. She quotes one of the fellows, David, who shares that: “Judaism to me isn’t about religious observance. It’s about building community through values.” That certainly does not seem very “Orthodox” but it is a statement of David’s investment in his Jewish future. What would the American Jewish community look like with many more people like David?

The American Jewish community is heading towards retirement living. There is absolutely nothing wrong with retirement living nor with retirees. I hope to be one someday. But if we also want a Jewish community that has a future that transcends this generation, that is diverse with varied ways of being Jewish, we need to make a serious investment into that future. Yes, we are supposed to begin investing in our future right when we get our first job and the American Jewish community is way beyond our “first job” but any good financial advisor would not tell someone, no matter their age, that it is too late to begin investing. I offer one possible path forward in that investment direction, one stock to begin buying right away: Shabbat. It offers the potential for the highest return on our investment and the best thing about Shabbat is unlike a 401k we can begin to enjoy our investment right away with no early withdrawal penalties.

Posted on May 22, 2015

The Wilderness of Sinai

sinai (shutterstock)

Bamidbar is my daughter Elena’s bat mitzvah portion. As she was approaching bat mitzvah, fifteen years ago, my father was dying of metastatic cancer. He had been diagnosed the day before Thanksgiving, and died shortly after Passover. We celebrated Elena on his shloshim, the thirtieth day after my father’s death.

As you might imagine, the weeks leading up to our simcha were fraught, characterized by anticipation of the collision between paralyzing sorrow and effervescent joy. Elena and her sister made their last visit to New York to see their grandfather and he explained to Elena that he would not be able to be at her bat mitzvah, giving her carte blanche to select a book from his library as his gift to her. In a week he was dead.

My children were raised in a wonderful chavurah community, a village that came to our aid, bringing the details of our celebratory plan to perfect manifestation during my acute mourning. But for all the hands outstretched in support, it was still my honor to offer a teaching to my daughter, and my task to explore the themes of the Torah portion for a fitting message. Barely functional, I realized that my impulse, when stumped, was to turn to my learned father, but he was already on a morphine drip. Still, my state of denial was just such that I called him anyway.

“Hi Dad,” I said. “Hi Monkey.” “Dad, I can’t think of what to say to Elena at her bat mitzvah.” “Well, what’s her parsha?” I cringed, realizing that he had forgotten. “Bamidbar,” I answered. “How does it begin?” he asked, and with my heart in the pit of my stomach I offered: “And God spoke to Moses and the Children of Israel in the wilderness.” “The Wilderness of SINAI!” he added, and I heaved a sigh of relief; he had forgotten the date but he had not forgotten the Torah. So I acknowledged: “Yeah, the wilderness of Sinai.” “So?” he said. And, a little exasperated, I probed further: “So WHAT, Daddy?”

Then he gave me is final lesson: “God spoke to Moses and the Children of Israel in the Wilderness of Sinai!  What more do you want?”

Posted on May 21, 2015

Why I Did a 180 on “Kosher Soul”

©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved. Photo Credit: Richard Knapp

©2015 A&E Television Networks, LLC. All rights reserved. Photo Credit: Richard Knapp

A friend tipped me off to a new reality TV show that was about to begin publicizing its pilot episode. I was immediately intrigued. The show, Kosher Soul, is about a pretty Jewish woman and a Black comedian who fall in love. I clicked the link to find the trailer from the Lifetime network and was immediately disappointed. Oy, I thought to myself, this is not going to be “good for the Jews.”

I posted the link to the trailer in a few rabbi discussion groups I’m part of and encouraged my colleagues to check out this video and give their own opinion. It was unanimous that we all cringed when we saw the typical, run-of-the-mill Jewish jokes interspersed with subpar humor about African-Americans. One of my Rabbis Without Borders colleagues suggested we have a conference call right after the first episode airs so we can discuss and determine the best way to articulate our dismay of this farcical portrayal of everything from interdating to conversion to Black/Jewish relations.

I helped coordinate the conference call, and we all seemed to have the same impressions about the show. It was a car wreck! I explained how I too was uncomfortable with the show, but that generally I detest reality television because it’s almost as unreal as any other television sitcom. The actors are performing for the cameras, each episode has a theme, and the editors are going to cut the raw footage down to a bunch of sound bites for the 20 or so minutes of the final cut. It seemed to me, I explained, that O’Neal McKnight, the Black comedian, was trying to hard to market his comedy routines by offering one-liners that made me yawn rather than laugh out loud. The Jewish partner, Miriam Sternoff, came off as a snob who never seemed to feel comfortable having her private life aired to the masses. I didn’t learn anything new from the conference call, but my sentiments about the show seemed to be the party line among my colleagues. I watched the first episode so I could have a coherent dialogue with my fellow rabbis and then, I reasoned, I’d never watch another episode of this filth again.

Posted on May 20, 2015

A True Sports Hero — And A Mentsch

Ernie Johnson (right), shown here with Cal Ripken, donated his recent award to a colleague's daughters. (Wikimedia Commons)

It’s getting hard to find role models in sports these days.  Especially in the National Football League, where stars such as Ray Rice, Adrian Peterson, and Greg Hardy all have been suspended in recent months for shocking acts of domestic violence.

Most recently, of course, has been Deflategate and its repercussions.  Tom Brady, the beloved and Hall Of Fame-worthy quarterback of the Super Bowl champion New England Patriots, stands accused of cheating by deliberately under-inflating the air in footballs he used in a playoff game.  A report released last week  found it “more likely than not” that Brady conspired with his equipment managers to doctor the balls.

While certainly far less egregious than the violent assaults of Ray Rice and company, Brady’s conduct (if you believe the Wells Report, which the New England Patriots–and most of greater Boston–dispute) continues a disturbing trend in which our sports heroes fail to live up to our hopes and aspirations.  From A-Rod to Lance Armstrong, athletes keep falling from grace and shattering the pedestals we, as society, erect for them.

Back in 1993, NBA all-star Charles Barkley made headlines across America when he proclaimed: “I’m not a role model. Just because I dunk a basketball doesn’t mean I should raise your kids.”  Perhaps we should have been listening more seriously to Barkley’s advice.  And the advice of our own tradition.  After all, Judaism is quite specific in the role of parents in raising their children.  The Talmud, in Kiddushin 29a, entrusts parents with providing their children with a bevy of knowledge, from Torah to learning a trade to helping the child find a spouse. Perhaps we have been too eager to outsource heroism and role-modeling to external sources like sports figures instead of embodying and evoking these virtues in ourselves.

Which is why a recent story about Turner Sports broadcaster Ernie Johnson is so striking.  Recently, at the 36th Sports Emmy Awards, Johnson,the host of TNT’s “Inside the NBA,” won the top prize for Outstanding Studio Host.  Rather than expressing joy and self-reverence in this moment of triumph or reciting a long list of thank-yous, as most Emmy award winners do, Johnson instead called up Taelor and Sydni Scott, daughters of longtime ESPN anchor Stuart Scott.  Scott, a beloved anchor on ESPN’s SportsCenter and a fellow nominee for Outstanding Studio Host, died on January 4, 2015, after a long battle with cancer.

“This belongs to Stuart Scott,” Johnson told the girls as he gave them his award. “This is your Emmy.”

Johnson’s virtue in handing over his award to Scott’s daughters is precisely what heroism–whether on the gridiron or at home–is all about.  Inspiring us to be better and do better; connecting ourselves with something greater than ourselves.  As a parent, the first thing I did when I heard about Johnson’s valor was to tell my kids. It’s the least I could do.




Posted on May 19, 2015

What’s the Best Way to Teach Jewish Texts to Adults?


“Should we offer the best classes we can, or teach adults to become independent learners of Jewish texts?”

So my memory paraphrases a question asked on JEDADULT, a Facebook group discussing adult Jewish education.

An odd question, to be sure. In the best of all possible worlds, great adult education classes would teach content and skills. All Jewish adult educators would simultaneously share deep insights and empower student learners.

But we do not live in the best of all possible worlds. Most of us learned content through lecture, and demonstrated mastery by writing papers. In other words, through modeling plus drill and practice, we learned to create well-structured, interesting talks. Despite deep praise for chevruta, i.e., learning in pairs or small groups, no one showed us how to proceed.

For three decades, as both student and teacher, I have been chasing this esoteric knowledge. Today, I would like to share some of what I caught — one possible method of teaching text through discussion.

1. Know your text. Read it carefully before you plan your class, three times at least.

2. Choose a scheme for asking questions.

The Great Books Foundation in Chicago offers a great one. Factual questions (only one answer based on the text is possible); interpretive questions (multiple answers based on the text are possible); evaluative questions (multiple answers based on the student’s experience are possible); speculative questions (no answer is offered in this text).

The PaRDeS scheme, articulated by medieval Jewish mystics, is also powerful. Peshat (simple) questions (answers summarize content or narrative); Derash (teaching) questions (answers offer the moral of the story); Remez (hint) questions (answers speculate about the nature of God); Sode (secret) questions (answers describe human spirituality).

2. Play with the text yourself before teaching. Brainstorm questions in each category. Explore the chains of answers, questions, and re-readings they provoke.

Posted on May 18, 2015

Football and Values at a Crossroads


As a high school marching band member, I attended every school football game. So, you’d think I could tell you how the game of football is played, but I can’t. I didn’t enjoy watching boys crash into each other, or the stopping and starting of plays, so I didn’t pay much attention. (On the other hand, I enjoy watching baseball and tennis, more appealing to my sensibilities.)

At the risk of upsetting friends, I want to talk about my antipathy for football, and football culture in American society.

This past year I thought we were on the verge of seriously discussing the issues in football culture. We heard reports about the long-term effects of repeated concussions on players’ brains. Domestic violence scandals involving NFL players dominated the news for weeks, with critical reviews of NFL policies toward bad-boy players. This year’s Super Bowl featured a 30-second ad for the “No More” anti-domestic violence and sexual assault initiative. We heard charges of football deflation, with claims of lies and deception. Maybe now we would find a way to discuss the ethics of football culture, including the idolization of football stars and how football has achieved a nearly religious status in American culture.

Yet, a view of the whole seems elusive. Each negative story has been discussed until the news cycle runs its course, then dropped. It’s a disappointing stop and start of play, just like the game, in my view.

This week, another challenge to football culture on college campuses was presented in a NYTimes op-ed by Joe Nocera, At Rutgers It’s Books vs. Ballgames, 5/12/15. Since two of my children graduated from Rutgers, this one caught my attention. Our family had discussed our displeasure over the growing athletic budget. Nocera writes, “It’s not exactly a secret that big-time college sports often distort priorities on university campuses. But every once in a while, something bursts into public view to put those priorities in glaring relief.” He cites a dispute at Rutgers between faculty members who oppose the athletic department’s “out-of-control costs” against powerful alumni who are seeking increased funding to enable the football team to compete in the Big Ten.

Posted on May 17, 2015

It’s Not Fair!


“It’s not fair!”  If you are like me you have both had this said to you and have said it yourself. And, more likely than not, before it was over someone said “Fairness has nothing to do with it.”

In fact, in Israel this sentiment is likely to be expressed “Zeh lo fair.”  It’s not that Hebrew doesn’t have good words to express what is appropriate or equitable.  The prophets railed against unfairness in the world and exhorted the people to be just.  However, maybe one of the consequences of speaking a language that is tied so deeply to the ancient texts is that a dispute over who got the bigger slice of pizza falls short of meriting the same words used by Moses or Isaiah.

While questions about fairness ​are never far from our discourse usually when they take center stage the focus is on the miniscule rather than the more intractable and sweeping issues of justice.  These days the specific topic has to do with who is responsible for air that may have been intentionally taken out of footballs to gain unfair advantage (if only there was a catchy name for this whole thing).  The incident can certainly provide material for a more general conversation about fairness or its counterpart,cheating, and has lent itself to strongly expressed opinions about accountability and expectations for those who play a game and those who are called upon to make sure games,or other similar activities, are fair.

Cheating is pretty easy and, in one form or another, pretty common.   In fact, one of the most common justifications people give for cheating is, believe it or not, a desire for fairness.  The argument goes like this: I know how easy it is for everyone to take advantage of the system and how infrequently the rules are enforced.  I can’t stop others​ from cheating, so the only recourse I have is to even the playing field and join the club.

When we approach questions of fairness this way, we meet a dilemma.  On one hand, we can t​ake seriously the idea that the playing field must be level and be forced to measure everything down to the parts per square inch,  On the other hand, we can decide to let go the obsession with what everyone has and does and thus risk allowing an unfair advantage.

Posted on May 15, 2015

Renewing Disruptive Innovation

11174880_10205721962381181_1411469228014010346_nIn April, I represented ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal among #tenrabbis joining CLAL co-president Irwin Kula at the TriBeCa Disruptive Innovation Awards.  In the Green Room backstage with me were titans of industry, technology, education, advocacy, media and the arts who’d made fundamental change in the world – the likes of Bill Magee (co-founder, Operation Smile); Georgette Mulheir (CEO, Lumos), Reshma Saujani (founder, Girls Who Code); Shane Smith (CEO, Vice Media); and Darren Walker (president, Ford Foundation).  Why would such an illustrious group want to hang out with a bunch of rabbis?

An answer emerged after my colleagues and I went onstage to convene the ceremony, symbolic hammer in hand to smash a glass.  For centuries, rabbis and Jews have stood atop the fulcrum of continuity and change, uplifting life’s inherent brokenness.  To symbolize this commitment, we went onstage and broke a glass, and the event’s 900 attendees – on cue as if attending a wedding – shouted “Mazal tov!”

We laughed, but this was serious business.  Rabbis convened an A-list event celebrating transformational innovation, but no other religious or spiritual figures were present among the awardees or attendees.  Like the glass we smashed, something seemed broken.


Our Spiritual DNA as Change Agents

Hewn from tradition and dogma, spiritual leaders often forget that our mission includes change, innovation and sometimes disruption.  Millennia of Jewish history testify that social and spiritual progress depends not on staying the same but by wisely adapting, absorbing and transforming.  Only in the last 200 years – since the Chatam Sofer’s infamous claim that anything new in Jewish life is forbidden – did Judaism’s evolutionary impulse yield to a gospel of preservation, looking mainly backwards to see the future.

Ever embedded in tradition, Reb Zalman Schachter-Shalomi poignantly reminded us that shift happens.  He reminded us that nobody drives only by looking in a rearview mirror.  He reminded us that Judaism honors its creed by inspiring principled evolution of spirit, mind, heart and lived experience.  He reminded us that Judaism never needs to be calcified, brittle, feeble, afraid or small.

Reb Zalman presaged in Judaism the socioeconomic theory of disruptive innovation that we gathered onstage to honor.  According to Clayton Christensen, disruptive innovations create value by shifting existing markets, neural pathways, communication networks and societal values.  These were Reb Zalman’s life’s work in spiritual life; today they’re guiding lights of ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal.

Spiritual life beckons us to do, feel, think and be different.  Yet, Christensen told a packed TriBeCa theater, it is religion that today most needs disruptive innovation.  He sees religion becoming stuck in its own models and methods – at risk of losing its market, medium and message.  His words hurt because they struck nerves of familiarity and longing – and irony because so much that Jews hold dear were disruptive innovations in their day:

  • Monotheism was a disruptive innovationThe Jewish creed – that God is One – grew out of polytheism and ultimately disrupted almost every other religious-political system then existing in human civilization.
  • Prayer was a disruptive innovation.  After Romans exiled Jews from Jerusalem nearly 2,000 years ago, rabbis innovated prayer as a new spiritual network to supersede physical rites of piety.  In so doing, Judaism de-centered from a Temple cult to a mobile religion able to translate across countries and cultures.
  • Talmud was a disruptive innovation.  Talmud advanced not only new ways to be Jewish but also new ways to decide Jewish questions, preserving minority views to challenge and sometimes later disrupt the majority.
  • Liturgy was a disruptive innovation.  As Jewish communities became diffuse and diverse, religious leaders fixed words for communal prayer – and their forms in prayer books – that gave liturgists authority and market power over spiritual life.
  • Home ritual was a disruptive innovation.  As Rodger Kamenetz’s The Jew in the Lotus chronicled about rabbis who shared with the Dalai Lama secrets of surviving exile, the Jewish innovation of re-centering Jewish life at home – the Shabbat dinner table and Passover seder – kept Judaism alive and also disrupted the synagogue’s spiritual monopoly.
  • Jewish denominations were disruptive innovations. Before the 19th century, there were no Jewish denominations.  The Reform movement sought to disrupt traditionalism, which in response became Orthodoxy.  The Conservative movement was a disruptive reaction to Reform but now positions itself mainly relative to Orthodoxy. Reconstructionism began as a 20th century Conservative offshoot seeking to disrupt its parent movement by pressing Jewish evolution as a civilization.  Renewal emerged to jumpstart Jewish spirituality, cultivating direct experience of God and disrupting some centralized power structures.
  • Israel was a disruptive innovation.  The State of Israel is a bold but imperfect experiment to build a civil society at once free, vibrant, democratic and sectarian – and reshape the world by ending two millennia of Jewish exile and upheaval.
  • Feminism and Queer Theory were disruptive innovations. Inclusion of women and LGBTs as full participants in Jewish community not only breaks down inequalities but also disrupts the hierarchical, patriarchal and hetero-normative religious power structures that create and maintain those inequalities.

We inherit a 2,000-year legacy of disruptive innovation – not change for its own sake, haphazard or unfaithful, but careful and principled when (in Reb Zalman’s computer-ese) Jewish “system files” need upgrades to keep the spiritual motherboard running strong.  The path of innovation is built into Jewish life.  Reb Zalman and Christensen both taught that disruptive innovators can’t rest on their laurels: shift happens.  Only God is eternal.  Time, people and markets change, and disruptive innovators will be disruptively innovated.


Judaism’s Next Disruptive Innovations

So we must ask: what will Judaism’s next disruptive innovations be? If we look carefully, we might see the future’s disruptive innovations now beginning to emerge.

  • Spirituality.  Spirituality and religion once were synonymous but now, for some, are diverging.  The 2013 Pew Study found a surge in so-called “Jewish Nones” who identify as spiritual but claim “None of the Above” as their religion.  Some are deep and authentic seekers proudly claiming their Judaism but rejecting current models.  They are innovating new pathways for Jewish spirituality, disrupting synagogue life and challenging Jewish leaders to either adapt or lose them.
  • Non-denominational synagogues. Independent synagogues are surging as Jews vote with their feet, hearts and wallets against denominations’ rigid dues structures, liturgies and restraints on rabbinic hiring.  Synagogues are loosening or cutting ties to movements, going independent, choosing small-size intimacy and experimenting with internal chavurot.  Synagogues that can’t adapt are calcifying, shrinking, merging or closing.
  • Hashpa’ah (spiritual direction).  Hashpa’ah is a set of spiritual tools to discern and remove blocks to spiritual flow through our lives, disrupting internal emotional and spiritual inertia (and its hidden power over us).  In turn, new awareness or spiritual alignment can challenge religious dogma, which in turn must evolve.
  • Sage-ing.  Popularized by Sara Davidson’s The December Project, the “Age-ing to Sage-ing” or “wise eldering” movement seeks to disrupt the fear and devaluing of natural aging.  By harnessing and transmitting elders’ wisdom as a spiritual practice, Sage-ing disrupts the vainglory of youth in spiritual and community life, cultivating within Judaism an all-ages developmental inclusivity.
  • Deep Ecumenism“Ecumenism” is inter-religious dialogue; “deep ecumenism,” in theologian Matthew Fox’s sense, is inter-religious practice.  Deep ecumenism is to join from one’s own faith, from the full authenticity of one’s own spiritual practice, to touch the essence of another.  By bridging differences of doctrine and liturgy, we can experience the unity we call God without diluting any faith, practice or creed – and thus disrupt the authority of triumphal particularism in religious life.
  • Integral HalachahJudaism’s most disruptive innovator is one of its oldest becoming new again.  Halachah (Jewish law), rooted in 2,000 years of Talmudic tradition, often offers yesteryear’s answers to today’s questions.  Integral halachah harnesses Talmud’s multi-vocal, adaptive and democratic nature to evolve 21st century answers, with a rigorous process that transcends and includes all that came before.  The result disruptively innovates both doctrine and doctrinal process from the inside, breaking the monopoly of preservationism in a way that renews the Jewish mission of continuous disruptive innovation as a core value in spiritual life.

We all descend from innovators.  Innovation, particularly disruptive innovation, is encoded in our spiritual DNA.  It is the way of all human life, and the way of all spiritual life.  It must be the way of Jewish life again.  When the glass breaks, as it always will, we must pick up the pieces without fear.  Better yet: we must be unafraid – at the right times and in the right ways – to break the glass ourselves, and joyfully shout out a hearty “mazal tov.”

Dedicated to my teachers Rabbis Leila Gal Berner, Nadya Gross, Victor Gross, Marcia Prager and Shohama Wiener – spiritual children of Reb Zalman, innovators and dreamers of the dreams.

Posted on May 14, 2015

I Read the News Today… Oh Boy!

time for what matters

Yesterday morning while on the treadmill in the gym, I tuned in to the television to see a brief update on the second large earthquake to hit Nepal in less than a month. The story quickly summarized the situation, reassured us that casualties were far fewer this time around (“only” 30), and then we moved on. On Morning Joe, the very next words out of the presenters’ mouths were, “now turning to our top stories of the day…” And so the news turned to the really important business… NFL Patriot footballs and the 4 game suspension of Tom Brady.

I sighed and turned channels. More commentary on the Patriots and Tom Brady. A third channel… the same story.

We live in a world where we have access to so much information. We know about things that are happening in parts of the world that were almost completely unknown to us a century ago. Modernity has brought us human challenges that our ancestors did not have to face, demanding responses from us that they never could have imagined. Take, for example, what we find in Jewish tradition about how to respond to those in need. We find halachic responses that provide us with a hierarchy of how we should go about trying to meet all of the need, beginning with our own families, taking care of our local community, and then trying to respond to those who come from further afield. While the existence of rabbinic discourse on a process of determining how to meet these needs is very helpful, we find ourselves living at a time when the realities and difference in scale that can exist between local and international needs call upon us to navigate a much more complex landscape of need today.

But why, given the complexities of a world that requires our engagement, attention, compassion, and response, do we so often find ourselves drawn to the least consequential and insignificant events and deem them the top of the day’s ‘news’? I know that cheating in sports is not inconsequential. I know that values that we hold dear, like fairness and honesty, can be held up in a story like ‘Deflategate’. But, just as the generations who came before us had to determine a way of trying to meet, at least in part, a multitude of needs, so today we need to determine what is worthy of our attention as top news. And unlike the “Deflategate story” where, as Rabbi Brad Hirschfield argues, it is easy to scapegoat Tom Brady while others such as Coach Belichick seem to have avoided harsh critique, when it comes to the news we no longer live in an era when we can blame the networks. We, the people, have more ability to choose our own path through the media than in any time in history. We have access to direct sources via Twitter. There are blogs with many different areas of focus. We can access the news as it is being told by the main providers of other countries, giving us access to what is happening in many parts of the world (the lack of a free press or freedom of speech in some parts of the world is clearly one important limitation to our ability to learn about and access some stories).

Posted on May 13, 2015

Listen to me. Think for yourself


Why didn’t you listen to me,” I heard a mother tell her daughter on their way out of the mall. I was walking by them during this one way argument they were having. “You have to think for yourself,” she added. “Listen to me” and “Think for yourself” spoken practically in the same breath. Its one of those mind-pretzel double-binds especially common to parents, but true in every aspect of our lives. One should listen to authority, the law, a boss, God – except one should also think for herself as well. What to do when the two conflict? Well, that’s life, and the plot to most every sit-com I watched in the 80’s – “Mom always said, don’t play ball in the house.”

A similar, whom-to-listen-to situation occurred in game 4 of the NBA Eastern Semi-finals between the Chicago Bulls and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The game was tied and there was 1.5 seconds on the clock. Cleveland inbound the ball under their own basket to their best player, maybe the best player in the History of the basketball, Lebron James. Lebron caught the ball, stepped back, shot the ball, the buzzer rang, and just like that the Cavaliers won the game. It was exciting basketball, but it turns out, what happened in the time out just prior is what is making news. Did Lebron James disrespect his coach, David Blatt, by turning down the play being drawn up? This is Lebron’s statement that is getting attention:

“To be honest, the play that was drawn up, I scratched it,” James said. “I just told coach, ‘Just give me the ball. We either going to go into overtime or I’ma win it for us.’ It was that simple.

“I was supposed to take the ball out,” James continued. “I told coach, ‘There’s no way I’m taking the ball out unless I can shoot it over the backboard and go in.’ So I told him to have somebody else take the ball out, give me the ball and everybody get out the way.”


Posted on May 12, 2015