Friday, December 30, 2016

The Other-Siders: On being a Hebrew - Torah portion Miketz

Joseph's brothers are asked to dine at his house. The Egyptians in Joseph's house eat separately, and the Torah tells us why:
"The Egyptians could not eat bread with the Hebrews, because it was abhorrent to the Egyptians." (Gen 43:32)
What was abhorrent about it? We find out later that shepherds are abhorrent to the Egyptians (46:34). Commentators such as Rashi say that this is because the animals being shepherded and eaten by the Hebrews - sheep and bulls - are Egyptian gods. However, we have evidence that at least some subset of Egyptians ate beef and mutton, and the Torah itself speaks about Pharaoh (i.e. the Kingdom of Egypt) possessing livestock (47:6). So there may be more to this issue than meets the eye, and I think I'll leave it to the Egyptologists and other scholars to sort that one out.

At any rate, the Torah describes a taboo among Egyptians against co-mingling with Hebrews. The Hebrew experience, at least in Egypt, is decidedly that of the "other," the outsider. Which incidentally is built into the term "Hebrew" itself.

An Ivri (Hebrew) means a descendant of Ever (Eber), great grandson of Shem. From the root avar, it implies being from, or moving to, the "other side." The first person the Torah describes as a Hebrew is Abraham (Gen 14:13), who migrates from Mesopotamia to Canaan - the "other side" of the river Euphrates.

In the Neo-Assyrian and Persian Achaemenid empires, the tax district west of the Euphrates was known as Eber Nari (Avar Nahara in Hebrew, see e.g. Ezra 10:6), meaning, "the other side of the river." Mesopotamia was "here," on this side, and the communities to the west were "there," on the other side.

So the Hebrews are "other-siders" from a variety of angles. They're not Mesopotamians geographically, having moved from there, nor in mindset, having their own culture and beliefs. They're not Canaanites, but Mesopotamian immigrants. And not only are they foreigners among the Egyptians, but they're abhorred for being shepherds.

To a large degree, this characterizes much of the Jewish experience, certainly in the diaspora. We're other-siders. We're used to feeling like "guests" in our own homes. When we've been expelled or fled from our countries of birth, the tragic reality is that too often we've had nowhere to go, nowhere to call home. Even in the modern-day State of Israel, we're often told by people opposed to our presence to "go back" to Europe or North Africa - places we fled or were forced out of.

Without question, being an other-sider is a significant feature of the Jewish psyche. It can be unsettling and painful, but I'd argue that it also offers some distinct advantages. Possessing a certain outsider viewpoint on things imparts people with perspective. It's a bit like a cinematographer watching a film, as opposed to a regular movie-goer. A cinematographer almost can't help but analyze the film, in addition to (or instead of) simply experiencing it. In so doing, they'll notice things the rest of us are unconscious of, being wholly wrapped up in the plot.

Yes, there's a place for in-the-moment experience, being present rather than analyzing. But there's also a place for the "Hebrew" in us. It helps us to see differently, to take stock on where we're at, where society is at. It lends perspective on norms we otherwise take for granted, prompts us to think outside the box, and to look for new ways to improve things. Being other-siders causes us to step outside of ourselves, to engage in self-critique and self-correction. It's no doubt a key ingredient for so many individuals who go on to achieve greatness.

Of course, the same other-sider mentality can also cause people to become insular, to fear, vilify and blame the outside, and to overlook and downplay their own faults. It's something that can consume a person, or a culture, if they're not careful. So we need to use our "other-sidedness" judiciously, with the intent to become more conscious, more incisive, more imaginative and creative.

The truth is, everyone has a little "Hebrew" in them. We all know what it feels like to be left out, not be one of the gang. It's the pain of being an other-sider, but a pain which comes with the gift of perspective, and ultimately the promise of conscious advance. So if you ever find yourself feeling like the other, use it - embrace it, learn from it, and help the rest of us gain from your perspective.

Friday, December 23, 2016

Error Correction and Conscious Progress - Torah Portion Vayeshev

Judah accuses his widowed daughter-in-law Tamar of having illicit relations after she's found to be pregnant. But of course Tamar turns the tables:
"By the man whom these [items] belong to, I became pregnant." (Gen 38:25)
She proceeds to bring out Judah's signet ring, his staff, etc. Judah recognizes them, and then says what is possibly my favorite line in the entire Torah:
"She is more right(eous) than I am."
Judah admits she's right - it was he who pledged to give her his son Shela in marriage and reneged. Tamar was left in the lurch, waiting around for years as a widow for a marriage that Judah never intended to make happen. Why is "she's right" among my favorite lines in the Torah? Because it's an admission of error. It's the willingness to engage in self-correction. And error correction is really the gateway to conscious progress.

Interesting that the English word "admit" has two connotations - to "concede" and to "allow in." When we admit we're wrong, what we're doing is allowing the possibility of absorbing a new idea, a correction over what we held previously. If we do not allow it, if our ego, pride and self-worth are tied up with having to be "right," or with a previously held position, if our resoluteness and iron will prevent us from self-reflection, we block the capacity for progress.

It should also be said that when a society and its institutions (and that includes Jewish ones) deem any idea or person unassailable, unquestionable, or beyond debate, this also impedes conscious progress, because it prevents the possibility of correction.

Judaism is, or should be, in part a celebration of error. Not error per se, but the awareness of it, and the desire to correct it - in order to move forward, morally and intellectually. That is the concept of teshuva, self-correction. In fact the word "Judaism" comes from Judah. The name Yehudah (Judah) is linked to the root yada - yielding, admitting, and acknowledging. (See Gen 29:35)

Judah's descendants become the kings, earn the mantle of leadership. And I would like to think that a part of Judah's "greatness" is linked to his willingness to engage in self-correction. His desire to learn from mistakes portends the humility needed for effective and virtuous leadership. Several hundred years later, David, a descendant of Judah, likewise has the tables turned on him by the prophet Natan, where the person David condemns turns out to be none other than himself. And he accepts Natan's rebuke. Admission of error, and the desire and commitment to make corrections - that is, in my estimation, the most noble and regal part of Jewish tradition.

But I think Tamar's greatness deserves a mention here too. The Talmud (Sotah 10b) praises Tamar for not coming out and chastising or embarrassing Judah, but instead presenting his belongings and giving him the chance to realize and admit his error. Natan uses a similar sort of technique.

Correction (improvement, betterment, progress) is the goal. And self-correction is better than correction by means of coercion, because it's more genuine, and because it stands a better chance of being implemented. It helps to want it. How do we help people want to self-correct? By engaging them respectfully rather than aggressively. Hostile confrontation generally puts people on the defensive and if anything makes them more likely to double-down on their position. And by giving people the experience of discovering their error for themselves. Not an easy trick to pull off, but one which we ought to learn how to do if we want to foster real teshuva, encourage conscious progress.

Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Parable of the Magic Chicken

I'm not a big purveyor of parables, but somehow the style seems particularly apt here. (H/T II Samuel 12, Natan's rebuke of David. Also inspired by my friend Rabbi Natan Slifkin's post.)

*   *   *

A person comes to seek the counsel of an esteemed rabbinic leader:

"Rabbi, a holy man in our community has been selling chickens. He guarantees that if you buy one of his chickens, it will lay enough eggs to feed your entire household and then some. He also says that it will only work if you do not purchase any other food, because that shows a lack of faith. In fact, he warns that if you do purchase other food, or worse, if you don't buy one of his chickens, your family will be be condemned to poverty.

People are buying the chickens in droves. Some because they believe the holy man's promise. Others out of fear, because they don't want to be ostracized by their friends, neighbors, and community if they are seen bringing additional food into their homes. This man also targets children, indoctrinating them to believe that they must buy these chickens or face ruin in their future lives.

And the chickens? It appears that they're just regular, ordinary chickens. They lay no more than 1 to 2 eggs a day, not nearly enough to feed a household. Children regularly go to bed hungry. Many are thin and malnourished. Families are suffering. Rabbi, what are we to do?"

With fire in his eyes, clearly shocked and incensed, the Rabbi answers:

"This is insanity, a travesty! When a person is brought to heavenly judgment, the first question they ask him is: Did you deal faithfully and honestly with people? Were you trustworthy in your business dealings? By making such empty guarantees, and convincing a whole community to buy into it, indeed scaring them to buy into it, this man is guilty of grave transgressions! He owes every one of these families every cent of what he guaranteed and failed to deliver, five times over. Of course he can't possibly pay them all back. Nor can he compensate them for their great suffering. Who is this 'holy man'? Bring him to me, so I can look him in the eyes and blast the fear of God into him!"

"Rabbi," says the visitor, "that man is you."

"The single chicken per household is your promise of abundant parnasah from a single earner, a woman and mother with nothing more than a beis yaakov education, which you've warned us not to supplement. You've told the men not to depart from their learning, and even the women you've forbidden from obtaining an education that would enable them to bring in enough money to support the family. You guaranteed us great abundance, and yet many of us can scarcely put food on the table, must rely on tzedaka to live. Some accept their poverty as a badge of faith. But many are scared to do anything different, not wanting to be seen as lesser in the eyes of their neighbors, or their own children, who they're also worried about marrying off. Others have lived this way their whole lives and simply lack the skills and wherewithal to do anything different.

Rabbi, you made this guarantee to us, and now I come to you on behalf of the community to ask you to cover that guarantee. Please, pay us the money you've promised we would have. And one more thing. I beg you, please stop selling us these chickens."

White as a ghost, and after a very long pause, the Rabbi responds...

*   *   *

Okay, let's leave it at that. I think you get the picture. Prose and form aside, is the parable fair? Let me know what you think.

Thursday, December 15, 2016

Supporting Heroes - Torah Portion Vayishlach

"Deborah, Rebecca's nursemaid, died, and she was buried beneath Beit El, beneath the oak, and [Jacob] named it the Oak of Weeping." (Gen 35:8)
Who's this "Deborah" all of the sudden? We know Rebecca had a nursemaid who came with her when she married Isaac (24:59), but she was never mentioned by name in all this time. And what's she doing with Jacob, anyway?

One idea is that Rebecca sent Deborah to Jacob in Padan Aram to let him know it was safe to come home. (See Rashi.) If that's the case, Deborah would have been around for all of Jacob's youth, probably helped raise him, just like she raised his mother before him. Deborah would've been like a grandmother to Jacob.

Another idea is that Deborah returned to Padan Aram early on but wanted to make this final journey with Jacob to see Rebecca one last time. (See Ramban.) If that's the case, Deborah would have been there with Jacob during his tenure with Laban, helping him to cope, helping him raise his own family, like a great grandmother to his children.

Either way, the Torah goes out of its way to mention Deborah's death. Her death is associated with weeping for Jacob. And I think it says a lot about the way people's death can affect us, sometimes in unexpected ways.

Part is the fact that the person is associated with certain times of our lives. Their death often brings up the emotion - the joy and pain - of those times, and also reminds us of the fact that these times are gone forever. This kind of grief can overtake us even if we've never met the person - like with the death of a musician whose music we grew up listening to, or any public figure who brings us back to certain times in our lives. That kind of "weeping" is not necessarily tied to the person, but to our own past.

For Jacob, there's no doubt that Deborah's death would have brought up so much of his complicated history - including the special close relationship he had with his mother, as well as the family stresses with his father and brother. Good times and also very trying times.

But then there's grief over Deborah herself. No, she wasn't a blood relative, any more than Eliezer was Abraham and Isaac's blood relative. But she was in a very real sense a kind of "matriarch" in the family. She was the person who provided nurturing and guidance to his mother back in Padan Aram, who was probably very much responsible for Rebecca turning out to be the person she was, the girl who would go on to marry Isaac and become a matriarch in her own right. And whether Deborah was with Jacob in his early years or later on, it seems clear that she was a rock for him, a fixture in his life. She stood by the family - loyal, trustworthy, nurturing and supportive - through thick and thin.

There's an idea that Deborah the Prophet/Judge was named after her, centuries later. Aside from the name, Deborah held court under a tree, near Beit El, where Rebecca's nursemaid was buried. If that's so, the original Deborah must have been seen as legendary in her service, as one of the founding pillars of the nation.

So I think it's particularly nice to see Deborah's death get a mention, even if Rebecca's own death isn't mentioned in the Torah. To me, it's a statement that people who dedicate their lives to service, who demonstrate such immense loyalty and commitment, who stand by us and support us in our lives - our friends, teachers, and mentors, volunteers, assistants, and helpers - these people are true heroes. Often unsung. And they deserve to be recognized and honored. They deserve to be loved and remembered.

Thursday, December 8, 2016

Meaning, Memory & Perception of Time - Torah Portion Vayetze

Jacob offers to work for Laban, for the privilege of marrying his daughter Rachel. The Torah says after the fact:
"Jacob worked seven years for Rachel, but they seemed in his eyes like a few days, in his love for her." (Gen 29:20)
But why did it seem so quick? Shouldn't it be the opposite? If you can't wait to be finished, and you're just counting the days, watching the clock, time can feel brutally slow. Think about sitting in school counting the minutes for class to end, or being in the hospital waiting for the doctor to come. When you're just waiting, it feels like an eternity. Like the expression goes, "A watched pot never boils." How about a "watched Rachel"?

Time-perception studies in psychology and neuroscience try to understand when and why we experience time as moving slowly or quickly. It turns out that "slow-moving" time is in fact a more accurate assessment of clock time. It's when we perceive "fast-moving" time that we tend to make cognitive distortions. The "time-flying" effect can be brought on by a number of factors, chief among them:

  • Mental engagement - as opposed to boredom
  • Goal-orientation - active pursuit of a goal 
  • Motivation - greater sense of purpose

For Jacob, he certainly had a sense of purpose, and a goal. And it could be that he was engaged in his work, "in the zone," i.e. not bored. Therefore it all went by very quickly.

But there's another interesting research finding, which is that periods of boredom, despite feeling longer at the time, actually seem shorter in retrospect. And times of intense engagement, even though they go by quickly, seem longer in retrospect. The theory is that our after-the-fact ability to calculate time duration is based on the amount of memories we have to draw from. The "memory-scarce" (bored) period has less to build on, so it seems shorter that it was, while the "memory-packed" period has tons to build on, so it seems longer than it was.

Which feels accurate, to me at least. When I think about certain memory-packed, formative times in my own life, which seem so "huge" in their importance, I'm often struck by how little actual calendar time they took up.

So... Does that mean Jacob was actually bored out of his mind for 7 years, and it just seemed short in retrospect, for lack of memories? I don't think so. Clearly Jacob's "love for" Rachel is the focus, as far as the Torah is concerned.

Emotional investment, meaningfulness and sense of purpose speed up our perception of time, and they help us to encode, retain, and recall memories.

In other words, the greater our emotional attachment to the people, events, and information (i.e. knowledge we're exposed to) in our lives, the richer and broader our tapestry of memory will be. So we need more love. More care (as opposed to apathy). More intimacy and attachment. Greater personal significance and relevance. Probably more "in-the-moment-ness."

How do we accomplish this? Just off the top of my head... Maybe more "real" time getting to know the people we love? More depth and less skimming? More thinking about the "why" (i.e. relevance) rather than just the "what" or the "how"? And maybe (note to self)... Less time on our phones?

Suggestions are welcome!

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Trump vs. Castro - Who upsets you more?

I first want to be up front where I'm coming from. I wasn't a Trump supporter. I lean liberal where it comes to social policy. And I understand people's concerns about a Trump Administration.

But after seeing some of the reactions to the death of Fidel Castro, from Obama's tepid equivocation, to Jimmy Carter's sentimental reminiscing, to Jill Stein's salute of honor, to Justin Trudeau's quasi-adulation, I thought it might be instructive for people to reflect on these neutral-to-warm statements about Castro, specifically in the light of their worries about Trump.

Consider for a moment some of the fears people have expressed about a Trump presidency: authoritarianism, silencing of dissent, curtailing free press, Hitler comparisons of rounding people up in camps, tearing apart families, use of torture, persecution of homosexuals and targeted religious groups, being anti-Semitic, a threat to democracy, etc. And now compare that with Fidel Castro - not anxiety about what he "might" do, but what he actually DID, what he perpetrated during his five decades of rule:

Forced labor concentration "UMAP" camps

  • 35,000 people, notably homosexuals, religious people, political dissidents, intellectuals
  • Slave labor, dawn to dusk, 7 days a week
  • Unsanitary conditions, spoiled food were common
  • Some suffered solitary confinement, rape, torture
  • Many committed suicide and died of hunger and disease
  • Electrified barbed wire fences, guards with machine guns and police dogs,2619793

Political executions

  • 3,615 documented deaths by firing squads since 1959
  • 1,253 extrajudicial killings
  • Total estimates vary from 15-17,000, possibly up to 30,000

Oppression of religious groups

  • Mass arrests of Christian clergy
  • Catholics and Evangelicals sent to forced labor camps
  • Workplace discrimination against religious people
  • Confiscation of private religious seminaries

Persecution of homosexuals

  • Forced into concentration labor camps
  • Fired, imprisoned, sent for "re-education"
  • Gay artists and writers shut down and publicly disgraced

Anti-Zionist/Anti-Semitic policies

  • Published anti-Israel propaganda, voted that "Zionism equals racism"
  • Books by Anne Frank and Elie Wiesel banned
  • 94% of Jews fled after the 1959 revolution
  • 400 secretly immigrated to Israel in the 1990s
  • Direct hosting/support of Palestinian military training camps

Nazi collaboration

  • Nazi death squad officers invited to train the Cuban army
  • Offered sanctuary and salaries in Havana

Silencing of dissidents

  • 20,000 dissidents held and tortured in 1959 revolution
  • Moderate professors and teachers purged
  • Prison penalties for anyone who "insults or offends" the government
  • No freedom to assemble and protest

Anti-democratic policies

  • Communist Party the only accepted party (despite lifting the ban on other parties in 1992)
  • No election of president or prime minister
  • Rule by nepotism - Fidel hands off to his brother Raul
  • The only regime in the Americas classified as "authoritarian" (2010 Democracy index)

Imprisonment and kangaroo courts

  • Human rights activists tried and imprisoned for decades
  • Thousands of arbitrary detentions per year (e.g. 7,188 in Jan-Aug 2014 alone)
  • People held for years without trial
  • Unsanitary conditions, prisoners deprived of food, light
  • Second largest prison state in the world for journalists as of 2008 (next to China)
  • Sham court proceedings and summary judgments against political activists

Use of torture

  • Prisoners stripped and beaten
  • Held in rodent-filled "drawers" with cement beds and no light
  • Electro-shock for political prisoners in psychiatric clinics
  • Threats of killing and maiming by prison authorities

Split families and refugee crisis

  • Repression causing a refugee crisis, people desperate to escape
  • Cuban exiles forced to leave family behind
  • Thousands of boats and rafts, with refugees dying along the way
  • Citizens under lock-down, travel heavily restricted until 2013

Press censorship

  • Nearly all media under control of the state and Communist Party
  • Must inform government in order to produce, distribute, store publications
  • Internet limited for the vast majority of Cubans
  • Foreign journalists must be selected by the government.
  • Pro-democracy bloggers under permanent surveillance

Even if only half the above charges/sources are accurate (and I don't pretend to be a Cuba expert), that is pretty damning. And I think that merits a moment of reflection.

Here we are post-election, many people frightened about what they see as an authoritarian President Trump, poised to commit civil and human-rights abuses. Yet here we have an example of someone who really did these things - executed, tortured, imprisoned, took away rights, persecuted people - for decades. And when he dies, you have some of the same people who've been out there vociferously warning against Trump now lavishing praise on Castro, or failing to speak out against him. What gives?

To be absolutely clear, I'm not saying that we shouldn't be vigilant to guard against authoritarianism, from Trump or anyone else. But if you really are worried and upset about the "possibility" of a regime that's anti-democracy and ready to strip people of their civil rights, then shouldn't you be completely outraged when you encounter an actual authoritarian regime, a true dictator who really did commit many of the atrocities and injustices you find so frightening, so horrific?

Is it a question of giving Castro a pass because he's on the "left" and has some progressive social policies? For those things, you're happy to turn a blind eye to the rest? Or does it have to do with defending countries who stand up to the U.S.? Are you so consumed with Western self-criticism that you can't critique real authoritarianism when you see it? Is it being enamored with the story of ragtag revolutionaries prevailing over corrupt, decadent strongmen? But are you really going to celebrate replacing one corrupt, blood-stained dictatorship with another? Or is it simply that a major international figurehead died, so let's be diplomatic? I'm all for diplomacy, but what about standing up for what you believe in? Or for all the Cubans who suffered terribly under Castro's rule?

Like I say, it's a moment to reflect. If you have an answer, I'd like to hear it.

Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Discriminatory Mikvas, Deceptive Headlines

The Times of Israel reported on a recent Knesset decision regarding Israeli mikvas (ritual baths). I'd like to point out two things that bother me here.

The law itself

The law that was passed gives local rabbinates the power to choose which organizations can make use of public (state-run/funded) mikvas, which effectively means they have the power to deny non-Orthodox groups the ability to use their mikvas to perform conversions. I'll offer a few brief thoughts on this issue:

1) I prefer to live in a country where religion is a private matter, and the state stays out of it, and yes, that includes the Jewish State. So for instance, do there really need to be "public" mikvas run by the state? I don't know. Yes, I recognize that there is value in having a "Jewish character" to the State of Israel, and that part of that might reasonably involve investing government resources to help enable Jewish religious practice. But investing resources in mikvas is different than "presiding over" them.

2) If the state has to have a say in religious practice, as in administering public mikvas, it should do its best not to discriminate. "Do its best," meaning let's say a church wanted to perform a baptism in a public mikva. I personally don't have a problem with it, in all honesty, but I can see where others would - notably including many of those who oppose the law in question! Point being, I think there's a place for reasonable compromise here, where we can accommodate religious sensitivities while also not allowing discrimination to prevail.

3) One such compromise might be to designate a certain number of public mikvas for anyone to use. I say "designate" to refer to mikvas already built and in use. There is talk about the Jewish Agency building mikvas for non-Orthodox use, but people are expressing doubts as to when (if ever) those will be funded or built.

4) Regarding the argument, "But the Reform and Conservative movements are relatively small in Israel," I'll say this: How a country treats its minorities says a lot about how just and ethical the society is. A law like this exemplifies the use of power to discriminate against a religious minority. Some may justify this on the grounds that they abhor this particular minority, that they want to live in a Torah society. I would rather live in a society that gives people the freedom to choose things I myself do not choose. That to me is a far more moral, more just, more desirable place to live.

Okay, on to part two.

The headline

The Times of Israel headline and subhead read:
"Knesset approves law to bar non-Orthodox from ritual baths. Legislation approved 41-35 after lengthy debate; Jewish Agency slams move that ‘circumvents’ High Court"
If you don't have time to read the article, what's the obvious takeaway? That anyone other than Orthodox Jews are now banned from using any mikvas in Israel. But that's not the case!

Granted, headlines are necessarily concise, but if you give the wrong impression, that is irresponsible journalism. I should add that I don't know if the misleading wording was deliberate in this case or not, but there is an editorial bias toward creating more "sensational(ist)" headlines, simply because it draws more readers.

What we have here is the use of language that is "technically correct" but which lacks crucial facts and thus spreads misinformation. There's a reason people are sworn to tell "the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth." Because a half-truth can be as much of a deception as an outright lie.

Yes, the law is arguably highly problematic. Yes, there may well be cases where individuals are discriminated against at mikvas. Yes, such a law could be used to creep toward a ban on non-Orthodox mikva usage. But that doesn't make the headline "correct."

So what if it's not true?

This is a real issue - apathy toward truth. What I've noticed lately ("lately," meaning now that I'm looking out for it more) are cases where not only are lies being passed around (shared, liked, etc.), but when you point out the lie, the reaction is often... silence. People just don't seem to care.

Alternatively, you get people reacting by going on the attack, assuming that because you've voiced any words of critique that you're supporting the "other side" of the debate. By merely pointing out an untruth within the side you otherwise agree with, you have made yourself a traitor, a pariah, or at least a "stooge" for the enemy.

In other words, so many people will either a) ignore the lie or b) actively rationalize it.

The latter group will say that in this particular case, it's "deserved." They've deemed the ones they're fighting against public enemy #1, evil incarnate, and so therefore it's gloves off, ethics tossed aside. Anything goes as long as the "right side" wins. The end justifies the means. Which, it should be noted, is the modus operandi of terrorists. Or, from a more idealistic perspective, people frame it as an eit la'asot, a "time to act." (Eit la'asot is a Jewish term referring to a special case scenario where, in order to deal with an emergency situation, the normal rules are temporarily abrogated.)

But what people like to think of as an eit la'asot is in reality nothing more than a mitzva haba'a be'aveira, committing a transgression in the attempt to fulfill a mitzva, an act that Jewish tradition regards as unequivocally misguided. It's a self-deception, a rationalization of wrongheaded, cruel, criminal or even violent behavior.

I'll add one more example, pertaining to the upcoming U.S. elections. Author and skeptic Sam Harris was speaking in an interview about the criticism of Donald Trump:
"[Trump] is someone who you almost cannot malign enough. He's so worthy of being buried in scorn. The immune system of civilization has to fully encase him and just export him from our political process and forget about him. But when I see some of the stuff that's done to him, it's completely without an ethical core."
In other words, yes it is possible to be both intensely critical of someone and also be critical of the criticism against them, when it's unfair, untrue or unethical. There are so many examples, so much to say on this topic, but I'll sum it up as follows:

Just as important as it is to give criticism where it's due, it is important to protest against criticism where it's not due. 

By selectively not caring about the truth where it concerns an ideological foe, we

1) diminish the credibility of our own argument,
2) are guilty of slander,
3) show disdain for the value of truth, and
4) contribute to an environment where a lie is a legitimate weapon, and ultimately where things like blood libels are able to thrive.

Beyond all that, there is the concept of teshuva, self-reflection, self-correction. Even when we deeply believe in the cause we're championing, we need to be concerned for areas where we've overstepped, been amiss, done or said things wrongly. When faced with criticism, rather than automatically deflect, we might reflect.

And when we offer criticism, or even report facts, take pains to be fair and truthful. It's really that simple.

Thursday, May 5, 2016

Boundless Life - A Study in Kaddish

Dedicated with love to the memory of my dear friend, Rafi Guber, z"l

Though often recited in somber tones, with feelings of heaviness and loss, the Mourner's Kaddish (Kaddish Yatom, lit. "Orphan's Kaddish") does not in fact refer to loss or death, but rather to God - or more specifically, to sanctifying and glorifying God's name in public. Some may look at this declaration as a way to accrue heavenly merit for a deceased loved one. Others may derive comfort from the humbling thought that the ultimate reason behind our immense pain and suffering, the plan which it is all somehow supposed to fit into, is well beyond us, outside the domain of human comprehension. For most of course, there is comfort in simply being acknowledged as a mourner - in being noticed, not being alone.

I'd like introduce a new layer of meaning, an alternative line of interpretation - and translation - of Kaddish. We will focus here on one particular line, arguably the central statement of Kaddish: "Yehei shemei raba mevarakh le'alam ul-almei almaya," typically translated, "May [God's] great name be blessed forever and for all eternity."

"Yehei" - The wish

The word yehei is the Aramaic version of the Hebrew yehi, "may it be" or "let there be" (as in yehi or, "let there be light"). It is a term that conveys the wish to put something into effect, make it manifest, actualized, a reality in the world. (In Hebrew grammar, this conjugation is called the "jussive" mood). As strange as it may sound, there are no praises of God in Kaddish. The words yitgadal, yitgadash, yitbarach, and so on, are all "may it be so" words. The question is, what are we wishing for? What do we want to see happen?

"Shemei raba" - The great legacy

The word shem, "name," means more than just a moniker. A name is also a legacy. In the Torah's narrative of the Tower of Babel, the people say, "Let us make a name (shem) for ourselves." (Gen. 11:4)  They weren't looking for something to call themselves - they wanted to establish a legacy. Indeed, English carries this dual-meaning of the word "name." Regarding the commandment of yibum (levirate marriage), the Torah states, "The firstborn whom she bears will stand in the name (shem) of his brother who is dead, so that his name (shem) will not be erased from Israel." (Deut. 25:6) As some of the classical commentators note, "shem" here does not necessarily mean the person's actual name but more his legacy - progeny, inheritance, etc. (See Rashi, Ramban, Ibn Ezra) On the above verse, the Talmud adds, "[The phrase] 'that his name not be erased' excludes a eunuch, whose name is erased." (B. T. Yevamot 24a) The eunuch has no progeny, no genetic legacy - hence, no "shem" in one sense of the word.

In the case of Kaddish, when we say "[God's] great name," this is a reference to a specific name, "the" great name - i.e., YHVH. If we say a shem is a legacy, what is the "great legacy" we are referring to with the name YHVH?

The Sages understand the name E-lohim to convey justice (din) and the name YHVH to convey compassion (rachamim). The Midrash (Sifrei Deuteronomy, Parshat Va’etchanan 26) provides a Scriptural basis for this. E-lohim is used to refer to "judges" (Ex. 22:8 - human, or possibly divine). YHVH is described (formulaically in the 13 Attributes) as "compassionate and gracious" (Ex. 34:6).

E-lohim carries the package of meanings: justice, judgment, differentiation, morality, good and bad. YHVH carries the meaning package: compassion, grace, kindness, unity, and life (chaim). E-lohim is the generic "God," the Creator. YHVH is the God of Israel, giver of the Torah. This Torah is called the torat chaim (Torah of life) and etz chaim (Tree of Life). YHVH is the chei ha'olamim (life of the worlds). The "great name," YHVH, can thus be understood as bearing the legacy of Life.

"Mevarakh" - Dissemination

The word "mevarakh" is typically translated "blessed." But as much as we think of blessing as a generic wish for success, the root b-r-kh connotes something more specific: increase and propagation. The very first blessing in the Torah (along with many other instances of blessing in the book of Genesis alone) is "bear fruit and multiply." (Gen. 1:22) Thematically, blessing is linked to increase: "He will bless you and increase you" (Deut. 7:13); "He will bless the house of Israel... YHVH will add upon you." (Ps. 115:12–15) Rashi and others refer to berakha (blessing) as a term of ribui, "multiplicity." (Rashi, Sota 10a; Rashba, Teshuvot 5:5; Ramban on Bereshit 27:28; Rabbeinu Bachye on Bamidbar 6:24, et. al.)

Add this understanding of mevarakh, and the meaning of Kaddish begins to coalesce. We are speaking about the great legacy of life being propagated, increased.

"Le'alam" - Time and space

The phrase le'alam ul-almei almaya connotes "forever." The word olam however is understood to convey not only time but also space (as in "melekh ha'olam"). By integrating both the temporal and spatial connotations of le'alam, we get a sense of something which is all-pervasive, which leaves no corner of the world bereft, and no generation lacking.

Toward a new translation - Boundless life

With our new set of meanings, we arrive at the following translation:
shemei rabathe great legacy of Life
mevarakhbe propagated
le-alam ul-almei almayain all places, for all time

That is to say, it is a call for life to utterly triumph in the world.

In this understanding, Kaddish becomes a universal message - that the will for life, the desire for the well-being and happiness of every human being, is an ideal that must spread throughout the world and make paramount in our minds. It must become our legacy. And it's a matter of rather pressing urgency, since when one looks at the current state of affairs on the planet, all the death and suffering at the hands of fellow humans, it is painfully apparent how very far we are from that ideal.

Kaddish then is a statement worth making often, in public, and with all of one's heart. And it is very much fitting for a mourner to say. One way that we can react to and recover from the death of a loved one is by attaching ourselves to life, firming our resolve as members of a community to reduce future death and suffering in any way we can. Kaddish is precisely that - a pronouncement of intent and vision for the future, a time when human beings cease to be instruments of death. It looks ahead to a period when the legacy of life, the desire to enrich and extend life, so totally suffuses human consciousness that we would not even think of harming one another, causing pain, whether physical or emotional. Instead, we choose to cling tenaciously to the legacy of life: "And you who cling to YHVH your God, you all have Life today." (Deut. 4:4)


This article is based on ideas in the book Ohr HaShachar: Torah, Kabbalah and Consciousness in the Daily Morning Blessings.

Wednesday, March 9, 2016

Shul - The Place for Interpersonal Mitzvot

People naturally think of shul as being primarily a bein adam lamakom domain ("between a person and God"). But in fact, the opportunities to exercise interpersonal sensitivity in shul are so numerous, so constant, that one could reasonably argue that it's predominantly a bein adam lechavero experience ("between a person and their fellow").

And of course, all our ritual religiosity is just pomp and circumstance (Chapter 1 of Yeshayahu/Isaiah actually calls it "abomination") when that religious behavior isn't built on a foundation of human decency and sensitivity.

With that in mind, here's just a partial list of bein adam lechavero opportunities in shul. (Note: I'm referring here to Orthodox davening, but similar principles apply across the board.)
  1. Not going to shul if you're sick or contagious, or if you must, keeping a distance from people.
  2. Covering your mouth when you sneeze or cough, washing hands after blowing your nose – even if you’re not sick.
  3. Brushing teeth and using deodorant so as not to make it unpleasant for fellow shul-goers.
  4. Helping at home before leaving for shul – getting the kids ready, cleaning up, etc.
  5. Coming with your own siddur or chumash if you know the shul is usually short.
  6. Getting to shul on time if you know someone needs to say kaddish and they might be short on people.
  7. Helping set up the shul for davening.
  8. Making sure the women’s section is set up properly, comfortably.
  9. Making sure the temperature is set correctly so people aren’t uncomfortable.
  10. Asking whether a seat is someone’s makom kevua (set seat).
  11. Not being angry at or embarrassing someone who sits in your makom kevua.
  12. Not taking up more seats or space than necessary with your things.
  13. Not saving seats if the people you’re saving them for aren’t going to arrive reasonably soon and the seats are needed by people already there.
  14. Making sure everyone has a seat, especially older people.
  15. Offering a seat by a table or a shtender to an older person, so they have somewhere to put down their siddur and other things.
  16. Making sure people who need have a siddur and chumash.
  17. Extending a greeting (or if you can’t talk, a non-verbal smile or handshake) to the person who sits down next to you, and in general greeting people warmly when they walk in.
  18. Introducing yourself to a new face, making them feel welcome, noticed.
  19. Helping someone not familiar with the davening find their place in the siddur, and finding them a siddur and chumash with a translation.
  20. Being careful not to whack people with your tallis, either when putting it on or while davening with particular fervor.
  21. Minimizing the clamor your chair makes when you stand up or sit down.
  22. Davening Shemona Esrei quietly, so people aren’t distracted by your whispering.
  23. In general, not singing or davening so loudly that you take over the room and draw people’s attention, or that people mistake your voice for the ba'al tefillah’s (the leader).
  24. Not getting angry when someone sings or davens too loudly.
  25. Being careful not to bother or brush by people davening Shemona Esrei.
  26. Standing toward the front of the room when davening a long Shemona Esrei, so people in front of you who daven faster aren’t made to wait before stepping back.
  27. Agreeing to be the ba'al tefillah if the gabbai needs someone.
  28. If you’re a ba'al tefillah, knowing the usual pace of davening and not being matriach (bothering, delaying) people with long davening or slow tunes.
  29. As a ba'al tefillah, finding out how much singing is desired/expected.
  30. Having patience for a ba'al tefillah who is too slow – or fast – for your taste, or who sings too much – or too little.
  31. Not yelling corrections at the ba'al tefillah, but approaching them in a subtle and friendly way when necessary.
  32. Not expressing impatience at a ba'al tefillah, e.g. by saying “Nu?” when you want them to start chazarat hashatz (the repetition), or shouting “Yitgadal!” if they pause a bit before kaddish.
  33. Not davening so long if it’s a small minyan and you think it may hold up chazarat hashatz.
  34. Not getting upset at people who unknowingly delay chazarat hashatz with their long davening.
  35. If you have a talent at it, offering in advance to be the ba'al koreh (Torah reader).
  36. Not correcting the ba'al koreh if it’s not your place to do so.
  37. Being careful not to embarrass the ba'al koreh by harshly correcting them – especially a bar mitzvah or a young or inexperienced reader.
  38. Not talking audibly during chazarat hashatz, kriyat hatorah or kaddish, so as not to distract, disrespect or show lack of caring to the person reciting.
  39. Not embarrassing someone who’s talking by loudly “shushing” them or otherwise showing anger.
  40. Answering “amen” and singing along audibly, so that people leading davening or saying kaddish feel good that people are listening and participating.
  41. Expressing genuine simcha for people celebrating significant life-events in shul, and likewise sympathy for mourners.
  42. Showing joy when your children come to sit with you, and making it a positive experience even if they distract your davening, talk, don’t daven, etc.
  43. Making sure your children aren’t disturbing others.
  44. Helping someone who gets a kibud (honor) in shul and doesn’t know what to do, but without embarrassing them.
  45. Acknowledging people who get kibudim with a handshake, smile, "yishar koach," etc.
  46. Not being put off when you don’t get kibudim – just the opposite, wanting others to have the honor, feeling reluctant to “take” when you can give.
  47. If you’re the gabbai, using kibudim to include people, make them feel welcome, not ignored.
  48. Not pushing anyone out of the way in order to touch or kiss the sefer Torah.
  49. Handing a siddur to the person who just did hagbah and is occupied with holding the sefer Torah.
  50. Asking women whether they have any names for the misheberach for cholim (ill).
  51. Standing for the misheberach for the Medina and Tzahal if that’s the shul’s minhag (custom).
  52. Not getting angry at people who don’t stand for whatever reason.
  53. Giving your attention to someone who gives a drasha (sermon) – i.e. not talking, reading a book, falling asleep or walking out, so as not to make them feel uncomfortable.
  54. Not being matriach people by giving a long drasha.
  55. Being sensitive to the audience, giving a drasha they can understand and relate to, being careful not to offend or alienate people, or give overly heavy mussar (reproach) if it’s not your place.
  56. Not being matriach people with long post-davening announcements.
  57. Not getting upset when people speak too long.
  58. Picking up trash, candy wrappers, etc.
  59. Helping put siddurim and chumashim away.
  60. If you used a shul tallis, put it back neatly.
  61. Buying a few siddurim or chumashim for the shul if you see they’re needed.
  62. Thanking the ba'al koreh, gabbaim, ba'alei tefillah and shul rabbi for their efforts.
  63. Offering to chip in for or sponsor kiddush or third meal on occasion.
  64. At kiddush, looking to let others take first, not wanting to contribute to a “feeding frenzy.”
  65. Offering to get a plate of food and drink for an older person.
  66. Making sure that your children aren’t running amok, taking too much food, or making a mess.
  67. Not standing right by the kiddush table and making people have to walk around you to get to the food.
  68. Extending yourself to people who are standing or sitting alone, or who you know are going through difficult times.
  69. Expressing warmth and congratulations to ba'alei simcha and their family members.
  70. Thanking the kiddush sponsors and people who do setup and cleanup.
  71. Helping to set up and clean up, or at the very least cleaning up after yourself and your family.
  72. In general, looking for ways to contribute, not just spectate.
  73. Inviting people for a meal on Shabbat/Yom Tov if you suspect they may not have a place to go.
  74. Not asking a person where they davened today, so as not to embarrass someone who didn’t go to shul.
Again, this is a partial list. I'm sure you have more to add - feel free to expand in the comments!

And if you're interested in some of the concepts behind the davening, I hope you don't mind if I quickly plug my book, Ohr HaShachar. It's a commentary on the daily morning blessings, which closely examines the meanings of the words. But more than that, it's a philosophical work that explores Torah concepts such as kedusha and bracha, tuma and tahara, Hashem vs. Elokim, the Book of Iyov and the question of suffering, and a good deal more. The book combines rationalism and kabbalah, futurism along with traditional commentary, has dozens of diagrams and hundreds of footnotes - plenty of material to keep you occupied and hopefully provide some fresh perspective on words that are so often said by rote.

Available from Urim Publications, Amazon, Barnes & Noble, or if you live nearby me, I'm happy to get you a personally inscribed copy!