Saturday, December 27, 2008

सिक्स्थ night

It's the day after Christmas, the sixth night of Chanukah, and we are in the Great Smoky Mountains. Specifically, we are at the heated swimming pool of the Willow Brook Lodge where we are staying with the Israeli family we made friends with on our hike to Laurel Falls.
Smoking is prohibited in the rooms and we don't want to take chances lighting our Chanukiah in violation of the house rules, so we have brought it with us to the pool, and, of course, we forgot matches.
I send Itamar to ask the big, tatooed man who is about to step outside to smoke if he can light our shamash, we he does graciously. After his smoke, he returns to watch our foreign ritual. He asks if I can explain what we are doing. Little does he know that he has asked the right guy.
I explain the stories of the Macabees and the debate between Hillel and Shamai about lighting the candles and how we are not allowed to use the light of the candles for any other purpose except to remind us of the time of Chanukah, and the big tatooed man thanks me for sharing our light and introduces his fiance. I guess this is part of the purpose of the ritual; to share our pride and spread our light. And I think we did a good job of it tonight.

Friday, December 19, 2008

What is Jewish Education?

This is a piece I wrote for the newsletter of the Reform congregation where I work.
Happy Chanukah!

It is a basic assumption that Religious School provides a religious education. I spent a lot of time in the halls of academia studying education, and although I don't have all the answers, I know how to formulate the right questions about education. But religion is different.

What do we mean by Jewish education? Mordechai Kaplan viewed Judaism as an evolving religious civilization, which ultimately led him to found the Reconstructionist movement. The Israeli Talmud scholar and biophysicist, Yeshayahu Leibowitz, saw Judaism as a path with a set of God-given laws for us to follow. Solel families send their children to our Religious School with their own notions of Judaism and I guess that no two of these are the same. So what does it mean provide a Jewish education? And how do the answers to this question affect all members of Solel?

There is a popular program called "Birthright" that assumes the right of Jews, by virtue of their birth into a Jewish family, to travel to Israel to see the Jewish state up close. Large foundations have established a program to get all young Jews who want to travel to Israel to go for free. The problem with this approach is that it avoids exploring the question of what constitutes a Jewish family, nor does it address whether Jews-by-choice have such a birthright. Neither of these questions would be a problem for Kaplan because the borders of a civilization are not as fixed as those of a genome. Leibowitz, on the other hand, would hew to a halachic definition of Jewish identity.

As I study Leibowitz, I ask myself why I can't simply write him off as a religious fundamentalist. There is something very fundamentalist about the idea that God gave us laws and that we need to follow them absolutely, but there is something to this argument. If we are not Jews because of our unique relationship with God, then why are we Jews?

There are two general answers to this question. Some suggest that we are Jews because the anti-Semites won't let us assimilate completely. They see Judaism as racial (genetic) and therefore inescapable. Others see Judaism as values-based, that we Jews have unique values.

No one should be forced to accept Jewish identity because it cannot be escaped, so many of my educator colleagues view Judaism as a set of "Jewish" values.

At Solel, parents and students sometimes ask why we do what they see as a repetition of the public schools' "character education." This question implies that the values that shape a citizen are synonymous with the values that shape a Jew. And I would agree that this assumption is largely correct. But I would suggest that Judaism is not just about values but also about the path to inculcating those values. That's why Jewish education is so important.

At Solel's Religious School we explore the Reform Jewish path to the values we share with most human beings. As England's Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks explains, "no one civilization encompasses all the spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions of mankind." But as Jews, we live our "spiritual, ethical and artistic expressions" through Jewish paths and these require Jewish education.

Coming to Religious School at Solel is not redundant because we are not simply teaching the values that our students learn in public school. At Solel, we teach the Jewish path to these values. It's one thing to appreciate labor and the beautiful world with which we have been blessed, and another to rest on Shabbat to live that appreciation. We don't just reflect on the hardships of our past, we do a Passover seder as if we were slaves in Egypt. And we don't just speak to God from our hearts, we pray-in the language of Torah-prayers that have come to us over generations. This is what religious education at Solel is about, and it is the path that we choose to define us as Jews.

Saturday, December 6, 2008

Chasing Dreams, Running from Lies

I went to an orthodox shul this Shabbat for a friend’s son’s bar mitzvah. The Torah reading started with Genesis 28:10 And Jacob left Beer Sheva, and he went to Haran. During the Dvar Torah, the rabbi asked the famous question, why are we told that he left one place and went to another? He answered himself by quoting Rashi and saying that he followed his dream. This interpretation puzzled me, because I know that Jacob was fleeing from his angry brother Esav who he had just cheated out of his birthright and father’s blessing. It is clear why Jacob was leaving Beer Sheva, but why was Rashi understanding that he was chasing a dream?
My first mistake was taking this rabbi at face value. I went home to find the source of his reference and discovered what Rashi really had to say about the two phrases of this verse. “And Jacob left. Scripture had only to write: “And Jacob went to Haran.” Why did it mention his departure? But this tells [us] that the departure of a righteous man from a place makes an impression, for while the righteous man is in the city, he is its beauty, he is its splendor, he is its majesty. When he departs from there, its beauty has departed, its splendor has departed, its majesty has departed…and he went to Haran. He left in order to go to Haran. — [From Gen. Rabbah 68:8,]” Chasing a dream was not Rashi’s idea, not even later when he interprets Jacob’s dream of the ladder. But this is not uncommon practice among scholars who at times mistakenly attribute citations to the wrong people.
With no reason, at the time, to question the rabbi about Rashi, I asked him during the luncheon if Rashi was just trying to make Jacob better than his trickery towards his brother let on. I explained that the rabbis in the Talmud do this later when they reinterpret Genesis 33:4 “Esav ran to meet him [Jacob], and embraced him, and fell on his neck, and kissed him; and they wept.” In my example, which I learned from Rabbi Dov Taylor, with whom I work, the rabbi’s tell us to change a letter in the Hebrew word for kiss to make the meaning “bite,” as if to show that Esav was the evil brother who takes revenge on Jacob.
What I was trying to show is that it is common that even scholars use their position of community leadership to guide in us to read the world as they do. This is a theme I always come back to; that we read and write the world, each of us in our own way. It is an idea that comes from Paolo Freire and Donaldo Mercado, and one at the center of my belief about the world. Each of us has a personal epistemology which guides how we understand things and, thus, how we act in the world.
The rabbi answered me in one of the uglier ways possible. He said that it was clear from scripture that Esav hated his birthright, Genesis 25:33, “And Esau said: 'Behold, I am at the point to die; and what profit shall the birthright do to me?” which was a bad argument on his part, but I didn’t push him. And then he said that Esav wanted to kill his father and brother, Genesis 27:41, “And Esau hated Jacob because of the blessing wherewith his father blessed him [Jacob]. And Esau said in his heart: 'Let the days of mourning for my father be at hand; then will I slay my brother Jacob.” Also a bad argument, for two reasons. Esav never said he wanted to kill his father. If anything, he respected his father wanted to wait for him to die before he would take revenge on Jacob. And he had good reason to be angry at Jacob, even though the peace educator in me says that there is no justification for murder. But the rabbi continued, “Esav was a terrorist and a murderer. We need to call an Arafat by his name.”
Sometimes there are no better words than the colloquial “What the fuck?” Is he crazy? Did I just hear the spiritual leader of a congregation of my people compare Esav to Arafat? But of course I did. The way these guys read and write the world is bizarre and twisted, and I should be glad to not understand them. I just hate that they do it in the name of our tradition.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Here is a funny video about Proposition 8, but I think it is flawed. I don't mind the blasphemy, but they are a bit over zealous and literal about the Bible. They should break out a Talmud before faulting Leviticus. As it says in Deuteronomy, "The Torah is not in heaven," and the rabbi's say that means It's here for us to interpret. The real target of these critiques of scripture should be literalists and fanatics. They are the ones who make a bad name for religion, not religion itself.

See more Jack Black videos at Funny or Die

Saturday, November 29, 2008

Red diaper babies and strict justice

Tonight we had Shabbat dinner at my self-declared “red diaper baby” friend’s house. It was his father’s 80th birthday and the only other song we sang beside “Happy Birthday to you…” was The Internationale. Dinner was Indian food and no bracha (blessing) was said over candles or the abundance of wine that flowed.
The guests came from all over my favorite quadrant of the United States, north of Mason-Dixon and east of the Mississippi. There were a lot of teachers present. My friend is a school principle, as am I, and many of his friends and family were teachers or involved with universities. Discussions focused on disappointment with president-elect Obama’s cabinet choices to the need to lead from the center, from history of central and South America to the slave trade and the continuation of racism.
I was literally picked and dragged into the conversation about the conflict between Palestinians and Israelis. Of course, this comes in the week that I was spoken about to my Israeli friend, a visiting professor of film from the Open University in Tel-Aviv, as a radical. Little did those who labeled me know that they were speaking with someone with a voting record more radical than me. I have voted for both the left wing Meretz party and the left of center Labor party. My friend, I am told, has voted for Meretz and Chadash, the Arab-Jewish communist party. Regardless, radical is a label I wear proudly, although it saddens me that my very grounded perspective is seen as radical.
In the conversation, my wife took a liberal Israeli position. An older Jewish man took a more tradition, American Jewish position, and another guest took a position that was not supportive of Israel. What bothered me most in the conversation was the centrality of a monolithic understanding of justice.
The person who had the biggest grip with Israel brought everything down to the issue of justice, as if justice were a uniform measuring stick by which we can gage the behaviors of individuals and countries. Justice is anything but monolithic. Very little can be measured against justice because it is not a reified thing which has an absolute value. Justice for Jews is different than justice for Palestinians, in general, and justice for me is different than justice for my wife, also a Jew and an Israeli. As long as we aspire for uniform justice, we will only see injustice in the inequalities left from the absence of strict justice. As it says in the Talmud, “If you seek to have a world, strict justice cannot be exercised; and if you seek strict justice, there will be no world…You can have only one of the two. If you do not relent a little, the world will not endure. (Genesis Rabbah 39:6)”

Wednesday, November 26, 2008

Letter to my Palestinian Friend Islam in Hebron

Islam my friend,

I am so embarrassed by the behavior of my co-religionists and co-patriots who are doing these awful acts of terrorism in your beloved city. I imagine that our shared forefather, Abraham, and his beloved wife Sarah are turning in their graves with disgust.
I wish I could explain to these thugs that the reason Abraham bought the machpela was because he understood the difference between divine realities and worldly realities. Clearly Abraham believed that God promised him the land of Israel. This is why he abandoned everything he knew, all his worldly comforts, to go to the place that God would show him, but he also knew that there were inhabitants in the land with deep ties to their homes and customs of their own. Nowhere in the Torah do we have an indication of the burial practices in Ur, but when Abraham comes to Hebron and meets with his Hittite neighbors, he opts to adopt their burial practices, he acknowledges his status as a resident-alien and he insists on buying the plot at the Machpela, in public, at full value, because he wants to show that he accepts the worldly truth—that he is living among people who are different from him and that he must respect their ways.
I wish there was some way we could convince these settlers to walk in Abraham's ways and create breathing room between people when conflict seems eminent. This is what Abraham proposed when his shepherds and his nephew Lot's were having difficulty sharing the fields where their flocks grazed. Abraham proposed separation, two states for two nations, and successfully avoided war. Why is this lesson lost on the settlers who rampaged through your city.
Islam, I am sorry that you and your family must experience this shameful, violent behavior and that in the streets of Tel-Aviv and Jerusalem my fellow Jews are not agitated and ready to follow our command from Torah to “surely rebuke your friend. (Lev. 19:17)” The word friend here is amitecha, which comes from the word am which means nation. We are commanded to rebuke our co-nationals, yet we are so afraid of civil war that we act as if we are paralyzed while your co-nationals are being robbed and beaten by our teenage boys. This is simply unacceptable, as is the response of the Minister of Defense, Ehud Barak, who said that the government will not forcibly evacuate settlers from the "House of Contention," but will instead settle for preventing settler attacks on their Palestinian neighbors. (HaAretz, Nov.26, 2008) Both terrorist violence against your people and illegal acquisition of Palestinian property, as determined by the Israel Supreme Court, are very wrong and need to be repudiated by all Jews, everywhere.
It would be much easier for me to say that these settlers are not my responsibility, that we do not share common beliefs, that they disrespect the government that protects and defends them and thus should be cut off, but this won’t work. That same word, am, which I told you before is the Hebrew word for nation, is a word that was prescribed to the Hebrew grandchildren of our common ancestor Abraham by Pharoah. Unfortunately, we Jews live with the uncomfortable binary of having an identity which we both assume and cannot escape because it is ascribed to us, and we experienced great hardships as a result of that ascription. So we are stuck, as Jews, in bed with our “wicked sons,” a reference to our Passover Haggadah, and you will have to have faith that people like Yariv Oppenheim, the head of Peace Now, and Professor Zeev Sternhell, one of Peace Now’s founders and a victim of those same terrorists you are facing now, and many more are doing what is in our power to change this situation.
Please have faith in us and don’t ascribe to us the same identity you rightly ascribe to those wicked young people doing pogroms in your city. We all share Abraham as a forefather, but each of us, you and me, have people in the family who are making our forebears squirm in their graves. Now the task before us is to call on our inner strengths and talents and find ways to “rebuke our co-nationals” when they do wrong, in a way that helps reverse this terrible violence and brings us back to some form of normalcy. And of course, we cannot give up hope.

Peace be onto you,


Thursday, November 20, 2008

Putting the Dedication in Chanukah

At varying times both Mao Tze Dung and Thomas Jefferson agreed that governments need revolutions in order to avoid stagnation and corruption. You may have heard the quote that we need a revolution every ten years. Judaism also offers a strategy for recommitment to the organization of society in the celebration of the Festival of Lights, Chanukah. Starting with the name Chanukah, dedication, this festival has every opportunity for Jews to recommit themselves to their Judaism, but there are obstacles in our way. For instance, the proximity to Christmas can change the focus of our holiday.

But Christmas is not the only challenge to Chanukah celebration. The State of Israel poses different educational problems. Chanukah is an historical holiday. It commemorates the Hasmonean Wars and the victories of a Jewish family-led military over the Syrian-Greeks. Or does it?

In Israel, where models of Jewish heroism are in high demand, this story fits comfortably with the historical essence of Chanukah. But in truth, this non-religious holiday was created (it is not found in the Bible) for the purpose of helping Jews connect to the continuous concern of God for His people. Sometimes we don't see the miracles around us, and Chanukah is a holiday that the Tanaim, our sages, invented for this purpose. The story of the Chanukah lights is a legend told to remind Jews that God still cared for us after taking our people out of Egypt and during our often difficult existence in the Land of Israel.

As an educator and father, I often ask my students and children why the rabbis created the legend of the oil miracle. My pedagogy never insists on finding a definitive conclusion, but we often discuss the possibility that the rabbis made up a miracle story to assure Jews that God still cared. Of course, I prefer the conclusion some of my wiser students arrive at - that humans are simply limited in seeing the miracles that are always happening around them and that they sometimes need the help of their teachers to point them out.

The modern world also offers a third educational angle on this holiday. Clearly Antiochus tried to end Judaism by keeping Jews from practicing their religion. This was a very good strategy, and Mattathias knew it just as well as his adversaries, which is why he was willing to have his family band together and fight an overwhelming enemy.

What we can all learn from this is that keeping a Jew from Jewish rituals and traditions can contribute greatly to ending Judaism. So now I am forced to ask, why, in the modern era, do some Jews do this to themselves? Why do they, of their own will, not celebrate Shabbat? Why don't they engage in the various rituals that sustain Judaism?

This Chanukah, as Director of Education at Solel, I implore you to ask these questions around your table. Hopefully, it will be a table full of latkes and sufganiot, jelly donuts, with a Chanukiah in the window to share your pride in your Jewishness, but, at the very least, it will be a conscious decision and not a lapse of dedication.

Chag Urim Sameach!

Friday, November 14, 2008

Join the Impact - Protest Prop 8 on November 15th!

Now that we've crossed one barrier to full equality in our country, we must put an end to these mean and dehumanizing policies against our GLTB brothers and sisters. As long as we allow discrimination against some Americans through our legal system, there are two Americas.

Thursday, October 30, 2008

A Jewish Response to the Economic Crisis of Confidence

FDR, as much as I admire him, may not deserve full credit for his response to the economic crisis caused by the Great Depression. Truth be told, he had a role model in our sage Hillel who dealt with a similar crisis nearly two thousand years earlier.

In the century of Jesus's death, under Roman occupation of the Holy Land, the Sanhedrin maintained significant power over a fractured Jewish people. Surely there was distention among the rank and file, and somewhat like today's various Jewish streams, then the splintering had to do with two main issues, the degree of literality of scriptural interpretation and the form of response to outside aggression.

The more familiar conflict had to do with interpretation. The Seduces and Pharisees fought it out over the meaning of Biblical text and it's role in everyday Jewish practice. The Essenes were cave dwelling eunuchs who never had a chance at a future and the Nazarenes were followers of Jesus of Nazareth.

The other segmentation of the Jewish demographic in Israel was over how to deal with the Roman occupiers. When Yochanan ben Zakai decided to leave Jerusalem and sued the Roman general Vespasian, later turned Caesar, for peace, he did it because Jewish zealots and dagger wielding fanatic “Sicarii” were burning Jewish food in order to cause a general uproar.

During the years leading up to this chaos, there was also a terrible crisis is the economics of the Jews of Israel. The cause was a common Biblical commandment related to the Shabbaton, the Sabbatical year. In this year, we are commanded to forgive all debt (Leviticus 25), among other things. Forgiving debt every seven years became a problem under occupation and lenders started to limit their lending. Hillel, recognizing that the release of debt was a divine commandment, decided to create a legal fiction to get around the forgiveness of debt in the seventh year. Instead of canceling all notes, the religious courts would take control of the notes for the Sabbatical year and then return them to their owners. By doing this, money still flowed and the Jewish economy was saved, as much as possible under Roman occupation.

In a way, I wish the current leadership would do more like the Sanhedrin. Instead of bailing out banks who made predatory loans and are now about to go bust because their borrowers can't pay these notes, I think the notes should be bought by the government.

I know – BIG pause. Catch your breathe. Make some snide remark about my socialist sentiments...But this is how I feel.

Why should we help the people who got us into this mess to begin with? Why not use the $700 billion dollars to create jobs that will insure that people can pay their mortgages? Why not hire a lot of people to regulate banks and commodity exchange more seriously? Why not build some jails for these white collar criminals? Or better yet, put them in with the existing criminals and build schools.

Ever since my adolescence when Reagan became president, I have heard that government is bad and big government is really bad, and I don't get it. Sarah Palin, the Republican vice-presidential candidate, just told Senator Biden in their debate that paying taxes was unpatriotic. I don't get this either. The founders of this great country had some very progressive ideas, and I particularly like the one that said “government for the people by the people.”

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes said that he likes paying taxes because with them he buys civilization. I agree with the judge. Taxes and public schools are the two best things going for our society. With them we pave our roads, put police and fire people on our streets and teach our citizens the values of our union. As my daughter, Sahar, likes to ask, “How cool is that?”

In many ways, Hillel and FDR were very similar in that they both saved existing systems that failed. The current bailout or rescue, however you call it, is a temporary fix. It may save the system on a temporary basis but somebody needs to ask the tough questions about the system that got us here.

During my college years, just as the Soviet Union was breaking apart, I went to a concert of the British folk rocker Billy Bragg. He said a lot of memorable things that night. Among them, he said that isms are taking a beating right now, “especially the ism that has inspired him his whole life; socialism.” Then he went on to say that whether you call it socialism or humanism or simply chocolate, he sticks to his believe that every human being has a natural born right to the fruits of the Earth and that, even if human beings choose a system that allows some humans to acquire more wealth than others, he believes that every human being desires their basis human needs met. He listed health care, food, shelter, education and fair government that looks after the interests of the majority.

I so agree with Billy Bragg.

One of the things that puzzles me in the current election campaign is the fact that Barack Obama says he will only increase taxes on the top 5% of Americans, but he fails to share with us the fact that the top 5% of Americans control over 80% of the wealth of this country. Don't get me wrong, I support Obama, but what is the big secret. Why hide this terribly disgusting fact? It is simply wrong that any human being should be deprived of their basic necessities when others are comfortable. Yes, there are some who don't try to improve their lot. Some want to live off unemployment. Some drink or shoot their salaries into their awful addictions. But that doesn't mean that they are less than human and less than deserving of their basic needs.

FDR and Hillel were both great leaders in their understanding and leadership by empowering government to intervene and take an active role in the management of their economies for the benefit of the majority. I think they both failed by returning us to the existing system with out asking the tough questions about wealth and equity, about prosperity and equality and about the limits of accumulation wealth at the expense of other human beings.

My hope is that the next leadership, whoever it may be, learns from the examples of these two great leaders and goes one step further. I don't care about the ism attached to it, although I think is comes from my favorite ism - the one that starts with a J. I just want to be sure it raises the bar for all human beings.

Tuesday, October 28, 2008

Kudos to Niger

Kudos to the government of Niger for deciding to pay reparations of $19,000 to Hadijatou Mani, 24, who was sold into slavery when she was twelve. This is a bold step for a government in a region plagued by human trafficking. 43,000 people are enslaved in Niger against government policy, and slavery persists in Mali, Mauritania and Uganda.

Much has been said about the rightfully vilified slave owner, but I am concerned about the absence of commentary over the behavior of Ms. Mani's parents. According to the New York Times, Ms. Mani "was born into a traditional slave class and sold to Souleymane Naroua," for about $500. By what standard is this an acceptable practice for parents anywhere in our world? Also, where is the outrage over the system that allows the continuation of a "slave class"?

One of the race issues rising from the candidacy of Senator Barack Obama in this country is the question of reconciling with slavery's ghost in America. One way to start reconciliation in a globally productive manner would be to seriously address the issue of human trafficking and the sex trade which persists, even flourishes, worldwide. I was pleased to see that the Bush administration, under Secretary of State Rice, is acting seriously.

According to, "The 2008 Trafficking in Persons Report [by the State Department] on 170 countries is the most comprehensive worldwide report on the efforts of governments to combat severe forms of trafficking in persons. Its findings will raise global awareness and spur countries to take effective actions to counter trafficking in persons...The annual Trafficking in Persons Report serves as the primary diplomatic tool through which the U.S. Government encourages partnership and increased determination in the fight against forced labor, sexual exploitation, and modern-day slavery."

Please take the time to check out the annual Trafficking in Persons Report. Yesterday's decision by Niger is a bold step, but much more needs to be done.

Thursday, October 23, 2008

Remembering Al Boime, my teacher and friend

I first met him like thousands of others, in the auditorium where he taught at UCLA. I will never forget the first class when he jokingly started to read the names of the class roll from what had to be a list of over four hundred students and go up to each student personally to shake a hand and welcome them to class. He didn't even get far into the A's when he stopped and everyone appreciated this as a great icebreaker, but I knew it was much more.
Al Boime, my art history professor and friend, always had a very deep meaning behind everything he did. The joke with shaking hands was merely a joke for many, but for Al it was his way of saying that this is what pedagogy should look like. He couldn't teach without opening the door for friendship and interpersonal discourse, whether he was teaching a seminar or a freshman level intro class, he had to make it human. I entered that door and never left, which is why the news of his death is so painful.
Here's something Al said about his teaching which really illustrates the humility behind this great figure. "By examining the political forces that motivated the art makers and finders, and revealing the hidden mainsprings in visual production, I truly believed that I was contributing to the emancipation of thought, at least in one small corner of the minds of my students and readers. Thus art history became my raison d'être, a vehicle for enhancing the lives of my fellow citizens, while at the same time bringing about a nanno-change toward social justice in society."
A nanno-change? Al, you rocked my world.
I was a student at UCLA while Jesse Helms and his ilk were attacking the National Endowment for the Arts for funding a retrospective of images by Robert Mapplethorpe, and, inspired by Al, I couldn't sit still. I had been studying video art and became very interested in activist filmmaking. Al was off to do research in Washington, D.C. and I followed him there to do some research of my own. From LA, I set up interviews with various congress people and the infamous Senator Helms, but when I got to the Helms office, I was greeted with a handshake and sent off to a noisy cafeteria with two aids who pulled out facsimiles of the Mapplethorpe photographs from a brown paper bag and asked me if I considered this art. “It was kind of like being called a fag on the school yard,” I told Al after the experience. I had traveled all the way from LA on my student budget and didn't get the main interview I had come for. Al had a great idea. He told me about the political pseudo-events that the French artist Delacroix used to do and said he had confidence in me that I could manufacture something much better than a Helms interview. To his credit, I went outside of Congress, put my video camera on a tripod and stood in the frame narrating the story of what happened to me as I took off my clothes. I explained how the image I am creating maybe homoerotic to some viewers, and that I really didn't care as long as it remained erotic to my girlfriend back home. Then I quickly got dressed and ran back to Al's office where I shared with my teacher the story of my conquest. Later that school year, when there was a serious dispute over racism in the university school body elections, around the time of my hero, Abbie Hoffman's suicide, I ran a pig for president of UCLA with huge 8 foot by 4 foot posters of a pig that said, “Eat a fig, do a jig, wear a wig, vote for a pig! Pigasus for President.” Al was elated.
After graduation, in the months leading up to the first Gulf War, I started having mini-salons in my apartment to give exposure to bands and artists I liked and to discuss the big issues of the day. I remember Al coming for a Chanukah salon where we discussed our internal conflict between opposing a military solution and being concerned with the welfare of Israel. Al and I connected over the fact that I was brought up in a socialist Zionist youth movement, and we often talked about the virtues of the kibbutz movement. After the Gulf War, I moved back to Israel with my new girlfriend, now wife, Irit, and lived in Tel-Aviv. I had some government granted rights as a new immigrant which included free tuition at the major universities, so I started a masters degree in art history, but after the first year I couldn't handle it any longer. All the passion for art that I experienced with Al was missing. I learned dates and titles of images, but the social context and great political significance were never mentioned. I wrote to Al to share my discomfort and his response was so inspiring, I wish I could find the letter to quote him. What I understood was that if I am being taught art by methods that canonize the art and the artist in a way that commodifies the artwork and legitimizes the capitalist co-option of the work, then I am not engaging in art history for art's sake. This was what I needed to hear as I decided to leave the program. It also freed me to appreciate art in the way that I most enjoyed it, the way that Al did.
Two years after moving to Israel, Irit and I decided to get married. We had to do it outside of Israel because the Jewish state would only allow us to marry Orthodox, and we were not about to be bullied when it came to making our sacred vows. Instead, we planned three weddings, one in LA where we met, one in Chicago where I grew up, and one in Tel-Aviv where we had an “illegitimate” Reform wedding that became part of the campaign for religious freedom in Israel. Al was at the LA wedding, but told me how proud he was about the Tel-Aviv one. He was also the first to toast us at the conclusion of the ceremony. His wish for us was lots of love and a large family of little Steiner's who could agitate like their father. Al, three kids and fifteen years of marriage later, you got your wish, and much of our children's activism and appreciation of art will always be traced back to you.
Thank you my friend. I will miss you.

Saturday, October 18, 2008

In the Sukkah after a Day of Canvassing for Obama

After a day in Gary, Indiana (no it didn't smell like when you pass through on the expressway), working for Barack Obama, which for me means working for the benefit of my country, I rushed home to be a member of a minyan at my neighbor/friend's house. We sat until the last minute we could and still pray the mincha (afternoon) service because we didn't have a group of ten Jewish men. It was painful because we had adult, dedicated, believing women in the room, and I was more valuable to them because of my penis and its missing foreskin. How absurd and disrespectful. I understand that they believe that women are not bound to mitzvot like men, thus they don't have to make time for every prayer service, but if they're in the room and willing, how could an agnostic like me be more valuable than one of the women of valor in their midst?
Also, their were jokes about bringing the Muslim neighbor which were not met be rebuke (myself included). And there was the standard comments about Obama after people noticed my buttons. "He's gonna ruin this country." "He's bad for Israel." "He's a Muslim."
All my life, I have been diligent about doing the right thing, especially socially. I am weird this way. I really feel compelled to do good by my nation, the poor, my neighbors...And I take it seriously. So when I am in these situations where I see people take more care about following the specific nuances of a ritual, and don't care about the message it sends to women, about the Muslim neighbor being denigrated, or the member of the community who doesn't share the opinions of the majority (or at least the vocal minority), I cannot help but ask myself if the idea my rabbi frequently espouses, that the system of mitzvot is designed to make us better people, is really unsuccessful or designed for other purposes, like control. With all due respect to my rabbi, sometimes I look at my community and think that the designer(s) of halacha were just trying to control the masses and gather power for themselves.

Friday, October 17, 2008

One step for Hebrew Seminar for the Deaf; another for Judaism

Yesterday the Chicago Board of Rabbis voted to accept rabbis ordained at the Hebrew Seminary for the Deaf as members of the CBR. This is a big step forward for my seminary and for Judaism.
Over the last decade, several new rabbinic programs have started up; one in Boston at the Hebrew College, The Academy for Jewish Religion in New York City and now in Los Angeles, and the Hebrew Seminary for the Deaf. There may be others that I am unaware of.
All of these schools are not affiliated with the "official" streams; Reform, Reconstructionist, Conservative or Orthodox. "Official" is a difficult term and I don't want to break it apart right here. What I want to do is point out that this change is part of a pluralization of Judaism that has always existed but at times has been hidden and hushed to create the impression of a monolithic religion. The irony of this is that the orthodox community, which in many ways has been most challenged by the elasticity of Jewish engagement with our religion, is probably the most pluralistic in their numerous divisions and schools.
Anyway, I am very grateful for the bold step of the Chicago Board of Rabbis, and I look forward to my ordination and entrance into this important organization in my Chicago community.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Kosher with Justice

(I wrote this before the Days of Awe and forgot to post it. It is still relevant and needs to be acted upon.)

Agriprocessors Inc. is the nation’s largest kosher meat packer and has just been presented with over 9000 criminal charges for child labor in addition to charges relating to the employment of illegal immigrants and use of hazardous chemicals. What do we do with this information as Jews?
In the New York Times I read that Rabbi Menachem Genack, in charge of kosher supervision for the Orthodox Union, said he would consider suspending supervision of kosher production at Agriprocessors. “Because of the new charges in the state of Iowa, we believe it is in the best interest of the kosher consuming public to have new management with a new C.E.O. that will give people a new sense of confidence that all laws and regulations are being completely complied with.” Agriprocessors, the largest producer of kosher meat, with annual kosher sales estimated at $80 million, must listen to the Orthodox Union.
On May 12th, 389 illegal immigrant workers were detained at Agriprocessors plant in Postville, Iowa, in a raid by the Immigration and Naturalization Services. This came long after PETA, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals exposed unethical treatment and slaughter of cattle at the plant. What do we individuals do with this information as consumers of Agriprocessors meat?
In addition to reading about Agriprocessors in the New York Times, I was proud to hear my rabbi, Allan Kensky, speak about these abuses from his pulpit just after PETA released a video on YouTube exposing the situation in Postville, long before the Orthodox Union responded. I learned from my rabbi that the Conservative Movement was creating a new kosher designation call Heksher Tsedek, a seal of kashrut that raised the bar to include justice in the all aspects of kashrut. No longer can kosher meat be prepared through means that do not conform to Jewish values. Now kashrut will be a value, not just a method of preparing or a prohibition on certain types of foods.
Torah teaches us the importance of ethical business practice in Leviticus when we read, “You shall not falsify measures of length, weight or capacity. You shall have an honest balance, honest weights, an honest ephah, and an honest hin.” (Lev. 19:35)
Torah also teaches us about the ethical treatment of those who work for us. “The wages of a laborer shall not remain with [us] until morning (Lev. 19:13) and “[We] shall not abuse a needy and destitute laborer, whether a fellow countryman or a stranger…[We] must pay him his wages on the same day…for he is needy and sets his life on it, (Deut. 24:14-15)”
The actions the Conservative Movement are something I am proud of for one other reason. In Judaism we are taught to rebuke our fellow. "You shall surely rebuke your neighbor, but not do a sin in the process." (Leviticus 19:17) But it also qualifies the way we rebuke. From his pulpit, Rabbi Kensky told our congregation that he forbids purchasing Agriprocessors brands (Aaron’s Best and Rubashkin’s, among others) for the congregation. He also strongly encouraged us to boycott these brands. This was his form of thoughtful rebuke within the community. It is especially beautiful in light of the fact that Rabbi Kensky is a vegetarian and need not be bothered by this fiasco on a personal consumption level.
The Jewish Council on Urban Affairs in Chicago had a different approach to rebuke. They organized two bus loads of Chicagoans to travel to Postville and take action. These activists both demonstrated against Agriprocessors and in support of the immigrant families. JCUA’s position took rebuke to the general public while the Conservative Movement and my rabbi kept rebuke within the community. I am certain that both sides considered the qualification of rebuke laid out in Torah, “not [to]do a sin in the process." Both came up with very different answers, which is one of the great things about Judaism.
In speaking with Rabbi Taylor, the rabbi I work with at Congregation Solel, we considered having our congregants sign petitions to local grocers asking them to stop selling Agriprocessor’s brands in their stores. It is hard to put political pressure on markets when you are not the consumers of their goods. Reform Jews do not see kashrut as a binding mitsva for them. They see Jewish law as binding if it is about ethical behavior. I have a problem with this. On the one hand, I am for constantly reviewing and renewing the systems that guide my life and my Judaism. On the other hand, ethics cannot be the benchmark of Jewish behavior. What makes us unique is not our values, but how we get their. Without Yiddishkeit and a discussion about God, we would just be a humanistic community. There is room for atheism and agnosticism in the Jewish discourse, but there is no Judaism without Shabbat, Hebrew, Torah and community. Of course, this is a tangent to the discussion of Agriprocessors.
The other concern about the conversation with Rabbi Taylor is the second half of the rebuke command. Are we doing good by hurting Agriprocessors? When I was a college student in the 1980’s we demanded divestment from our universities as a way of forcing South Africa to end the terrible apartheid system. The reason we allowed ourselves to work for divestment is that we understood that the oppressed people in South Africa wanted us to use this tactic. I don’t know whether a poor Guatemalan immigrant family wants us to hurt the employer who, even while abusing them, pays their wages and puts food on their table. This is a terribly complicated question. How do we avoid sin in the process of rebuke?
A more complicated question is why do we allow the system to get to this before we take action? Why do we find ourselves reacting to the world instead of leading to the promised land of our liking? On one level, Rabbi Kensky is very right to respond to a Jewish problem strictly within our community. On another level, JCUA is right to make this a national issue and protest in public because we live among different people. And on still another level, Rabbi Taylor’s and my plan to lead a boycott of the Agriprocessors brands in our community is a great way to take action that will both affect change and cause an internal discussion among Jews. But I think the most important issue here is the one not addressed. We live in a country that includes and depends on human beings who live outside of the law, are not protected by it and are abused because of their illegal status. This is not the kind of country I want to live it.
While I have responded to the situation in Postville with a personal boycott of Agriprocessor’s brands, I have not done enough to address the situation of those abused by my country’s system. In this month of Elul, a time for reconciliation between people, I feel as if my indifference to the plight of undocumented people is a place where I deserve rebuke, and I vow to do more to understand these issues, formulate my own vision and take action.

Monday, October 13, 2008

A Jewish Napoleon Complex

Chabad Chassidism's founder, Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, The Rebbe, (1745-1812) a significant Jewish opponent to Napoleon, once wrote to Rabbi Moshe Meislish of Vilna about the possibility of a Napoleonic conquest of Europe.

If Bonaparte will be victorious, Jewish wealth will increase and prestige of the Jewish people will be raised; but their hearts will disintegrate and be distanced from their Father in Heaven. But if [Russia Czar] A[lexandar] will be victorious, although Israel's poverty will increase and their prestige will be lowered, their hearts will be joined, bound and unified with their Father in Heaven. (Igrot Kodesh Admur HaZaken, letter # 64)

I wonder if Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi were to visit us today, would he feel like a prophet? How would he feel about the modern State of Israel? What would he say about the the form of Judaism he spawned?
On a very personal level, I think he was prophetic, but I'm not sure I love his choice of words. Has the Jewish heart disintegrated? Have we distanced ourselves from our “Father in Heaven”? I am also uncomfortable with his assertion that poverty and lowered prestige are essential for a divine connection. But sometimes I look around me and I think that he really understood historical trends.
Israel, for example, is collectively wealthier than it has ever been, although the wealth is concentrated in very few hands. Yet, Israel, overall, is very narcissistic, lacking empathy for its Palestinian neighbors, pre-occupied with itself and “Megalomaniacal,” as Prime Minister Ehud Olmert said about its position in the world, particularly with regard to Iran. What would Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi say about the modern Jewish state?
America, on the other hand, the home of the most free Jewish community in history, is also the home of the greatest Jewish assimilation ever. Have our Jewish hearts disintegrated and have we distanced ourselves from our Heavenly Father? I would have to disagree with this assertion, although I am under no illusions that something about our freedom has changed us.
In Rabbi Shlomo Schwartz' Grateful Deadesque, chassidic high holiday services on Pico Boulevard in Los Angeles (according to my friend DS Racer) they dance, mockingly, right before they blow the shofar at the end of Neilah, on Yom Kippur, as they sing "Napoleon's Victory March." This is their way of cheering on the Czar over the emperor in fantasies of maintaining their poverty and persecution in order to sustain their connection to God. This is hard for me to understand.
According to DS Racer, “the telephone poles all over Pico/Robertson have posters hung on them, advertising chicken-swingers who can come to your home and perform these Kapparos rituals... BTW, Kapparos is on page 1 of the Chabad Yom Kippur machzor, and actually tells people to use chickens, and not some symbolic substitute.”
Kapparot (the modern Hebrew letter Taf at the end should sound like an English letter T) is a form of cruelty to animals. It is an old tradition that needs to be reevaluated in our times. Doing so is not indicative of a disintegrating heart or a distancing of ourselves from God. Jewish traditions have always been changed and reformed. Using a rubber chicken or dropping the ritual altogether is not blasphemy. It is illustrative of why God gave us minds of our own and free will, to make choices, and hopefully righteous ones.
Still, I am not totally dissing Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi. While Chabad has hardened Judaism into a primitive set of rules and regulations, I think other streams of our tradition have gone to far in different directions. Chaim Nachman Bialik wrote a beautiful essay about the tension between Halacha and Aggadah. I would quote it, but I am not a good translator and it is written in Hebrew. Halacha, our path, is a set of codes that are supposed to be followed by virtue of the fact that they are God's legal system. They don't need to make sense to us. We just need to be diligent and disciplined. Aggadah is the rich lore and legend that we were given and which is not as easily understood.
Between Halacha and Aggadah the tension is between strict laws that have been interpreted many ways and a library of stories which are also their to be interpreted. An Orthodox rabbi I sometimes study with recently taught me that the difference between the streams is the rules by which we do our interpretation. Of course, he added that his interpretation (Orthodox) is the correct method.
I repeatedly say that the beauty of the Talmud is the machloket, the debate which is incomplete and waiting for us to engage with. I don't think we need to be poor and oppressed to engage, but Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi is right that certain conditions need to be in place in order for the debate to be Jewish, otherwise our hearts do turn from Judaism, not exactly disintegrate as he puts it.
For the past year plus, I have worked in the Reform movement as a director of education, and I seriously struggle with the idea that the Halacha can be segmented into ethical and other paths. The Reform movement does not see itself bound to Halacha as the Conservative and Orthodox do. They adhere to what they consider ethical halacha and their Judaism becomes very centered on social justice and God.
In Conservative Judaism, they see themselves as a Halachik movement, but they interpret the Halacha in a way that fits the times yet still adheres to the Rabbinic tradition of loyalty to Torah and machloket (debate). In some ways, this works best for me because it respects the idea that Judaism is a discipline that is intended to make us better people. Within “better people” there is the concern for social justice, but there is a solid position regarding the relativism of only following ethical Halacha. Also, the debate about the interpretation of Halacha and the system of disciple which makes us better people is a debate that doesn't have to include God. The Rabbis said that Torah was at the center. I have my own interpretation of the phrase found in the Sayings of our Fathers, “The world rests on three pillars; Torah, Avodah and Gmilut Chassadim.” Torah is clear. Gmilut Chassadim is understood as acts of loving kindness, and Avodah can be interpreted as either worship or work. I side with the latter. I don't need to make a decision about God in order to believe that our system of Halacha is intended to make us better people. I just need to believe that the machloket is still going on. This is what troubles me about Chabad.
Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi could have done a lot more to save Judaism by creating a movement that was open to debate as a reflection of our times then building a wall around the Torah made of poverty and persecution. If only he could have applied his prophetic vision to the need to adhere to our role as a holy people with a holy mission instead of getting tangled up in the minutiae of following a Halacha in strict detail. Who cares if the chicken you swing over your head is a really chicken or a rubber chicken? The one who should care (excluding the chicken's mother) is the person who is making this world better for us all through a system of rituals that keep us on the right path. If that takes a kaparot ritual, fine. So be it. But it also takes a modern interpretation of a ritual that is currently critical of this abusive practice against animals.
One of the beauties of our Machloket is that we debate over generations. Rabbi Schneur Zalman of Liadi, I'd like you to know that I have trouble with some of your practices as I see them in my lifetime. Maybe they were right for you in your time, but we need to live in the reality of this world today, and this world is much more tolerant and the lot of many Jews is much more wealthy. Maybe if you can step outside of the wall you built around our Torah, we can start talking about our mission as Jews instead of hiding ourselves inside the world of victimization and poverty. Napoleon certainly was not a wonderful guy, but he spread religious freedom throughout Europe and gave us a chance to participate as full citizens in the way we shape the world we live in. Now, let's put our heads together and see how we can make the best of this new position of the Jew in the world. I think together we can do great things.

Saturday, October 11, 2008

Power and Glory

Phill Ochs song, Power and Glory, became very clear to me today as I drove from Chicago with my three kids and another 13 year old to Paw Paw, Michigan to canvass for Barack Obama. We drove from suburban Chicago through Gary, Indiana and then up through Michigan on Interstate 94 surrounded on all sides by trees that were green and red and orange and yellow, and all amazing. Then we got our assignment and drove on a small state highway to Decatur, Michigan past signs for John McCain, Obama, sheriffs, state senators and representatives and fresh fruit, and I totally connected to the lyric...

Here is a land full of power and glory
Beauty that words cannot recall
Oh her power shall rest on the strength of her freedom
Her glory shall rest on us all (on us all)

Then we got out of the car and started canvassing and other lyrics in the song started to make sense.

But our land is still troubled by men who have to hate
They twist away our freedom & they twist away our fate
Fear is their weapon and treason is their cry
We can stop them if we try

And try we did. There was the woman who told us that if we read the Bible we wouldn't be canvassing for Obama. There were the very angry Ron Paul voters and the somewhat disrespectful McCain supporters and then there was the Obama supporter who brought us 5 bottles of water for our journey.

One of the nicest stops had nothing to do with canvassing. We drove up to a fresh fruit stand that was self serve. We bought corn, green beans, tomatoes, peppers and apples and paid by putting our money in a slot. What a beautiful feeling to be trusted by your fellow country folk.

This is a land full of power and glory and I hope my kids and their friends are learning that each Shabbat as I substitute Torah and rest with American democracy in my modest attempt to make good citizens and people of them.

Wednesday, October 8, 2008

Responding to Religulous

One of the last things I did this year to prepare myself for Yom Kippur was to see Bill Maher's movie, Religulous. The movie is not exactly a documentary, in the traditional sense, and not a narrative, although it is Bill's search for some meaning in the wilderness of religious fundamentalism. But maybe this is an unfair characterization. Bill might say that his film was an argument against religion. One also might say it was his giving the finger to religion. This is a matter of perspective. I am simply trying to let the reader understand where to position the movie relative to their own experience with movies that are not fiction, docudrama or documentary.
The movie starts in Megido, the biblical Armagedon. This really sets the tone because we understand from his choice of openings that he is going to attack the religion for its literalism. It's as if to say, “Look at this place. This is where millions of people think the end of days will start.” And he is right for having problems with the literalism, but he is wrong for being so patronizing as to say, “Millions of people have wrong beliefs,” because, by nature, beliefs are not about right and wrong. They are beliefs. If we hold them, we think we are right. If people don't share our beliefs, we tend to think they are wrong because we cannot have dissonant understandings of the world at the same time. Or maybe we can.
Maher's director, Larry Charles, who also made Borat, is very good at making people look bad, ignorant, ridiculous, but there is something unfair and unethical about making your case this way. It's very much like the current elections. One side or the other tries to invalidate the plans and approaches of the other by slandering the character of the planner. There was little wrong with Mahatma Ghandi's non-violent civil disobedience, nor with his prodigy Martin Luther King, Jr. But both men cheated on their wives. Should we throw out the baby with the bathwater because the guys who drew the bath were human and made mistakes? I don't think so. This is how I approach the subject of the elections. There is room to question the efficacy of the person with the plan, but we need to discuss the plan not the character of the planner. And what the film Religulous does, over and over again, is make the religious seem like morons, which is not necessarily the case. Furthermore, there is much less value in the discussion if it only centers on the outcome and not on the motivation. This is what bothers me so much.
Of course this should bother me. I am training to be a rabbi. I want to bring what I understand as Judaism to Jewish people and their families who want to engage with me in being a holy community as we understand the Torah and later writings. I accept that this is a very problematic statement because it puts me in the same boat as all the charlatans who use religion for their own benefit. But I am also in the same boat as Bill Maher who just wants to be guided by rationalism and ethics. For me, the rabbis left us a Talmud full of discrepancies for us to know that the answers are not final, that the debate is important and that “the Torah is not in heaven,” which is a line they use when they argue against the voice of God.
Two Shabbatot (Saturdays) ago, I sat in shul (synagogue) and heard my daughter give her dvar Torah (sermon) at her bat mitzvah in which she said that there is a discrepancy between Moses' use of the line, “it is not in heaven,” and the rabbis. Moses uses this line to tell us that Torah is not inaccessible. He says that we don't need to swim across the sea to reach it. The rabbis quote Moses in order to say that the Torah is, “not in heaven” and therefore it is ours to interpret. This is totally antithetical to fundamentalism and I still kvell thinking about my daughter sharing this brilliant teaching. Maya said that she sees the different uses of the same idea and sides with the rabbis. Torah is here on Earth for our interpretation.
The problem with this interpretation, like the problem with Bill Maher's movie, is that it leaves us open to relativism, and this is also a problem with the Talmud. In the same story, in the same paragraph where the rabbis invoke Moses, they also invoke a line from Genesis (I think) that says, “go according to the majority.” Since I'm not completely certain about this source, I won't dispute its usage here, but I definitely have a problem with this concept. On the one hand, I am proud of the Jewish source for democracy, and on the other I am fearful that a majority could be the defining of morality.
For Bill Maher, and for his nemesis, Ben Stein, who also made a movie about religion this year, science is the definition of right and wrong. Both think that if science can “prove” something than it is definite and absolute, and I am just as skeptical about this as Maher is about religion.
In his defense, Bill Maher asks us to doubt. He doesn't want a world full of atheists, I think, because that would be a different type of certainty, he just wants us to not be so certain that our beliefs are universal truths. But what I find troubling about this approach is what bothers me so much about the movie. It is what bothers me about post-modernism. They deconstruct and don't offer anything to build with.
I am quite certain that religion, as Maher points out, has been manipulated to benefit those in power. It has been the cause and justification for many wars and human tragedies. But religion, as I understand my Judaism, is also about trying to understand larger questions about our existence and our purpose. In the absence of this discussion in civic society, I turn to the tradition that has been exploring these subjects for millenia and ask, what have we been doing right and what needs to be changed. Just as I have a problem accepting that monotheism is the final answer to the great questions about morality, I have equal concerns about atheism and the absence of ritual and discussion about our role here on Earth.
In Religulous, Maher makes religion out to be a bad substitute for science, which it is. My rabbi says, when he wants scientific answers he turns to science and when he wants religious answers he turns to religion. This is a great way to avoid dissonance and make room for a plurality of answers to complex human needs. Religulous seems to replace religion with reason, which can also be a flawed absolutism. Not all things are reasonable in all times, and not all things need rational answers.
For those of us who do not take scripture to be completely literal or historical, there is nothing wrong with using the story of Adam and Eve to say that we are all part of a human family, and there is nothing wrong with having bad examples from biblical figures when we understand them to be there to show us how not to behave.
Last year, during the reading of the Judah and Tamar story, I gave a dvar Torah to the Jewish Community Relations Council on this portion of the Torah and expanded the issue to a larger question; why is there so much familial deception in the Genesis stories? I suggested that maybe we are meant to be appalled by the behaviors of our forebears and thus to not follow their bad ways. I used this to make the point that maybe the same should be applied today when we deceive ourselves about the way we treat the Palestinians under our control. Instead of finding ways to excuse ourselves, maybe we should find ways avoid doing what would normally be repugnant to our sensibilities. This type of parshanut, interpreting the Torah, is a beautiful example of how to make scripture come to life in productive ways. It is a method offered to us by the rabbis and it is worthy of praise. This is what is missing for me in the post-modern world where things are deconstructed and unpacked, but there is no room, nor tools for constructing a conjoint, progressive agenda or understanding.
Ultimately, people like Bill Maher and his director, Larry Charles, can make us laugh and get on a high horse as they patronize the faithful, but for us agnostic adherers to ritual and tradition, they offer very little and the joke grows old much too quickly.

Whose Religious Extremists?

My friend Eboo Patel writes a blog for The Washington Post's section called On Faith. You can read his most recent article by clicking here. Below are my comments to Eboo.
While you're reading his article, check out the Interfaith Youth Core which is the NGO he founded and leads.

Eboo, I think you misunderstand J.Edgar Hoover's comment. Keeping the extremists in the tent is a way of keeping them under lock and key. This is why Israel had such a hard time deciding whether to outlaw Meir Kahana's Kach party despite their overt and radical fascism and racism. On the one hand, you don't want to admit that you have extremists, on the other, you need to contain them.
It was a mistake when the United Nations excluded South Africa because it left them out of the debate. What we need is engagement with our moral enemies. This doesn't mean trade and cultural exchange. It means discourse.
It sounds like you want them Israelis to cut loose their settlers and not take responsibility for them. I would advocate real engagement, not just infrequent rebukes, but holding them to Israeli law. If this were the case, they wouldn't live on most of the land they occupy, they would find much of their leadership in jail and they would not be able to harass Palestinians or members of the Israeli left.
"Othering" the moral enemy and disengaging from them is a way of setting the ground for military action against them. This should be the last resort of civilized nations.

Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Overscheduling as a Jewish Issue

As Education Director at Congregation Solel, I frequently confront a question that many of our parents ask daily, “Are our kids overscheduled?” The implications of the answer are serious for Jewish education, and, more importantly, for our children, but the questions we ask will have a lot to do with the answers we receive.
In Gravity’s Rainbow, Thomas Pynchon writes, “If they can get you asking the wrong questions, they don't have to worry about answers (P. 251). This seems to be part of the problem with the research, in general, and over scheduling, specifically; depending on the questions we ask, we get different answers.
In a recent article in The Washington Post (September 28, 2008), two new studies claimed that “organized activities are linked to positive outcomes in school, emotional development, family life and behavior…” and that, “children most at risk have no activities at all.” Of course, this says very little about the social and economic status of the families of the children in question, which leads me to ask, would we see positive outcomes in “school, emotional development, family life and behavior” if these children were not overscheduled?
The authors of the recent studies, it was reported in the Post, "started out with a pretty solid belief that lots and lots of activities are bad for children." according to Sandra Hofferth, director of the Maryland Population Research Center at the University of Maryland at College Park. Their research found the opposite. Hofferth’s study did not link depression, anxiety, alienation and fearfulness to overscheduling.
Earlier research by William Doherty, a University of Minnesota professor, asserts something completely different. He says that "Kids don't get enough sleep; they don't get enough downtime to be creative and thoughtful; they don't have enough hangout time," Doherty, based on his conclusions, has organized parent initiatives against overscheduling.
As we can see from these studies, the answers we gather are based on the questions we ask. And sometimes, when we need an answer to fit our perspective, we are willing to alter the question to get the right conclusion.
What does this mean, the right conclusion? There is a psychological theory called cognitive dissonance which states that human beings are not capable of having concurrent dissonant cognitions. If we know it is a sunny day, we cannot also know it is a rainy day at the same time, in the same place. If we learn that our kids are overscheduled, then we will need to do one of three things; accept the situation and deal with it, reject the learning and believe that we are doing just fine by our kids, or we can make a change in our kids’ schedules.
I would like to propose that we have at least one more option. Before accepting any of these conclusions about overscheduling, let’s examine what might be wrong. In her study, Ms. Hofferth looked at behavior and Mr. Doherty looked at unscheduled time. I believe that we are being asked to accept the wrong or limited questions. When I read Ms. Hofferth’s conclusions, I can understand why we would want our children in organized activities. These are times when our kids can try things we could never teach them and they spend time with professionals dedicated to their field. Two of my kids study karate and the other learns to dance. Both are experiences I could never give my children and both are brought to them by experts in their fields. What could possibly be bad about that except for the concern Mr. Doherty has that it leaves little time for unstructured creativity, rest and socializing—other things I am glad to give to my kids.
But the problem with hanging our hats on either of these conclusions is that they are not comprehensive. And this is where we come back to Judaism and the role of the Religious School at Solel. In Judaism, we don’t ask only questions about our well-being. Our sage Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? And if I am only for myself, what am I?”
The fourth option available to Jews when caught in an epistemic crisis, a place where what we know is in conflict with new information, is to ask the big questions. Maybe there is something I do not understand here? What might a God’s eye view of this picture look like?
When I confront the research about overscheduling, I want to know the effect on my child. But I want to look at this broadly; not just about stress or sleep or positive outcomes. Whether I decide to limit my child’s activity or I decide to fill the schedule, the most important question on my mind is what kind of human being will I be creating. Of course, I want a physically fit, happy child with great self-esteem, but I also want a child who knows the importance of being a good person, giving tzedakah, treating others with respect and walking in the ways of our Torah.
The problem with the current research about over scheduling is not a problem of the researchers. It is a problem with the larger society. These studies reflect what we want to know about the scheduling of our children’s time. I think we should ask more of ourselves. Now that we’ve examined the subject, let’s find out the value of hierarchies in our scheduling. What happens to the moral fiber of a child when travel soccer is equal to religious school? What happens when paying for tutors is more important than giving tzedakah?
These are questions that really matter and as Jews we have the fourth option. Let’s use it right and fulfill the vision of scripture that we should be a light unto the nations and fill our role as a holy people. By doing this, we can lead the charge as we broaden the questions we ask and raise the bar for ourselves as parents and as human beings.

Monday, October 6, 2008

I still cannot fathom why many Jewish voters will not take Barack Obama at his word. They do not listen to the defense of Obama by respected Jews and Israelis.

The movie below is part of our cachet of facts to show what Obama is about and which prominent Jews are willing to speak on his behalf.

I hope it is useful to my friends who still have doubts.

Using Post-Modernism to Understand How I feel after the Meltdown of the Cubs

Post-modernism has a tool called deconstructionism. Ironically, it is what attracted me to return and explore my Judaism. In Hebrew there are two terms that fit in this tradition; leefroke and lifarek, to unpack and to take apart (deconstruct). The basic idea is that a meaning has been constructed and we need to take it apart, to unpack the layers within the text to understand it. This is what I am struggling with after the Cubs disastrous collapse at the hands of the Los Angeles Dodgers over the last week. How can I derive meaning from this tragedy?
The text of the Cubs collapse is written by many hands and has a lot to be picked apart. Michel Foucault speaks about the oeuvre of an artist or author, and asks some pointed questions about the relationship between the artist and the work. In this Foucaultian reality, what are the Cubs. Who is the author of the text that had me fighting my tear ducts last night and confronting nightmares about the demise of my team.
I define “text” very broadly. The Cubs loss of the National League Division Series is a text. When I explain my understanding of text in an academic lecture, I bring a slide of Rene Magritte's painting, The Human Condition. In this painting, the literal presentation is a wall with a window in the center which is open. When we look out the window, we see a landscape, but when we look more closely, we see an easel in front of the window and the painting it supports is the landscape in front of us, which we see almost seamlessly except for the edge of the canvass.
The way I understand this painting is that there is reality out there, and then there is the reality that we see. Within the reality we see, metaphorically, there is a window and there is a landscape. And then there is the reality framed for us on the canvasses or in the words of others. This reality is the text. It was created and framed for us by human hands and minds, and it closely blends into the way we see the “real world,” if there even is a difference between the two.
So what is the text of the Chicago Cubs defeat yesterday? Let's start unpacking.
The Cubs are a baseball team. Their home is Wrigley Field, an old baseball stadium in the North Side of Chicago. I refer to this stadium as my second temple after the one I pray in and before the one where I work. When I was in Israel and heard a public comparison between the destruction of the Temples in Jerusalem and the destruction of Ussishkin Stadium, where one of Tel-Aviv's two basketball teams played, I understood the comparison completely. I understood it even more as I watched the Yankees play their final game at “the house that Ruth built,” which is the term of endearment for their stadium which recently shut its doors.
Because baseball teams have homes, I can relate to them as a human being who greatly values the house I live in which is a home by virtue of the experiences my family has in it. Home is where the heart is, and a big piece of my heart resides at the corner of Clark and Addison.
Baseball teams are also collectives. There is a roster of twenty five men (I won't go into a feminist dialog here, even though one is begging to be had.) There is a patriarch; the manager, and a bunch of uncles, the various coaches who help with batting, pitching and running the bases. There are the family's doctors who make house calls out to the field when someone is hurt, and there are the fans. In Chicago, there are die hard fans. Rarely when I pray in synagogue am I moved as much as I am when I sing Take Me Out to the Ballgame with forty thousand of my fellow Cub fans from the seats at Wrigley.
Take Me Out to the Ballgame is one of many baseball rituals. Before a game, instead of a tallit, I put on one of my various Cubs shirts or hats. I come to the field with peanuts (no Crackerjacks) and bottled water. I try to come early, when I go with my kids, to catch batting practice. And all fans stand during the singing of the national anthem, and many take off their hats. The list of rituals could go on for pages.
Foucault's questions about the oeuvre include questions about who is the author. I understand him to be asking, “Is the young Hemingway the same person as the veteran writer of his later works?” One could ask, “Is the team that has played at Wrigley the same team that played there in 1945, the last time the Cubs made it to the World Series? Is it the same team as the one who won the Series in 1908. There is little tangibly the same about the 1908 Cubs and the 2008 Cubs, outside of the name, Those Cubs didn't play in Wrigley. The owners are not the same. The fans are not still living. Those Cubs had slightly different uniforms. I can't remember the names of those Cubs. I remember the names of so many Cubs since my first major year as a fan, 1969 (I was four at the time).
Foucault's question about the author is an important one. Am I the same fan I was when I was four? I remember watching the Cubs collapse in 2003 and thinking to myself how this was a good thing because my 3 year old son, at the time, would not benefit from the lessons of perseverance that I did if he gets a World Series victory before he reaches double digits. Now at forty three, I have learned perseverance. I am a different fan than I was at 4. I want my World Series! (Silent whine held inside.)
The whole idea of feeling the terrible pain I feel about the Cubs loss is really absurd and illustrates one of the major complexities about human life. Why do I feel connected to the Cubs? When they lost to the Dodgers, the only reflection on me, who I truly am, is in the value I invested in this team. The fact that they chokes does not indicate that I will choke under pressure. The fact that they have been swept in their last two post-season series has no reflection on me, yet I feel miserable.
In my lifetime, I have dedicated huge amounts of resources to baseball. I read a new baseball book every March. My last was excellent; The Physics of Baseball. I buy baseball cards for my son. I take my three kids on baseball trips all over the country including Miami, Atlanta, Washington, New York, Toronto, Pittsburgh, Detroit, Cincinnati, Cleveland, St. Louis, Kansas City, Milwaukee, Los Angeles and more. Without a second thought, I can watch a baseball game for three hours and not feel the time pass. When I take my kids to the park, I feel like I am investing in their character.
But it's really all absurd. I am investing resources and emotions in something that doesn't reciprocate, except in the joy I get from watching. It does not care about me. It goes to profit big corporations. In this case, Sam Zell and the Tribune Corporation. And it is more about commercialism and capitalism than anything else. They use my love for the Cubs to their own gain. They sell me clothes and books and tickets and food. And they charge as much as I am willing to pay, if not more because there are thousands more like me, and they don't think about the private Jewish school payments I have to make or the synagogue fees or the rabbinic school tuition. It really is absurd.
And the real irony is that I will continue to read about baseball and travel to spring training and freeze on opening day and nothing will change. And I will continue to hold a bunch of stupid superstitions about why we lost and what I could have done to make them win.
I have an interesting story about this. I was once walking on the beach in Tel-Aviv on election day in 1996, during a contest between Bibi Netanyahu and Shimon Peres, when I saw a man being dragged from the water. As I got closer, I saw that the people attending to him did not know what to do. I had my daughter on my back and my wife at my side and decided to attend to my civic duty. I took the Gerry Carry off and handed it to my wife and then ran over to the victim who was now blue in the face. As a former life guard, I knew exactly what to do. I bent down and started to resuscitate the man. I blew the breathe of life into his whiskery, blue mouth and saved him.
Later that day, I thought to myself, “I did my part. Now God, do something for me. I want a Peres victory.” It was a crazy thought and I don't want to believe that there was any real faith behind it. But it fits in with the Butterfly in South America flapping it's wings (chaos) theory. Everything is interrelated and I wanted my actions to be causal, which I'm sure they were for the victim's family, but I wanted a Peres victory, which I didn't get, and yesterday I wanted a Cubs victory, which I may never get.
And now I must face my fears and climb into bed even though I'm afraid I will be on the same plane I dreamt about last night, with Billy Williams and Ernie Banks and Fergie Jenkens and other Cub legends, and we will fly over Shea Stadium and they will reveal their plan to take revenge on the Mets and I will argue uselessly against them just before Ron Santo comes into the cockpit and tells me that its alright, there's always baseball heaven and we can root from there, and so on, and so forth, into our second century of loserdom.
A lot of good deconstructing this loss has done me. Good night!

Sunday, October 5, 2008

Domino's Pizza

Yesterday I made some claims about Domino's Pizza. I checked myself and found mistakes. Please read below for clarification

Domino Theory

Claim:   Domino's Pizza financially supports Operation Rescue, an anti-abortion group.

Status:   False.

Origins:   This is a tricky claim to untangle, so bear with us. While it is untrue that Domino's Pizza itself has ever supported anti-abortion groups, its founder certainly has. Out of his personal wealth, founder Tom Monaghan has supported a number of causes over the years, including some in the pro-life camp, and his wealth came as a result of the success of the chain...
Tom Monaghan's selection of social causes, and no matter how one views the question of direct versus indirect underwriting of them via pizza monies, it's all moot now. These days none of the revenues that flow into Domino's reach this controversial man, so no portion of what a customer pays for a medium pepperoni-and-cheese funds the causes he supports. Monaghan sold his Domino's Pizza empire to Bain Capital Inc. for $1 billion in 1998. He now runs the Ave Maria Foundation, which supports Ave Maria College, a separate law school and a system of elementary schools.

Saturday, October 4, 2008

Insights from a Shabbat in Iowa Canvassing for Obama

When I was a kid, my mom took me canvassing the neighborhood for Abner Mikva and McGovern, and I have never stopped. So it came as instinct to me when I was called upon by the Obama campaign to pack up the kids and get on the bus to Iowa. Actually, it was more than that. I called the friends, called mom, and then made reservations with the campaign for ten of us.
The day started at 5:45 with an argument with my eldest who wanted to stay in bed. Maya, I told her, there are times when you just say to yourself, 'I'll sleep when I'm dead, and then get to work on the important things in life.” Of course, she retorted, “If I get out of bed right now, I might die a lot sooner than you want.” Luckily, I knew better.
The Bus from Evanston took about four hours to get to Davenport with a rest stop in the middle. My son, Itamar, fell asleep instantly. Maya and Sahar read, and my friend Fran and I studied Yeishayahu Leibovitz, the Israeli peace activist, scientist and Talmudic scholar.
In Davenport, at the Obama headquarters, we were trained in canvassing. It wasn't what I had expected. We were not messengers of an Obama message so much as messengers of early voting possibilities and accounting for the who actually lived in the area we canvassed. We met about 60 percent of our roles and 90 percent of them were already planning to vote Obama. We met one felon who we informed about changes to the voting laws that would allow her to vote and one Ron Paul voter who warned us that Obama and McCain were both war mongers and Zionists. He was a very scary guy and I was afrain my daughter Maya would share that she was born in Jerusalem.
I was very disappointed when we returned to the Obama campaign headquarters and were served Dominos Pizza on Styrofoam plates. My compulsion to quietly rebuke acted up and I asked one of the organizers why we were supporting Dominos and eating on plates that were bad for the environment. I was told that the plates were donated and so was the pizza. I said that the moment when the pizza was received was a teaching moment and that the campaign could have taken the opportunity to share with people about the conservative views and contributions made by the owners of Dominos. The same for the plates. They could have said, “thank you,, but no thank you,” and maybe created a new environmental consciousness in the donor. The person I spoke to said that the campaign welcomes donations and that the real focus needs to be on Barak's progressive policies regarding health care and ending the war. I disagreed in my heart and didn't make a teaching moment of it. I didn't want to “sin” in the process of my rebuke, and didn't want to make my hosts feel uncomfortable. I decided to make the teaching moment something I would write here. So here's what I think
On the one hand, as my baseball coaches always taught me, “Don't swing for a homerun. Just get on base.” The analogy here is to shoot for something more obtainable, get a president elected who will end the war and create a good healthcare system. But getting on base is not inconsistent with trying to do good for the team. On the other hand, what the Iowa office was doing was inconsistent with their goals. There is no good baseball analogy, but think about this. We want a president who will respect women's rights to rule their own bodies and who will work to end global warming (and ideally green our society) and the money that goes to feed us lowly canvassers gets spent on pizza whose profit goes to funding Operation Rescue – the major antiabortion vigilante group – and to buy products that are not biodegradable. This is both hypocritical and shortsighted.
But I am not such a purist as to not accept that sometimes you cut corners or act inconsistently in order to obtain higher objectives. I am not a pacifist and will defend myself in order to be able to live and contribute to the world in spite of threats, but I also will start my self defense with my legs and run away before being forced to fight. There are times when the world is gray and it is hard to discern right from wrong or good from bad, but what would have been wrong with asking the donors of Dominos to try another company next time or the plate providers to try paper, even if it costs a bit more.

Now on the bus back to Chicago, I am feeling very good that I lived my Torah for my kids and with them. I made canvassing fun. We got to live democracy in action, and I think they feel like they made a difference. Hopefully, election day will prove this point. Maybe I'll have to spend the next few Shabbatot (Saturdays) on the campaign trail in order to strengthen my chances

Thursday, October 2, 2008

From Heaven's Gate

When he was a child, he heard a song on the radio about an absentee father who loved his son but never had enough time for him. He listened to that song and vowed never to be like that. He particularly felt the pain of the son who was never fulfilled by his father and he decided to never do that to his children when he grew older.
Years passed and this child became a young man. When he went off to university, he remembered how he felt about the song and how he wanted to be able to give his son everything he wanted. He studied business and then did a second degree in business to assure he would have enough money to assure his child would have all his wishes fulfilled.
While he was in the university, he met a woman who he felt very close to. They dated for several years but didn’t marry until he was sure he could support her and a family. She felt the same and worked hard to become an independent person who could make a life for herself, even though she wanted to make her life with the man.
When they both had degrees and jobs and money to show for it, they married. Their wedding was big and beautiful. There was a rabbi to please their parents, and an open bar to please their friends, and good music and dancing and much more. After the ceremony, they did the traditional things that all good Jewish couples do at a wedding. The grandfathers said the blessing over the challah, the parents made speeches and everyone danced the Hora.
After a year of living together as a couple and settling into their home, they decided to start planning a family. They decided to have two children; one to replace him and one to replace her. “Zero population growth” was their motto, and they were sticking by it.
When it came time to send the children to pre-school, they joined a local temple and enrolled the kids. Every year they came with their parents to synagogue on the New Year and Yom Kippur. They even came once in a while to a family service at the synagogue where they made friends with some of the parents of their children’s friends.
When the children wanted a new toy, their mother always went out to the store and got it for them. When they wanted ballet lessons and little league baseball, their father always signed them up. Soon Mom decided to reduce her hours at the office and help shuttle the kids to activities and play dates. She hated schlepping from place to place but did it for her kids with a smile on her face.
The father worked a lot so he could provide for the family, but he tried his best to be around when he could. He loved baseball and, every now and then, would get the best seats his firm had to offer clients and take them for himself and his family. When the family’s team made it into the championship, the mother bought everyone matching t-shirts with the victory logo on the front. Everything seemed wonderful until one day the father got sick. He fought for months and paid for the best doctors in the city, but it was a loosing battle.
When he arrived in the next world, he was greeted by his father. His father took him home and dressed him in white. Soon it would be Rosh HaShana and God would be opening the gates of heaven and he wanted to get a seat close to the gate so he could look down on the world. The two of them, dressed in white, brought chairs to the gates of heaven. They found a spot with a good view and took their seats.
The angels were very busy looking through ledgers and writing down names. The father took his binoculars and watched carefully as the son asked what he saw. “That is the book of life and people are being inscribed in it. In ten days, on Yom Kippur, the book will be sealed.”
“Are my wife and children in the book? Why was I not inscribed?” asked the son. “Have I done something wrong?”
The father looked at the son and explained, “The book is a metaphor for the work of a king who sits in judgment. I cannot tell you if this is the way God thinks.”
“And what about my family? Will they live another year?”
“If they remain healthy and safe, I imagine they will.” said the father.
“Then my being here is just not connected to my behavior?” asked the son.
“I cannot answer this either.” said the father, “I’m still pondering my own existence.”
Then the son looked down on his wife and children. He watched the way his family continued without him. They continued to go to activities and play dates and get toys and presents when they wanted. Life continued without him even though everyone knew that something was missing.
For the next several years on Rosh HaShana, the father and son would dress in white and bring their chairs early to the gates of heaven and sit and watch the son’s family, until one year they noticed that a new man had joined the family. He supported the kids and loved the wife and didn’t mind that she worked part-time and drove the kids to play dates and activities. Everyone looked happy, so he was content.
The next year on Rosh HaShana, his father didn’t join him in white clothes with chairs and binoculars at the gates of heaven. After a long day of watching his family, the man went to his father’s house where he found him tending his garden.
“Where were you? It was Rosh HaShana and I missed you at the gates.”
“My son,” said the father, “Last year I had a revelation that made it possible for me to not need to look down from heaven any more.”
The son was very hurt. “You had a revelation and couldn’t share with me?”
“My son, not everything is teachable with words. This is something you will have to learn on your own.”
When the son left his father, he returned to the gates of heaven and continued to stare down. The gates would be open until Yom Kippur, and he knew his father’s revelation came to him while staring down on his family.
As he sat there, he saw his family return from the synagogue after the services. The kids played with the numerous toys and gadgets he and his wife had provided for them. The next day, they went to school and then to activities. They seemed happy, but he could sense that something was missing. While they were consumed with having fun and doing their baseball and ballet and working hard at their homework so they could get into a good university so that they could make a good life for their kids, they had forgotten that in the village next to them there were other children in other families who didn’t have everything that they had.
Of course it was hard to know this because from where they where, they could only see their own world. The father, however, looked down on the whole world and he could see everything below him.
Soon Yom Kippur came and the gates of heaven closed. The man went home and planted some seeds and started tending a garden of his own. He worked very hard, and while he toiled, he thought to himself, “If only I could have seen what my father saw, and what I have just seen, while I was alive.” Then he continued to plant his garden and brought the fruits and vegetables he grew to his neighbors in hopes that he could pass forward some of what he had learned.

A Fish Story

Not so long ago, there was a father and son who loved each other very much and worked together in a family business. They would buy fish from the fishermen in the village where they lived and sell the fish to restaurants in the surrounding towns. The business was strong and the father and son grew prosperous together. They each had wives, and the son was raising a family of his own.
One day, God looked down from heaven on this father and son team and decided that things were going too well. God knew from taking the Jewish people out of Egypt that important lessons are best learned through challenging experience. When the people were afraid to enter the Sea of Reeds just before its waters parted, Nachshon ben Aminadav jumped in to the sea and set an example for all the people.
After the incident of the golden calf, God knew that the people would need a reminder for them to walk in his ways, so he took his Torah from the heaven and gave it to Moses to give to the people.
And now it was the turn of this father and son to learn the difficult lesson that the world is not full of strict justice. As it says in our Talmud, “If you seek to have a world, strict justice cannot be exercised; and if you seek strict justice, there will be no world…You can have only one of the two. If you do not relent a little, the world will not endure. (Genesis Rabbah 39:6)”
One day, the son let the father tend to the family business while the son met with the rabbi in advance of his eldest daughter’s bat mitzvah. The son was concerned that he would not be able to afford a party for the entire community to celebrate this joyous occasion, and the father wanted to help his son pay for the simcha.
In hope that he would find a good deal and make extra money, the father woke up early and went to the pier where the two of them would purchase their fish. When he got there, he noticed a big pile of fish lying on the side of the pier. The fish were not preserved on ice, but the fishermen assured the father that the fish were fine and he had no reason to worry. The fishermen were asking for so little money for these fish, that the father didn’t think twice. He didn’t ask any more questions about the fish on the ground and why they weren’t preserved on ice; he just bought them and moved them to the back of his truck to sell to the nearby restaurants. That night, the father gave the son the extra money he made from selling the cheaper fish to the restaurants.
The next day, the son rejoined his father and the two of them went to the pier to buy fish. They got there at their regular time and bought fish from the same fishermen they always bought from, but when they got to the restaurants they always sold to the owners greeted them in anger.
“What have you done to us?”
“All of our customers got sick yesterday.”
“You brought us bad fish.”
It didn’t take long for the father to realize that the fish he delivered the day before must have been bad and that this was the reason why everyone was sick. He had no intention of doing harm, but he was so excited about the inexpensive price of the fish and the possibility of helping out his son that he neglected his responsibilities and took fish he wasn’t sure were good and brought them to the restaurants to serve to people.
Instead of taking responsibility for his mistake, the father was so ashamed that he tried to put the responsibility for the sickness on others. “How can you say such a thing?” said the father, “I bring you the same fish everyday. Maybe you should be speaking to your chefs. Surely they have a bigger hand in this than I do.”
The owners of the restaurant could not believe their ears. They were so angry at the father and son that they said never to return with fish again. Not only that, but they shared their story with all the restaurants in the area, and soon nobody would buy fish from the father and the son. Business was so bad that the money the father gave his son to pay for the bat mitzvah would now need to be used just to put food on the table.
The father only had two mouths to feed, so the pressure was not so bad for him, but the son had to find a job as soon as he could and that meant travelling everyday back and forth to a far away city where he found work. He had little time for his family and no money for his daughter’s bat-mitzvah.
With little spare time, he tried to get to the bottom of the situation. He looked inside himself and searched for the reason behind his terrible luck. Then he remembered that the day his father bought the bad fish was the day he was visiting with the rabbi. He decided to go to the pier and ask the fishermen if there was something wrong with the fish they sold his father the day he was away. The fishermen told him that they never saw his father on that day. This prompted him to ask his father where the bad fish came from.
The father told the story of the inexpensive fish that were on the pier without any ice. He said that he bought it because he wanted to be able to help with the bat mitzvah. The son asked why his father wasn’t honest with the men from the restaurants, but his father didn’t give him an answer. This caused the son to go into a terrible rage. He didn’t want to disrespect his father, so instead of yelling at him, he simply walked away and stopped speaking to him.
The next year, as the Days of Awe approached, the son wanted desperately to forgive his father, but his father never came to apologize. Years passed and the son avoided his father. He was angry and didn’t want to act out of anger. He thought that by avoiding his father, he could avoid acting in a way that would be a bad example for his children, but he knew he was creating a bad example for his children by not seeing his father.
One day, on his way to work, he saw a man trying to stop a car so he could get a ride. He stopped his car and rolled down his car window. The man said he was going to the town where the son worked, so the son let him into the car. As they drove, the passenger asked what business he had in the town, and the son said that he was going to work. The passenger said he was on his way to forgive his mother.
The son asked, “Why are you going to forgive your mother? Did your mother apologize to you for something she did wrong?”
“No,” said the man, “my mother hurt me terribly and has never asked for forgiveness.”
“So why are you going to forgive her?” asked the son.
The man scratched his chin and said, “Since my mother hurt me, many things have gone wrong, and I eventually went for help. What I learned when I got help was that I only have control over my own decisions. If I wait for my mother to apologize I will never be at peace, but if I forgive her without an apology then I will have the peace I seek.”
As he listened, tears streamed from his eyes, and the next thing he knew his car had hit a tree. He woke up hours later in a hospital bed and saw his daughter sitting in the room next to him. He asked, “What happened to the man who was in the car with me?”
His daughter answered, “What man are you talking about, father?”
“There was a man with me in the car. What happened to him?”
The daughter explained that when the police found his car wrapped around the tree he was alone inside. This puzzled the son so much that he asked his daughter if she could bring the rabbi to visit him.
The next day during the rabbi’s visit, the son asked how it is possible that a man sat with him just before his car crashed into a tree, yet when he was rescued he was alone.
“What did the man look like?” The rabbi asked. But the son could not remember.
Then he asked, “What were you discussing that made you drive into a tree?”
The son thought this was an odd question, but he told the rabbi about the purpose of the man’s journey and how he intended to forgive his mother. This was all he could remember, the son told the rabbi.
Then, as if a light was lit in the rabbi’s mind, he stared to glow as he told the son that that wasn’t just any man, “that was Elijah the Prophet. Clearly you have been visited in order to receive a message.”
Suddenly, everything made sense. The son understood what he had to do. He got up from his hospital bed, didn’t even change out of his pajamas, and hailed a taxi near the entrance of the hospital. The taxi took him to his father’s house where he told his father that he forgave him and that they don’t need to discuss it. It was over.
When he got back in the taxi, he recognized the driver. It was the same man who was in his car when he drove into the tree.
“You did a good thing,” the taxi driver said to him.
The son looked at his driver and said, “Thank you. So did you.”