On the Culture of Greed

cross posted to Justice in the City

A few weeks ago, I was in a meeting discussing an upcoming ballot initiative which would eliminate the death penalty in favor of life imprisonment without the possibility of parole. Everybody in the room was opposed to the death penalty. The discussion was about the strategy that should be employed to convince voters to make the proposition law. The campaign’s tactic was to argue that the death penalty was more expensive than life imprisonment without the possibility of parole (LWOP). This is, of course, true. As the LA Times reported:

[An] examination of state, federal and local expenditures for capital cases, conducted over three years by a senior federal judge and a law professor, estimated that the additional costs of capital trials, enhanced security on death row and legal representation for the condemned adds $184 million to the budget each year.

However, sitting in that room, engaging in that conversation, I suddenly got very depressed. I realized how we had all been impacted by the culture of greed that has overwhelmed our country.

I want to make clear that I think that we urgently need to stop our country’s machinery of death and to begin the hard work of justice—reforming our prisons, making victims and/or their families whole, allowing for transgressors to repent and atone (as I argue here). I think that replacing the death penalty with LWOP is a good and important step on the way to accomplishing this. I was reacting to the fact that the parameters of the debate (cheaper is better) are not ones that I agree with and are destructive to the moral fabric of our country and society. Let me explain. More »

Occupy Kol Nidrei NY: “The fallacy that gold is God!”

(Photo by David A.M. Wilensky (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0))

My friend Getzel Davis, a fourth-year rabbinical student at Hebrew College in Boston, delivered a tremendous sermon at the Occupy Wall Street Kol Nidrei here in New York.

All English during the service had to be shouted in short phrases, then shouted back by the crowd. (This is in keeping with the protesters who also use this method because they have no sound permit.) I vote that all sermons should be delivered in this fashion from here on out. I’ve never been among a congregation paying such rapt attention to a sermon.

Anyway, presented here in its entirety is Getzel’s sermon. Just imagine what it sounded like broken into short bits, shouted out in a call and shouted back in a response.

Getzel Davis about an hour before Occupy Kol Nidrei (Photo by David A.M. Wilensky (CC BY-NC-SA 3.0))

Friends – we are here tonight to celebrate the holiest day of the year, Yom Kippur. Yom Kippur has been misunderstood to be a sad day. But really, an early rabbinic texts calls Yom Kippur one of the two happiest days of the year. What makes this day happy? It is the day of forgiveness. This is what Yom Kippor means “The Day of Forgiveness.”

According to our myth, Yom Kippur is the day that we are forgiven for worshipping the golden calf. What is the golden calf? It is the essence of idol worship. It the fallacy that gold is God. How do we become forgiven for worshiping gold?

I believe that G!d is infinitely forgiving. The harder question is how we forgive ourselves. How can we forgive ourselves for failing to live up to our own ideals? How can we forgive ourselves for failing to recognize others’ humanity? How can we forgive ourselves for remaining silent for so long in the face of injustice?

Forgiveness is important because once we can mourn our mistakes then we are no longer ruled by them. We are free to create things anew.

This is what Kol Nidreh is about. It is releasing ourselves from the oaths that we mistakenly took.

When people think about oaths, they usually think of verbal promises. In Judaism though, most of our oaths are “Chazakas” – or oaths taken through repeated action. By doing things again and again, we make internal promises about how we want to live. Other names for these might be habits, preferences, or addictions. These chazakas rule our lives, making things simpler by allowing us to live on autopilot .

The problem with this is that while chazakas are easy, they are often not skillful. It is easier to not make waves. It is easier to not make eye contact with those suffering. It is easier to trust others to run society. It is easier to sit on our butts.

Tonight, you are offered all the internal freedom that you can imagine. How do you want to live the next moments of
your life? Do you want to love more? Do you want to be more joyous? Do you want to speak your truth? What does
your truth say?

Yom Kippur is the happiest day of the year because it gives us the radical option of being here now. We don’t work. We don’t eat. We don’t drink. We don’t have sex. We dress in white robes.

We do these things because Yom Kippur is a ritual death. It is the way that we allow our old selves to die.

Tomorrow, when we break our fasts, we step into newness. We step into being the people we want to be and not just the people we have been.

You know friends, it is hard not to worship gold, or power, or any of the other idols that our society shoves down our throats. I believe that this is why the Torah tells us that there is something else created in the image of G!d.

Us.

In the first chapter of Genesis the first human was created in the image of G!d If we need something to serve here on earth, we are given humanity. Service to humankind is sacred and a reflection of service of G!d.

Glenn Beck apologizes (sorta) but I’m not impressed.

After the ADL gets pissy with him Glenn Beck apologizes (sorta) for his rude comparison of Reform Jews to Islamic extremists but I have to say — I’m not impressed.

First of all, let’s just set aside for a moment the ridiculousness of mentioning Islamic extremists in every other breath – really, I have to say (I never thought I’d defend Beck in any way whatsoever) that really, his comments weren’t about Reform Jews being terrorists. While his comments were completely inane, his point was that Reform Jews are primarily a political organization rather than a religious one. How many ways this is a stupid comment leaves me gasping, but it’s not what most people seem to have taken it as – i.e. a claim that Reform Jews are terrorists.

However, the level of stupidity remains pretty high: More »

American rabbis to Israeli counterparts: stand against discrimination (UPDATED x 2)

At first it was a letter signed by 30 Israeli rabbis, primarily haredi and many in public positions, supporting a religious injunction against renting or selling property to non-Jews. The outrage perhaps was unnotable towards typical haredi extremism. Then the signatories to the letter reached 300 signers, including many more municipal rabbis on the public payroll. This has prompted calls for their resignation or firing them, and even Netanyahu to reject their call.

Now, Israeli rabbis rejecting this ruling have called on their Diaspora counterparts to support them in rejecting this abuse of Jewish texts. The New Israel Fund, the Conservative Rabbinical Assembly, Rabbis for Human Rights, and J Street‘s Rabbinical Cabinet have all circulated a joint letter that’s reached 165 signatures since Friday afternoon. Hundreds more are needed by the end of Monday, December 13 in order to present the letter Tuesday morning during the Knesset hearing on the issue.

Full text below, sign here.

UPDATED 12/14/10: The letter achieved 752 signers at press time. See Haaretz, Ynet, JTA. More signatures will be accepted through the end of the week.

UPDATED 12/15/10: The letter passed 900 signers and saw coverage in The Guardian and the Washington Post online.  The RCA Orthodox rabbinical association now also calls for the “reconsideration” of the original letter.

More »

Rabbi to the Palestinians

A short article in the Independent talks about the work of Rabbi Arik Ascherman, director and Co-founder of Rabbis for Human Rights. The organization is perhaps one of a very few which represents rabbis of all branches of Judaism, who together stand up for Human Rights in Israel.
Rabbi Arik Ascherman
The organization has three main focii: “human rights education, including courses in pre-army colleges; social and economic justice in Israel, which has seen it, with other Israeli groups, win a signal victory in halting the country’s draconian welfare-to-work project; and Palestinian human rights. This last includes a legal initiative which has reversed the takeover of hundreds of acres of Palestinian land by the settlements.”

Of the three, the project which RHR is perhaps most famous for is the protection of the olive harvest in Israel. Despite ostensible legal protection for olive trees in Israel – not to mention the law of the Torah which forbids attacking trees and cutting them down wantonly, even at a time of war, olive trees have been a target of settlers who also may attack Palestinians, settle illegally on Palestinian land or engage in other un-Torah-like behavior.

The inspiration came in 2002, when Noaf abu Ghabia, a Palestinian deeply committed even at the peak of the intifada to co-existence and non-violence, and with whom RHR had joined in various symbolic Jewish-Arab tree plantings, appealed for help against settlers attacking harvesters in the village of Yanoun. RHR began bringing volunteers, and three years later won a crucial High Court ruling ordering the army to protect the harvest.

While it was, as he puts it, a “high maintenance victory”, requiring a constant presence of the volunteers, Ascherman says that this year the army has – despite some exceptions – largely fulfilled the first two requirements of the ruling: protection of access to the land and of Palestinian farmers as they pick the olives. “There are farmers reaching olive trees they haven’t been able to reach for 10 and 15 years,” he says. What the army has been much less good at – so much so that RHR is close to returning to the High Court for a new order – is preventing the destruction of trees and theft of olives by the settlers.

Ascherman has a theory that the settlers’ actions are a response to the nascent peace process, which they see as an “existential threat” to their way of life. He reels off a list of villages where olives have been stolen – sometimes before the harvest – or trees poisoned or cut down. Then he takes us to perhaps the saddest sight of this year’s harvest, the scorched fields within sight of the notably hard-line settlement outpost of Havat Gilad.

Here, between 1,500 and 2,000 trees were burned two weeks ago by settlers – according to some witnesses, with troops looking on – as the “price” for the destruction by the army of two illegal buildings in the outpost earlier in the day

To learn more about RHR in North America and about Jewish values and human rights come to the RHR-NA conference on human rights this weekend Dec. 5-7th.

Yehi zichram baruch


War is evil. It is incumbent upon us always to remember the victims of the institution of war and our culpability in the very fact that wars are still fought.
These are the American soldiers who died since the beginning of the month. Their average age is 24 and a half years old. They are not heroes. They are dead. Today we should remember them-they fought and died because we sent them to fight.

Spc. Jonathan M. Curtis, 24, of Belmont, Mass. died Nov. 1 in Kandahar, Afghanista. 
Pfc. Andrew N. Meari, 21, of Plainfield, Ill. died Nov. 1 in Kandahar, Afghanistan. 
Sgt. 1st Class Todd M. Harris, 37, of Tucson, Ariz., died Nov. 3 in Badghis province, Afghanistan.  
Spc. James C. Young, 25, of Rochester, Ill., died Nov. 3 in Kandahar province, Afghanistan.
1st Lt. James R. Zimmerman, 25, of Aroostook, Maine, died Nov. 2 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Spc. Blake D. Whipple, 21, of Williamsville, N.Y., died Nov. 5 in Ghazni province, Afghanistan.
Sgt. Michael F. Paranzino, 22, of Middletown, R.I., died Nov. 5 in Kandahar, Afghanistan.
Lance Cpl. Brandon W. Pearson, 21, of Arvada, Colo. died Nov. 4 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Lance Cpl. Matthew J. Broehm, 22, of Flagstaff, Ariz. died Nov. 4 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Pfc. Shane M. Reifert, 23, of Cottrellville, Mich., died Nov. 6 in Kunar province, Afghanistan. 
Staff Sgt. Jordan B. Emrick, 26, of Hoyleton, Ill., died Nov. 5 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.
Lance Cpl. Randy R. Braggs, 21, of Sierra Vista, Ariz., died Nov. 6 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.  
Sgt. Aaron B. Cruttenden, 25, of Mesa, Ariz. died Nov. 7 in Kunar province, Afghanistan.
Spc. Dale J. Kridlo, 33, Hughestown, Pa. died Nov. 7 in Kunar province, Afghanistan.
Spc. Andrew L. Hutchins, 20, of New Portland, Maine, died Nov. 8 at Khost province, Afghanistan.
Spc. Anthony Vargas, 27, of Reading, Pa., died Nov. 8 in Nangarhar province, Afghanistan. 
2nd Lt. Robert M. Kelly, 29, of Tallahassee, Fla., died Nov. 9 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan. 
Sgt. Jason J. McCluskey, 26, of McAlester, Okla., died Nov. 4 at  Zarghun Shahr, Mohammad Agha district, Afghanistan. 
Lance Cpl. Dakota R. Huse, 19, of Greenwood, La., died Nov. 9 while conducting combat operations in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

A Question of G-D (And no, we’re not talking theology. We’re talking Bra Sizes)

petrackesther

Fashion designer Zac Posen adjusts orthodox teen contestant Esther Petrack before one of the final runway competitions on ANTM

If you’re anything like me, you’re just dying to hear  impassioned opinions on ANTM (that’s America’s Next Top Model, for the non-cognoscenti among you) from someone who has never once watched the show.

What follows is based on a controversial clip featuring an Orthodox–or more specifically, a Modern Orthodox–Jewish contestant from the recent cycle of the CW reality show and the virtual ruckus it caused among the online community, Orthodox and non-Orthodox alike.

In case you have not seen this yet, here are some…visuals:

18-year-old Maimonides alum Esther Petrack was recently eliminated from the popular CW reality television show and has finally spoken out to dispel the rumors about her and  to address the damning insinuations circulating among the blogosphere and beyond. In a Nov. 3 article in the Jerusalem Post, for example, the Orthodox Jewish reality TV star responded to a rumor that she had lived in Mea She’arim and was excommunicated by explaining that she had never lived there, and adding: ““How did they even find out about me? The video was on the Internet, which they’re not fans of, anyway.”

Indeed in that same interview, Petrack explained that she is not, nor has she ever been  haredi. Yet despite this, the media persists in sensationalizing her story by describing her as haredi or ultra-orthodox.

 Example:

 

Amusingly, the Israeli news reporter here also describes the school she attended in Boston (Maimonides–one of the bastions of so-called Centrist/Modern Orthodox Jewish education in the U.S.) as “haredi.”   Haredi or not, Petrack’s appearance on the show created a stir among many in both the US and Israel who self-identify as “frum.”  The infamous clip of the show went viral in the Orthodox community over a month ago, causing outrage and declamatory, self-righteous tongue wagging wherever it raised its scandalous head.  One can understand why such provocative television might elicit a  raised eyebrow or two but, in all honesty, I think such righteous indignation is misplaced.  In all of the online discussion of this admittedly rather ridiculous episode, search though I might, nowhere could I find condemnation of what seemed to me to be the most shocking moment of all: an instance of blatant religious discrimination. In the video clip above, Tyra Banks makes clear, in no uncertain terms, that all  contestants, irrespective of their beliefs or practices, are expected to conform to the show’s 24/7 work schedule, religious observance be damned.

America's Next Top Model

While the norms and mores of civilized life are often suspended  in ironically titled “‘reality” TV moments like these make me squirm more than scenes of so-called survivors consuming their own feces in order to prolong, for just another glorious week, their “15 minutes of fame.”
 
If an employer in the US today  denied work to a prospective employee based on her/his religious practice, the almost automatic result would be a job discrimination lawsuit with an expectedly grim outcome for the employer .   While, just  under a century ago,  pious  Jewish immigrants, fresh-off-the-boat from Europe would routinely lose their jobs and face poverty and even starvation if they did not work on Saturday, thankfully times have changed dramatically, and now religious tolerance is a blessed norm in the US: no longer does a Jew have to choose between starvation for him/herself and his/her family and Sabbath observance. (Thanks is of course also due to courageous labor unions for more humane work hours and weekends off.)   The apparent demand of the show’s creator and hostess, Banks, that Petrack chose between “honoring the Sabbath” and being part of the show, would seem to be a throwback to “bad old times” before anti-discrimination laws established norms of fairness and equality in hiring.

As to the “case” itself, we can hardly blame an 18 year old for the offenses of a crassly sensationalistic, heavily edited, celebrity-powered televised competition.  While the wisdom of entering such a competition might be questioned at the outset, what Petrack does is her personal choice; she is not forcing anyone – Orthodox or not — to watch or to sanction or imitate her actions. 

Much of the online uproar surrounding Petrack’s supposedly hypocritical activity as an Orthodox Jewish young woman is actually misinformed.  We later learn, via a blog comment posting by Petrack’s mother (or someone posing as Petrack’s mother. However you please), that her daughter’s statement, “I will do it,” (viz., desecrate the Sabbath by working) was actually edited out of context. Upon re-watching the clip, you can see the response, indeed, was edited. Despite the remaining tsniut (modesty) issue, Esther’s Shabbat observance may very well have been ‘technically kosher’—contrary to the way several articles (even some sympathetic) suggest.

 petrack-esther2
A good part of me empathizes with Petrack.  How many of us can readily recall certain decisions and activities undertaken at the tender age of 18 that  we would not exactly wish to immortalize on video? Especially for those of us raised in Modern Orthodox milieus, the eternal saga of rationally reconciling the two (modern and orthodox) is a plight that strongly resonates. Granted, at least in my line of work, this doesn’t generally involve lifting one’s shirt on television…..at least not as far as I can remember, anyway.

One day, when I host a Jewishly-observant-themed talk-show entitled Halakhically Incorrect, I think Petrack should be a guest.

Anyone who has, at some point, lived a genuinely modern and Orthodox existence knows that certain actions, on paper, (or, in this case, video edited out of context) could easily baffle others. Or, as one of my good friends from college whom I recently visited remarked while laughing with a glint in his eye, “Remember when I used to sin for you on Saturdays?” referring to my Shabbat observance in which several of my more keyed-in non-Jewish friends and living-mates knew to flip the bathroom switch on before I ducked in on the seventh day of the week.

In short, the real judgment in this case should be against Banks for issuing such a shockingly intolerant ultimatum, not against an 18 year old struggling to reconcile  traditional religious observance and modernity. But Banks is “nit fun unzere”  (translation: not one of the “tribe”).  So why attack her, right?

Naches all around.

Dramatic reading of JNF’s CEO response to Bedouin demolitions

In response to a petition launched by the Jewish Alliance for Change calling on the Jewish National Fund to immediately halt their participation in the dispossension of Bedouin unrecognized villages in Israel’s economically impoverished Negev region, JNF’s CEO Russell Robinson responded with fiery indignation (full text below).

Jewschool founder Mobius juxaposes the statement over video of the recent demolition of Bedouin village al Araqib for a JNF forest. As aluminum huts crumble, Robinson claims JNF’s Blueprint Negev benefits some tens of thousands of Bedouin in and around select recognized towns. And as phalanxes of policemen shove the poorest of Israeli families from their homes (read: tents), Robinson charges further, “The NGOs and individuals who signed onto this petition did not contribute to the advancement of the quality of life of these residents; rather they seem to spend their time petitioning against those who are.” A heavy charge indeed if the leading signatories are the NGOs providing services to Bedouin that the government does not.

It takes a concerted stretch of humanitarian values to displace people for plants. Or perhaps more correctly, it’s painful rending of the Jewish people’s historical experience to prioritize Jews over non-Jews in a state claiming to be a Western democracy of the highest ethical standard. The JNF has seen only a few small donations by yours truly — which long ago stopped for this very reason. The welfare of Bedouin is important to me after my short time teaching in a Bedouin summer school in 2004.

More »

Murder near Rebbe Nachman’s Grave

A Jewish visitor to Rebbe Nachman’s grave has been murdered by a local Ukrainian. The murder culminates a series of tense incidents between Jewish participants in the Rosh Hashana Kibbutz and ethnic Ukrainians in the city of Uman, in the Cherkasy region of Ukraine.

Here’s the sad course of events.

1. Jewish pilgrims to Uman riot after catching a Ukrainian local stealing from them.
2. A few nights later, a drunk Jewish man stabs a Ukrainian in the stomach who he accuses of stealing. The Israeli is arrested.
3. A few nights later, two drunk Ukrainian men leave a bar in Uman and proceed to murder a Jewish man by stabbing him in the heart.
4. The Israeli government convinces the Ukrainian government to send his body home without an autopsy.

So apparently Rebbe Nachman, that holy, wild, achdus and hisboydedus-baal khesed rogue, stopped dancing in his grave. The realization in the English-language press that the annual pilgrimage to the grave of the Breslover Rebbe is also a site of enormous historical, moral and ethnic weight. The relationship between the local Ukrainians and the Jews, on whose money the Ukrainians depend, is fraught with all sorts of muck. Another day in the life of the land that all but Rebbe Nachman’s followers left behind.

As Lithuanian Jews Remember, They Show The Fractures of Exile

Di Mishpokhe Zingeris

Di Mishpokhe Zingeris


The blog Holocaust in the Baltics, edited by the venerated Yiddish linguist and cultural activist Dovid Katz, has an interesting rundown of the recent commemorative ceremony for destroyed Lithuanian Jewish communities massacred in the Paneriai forest. The ceremony, which was attended by government officials, diplomats and a small group of local Jews, provided a peek into an oft-ignored corner of the exile. Fania Kukliansky, a well-known attorney and head of the Vilnius Jewish Community gave a speech in Lithuanian in honor of those murdered, Fania Yocheles Brantsovsky, a former Jewish partisan who is being investigated by the Lithuanian government for so-called “atrocities,” delivered an address in Yiddish about the need to learn universal lessons from the Holocaust.

The Ponari Forest
Yet the blog details another, much more unusual speech by Emanuel Zingeris, a former Jewish community official turned right-wing Lithuanian nationalist politician. Holocaust in the Baltics writes:

A politically charged speech was given by Emanuelis Zingeris, a member of the Lithuanian parliament and its ruling right-wing faction, who is head of its committee on foreign affairs. Though a prominent Jewish personality, he resigned from the Jewish Community of Lithuania years ago, and has become a leading figure in Baltic nationalist circles. He continued the politicians’ tradition of saying different things to different audiences. He told the assembled crowd that he did not really consider Nazi and Soviet crimes to be equal, and that those who raised ‘suspicions’ about Ghetto escapees were making a ‘mistake’, but made no reference to his own many on-the-record pronouncements over the years in his governmental capacity as point man and ‘court Jew’ for the ‘Double Genocide movement’

Now calling someone a court Jew tells us that Zingeris is a politically powerful man that says one thing to the Jews and one thing to the Goyim. Ah, such a medieval problem!

Not really. The article provides links to Zingeris’ record of spouting “Double Genocide” ideology while sitting in the Lithuanian Parliament. The blog defines as Double Genocide Ideology as:

Attempts to utterly redefine genocide; painfully absurd accusations against aged Holocaust survivors; tacit encouragement of racist and antisemitic moods, particularly victimising today’s remnant Jewish community in this part of the world; attempts to restrict freedom of debate; state financed campaigns to persuade the European Union to accept the revisionist model, via the Prague Declaration, via a Europe-wide mixed Nazi-Soviet commemoration day, and other mechanisms.

In contemporary Lithuania, the land of our ancestors, three Jews are giving three speeches about the Holocaust. And yet, those three Jews, who delivered those speeches in three different languages (none of them Hebrew) hold radically different notions of the Jewish relationship to the Nations. Zingeris, who for a long time was on boards charged with the renovation of Vilnius’ Jewish Quarter, is now counted among those who believe there was little difference between Lithuanian suffering under the Soviets and Jewish suffering under fascist Nazi-Lithuanian collaborators. He also thinks that its appropriate to talk out of both sides of his mouth.

Yet, the Baltic boot that pins Zingeris’ neck in some ways pins us all.

.

Rethinking ‘stam yeinam’

My pregnant wife sitting at home, I stood in the grocery store aisle with two bottles of grape juice in my hand–in the one hand I had the bottle of Kedem grape juice (I usually buy the organic, but they were all out) and in the other hand, a bottle of organic Santa Cruz 100% Concord Grape juice. I didn’t know what to do. My wife and I are dedicated to maintaining an organic diet. Some consumers choose organic products only when available; we choose to ONLY purchase organic products, if there’s not an organic option, we don’t get it. But here it was, Friday afternoon, too late to run around to more stores to look for organic juice that had a hekhsher. What to do… Can I, a soon to be rabbi ordained by the Conservative Movement, say kiddush on juice without a hekhsher? It’s not something I had ever done before… would I be willing to start? I was.

Unlike some, I have read and learned quite a bit about stam yeinam. Literally meaning ‘their wine,’ it refers to the practice of maintaining that when it comes to grape products, only Jewish hands may be a part of the production from start to finish. Dating back to Talmudic times, this practice was solidified, codified and reinforced by the work of the Tosafot (Franco-German medieval Talmudic commentators specifically interested in halakhic legal theory). In theory, the practice has two reasons, as far as my research has shown me. 1) There was the fear that wine purchased for kiddush could have been used or dedicated for avodah zarah (idol worship), and 2) that in certain areas blood was used as a purifier (the salts would act to separate out impurities in the wine). So today, in 2010, when there is no more avodah zarah as it was meant by the Talmud and there is hardly a winery in the world that would use blood as a purifier, what do we do with this tradition? (Hebrew readers who are interested in this topic should DEFINITELY check out Hayim Soloveitchik’s book on the topic titled “יינם”)
More »

Fress. Kvetch. Shtup.

Your life is a mess. You’re tired of the routine, you’re constantly craving more of what you’ve already attained, and you find true satisfaction in nothing and in no one. Well here’s the quick fix:
1. Plan an expensive get-away.
2. No, actually, scratch that—plan three expensive get-aways.
3. But it’s not just the location that’s getting to you. You’re also sick of your significant other. So dump the schlub, give no real reason for your decision to break-up, and then…
4. Swear with almost-compelling adamancy that you’re not looking to be in a relationship—
5. then sleep with a string of people who look nearly indistinguishable from your former sig-o. The key here is that they all must be young, virile, and totally whipped.
6. All the while, make sure not to deny yourself any culinary pleasure.
7. Gleefully declare your independence from weight concerns, as you claim to gourmandize your way around the world, eat more—while still fitting magically into your ever-expanding wardrobe of size 2 sartorial splendor.
8. Seek counsel from at least two oppressed Third World women who are visibly ‘ethnically Other.’
9. But in the end, make sure that it is you who gives them advice. After all, what are you if not the paragon of discipline, self-control, and loving-kindness?
10. Find yourself…in the arms of a ruggedly handsome Brazilian.

Summarized  (in case we’ve lost you already): Eat without gaining weight, pray without believing, and love without…well, loving. In case you have not sacrificed 133 minutes of your life watching the film adaptation of Elizabeth Gilbert’s best-selling Eat Pray Love (which I have not read), the 10 rules outlined above will help you attain enlightenment, according to the film’s impeccable logic. Writing a review of this film, pointing to its almost laughably offensive hypocrisy and disturbingly classist, racist, and sexist messages, is like shooting fish in a barrel, and many have beat me to this task already. Instead, I want to reflect on the larger trends that this film and the book upon which it is based represent and how we can use Judaism to deal with some of these cosmic issues that the EPL cult supposedly tackles and resolves.

In this month of Elul, leading up the earlier-than-usual battery of Jewish holidays this year, we are charged with the task of intensive cheshbon nefesh, a kind of introspective reflection on our actions over the past year.   In the current climate of crassly classist and gender-coded self-help quick-fixes, traditional Judaism offers us a much-needed antidote to the kind of ‘me first’ mentality of NSA new-agey spirituality that this film so strikinglyeat-pray-love-02 emblematizes. EPL has to be one of the least Jewish films  out there: despite the protagonist Liz’s insensitive and exploitative treatment of most of the other characters in the film, never once does our well-fed world-traveler express any genuine remorse for her cavalier treatment and attitude towards others.  Perhaps most notable in Liz’s string of careless actions towards others is her bizarrely under-explained, sudden, seemingly arbitrary abandonment of her spouse at the very outset of the film. While classically “Jewish guilt” can be stretched to unhealthy limits, at the very least it affirms that which is most essentially human about us—our ability to feel, our ability to be accountable to others.

In Avot d’Rabbi Natan, chapter 41, we are told that we should regard even the slightest wrong we commit against another with utmost seriousness; whereas we should not dwell on the good deeds we have performed for others.  This is a near 180 reversal of the EPL approach which dangerously conflates boundless personal enlightenment with boundless self-entitlement.  In the EPL film, protagonist Liz Gilbert’s single outward act of kindness to others –the scene in which she ‘selflessly’ emails her friends, appealing to them for donations to help a natural healer and her daughter build a house in Bali—is piously prefaced by Gilbert’s self-righteous declaration that this request comes in lieu of her annual birthday celebration. The dramatic montage that follows of her friends receiving the email appeal signals to us that this Liz’s ultimate moment of enlightenment; this is her defining moment of ‘giving,’ Beyond the obviously paternalistic quality of the rich-white-woman-saves-the-struggling-natives, this scene smacks of the kind of  crass, self-congratulatory armchair philanthropy that lulls people into self-righteous complacency:  ‘I’ve written the check; I am now absolved of further responsibility towards my fellow humans.’

Real loving-kindness involves a long-term investment in the sanctity of the Other.  And no, not just that supposedly ‘significant Other’—rather, the acknowledgement of all other people as significant, and the realization that we must invest in them not only materially, but also personally. The way to grow with others is to take responsibility by being present in their lives. What Liz lacks is a sense of rootedness, the sense of unity upon which community is based.  All of Gilbert’s globetrotting points to an inability and lack of desire to commit to other human beings and forge authentic relationships.
Again, it is entirely unclear what exactly propels Liz to leave her husband at the outset of the film—all we’re told is that ‘things can’t continue this way,’ although we see nothing particularly alarming onscreen. In fact, what we see is all fairly typical and benign; Liz and her adoring husband are engaging in light banter.  All we know is that Liz cannot handle her life as it is any longer. What present-day in-vogue spirituality misses is the point that one can actually discover boundless meaning in the routine of real, mundane life. Patience and forbearance might be considered passé, but it’s the real deal.

Case in point: even the National Geographic-quality cinematography, with its wide lens doting lovingly on EPL’s glamorously sun-soaked characters and sweeping, exotic landscapes and, bursting with exuberantly lush colour, still fails to make us love the film or the figures portrayed therein.  In this film, everything—and everyone—is relegated to the status of ambient scenery…a Potemkin village populated by poorly developed stereotypes. Despite a good chunk of the film taking place in India and Indonesia, we are basically spared any unpleasant and ‘unpalatable’ scenes of actual poverty and suffering.

It’s 133 minutes of tantalizing culinary, spiritual, and pseudo-sexual foreplay. Nothingeat-pray-love-03 ever really materializes, except for the sheer ubiquity of the material forces driving the ‘action’ (if you can even call it that). Set against only the most breathtaking of landscapes, we watch Robert’s character shamelessly indulging in an endless parade of epicurean delights, nearly interchangeable, conventionally attractive young men, and more generally, snorting up the cocaine of petty affirmation through the regurgitation of self-help platitudes.  EPL, with its ‘money and men can cure all’ approach is panglossian at best, and is inhumanely narcissistic at worst.  In this past week’s Parasha, Parashat Ki Tetse, we read towards the beginning of the portion of the sin of gluttony (Deut. 21:20-21); a gluttonous son technically qualifies for death by stoning. Indeed, death by stoning would have made the film considerably more interesting.

One of the more amusing points of the film, which is replete with instances of consoling consumption and too many delightful moments of conspicuous product-placement to mention, is when Liz seeks “whatever” (let’s just call it that, since her Self seems like a lost cause) at an Ashram, and is told she can purchase a “silence” tag at the bookstore. Even the choice to remain silent must be purchased!  Indeed, instead of appealing the Master of the Universe, we are advised to whip out our MasterCard.

Interestingly, God is never really mentioned in the film. Only at one point, when Liz first decides to “pray,” does she sort of address ‘God,’ but,  like everything else in the film, “God” here functions ornamentally, much in the same way as all of her beaus blend into the landscape as figures she uses instrumentally, solely for the purpose of her immediate personal edification and comfort.  Clearly, Liz’s ‘prayer’ is more a signifying act than a genuine appeal or promise for anything. Indeed, that very brief ‘prayer’ scene typifies today’s NSA spirituality.

According to an April 2010 article in USA Today, a whopping 72% of the members of generation Y in the U.S. self-identify as “more spiritual than religious”: a diffuse, general sense of “spirituality” seems to prevail among the younger generation. Exactly what such figures mean is an interesting question.  Perhaps young people, jaded by the perceived hypocrisy of societal institutions involved in questionable military adventures abroad and eat-pray-love-04failed economic and social policies at home, wish to avoid the stuffiness of institutional structure as they seek personal meaning.  This avoidance of established institutions, while perhaps explainable, is, nevertheless, regrettable.  While more structured and specifically religious forms of meaning-making can be stifling, this is not the time to abandon all forms of committed/practice-oriented devotion.  If anything, the young have the potential to infuse these older traditions with a new, updated kind of meaning and help build a form of worship and practice that is better attuned to the needs and desires of today’s meaning seeker.  But practice-based, community-oriented religion has received an unnecessarily bad rap these days.

Don’t get me wrong—spirituality is a beautiful thing in its genuine form. But every intention needs a structure—a calendar and a location—and most importantly, a community.  As social animals, even the seemingly solitary act of self-improvement relies heavily on our interaction with others.  Admittedly, at a certain point, it is difficult to draw a line separating ‘religion’ and spirituality.’ Ideally the two converge to create the ultimate meaningful devotional experience. In a way, the two share many of the same potential dangers: exploitative leadership, false promises, extortion of money, and so on. But in today’s cult of “take time for You,” these dangers seem to proliferate with the false comfort of ‘all you can eat’ spirituality that cuts you off from any real sense of empathy, participation and activism.

EAT PRAY LOVE
Is Javier Bardem holding a banana? Really??

Getting back to the film for a moment though: even in her supposedly most vulnerable moments in the film, there is something decidedly smug about Liz’s spiritual odyssey, which culminates in a neatly-resolved scene where she pursues a relationship with yet another attractive man.  Having found ‘love’ (or at least lust), Liz’s journey comes to a eminently photogenic close. As we move through the month of Elul, it is critical for us to keep in mind that true seeking never finishes in a Hollywood ending, but rather, is more challenging and also more beautiful and infinitely more subtle.

As we reflect on the past year and plan how we can create more genuine religious (or spiritual, if you like) experiences in the year to come, remember the words of André Gide who said, “”Believe those who are seeking the truth. Doubt those who find it.”

More on Orthodoxy and women. Is it news?

NEWS ITEM: In a special news report published online by the NEW YORK JEWISH WEEK, a woman was designated by Rabbi Avraham Weiss to lead Kabbalat Shabbat services on Friday night, July 30, for the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, an Orthodox Union synagogue.

The article goes on to say

In the past year, there has unfolded within American Modern Orthodox Judaism the first major evidences of a pending theological schism, as a small but media-savvy minority of rabbinic activists from the YCT/ IRF camp have begun pushing the MO envelope farther to the Left than mainstream Modern Orthodoxy ever contemplated. At the center of the impending schism is Rabbi Avi Weiss. He is charismatic and dynamic, rabbi of a shul with a large membership where he can introduce any innovation he desires, and he has a rabbinical seminary and rabbinical association in place to give his agenda the aura of a legitimate “movement.” Although Young Israel synagogues do not readily accept YCT graduates as congregational rabbis and the 900-member RCA does not regard YCT ordination as carrying the legitimacy of a RIETS Semikha, Rabbi Weiss has decided that he no longer needs communal approbation to venture on his own because he has the minions.
More »

Prop 8 overturned, OU gets irrational

Around the country, yesterday, many cheered and many booed as Chief US District Judge Vaughn Walker declared Proposition 8, which banned same-sex marriage in California, as unconstitutional and in contradiction of the due process clause.

While a seeming majority of US Jews are clearly supportive of overturning the ballot proposition, known in many circles in California as “Prop H8,” the Orthodox Union made this bizarre statement, according to the JTA:

“In addition to our religious values — which we do not seek to impose on anyone — we fear legal recognition of same-sex ‘marriage’ poses a grave threat to the fundamental civil right of religious freedom.

“Forcing a choice between faith and the law benefits no one,” it added, concluding that the OU looked forward to the appeals process.

In what world does the OU live? Apparently one where they will be forced by US law to officiate at same-sex marriages? Yes, that’s right, here in America practices and beliefs are forced upon religious organizations all the time. That’s why every synagogue has to have a nativity scene or a giant set of Ten Commandment plaques…

The full statement, which can be read here, goes on to say:

Already, in states with same-sex civil unions and similar laws, religious institutions, including churches, social service providers and youth groups have been penalized by authorities for their beliefs. Forcing a choice between faith and the law benefits no one.

We look forward to the appeals process which will bring these critical issues to America’s highest courts.

Oh! Now I get it! They are against being told what to do or believe because it impedes the religious freedoms of a sliver of a tiny minority population in the US (which I really don’t understand how their freedoms are impeded at all)… What they are NOT against is taking away the constitutional rights of at least 10% of the US population who have been relegated to second-class citizen status and forced to stand by as the sacred institution of marriage is maintained for adulterers and wife-beaters… Good ol’ fashioned sense and reasoning from the OU.

Torah of Justice

I just published a piece at the Jewish Journal about my experience yesterday at the action at the Hyatt hotel in Los Angeles, called “Putting On My ‘Going to Prison’ Clothes” .

Thursday, after seeing my two children off to Camp Ramah, I came home and I put on my going to prison clothes. This is something I have not thought about in a while. When I was in Grad School near Boston, once or twice a month on a Sunday I would visit Jeff (not his real name) at Walpole State Prison, about an hour or so south of Boston. One of the saddest things about these visits was seeing the children in (what I came to call) their “Sunday going to prison clothes” visiting their fathers.

Thursday, however, I was not going to visit somebody else in prison, I was going to get arrested. I was part of a group of approximately one hundred Rabbis, priests, ministers and workers who sat down in front of the Andaz Hotel on Sunset Blvd. to protest the practices of the Hyatt Hotel.

They also ran a story about the action here.

More information about the struggle of Hyatt workers is available here
And if you are a rabbi or cantor you can sign on to a letter to the Hyatt Corporation in support of the workers here.

Wake-up call

If you had told me three years ago, when I first came to Israel, that I would be spending my Friday afternoons protesting in East Jerusalem, I never would have believed you. If you had told me that the behavior of this country and its residents was going to make it difficult for me to feel comfortable practicing Judaism, I would have believed you even less.

Since I started attending the weekly protests in Sheikh Jarrah, I’ve stopped going to shul on Friday night. In part, it’s logistics – I get home tired and sweaty at 6 or 6:30, and I want a break and a shower before dinner. Partially, though, it’s become uncomfortable for me. There’s something that Emily Schaeffer, an Israeli human rights lawyer who grew up in the Reform community outside of Boston, wrote once, which I increasingly feel in myself:

“Unless I’m with people who I am certain do not espouse Zionism or any form of oppression, I cannot comfortably honor the tradition, or even be sure I want to be part of it.”

Even in my struggle with Judaism itself, the past three years of studying gemara have oriented me toward the world through the lens of text and textual connections. So here’s the gezerah shavah I have to offer:

There is a liturgical similarity between Kabbalat Shabbat and the weekly protest. In L’cha Dodi, the line is “hitoreri, hitoreri, ki va orech kumi ori” – wake up, wake up, for your light has come, arise and shine. In the protest “liturgy,” one of the chants uses the same verb – “ezrachim lehitorer, hafascism kvar over” – residents, wake up, fascism has already passed (it works better in Hebrew).

I’ve been dwelling on those lines as representative of the tension that I’m feeling around typical religious practice (as opposed to, say, Heschel’s praying with his feet). More »

It’s as if the only thing we can do is hate each other

Yesterday morning over coffee, my wife handed me the paper to point out a story about Palestinians from Sheikh Jarrah, who are now homeless thanks to the government support of the extremist settlers in the neighborhood, planning to go to the Gilad Shalit rally in Jerusalem.

Nasser Ghawi:

“We are extending our hand in peace,” said Ghawi. “We have lost hope that the Israeli establishment is able to make decisions, so we wish to talk directly to the Israeli public. Also, we are here to say that the prisoners are our sons and we favor their release. It is impossible to talk only about one side of the equation – the release of Shalit also means the release of Palestinian prisoners.”

Neither my wife nor I were able to make it to the rally last night. Before reading this story, it didn’t even occur to us to go. But we discussed standing in solidarity with Nasser – as Bassam Aramin, one of the founders of Combatants for Peace, said to me recently, “they’re all our children.”

I woke up this morning to discover that Nasser, his son, and one of the Jewish Israeli activists who was with him were stopped for questioning on their way to the protest last night. They were detained, searched, and humiliated by the police, for no reason other than being a Palestinian and a leftist walking together in Jerusalem.

Ynet reports:

“They told us it was their right to search, take our cell phones and interrogate us. I asked them ‘Why are you arresting me,’ and they replied ‘because we hate Arabs, but we hate people like you even more’.”

Yotam Wolf, the Israeli activist who was with Nasser last night, tells his version of the story here in Hebrew.

It seemed to me a profound act, for Nasser to stand in solidarity with the Shalit family – to say that their child, as well as the many Palestinian children currently (and in many cases illegally) held in prison, deserve to be able to go home to their parents. I thought back to the night of the flotilla, when two women who were sitting in the Shalit protest tent outside the prime minister’s house, came to shout at those of us protesting nearby – a protest organized, at least in part, by the Sheikh Jarrah activists. How wonderful would it have been to have been able to say to them that our Palestinian friends protested in favor of Shalit’s release as well – that we want freedom and security for everyone’s children.

But alas, the forces that be seem not to be interested in that kind of solidarity. Ynet reports that Nasser will try again to visit the protest tent in the coming days. I hope the next visit is less eventful.

The vort: Balak – How (not) to be a mensch

(With apologies for such a belated vort)

Looking back at Parashat Balak, one might be compelled to ask why exactly is this story included within the book of Numbers.  In particular, the Moabite prophet Balaam’s peculiar exchange with his donkey seems rather random when considered within the larger narrative arc of the story. 

As the only instance of a speaking animal since the cunning snake in Genesis, one might expect our portion’s donkey to say something of exceeding importance and weight. Instead, she utters something utterly understated and even banal: she asks her master why he struck her three times when she has never wronged him. The simplicity of the dialogue and the repetitive rhythm of the characters’ actions here all suggest an almost fable-like story structure.  As such, we can perhaps most productively view this story as primarily didactic in nature.

 

What is the relevance of the speaking donkey? The Midrash Rabbah on the book of the Numbers explains that this scene represents the ultimate reversal of nature. Balaam was the wisest of men, and here he is upstaged by his donkey, the lowest of animals.  For a more lofty and respectful view on the man-animal relationship however, let us turn our attention to a more inspiring passage found in the book of Job (Job 12:7-8):

But ask the animals, and they will teach you,
 or the birds of the air, and they will tell you;
or speak to the earth, and it will teach you,
or let the fish of the sea inform you

Here animals can be understood as possessing the very essence and wisdom of our earth.  To communicate with animals is to share in their well-being, which is ultimately our well-being as humans.  Perhaps this ‘dialogue’ does not take place in actual words, as it does in Parashat Balak, but rather, in actions, such as the way we relate to the environment and to our fellow creatures inhabiting this earth.  Animals serve as the index of our respect for our planet, and, as we see from the recent BP disaster, when we turn away from our responsibility, the result to the earth and to the creatures which inhabit it is devastating.

 

If we are thinking about what it means to relate meaningfully to animals, we also must consider what it actually means to be human.  As humans, we possess the intelligence and power to be deliberately holy beings.  From the text alone, it appears the prophet Balaam prophesizes in the name of “Hashem, my God.” The overwhelming majority of the midrashic commentators pounce on this phrase and insist, rather vehemently, that Balaam was not a monotheistic, but rather, an idol worshipper, diviner, and a generally evil person.  (Intriguing evidence of the former can be found in an inscription discovered in 1967  in the plains of the Jordan, at a site identified with Sukkoth in the area of the Jabok river. These fragments from “Visions of Balaam the son of Beor, seer of the gods”  include a description of a goddess, fear of the havoc she could wreck, and an interesting array of god-names.)

Fragments from “Visions of Balaam the son of Beor, seer of the gods"

Image of the Balaam Inscription

The overarching message, however, seems clear: whereas animals are all too often subjugated to their masters’ will (or that of other creatures), man possesses the unique capacity both for flaw and transcendent holiness, as we also learn through the story of Adam, Eve, and the snake.  How? Through freedom of choice.

 
Balaam even knew in advance that his attempts to curse the Jews would ultimately prove abortive, but he kept trying—a weakness on his part. Despite his intimate knowledge of God (with God writ large or god in the plural, depending on your understanding of the text), Balaam remained a slave to his own social context. Balaam certainly was capable of achieving holiness, but he failed by succumbing to external pressures until only a donkey could teach him otherwise.

 
Interestingly, all but one of the Biblical characters in the Pentateuch whose names are immortalized as parasha titles are figures born as non-Jews.  In the cases of Noah, Sarah, and Jethro, each drew closer to God in her/his own way through righteous and deliberate actions (Sarah and Jethro being ‘Jews by choice,’ but I contend that in our modern times all Jews are Jews by choice—today to identify actively as Jewish is no small feat). Such is most certainly not the case with Balak, the Moabite king after whom this pericope is named.  All we know of Balak is his fear and desire to thwart the Israelites in their attempt to pass through the land. In this way, Balak seems to forgo our most interesting and empowering birthright as humans: our capacity for choice and constructive conflict resolution.

Which leads into this coming Shabbat’s portion, Parashat Pinchas, which immediately follows Parashat Balak.  The only born-Jew to have a portion named after him, Pinchas, is, in a way,  the Jewish counterpart of Balak, the Moabite king. Here again, we are revealed the disastrous consequences of an over-zealous man whose only response to a perceived threat is violence and destruction.  Ironically, the house of David emerges from a Moabite woman (Ruth), as if to teach us, at this intersection between the Balak and Pinchas narrative, that all Jews originate from non-Jews, and in all cases (whether Jew or non-Jew), holiness is a choice, and constructive co-existence is a worthy uphill battle.

Image from the Soncino edition of Meshal HaQadmoni. The above shot is from the third chapter, entitled "In Praise of Good Advice," which even includes a story involving a donkey

Image from the Soncino edition of Meshal HaQadmoni. The above shot is from the third chapter, entitled "In Praise of Good Advice," which even includes a story involving a donkey

(And If you’re a fan of morals and religious teachings embodied through speaking animals, I hereby commend yourattention to 13th century Spanish qabbalist R’ Isaac Ibn Sahula’s wonderfully understated collection of fables, Meshal HaQadmoni, a kind of Jewish, Torah-inspired answer to Aesop’s fables.)