Shir Hamaalot

I have had struggles with my faith, with Judaism, over the last year. But now, even after the passing of the High Holidays, of Sukkot, of Shiminei Atzeret, of Simchat Torah, I find myself drawn back to the Torah, to the words of the sages, the commentators, the rabbis, and the beauty of living in the mercy of Hashem.

Because as we watch once more the walls of a civilization crumble around us, we are reminded that the kingdom of man is an illusion, and the only real kingdom is the Kingdom of G-d.

 

Have you ever had a dream, Neo, that you were so sure was real? What if you were unable to wake from that dream? How would you know the difference between the dream world and the real world?

(Morpheus, from The Matrix)

 

I shall raise my eyes to the mountains, from where will my help come? My help is from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.

(Tehillim 121, 1-2)

It is Still Too Hard to be a Working Parent

Opinion: I was a data scientist and mom. Then I had to choose.

Source: Why It’s So Hard to Be a Working Mom. Even at Facebook. | WIRED

Shanah Tovah, everyone. I hope your Rosh Hashanah was remarkable and moving, and that the Days of Awe are profound.

I wanted to break into your journey of teshuvah for a moment to share this short but provocative piece by Eliza Khuner, a data scientist who left her dream job at Facebook when she realized that her job was getting in the way of the most important parts of parenting.

As a father, I feel her pain, but in a different way. I blew it when my son was a toddler, working long hours at the office and traveling. I made the mistake of thinking that since I was able to be the sole breadwinner and my wife had a lot of help around the house with  the baby that I had done my bit as a dad. I was wrong, of course. I missed out a lot, and not just because I didn’t change diapers (I did, in my defense, empty the Diaper Genie.)

The good news is that I woke up just in time to save both my marriage and my relationship with my son. When my son was two I started working from home on half pay (and full work). I did that for a year, then quit my job. I started working for myself, and I have been working from home ever since. Even when my little firm was aqui-hired by my current company when my son was eleven, it was with the explicit assurance (which I did not have to work hard to elicit) that I would be able to work from home when not traveling.

The result has been incredible I have driven my son to and from school, picked him up from countless activities. I have known all of his teachers, cheered him at basketball games, shared the tension of robotics competitions, and spent countless hours talking to him and listening to him. I rejoined Scouts when he put on his first uniform, and have been his Den Leader, his Cubmaster, and now his Assistant Scoutmaster. We have been camping together, boating together, traveling together, and he is sixteen and we enjoy hanging out.

I have also had an amazing career – very different from the one I thought I had when he was born, but in so many respects a better one. And I can see now that the reason it was better was because of that balance, that choice to be a parent first, and whatever was on my business card second.

I say this not in sanctimony, not as a humble brag, but in wonder and gratitude. I am fully aware that not everyone has the opportunities that I do, or the choices that I had. But I want that for them, for all of us, because I think our children are improved, we are improved, and the world is improved when we are parents first, and whatever else after.

There is only so much we can do as individuals. The nature of work and of social expectations must change. I am heartened that my company and others are beginning to realize that parenthood and families need not be sacrificed on the altar of corporate success, but the exceptions prove the rule. We have a long way to go, and, with respect to Sheryl Sandberg, leaning in is not the entire answer. Indeed, I have reached the point in my career where I have come to realize that Sandberg is selling the same old Company Man join-the-rat-race-or-die snake oil that wound up destroying uncounted lives and families for the sake of quarterly returns for companies that mostly imploded in the last quarter of the 20th century.

Permission

I believe that G-d wants us to find the joy in wonder in every moment of our lives.

Might it be that the more we give ourselves permission to be in that state of joy and wonderment, the closer we will be to Hashem?

Ch-ch-ch-choices

(U.S. Air Force photo/Lance Cheung)

There are countless points during a man’s life when he is compelled to choose between doing what is right for himself and what is right for others – family, friends, the people you love, your community, your country, and sometimes complete strangers. The correct choice, almost without exception, is to choose what is right for others.

Almost without exception.

R. Hillel famously wrote “if I am not for myself who will be for me. And if I am only for myself, what am I?”

The essence of wisdom is being able to recognize the exception and knowing without a doubt that the choice for oneself is not glandular or rationalized, but true to a code that transcends both our petty desires and our ability to manipulate them.

The Kosher Cheeseburger

Rabbi Shai Cherry notes in his lectures that th prohibition against mixing meat and milk only applies to Kosher meat.

Of course, that does not mean that cheeseburgers are back on the menu for observant Jews: after all, we’re not supposed to be eating non-Kosher meat in the first place.

 

Criticize Well

If you are one of those people who is preternaturally compelled to criticize faiths and the faithful, that is your right (in America, anyway).

If you want your critique to be taken seriously, however, try focusing on one faith at a time. Indiscriminately lumping all religions together and then opening fire is lazy, imprecise, often wrong, and readily dismissed by anyone who does not already agree with you.

We all may look the same to you, and there are always similarities. But if the differences are important enough to keep us in our separate houses, they are important enough for you to understand before you join the conversation.

R.I.P. Philip Roth

Portnoy’s Complaint was a revelatory book for me, not only a point of literary connection to Jews living far away, but also a comforting reassurance that I was not the only one dealing with very deep issues fitting into gentile society.

I have two other volumes of Roth’s work on by shelf, and I have yet to read it. I will get to it all eventually, but the great Tosafists must come first.

Goodnight, Mr. Portnoy. And thank you.

 

Age and Tolerance

As I age, I am finding myself turning into a bit of a grumpy old man. I dismiss it as mostly harmless, but sometimes I wonder.

As I swim in the works of the Mussar greats like Rabbeinu Yonah of Gerona and Rabbeinu Yisrael Meir Kagan, I am gently reminded that the irritability I am acquiring cannot be too easily dismissed as an earned and slightly endearing privilege of age. I catch myself (or my wife catches me) starting to allow simple crotchetiness evolve into the kind of intolerance, anger, and venom against which Torah, the Prophets, and the learned rabbis inveigh.

I am working on it. I woke up this morning and realized that I would do better to be a cheerful old geezer than a grumpy old man.

Age carries with it many perils to our physical and mental healthy. Old Grouch Syndrome, gone unchecked, carries the greatest peril to our souls.

Be A Great Painter, Asher Lev

““Be a great painter, Asher Lev.” He was still looking out the window at the sun and the sky. “That will be the only justification for all the pain your art will cause.”

Chaim Potok, My Name is Asher Lev

I often think about this quote.

As a Jewish man living in what appears to be the end-times of this particular iteration of Western Civilization, the call back to Torah, tradition, and communalism grows daily. Yet do I spend my life studying Talmud, living according to Halacha, or building synagogues or academies? Only to the tiniest degree: most of my waking hours are spent worrying about my family’s well-being, my clients, my colleagues, and my business.

I am sure that will not surprise you. What you may be interested to learn, though, is that this fact is the cause of a great deal of pain in my life, and probably pain in others.

I rationalize it by telling myself that, like Asher Lev, my urges and my G-d-given abilities have led me to succeed in this direction, so this must be a part of His greater plan, and I should not fight it.

And then listen to my soul. And I look at the world around me. And a voice out of the darkest depths of my genetic past calls me back to seferim, Yiddishkeit, and the people of my community.

And in hearing that voice I know a pain that Potok never placed in Asher Lev, but one that I know he must have felt: that the more blessings G-d gives you the greater your soul struggles.

Free Will Me

The Master of the Universe, praised be He, blessed us with the gift of free will. Along with speech, this is perhaps the one thing that truly raises us above the animals.

But in His wisdom, He did not stop by just giving us the intellectual wherewithal to make choices. He then gave us His Torah as a guide to making those choices.

He then gave us the choice of whether to follow Torah or to allow our whims and our petty concerns drive our actions.

And He gave us the intellectual capacity, through the faculty of reason, to think through our actions, so that we could justify any course of action so as to ensure we would be able to live with our own choices, no matter how foolish or ill-advised. Or, if we made the choice to follow Torah, to use that capacity to apply its laws with wisdom, with justice, and with mercy.

Because we reason through our choices, our choices become the rungs in the ladders of our character. The internal struggle that precedes each choice we make is the hammer of a blacksmith on the metal of our soul, with each struggle between our instincts and “the better angels of our nature,” either weakening or breaking us when we come out with poor choices, or tempering and strengthening us when we make the choices that uplift us and make the world a better place.

So free will is more than about whether to eat a pepperoni pizza or go t0 synagogue. It is a forge for our character.

Have a wonderful week!

A Prayer.

Baruch Hashem for reminding me that, even in the dark hours of the night, everything is going to be alright.

Praise the Lord, He is my Rock and my Staff.

He is the Star by which I guide my life’s voyage,

and through His Torah, the other hand upon the wheel of my ship.

Norwegian Lawmaker: Give BDS the Nobel Peace Prize – Tablet Magazine

Source: Norwegian Lawmaker: Give BDS the Nobel Peace Prize – Tablet Magazine

Bjornar Moxnes may not be an anti-Semite, but there should be an equally blistering pejorative for those who provide cover and legitimacy to the anti-Semites.

BDS, whatever the positive intentions of the duped innocents that make up its peripheral membership, is aught more than a front for forces who wish to see the Jewish state, and the Jews who make it up, pushed “into the sea.”

(And let us make no mistake: “into the sea” is not meant to suggest pushing us onto boats, ships, or paddle-boards. It is a euphemism for drowning us in the waters of the Mediterranean and dancing on our washed-up bodies.)

It does not surprise me that the frozen wastes of Northern Europe continue to spawn anti-Semites seventy years after the collapse of Nazi Germany, nor does it surprise me that a few of these ice-encrusted neanderthals find their way into government.

What does surprise me is that the otherwise intelligent people of Norway would fail to see through the blatant agitprop that BDS continues to spew, and would fail to inform themselves of the true intentions of Israel’s opponents.

 

Battle in Rabbi Schechter’s Shul

A small, vocal group of Conservative rabbis is pushing the movement to accept marriages between Jews and non-Jews. The fight is really about the future of the religion.

Source: Conservative Rabbis Fight Over Intermarriage – The Atlantic

An important article that makes the crucial point at the top.

This is not a fight about intermarriage, or about being gratuitously harsh on couples, or about forcing conversions.

This is really about the future of Judaism, and of Jews as a nation.

As a proud pan-denominational Jew, I applaud the Rabbinical Assembly in their defense of Tradition, and, most important, of shalom ba’is, harmony in the home.

Sin Journal: the Judgemental Voyager

One of my worst sins is the sin of Judgement, and connected with that, the begrudging eye. The time in my life that I am most vulnerable to commit this sin is when I am traveling.

I  will stop judging parents with screaming children and start feeling compassion. I will stop feeling superior to less-experienced travelers and start helping them instead.

B”H

Selichos

For the first time this year, I am starting my Selichos before Rosh Hashanah. I started last night after sundown, calculating that this would give me 7 full days of prayer before the start of the New Year.

What a powerful experience. Without making a pledge or vow, I’ve got a feeling I’m going to make this a tradition for Elul going forward.

The Price of Belief

The meaning of [the] Indiana [Religious Freedom Restoration Act decision] was that this was the first time corporate America took sides in the culture war — and it sided dramatically, powerfully, and consequentially with pro-LGBT activists, against the cause of religious liberty.

Source: How Bad Is The Benedict Option? | The American Conservative

I have issues with fundamentalist proclamations that we should adhere to the letter of the Bible on homosexuality. Abrahamic faiths generally walk a delicate line on LGBT issues, but the consensus that appears to be growing out of modern Jewish discussions on the topic (leaving the rulings of Haredi poskim out for a moment) is that the problem is the act rather than the individual. There shall be no stoning.

But I have equally fervent issues with the libertine proclamations that to believe that any consensual act between two mentally competent adults is wrong and deserving of legal censure. The reason I supported the RFRA was purely defensive: I should never be told what not to believe, and if the law as it stands is not sufficiently protecting my Constitutional right to freedom of belief and practice, then the law needs to be bolstered.

The Indiana RFRA was imperfect legislation at best. But its faults should not be conflated with the rightness of the core position around which it was based. We need a better RFRA, or, better yet, more vigorous protection of our Constitutional guarantees, even in the face of a vocal plurality who disagree.

I am willing to accept being socially ostracized for my beliefs. But I will not accept persecution, and in an era of social media, there is a fine line between being ostracized and being persecuted.

Not Your Father’s Catholic Church

“There has never been a Pope with as deep an understanding of Jews as Pope Francis” states Rabbi Rosen candidly. “Of course Pope John Paul II had a unique childhood experience of the Jewish community in Wadowice. But by the time he was a priest, there was little living community left to talk of, so his engagement was not as a developed adult.

Francis, on the other hand, has not only nurtured lifelong friendships with the Jewish community in Buenos Aires, with whom he has had “a vibrant interaction”, says Rabbi Rosen, but has co-authored a book with an Argentinian rabbi, Abraham Skorka, “thus addressing issues face to face with Jewish self-understanding and experience. This profoundly shapes his sensitivity and his commitment to the Jewish-Christian relationship.”

Source: Pope Francis and the Jews: the first six months – AJC: Global Jewish Advocacy

The Jewish-Catholic relationship is still on the mend after well over a millennium of anti-Semitic dysfunction that ranged from the dismissive to the the implicit countenance of genocide. It’s a large wound.

That said, since the “Nostra Aetate” declaration at Vatican II, the progress has been measured, but consistent and meaningful, and that looks to continue apace under Pope Francis, who has now taken the unprecedented step of calling upon all Catholics to cease the effort to evangelize Jews. We would do well to recognize that this is a controversial move for the Pope among his own flock, and that it was made in the effort to provide a comfortable “space” for interfaith discussion.

There are certainly good reasons to draw the line in that discussion at interfaith dialogue on doctrine: our beliefs should never be the subject of negotiation. At the same time, we must recognize – as did Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson ZT”L, the Lubavitcher Rebbe – that there are commercial, philanthropic, civil, and economic issues of mutual interest about which there must be open channels of communication. And that proscription against dialogue on doctrine should never constrain leaders from either faith from dispelling real and often slanderous misconceptions held by one group of the other.

There is still much to be discussed in an effort to find a way to live together in a world where all faiths find themselves navigating a world with deeper and deeper sees of relativism. It is good to do so during a time when the attitude about Jews and Judaism projected by  most Catholics, lay and clergy, to be far more enlightened than has historically been the case.

 

 

Should Jews Live Apart Again?

Hebrew Union College Campus

One question that growth of Christian communities that are taking the Benedict Option poses to Jewish communities is whether more of us should be following them – and our Orthodox brothers and sisters – into lives of greater Jewish communalism in the face of changes underway in wider society?

(And to clarify – the Benedict Option is not an alternative to living within society at large, and does not contemplate disengagement or withdrawal, but calls for communal living within the broader context of society.)

We Are Used to Being Apart

Naturally, living apart – voluntarily or otherwise – is nothing new to Jews. At times, greater communalism has served us well, strengthening the bonds that unite us as a community, serving as a barrier to assimilation. and enabling us to better address and withstand persecution from outside.

Yet at other times, communalism became insularity, leaving us out of touch with the outsider world, and simultaneously making us easier to isolate, attack, and even (as in the Holocaust) exterminate.

There is an argument to be made that despite the dangers implicit in spreading ourselves among the goyim in the Diaspora (intermarriage, assimilation), there is the virtue of keeping us engaged, keeping us from being easily targeted.

But when being close to the goyim stops serving our purposes – when being a physical part of a wider, interfaith community leaves us cut off from the rest of our people and subject to harassment or worse, the attractions of communalism begin to eclipse the risks.

This is Urgent in Europe

We are probably not yet at the point in America where we are better off in our own communities. Many countries in Europe, however are in a different place. When we look across the Atlantic to our tribesmen and women in Europe, the trend in France, Germany, and other European nations appears to be to institute restrictions and condone public behavior that combine to make living among non-Jews increasingly challenging.

The choice is becoming stark: draw away from the wider population and form communities that combine physical proximity with strong support institutions; or emigrate. European Jews need to engage in country-by-country discussions about how they can continue living in a post-modern Europe, before weariness of persecution or outright fear drive them to Israel or America.

What about the U.S.?

In the United States, at the very least we need to avoid being boiled frogs. American Jews, particularly those of us who do not presently live frum lives, should begin discussing at what point it makes sense for us to start basing our decisions about where to live on the proximity to strong Jewish communities, and when it would make sense to reinforce and extend the our communal institutions to better support us in a changing world.

We do not have to surrender our practices in order to cleave closer to the observant community, and to broaden the role of our community institutions. Nor am I asking the Charedim to invite Reform Jews to live among them. I am simply suggesting that we will survive against the coming storms only if we are one people, a community of communities, a “Kehillat Godol.”

And we do have to start responding as a community to movements in wider society that threaten our ability to practice our faith in accordance with Jewish law and tradition. Vegetarian Jews must recognize a commonality of interest with their omnivorous tribesmen on questions of shechita. Public education advocates among us should also support measures that make Jewish education accessible to those who choose it. We should all take a stand against efforts to criminalize practices that lie at the core of our faith, including circumcision.

And it behooves us to watch out for other potential challenges to our faith, whether in the form of institutional anti-Semitism, the toleration of exclusionary practices or persecution, or efforts by outsiders to make Jewish practice illegal.

At the very least, we should consider whether we have allowed certain practices and institutions in our communities to whither, and whether it is time to return to a policy of more actively supporting them.

History has proven that as we live in nations aside from our own, the strongest guarantee of our continued safety and prosperity lies in the construction of strong communities and institutions. We don’t need to adopt the “Benedict Option:” we created it. We simply need to return to the time-honored practices that have served to shield our communities, our faith, our families, and ourselves from the vagaries of a non-Jewish world.