As far as G-d and I are concerned, I’m a Jew. Halachah, on the other hand, rules differently. How do I approach that contradiction?

Technology and Tikkun

In Silicon Valley, there is a sense that tech companies are doing God’s work. Software can solve the world’s biggest problems, many tech entrepreneurs believe, if only it is put to the right use.

via Can Technology Save the World? Experts Disagree – The New York Times.

My first reaction to this quote was “G-d’s work? Really? No arrogance or irony?”

And then I thought about my friends who work in the Valley, and realized that something else is happening. Amid all of the wealth, ambition, and engineering is a deep-seated need among many (but by no means all) in the Valley to find a higher meaning in what they are doing.

Is life aught more than the next line of code, the next reference design, the next product launch? Or is there, should there, be something more to what we are doing?

It is relatively easy for the great engineer-entrepreneur-philanthropists of technology to find a path to meaning: Bill and Melinda Gates, Irwin and Joan Jacobs, Marc Benioff and Lynn Krilich and others like them have placed their fortunes at the service of the greater good. But how does a system engineer or mid-level manager in a high-growth, high-pressure tech enterprise inject meaning into their lives?

Fact: there are apparently no synagogues within a decent walking or driving distance for anyone working in Mountain view, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Milpitas, and huge chunks of San Jose and Cupertino. And the problem is not that there are no Jews in those communities.

Food for Hebraic thought…

Anti-Semitism and Free Speech

Let’s be realistic: anti-Semitism is already being discussed on campus behind the thinning veil of”anti-Zionism.” It is time for us to flush the haters into the open, compel them to drop their pretense, and say what they really mean. Frankly, I’d rather be able to see my enemy in the clear than have him camouflaged behind the fig leaf of BDS or “Palestinian” nationalism.

If we are going to allow anti-Semitism (whether open or under the rubric of anti-Zionism) to enter the legitimate realm of campus discussion, we must also allow open and free criticism of Islam, Christianity, the Queen, radical feminism, and every other sacred cow on campus.

And while we are doing so, let us recommit ourself to free speech. Let’s stop protecting each other from hurt feelings and grow some thick skin. The existence of the university as something distinct from the fifth through eighth years of high school is the need to expose young adults to all kinds of ideas so that they can improve their critical reasoning. Otherwise college becomes like the Internet: four years of your life spent with a bunch of like-minded people.

Church, State, and Faith in Education

I think we all can agree that there should be a separation of church and state. Where we might have a divergence of opinion is in someone – including the state – telling me what I can or cannot teach my child.

The community, via the state, can tell me that my child must learn about evolution in school. It cannot tell me what I can and cannot teach him in the privacy of our home or in the confines of our house of worship. While I am not a constitutional lawyer, it seems reasonable to me that trying to enforce such a restriction would be an outright violation of the Free Exercise clause of the First Amendment.

For the record, some of the best discussions we have in our house are about the apparent contradictions between Darwin’s Theory of Evolution and the common English translations of Genesis, and how Jewish scholars (starting with Maimonedes) reconcile the two. But that’s another topic.

Afraid to be Right

But such confidence is not to our liking anymore. We believe that truth is a form of hegemony. We suspect that pluralism may require perspectivism, or at least a denial of the possibility of objectivity. We wish to be right without anybody else being wrong. We prefer questions. And we like commentaries to be comments.

Leon Weiseltier
“Comes the Comer”
The Jewish Review of Books

Has our desire to avoid hurting people’s feelings made us afraid to be right, afraid to assert our convictions in the face of what we know to be wrong? And if we are, what does that make us?

On the Mideast and Betrayal

Iran Remains the Threat in the Middle East :: Middle East Forum.

A fascinating read generally by Professor Efraim Inbar of the Begin-Sadat Center for Strategic Studies. It is a short but poignant dip into understanding why focusing on ISIS as the main threat in the region may miss the real problem.

But apart from that, I read this passage with some fascination:

Moreover, many of the Arab states failed to modernize and deliver basic services, allowing for alternative Islamist structures to do a better job in providing education, medical and social work services to the impoverished masses.

If that sound familiar, the Palestinian Authority has been accused of the same. Inbar continues:

It is worth noting that the Muslim Brotherhood was established as early as 1928. Ever since, it has developed grassroots by trying to take care of the masses, while subverting the statist order in Muslim states with the goal of building a new Caliphate. Pan-Arabism – a popular ideological inclination among the Arab elites – also undermined the legitimacy of the statist order, reinforcing Pan-Islamist impulses.

All of this suggests something rather nefarious. It implies that there is an Arab elite that is cynically using the Arab refugees from Israel in an effort to drive the Jews out of the region, thus clearing the way for a Caliphate that includes Israeli territory. The Arab refugees (“Palestinians”) would get their own state for a brief moment, only to be absorbed into the new Caliphate, their rights forgotten.

That’s a nasty scenario, it borders on the aluminum-foil-yarmaluke-under-the-watch-cap paranoid, and I am not sure I buy it. But I will file it away, because it bears watching. As the region faces the triple threat of a resurgent Persian empire from Tehran, the scourge of ISIS, and the neo-Ataturkian ambitions of the Turks, I suspect fault lines long buried beneath a sea of anti-Zionism are about to rear their heads again.

 

Scientists and Scripture

Fossils and Faith: Understanding Torah and Science by Nathan Aviezer, Klav Publishing, November 30, 2002

Genesis and the Big Bang: The Discovery Of Harmony Between Modern Science And The Bible by Gerald Schroder, Bantam, November 30, 1991

I trust science and believe in (and trust) God, and the more I look around the more I find that I am not alone. Applied physicist Gerald Schroeder out of MIT and solid state physicist Nathan Aviezer from the University of Chicago (both now in Jerusalem) are two examples of observant Jewish scientists who feel the same way.

Each man explores the issues at the intersection of faith and science, taking a physicists’ look at what he sees are the essential compatibilities of the evolutionary narrative and the account of creation provided in the Torah. The cases they make are thought provoking, but will undoubtedly pose issues for both atheists and biblical literalists. Atheists will see their efforts as rationalizations after-the-fact, more elegantly and persuasively argued than the case for Intelligent Design, perhaps, but in the end no more convincing to skeptics. For their part, observant Jews and literalist scholars are likely to take issue with how both scientists reject the idea that the account in Genesis as literal history.

Yet I approach their efforts a bit differently. I believe that there is an answer to the apparent conflict between the scientific and scriptural accounts that legitimizes them both, and I see both Schroeder and Aviezar as laying the foundations for a theoretical and scholarly exploration of where that link might be. They are, like good scientists, putting forth hypotheses and rationales to support them. They are not declaring quod era demonstratum, but they are going beyond mere credo.

The open-minded among atheist, agnostics, and the faithful would do well to read through the explorations of these scientists. They provide a valuable starting point that, if nothing else, lays the groundwork to prevent extremists of both sides taking control of the agenda.

More than Liberty

“I was trying to explain to my kids on the drive into the city late this morning what is at stake in the gay marriage arguments, and I said that it has to do with what is the meaning of marriage, and what is the meaning of the human person. In the end, I said, it comes down to whether or not there is a standard of truth outside of ourselves to which we must conform, or whether or not the body and the world of matter is inert material upon which we can impose our will.”

via Rod Dreher
The Unraveling of the Common Good
The American Conservative

April 28, 2015

Did Feldblum Really Say that Gay Dignity Trumps Religious Liberty

“But the bottom line for [Professor Chai] Feldblum is: ‘Sexual liberty should win in most cases. There can be a conflict between religious liberty and sexual liberty, but in almost all cases the sexual liberty should win because that’s the only way that the dignity of gay people can be affirmed in any realistic manner.'”

via National Review Online.

Did a member of the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission and the daughter of a Torah scholar really say this? Is affirming the dignity of gay people now officially more important than ensuring religious liberty? Has it now become binary? Has the conversation about finding a place where both can coexist ended? How can it be wrong for religious liberty to trump the dignity of LGBT people all the time, but okay for LGBT pride to trump religious liberty in all cases?

I am deeply, deeply troubled.

I would love to hear from some of the LGBT people who are also practicing Jews.

Rendering unto Caesar More Than What is Caesar’s

The French Revolution inculcated a fear and suspicion of religious authority as a threat to secular Enlightenment power. It’s true that when the dust settled under Napoleon’s feet, there had been at least a façade of reconciliation for the purposes of putting the country back together. But it was only really a façade. And a Napoleonic power structure sowed the seeds of its own undoing. French society remains unnerved by strangers among them, as well as anyone they believe answers to a higher authority than the state. The French government can talk all it wants about appreciating its Jews, but unless and until those Jews feel comfortable and safe actually showing outward signs of their Judaism and religiosity, it won’t change minds. A Frenchman who happens to be a Jew at home cannot be the only Jew who feels at home in France.

via How Not to Fight Anti-Semitism in France
Seth Mandel
Commentary Magazine
14 January 2015

“It is customary to blame secular science and antireligious philosophy for the eclipse of religion in modern society. It would be more honest to blame religion for its own defeats. Religion declined not because it was refuted, but because it became irrelevant, dull, oppressive, insipid. When faith is completely replaced by creed, worship by discipline, love by habit; when the crisis of today is ignored because of the splendor of the past; when faith becomes an heirloom rather than a living fountain; when religion speaks only in the name of authority rather than with the voice of compassion, its message becomes meaningless.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Insecurity of Freedom

“The Divine law does not impose asceticism upon us. It rather desires that we should keep the equipoise, and grant every mental and physical faculty its due, without excess, since excess in one faculty will come at the expense of another. A person who tends toward lust, blunts his mental faculty; and the opposite. A person who is inclined to violence, injures other faculties. Prolonged fasting is not an act of piety for a person who succeeded in checking his desires and is weak in body. For him, pleasure is a burden and self-denial. Neither is limiting one’s wealth an act of piety, if the wealth is gained in a lawful way, and if its acquisition does not interfere with study and good works.”

The Kuzari

“This, indeed, is the status of the Bible in modern society: it is a sublime answer, but we no longer know the question to which it responds. Unless we recover the question, there is no hope of understanding the Bible.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Insecurity of Freedom

Why The History of Religions Chart is Nonsense

The history of all religions explained in one fascinating graphic.
Jesus Diaz
Sploid
8 October 2014

I have known some very tech-savvy rabbis, but with the exception of the one or two whose day jobs involve IT, I would not necessarily turn to them if I needed guidance on, say, upgrading my laptop from Ubuntu 12.04 to 14.04. Technology site Gizmodo, apparently, is similarly out of its depth when discussing religion. But that doesn’t keep them from trying.

Jesus Diaz points us to a poster of an infographic created by Simon E. Davies purporting to show the history of all of the world’s religions. It’s cute. It’s pretty. And it is, as you would expect, oversimplified to the point of obfuscation.

For example, suggesting as this graphic does that Judaism sprang whole-cloth from Middle Eastern Shamanism and Canaanite polytheism is downright deceptive, and you don’t have to be an historian or theologian to know it. Abrahamic monotheism was something utterly different from all that preceded it that it should be a branch of its own.

Of course, that would give credence to the concept of revelation, and the pseudo-scientists who look at this chart and nod their heads are likely unready to do that. It would make them sound like (gasp!) believers.

But what really set me off was Diaz’ final paragraph:

Ultimately, the lesson here is that high priests of every religion through the ages have been nothing more than unimaginative Hollywood movie producers with a taste for derivative material.

That flip remark may sound clever to Mr. Diaz and his editors, but it is unmitigated nonsense. I won’t speak for or about any other faith, but a simple perusal of the jacket copy of Thomas Cahill’s The Gifts of the Jews would put paid to any suggestion that all faiths are derivative material.

There are some things in life that fairly beg to be simplified. And there are others that defy simplification. Wisdom will tell the difference, and wisdom suggests that trying to turn a complex, nuanced subject like the history of religion and turning it into a wall chart is a bad idea.

Far worse, however, is admitting that you have taken theology classes and that you still find all religion unimaginative and derivative. It suggests either a poor school, a poor student, or both.

Is it Time to Reform Reform Judaism?

Whatever else the Haskalah has been, it was originally at its heart less a rejection of traditional Judaism than an effort to reconcile yiddishkeit with the Enlightenment and Romance era modernity. By the 1970s, though, Reform had wandered far from that original approach, and frequently set itself up in opposition to traditional Judaism.

I remember well the passion incited at our Reform summer camp in 1977 when the administrators invited Chabad leaders to visit. The debates were heated, but at their heart was a gnawing insecurity among many of us there that we had, indeed, wandered so far off the path that it was hard to tell that we were Jewish.

The older I got, and the more I learned about Judaism, the more I realized that the Reform movement had come perilously close to tossing out the baby with the bathwater. Thumb through the New Union Prayerbook one day, and compare it with, for example, Artscroll’s transliterated linear siddur. The denominational differences so great as to be almost a Catholic/Protestant divide.

It seems opportune to reconsider the role of Reform. If Judaism is a buffet, we should put everthing on the table and make it all as tempting as possible (which it really is – there is precious little about observant life that is truly unpalatable once you understand it.) If we can entice Jews back to their heritage and tradition rather than either a) deny it to them completely, or b) ram it down their throats, we have an opportunity to move beyond denominations and become a single community with many ways to approach Hashem.

The Reform community still seems to me to be in the best position to carry this off. If it cannot, though, it will surrender the role to Conservative Judaism and movements like Chabad and Aish Ha-Torah.

 

On The Value of Talmud

Reading the title of this article would cause even moderately observant Jews to scoff. For anyone living in (or seeking to relocate to) the more observant precincts of our tribe, the value of Talmud is axiomatic. But for many of us, particularly those raised in the traditions that emerged out of Haskalah, the Talmud is a mystery, largely because one of the core tenets of the Jewish Enlightenment was the effort to remove Talmud study from Jewish education, beginning with the Free School in Berlin in 1778.

Today, millions of Jews have grown up with only a vague understanding of what Talmud is, and have no idea of its continuing relevance to Judaism. For these Jews – and I am one of them – we cannot take as axiomatic the value of Talmud. We must, instead, begin to articulate it so that its study returns to its rightful place in the education of every Jewish child.

I see Talmud as a kind of “Congressional Record” of Judaism, a scholarly proceedings that not only list the conclusions that were reached on a topic, but the exigetical process to reach those conclusions, and the debates over different interpretations. In so doing, Talmud reminds us that in Judaism, the ultimate decision has importance, but that this does not take away from the innate value of the losing argument and the debate itself.

In so doing, the redactors of the Talmud were handing us an invaluable gift, the blueprint to keeping Judaism relevant even as we remain rooted in tradition. No other work in the vast library of our faith can weave such a powerful, uniting fabric.

I was raised a Reform Jew, and my formal Jewish education, which I continued until I was 18, never delved into what Talmud was. It took the beginning of my Teshuvah at age 31 and Adin Steinsaltz’s superb The Essential Talmud to begin addressing my ignorance. There is no reason that this should happen to another generation. Talmud helps us cleave to Torah because it is a major part of what makes Torah a living thing, not just an ancient scroll. If we cut Talmud away, we remove the most important handhold for ourselves and our children to Jewish tradition.

Let’s bring Talmud back to liberal Judaism, and let us recognize that this is not part of an effort to turn the Reform movement into some kind of unbearded Orthodoxy, but to emplace in our heritage one more post in the fence that keeps us from apostasy or assimilation.

 

Slate.com Disses Dinner

The first thing I thought when I read this article by Amanda Marcotte was that either she – or Slate – are on the payroll of the American Restaurant Association. Let us abandon that line, and simply stipulate that Slate.com is in the business of purveying linkbait, and that is all this is.

There is nothing easy or quick about a home-cooked dinner. It can be a huge pain, especially if you are cooking for less than three or more than four. But if we are going to assess the costs, we also must weigh the benefits. Home cooked dinners are generally not only more nutritious than comparably-priced restaurant food, they also serve to deepen the connection among family members, as they often represent the only time of the day when everyone is together and not getting ready to rush off elsewhere. Getting kids and adults together is miserably difficult, and in the case of teenagers, a decent feed is often the only way to yank them out of their electronically isolated mind-caverns.

The family meal is also a time when you train your kids how to act like ladies and gentlemen, how to hold a civilized conversation, how to treat others (including the siblings they hate with a passion) with a modicum of decency and respect, and a hundred other behaviors and traits that will form them in life. Are those things not priceless? Are they not at the very heart of what it means to be a parent.

Yes, there are things we could do to make it easier for low-income and two-working-parent families to cook at home. But let’s talk about those things, and not about abandoning the home-cooked dinner to the Merchants of Fat simply because it is easier. No, cooking is not convenient. Nor is pregnancy, changing a diaper, doctor’s visits, braces, driving a carpool, giving up your evenings and weekends to school nights, homework, sports, scouts, or any of dozens of activities that you only take on as a parent.

But as much as taking the kids to soccer or being a little league coach, the family dinner is an indispensible part of being a parent. If you don’t want to cook because it is messy, inconvenient, and nobody is grateful, the problem is not the family meal. The problem lies elsewhere.

 

 

Sinatra, Atheist

There is an article making the rounds in social media quoting heavily from a 1963 Playboy interview with Frank Sinatra where the crooner/actor/showman takes on organized religion in a scathing diatribe.

Frank Sinatra was a great singer, and probably the best non-operatic male crooner of the twentieth century. He was a man of great decency and of great moral lapse, like most of us. And he says some things with which I agree. He is correct when he states that there is much evil done in the name of religion, and I agree wholeheartedly with his sentiment that:

“I’ve got no quarrel with men of decency at any level. But I can’t believe that decency stems only from religion. And I can’t help wondering how many public figures make avowals of religious faith to maintain an aura of respectability.”

But for all of his opinions, Old Blue Eyes came up short on theology. To give a single example, in the intervew he states that “over 25,000 organized religions flourish on this planet, but the followers of each think all the others are miserably misguided and probably evil as well.”

This statement is ought more than demagogic hogwash. Judaism, as most Jews and many non-Jews know, does NOT think the followers of other religions to be horribly misguided, but as legitimate faiths for their followers. That Sinatra should miss that point about a mainstream US faith underscores that he knew far too little about organized religion (outside, perhaps, the Roman Catholic Church) to pass broad judgement on all faiths with a single sweeping statement.

I won’t go into his refusal to recognize the positive contributions made by religions and their followers to the world and its culture. The Chairman was on a roll, and he was speaking to a captive audience of men who were tired of being told that their desires to drink and smoke to excess and copulate with anything with a pulse were, in fact, harmful in ways to go far deeper than the purely physical.

One last thought. It is ironic that atheists and anti-theists would hold up Sinatra’s remarks as being “ahead of their time.” This is true. Sinatra was ahead of his time in paiting all faiths and religions with the same broad tar brush without bothering to learn the facts. It was simply easier to condemn with a the prose of a true provocateur than to bother with the truth.

 

“Scripture lays down the rule of ‘an eye for an eye’ (Exodus 21:24) and demands capital punishment for a range of offences; the Talmud refuses to countenance the literal interpretation of the phrase, and though retaining capital punishment in theory, limits its application to such an extent that it would be virtually impossible in practice (Bava Qama 83b).”

Norman Solomon
The Talmud: A Selection

“To be an iconoclast of idolized needs, to defy our own immoral interests, though they seem to be vital and have long been cherished, we must be able to say No to ourselves in the name of a higher Yes.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Insecurity of Freedom

Taking Moral Responsibility

Moral clarity in Gaza
Charles Krauthammer,
The Washington Post,
July 17, 2014.

In an incisive op/ed in the WaPo, Krauthammer hits the nail on the head. You don’t have to buy into everything Bibi Netanyahu has done (I have real issues with the West Bank settlements,) but you must recognize that there is no moral equivalence in Gaza: Israel is fighting for its life here.

The Arab nations, if not much of global Islam, has chosen to play the role of Amalek and eradicate Israel, and then the Jews. They have chosen to do so by proxy because doing so with tanks, bombs, and infantry was not only spectacularly unsuccessful, it made them all look foolish AND it surrendered the moral high ground from 1947 to 1983.

In so doing, they have made the people of Gaza the cannon fodder in a worldwide propaganda war. If you want a bad guy in the deaths of Palestinian civilians, don’t look to Jerusalem: look to the cynical leaders of Hamas, of the Palestinian Authority, and of those national leaders who smile at Israel’s leaders for the cameras while they secretly write checks for Israel’s demise, and write off the people of Gaza as martyrs to a selfish cause.

The game has been the same since the Grand Mufti of Jerusalem called for the eradication of the Jews in 1926. All that has changed is the tactics.

I stand with Israel. I will bear the pain of its wrongs and fight to minimize them as I enjoy the triumphs of the good that it does and work to maximize them, because on the balance I know the scales tip heavily toward the good.

All I ask in return is that anyone who buys into Hamas propaganda, who stands with terrorists, similarly bears the moral responsibility for their actions, goals, and atrocities.

 

Rabbi Menachem Creditor is Done Apologizing for Israel

I’m Done Apologizing for Israel”
Rabbi Menachem Creditor

The Huffington Post
21 July 2o14

Rabbit Menachem Creditor and I are at variances about a lot of political issues, but he and I stand together on this one. I, too, am done apologizing for Israel. I too, am done trying to apologetically explain Jewish morality, or for my Jewish existence, and for all the same reasons.

I ask the enraged critics of Israel’s defensive responses to Hamas: Would you have us not respond to this monstrosity? Do you think it’s not worth losing the PR battle to retain our humanity and save as many lives as possible? What country would stand by when thousands of terrorist missiles assault its citizens? I, a Jew, have lost 20 of my sons in the last three days, because I will not lose my humanity and stage a careless ground war in Gaza that would cause mass casualties.

Please read his post.

Sympathy for the Hobby Lobby

“Why Hobby Lobby Isn’t Anti-Semitic”
Yair Rosenberg
Tablet
October 4, 2013

In all of the anger and resentment that has surrounded Hobby Lobby of late, I missed Yair Rosenberg’s short but thoughtful piece asking us to reconsider whether either the Hobby Lobby organization or its CEO David Green are, in fact, anti-Semitic.

As Rosenberg points out:

Undoubtedly, some Jews might feel comfortable hawking baby Jesuses during the holiday season, while others might not. Both are very real, very human positions. Surely we can extend the same empathy and understanding to non-Jews with similar perspectives? This doesn’t mean one has to agree with Hobby Lobby’s decision. But it does mean we should refrain from tarring its ownership as bigots.

This is a sentiment with which any tzaddik might agree. But I think the real issue goes deeper than just Hobby Lobby.

The paradox of living in a society wherein virulent anti-semitism is either latent or non-existent is that we become increasingly sensitized to anything that offers the least hint of hatred. Our threshold lowers, and we justify that on the grounds that we must be vigilant, lest the sentiment spread and become dangerous. After all, we think, the Jews of Germany were like the proverbial boiling frogs, adapting to increasing levels of anti-Semitism right up to the point that they were herded into gas chambers.

At some point, though, we run the risk of seeing something that we think might be anti-Semitism, and it might not be, but we err on the side of caution because of we fear the consequences of adapting to any level of Jew hatred in society.

Rosenberg’s point is that we may have crossed that threshold, that we may be seeing anti-Semitism in the reflection of an orthodox Christianity that is, understandably, uncomfortable selling Judaica. In this case, until we can look into the heart of another, I am prepared to give the Hobby Lobby team the benefit of the doubt. But more broadly, it may be time to start a wider discussion about where we, as Jews, should draw the line between a possible misunderstanding of intent and clear-cut anti-Semitism.

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