“Needs are looked upon today as if they were holy, as if they contained the totality of existence. Needs are our gods, and we toil and spare no effort to gratify them. Suppression of a desire is considered a sacrilege that must inevitably avenge itself in the form of some mental disorder.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Insecurity of Freedom

Tolerance Cuts Both Ways

I’m gay. And I want my kid to be gay, too.
Sally Kohn

The Washington Post.

In a fascinating Washington Post article by Sally Kohn, she announces to the world that she is gay and wants her child to be gay, too.

As you ponder the implications of such a declaration, consider this: Ms. Kohn is receiving plaudits for her pronouncement. Conversely, though, if I were to announce in a national newspaper that I am heterosexual and I want my son to be heterosexual, too, I would be vilified by many as a homophobe.

How is that right?

I would hope that Ms. Kohn provides her child with an environment that is as accepting of whatever choice her child makes as she would want me to be. And I hope that the nation can accept that our wishes for our children to be one thing does not necessarily equate a vilification of another.

For the record, I want my son to be heterosexual. But I will love him and support him regardless of what his gender identity winds up being.

“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 members of the Sanhedrin were commanded not to let any science, whether real, imagined, or conventional, escape their knowledge. This included forms of magic and languages. How was it possible to find at all times seventy scholars of this level, unless learning was common among the people? If one elder died, another of the same stamp succeeded him. It could not be otherwise, as all branches of science are required for the application of Torah law.”

The Kuzari

“Modern man continues to ponder: What will I get out of life? What escapes his attention is the fundamental, yet forgotten question, What will life get out of me?”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Insecurity of Freedom

“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
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.

“Absorbed in the struggle for the emancipation of the individual we have concentrated our attention upon the idea of human rights and overlooked the importance of human obligations.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Insecurity of Freedom


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

“Religion has adjusted itself to the modern temper by proclaiming that it too is the satisfaction of a need. This conception, which is surely diametrically opposed to the prophetic attitude, has richly contributed to the misunderstanding and sterilization of religious thinking.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel
Insecurity of Freedom

Wander On, O Yidden: China and the Jewish Diaspora (III)

Part III: The Limits of Toleration

In part I of this series, I talked about why China becoming a major center of world Judaism was desirable and possible; in Part II, I examined the social and domestic policy challenges that are making this increasingly unlikely; here, in the third and final part of this essay, I explain how the long-term drivers of Chinese policy bode ill for Judaism in China.

The Israel Issue

China has been friendly with Israel for some time, and the two countries formalized diplomatic relations in 1992. Despite positive noises and outward evidence of friendship, however, it would be wrong to exaggerate the degree to which the countries enjoy close ties.

China and Israel remain deeply divided about the Palestianian issue: China does not recognize Hamas or Hezbollah as terrorist organizations and has continued to demonstrate a bias toward the Palestinians in any matter of contention between Israel and Palestine. China has built and retains a close relationship with the Islamic Republic of Iran, and is known to have supported, indirectly or directly, Iran’s nuclear enrichment program despite the threat it presents to Israel.

Bilateral trade between Israel and China is now up to $11 billion. That may seem like a lot, but trade between Israel and the Arab world has reached nearly a quarter of a trillion dollars. If push came to shove, Israel would lose, high-tech exports notwithstanding. And push could come to shove if Sino-US relations came to a major falling out. Further, there are indications that the Jonathan Pollard case continues to cast a shadow over Sino-Israeli relations. The Mossad enjoys a legendary reputation in China, and Israel’s willingness to spy on its most important ally has ensured that a close relationship with Israel is perceived by some of China’s realists as an extant security threat

Given these factors and given the evolution of China’s broader foreign policy and defense posture, it is impossible to ignore the possibility of a major crisis or break in relations between China and Israel. A break could arise from any of a number of causes, but is probably less likely than a gradual deterioration of ties. If Israel were to become increasingly reluctant to supply high technology or military technology to China (not unlikely given China’s growing assertiveness abroad), this would slash the value of the bilateral relationship for China. The growing dependence of China on oil from Iran and Arab states, coupled with a decline in the US dependence on such oil because of hydrofracking and environmentalism, would mean that the value of the Sino-Arab relationship would grow substantially. And the need to sustain those relationships in the face of a possible crackdown in China’s Muslim interior could compel the Arab states to demand a quid-pro quo.

A falling out between China and Israel would not necessarily have dire or immediate consequences for Jews in China. It would, however, place Jews under suspicion of being spies or a dormant fifth column in the event of conflict. Thus it is difficult to imagine the rapid and continued growth of a healthy Jewish community in China in the face of any decline in Sino-Israeli relations.

The Latent Xenophobia Question

Jews are seen as foreigners in China, a status that is as much ethnic as political. Short of a significant campaign by the government to make it so, Jews will continue to be seen as foreigners. Given that the government has no compelling reason to single out Jews for preference, any rise in anti-foreign sentiment would be visited upon Jews with the same intensity that would be on non-Jewish foreigners.

As such, the question about the long-term prospects for China to be a haven for Jews rests on the larger question of whether xenophobia is likely to intensify at some point in the future. The answer, of course, is unknowable. But the threat is latent, real, and rooted in China’s evolving relationship with the United States.

China and the US are increasingly at loggerheads over a range of issues, and the two nations seem destined to a degree of political and military rivalry (if not outright conflict) in the foreseeable future. The growth of Chinese nationalism and the increasing focus on America as an active barrier to China’s global rise together thus offer a potential breeding ground for xenophobia.

To this growing powder keg needs only be added a spark in the form of an international incident in which China can claim to be the aggrieved party. The anger and ugly sentiments unleashed in the Chinese after the bombing of the Chinese Embassy in Kosovo, even though government stoked, offered proof of the anger that lies dormant beneath the surface of the Chinese psyche, and how easily it is whipped into violence.

It seems only a matter of time and opportunity before it returns.


When we scan across the breadth of our history as a people, we read of places that offered us refuge in our wanderings, a sequence of nations that allowed us not just to live, but to thrive in their midst. In this list of places lies another list, hidden but implied, of the nations that either murdered their Jews, chased us from their midst, oppressed us, or simply tolerated our presence with odious restrictions. We appeared to prosper in some places precisely because the other places were anything from dreary to deadly for our tribe.

Indeed, even today it is not easy to find a place where all of the conditions exist to occasion the emergence of a vibrant world center of Judaism. Even continental Europe seems determined to demonstrate that it is infertile ground for a renaissance of Yiddishkeit.

Nothing in this essay should be interpreted to suggest that there will be no Jews in China. Even in the depths of the Cultural Revolution, there were Jews in China. Short of a shooting war with the US or Israel, it is impossible to conceive of a China where Jews are rooted out and either imprisoned or expelled.

But there is a difference between mere survival and prosperity, and it now seems clear that China will ever remain a frontier outpost of the Diaspora rather than a center of Jewish society. In this, China joins a long and distinguished list.

After spending three decades studying, living in, and working in China, I have reached this conclusion with great reluctance, and relate it with a heavy heart but hopefully a clear head. And I relate it with the fervent hope that history will prove me wrong, even as I doubt it will.

Richard Dawkins Suggests the Fairy Tales are Harmful to Kids, then Recants

Richard Dawkins on fairy tales: ‘I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism’
Ian Johnston
The Independent
5 June 2014

At some point, Richard Dawkins is going to reveal a viewpoint that is itself so pernicious, so inhumane, and so extreme that all but his most ardent supporters will be embarrassed. I suspect this most recent revelation of the eminent evolutionary biologist’s heartfelt prejudices is a step toward that point.

“I think it’s rather pernicious to inculcate into a child a view of the world which includes supernaturalism – we get enough of that anyway.

“Even fairy tales, the ones we all love, with wizards or princesses turning into frogs or whatever it was. There’s a very interesting reason why a prince could not turn into a frog – it’s statistically too improbable.”

He apparently confronted such a backlash in the wake of his remarks (at a science conference, no less) that he felt compelled later to “clarify” them on Twitter. He seems to have discovered that in taking on the likes of Hansel and Gretel, Little Red Riding Hood, The Three Little Pigs, Goldilocks and the Three Bears, and the Monkey King, he is losing the plot of his own book, and perhaps a few readers he respects.

I think that Dr. Dawkins misses an even larger point. When we tell children fairy tales that include the supernatural, we do not cause them to recoil from science and discovery. Rather, we awaken them to the understanding that there are still things out there that we do not understand, things that are possible but unproven, and that themselves provide a motive to explore, to discover, to find the unfound. Is that not, after all, what a scientist does? Do we not risk reducing science to sawdust in the mouths of our children if we do not provoke them with wonder and curiosity about the unknown and undiscovered? How in the name of anything Dawkins holds sacred does that serve humanity?

I do not think that Dr. Dawkins is an evil man. I think that he is sincere in his belief that his arguments are made for the betterment of the world. It is possible, however, that in the twilight of his career the author of The Selfish Gene and The God Delusion is frustrated that despite his best efforts, so many intelligent, thinking people continue to entertain the possibility of God, of the supernatural, of magic, and that this frustration is bubbling to the surface.

I wish him peace and happiness, hope he continues his work, and in return ask that he and his followers allow the rest of us to live our lives, teach our children, and read to our families as we see fit.

Wander On, O Yidden: China and the Jewish Diaspora (II)

Part II: The Frayed Welcome Mat

In Part I of this series, I talked about why China becoming a major center of world Judaism was desirable and possible. here, in Part II, I examine the social and domestic policy challenges that are making this increasingly unlikely.

The Chinese Advance; The Foreign Retreats

When China’s reform and opening began, the dome of official xenophobia that covered China began to crack, and then shattered completely. The nation was, for a time, like a child in the world’s cultural candy shop. A foreigner coming to China was welcomed both officially and unofficially. Visa and residency requirements were challenging but not impossible to overcome unless you were incompetent or a miscreant. Over time, the visa requirements eased to the point where a visa could be had for the price of a decent dinner in the course of an afternoon. At one point, there was even talk about making permanent residency – or even citizenship – open to deserving foreigners.

And then that talk ended. At some point, the door stopped its swing opening, and it began to swing shut again.

Today the welcome mat has been worn out. Perhaps familiarity has bred contempt, perhaps there is paranoia in the Communist Party of China about non-Chinese in such great number in China serving as a destabilizing force, or perhaps xenophobia was the watchword for so long in China’s history that it remains a latent force in China’s relationship to outsiders. Either way, we have witnessed a growing official ambivalence about foreigners that sometimes gives way to outright antipathy.

The friendliness is gone. In its place is often little more than forced courtesy. Smiles from passers-by have turned into suspicious glances. Friendliness to families with one western and one Chinese spouse have turned into angry looks or contempt. Visas are getting harder to get, permanent residency is off the table, and immigration for someone who is not ethnic Chinese is a fantasy.

Foreigners are taxed as if each of us is wealthy, regardless of our true situation. And we will never be allowed to remain in China long enough to benefit from the retirement funds into which we are obliged to pay. There is the slight tang of racist politics in the air, and those of us who are not Chinese remain in the country on what increasingly feels like borrowed time.

The Large Advances; the Small Retreats

The nature of living a Jewish life and the challenges of corporate life in China make it difficult, and nearly impossible, for a moderately observant Jew to live a Jewish life and to remain employed. Socializing in non-kosher restaurants, working through the Sabbath and Holidays, and dozens of workaday challenges drive most of us to build livelihoods wherein we can set our own rules.

But China is not set up for foreign entrepreneurs. To start your own business in China is profoundly difficult, and to keep it operating under a set of commercial laws designed with massive state-owned enterprises and multi-national corporations in mind is enough to drive the most honest merchant to evasion and subterfuge. except in the case of extraordinarily accommodating multinationals – of which there are few indeed – we are offered the choice of foregoing an observant life or foregoing our metier.

If the recent direction of policy is any indication, this will not change anytime soon. Xi Jinping’s approach to sustaining the vitality of the Chinese economy is to make massive state-owned enterprises (SOEs) larger, more efficient, and more profitable. The message to small- and medium-sized business seems clear. If the government is going to protect SOEs, they mean to protect them from the competitive threat posed by smaller, more nimble players and from foreign enterprise. To be small and foreign in Xi Jinping’s economy is to be somewhere twixt a forgotten stepchild and an enemy of the State. The scope of freedom for Jews to establish our own business community seems destined to remain circumscribed.

The Institutional Roadblock

Businesses owned by Jews form the pillars of a Jewish community. Yet what forms the foundation and the crossbeams of any such community, determining its resilience, longevity, and importance, are a cluster of religious and secular institutions. Those clusters begin with one or more synagogues (usually more: we each drink our Torah in different doses). Those synagogues then give birth to schools to educate our children; publication societies to provide cultural and religious media; charities and benevolent societies to care for those of us who have fallen on hard times; protective societies to ensure we remain unmolested by society at large and federations to coordinate the varied institutions and to serve as an interface to other faiths.

China makes the creation of such institutions problematic, if not impossible. Chinese law demands government sponsorship for every civil institution and NGO, which implies the need for government involvement and approval that are anathema to a Jewish federation or charity. Establishing primary and secondary schools requires approval of and supervision by a Ministry of Education that is ambivalent – if not hostile toward – religious education. Even if this barrier is jumped, a yeshiva is all but out of the question. China retains and regularly fortifies laws keeping foreigners out of the publishing business, and a faith-based publishing house would surely subject each work to government review before it could be published, especially if it were to be published all or in part in Chinese. And as for synagogues, those that are extant in China today stay out of the government’s way because congregations are small, totally foreign, and deliberately invisible to the outside world.

Creating Jewish institutions is not impossible in China. Creating adequate institutions capable of addressing the basic needs of Jews temporarily resident in China is, however, a far cry from those born of a multi-generational community of sufficient scale to rival their counterparts in pre-1933 Europe, modern Israel and the current-day United States. This will not happen in the context of a polity that bases its ethos on suspicion of religion and its existence on the imperative to control the hearts and minds of the local people.

Next week in the final part of this essay I will talk about the macro-policy challenges that bode ill for a Chinese Jewish community, and wrap up the discussion.

Wander On, O Yidden: China and the Jewish Diaspora (I)

Part I: Searching for the New Al-Andalus

One of the remarkable features of the history of the Jewish people is that we have spent the past three millennia watching the the center of gravity of our faith migrate across the entire breadth of western civilization. While our hearts have always been in Israel, our bodies have often found themselves far from the land that God promised our forefathers.

Babylon gave us Abraham and, much later, the great sages and the Talmud Bavli. From Spain came the flourishing of Sephardi culture and hundreds of years of our greatest post-Talmud scholars, including Rashi. Egypt and the Caliphate, whence Sephard extended, gave us an upwelling of Jewish thought, embodied by the secret reservoir of the Cairo Geniza and capped by the magisterial works of the Rambam. Eastern Europe became the home of a vibrant Yiddishkeit from which emerged the wonders of the Baal Shem Tov, Jewish mysticism, Chasidism, and the great Gaonim of Ashkenazic culture. Germany brought the Halaskah that compelled our faith to address the challenge of modernity (a struggle that continues today.)

And the United States, today the single greatest concentration of Jews in the world outside of Israel, has provided Jews the newest place where we can live according to our traditions in a manner of our own choosing.

Yet civilizations move through cycles of their own, and if there is but one lesson that we must take from our history, it is that while a civilization on the rise makes a comfortable place for Jews to live, once the decline begins in earnest, we are well-advised to go and find ourselves another home.

A (Jewish) Star Rises in the East?

As I write these words, the United States appears to be in relative decline, but has not yet entered the absolute decline that would signal the end of a civilization. Yet history moves fast, and we are always wise to be on the lookout for where we would go if the tides of time once again turned against us: Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union offer us two very recent, very cautionary examples of why it is always important to have at least one place to which we can run.

For a long time, I believed that China would be that next place, the home of the new Jewish diaspora, a new refuge from which Yiddishkeit could grow. The signs seemed very good: the country served as a refuge for Jews from around the world in the tumultuous years between the two world wars; there is an abiding respect for Jews that runs deep in the Chinese culture; China has all the marks of a civilization on the rise; there are natural points of commonality between the cultures; and both observant and liberal Jews were working together to build communities and set down roots.

In these signs I saw I put my money where my mouth was: for eighteen years I lived in China, owned property, built a business, and contributed as I could to the creation of a Jewish community. In those years I saw many hopeful signs: the arrival of Chabad; the growing crowds at Shabbat services; the appointment of Beijing’s Chabad rabbi (and de-facto chief rabbi of Beijing) by the organizers of the Beijing Olympics as the rabbi to Jewish athletes and officials at the games; the kashering of the kitchens at the Great Hall of the People when Israeli officials came on a state visit.

Since those days, though, a change has taken place. While I believe that there will always be a Jewish community in China, I have come to despair of the notion that China is the next center of the Jewish diaspora.

In installments over the coming weeks, I will attempt to explain why this is the case.

Philosophy, Science, and Big Questions

Philosopher and scientist Massimo Pigliucci of Scientia Salon takes Neil DeGrasse Tyson to task for deriding the value of modern philosophy to science, and for suggesting that philosophy has contributed nothing to natural science since the 1920s.

I disagree with Tyson on many things, but I must agree with him here: the academic direction philosophy today does not meaningfully answer questions about the natural world. Yet perhaps unlike Tyson, I continue to believe that philosophy – of which faith could be considered a subset – remains relevant in the scientific world, and the philosophical questions posed by advances in science are ill-addressed by science itself.

The scientific method is a magnificent tool for describing what, how, where and when, for example, but it comes up short as a source for ethics, morality, or the meaning of life. Science can show us how we can clone a human, but it ill-equipped to tell us whether we should or not; science can build a bomb, but it cannot tell us where and whether to use it; and science can explain the nutritional value of a calf, but it cannot help us decide whether or not it is right to eat veal.

It disappoints me that someone as intelligent as Tyson – or Stephen Hawking, for that matter – cannot see that science and philosophy are complimentary pursuits that each address their own realms. There are questions that science cannot answer, and there are questions that philosophy cannot answer. That modern philosophy has become dominated by intellectual auto-eroticists does not lessen the value of philosophy as a human pursuit: it merely suggests that philosophy took a wrong turn at some point, and needs to back up a bit and start again.

The Macklemore Test

Will Macklemore’s ‘hella good Jewish homies’ weigh in on his ‘anti-Semitic’ getup?”

May 19, 2014

Rapper Macklemore has earned himself much ire for not only going onstage to sing “Thrift Shop” made up as a over-the-top caricature of a Jewish man (let’s call it “Jewface,” at least as offensive and over-the-top to us as Amos and Andy were to African-Americans), but then having the temerity to deny the caricature. As the online uproar built, he tweeted:

“A fake witches nose, wig, and beard = random costume.  Not my idea of a stereotype of anybody.”

Even a cursory review of the photos and the circumstances suggests that anyone believing that is endowed with a superhuman level of credulity.

America now faces a test. If this event marks the apogee of Macklemore’s career, it will demonstrate that America will not tolerate racism directed against Jews. If, however, he retains his popularity or becomes more popular, it will demonstrate that Americans are prepared to lionize a man who is at the very least an insensitive lout, and is possibly a rabid anti-Semite.

I can only hope that Mr. Macklemore is merely a callous boor rather than an uncloseted neo-Nazi, and that he did not do this to try to earn more credibility with that section of the rap community that seems to enjoy Jew-bashing. An apology that would allow us all to move on would be nice. The next best thing, though, would be to see Mr. Macklemore reduced to playing third-billings at KKK conventions.

UCLA and the Anti-Israel Pledge

UCLA Responds to Shocking Anti-Israel Pledge for Student Gov’t Candidates
Sharona Schwartz

May 14, 2014

A pro-Palestinian student organization at UCLA tried to push through two measures designed to disqualify from voting in student government students who had taken trips to Israel sponsored by the HADL, the Hasbara Fellowships, and AIPAC.

Student votes largely defeated the measures, which was good. What discouraged me was that the school administration did not see fit to even make a statement, choosing instead to remain silent and leave the issue for the students to resolve.

I agree that the administration should not waste its time involving itself in the trivia of student government: they have a university to run, and student government on principle is an educational exercise wherein students absorb the rights – and the responsibilities – of life in a pluralistic society.

Yet when student government wanders into the field of intolerance and activities that undermine the principle of fair and equal treatment, the university is bound to make a statement.

It is easy to say “hey, the administration was right. They held back, let the students take care of things, and it all died down.” Fair enough.

Yet had the outcome gone a different way, had students in fact squeezed candidates out because of their viewpoints or their possible viewpoints, the university’s post-facto intervention would have looked unprincipled. Professor Jacobsen at Cornell framed it correctly: the university administration, as the highest authority, should have established the principle of fair and equal treatment, and made clear that it reserved the right to step in if those principles were violated. That would have made clear that student government operates within limits set by the university, and that failing to observe those limits would have consequences.

The administration at UCLA is cowed by political correctness, and as such weakens its role as the ultimate arbiter of the rules of the university playing field. It is the opposite mistake of the one made by UCLA and other institutions in the 1960s, which was to be too paternalistic. The correct course lies somewhere twixt “the heavy hand” and “the absent hand.”

A Jewish Moment in Wan Chai

Thank you, Rabbi Shmuel Yizhar, for a much-needed moment of Yiddishkeit on a Wanchai street the Friday afternoon before the last Shabbos in March.

Amid the bustle in one of the most densely-packed districts of Hong Kong, flanked by bars and massage parlors, two Jewish strangers met on the street and talked about the wonder of Shabbos for a few moments before rushing off on our respective ways.

Somehow, the SAR is a better place for me when I know that there is still a Jewish Hong Kong beneath the heavy layers of Britain and China that define the city. B”H

Why Judaism is an Environmentalist Faith

One issue I keep coming across in my discussions with atheists is the persistent misconception that religion promotes the idea that the Earth is man’s to do with whatever he pleases.

I do not attempt to speak for other faiths, or even for all Jews, but I explain that at its core Judaism is about Tikkun Olam, the betterment of the world in partnership with Hashem. The usual reaction I get from the more polite folks is arched-eyebrow skepticism. “I am sure that is how you read it, but does everyone?”

Jonathan Helfand offers superb documentation of where Judaism stands on the environment in a paper published in Martin D. Yaffe’s Judaism and Environmental Ethicsa 2002 compendium of writings on the topic. Helfand’s paper, “The Earth is the Lord’s: Judaism and Environmental Ethics,” presents what he calls a “Jewish Theology of the Environment,” drawn from Halacha, Aggadah, and Tefilah.

He starts out by summarizing the line of thinking that environmentalists follow to condemn Abrahamic religion, originally posited by Arnold Toynbee in the pages of the New York Times in 1973:

The doctrine that placed one God above nature removed the restraints placed on primitive man by his belief that the environment itself was divine. Monotheistic man’s impulses were no longer restrained by a pious worship of nature, and the God of Genesis told man to subdue and master the earth, proclaiming man’s dominion over the natural world.

Again, speaking only for Judaism, Helfand refutes the point in a comprehensive essay that establishes that not only did Hashem not give the world to man for his own, but that He enlisted man as a partner in its preservation even as man was provided its fruits for sustainment.

He also explains why we are required to protect the environment, use care with endangered species, and to serve as stewards of the world. In short, Helfand explains that the concept of sustainability is rooted deeply in Torah. He concludes:

While nature has indeed been, to use Weber’s term, “disenchanted” by the biblical creation epic, it is wrong to conclude that by releasing man from primitive constraints monotheism has given him license or incentive to destroy. In the Jewish tradition nature may be disenchanted, but never “despiritualized.” For Judaism nature serves as a guide and inspiration. “Bless the Lord, 0 my soul,” cries out the Psalmist as he views the heaven and earth and the wonders of creation. “How great are Thy works, 0 Lord; in wisdom You have made them all; the earth is full of your possessions” (Psalm 104:1, 24).

I love that: Judaism may have disenchanted nature, but it never despiritualized it. On the contrary, Judaism has given the world a framework that enables us to respect and preserve nature without having to worship it.

Naturally, this is a learned essay in an academic publication, not the ruling of a posek. Nonetheless, it provides a foundation for others to use as a guide or a resource when seeking to do so.

Finally, one of the things I love about this article is that it is a demonstration of the value of the oral Torah and the Aggadah, and the importance of using great care when interpreting Torah. If an environmentalist can dig into Genesis and find justification for despoiling the Earth, so could a well-intentioned Jew who proceeds without the guidance of the sages.

I keep this article in Evernote now, making sure it is handy for my next debate with an environmentalist.

In Denmark, Animals Come Before People

National Secular Society – Denmark bans religious slaughter.

Denmark has now added itself to the growing list of countries who have decided to restrict the practices of observant Judaism. What is most telling is this particular quote from the Danish agricultural and food minister, Dan Jørgensen:

However, defending the governments decision, Mr. Jorgensen told Denmark’s TV2 television that “animal rights come before religion.”

In other words, in Denmark, animals come before people. Better that every Jew and Muslim family be forced to leave Denmark than have one single animal be slaughtered according to the ancient laws of Kashrut and Halal.

It is increasingly apparent that Europe was never about freedom of religion. One can only wonder how long it will be before the country outlaws circumcision and distinctive religious apparel.

As to the practice of Kashrut, let me say only this: if science has proven that the current practice of shochet slaughter is not as compassionate as Talmud calls us to be, this is an occasion for us as Jews to consider submitting the question to our greatest Torah scholars: is it time for a change in Halachic practice?

Woody Allen and Moral Relativism

If you are like me, you have been following the entire matter of Woody Allen and the accusations levied against him by Dylan Farrow with growing discomfort. On the one hand, Mr. Allen is, by birth, a Jew, and I am hesitant to disparage him publicly. He also deserves to have his case heard outside the realm of innuendo, particularly when there have been cases of memory implanted by suggestion. At the same time, we have to use great care because of the nature of the accusations.

But what I find most compelling about this case is the way secular society, particularly that part that tend to be Woody fans, is wrestling with it the matter of Mr. Allen’s domestic life. In a recent online discussion, a friend of mine noted:

It’s telling that Robert Weide’s defense of Allen I linked to posits that the relationship with Soon-Yi was personally offensive to Mia Farrow, but the writer seems unwilling to entertain it was morally offensive too — “it’s none of our business.” This is how people compartmentalize, I guess.

Indeed. This is where we encounter the problem with moral relativism. In a world with an unlimited number of moral codes that are deemed equally valid, we are denied any common basis (other than a court of law) to determine what a man should be allowed to do. A society that has discarded the idea of a moral code that is higher than man and that has granted equity to multiple incompatible moral codes is incapable of discerning moral offense.

Torah lays clear guidelines around what relationships are permissible and under what circumstances. G-d did not expect the entire world to live by Torah, so I certainly don’t. But it is not hard to imagine how society can be so perplexed by a case such as Mr. Allen’s when it has cut its mooring lines to a moral code that transcends humanity, allowing itself to be blown by the fickle winds of moral relativism.

One cannot help but wonder: if society had possessed the moral framework to question Mr. Allen’s home life – or, indeed, had Mr. Allen possessed that framework, how might his marriages, his domestic relationships, and his children have been different?

In the meantime, may Hashem in His wisdom extend His hand and give comfort to the innocent, and see the guilty punished as befits their transgressions. And may He grant us all the wisdom to act and speak rightly in this case.

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