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.

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 A.I. Problem

Reading an excellent article about artificial intelligence last week, I began to wonder which force was the greatest danger to Yiddishkeit: radical secularism or artificial intelligence?

But thinking about it on the plane to China the other day, I realized that they are actually two parts of the same problem.

At its worst, radical secularism is mankind’s Oedipus Complex. Kill the Father to supplant Him, to become Him. If we “kill” G-d, we take upon ourselves the power to create sentience without any obligation to pause and question whether we should do it in the first place.

Fear for any individual – or species – who places the power to do something before the wisdom to ask whether it is the right thing to do.

Seven Reasons I’ll Be On Trump’s Muslim Registry

Donald Trump’s policy advisers are discussing plans to establish a registry for Muslim immigrants in the US, a man believed to be a key member of the President-elect’s transition team has revealed.

Source: Donald Trump team ‘discussing plans for Muslim registration system’ | The Independent

If the president-elect goes ahead with this plan, we must each choose how to address it. Some will support it, and in the case of some, their reasons will be both understandable and rational. Others, including myself, will resist it in different ways. We could send our checks to the ACLU, but I think that this sort of thing demands more than a well-funded court battle: it demands a bit of moral sabotage.

As a Jew, I will be placing my name on that registry, as, I think, should every clear-thinking descendant of Abraham in the United States.  I will do it:

  1. To remember the Holocaust. We will not feed our fellow Americans into that same kind of nightmare.
  2. To remember all of the brave souls who, at the risk of their position or their lives, resisted Nazi oppression to help save Jews from the Holocaust.
  3. As an act of peace toward all Muslims everywhere, to show that whatever our disagreements, we are all brothers.
  4. Because in doing so we openly defy a government act that is at odds with the Constitution.
  5. Because I need to show my son that we are never powerless in the face of injustice.
  6. Because if we don’t, we’re next.
  7. Because G-d is Great.

 

Sportsmanship

How is it, I wonder, that we can praise a man for being a great athlete despite being a lousy sportsman? Why is it too much to expect both, especially when others on his team appear to manage that without an issue?

When we teach kids to play sports, we teach them that sportsmanship and skill are both critical components of excellence. Do we suddenly drop the sportsmanship requirement when the television and gambling stakes reach a certain level?

My sports heroes are the ones who are both fierce competitors and gentlemen or ladies at the same time. That is the gold standard. We should hold it up for all players of excellence. And, BTW, for ourselves.

Is Outreach to Muslims the Answer?

Let us call the terror in Paris what it is: Islamic violent extremism. But in doing so, Deborah Lipstadt writes, let us engage the vast majority of Muslims who are the key to stopping this scourge.

Source: Best Way To Stop Islamic Terrorism? Reach Out to Muslims. – Opinion – Forward.com

Lipstadt has a point, provided that:

  • The Muslims with whom we engage are prepared to take an active stand against violent extremists rather than simply pay lip service; and
  • That we are not afraid to engage with righteous Muslims who are both dedicated to the cause of peace and whose voices carry weight among the faithful.

There are Muslims like that. HRH King Abdullah II of Jordan leaps to mind…

Not Yet Time for Vegetarianism

“[Rav Kook wrote that] the mitzvot light the way to the perfection of the future – a time when the animals will have been transformed into humans, and humans into angels. Thus kashrut is mean to prepare us for vegetarianism, a great step forward in the moral perfection of the human race – but must not be done before its time, for the complacency and self-satisfaction it might bring. Indeed, he wrote, one could imagine a bloodthirsty tyrant who prided himself on his vegetarianism, eerily presaging Hitler.”

Yehudah Mirsky

Remembering Mumbai

I wrote this letter not long after the Mumbai tragedy. I found it recently going through my files, and I wanted to share it as we remember the events of that awful day, and mourn the martyrs we lost, including Rebbetzin Rivkah Holtzberg and Rabbi Gavriel Noach Holtzberg, OB”M, pictured. 

As we all try to come to grips with the aftermath off the tragedy in Mumbai, it is only natural that we are afflicted by feelings of anger, or sadness, or hopelessness, or despair. Each of us will feel a different combination of these, and sometimes we will feel them all at the same time.

All of these feelings find their sources in the neshama, that spark of G-dliness that on the one hand cries in pain for our loss, and on the other calls for – indeed demands – a healing of the wound that this event has torn into our nation and into the body of mankind. Whether we stand among the wreckage of what days ago was a refuge of Torah in the heart of a bustling city, or whether we sit thousands of miles away, we are gripped by the desire to do something, the desire to respond, and the frustration that comes with not knowing how.

Yet as we mourn for those we have lost, as we worry for those left behind, act we must. For there is much to do.

Despite having lived through some of the greatest horrors in the history of mankind, Rabbi Menachem Mendel Schneerson (Of Righteous Memory), the Rebbe of Chabad-Lubavitch, understood that not only is it fruitless to respond to darkness, hate, and anger with more of the same, it works against the very nature of the Jewish People to stand as a light among nations, a Kingdom of Priests, a Holy people.

Instead, our Rebbe taught that the way to respond to anger and hate is to reply with love, the way to respond to destruction with charity, the way to respond to despair with hope, and the way to battle the darkness is not with more darkness, but with light.

With your help, we can spread light even into the darkest corners of the world this Shabbos, and help speed the day when Moshiach comes and brings the Light of the Master of the Universe to us all.

Talmud and the Death Penalty

A recent study cited in Forbes documented problems in the application of the death penalty in the United States. The provocative study suggests that one out of every twenty-five defendants sentenced to death in the U.S. is actually innocent.

The study, while not necessarily conclusive, strengthens my growing conviction that if we are going to be a nation that continues to sentence people to death, we must consider using a more Talmudic level of criterion in our sentencing. I am a longtime advocate of the death penalty, but it is difficult to continue such support when the possibility of a mistake is so high.

Much of my support of the death penalty lies in its source in Torah rather than my belief in the punishment as a deterrent to criminals. Yet it is becoming clear that our standards for evidence and sentencing fall short of the intent of Jewish law. That should trouble every Jew in America who supports capital punishment.

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…

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?

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.

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.

The Real Meaning of Tikkun Olam

Advocacy for saving the rainforests and for saving the whales, for developing renewable resources and for leaving a smaller carbon footprint — these are just some of the enterprises gathered by pop-Jewish philosophy under the umbrella of tikkun olam. According to the ancient wisdom of the Torah, however, every human being is a microcosm of Creation, a world — or olam — unto himself. Yes, it is important for human beings to act as responsible custodians of the Almighty’s world, but the rectification of the universe is a process that ultimately begins and ends within oneself.

Rabbi Yonason Goldson
The real reason why Jews are Liberals

A Thought with which to Start the Year

“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 Green Talmud

“Both Shevi‘it and Kil’ayim (Mixtures) contain material that has been cited in discussion of environmental issues. The prohibition of agricultural work in the sabbatical and Jubilee years teaches responsibility for the conservation of soil resources, while the prohibition of mixed species can be read as a warning against unwarranted manipulation of the natural order.”

Norman Solomon
The Talmud: A Selection

Justice

“Whoever has no need but takes will not depart this world until he becomes dependent on others. Whoever is in need but does not take will not depart this world until he is in a position to support others, and … Whoever is not blind or lame but pretends to be [in order to get charity] will not die of old age until he has become so, as it is said, JUSTICE, JUSTICE SHALL YOU PURSUE (Deuteronomy 16:20).”

The Talmud (Pe’ah, 8:9)

Torah and the Death Penalty

“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

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

The Rabbis on the Environment

Two other little gems I found while perusing Greenfaith.org related specifically to Halacha and the environment.

The first is from Rabbi Lawrence Troster, who serves as scholar-in-residence at Greenfaith.org, where he lists “Ten Jewish Teachings on Judaism and the Environment.” The piece offers a rationale not unrelated to the one Jonathan Helfand offers, but it has the virtue of being written for a wider audience. I would recommend it as a first step, then go to Helfand for greater exposition.

The second is a list of Jewish statements on the environment that covers a wide spectrum of belief and practice. A perusal of the sources makes it clear that despite the intramural arguments that make up a core part of Jewish theological debate, there is significant agreement on the core principles.

Both are great reads, and Greenfaith.org is a superb starting point for those genuinely interested in probing the degree to which people are discovering that faiths to which faith advocates the despoilment of the environment.

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.

Epistle to the Doomsayers

Atheist or faithful, it is incumbent on all of us to celebrate humanity and seek to fulfill the promise of our species, dosed with humility and gratitude.

Obsessing about the evils wrought by mankind, our various failings, and positing a dreary future for all is has some value in that it keeps us all aware of the problems. But suggesting that there is no hope is a waste of time. If you truly believe the worst and cannot convince yourself of the best, my only advice would be to dig a hole, line it with concrete, fill it with food, water and comic books, and await Ragnarok.

But really, we’d rather you join us. We’ve got a world to fix, after all.

Can an Atheist be a Ger Tzaddik?

There are good theists, and there are evil theists. There are good atheists and anti-theists, and there are bad atheists and anti-theists.

What we should be focused on is NOT whether I can prove to Richard Dawkins in terms he will accept is whether God exists. I have enough proof for me and that should be enough for all of us to allow me to continue believing what I believe.

Better we should be having the more important debate – which Pope Francis appears to be trying to set up – which is “what does it mean to be good, and why?”

As for we of the Hebrew persuasion, we should ask – is there room within the construct of the Noahide Laws for an atheist to be a ger tzaddik, or at least a righteous non-believer? And if not, do we simply accept atheists and even anti-theists as one of the nations provided they don’t come after us?

As our theistic world is compelling non-believers to adhere to modes of belief that explicitly exclude God, how are we to address those who not only disregard our beliefs, but who (as in the case of Sam Harris) regard them as amoral and anti-intellectual?