Thursday, January 29, 2009

Not to get stuck on a theme, but....

With or without religion, you would have good people doing good things and evil people doing evil things. But for good people to do evil things, that takes religion.
-Steven Weinberg
This has always been my single largest concern about organized religion. As soon as you let someone else start thinking for you - especially about something as important as religion - there's trouble. Religion (and there's a very strong case for putting patriotism in the same category) is used to justify some pretty awful stuff that people would normally never do, but they are reassured - nay, required! - to do them in the name of their god.

My greatest challenge as a rabbi and as an active member in my faith is to encourage the spiritual development of others and help them find their answers without giving them answers. To teach them that following the law can never get in the way of being a good person. To live in a way that encourages those around me to strive constantly outward, allowing their hearts and minds to stretch and grow and always stay open.

Tuesday, January 27, 2009

"Catholic Judaism"?


Enjoyed this post a lot, and humor aside it touches on a very important point. For years now I've been uncertain what "Conservative Judaism" was all about, except that it was some counter-revolution following the Reform movement's "revolt" against the Orthodoxy. Do they need a name change or just a message overhaul? Not sure, but it's a good question to be asking.

For that matter, what exactly is "Reform Judaism" about anymore?

Thursday, January 15, 2009

Building my case, Part 1

"He who passively accepts evil is as much involved in it as he who helps to perpetrate it. He who accepts evil without protesting against it is really cooperating with it."
- Martin Luther King, Jr.
As this first installment, this will take a bit of explaining; bear with me.

The URJ's current policy is to refuse admission to prospective rabbinic students that are married to, engaged to, or seriously dating a non-Jew. If a student is accepted and later enters such a relationship, they will not be ordained. I'm opposed to this policy.

Huh. I guess that didn't take so long to explain.

This is a wrong policy, and I believe it fails on every level: ethical, moral, legal, political, social, and business (not to name many more I haven't thought of yet). I currently face a dilemma in that I want to be admitted to HUC but dislike this policy; it's enough of a political hot topic that I imagine being too vocal about it could hurt my chances for admission, but I figure that presenting a well thought-out, reasoned, structured argument against it will mitigate any damage. After all, they can't easily bar me from becomming a rabbi because I created a rabbinic response to a modern social issue.

Anyway; I'm slowly gathering evidence to support my claim. Most, I imagine, will be rhetorical but I would like some concrete elements to include as well. These will be added as I find them.

I saw this quote at a URJ commentary on Exodus 1:1-6:1; the discussion was about Pharoh turning a blind eye towards the contribution of the Jews to Egyption society and hardening his heart against them so he can treat them as lower creatures than "true" Egyptians. However, the day was saved by two women but it "is not clear from the text if the two midwives were Hebrews or Egyptians", leading the second writer to conclude "that it is not your name that defines who you are; it is your decisions and choices that shape who you become."

Not that there's a parallel or anything. Just sayin'.

Wednesday, January 14, 2009

"The greatness of a nation and its moral progress can be judged by the way its animals are treated."
There’s a commercial on that’s bugging me (not a novel experience, granted, but still), and it’s been on about 5 times in the past hour. It’s for the local ASPCA (no link; they pissed me off), featuring Sarah McLachlin’s saddest songs accompanying the most pathetic photos imaginable of poor, suffering dogs and cats…and possibly a rabbit; I couldn’t tell. I mean, seriously; give me a break. There’s pulling on the heart strings and then there’s going too far.

Now, don’t get me wrong; I love animals in general and my pets specifically. People that know me know that you can frequently go almost five minutes without hearing a story or seeing pictures about my adorable little monsters. But still; priorities people!

I sympathize with the plight of abused animals; I’m a little fuzzier on the concept of “homeless” pets, since a pet living in the wild is just called an “animal”, but I have heard some very disturbing stories about people abandoning pets in environments they are not prepared to survive. I have a serious ethical problem, though, with the idea of spending that much money on homeless animals when we still haven’t helped all our homeless children.

In 2007 we spent 41 billion on our pets. Much of it on very reasonable things:

It’s not so much the $41 billion a year Americans spend on pets (“more than the gross domestic product of all but 64 countries”) or that only the consumer electronics category outpaces pets in annual growth. Or that we spend more on pets than on movies, video games and listening to recorded music combined.

No, it’s the specifics of our largess. That includes $919 testicular implants to restore a four-legged chum to “anatomical preciseness” after neutering; $430 indoor potties; $225 raincoats; drugs for depression, anxiety and obesity; psychotherapy; slippers and bikinis; calling firms with names such as Pooper Trooper and Doody Calls to pick up the waste in one’s yard; a host of new surgeries such as rhinoplasty and eye lifts; and the rise of pet insurance.
Meanwhile, according to the National Center for Children in Poverty, in 2007 we also had 13.2 million children living in poverty. This isn’t counting the families that are merely abusive, schools that are underfunded, illnesses that go untreated, or…well, you get the picture. Quick math tells me the money we spent on pets that year works out to about $3100 per child. Not a huge amount per kid, but enough to make a significant difference to a family, a school, a community, or a hospital.

Oh, and the commercial jusft came on again. Sigh. I opened with a quote from Ghandi; usually this is used as a comment on animal cruelty – how civilized can a people be if they lack compassion for other living things? Here’s the flipside though: what can we judge about a nation that buys our pets candy but lets our children starve? That buys custom dog houses and designer pet mattresses but leaves children on the street? That is more willing to buy health insurance for their own pet than for someone else’s child?

I love my pets, and want a better world for all Hashem’s creatures, but if I have to set priorities between pets and children it’s not even close.

Learning Goes Both Ways

Just read an essay by Marc Rosenstein at the URJ's Israel Connections that raises an excellent point and tells a touching story of Islam/Judaism relations: link here.

In brief: the local Jewish community gave a class and the Muslims attended, but there were no Jews taking classes from the Muslims. So they started one. And it sounds like it was a hit.

I like this idea. Especially the part where we remember that communication, education, and openness in interfaith relations go in both directions. It is important to study other faiths as you study your own - even beyond the big three - especially those that blend religious and political interactions. It occurs to me that when I begin rabbinic school I should devote considerable attention to studying our sibling religions.

It also occurs to me that I don't have to wait.

Tuesday, January 13, 2009

A random, briefly considered thought

So many of the problems in our world are caused by the imbalance of wealth. The commonly suggested solutions tend to propose bringing all the poor up to the middle class, but this idea will not work – or at least not well enough.

Right now, some have too little, some have enough, and some have more than they need. Merely bringing everyone up to the level of “enough” with a few at “more than they need” doesn’t solve the problem. Remember your Einstein; concentrations of mass actually deform space, with the attendant effects on the surroundings. In the same vein, large concentrations of money can deform society around it.

I don’t propose creating a truly level society; sticking to the physics metaphor, this represents the heat death of the universe. Differences in levels create the potential which leads to energy which causes reactions; level everything off, and it all stops. There must be some variation, but it needs to be a manageable amount so that we can put the potential to good use.

The Gold and the Walls

Before the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932, gold coins had circulated freely in the United States as legal money, and gold bullion was owned by banks and other private entities. In early 1933, as part of the New Deal, the U.S. Congress enacted a package of laws which removed gold from circulation as money, and which made private ownership of gold in the U.S. (except for coins in collections or jewelry such as wedding rings) illegal.

-Wikipedia entry on Ft. Knox

One of my friends made an interesting comment tonight; she asked a question about Jewish law, and my answer led to explaining the idea of “The Fence Around the Law”. She was a little…not confused by the concept; more like disturbed. She compared it to putting all the country’s gold in Ft. Knox (yes, I know not all the gold is there, but go with it for now). We take something beautiful and valuable, and hide it where it can’t be seen or touched. And after all, what value does gold have if you just hide it in a room somewhere and don’t ever use it?

This seemed to me a very apt metaphor. We build this fence to protect the law, or possibly to protect ourselves from the law, and after a time all we can see is the fence. In fact, there are rumors the building is empty.

Another of our friends pointed out there’s a reason the gold is in there. And even just sitting there, it still has value and purpose. In fact, a large part of its value is, as he put it, making sure we don’t have it. Now, that’s not as contentious a statement as it might originally seem; if all that gold were released to the market, it would cause massive inflation, making our current economic problems even worse. And this is partially true for Torah study as well. Part of the reason to put the law behind a fence is to keep it out of our hands. In this theory, if the people held the law they might get it wrong. And not in a small way; they could destroy Judaism by turning the law into something it’s not!

To a certain extent, I hope I am exaggerating. I hope there is a more positive, affirming, uplifting, spiritual reason for the fence. And if so, I hope someday to learn it. But whatever the reason, the effect is the same. Our only view now is of the walls. And the gold cannot be seen.

Sunday, January 11, 2009

My Next Step

I start Hebrew classes today; major step on my journey. The things I need to do for Rabbinic school, at this point, are learn Hebrew, and get involved with a Temple. I have now started both. Hebrew will be easy, but the time required is fairly fixed; the Temple's timeline is completely at my discression, but it will be much harder. So it's an interesing combination. Hopefully, by the time I know enough Hebrew to write a post, I'll also find the software that lets me Hebrew-blog.

Relatedly, I decided it's time to learn about twitter (listed as "bookandcoffee"); it seems that I'll be able to tie that medium to this, I just have to figure out how. If anyone can help, please advise. Otherwise, it will just be a plesant surprise at some point in the future.

Good night!

Lilah tov!

A Kaddish

Note: This should have been posted several days ago; I wrote it, and then couldn't get it posted. These were my feelings in the moment, though.

My friend's died yesterday. He'd been a part of my life for 15 years or so, but I never really knew him.

My friend's family hosted the annual holiday party for my college buddies; after graduation we scattered across the country (not surprising) and found we had only limited time for staying in touch (more surprising), so this party was where we caught up on a year's worth of news, and reclaimed for a night the excitement and joy for living we felt in colege (and also our college ability to drink copiously). It is absolutely one of the best nights of my year, every year. It's always been at my friend's house, so his family became a fixture in our group. And here's his father, a man who's been part of my fondest memories for almost two decades, and I didn't know him. He worked as a postman, which meant early shifts, which meant he was usually heading to bed just as the party got moving. Most years, his presence was defined by his absence – which I guess is how it will be from now on, too.

Here’s what I did know.

Freshman year in college when my friends took me to the Renn Faire for the first time he drove. He was the only one in the car not in garb (or some attempted version of it at least; my early attempts were…frightening), and I think he enjoyed himself but I’m not sure. But he was the one at the wheel; he spent his day off taking us somewhere we wanted to be, and waiting patiently while we had our fun.

A few years later, my car broke down on the highway about 50 miles outside of town. My mom was unavailable, so I called my friend’s house, and his parents drove out to get me. They stayed with me until the truck came, and drove me home while my car went to the shop.

He always welcomed us into his house, into his life, and shared his time, his food, and his laughter.

Maybe I never knew him as an individual, but I knew him to be a mensch, and he will be missed.