Friday, February 19, 2010

Blackwell says DOJ confirmations = Pogroms

From the RAC's website:
In response to an opinion piece published this week on, Rabbi David Saperstein, Director and Counsel of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism, sent a letter to Senate Republican Leader Mitch McConnell asking him to distance himself and his party from the ideas espoused in the piece.
Rabbi Saperstein's letter goes on to say that:
"The intimation that, with these confirmations, our government would become an oppressive and Christian-hating regime rather than a democracy that values freedom of religious expression is a blatant falsehood. Mr. Blackwell’s use of rhetoric invoking the pogroms, the widespread destruction of countless Jewish lives in Eastern Europe, is aimed at quashing reasoned political discourse, suggesting that the confirmation of these qualified, respected nominees is beyond the pale of our normal politics. His likening of Ms. Johnsen and Ms. Feldblum’s confirmations to the persistent and violent killing of Jews in Cossack-controlled Russia desecrates the memory of those who died in the pogroms."
So Pogroms have become the new Nazis. Good to know someone found a history book that goes back past the 1930's. Unsaid in Saperstein's letter, but I'm sure one of the more salient points, is that at least one of the nominees is Jewish (I'm assuming, based on the name, that "Chai Feldblum" is a MOT), which gives the use of "pogrom" that extra-special twist. It was so nice of him to use one of our special words when referring to one of our own! I really feel like he gets us, and I certainly feel more sympathetic to his cause because he invoked something that was so painful to my ancestors. Painful in the emotional and political sense, naturally, as having your house burned down, or a horse trample you often is.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Reflecting on the Exodus

A few weeks ago we read about the Jews leaving Egypt, in a little preview of upcoming seders. Now we find them in the desert, beginning their wanderings. One of the perpetual questions this raises is why did God require us to spend so much time in the desert? Why forty years of suffering and toil? The past week gave me a new thought on the matter.

As some of you may know, I recently received some upsetting news. I was less than halfway into my week of mourning for it, a kind of self-reflective shiva, when I had to leave for Las Vegas for a week-long trade show; one of the largest in the world. I suppose I could make some Exodus-related joke about heading back into the land of the pyramids, but driving from LA to Vegas really confuses that into/out of the desert question.

I've gone to this tradeshow before; difference is, this year I hurt my ankle the weekend before, meaning I was attending the show with a walking cast and several medicines for the pain. And there was pain. That low-level constant type that you don't notice until it becomes a large all-encompassing one.

On the second day, I was walking back to my hotel (saying that the distance to my hotel was less than the length of the expo floor doesn't really say much) I realized I hadn't been thinking about my rejection letter at all; the pain was so great I had completely forgotten to suffer!

Now I'm sure my therapist will have a field day with that idea when I share it with her (I hear she's naming her second yacht after me), but I wondered if that same idea couldn't apply to the Israelites.

Think about it. The Exodus and that whole "slavery" thing were definitely a form of major psychic trauma; it's probably fair to say that modern psychologists meeting the wandering tribes would find more than a few cases of post-traumatic stress disorder. Even if they had gone straight to the Promised Land, they would not have been able to enjoy it. The pain was too much. So instead they go and wander around the Sahara until their feet are ready to fall off. I can personally attest that this is a wonderful distraction from those tiny, inconsequential emotional pains.

Granted, this is not exactly a kind and loving divine solution; it's literally the equivalent of a parent shooting their child's toe off to distract them from a bad breakup. But consider the context. God had several thousand PTSD patients on hand, and psychotherapy wouldn't be invented for several more millennia, assuming, to complicate the matter, that the Israelites could even survive long enough to become Freud's ancestors! The guy (God) had to work with what was available, and what he had was desert.

Honestly, by the time the Israelites finally got to sit down in the Promised Land and rest their feet, they were probably too tired to even care about Pharaoh What's-His-Name anymore.


Don't worry; Merryl Strep does not appear anywhere in this post, except in this first sentence here and you don't have to worry about this one because it's going to end now.

Things I learned this week in Hebrew class (I'm not at the computer that has the Hebrew fonts loaded and my cheat-sheet on the keyboard, so just imagine this has actual Hebrew. I'll fill it in later if I remember.):

1. The root samech-fey-koof means, loosely, "to provide".
2. The words deriving from this root have related meanings; such as, "I have enough", or - work at this one a bit - "we will get there on time".
3. The same root - or at least the same letters, it's not entirely clear - makes the word safek, which means "doubt".

I'm a little surprised I never learned this before; it seems the type of apparent contradiction that rabbis live for. It's possible I did hear and wasn't listening, or forgot. Regardless, we played with this duality for a while in class.

Our teacher suggested it means that when you are content, it creates doubts that you will continue to be content. A variation on the idea that the more you have, the more you have to lose. Or possibly looking forward to say, "Today I have enough; will I tomorrow?" I pointed out a more scholarly bent; to whit, have you ever heard a Jewish scholar be happy when s/he lacked for a doubt? Certainty teaches us nothing; it is doubt that teaches us by driving us to answer it. A bit too much "the rose and the thorn"? Maybe. But likewise it is that fear of scarcity, that doubt, which drives us to achieve contentment; the two concepts are very linked.

There was another idea I liked better, though. To me the connection is a bit of an ironic one. I could easily see it emerging as a joking piece of slang. Or perhaps the irony is a bit deeper than that; perhaps it began as a prayer. When we express a doubt we are, in some way, asking for contentment. We are looking for answers, for reassurance, for security.

This idea exists elsewhere in Jewish teaching; I recall a midrash that tells us when we complain, God says, "You think that's bad? Check this out!" Likewise, when we talk about how good life is, God says, "You think that's good? Check this out!"

Safek could work the same way; an inverse dayenu, if you will. "God," we say, "I am content. I have all the food, shelter, love, and answers that I could ever need." God replies, "Oh yeah? You think so, do you? I bet I can make you even more satisfied with your life!"

Our doubts are our prayers. When we express them, we ask a question. Salesmen, good ones at least, love questions; they know that each one is an opportunity to draw you a little closer. Each doubt we raise, each question we ask, draws us closer to God, closer to perfect contentment.