Friday, May 27, 2011

Israel by the Numbers

This week’s Torah portion is the portion Bamidbar, is the opening portion of the book of the same name. In the larger world, this fourth book of the Pentateuch is most commonly called, ‘Numbers.’

Numbers are an important concept. Yes, I know…what a brilliant statement, Rabbi! How much of an understatement can I possible make? I remember when my children were very small and started school in England. The teacher explained to us that the twin goals of the first year was “developing literacy and numeracy.” Without ‘numeracy’ – without some mastery of basic mathematics – a person cannot be a competent consumer. Even though my vocation does not require working with numbers, I apply basic math to my life each and every day.

So numbers are important. Let me run some numbers by you.

There is a particular country in the world, a tiny country when compared to the land masses of the world. Its landmass is a mere 20,770 square kilometers. It is called Israel. Israel, as you know, is the world’s one and only Jewish state. That isn’t to say that only Jews live in it. Israel has a total population of 7,746,000 as of May 2011, according to Israeli Central Bureau of Statistics.

Now as you know, this singular country of Israel has an ongoing conflict with a few of its neighbors, the vast majority of whom deny Israel’s right to exist. I’m talking, of course about the Arab world, a vast swath of the earth comprising more than two dozen countries. Only two of those countries – Egypt and Jordan – have formally recognized Israel and concluded peace treaties with her. But one of those, countries, Egypt, has recently entered a period of turmoil and transition. The party which is likely to gain power at the end of this transition – the Muslim Brotherhood – has stated its intention to unilaterally abrogate that peace treaty, when it comes to power. So I’m going to include Egypt in the next stream of numbers that I give you, those measuring the Arab countries that are the enemies of Israel. I’m also not going to separate out a number of countries which, while they haven’t formally recognized Israel, are unexpected to participate in military action against her. I’m talking about countries such as Bahrain – which has a Jewish ambassador to the US – Kuwait and the United Arab Emirates. I’m including these countries, which together do not amount to much either in landmass or population, because they do participate in hostilities against Israel: for example, by bankrolling terror against Israel and spreading libel against her through media such as Al Jazeera. The numbers won’t include non-Arab countries hostile to Israel: for example, Iran, a country in the late stages of developing nuclear arms and which has sworn to exterminate not only Israel, but all World Jewry, inshallah. Or Turkey, which used to be a close ally of Israel until an Islamist government gained ascendancy and is now outright hostile. After all, when using numbers one has to draw the line somewhere.

So the total landmass of Arab countries, including the Palestinian territories which may very well be incorporated into another Arab state in the near future, equal 9,049,136 square kilometers compared with Israel’s 20,770 square kilometers. That means that Israel’s landmass is .23 percent that of her Arab enemies. And those same Arab countries have a combined population of 237,224,600 compared with Israel’s population of 7,746,000. That means that Israel’s population is 3.3 percent of that of her Arab enemies. In this case, numbers tell an interesting story…or is it, a frightening story?

But let’s talk about refugees, a hot topic nowadays. The various conflicts and wars of the 20th century and the nascent 21st century have created millions of refugees in the world.

The definition of ‘refugee’ according to the United Nations Convention Relating to the Status of refugees of 1951: “…a person who, owing to a well-founded fear of being persecuted for reasons of race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social group, or political opinion, is outside the country of his nationality, and is unable to or, owing to such fear, is unwilling to avail himself of the protection of that country.”

Using the above definition, the UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) counted 8,400,000 refugees worldwide at the beginning of 2006. This number includes refugees from all the world’s conflicts…except the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

The latter’s numbers are compiled by a different agency within the UN: the UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East (UNWRA). According to that agency, the number of worldwide refugees from the one group of people – Palestinian Arabs – was 4,600,000 in 2006.

Whoa! One of three refugees in the world today numbers from this one country, a tiny place the size of New Jersey??! 1/3 of the world’s refugees??!

That’s because the UNWRA uses an entirely separate definition of ‘refugee’ than the UNHCA. The UNWRA includes also, and uniquely, the descendants of those who actually left the Mandate of Palestine when about two-thirds of it became Israel in 1948. In fact it counts as a ‘descendant’ anyone who can trace ancestry to those refugees through at least one grandparent.

(By the way, the figure of 4,600,000 is the UNWRA’s figure. Several Palestinian NGO’s insist that the actual number is close to 7,000,000.)

This would mean very little, except that the UN General Assembly considers all who meet this expanded definition of ‘refugee’ to be refugees ; and the UN will consider all claimants who meet this definition to fall under any peace deal requiring repatriation of Palestinian refugees. And the Palestinians about to claim statehood at the September session of the General Assembly, which the General Assembly is sure to endorse, will demand repatriation of any of these number who want to ‘return’ to Israel – not Palestine – as part of any peace deal.

As you can see, any peace deal including the right of return of Palestinian ‘refugees’ would lead to the death of Israel as a Jewish state – by sheer demographgics.

Numbers, my friends. When talking about Israel, they can be a little overwhelming.

But not all the numbers tell a distressing story. There are numbers that tell a story that should make us proud. There are many numbers that fall into this latter category, but I want to mention only one set.

Let’s return to the population of Israel. As I said, it stands at 7,746,000. Of those, only 5,818,200 are Jewish – about 75 percent. And what about the other one quarter of the population? The vast majority of them are Arabs, citizens of the Jewish state with all rights including the franchise. The latter has resulted in Arabs holding seats in every Knesset – the Israeli parliament – since the founding of the state. In the current 18th Knesset, Arabs hold 14 of the 120 seats. Eleven of those ministers belong to distinctly Arab parties; the other three belong to ‘Jewish’ parties Israel Beiteinu, Labor, and Likud.

These numbers tell a very different story, one of an open and free society in tiny, embattled Israel. A society that is free to all its inhabitants. A country that is under siege by a hostile world 400 times its size in terms of landmass, and with a population 30 times the size of its own. Yet despite this, Israel ensures equal rights to its Arab population. Even though Israelis might with some validity fear their own Arab population as at least a potential ‘fifth column,’ they trust in their democratic principals to extend full rights of citizenship to their Arab residents.

This is why the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, received such a warm and resounding welcome this week when he addressed a joint session of the US Congress. The sense that this tiny, embattled country represents our counterpart in its part of the world, our one true partner in bringing stable democracy to a bad ‘neighborhood’ of the world. The warmth for Netanyahu transcended party lines; both Democrat and Republican members of Congress gave him numerous standing ovations.

President Obama, in contrast, received Netanyahu in a decidedly frosty atmosphere last week; this after – some say – blindsiding him in his speech at the State Department the day before. One wonders why the Congress is so friendly and affirming toward the leader of the Jewish state, while our president is not very friendly at all. I’m not here today to present my thoughts on the matter, just to repeat others’ observations and leave the question up to you.

Israel by the numbers. It is easy to be left worrying by some of the numbers, and we should worry. Some of the numbers just make one proud. We should be proud.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Busy Day...

...for writing today! A new essay on "Messianic Judaism," posted on my website rather than here. ( Enjoy!

Men of Honor

Tonight, our sanctuary is fuller than usual for the occasion of the Oneg being sponsored by our Temple Brotherhood. It warms my own heart to see the current resurrection of Brotherhood, which has limped along for a few years, even going completely inactive for awhile. Religion in general, and Judaism in particular, struggles to provide a unique place for men. It is difficult to give today’s man a significance and appreciation of his role – in religious life, but more importantly in today’s family. Many of the social ills that beset our society today can be understood to have their roots in the absence of men from so many families, from the lives of so many children. This does not at all belittle the important role of women. It does, however refute the notion, “A woman needs a man like a fish needs a bicycle.” The slogan, and the mindset behind it, is patently wrong. Men and women need one another: as partners in life and in particular for raising children and creating strong and enduring families. That we have a re-emerging Brotherhood only bodes well; it says that the men of Temple Beit Torah are now reaching for the significance that they know is their destiny, that the congregation needs for them to have. They are working to be, to become, Men of Honor.

Men of Honor. There was a movie by that name; perhaps you remember it? It was about the career of a remarkable man, a man named Carl Brashear, played in the film by Cuba Gooding. Mr. Brashear was a career Navy man, a Master Chief Boatswain’s Mate, a Master Diver. That in and of itself is a significant accomplishment, but Brashear’s accomplishment is more notable for two other facts.

First, he was the first black man to enter the Navy diving community, in 1954. He faced significant opposition from the entrenched majority which he overcame through pure grit and hard work.

Second, Brashear lost a leg to amputation after a diving accident in 1966, an accident that would have left most men happy to escape with their lives and accept a disability retirement. But not Brashear; he insisted on not only remaining on active duty but on returning to diving. He fought a long and hard battle to do so: first with the Navy to be re-instated in his field, then with himself to build his strength and stamina so that he could again wear the heavy dive gear.

Brashear succeeded, and in 1970 as an amputee he actually achieved the coveted designation of Master Diver. He retired from the Navy as a Master Chief Petty Officer after 31 years’ service in 1979. Then he served a second career for the Navy as a civilian, from which he retired as a GS-11 in 1993.

Carl Brashear was what some would call a completely ordinary guy, but at his heart he was anything but ordinary. His achievements he won against what some would call insurmountable odds, displaying throughout his life an incredible degree of pluck and resilience. He was born in 1931, a son of Kentucky sharecroppers. He never attended high school. He first enlisted in the Navy in 1948. He entered a military that President Truman had just de-segregated by executive order although it was still very much segregated. Brashear had two maxims in his life. The first was: “It’s not a sin to get knocked down; it’s a sin to stay down. The second was: “I ain’t gonna let nobody steal my dream.” We can overlook the grammatical incorrectness of a man who only completed grade school, and celebrate the motivating philosophies of this great man.

Carl Brashear exemplifies the results of following the advice that I’ve given from this very pulpit. You know which advice: Get Over It. When I think of Brashear’s life, I feel entirely unworthy by comparison to give such advice. But since Brashear has left this world and is unlikely to ascend this pulpit, it’s left for me to give it.

It was unfortunate that Brotherhood died. Some of our men have been grousing about it. But a small group of our men, led by Mark Van Bueren and Dane Spirio, adopted an attitude of Get Over It and brought Brotherhood back to life. We celebrate this achievement tonight. But more than that. Let’s use the resurrection of Brotherhood as an occasion to adopt, a spirit of Get Over It in responding to life’s hard knocks. This should be operative in our personal lives, but we should also put it into practice as we function as members of various groups. The congregation is going to hard times? Stop grousing; in a spirit of Get Over It, join in the effort to vault it over and past its financial woes. Our nation is going through hard times? You get the picture.

“It’s not a sin to get knocked down; it’s a sin to stay down.” Let’s adopt this maxim, this mindset of the late Carl Brashear. It will only be to our benefit. It will goad us on to great achievements.

Wednesday, May 4, 2011

Celebrate Away!

There is a truism that we always remember where we were and what we were doing when we heard about certain pivotal events. Those who were around on the day of the assassination of President Kennedy, for example, remember where, when and how they received word. I was only a very small child in first grade in Queens, New York on that day, but I remember a sudden change in the school schedule, with an assembly being called at the end of the day to inform us of the events in far-away Dallas before dismissing us for the weekend. I have a similarly vivid memory of where I was and what I was doing when I heard about a much more recent event – the attacks on our country on September 11th, 2001.

I’m sure that many of you experienced one of those ‘pivotal events,’ as I did, last Sunday night, the First of May, 2011. I was sitting on the sofa downstairs in the family room, listening to the TV. I say ‘listening’ because I was soaking my eye with a warm compress and had my glasses off. Geraldo Rivera was on the tube, interviewing someone about something; I was paying scant attention. Then, suddenly Rivera’s voice went up an octave as he stopped in mid-sentence and began talking about the killing of Osama Bin Laden. This will be one of those moments etched in time for me; glasses off and the TV all fuzzy in front of me, and all of a sudden a clarity as reportage of the raid on that compound in Pakistan began to unfold.

I was happy, to be sure. Why would one cry crocodile tears over the death of such an evil man as Bin Laden? Even so, I was impressed when President Obama came on TV a while later, that he effected a serious and semi-somber tone. This, although I did imagine that the corners of his mouth were tending to curl upward as he made the announcement. But when I saw the video images of the crowds that had spontaneously gathered in front of the White House and in Times Square and at Ground Zero, celebrating jubilantly, I did feel some sense of disdain. Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, Proverbs 24 admonishes us. I cannot count the times I have heard that scripture quoted, or quoted it myself.

I’ve thought about that admonition quite a few times over this week as I’ve contemplated the reality that is the evil Bin Laden unleashed. I’ve thought about it as I’ve gone about my business in the days since Sunday. I’ve thought about it as I’ve seen everywhere faces full of new hope. Even in the cell blocks of the ‘Supermax’ prison in Florence, Colorado, where I went for my monthly visit with Jewish inmates, I noticed a more upbeat mood than usual. This, among the inmates as well as the staff!

I realize that this new hope, this jubilation at the killing of Bin Laden, is far more than gloating over the death of a bad man. It is an affirmation that, in addition to Evil, there is also Good in this world…and sometimes, Good wins. It is the same rejoicing that we experience – rightly so – when a serial rapist, or child molester, or murderer, is caught and brought to justice. We grouse when we see injustice; why shouldn’t we rejoice when we see justice?

On Monday night I received a mass e-mail from ‘Rabbi’ Michael Lerner, the publisher of the Jewish magazine Tikkun. In it, he cautioned us from rejoicing over the death of Bin Laden. He invoked the act we perform in the Passover Seder, spilling a drop of wine for each of the Ten Plagues visited upon the Egyptians. Just as our joy over our own deliverance is tempered by knowledge of the suffering of others, we should stifle any jubilation we may feel over the death of Bin Laden. So Lerner wrote, and he was not the only Jewish voice to express such sentiments. On Monday, Rabbi Shmueley Boteach posted similar sentiments in his blog on the Huffington Post.

Of course, in recent days I also heard the voices of a number of Christians who reminded their community of the admonition of Jesus that one must love one’s enemy. Rabbi Boteach reminds us that Judaism makes no such demand. He wrote the following:

Judaism stands alone as a world religion in its commandment to hate evil. Exhortations to hate all manner of evil abound in the Bible and G-d declares His detestation of those who visit cruelty on His children. Psalm 97 is emphatic: "You who love G-d must hate evil." Proverbs 8 declares, "The fear of the Lord is to hate evil." Amos 5 demands, "Hate the evil and love the good." And Isaiah 5 warns, "Woe unto them that call evil good, and good evil." And concerning the wicked, King David declares unequivocally, "I have hated them with a perfect hatred. They are become enemies to me." (Psalm 139) Hatred is a valid emotion, the appropriate moral response, to the human encounter with inhuman cruelty. Mass murderers most elicit our deepest hatred and contempt.

Even so, Boteach went on to invoke the spilling of wine for the Egyptians at the Passover Seder, as well as the aforementioned admonition of Proverbs 24, as well as the Talmud’s rebuke of the people Israel dancing over the demise of the Egyptians in the Red Sea, to caution us against rejoicing over the death of Bin Laden.

By the time I read all this, I had long since gotten over the initial disdain I’d felt toward the celebrants on the night of Sunday, the First of May. I had decided that they’d been right in following their instincts to spontaneously express their joy. The death of Osama Bin Laden is something over which to rejoice. For how many deaths has this man been responsible? Thousands directly, and many thousands more indirectly. We should spill out drops of wine for Bin Laden’s victims, not for him. Remember, at the Passover Seder we’re acknowledging the suffering of the Egyptians brought upon them by their ruler, the Pharaoh. We’re not crying for the fate of Pharaoh himself.

Rather than mute our celebration at the demise of one who caused so much evil, we should express solidarity with his victims. Our tears should be for the victims of evil, not its perpetrators. If we expressed a uniform regret at the loss of any human life, we would be in the position of equating an evil person with his victim. That for me is the supreme irony of the statement of Federico Lombardi, a spokesman for the Vatican. On Monday, he declared: “A Christian never rejoices in the death of any man, no matter how evil.” So for a Christian – at least according to this view – the value of one life is the same as another. I wonder how many Christians really believe this? Probably more than a few, since many Jews believe this also.

But the absurdity of this concept – that we should mourn the death of the evildoer just as we mourn the death of his victim – seems incredibly ironic in that it was published on Yom Hashoah, the day on which we memorialize the victims of the Holocaust. While not having been around then, I can’t imagine having felt anything other than jubilation at the news of Hitler’s death or that of the surrender of Germany in 1945.

What I’m trying to say, dear Jews, is that if you felt any sense of elation upon hearing the news of the demise of Osama Bin Laden, you needn’t feel any shame whatsoever. No, your happiness only indicated a moral clarity that enabled you to differentiate between an evil man and his victims. You should be proud that you possess such clarity. If that clarity enabled you to spontaneously rejoice – even loudly shouting U-S-A, U-S-A! then I hope you enjoyed the emotional release. It’s okay to celebrate raucously upon reading in the Megillah of Esther on Purim of the downfall of the evil Haman. So too it would have been okay to join the raucous crowds in New York, Washington and elsewhere on Sunday night in celebrating the downfall of an evil man. Or, to quietly say a shehecheyanu, as I did.

We don’t spill ten drops of wine over the death of Hitler, and we certainly shouldn’t do so over Bin Laden. We might spill wine, or simply express solidarity, with the people of Afghanistan whom Bin Laden and his allies the Taliban imprisoned in a prison of medieval hate.

I actually had an opportunity to do that in a very small way on a trip to New York in December, 2001. I was wandering around Times Square looking for a place to eat when on a side street I spied an Afghan kabob restaurant. Still wearing my Air Force uniform after the trip from Colorado, I marched in and sat down. It was a small place; the somewhat flabbergasted owner walked over to my table and stood over me with a questioning look on his face.

“It’s not your fault,” I told him, referring to his native country’s providing a base for Al Qaida. “Hopefully, this scourge will pass soon.”

I don’t remember the name of that little restaurant off Times Square where I ate that night. I do, however remember the smiles of the owner and the delicious kabobs I ate. And of course, that brings to mind the old joke about the common theme that runs through many Jewish holidays: They tried to kill us all, they didn’t succeed, let’s eat.

Bin Laden is dead. Let’s celebrate without guilt.

Friday, April 22, 2011

Finding Joy in Passover and Parenthood

As I'm sure you know, we Jews have been celebrating Passover this week. This year, I attended and conducted FIVE Passover Seders; two were the 'normal' ones on the first two nights of Passover, and three were 'demonstration' Seders for non-Jewish groups.

On the second night of Passover, we held a a wonderful community event at which almost 100 people came to Temple Beit Torah to celebrate the Festival of Freedom together; some were members of our congregation, and others were non-members from the community who came either as guests of our members or because they'd heard our Seder was open to the public.

As I was circulating during the meal at our community Seder and fielding questions, one from a woman present – not a member of Beit Torah – floored me. She asked, “How many years does Jewish identity remain strong when parents take ‘time off’ from ‘doing’ Judaism, for example making a Seder?”

My answer reflected my incredulity at having been asked such a question: “Why would one want to take any years off from doing Judaism, in particular Passover?” I further expressed that while to be sure exhausting (when making one for about 100 people), the reward for celebrating Passover is the great joy in having a part in the ongoing narrative of freedom that Passover celebrates. Unspoken was my sadness that someone would find it burdensome rather than joyful and ultimately energizing.

Later in self-reflection, I thought a bit more about the question and my thoughts took me back to my years teaching Philosophy at the Air Force Academy. It’s no secret that the vast majority of young people who attend USAFA do so with the ambition of ending up in an Air Force cockpit as a pilot. During their busy four years (that’s an understatement) at the Academy, to everything which they must do, they apply the ‘cockpit test’: How well must I master this that it will help, or at least not hinder me in my goal of getting into a cockpit? The course that I taught, Ethics and War, apparently scored low; I saw little of the vaunted USAFA excellence in the way my students prepared the readings for my class. Rather, I saw a minimalism as many of my cadets cynically worked just as hard as they thought they had to, in order to pass the class with a ‘C’ and stay off academic probation, which status would interfere with their social lives. But many of the cadets miscalculate, get a lower grade than they’d expected, and find themselves on academic probation anyway as well as missing out on the enrichment they may/would have received had they applied themselves to the class with the Air Force Core Value of ‘Excellence in all we do.’

What does this have to do with the question I was asked last night at the Seder? It's the essential cynicism of the inquiry, which reminds me of the unfortunate cynicism I found when teaching at USAFA. The attitude expressed represents a cynicism about Jewish life that only contributes to the weakening of Jewish identity. If that’s your attitude toward Jewish observance – I really don’t want to do it, but I’ll do it as much as I think I have to in order to keep my kids thinking of themselves as Jewish – you’ve probably already lost the game. Jews and Judaism will survive, but your kids will probably be on its margins, or completely outside. We parents teach our children volumes by our enthusiasm – or lack thereof – for the things we do in life.

It’s hard to feel we’re ‘forcing’ our kids to do something that they complain about. Just because I’m a rabbi, doesn’t mean my kids are always enthusiastic about Jewish observance. But Clara and I make them do it anyway. At the community Seder I received a reward, or at least a confirmation that some of my enthusiasm has indeed rubbed off on my kids. I was doing one more demonstration Seder the night after (on the third night of Passover) at a church. Mentioning it to my kids, I told them they were exempt; after three nights in a row they could stay home and ‘chill.’ But they wanted to attend with me.

So my kids' appreciation of our traditions does not come from my being a rabbi; it comes from them observing that I derive authenitc joy from engaging in Jewish observance, even when it isn't convenient and requires a lot of work. It is the antidote of the attitude of the parent who want to know how much Judaism they have to 'do' to make sure their kids will respond positively to it. The answer is: your kids aren't stupid; when you're too tired, busy, or unmoved to want to do it, they get that.

Dennis Prager, one of my favorite commentators on contemporary life, loves to talk about happiness as an obligation. Even if you don't feel happy, you have an obligation for the sake of those close to you to act happy. And - surprise, surprise! - when you act happy you often end of being happy!

I think that Jewish observance for parents, who wish to be role-models for their kids, is analagous. If you don't feel that is brings you joy and moves you, try acting as if it does. At the very least, you'll teach your kids an important lesson about commitment, but then again, you just may end up moved and joyful.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Take Time to Mourn

This week’s portion Acharei Mot, begins with an instruction for Aaron concerning the things he must not do immediately after the loss of his two sons. G-d tells Moses to instruct his brother not to enter the Holy of Holies until a period of time has passed. Aaron must allow his grief to pass before he can resume his duties as High Priest. He must give himself time to recover lest he enter the presence of G-d with thoughts of his own loss rather than of the needs of his people. He must take a Time Out. When he is ready to resume his duties, he must bring a sin-offering to atone for himself.

Two weeks ago, in Parashat Tazria, we similarly read that a woman, having given birth, must also wait a prescribed period and then bring a sin-offering.

But wait a minute – what is the Torah trying to tell us? Does having a baby, or losing one’s children, make one stained by sin? Is the implication tantamount to ‘blaming the victim’? In a word, no.

Ibn Ezra explains concerning the woman giving birth: the offerings are for any bad thoughts she might have had toward her husband while in the throes of labor. In other words, this acknowledges that when we experience trauma, we may think, or even say out loud, oaths that we will regret later. The sin-offering is the ancients’ way to move beyond our thoughts and words, and get on with our lives despite them.

Today, absent the Beit Miqdash, we don’t have such a neat way to turn from anything we may have said at a bad moment. Instead, we must get together with the one against whom we have said the negative things, and beg their forgiveness. Some Jews ritually go around among family and friends immediately before Yom Kippur and ask for a blanket forgiveness “for anything bad I might have said to you, deliberately or inadvertently, in the past year.” Perhaps there is some value in such statements. They remind us that we often do have loose tongues and do say negative things – knowingly or not – to and about those who are closest to us. But the ritual falls far short of what we would ideally do. And that would be to recognize immediately or soon after we have attacked someone with our words, and beg forgiveness then.

But I want to return to the premise in the opening verses of this week’s Torah portion. That Aaron must take deliberate steps, and allow some time to elapse, between losing his two sons, and the resumption of his duties.

In normative Jewish practice today, we have certain ritual behaviors that are prescribed when we lose a close relative. Most of you know the term, shiva, as in sitting shiva. Of course, the word is Hebrew for ‘seven’ and it refers to the practice of remaining in one’s house for seven days after burying a loved one. Some of you know some details of the practice. The mourners sit on low stools and do not groom themselves. Mirrors are covered. Friends and acquaintances come to the house of mourning, bring food, sit with the mourners and provide a minyan for thrice-daily prayers so that the mourners can say Kaddish.

In our contemporary world, many Jews eschew these practices. Those who generally see themselves as being not-very-religious, or not religious at all, see them as a burden. In our go-go world, the idea of stopping all activity for seven days to mourn seems out of synch and will only push back other daily needs that do not stop. Just as an example, if you’re working, your employer is unlikely to grant you a week off to sit shiva. Instead, you’ll have to take a week of paid vacation, a precious commodity for most working Americans. But when we fail to mourn effectively, we rob ourselves of an important tool that can help us to come to terms with our loss and help us to contextualize it and move on with our lives.

Yesterday was the yahrzeit for my own father, who passed away six years ago. I did not observe shiva, nor did I observe sheloshim, the second stage of mourning for the remainder of the first month. Clara, the kids and I travelled from Germany where we were living then, to Virginia as my father was dying. The day after the burial, we were winging our way back to Germany. Two days later, I was on my way to Kuwait to help our troops there celebrate Passover. I’m not trying to make myself a hero. The trip had been planned for months and I was loath to cancel it in order to observe shiva. But the truth is really more wrapped up in our go-go lifestyle and buying into the mentality that I did not need to sit for seven days to Get Over It. I buried myself in my work, especially the important work of helping deployed troops celebrate a major holiday. That would be more therapeutic than taking a week of my life to sit and mourn. I fell for the mentality that has, and will overcome many of you when you experience a loss. Let me get up, dust myself off, and get on with my life. But that is exactly what our mourning practices are designed to achieve. To balance this need, with the need to remember, and honor, the one whom we’ve lost.

Over my rabbinic career, including my three years here at Beit Torah, I have officiated at many funerals and tried to help many families through the mourning process. As a liberal rabbi, I’ve never ‘pushed’ families against their inclination to do the traditional Jewish funerary practices. A time of loss is, after all, not a time of judgment; it is not a time to give even the appearance of trying to use guilt to make someone do what they’re not inclined to do. But in all honesty, as I think back upon the experiences of those whom I’ve served – as well as my own experience of loss – I don’t think I’ve done them a favor by not suggesting the traditional mourning practices, at least in some modified way.

In our contemporary world, it is indisputably difficult to stop our busy lives for a time to observe shiva and sheloshim. In the same way, it is against the grain of our mentality to stop our busy lives every Friday evening to observe Shabbat for a day. All these practices feel burdensome in the context of our rational mindsets. But in eschewing them, we rob ourselves of something precious. We transgress traditional Jewish practice, and that is unlikely to trouble us. But we also deny ourselves important and therapeutic tools for living lives of balance.

A few weeks ago, I wrote a column in the congregational bulletin on the importance of being present here on the weeks of your yahrzeits. To have the opportunity to say the Kaddish prayer in the embrace of community. To spend just a moment remembering and honoring the one whom you’ve lost. Most of the congregation did not take my words to heart. I continue to read the weekly list of names for Kaddish and note that few of the families are represented here in our sanctuary. One member actually took me to task about my column; she telephoned to tell me that she was “offended” that I should suggest that mourners have an obligation to be present for the weeks of their yahrzeits. That’s very sad. I wasn’t trying to lay guilt, but to use my knowledge – both the theoretical and my personal experience – to help you to work through your respective losses.

Aaron is told to put aside his duties for a period of time, to give himself time to breathe, time to mourn. The message isn’t that his duties aren’t important – he is, after all, the High Priest. Rather, the message to take away is that his own mental health is important if he is to continue to serve in his vital role on behalf of the People Israel. But you don’t need to take it from the text, take it from me: it’s important for each one of us to find the time to honor both the memory of the dead, and our own need for context and closure. Jewish practice provides us with tools to achieve these ends. They are not intended to be burdensome. They are there for your benefit.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

A Defense of Religion

I'm not going to be so arrogant as to entitle this post "THE Defense of Religion"; there are clearly a number of ways to make the case for a particular religion, or for religion in general.

What prompts this post is a recent public conversation I had with a Secular Humanist. His main premise was that religion - any religion - represents a primitive expression of human longing by clinging to that which is illogical and unprovable. According to this chap's argument, only suspension of belief in the Supernatural - epitomizing notions that 'cannot be proven' - can lead one to the clarity necessary to see the world as if REALLY is and to begin to work towards perfecting our world. The argument against religion (in general) goes on to blame religion for most of the world's ills, for most of the violence committed by man against man, and for all manner of oppression of Human Rights.

It is irrefutable - and quite unfortunate - that much human blood HAS been spilled in the name of religion. But in the century recently completed, the 20th Century of the Common Era, far more violence, suffering, and death was caused by secular, anti-religious systems: specifically, Communism and National Socialism (Nazism). Almost-unimaginable millions of people lost their lives, often only after incredible suffering, and untold millions were displaced, losing the homes and the lives they knew, thanks to the wars waged by governments in the name of these two systems. It boggles the mind, and it really far overshadows the misery caused by all dark events perpetrated (e.g., Crusades, conquest of the Mediterranean by Islam) by all religions in previous centuries. At the same time, it was largely devout religionists (Christians more than any other group) who resisted, for example the Nazi terror by hiding and secreting away Jews and other who were in danger of being rounded up and slaughtered. Does this exonerate religion for its excesses over the centuries? Of course not! But it does point to the truth that religion, in and of itself, is far from the biggest problem facing humanity.

Religion generally, when at its best, is a force for good for the world. One shouldn't judge a religion beased on whether one accepts its dogmas; by definition, if you accepted any particular religion's dogmas, you would become a member of that religion. For example, if I accepted the basic premises of Christianity, I would (if I had integrity) become a Christian; it is therefore a given that I find the tenets of Christianity unbelievable.

Another false premise is that one should judge a religion besed on a selective reading of its holy text(s). It is easy to 'cherry pick' someone else's text for passages that one thinks would, for example, incite to violence. But, absent any proof that the adherents of the religion in question DO, in fact commit violent acts in the name of their faith and with reference to their text, that is a false premise. For example, one can point with disdain to the Torah's recording of G-d's instructions to the People Israel to wipe out the Canaanite Nations in their conquest of the Land of Canaan. But the REAL question is: is there any proof that Israel ever did, in fact commit atrocities against the Canaanites to begin with - or is there any documentation that the Jewish people have, since then, committed similar atrocities against any other people? If the answer is no (as I am asserting it is), then there is no logical reason to think of the TOrah as a bloodthisty book, used by the Jews as a rationale for committing bloodthirsty acts. (I would make the same challenge concerning anybody else's holy text.)

No, one should judge each world religion by the degree of goodness spread in its name by its adherents. My religion is as unbelievable to you as yours is to me, but that doesn't call either religion into question; it's simply the wrong question to ask. Michael Medved suggested this approach back in 2008, during the presidential primary season, when some Evangelical Republicans questioned whether Mitt Romney, a Mormon, could be the Party's standard bearer. I think it's an approach that supremely makes sense; we should not judge another person's religion based on whether we accept its tenets but based on how much goodness its members bring into the world. In that way, I can have a great deal of respect for, say, the Mormon faith (The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Days Saints), even though I personally find many of its doctrines rather unbelievable...even silly.

The question of which is superior, religion (in general, or one religion in particular) or secularism, would be easy to settle if all religious people could be shown to be good, and all secularists bad (or vice-versa). But of course that is not the case: there are many good people and scoundrels who belong to each world religion, and secularists are both good and bad. My defending religion would undoubtably be easier if all religious people could be shown to be better people than the non-religious, and the opposite would make the secularist's case easier.

But life isn't that neat and orderly. We all know both religious people and secularists who are good, and both kinds of people who are bad. My recommendation, then is for those who are religious or secular to be willing to explain to others how and why their belief system spurs them to goodness.

I can tell you personally that I use daily Jewish rituals as tools to remind myself of G-d's enduring presence when I let Him be in my life. I don't imagine that G-d cares, as it were, whether I pray three times daily or what text I use when I do. But the act of regular prayer helps keeps me directed toward the Holy. Likewise Jewish dietary discipline (kashrut). It isn't important to me whether G-d minds whether I eat shrimp or cheeseburgers. But when I stop and choose not to eat those things it helps me to keep my mind and heart directed to the Holy One and to think about how I'm supposed to live. Likewise the Sabbath, although keeping the Sabbath uncluttered with obligations (except such as are important to my community) also helps me directly: to unwind and de-stress as I prepare for the coming week.

Some non-orthodox Jews complain that the intricate system of practices only trips them up and makes them feel inadequate if they can't follow EVERYTHING. Some Christians claim that G-d's Law is in fact intended to do exactly that, and to teach us why we need the grace that the Christian faith offers. I personally don't find either mindset to ring true. If I sometimes slip and transgress, it only serves to remind me of my humanity and that Yetzer Hara (the selfish impulse) is always present and the thing to do is ask G-d for the strength to make our selfless and good acts outnumber the others.