Friday, November 27, 2009

Sermon for Vayetzei/Thanksgiving

The Power of Dreams
Rabbi Don Levy
Parashat Vayetzei
27 November 2009

I woke up violently in the middle of the night last night; I had had a nightmare. In it, I was in bed – and the bed was in the middle of a road. And a bus was bearing down on the bed. In the dream, I jumped to get out of bed. And as often happens in nightmares, I jumped physically as well, waking Clara and leaving me to explain that everything was okay, I’d just had a nightmare.

Afterward, the dream continued. The bus, it turned out, was a tour bus. It was there, because I had taken on the job of organizing a tour of some Jewish museums in Los Angeles. The job did not turn out well. Around every corner of the tour, I kept getting snowed under by details I hadn’t taken care of adequately.

Some dreams are easy to figure out, but this one was perplexing. I’ve organized a couple of tours, but never in LA – only to Israel. And neither tour was a disaster for lack of adequate planning, although there were glitches to be sure. The first one went off reasonably well, and the second one was a resounding success. I don’t say this to brag, only to point to the perplexing nature of my dream last night.

I remember when I was studying psychology in college, and we viewed a film entitled ‘To Sleep, Perchance to Dream,’ about the phenomenon of dreams. The film made it clear that despite the title’s being taken from Hamlet’s famous ‘To Be or Not to Be’ soliloquy, there was no perchance in the equation. When we sleep, we dream. Period. All night. We only remember a small portion of our dreams: those which occur during a certain part of the sleep cycle, and those whose violence awakens us as did mine last night. But during our hours of sleep, we dream an almost-unbroken chain of dreams. These dreams, if remembered and recounted, can provide a valuable insight into our inner selves.

When I entered rabbinical school and began to study the Torah in depth, I was immediately fascinated by the portions which chronicle key characters’ dreaming. There is, of course, Jacob’s dream in this week’s portion, followed closely in the text by Joseph and Pharaoh’s dreams of which we’ll hear in the next few weeks. I remembered learning about the power of dreams in college psychology, and I was fascinated by the way the Ancient Rabbis grappled with the meanings of the dreams recorded in the Torah.

Jacob’s dream, the account of which I’ve just read from the Torah, is baffling. There’s a ladder that reaches to the heavens, and angels are ascending and descending. And Adonai seems to be overseeing it all. He comforts Jacob by telling him: “I am Adonai, G-d of Abraham and Isaac your forebears. I bequeath the land, upon which you lie, to you and your progeny. Your progeny will multiply like the sand of the earth, and you shall spread out west and east, north and south. All the families of the earth shall be blessed through you. I shall be with you, and will guard you in all your wanderings. And I shall bring you back to this land as I will not abandon you until I will have done as I have promised you.” And Jacob responded by proclaiming: “Adonai was in this place and I did not know it.”

The simple meaning of the dream is that Jacob is being torn away from his land of residence as he is fleeing from his brother Esau’s murderous wrath, and G-d is comforting him by telling him that all will be well with him. But as was their habit, the Rabbis saw deeper, more hidden meanings in the dream. They saw the angels as the great empires of history, and their ascent and descent of the ladder as the rise and fall of those empires while the progeny of Jacob – the people Israel – would endure and flourish even after all of the former had been vanquished to the history books.

The Rabbis’ real point was to comfort the people, who were suffering under the mighty power of Rome at the time the Midrash was framed. Rome would fall, as had Assyria before that as we know from the Hanukkah story, as had Egypt before that as we know from the Exodus story. And so human history would unfold, but the destiny of the people Israel would endure.

The British historian Paul Kennedy, who wrote The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers back in the 1980’s, would agree in part with the Rabbis’ interpretation. Kennedy saw in the pattern of human history the rise of one superpower, followed by its plateau and its decline, followed by the rise of another superpower to replace it. His point was clearly a warning to his ‘smug’ American cousins; their century would come to an end, and another great empire would take their place at the acme of humanity. Just as the American Empire had long since eclipsed that of his own country. Given the economic meltdown we’ve experienced, one might reasonably be inclined to accept Kennedy’s thesis and see in China the next great power on the ascent.

It is fashionable in some circles to see our country in the context of Kennedy’s thesis. We’re just another in a line of empires that had their day and then waned into relative insignificance as their stars dimmed. To this mindset, the idea of American Exceptionalism is but a mirage, a pie-in-the-sky notion that belies the reality. Those who hold that the American experiment is something unique in human history are just deluding themselves in the hope that our nation will uniquely break the pattern, and that our power will remain ascendant forever.

I guess it’s no secret to most in this room that I reject the idea of America’s fitting into this neat pattern. I believe with all my heart in the Exceptionalism of the American experience. I guess this comes in part from my long residencies in other countries, from my listening to citizens of those lands express the values of their nations and contrasting them to those that characterize America.

Those who see America as just another in a line of empires would like me and those who hold my view to focus on America’s flaws and see her as tainted by the faults of all empires from the get-go. We came, we saw, we conquered, we displaced, we despoiled…and now we’re on the wane. Why should we see ourselves as any different?

But the very holiday we have just celebrated points out the difference. The Pilgrims of the Mayflower, quirky though they might have been, came with a sublime vision of creating G-d’s Kingdom on these shores. They didn’t come to displace the natives who then very sparsely inhabited the continent. Rather, they sought harmony with them as they worked hard to pursue their own vision of a City on a hill – a phrase used in a famous sermon by John Winthrop, one of the leaders of the Pilgrim Fathers, borrowed from the Gospel according to St. Matthew and later borrowed by President Ronald Reagan. With lapses – no nation is perfect, after all – their progeny and those who joined them in fleeing the Old World kept alive this vision, and sought to build a society anchored by a different basis here. A number of you in this room, having been born elsewhere, can attest to and celebrate this difference. Even today, people flock to our land because it is different in a positive way. For every immigrant who succeeds in coming here there are many who unfortunately don’t make the cut and can only dream of coming here some day.

Does this view cast aspersions on other nations, as some would say? Of course not; it only recognizes on these shores a unique dynamic that continues to attract the best of the other nations who bring their unique contributions to the American enterprise. Each nation has its strengths, but America manages to uniquely assimilate the strengths that members of those nations bring when they join us. I can tell you first hand from my long sojourns abroad that the Turks, the Greeks, and the Germans are unable to do this. The British can to a certain extent. Our British cousins are far more able than most nations, to accept immigrants from other places and incorporate them in their nation and draw from their strengths. But they cannot match the energy of the American nation because – as I see it – they cannot define what is the essence of British-ness. When Britannia ruled the waves, she saw her mastery of the world as her essence. In the waning of her Empire, she has yet to define what her enduring values are. Britons struggle with this question – what are our values as a nation? – every day. America’s enduring values, while they were certainly highlighted during our reign as the world’s most powerful nation, are dependent on something other than being a world power.

Only Israel, tiny Israel, has a quality of destiny approaching that of America’s. Despite the insignificance to which her tiny size and beleaguered condition would logically consign her, Israel matters far out of proportion: in terms of creative energy, in terms of good works among the less-fortunate nations, in terms of assimilating each wave of immigrants in turn while at the same time being shaped by those immigrants’ unique contributions.

This really should come as no surprise. From the time of the Pilgrims, the thinkers who most shaped American life were students of the Torah and were imbued with a philo-Judaism that shaped their worldview and their plan for the American nation. It is fashionable – again, in some circles – to see the philo-Israelism of their contemporary counterparts as a desire for Israel to play a role in the playing-out of a certain apocalyptic vision of the Christian writings. But that’s not the attraction for Israel by some of our Christian neighbors. Rather, they see America as deliberately constructed in the mold in which G-d forged Israel – and blessed with power and influence because of it.

This unique tie-in of destinies – America’s and Israel’s – is what led to the unique relationship of our two nations. It is not the power of American Jews; we’re far too fractious a group to exert the kind of influence that our detractors often accuse us of wielding. When we read the account of Jacob’s dream this week and annually when we read the portion Vayetzei, we should take comfort from the Rabbis’ understanding of this passage. We can recognize now, as they did then, that the people Israel represent something unique in human history that will endure when all the other powers have waned. Likewise, we can look at the non-Jewish nations who have developed and celebrated a philo-Judaism: to an extent Great Britain but even more so the United States of America. We see in the assimilation of the lessons of ancient Israel, the source of our nation’s goodness and strength.

It is tempting to see America as just another in a chain of superpowers a la Paul Kennedy’s thesis in The Rise and Fall of the Great Powers. It takes a great onus off our backs. If we’re just another superpower on the wane, then we might as well forget the burdens we’ve taken on as a nation. Instead, like the Europeans, let’s become pragmatic and focus on prolonging our own affluence. We don’t have to feel a responsibility for less-fortunate peoples. Freed from the burden of being the World’s Policeman, we will have the resources to build a utopian, cradle-to-grave welfare state in the mold of Sweden. We can even turn our backs on Israel, and pragmatically seek the favor of her enemies in the Arab and Islamic world.

But perhaps the interesting convergence of the American festival of Thanksgiving, and the reading of the account of Jacob’s dream will serve to remind us of the two unique and yet dovetailing destinies that we as Jewish Americans enjoy. At least, I hope it will. Because it is true that the great nations of the world have historically, and will continue to, rise and fall. But G-d has promised that the tiny people Israel will endure because they matter far out of proportion to their numbers. America is much larger and more powerful and has ruled as the reigning superpower in the world for a number of decades. Perhaps our economic, political, and military power has been, or is in the process of being, eclipsed by that of China and even India. But if we Americans continue to make America mean something more, something far more divinely inspired, then our significance like that of tiny Israel will continue to matter. May this be so as we remember the dream of our Pilgrim Fathers and seek to keep it alive. Happy Thanksgiving and Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Got Your Marching Orders?

Below is my D'var Torah for this week. Enjoy!

I grew up greatly admiring some of the great explorers of history. Vasco da Gama. Christopher Columbus. Ferdinand Magellan. James Cook. William Bligh. Okay, maybe not so much William Bligh; he was definitely a bold explorer, but his legacy is obviously mixed. Lewis and Clark. Roald Amundsen. Richard Byrd. Amelia Earhardt. Neil Armstrong. This isn’t an exhaustive list; there are many more!

Living lives that center so much on familiar ground and familiar routines, we admire those who are able to break free, who go forth boldly with confidence. But that’s not to say that we plan to emulate them. We wish we had their chutzpah, but our self-awareness informs us that we largely do not. We find comfort in the familiar. The great explorers of history are admirable primarily because they did what we know we cannot.

And yet most of us, at one time of another in the course of our lives, will venture into uncharted territory. Some will do it unintentionally. It will take us out of our ‘comfort zone.’ But when it happens and we end up acquitting ourselves well we can and should celebrate our accomplishment. Modest accomplishment is still accomplishment. Not all of us can be a Christopher Columbus, but each of us can rise to the occasion when forced out of our usual box.
In this week’s Torah portion, Abraham is forced out of his box. He didn’t set out to break new ground. But he received a call. G-d called him to step outside his box, to go forth in trust and confidence, to perform the audacious act of breaking with the patterns of his past. And he did. The reason we revere Abraham today, the reason we identify with him, is that he had the courage to step out and see the possibilities over the horizon.
Most of us would not ascribe to ourselves a Divine Call. Our rational sides don’t see G-d as interfering in our lives and charging us with a new mission. And yet, there are times in our lives when we see a clear vision of what we’re supposed to do. If those clear visions defy the existing, rational plans and notions of what we’re supposed to do with our lives, then our response is often to squelch the visions. Most of us try to stay on the rational side of life, and for good reason.
But sometimes the vision of what we’re supposed to do, despite being in conflict with accepted ‘wisdom,’ is so clear that we are compelled to follow it. I have to tell you that I made my best decisions in life, those which led to lasting good for myself and for others, when I defied reason and followed such visions. And that was certainly the case with Abraham.

Abraham’s life comes to us through the narrative largely as a life lived for good. If we’re reading only the simple text, we might take issue with him on a couple of points, but the Torah does not lend itself well to that sort of fundamentalist reading. No, we’re supposed to read between the lacunae and read the ‘story behind the story.’ That’s the enterprise called ‘midrash.’ Much midrash has already been done for us, but there is additional midrash to discover.

Abraham went forth on faith, and found his way to a land flowing with milk and honey, but that isn’t the end of the story. He then kept his retinue alive during a famine. And he took to the field at the head of an army to rescue his nephew, Lot and fellow residents of Sodom and Gomorrah in the war of the kings. And he later argued with G-d for the lives of those same people. And he was willing to give everything to G-d, even the son for whom he had prayed so long. Through it all, Abraham was imperfect – that is to say, human. But his legacy is a life lived large, a life that mattered, a life that impacted for the good on so many. And it started with his answering a call, responding positively to a specific vision.

Each of us will receive our call, our vision at a different time and to a different cause. Our task is not to be chomping at the bit to break free from the fetters of a predictable life. Rather, it is to be open to that vision when it comes. To discern that vision. To differentiate between the vision for good, and the interference of the desires of our eyes. It isn’t easy. It can be frightening. But if we are to reach our own potential, there will come a time when we will have to Go Forth.
There is a delightful midrash of a Rabbi Zusya, a midrash that I retell often. Zusya, nearing the end of his life, was ashamed of the smallness of his accomplishments and cried out to G-d: “I’m sorry I wasn’t an Abraham, I wasn’t a Moses!”

G-d’s response was: “I don’t blame you for not being Abraham or Moses. I blame you for not being Zusya.”

In other words, our clear vision of what we should do is not only a possibility – it is a sort of marching order. If we are true to ourselves, we will respond positively. Even if, and when, it is not convenient. Even when it is not comfortable. Even when conventional ‘wisdom’ would tell us to ignore it and take a different path. Because if we ignore it, we will not be able to rise to the greatest potential that is within us. Unlike Zusya, who pleased G-d simply by being not only Zusya but the best Zusya he could be. Who, at the end of his life, did not need to be ashamed of accomplishing more. Rather, when we don’t answer the call we will be forced to go through life thinking ‘if only.’

Monday, October 26, 2009

Don't Ask Don't Tell...Again

I want to start this post by telling you that this is not one of my hot-button issues. I believe that Don't Ask Don't Tell should be repealed, but I don't see it as one of the most compelling issues facing our country at this time. I think there are far more pressing things on the President's plate, on which he seems to be dithering. Afghanistan, for one. But having posted before my advocacy for repealing this law, and seeing that there has been some additional talk about its repeal, I feel compelled to comment on it again for the sake of clarity.

Earlier this month, President Obama declared in a speech before the Human Rights Campaign, a gay civil rights advocacy group: "I will end Don't Ask Don't Tell." This elicited a standing ovation, even though the President offered no promise of a timetable or specific steps he was planning to take toward the promised end. I'm sure he has learned the lesson of Presidnet Bill Clinton, who aimed to tackle the same issue - gays and lesbians serving openly in the military - at the very start of his presidency and got himself embroiled in the fight over the issue that produced the DADT Law to begin with! (I think it's good when a sitting president learns from his predecessors; I wish Obama would also have learned from Clinton's unhappy Health Care Reform experience, but it seems he has not. But I digress...)

Clearly, conservatives in general are not for the repeal of DADT, and in advocating for its repeal I have 'broken ranks.' But that does not bother me...I'm not running for election to any office, and frankly I find that conservatives tend to be far more independent-minded than liberals in any case.

If you remember from my original post on this subject, I expressed my opposition to DADT on two grounds: Ideological, and Pragmatic. Recent information from the Department of Defense has indicated that all the military services have exceeded their recruiting and retention goals in the recently-ended fiscal year. Many conservatives would argue that this kills the Pragmatic grounds for repealing DADT - if indeed it every existed. If all the services are exceeding their goals without the repeal of DADT, both in pure numbers and in terms of quality of manpower, then that kills the Pragmatic argument, doesn't it?

Perhaps. But the cases of Dan Choi and USAF Lt Colonel Victor Fehrenbach, among others, point to the fact that the armed forced are being denied services of highly decorated and esteemed troops because of sexual orientation.

And of course, this doesn't speak at all to the Ideological argument for repealing DADT. And I think that argument, made in my original post, is compelling.

I will be curious to see if President Obama's statement to the HRC will be the start of a congressional push to act legislatively on the issue. I hope so. It's a simple issue and won't require a 1000+ page bill!

Friday, October 23, 2009

Remember the Rainbow

This is my 'd'var Torah' I'm giving this evening at Temple Beit Torah. Enjoy!

When I was a rabbinical student, I had a student pulpit for two years in Niagara Falls, New York. As is the case with all work locations, this one had its ups and downs. One of the most aesthetically pleasing aspects of my visits to Niagara Falls, was that the hotel where I stayed was very close to the Falls themselves. I often had occasion to view spectacular rainbows, either from the park right outside my hotel, or sometimes, even from the window of my room.

In this week’s Torah portion we read that the rainbow is a symbol of G-d’s promise not to destroy all life with a flood ever again. It’s a sign of His ‘peace treaty’ with humanity. When we look upon the rainbow, we are supposed to take heart that G-d, no matter how badly provoked, will not destroy us and our world.

There is some midrash on why G-d choose specifically the rainbow as a this sign of His peaceful intent. The midrash focuses on the shape and orientation of the bow.

Of course, the bow shape alludes to a war bow, as in a bow-and-arrow. The rabbis noted that, at the end of a battle between two armies on the ground, the side suing for peace would unload and unstring their bows and hold them vertically as a sign of their peaceful intent. That way, the other side would not suspect trickery.

The word ‘rainbow’ does not appear in the text, just the Hebrew word ‘keshet’ which simply means ‘bow,’ as in something bow-shaped, which is the same word used for a war-bow. So there is some justification to see that symbolism in the rainbow.

Of course, most of us look upon a rainbow and see something entirely different. The moisture in the air, whether from rainfall or from the mist rising from a massive waterfall, acts as a prism that takes the light passing through it and splits it into the different colors since each color has a different wavelength. (I’m really pretty clueless about physics and the other natural sciences, but this is something I seem to remember from high school.)

So, when we look upon the rainbow, we see a natural phenomenon. And the scientific reason for the bands of color is that the light-waves are different lengths. The splitting of the visible light into the seven basic colors just shows us that those are the colors, from which all other shades and hues are made.

Or is it ‘just’?

In the natural world, at least when there is a lot of ambient light, we are presented with a dazzling array of color. But when we see all visible light broken down to the seven different hues of the rainbow – orange, indigo, violet, yellow, red, blue, green – then we are reminded of the completeness of our world. Even though on any given day we might see more grey or more white than we wish, the rainbow reminds us that everything is there, if only we will see it all. And the rainbow itself helps us to see ‘it all’ even if our tendency to see only what’s immediately apparent often gets in the way.

In other words, the rainbow can help us to see the essential completeness of the world around us.

We all know the Hebrew word for ‘peace’ – shalom. Guess what? The root of the word ‘shalom’ means ‘completeness.’ In other words, ‘shalom’ is not merely an absence of fighting – that’s an armistice, or ‘hafsakat yeri.’ “Cease fire’ would be a direct translation of the Hebrew. No, the real intent of the word ‘shalom’ is completeness, the presence of all that is necessary for one’s well-being. A cease-fire is usually a good thing – every military strategist knows that it can also be a bad thing if it merely gives the enemy an opportunity to recoup his losses and prepare for the next battle. But it is not ‘peace.’

Of course, anybody here who lived through the Sixties is aware of the equating of the rainbow with the concept of ‘peace.’ Perhaps after the sign of the broken cross, the rainbow was the most widely-used symbol of peace then, and now.

So, here’s one of those happy convergences where the traditionalist’s understanding of the origin of the rainbow, and the science-minded person’s very different understanding – lead to the same basic conclusion. The rainbow is a sign of peace- probably the Perfect Sign. And as such, it is a sign of hope. If your enemy has unstrung his bow and is pointing it upwards, that’s a sign of hope. If, during a rain squall one can discern that all the colors are present, that’s a sign of hope. Hope is, unfortunately something that is usually in short supply.

I didn’t see a rainbow today. But I read the Torah and came across the reference to the rainbow as a sign of peace and, therefore hope. Don’t fail to see the signs counseling hope around us – whether in the realm of nature, or in the Holy text we read. To have the hope, and to march forward confidently in its glow – that is the most important thing.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Town Hall in Colorado Springs

Yesterday I attended a town hall meeting - my first - conducted by my representative in the House of Representatives, Doug Lamborn of Colorado's Fifth Congressional District.

I have to admit that I attended already well-disposed toward Rep. Lamborn. I agree with many of his views and recently met him personally, walking away thinking him personable and thoughtful. I attended his town hall, planned to focus on the subject of health care reform (big surprise!), to offer my support and see what kind of dialogue would ensue (see my last post).

There was a crowd of hecklers, about ten percent of the crowd present according to the Colorado Springs Gazette reporter present, who choose to express their opposition to Lamborn's well-known views by shouting insults repeatedly. The rest of the crowd, split between supporters and detractors judging from signs the various individuals carried and the timing of applause, behaved themselves reasonably well.

Whenever Lamborn mentioned the cost of the Democrat Party initiatives, a number of the hecklers shouted repeated challenges concerning the costs of America's fighting two wars; they yelled to get out of Iraq and Afghanistan. If you know me, you know that I'm in favor of both enterprises; even so, a agree that a case could be made against either war. But the heckling seemed pretty comical, considering that the Executive Branch of government (and not the House of Representatives) controls warfighting. I thought every graduate of seventh grade civics would know that.

All in all, I thought Doug lamborn did a good job conducting this town hall meeting. He maintained his composure, stood his ground, and yet fielded a number of unfriendly questioners with courtesy and seriousness. I'm proud to be represented by him in congress.

Monday, October 12, 2009

Conflict - for the Sake of Heaven

I just wrote this essay today; I think it is important enough that I am posting it here and also to my more 'permanent' collection of writings on my website ( I also may just use it was the basis of my sermon this Friday evening.

The title of this essay is a direct translation of the Hebrew phrase, 'mahloket leshem hashamayim.' It’s a rabbinic principle that disagreement and conflict are not intrinsically bad and can be good if channeled toward a good end. Everybody who has studied Judaism deeper than the weekly Torah portion is aware of the long-term conflict between the schools of Hillel and Shamai in the ancient academy. The two schools had completely different approaches to halacha (Jewish law). They disagreed with one another on virtually every point of law over a period spanning generations. But they had a common goal: that the people Israel would work to please G-d by living up to their individual and national responsibilities as G-d’s Chosen People. Because of this mindset, they worked through their disagreements toward a good result for their people.

The entire Jewish tradition is based on the premise that conflict is a natural and even healthy part of life. Did not Abraham famously argue (respectfully but argue nonetheless) with G-d over the fate of the inhabitants of Sodom and Gomorrah? Was not Jacob re-named Israel (‘he who strives with G-d’) because of his inner conflict over his G-d-ordained destiny? Did not the entire people come to be known by Jacob’s new name? (The appellation ‘Jews’ is later and represents the ancient split between the Northern and Southern kingdoms.)

But conflict has developed a bad name these days. Conflict, it is said, can only result in bad things: at the very least, bruised feelings, and at worst, outright war with every intermediate possibility between. To many people, the very existence of conflict indicates failure. As a pastoral counselor, I found this to be the mindset among many married couples on their way to divorce court; at a gut level, they took the fact that they’d had conflict to mean that they’d failed as a couple – that there was no redemption possible. They would never admit that; as I said, it was more at a gut level than a logical level. On a logical level, if we’re honest with ourselves, every occasion where two people disagree can only result in two basic outcomes: one party submerges his/her opinion and goes along with the other; or the two must resolved the disagreement through conflict. And in reality, at the end of the day only the second alternative is likely; one of the parties will likely tend to submerge his/her opinions enough times until he conflict becomes unmanageable. In other words, in one way or another, conflict is an inevitable fact of life for all but the hermit. But we do tend to hold idealized images of certain conditions – including marriage – which blind us to this reality and make it difficult to even accept the existence of conflict. Conflict has acquired, unfairly, a bad name.

Politics is an area where conflict always exists and is always in the open. At the risk of sounding as if I’m over-simplifying things, I’ll point out that there are essentially two competing worldviews in our American political arena: those of the conservative and those of the liberal.
If you’re a third-party person, a Libertarian or a Green or something else, please don’t flame me! I think that it is not just the two major political parties that are party to this conflict and the divide it creates; the smaller parties pretty much fit in on one side or the other. But that’s another essay, for another time.
Just for the sake of disclosure (if you didn’t pick it up already from any of my earlier posts in this blog), I’ll tell you that I’m a conservative. But as an observer I would point out that both sides of the conservative/liberal divide are full of individuals who are not helpful to the clash. The reason is that they are unable to step past their own positions and see the merit in the person on the other side. In other words, because I think your position is stupid/poorly reasoned/selfish/will lead to a bad end, I’m unable to put aside that I think you are stupid/a poor reasoner/selfish/a malefactor who would lead us to a bad end.

Let me give you an example. The biggest, or at least the noisiest debate in American society right now is the one over health care – or more accurately, over the way health care is funded and dispensed. Most of the liberals I know want a unified (‘single-payer’) system similar to that in many other countries, including (but not limited to) Canada and those of Western Europe.
Yes, I know that this is not the 'program' that is on the table right now in the legislation that is being considered. But President Obama and many of his supporters are on record as favoring such a solution, and many experts agree that the legislation being considered in its many forms will put us on the road toward that kind of a system.
In other words, many liberals want a very (some might say radically) different system than what we in the US have today.
Most of the conservatives want the current system but with certain government controls (such as those which make it difficult for insurance companies to compete across state lines) removed or lessened, and other controls (such as those which might prevent companies from dropping coverage, or which might limit malpractice lawsuits) increased. In other words, the system that we have now but with tweaks and adjustments to make it better.
All this is no surprise; by definition it is in the nature of liberal thought to favor transformative change (and President Obama campaigned on that very principle), while it is in the nature of conservative thought to favor more modest change!
But to listen to the public discourse, the conflict doesn’t sound as benign as that. To many liberals, the conservatives are 'heartless bigots' who want to 'deny health care to the poor and vulnerable.' To many conservatives, the liberals are 'socialists' who want to 'keep the liberal-controlled federal government in power by controlling the jobs and well-being of a majority of the country’s citizens.' To conservatives, they (the liberals) are the 'heartless ones' who want to ‘pull the plug on Grandma’ and assemble ‘death panels.’
The reality is this: each side favors a very different approach to the difficult problem of providing the best level of affordable care to the most people. Most agree that health care costs are out of control and need to be reigned in while ensuring more Americans have the coverage for the care they need. But the rhetoric of the conflict is so powerful that, by and large, neither side can see the other as well-intentioned. Neither side can see the other as having the same goal. Neither side can see the merit in the other, because they can’t see the merit in the other’s position.
I'm using an example from politics to illustrate the problem when our conflict is not for the sake of heaven. But it applies to all spheres of relationship: from the most intimate, to the most global.
I was discussing this recently with a correspondent of mine from Berlin, a woman who is deeply concerned with the problem of conflict in civil life and who wants to promote the ancient Jewish concept of mahloket leshem shamayim to help combatants and potential combatants solve their conflicts by peaceful means. I think she is on to something. I am therefore offering the following as a suggested formula for employing the concept in conflict:
(1) Assume that the other has the same good intentions that you believe you have, and try to make them see that you have the same good intentions that they think they have. Yes, there truly are malefactors about but most individuals try, or at least see themselves as trying, to be benefactors. If you start the conversation by giving the other the benefit of the doubt, and working to make them see that they would be doing well to give you the benefit of the doubt, that would certainly make a good start. If in the course of the conversation you find that you gave the other the benefit of the doubt mistakenly, you can always adjust the conflict to that reality. But I guarantee it won’t happen often.

(2) Once you have made the leap of seeing merit in the opposition, you will be in a better position to see merit (or at least good intention) in their positions. Even if you can’t see the merit in their means to achieve the end result, you might see merit in their envisioned end result. And that means quite a bit. If two sides to a seemingly-intractable conflict see their positions as basically intending to reach a similar end, that automatically makes the conflict less intractable. It means that the negotiation necessary to reach a method of reaching the end will have much more of a chance of success.

(3) One must be extremely careful not to use ‘code words’ or ‘code phrases’ that cast aspersion on the other side’s intentions. These loaded words and phrases have the effect of closing down debate and discussion rather than opening it up. When the conflict in question is one in an intimate male-female relationship, one must understand that men and women communicate very differently. But that's a different subject for a different day!
(4) Even if agreement is ultimately elusive or impossible, this exercise is not a waste of time. It is far better to oppose someone on the basis of disagreeing with their solution, than because one thinks them of no or little merit. It changes the very character of the conflict.

You’ll notice that I haven’t used the word ‘compromise.’ A compromise is a device to reconcile two positions to hopefully make both parties somewhat happy by giving each part of what they seek. If one achieves steps one to three above, a compromise might be the vehicle by which an ultimate solution is found that all can accept. But the act of compromise in and of itself will not tone down the hurtful rhetoric that unfortunately seems to poison so much of our discourse today.
So let’s disagree and thus have conflict. But let’s try to keep our conflict leshem hashamayim and thus, we will go a long way toward ensuring a good result.

Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Shana Tova, G'mar Hatima Tova!

Forgive me for the paucity of posts since August; between getting the kids to school and preparing for the High Holy Days, I've been too busy! I have been writing, though; if you're interested, you can find my Rosh Hashanah sermons (, and my Yom Kippur sermons( Enjoy!

Sunday, August 9, 2009

America's Racial and Ethnic Divide - and the Jews

Two recent events have reinvigorated the national conversation about race and ethnicity in America. The first was the nomination by President Obama, and subsequent confirmation by the Senate of Judge Sonya Sotomayor to the US Supreme Court seat being vacated by retiring Justice David Souter. The second was the arrest of Henry Lewis “Skip” Gates in Cambridge, MA for disorderly conduct, the involvement of President Obama by telling the world that the Cambridge police had acted “stupidly,” and the subsequent ‘Beer Summit’ at the White House. These events have reinvigorated the conversation about race and ethnicity in America, renewing talk about what it means to be a member of a minority group, and especially about the politics of ethnicity.

One would have thought that the election of President the First Black (actually, mixed-race, but he prefers to identify as a black man) President of the United States would settle for once and for all the question of whether there is a force called racism that holds some Americans back from what they might achieve because of nothing more than their skin color or what their name sounds like. Unfortunately, it seems otherwise; Obama’s election has only intensified the debate over the meaning of race. This is surely because Obama’s race was as big a factor in his election as his tall, good looks, his Harvard education or his gift of oration. And I mean in the positive sense. I seriously doubt that a significant number voted for Senator John S. McCain III because of Obama’s race; those who voted Republican most likely did so because of their conservative values since during the election most conservatives (accurately) saw Obama as a ‘Hard Left’ Democrat and not as a ‘Moderate’ as his campaign tried, successfully, to portray him. On the other hand, it is verifiable through polling data that large numbers of voters cast their ballots for Obama at least partly, and in many case primarily because he is black. Certainly, black and other ‘non-white’ voters got caught up in the excitement of the possibility of having the first non-white president. But for many whites, too, Obama’s race was a positive; they wanted desperately to see themselves as personally expunged of the stain of racism, so they cast their lot with Obama.

All other things aside, if Obama’s election had put aside or once and for all the notion that America is a racist country that oppresses its citizens of various races, then his election would have been a positive thing. But predictably, this did not happen. The idea of racial minorities being automatically oppressed by the intolerant majority is so central to certain key power centers in American political life that even the election of a black president could not make people stop to think about the true nature of racial prejudice (or lack thereof) in America.

Jews are an interesting case in the racial/ethnic divide of America. First of all, few outside the Jewish community even think of the Jews as a distinctive minority group. We’re seen as just another barely-identifiable religious denomination within the majority white population. Even those who regularly interact with Jews who are particularly distinctive, such as Orthodox Jews, often don’t think of us as a ‘minority.’ Some who do recognize Jewish distinctiveness nevertheless claim that Jews can move comfortably in and out of their Jewish-ness since they possess, as it’s sometimes called, ‘White Skin Privilege.’ (For the purposes of this discussion, let’s put aside that there are many non-white Jews; most Jews in the US are, after all, of white European ancestry.)

Jews, too often don’t see themselves as a distinctive group unless and until they feel they’ve experienced ‘religious discrimination.’ This often takes the form of some public affirmation of the majority Christian faith: for example, when someone invokes the name of Jesus in a public event, or when aspects of Christmas holiday observance surface.

Recently, a member of the local Jewish community made a fuss about the appearance of banners proclaiming ‘Jesus Lives…First Presbyterian Church’ on all the streetlight standards in the block surrounding that church in downtown Colorado Springs. (The church takes up the entire city block.) The city, as a revenue-raising policy, rents space for hanging banners on streetlight standards. There are various banners with messages commercial or otherwise hanging from standards all over the downtown area, but only ‘Jesus Lives…First Presbyterian Church’ is objectionable. To this individual, it reveals the deep bias on the part of the city.

Every November, Christmas decorations begin to appear all over; businesses offer holiday greetings to their customers, and people greet one another with ‘Merry Christmas.’ Schools hold ‘Holiday Programs’ and ‘Holiday Parties’ which, although they often include mention of Hanukkah (and sometimes Kwanzaa), but are of course dominated by Christmas symbols and songs; I say of course, because the vast majority of citizens in our community consider themselves to be Christians of various stripes. Many of the most vocal Jews though, argue vehemently for the expunging of all serious religious references from public holiday observances.

Many Jews would also prefer that their Christian neighbors drop the impetus to evangelism from their religion. To be sure, many Christians do not evangelize but those who do, consider it a fulfillment of the Great Commission with which Jesus charged his followers. Jews who consider it a religious slight if their child’s teacher schedules a test on Yom Kippur (even if the child is the only Jew in the class), want to deny their Christian neighbors the right to tell their neighbors about their religious beliefs. Instead of wringing their hands over the danger of their children being converted by over-zealous Christian neighbors, I wish Jewish parents would invest as much effort in making Judaism a strong and positive force in their families. That, and using their children’s coming home and asking questions about their friends’ religion as openings for serious discussion of religion in the home.

I think the hyper-sensitivity of many Jews to the most benign public celebration or acknowledgement of Christianity, and their advocacy of an almost-militant wall of separation between public life and religion, betrays a deep insecurity with their status as members of a minority group.

I believe it is time for Jews to shed their hyper-sensitivity over religion. We should take joy in the celebration of our own religion, and acknowledge when our neighbors find a similar joy in the celebration of their own religion. We need not teach our children that our religion is better than others’ – only that it is ours, our special gift to one another and the world.

I think it is a good thing when our neighbors use their race or ethnicity as a source of pride, but it is corrosive to society when they look outward for every failure of every member of their group to succeed. I’m willing to accept Judge Sotomayor’s explanation of her ‘Wise Latina’ remark as intended to ‘buck up’ young Latinos and make them understand that their ancestry should not make them limit their dreams. On the other hand, I object strongly to her ruling as one of a three-judge panel on the federal Court of Appeals against the promotion of the New Haven firefighters on the basis that, since no blacks had scored well enough to get promoted, the test had to be inherently biased.

I also think that, while President Obama is probably sincere in his desire to remove racial barriers that divide Americans, he acted stupidly in publicly declaring that the Cambridge police had treated Professor Gates wrongfully – this in he same breath in which he had stated that he didn’t know the facts of the case. By all accounts, even before his Beer Summit Professor Gates and Officer Crowley had made amends one with another; I hope the President learned from their example, from the ‘teachable moment’ the two principals – and not the President – offered the county.

It’s not good to feel a reticence to talk about race and ethnicity; it is certainly part of our individual experience as Americans. But when we define ourselves and others primarily by racial or ethnic associations, we do our country a disservice and undo the uniquely American value of E Pluribus Unum.

Monday, July 20, 2009

Repeal "Don't Ask, Don't Tell"

LT Dan Choi as a Cadet at West Point, from his website
When I was an Air Force chaplain, I tended to be more than a little ‘evangelical’ about talking up the military chaplaincy as a vocational path with other Reform rabbis and with rabbinical students. In the military service, most of the Jewish chaplains are Orthodox rabbis. This is not to disparage the great work my Orthodox colleagues do in the military chaplaincy, but I believe that since the non-Orthodox movements (Reform and Conservative, and to a lesser extent the small Reconstructionist Movement) claim the largest number of affiliations of American Jews, then members of our rabbinates should be willing to step up and serve with the troops in uniform wherever the go. To explain why there is a dearth of non-Orthodox rabbis in the chaplaincy is complex and beyond the scope of this post. But over the years one attitude I encountered over and over among my civilian colleagues, cited as a reason to not even consider the military chaplaincy, was the ‘Don’t Ask Don’t Tell’ (henceforth DADT) law that prohibits gay men and lesbians from serving openly in the military. Since the military ‘discriminates’ against GLBT people, the reasoning goes, one who upholds civil rights for all Americans should not even consider serving in the military. And I know that this attitude is not limited to the Reform rabbinate; I know that there are periodic protests against military presence on college campuses over the issue.

With a new, liberal administration in Washington, there is a new call brewing to repeal DADT.

I want to go on record by saying that I oppose DADT and think it should be repealed on both an ideological and practical basis.

Ideologically, I don’t think it is right to eliminate from the opportunity to serve their country, any group without a compelling benefit to the military from their exclusion. Although where gays and lesbians are concerned, we’re still waiting for scientific proof that sexual orientation as something that’s organic to the individual, there is plenty of anecdotal evidence of homosexuality as being more than a behavior ‘disorder’ to give gays and lesbians the benefit of the doubt that most of them arrived at their sexual orientation by a number of factors beyond their control. Because of this widespread and generally-accepted principle, gays and lesbians today find few barriers – to employment, education, housing, etc – based on their known sexual orientation. If it could be proven that excluding them from the military service provided some benefit adding to the fighting readiness of the armed forces, then perhaps there would be grounds to exclude them in the way that those with criminal records and without high school diplomas are (at least, partly) excluded. But I believe that case has not been made.

The pragmatic case for repealing DADT is primarily that, in an era of shrinking manpower pools, it would make available talented individuals of homosexual orientation who desire to serve. For example, the well-known case of LT Dan Choi, a graduate of West Point who is a fluent Arabic speaker and served with distinction as a commander in Iraq, who was recently mustered out of the National Guard after he ‘came out.’ As observers like to point out, other countries allow gays and lesbians to serve openly in their military services with no loss of fighting effectiveness; the usual examples given are the UK, Australia, and Israel.

But let’s back up and ask ourselves: what exactly is the origin of DADT? How was it enacted in the first place?

In 1981, the Department of Defense enacted a policy declaring homosexuality to be incompatible with military service. Although there were various challenges to this policy over the years, it stood until 1993 when newly-elected President Bill Clinton issued an executive order repealing it. Under the order, gays and lesbians were to be allowed forthwith to serve openly, period. In issuing it, Clinton was making good on a campaign promise to the gay community.

But the Clinton order raised a firestorm of outrage, not only in the military itself but among groups of parents of young adults in the military service, for example. In reality, what killed the new policy was opposition to it by another constituency that Clinton owed for his election: African-Americans.

In advocating for the new policy, many gays and their supporters drew parallels to President Truman signing an executive order dropping all discrimination in the military against Blacks, integrating the military completely. Black Americans largely objected to the comparison; most Blacks have conservative Christian social values, and the idea that homosexuality is a characteristic that is organic to a person’s makeup is anathema to them.

Clinton backpedaled on the executive order and asked congress to sit down with military leaders to produce a compromise that he could sign into law. The result was the Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Law – not Policy! – part of the fiscal year 1994 Defense Appropriations Bill that Clinton signed into law.

DADT is, therefore, beyond the power of any military leadership or even president to repeal, unless the US Supreme Court were to strike it down as unconstitutional – and the Supreme Court has never even considered hearing such a case. The solution, then would be for congress to enact legislation to repeal it, or attach such language to the current defense appropriations bill, and that is not something that is under serious consideration. Why not? Because President Obama has not advocated such action.

DADT can be repealed, at least during the session of the 111th US Congress, if the President will publicly ask congress to do so, saying unambiguously that he will sign such legislation into law should it reach his desk. But Obama is yet to make such an unambiguous declaration. Perhaps he does not personally favor repealing it – after all, he is known to hold socially conservative views with regard to, for example, gay marriage. Perhaps, alternatively, he realizes it will cause an intense fight over what he considers a not-very-important issue, a ‘tempest in a teapot,’ potentially getting in the way of other elements of his legislative agenda. The latter is what I suspect; although the Administration has a great amount of influence in both houses of congress due to Democratic majorities and the widely-held belief that many Democratic members rode into office on Obama’s coattails, there is increasing breaking of ranks by Democratic representatives over various legislative priorities and perhaps Obama doesn’t want DADT to further spoil his chances of, for example, Health Care Reform. But regardless of whatever his reason might be, Obama’s not publicly advocating for the repeal of DADT is the main obstacle keeping the unpopular law in place.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

The Healthcare Conudrum

Like many conservatives and middle-of-the-roaders, I find the idea of a unified, nationalized health care system, which many analysts predict will be the only possible outcome of the legislation that President Obama is pushing congress to pass this summer, frightening.

Like many Americans, I have watched elderly parents struggle with the Medicare system. Medicare patients are forced, if they are unable to pay for supplemental insurance policies or to ante up out of their own pockets for costs not covered by standard Medicare Part A and B coverage, to enroll in Medicare Advantage Plans – HMOs which are set up specifically for, or which accept Medicare patients at a set fee by the federal government – and thus have an incentive to cut costs in every way possible to make a profit of the business of providing health care for their elderly patients.

When my father, of blessed memory, was sick, every decision by his MAP created a nightmare of a clash of wills between my brother and me on one hand, and the MAP’s care director on the other.

The push-and-pull we had to engage in, as bad as it was, would have been impossible had we not had one trump card on our side; we could have pulled Dad out of that MAP and put him in standard Medicare Part A and B coverage. Therefore, while the MAP seemed intent on saving money on Dad’s back, they could be swayed on some decisions out of fear of ultimately losing an enrollee. But as Dad became sicker and sicker, that trump card became next to worthless.

(Lest one think that I am attacking indiscriminately all MAPs, after a geographic shift we enrolled Dad in one in the new state and its care decisions were mostly quite reasonable.)

With a nationalized health care system, for which there would be no alternative, one loses that trump card altogether; all decisions concerning provision of care would be in the hands of faceless bureaucrats who could stand behind their offices and would have no compulsion to even reveal their names to disgruntled patients.

I experienced this in a smaller way recently with my son’s care. As a military retiree, my family and I are covered under Tricare, the Department of Defense’s managed care system. Retirees and their families, and the families of active duty personnel, have two options: Tricare Standard and Tricare Prime. Tricare Standard works something like Medicare Part A and B – one makes one’s own care decisions but has to pay a large part of the costs – while Tricare Prime works like an HMO or MAP. Just as with Medicare patients, those without supplemental insurance plans or extensive cash resourced to cover out-of-pocket expenses, choose Tricare Prime for the additional coverage for a reasonable annual premium. The system is divided into regions, with a different contractor managing the care of patients in each region for the government.

Eyal needed to see a certain type of specialist for several visits, but we had a hard time finding such a specialist ‘on-network’ close enough to his school that he could be taken to his appointments. The Tricare Prime standard is that, if an on-network specialist can be found within a specific radius of one’s zip code, then the contractor does not need to cover a visit to an off-network specialist. The radius is, if I am not mistaken, 80 miles. If Eyal were home, I would drive him that far to get the care he needed without question. But he is half a continent away, and he is a fourteen-year-old boy who cannot drive himself. But those facts would not move the contractor, and they were under not compulsion under the terms of the contract to provide me with redress other than to go off-network in which case Tricare Standard reimbursement rates (and deductibles) would apply; in other words, I would have paid mostly out of pocket for the specialty care. So I’ve already had a ‘taste’ of the challenge we all would face under a nationalized health care plan, and believe me it does not look enticing.

I have been stationed abroad in four different countries, each of which has nationalized health care: The UK, Germany, Greece, and Turkey. These are four very different countries, and the quality of care varies greatly between them. As an American family stationed in these places, we did not find the prospect of being referred to the local system for care as frightening in the UK or Germany as in Greece or Turkey. The language issue was only part of the frightening aspect; we also knew that mortality rates in those countries’ systems were considerably higher than in the American system, with all its problems.

We hear horror stories all the time of higher mortality rates in ‘the best’ of the nationalized systems (e.g. Canada) due to advanced procedures being severely rationed and advanced drugs being unavailable. These stories are not just anecdotal; hard statistics back them up. Survival rates from various cancers and other illnesses are markedly higher in the US than in any of these countries. Surgeries that we take for granted as being available, surgeries that prolong life or improve quality of life, are severely rationed in these other countries.

Most Americans, knowing these statistics and stories, do not want a nationalized health care system that will make us imitate the experiences of our neighbors in Canada, or our European cousins. And President Obama, in his campaign for office last fall, promised that his health care program would only provide a ‘government option’ and not interfere one iota with the coverage of Americans who are happy with their present care and coverage – which is to say, that of most Americans.

The concern of detractors is only in part that, whatever the government’s intentions, a government ‘option’ will ultimately kill competition in the marketplace and we’ll end up with a Canadian/European-style system with no options. Add to that, the President’s own recent backpedaling on the campaign rhetoric to open admission that – under his plan – many Americans will see changes to their health care. And finally, the President’s intense pressure on congress to pass legislation according to an artificial and rushed timetable – and the willingness of many Democratic legislators to be pressured out of loyalty to Obama – raises fears that, at the very least, the congress will pass sweeping, complex, game-changing legislation that will be signed into law without even having time to consider the many aspects of what they’re approving, not to mention unintended consequences thereof.

I agree that fears of a nationalized, ‘single payer’ health care system are not irrational; I believe that unintended and intended consequences of this rush to produce legislation that the President will sign, will conspire to give us a system along the lines of the Canadian/European system that will satisfy no one, except perhaps those who have no insurance coverage now.

The last time such a sweeping change in our health care system was attempted, by President Bill and Hillary Clinton, it failed because of a groundswell of public opinion against it. President Obama seems to be taking as the lesson of that failure, that the quicker he can ram through the legislation and sign it into law, the greater his chances of success in enacting this legislation that most Americans, given time to chew on it and consider, would tell their representatives to reject.

Instead, I and other sceptics would prefer the President take a much different lesson from the experience of the Clintons: he should instead work for a reform of the present system to fix its shortcomings and make better insurance coverage available to those who fall through the cracks now. Our fear is that America has elected a ‘Hard Left’ President who is so enamored of the idea that Government is the Answer to All Our Problems, that he is not really concerned about what most Americans think.

All Americans who know people who have experienced nightmares in getting health care under Medicare and other government programs such as Medicaid and Tricare and whatever, should ask themselves: Do I want the government providing my health care? If the answer is no, please do two things: send your congressman and senators e-mails telling them to reject the legislation currently underway on Capitol Hill, and sign the petition found at

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

To Circ or not to Circ?

Recently, a correspondent asked me about Reform Judaism's position toward circumcision. He pointed out that some of the early reformists - particularly in Europe in the 19th century - had advocated against dropping the pressure for circumcision along with other reforms they were pushing. His question was: Is this still the position of Reform Judaism, or has there been some 'backsliding' on this point?

I'm not sure that the early reformists ever did abandon circumcision along with other rituals and ceremonies that may have struck them as outdated. I do know that many couples affiliated with Reform Judaism choose for their newborn sons a circumcision performed by a physician in a clinical setting rather than by a traditional mohel at home. If a Jewish physician can be found and utilized, so much the better but even when it must be a non-Jewish doctor it does get done. When a rabbi or learned lay person can be present at the procedure to say the traditional blessings, that is usually desired - I have personally served in this way, saying the ceremony while the doctor did the circumcision, quite a few times. In recent years in Reform Judaism in the United States, a network of Reform mohalim (the plural of mohel) and even mohalot (that's the feminine plural), all of whom are doctors, has been developed for those Jewish couples who would prefer a practitioner who can perform the sacred rite, but still perform the procedure according to modern medical practice.

So, at least in the USA, my observation is that Reform Jews do circumcise their sons, with an accompanying Jewish ceremony when possible, in a clinical setting when possible. Some prefer to use a traditional mohel, but the majority do not. When my son was born, Clara and I engaged a traditional mohel. (I'll explain below.)

In countries other than the USA and Israel, current practice is a mixed bag. In Europe, for example many Jewish families who are not Orthodox choose not to circumcise their sons. This reflects a very different bias in the medical communities in Europe.

In America, it is very ingrained that male babies are circumcised. The vast majority of white infant males - somewhere in the 90's percentage-wise - are circumcised at birth in the hospital. Although the practice of circumcision has always been considerably less universal among a number of non-white groups, statistics show that among African-American and Latino males the rates are going up. Anecdotally, it seems that the rise in the circumcision rate of infant males in these groups is directly related to the fact that more babies are being born in the hospital as opposed to at home. But in any case, circumcision rates for non-white baby boys have been on the rise.

American doctors and their patients generally support the notion that circumcision is a useful prophylaxis for a number of diseases and conditions. This, despite the fact that the American Academy of Pediatrics has repeatedly published statements that disapprove of the practice of routinely performing neonatal circumcisions. The most recent statement, published in 1999, conceded that there may be potential benefits of infant circumcision but that the AAP does not recommend the practice given the potential risks. Despite this position, parents looking for a doctor to circumcise their baby sons generally have no trouble finding one, and medical insurance usually pays for the procedure.

In Europe generally, the situation is the opposite; it is often impossible for parents to obtain the services of a doctor to circumcise their sons within the existing nationalized health services. Sometimes, a traditional religious practitioner is the only alternative available. Instead of the nuanced position of the AAP, European medical societies oppose circumcision outright.

I personally believe that the American position is more correct; the argument that there are great potential benefits, particularly to women whose male sexual partners are circumcised, is convincing. Here's a place where information on this position can be found: And to be fair, I'm also including an information site that tries to make the opposite case:

So why did Clara and I choose a traditional mohel rather than a physician or a Reform physician/mohel? First, I want to make it clear that the Reform movement's efforts to create a cadre of mohalim/ot using clinical methods and also being friendly to Reform-affiliated families who have sensitivities about such issues as separating men and women at a circumcision (sometimes, but not always demanded by a traditional mohel), are a wonderful service. Many Reform-affiliated families also feel more comfortable with a practitioner with medical training. Finally, for couples consisting of a Jewish man and a non-Jewish woman, many traditional mohalim will not even agree to provide the service. But after having been present for dozens of circumcisions both by traditional mohalim and by physicians, we felt more comfortable using a traditional mohel who came with very glowing recommendations. It happened he was also a licensed medical doctor and a surgeon, but he used the traditional mohel's methods when performing brit milah.

I'm convinced that, for Jewish parents, a skilled and experienced mohel using the traditional methods is superior to a physician using modern clinical practice. First of all, the traditional practitioner's method makes the procedure go very quickly which surely reduces the trauma for the infant (not to mention those witnessing the rite!). Despite the abundant jokes about mistakes by mohalim, they do one thing repeatedly, and they usually become quite proficient at it. In contrast, physicians who perform circumcisions do them in addition to many other procedures - they simply don't do as many, day in and day out, as a traditional mohel. And the protocols they follow make the procedure take a long time - as long as ten minutes, while a traditional mohel generally completes the procedure part of the circumcision in less than a minute total.

But what about adult circumcision? Adult males who convert to Judaism are traditionally required to submit to circumcision. If they were circumcised hygienically at birth, an Orthodox or Conservative rabbi generally requires a ceremony called hatafat dam brit - the taking of a drop of blood as a symbolic compliance with the covenant.

I have never supervised the conversion of an adult male who was not circumcised at birth, reflecting the prevalence of the practice of neonatal circumcision in the USA. I have met male Jews-by-Choice who did get circumcised as adults, as inpatients at hospitals, and they did not seem traumatized by the experience. Although it is a far more complicated procedure on an adult than on a newborn, it is not unheard of. Years ago, when I was in the US Navy I saw many crewmembers on an aircraft carrier (which has a full hospital, including surgical theater, onboard) get circumcised while on an extended cruise on the orders of their wives (whose concerns were hygienic, not religious). For conversion candidates I do not require it personally, although I would counsel the candidate that uncircumcised his status might not be accepted in all sectors of the Jewish community. On the other hand, since Jewish males are not routinely asked to drop their pants to prove their bonafides...they could probably get away without doing it!

I do not require hatafat dam brit when I supervise a male conversion where the candidate was circumcised at birth. I offer it as a possibility and can attest, having witnessed the procedure, that it takes a nanosecond and is entirely trauma-free. Nevertheless, I believe that requiring it represents a stringency that I don't feel comfortable requiring. A man without a foreskin is a circumcised man, regardless of whether it was done for hygienic or religious reasons.

On a number of occasions I've discussed the subject of adult circumcision, not for converts but for Jewish males who were born in the Soviet Union where circumcision was not done in the medical system and it was not available as a religious rite either. Russian Jewish men who have resettled in the USA have often been pressured by Orthodox organizations to get circumcised. Those organizations sometimes even have funds to pay for the procedures. While I believe that these organizations are well-meaning, I understand that grown men are often squeamish about having any elective procedure done to their sexual organs. Although there are anecdotes about uncircumcised Jewish men being denied interment in Jewish ceremonies, or of burial societies performing the procedure on the deceased without telling the family, I don't believe that these phenomena are widespread. Therefore, if a Jewish man was not circumcised at birth and asks me if he should have it done now, I will counsel him to consider it but will fully accept him as part of my community if he decides not to.

Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Honduras in Turmoil

It has been almost ignored by the major media outlets in the focus on Michael Jackson's memorial service and Sarah Palin's resignation (last week); and the Senate confirmation hearings for nominee to the US Supreme Court Sonia Sotomayor and the fight over health care reform (this week). I'm talking about the struggle of a small and poor country in Central America, Honduras, to maintain its democracy. The world's reaction to events in Honduras is unhelpful, but in particular the reaction of our US government is upsetting.

President Manuel Zelaya was overthrown June 28th by the counry's Congress, Supreme Court and military acting together. The charges were that he was working to undermine the country's constitution and make himself president with an open-ended tenure. At the time of the overthrow, his approval rating was about 10 percent of the populace. Zelaya is, however quite popular with the hemisphere's most brutal dictators, namely Hugo Chavez and Raul Castro. Daniel Ortega is a strong supporter as well. As always, whom a person chooses as his friends can be very telling.

In the past, our country in her desire to see the 'lesser of evils' in power, has pragmatically backed some unsavory strongmen. Of course, the words 'military coup' are enough to make us reflexively distance ourselves from any regime installed in that way. But the interim government in Honduras is not a Pinochet, a Somoza, or a Marcos. Once the army had spirited Zelaya out of the country safely - no harm was done to him and he was not imprisoned or detained - an interim government led by Roberto Micheletti, the president of congress and a member of Zelaya's Liberal Party, was installed. Micheletti has promised that his government will only serve out the remaining six months of Zelaya's term, and that elections will be held when planned or even earlier. There has been no violence as a consequence of the takeover; there have been peaceful protests in the streets, both for and against the interim government.

Unfortunately, most of the world has condemned the Micheletti government and called for Zelaya's reinstatement. Chavez of Venezuela, a supporter of Zelaya, is making bellicose threats of dire consequences if his friend is not soon returned to power. The US State Department is playing a lower-key role; Secretary Clinton has asked Costa Rican President and Nobel Peace Prize winner Oscar Arias to mediate the crisis. Even so, for our government the desireable outcome is quite clear; State Dept. spokesman Ian Kelly has called "on all parties, particularly President Zelaya and the de facto regime to work together and come to a peaceful resolution that restores the democratic order," meaning "the restoration of the democratically elected president." It is distressing to hear our administration agreeing with the likes of Chavez, Castro and Ortega; would be refreshing to hear President Obama or Secretary of State Clinton instead express hope for the upholding of the liberty and the constitution of Honduras rather than worry about the 'rights' of a would-be tyrant.

Sunday, July 12, 2009

Hiking on Shabbat

On Saturday morning I took a hike on the Monument Rock Loop in Pike National Forest. Joined by seven others, a mix of Temple Beit Torah members and others, we hiked about a mile until we came to the Monument Rock, a striking formation located at the foot of Mount Herman. The formation, called the Dawson Arkose, consists of jumbled bits of quartz and feldspar pressed together to form the rock and was molded from eroding bits of the ancestral Rockies that washed onto the plain about 55 million years ago. There are other, similar formations in the Monument-Air Force Academy area and of course, the reddish rock formations of Garden of the Gods and other areas along the Front Range.

In the rock's shadow, we conducted a short Shabbat morning service before hiking back via a different route. I'm very much enjoying these Shabbat hikes; I wish more folks would take advantage of them, but anything new takes a while to catch on. New for my congregation, that is; he whole idea is not original to me and has been done on a somewhat larger scale by my colleague Jamie Korngold, the 'Advenure Rabbi' who is based in Boulder. The idea of combining a hike with an outdoor service is wonderful; out in the wild I feel that the prayers speak to me much more consistently than in the synagogue. Why not worship the Creator in the beauty of creation? I'm looking forward to several more of these hikes before summer's end.

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Getting Started

I'm starting this Blog to record any random thoughts or accounts of mis-adventures that I might want to share with my congregation, friends and family. Watch this space to see where I might take you.

I'll be talking about Judaism, the Outdoors, and most notably politics - a subject I have studiously avoided in the past. Why have I avoided it? Because as an active duty military member I was in effect working for the Exacutive Branch, and I was often based overseas. And in my first year as a congregational rabbi I also avoided the subject; with national elections going on, the subject was simply too hot and I didn't want to be seen as telling people how to vote. But now it is time for me to comment on public policy issues, and you'll see posts on the subject creeping into my Blog.

I'm not allowing the posting of comments because in my experience, they can very quickly get nasty, ad hominem and inappropriate. But if you'd like to respond thoughtfully to any of my posts, please feel free to e-mail me and I would love to have a dialogue with you. Likewise, if there's a subject that you'd like to see me write about please feel free to let me know. Otherwise, enjoy!