Monday, July 30, 2012

President Obama Flip-Flops on Jerusalem

So Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney travels to Israel and proclaims that Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, in line with an act of Congress going back nearly 20 years.

White House spokesman Josh Earnest responds:
"Well, our view is that that’s a different position than this administration holds. It’s the view of this administration that the capital is something that should be determined in final status negotiations between the parties."

But Earnest did not leave the point only at the idea of the parties themselves determining their borders consensually. Rather, he added that, "I’d remind you that that’s the position that’s been held by previous administrations, both Democratic and Republican. So if Mr. Romney disagrees with that position, he’s also disagreeing with the position that was taken by Presidents like Bill Clinton and Ronald Reagan."

Sounds like President Obama disagrees with Mitt Romney. But if so, then why do we have video of him proclaiming, "Jerusalem will remain the capital of Israel, and it must remain undivided"?

Cue the video, Mr. Earnest:

Or how about, "And I continue to say that Jerusalem will be the capital of Israel. And I have said that before and I will say it again" - even though he also noted that these were "final status issues", he had no problem making the explicit declaration for which his surrogates now castigate the Republican.

More video, Mr. Earnest:

Oh, wait - That was 2008? When he was running for office? And speaking to a pro-Israel audience?

I see. Yes, that does explain a lot, doesn't it.

Sunday, July 29, 2012

Is "wait 'til next year" a good approach?

This morning I spoke about the kinah of אאדה עד חוג שמים – our pursuit of Gd, our approach to others for assistance, the failure of others to assist, and finally our appeal to Divine mercy. Perhaps the best-known line in the kinah is בכל שנה אומרת היא השנה הזאת, the annual declaration, "This is going to be the year."

We are familiar with the accounts of communities which buried their kinos after Tishah b'Av every year. [I have wanted to do this for the past few years, but we are renting, so we don't have a yard…] We know of great leaders who kept packed suitcases by the door, and who saved their finest clothing for the arrival of Mashiach.

And we train ourselves to say "Wait 'til next year." We sing לשנה הבאה בירושלים ("next year in Jerusalem") after Yom Kippur, at the Seder, and on various other occasions. We recite the Ani Maamin saying that we will wait for Mashiach every day. We consider it quasi-heretical to act as though Mashiach isn't coming imminently.

But I wonder if we aren't harming our chances, to a certain extent. Saying "This is going to be the year" suggests that we are a championship-contending team, bounced in the first or second or third round of the playoffs, perhaps missing one or two key pieces in order to get over the hump. Many teams that think they are just one or two pieces away don't make major moves, don't re-examine their conditioning practices and uproot and re-build their drafting policies. They try to maintain their strengths, and add that one more thing.

The result is that teams trick themselves into thinking they are already contenders and go for years with an aging nucleus, disregarding their many flaws, until they collapse. (I would give specific examples, but this post is going up Motzaei Tishah b'Av and I'm not in the mood for that sort of thing.) Teams need to know when it's time to go into re-building mode.

I wonder if our "Next year in Jerusalem" chants and our "This is going to be the year" confidence don't lead us to believe that we are on the cusp, just about there, and therefore not in need of a major overhaul. We treat our beautiful, booming land of Israel, our schools with their unprecedented enrollments, our shuls with their daf yomi programs, our community kollelim, our beautiful mikvaos, our number of children studying in Israel, our kosher food, our anti-lashon hara programs, as evidence that we are strong. If ony we could just add one piece, a little reduction of that pesky sinas chinam, we'd be great.

We are unreasonably optimistic, and we don't uproot everything. We campaign for money for our institutions without asking whether they need a re-boot. We add minyanim without asking whether we are really davening. We build new mikvaos without looking at the emotional health of our families.

I'm rambling and ranting a bit; I apologize. But I can't shake the feeling that instead of putting out videos and making speeches about the one thing we need to change, the one thing to add so that maybe we'll see Mashiach and this will be the last Tishah b'Av, we - each individual Jew, lay and clergy alike - ought to be making a real list, designing a multi-year or multi-decade rebuilding process as individuals and as members of communities, and getting on with it.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Judaism, Jews and Solving Conflict

I'm not entirely sure this makes sense yet, but I'm tired of the debate on the previous post...

This week I participated in a program involving Jewish, Christian and Muslim medical students from around the Middle East. The general program brings students of pediatric medicine to Toronto for medical studies and more; our particular segment offered them a chance to talk with clergy and chaplains to discuss ethical/philosophical questions related specifically or loosely to medicine.

One of the less medicine-related questions outlined was: "How do you consider the role of your religion in solving conflicts between groups with supposedly contradictory monotheistic/polytheistic beliefs?" We didn't actually get to this question in my session, but I did give it some thought.

To me, Judaism doesn't solve conflicts with other systems. Judaism explains why the world exists as it is. Judaism prescribes ethics and activities. Judaism inspires dreams and defines aspirations. And it doesn't spend a lot of time directly addressing the question of "solving conflicts" with those who have different explanations, ethics, activities, dreams and aspirations. If the conflict stands to harm Judaism - such as when the conflict takes place in Israel, or when a member of the Jewish people embraces or confronts those other ideas - then the approach is one of self-defense. Otherwise, Judaism doesn't really say much about resolving conflicts with other systems. Either the conflict is personal, or it doesn't figure.

On the other hand, Judaism's explanations, ethics, activities, dreams and aspirations do shape a Jew's identity, as a religious person and as a human being, and in doing so they provide Jews with the means of solving conflict.

Judaism emphasizes humility. It teaches that all ideas have a place and a value, somehow, even if we are prohibited from adopting them. It mandates gratitude. It requires education in our identity, and a great distance from adopting the identities of others. These are traits which certainly do help to solve conflicts between groups, and these traits are modeled in numerous biblical events which showcase those conflicts between systems – Yosef and Pharaoh, Moshe and Pharaoh, Esther and Achashverosh, Daniel and Nevuchadnezzar, and so on.

I suppose what I would have said to the group is that Judaism takes a defensive rather than problem-solving approach to conflicts – but it also molds Jews as people who will be able to solve them.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Baseless Hatred or Principled Policy?

I've been forwarded an article on a possible boycott of the Agudah's Siyum haShas by the Vizhnitzer Rebbe. The article begins,

According to a Kikar Shabbat report, the Vishnitzer Rebbe from Monsey Shlita may boycott the main Siyum HaShas because “Zionist rabbis” are expected to address the tzibur. This apparently may also lead to other prominent rabbonim and admorim shlita to boycott the event.

Those who have forwarded this to me contend it is an example of sinat chinam, the baseless hatred which one gemara (Yoma 9b) says led to the destruction of the second Beis haMikdash and our current, long-running exile.

I'm not sold, though. Why is he not entitled to take a strong stance? Of course I disagree - I am one of those "Zionist rabbis" whose presence he would oppose - but why is he not entitled to decline to participate, if he feels that participation would endorse my stances? It's not as though he is coming out with guns blazing, on the offensive, looking for trouble.

Update: To clarify-
Ezra refused to build the second Beis haMikdash along with the Samaritans, because he believed they wanted to use it to further their anti-Torah cause.
The Rambam, Rav Eliyahu Mizrachi, the Radvaz and others prohibited teaching Torah to Karaites, believing that they wanted to use it to further their anti-Torah cause.
As Pirkei Avos 1:7 says, one may not join with "a wicked person".
We would not celebrate Torah with Jews for J missionaries, for the same reason.
If he truly believes that we are opposed to authentic Judaism, and that we are spreading that opposition beneath the disguise of supporting Torah, why would he join with us?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Rav Kook on Individualism in the Jewish Community

As part of a shiur on Sunday evening on recognizing and valuing individualism, I'm going to cite an excerpt from אל חכי שופר [To my mouth, a shofar], a poem of Rav Kook; here is the piece I am going to use. It is an ode of respect for the individual's path in life. The whole poem is just beautiful; I should translate the entire poem someday soon:

We will not measure every acquisition by our personal measure.
We will know that each individual is only a unit,
one portion, a share of our community,
and how could the whole judge but little?

One whose work is in Torah, in fine points of law,
if he would depart to sing songs, to examine poetry,
his profit would be balanced by his loss in these tasks,
and his work would ascend in smoke, and his learning would be uprooted.

Or one whose task is in examining wisdom,
to be transported to the heavens in the deeds of Creation and Merkavah,
in the war of pure ideas his intellect battles.
This is his portion in his life, which his soul loves.

Or one who loves to seek in knowledge and philosophy,
to birth ideas in parables,
to open streams like channels of water in the desert,
upon the plain of exegeses his hand founded her.

Or one who turns his heart to analysis of history,
in books of generations and chronicles of days.
There, too, he will find gold and precious coins;
there he will build a temple to knowledge in the heights.

And one whose heart is given to mundane wisdoms,
to medicine, to nature, to mathematics, to chemistry,
and his heart thirsts and broadens like the depths,
to enjoy the benefits of branching, fruitful knowledge.

Those who pursue insight in parables, seeking ability and insight,
if they seek only insight, honestly, in righteousness,
seeking pure insight, not straying or desecration,
then the voices will cease and the protests will halt.

Those who love labour, when they raise their voice,
if in truth they will raise their banner in love of labour,
to increase production among our nation they will give their strength,
then as illuminating stars, over our heavens they will shine.

Guardians of Torah and mitzvot, who reign with Gd,
if to strengthen the law they raise their voices,
why would not all turn their ears to them?
Who would be cruel to them, summoning against them a group?

Those who love the holy language, the beloved language,
if they will give a hand in the name of benefiting the language,
who will not accept them with great love?
Who would not support them with one heart?

Or one who has strength in his loins, a full arm,
and to all manner of production his heart turns,
will travel his path, aiming for the hair's breadth,
to broaden labour and find his life therein.

Each person toward his heart's desire will travel and succeed,
and from the fruit of their hands, their nation will be elevated.
Each in his trade will breathe the breath of life;
when he builds for himself a home, the ruin of our people will be erected.

And here is the Hebrew:
אל נמוד כל קנין רק לפי מדתנו.
נדע כי כל אחד הנהו רק פרט,
חלק אחד, אחוז מקהלינו,
ומה יוכל על הכלל לדון, הלא מעט.

אם העמל בתורה, בחקרי הלכות,
אם יצא לשיר בשירים, מליצות לבקר,
יצא שכרו בהפסדו באלו המלאכות,
ויגיעו יעלה בעשן, ותלמודו יעקר.

או מי אשר מלאכתו לתור בחכמה,
להרקיע שחקים, במעשה בראשית ומרכבה,
במלחמת מושכלות מופשטות בינתו לחמה,
הנה זה חלקו בחיים, שנפשו אהבה.

או מי אוהב דרוש במדע והגיון,
להוליד רעיונות בדברי הגדה,
לפתח נחלים כפלגי מים בציון,
על ככר המדרשים ידו יסדה.

או מי שם לב לחקר קדמונים
בספרי תולדה ודברי הימים.
גם שם ימצא זהב ואדרכמונים,
שמה יבנה מקדש לחכמה ברמים.

ומי לבו נתונה לחכמות החול,
לרפואה, לטבע, להנדסה, לחימיה,
ונפשו צמאה ותרחיב כשאול,
להתענג על טוב חכמה ענפה, פוריה.

המשכילים למשל דורשי כשרון והשכלה,
אם רק להשכלה ידרשו, באמת, בצדקה,
להשכלה צרופה, לא זונה וחללה,
אז חדלו הקולות ותשבת הצעקה.

אוהבי מלאכה, עת ירימו קולם,
אם באמת באהבת מלאכה ידגלו,
להרבות בעמינו החרשת יתנו חילם,
הלא כככבי אור על שמינו יהלו.

שומרי תורה ומצוה, הרדים עם א-ל,
אם לחזק את הדת קולם ישאו,
למה לא יטו להם אזנים כל,
ומי אכזר עליהם, מלא יקראו.

חובבי שפת קודש השפה האהובה,
אם בשם טובת השפה יתנו יד,
מי לא יקבלם באהבה מרובה,
ומי לא יתמכם בלב אחד.

או מי כחו במתנו, מלא זרֹוע,
ולחרשת כל מעשה תטה לבתו,
ילך בדרכו אל השערה לקלע,
להרחיב מלאכה למצא בה חיתו.

כל איש לחפץ לבבו ילך ויצליח,
ומתנובות כפימו עמם ירוממו.
כל אחד במקצֹעו רוח חיים יפיח,
בבנותו לו בית, הריסות עמנו יקוממו.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Jerusalem Post Headlines are Slamtastic

As an aside in a comment to a previous post, I noted The Jerusalem Post's ridiculous use of the word "slams" every time it describes any level of criticism.

I did wonder if I was hyper-sensitive, so I ran a Google News search of Jerusalem Post headlines from July 1 to July 18. Here are the results:

Lindenstrauss slams parties over real estate (July 2)

Israeli, Vienna politician slam anti-Israel measure (July 2)

UTJ slams PM on Tal Law (July 2)

Lapid slams PM, religious parties over service law (July 3)

Yachimovich slams Plesner recommendations on Haredi draft (July 4)

Politicians from Left, Right slam Plesner report (July 4)

Student association heads slam Ariel boycott calls (July 4)

Amnesty slams China for Uighur crackdown (July 5)

China slams Clinton's criticism over Syria stance (July 7)

US slams idea that Iran can help resolve Syria conflict (July 10)

Top China paper slams Clinton's democracy comments (July 12)

Romney slams Obama for playing down threat of Hugo Chavez (July 12)

US Jews slam Levy report on legalizing outposts (July 15)

MK Atias slams treasury for not supporting public housing (July 17)

ADL slams Kotel replica as part of anti-abortion center (July 18)

[One wonders why there was only one slamming between July 13 and July 16. Was there a drought? Did Google News miss it?]

This is not only a critique of the Post's copy editors' lack of creativity. Saying "slam" every time robs the word of its meaning, and robs the headline of any nuance. Not every criticism, tease or challenge is a "slam".

Here, then, are verbs they could use to describe different types of negative political rejoinders:

For questioning:
questions, challenges, probes

For tough talk:
criticizes, bashes, maligns

For attemps to elicit a reaction:
pushes, needles, goads

For personal attacks:
insults, skewers, jabs

What other words, or types of negative rejoinders, would you offer?

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Abraham Joshua Heschel, Shaul Lieberman and Shlomo Carlebach

Several weeks ago, our Beit Midrash held a Shabbaton with the theme, "21st Century Shabbat: Ancient Roots, Modern Meaning". Afterward, someone approached me with a good question. While she praised the excellent presentations, she wondered why no one had cited Abraham Joshua Heschel.

She was right to wonder. Certainly, Heschel's The Sabbath was written to address the modern meaning of Shabbat. His ideas are deep, his writing is grand. So why wasn't he cited? I told her, "I think many don't know what to make of him."

I certainly did not mean this as an insult to Heschel; how could I judge anyone, let alone someone who wrote so meaningfully and about whom I know so little? I was simply describing a reality: Abraham Joshua Heschel's work generally does not appear in Orthodox yeshivot. Separate from his personal religious practices, he taught at Hebrew Union College and the Jewish Theological Seminary, the chief ordaining bodies of the Reform and Conservative movements, and to many this means that holding him up as an authority would promote movements which are at odds with Orthodoxy on fundamental issuesof belief and law.

One could no more expect Orthodoxy to endorse JTS and HUC than one could expect Lakewood to endorse someone like me, who represents university education and Zionism, or expect me to endorse Neturei Karta, which represents virulent anti-Zionism.

But the reality is not as simple as "Teach at JTS/HUC and the yeshivot will exclude you."

Consider the case of Shaul Lieberman – erudite talmid chacham, writer of important works on Tosefta and Yerushalmi, among others. And he taught at JTS, and he authored the controversial "Lieberman clause" addendum to the ketubah. In some Israeli yeshivot he is studied, and some sefarim quote his work. With Shaul Lieberman, teaching at a non-Orthodox rabbinical seminary was not enough to put him beyond everyone's pale.

And then consider the case of Shlomo Carlebach – a reputed talmid chacham, although best known for his music, which is sung in Orthodox shuls and yeshivos. But he was also the founder of the "House of Love and Prayer" in San Francisco, and his well-established reputation includes behavior with women which is certainly prohibited by halachah and which some might include in the category of yeihareg v'al yaavor.

So why is much of the Orthodox establishment comfortable having Carlebach in, ambiguous on Lieberman, and negative on Heschel?

Is one "in" because he publishes classic Torah scholarship (Lieberman), or because he is endorsed by Orthodox leaders (Carlebach – and Lieberman, according to some stories), or because his sins are not viewed as undermining general Orthodoxy (Carlebach)?

Is one "out" because he supports non-Orthodox institutions (Lieberman, Heschel), because his published canon focusses on spirituality rather than traditional text (Heschel) or because he has a falling-out with an Orthodox leader (Lieberman)?

Is the decision based on the actions of the individual, or the individual's potential threat to the institution that is Orthodoxy?

The practices of exclusion are not that interesting to me, but the question of how people choose definitely interests me.

Sunday, July 15, 2012

Of shul rabbis and school tuitions

In a recent column on the Tuition Crisis, Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein discussed the strife generated by tuition inequality, including the following thought a day school parent might have:
If a shul hires a new rov, why should his four children be entitled to any tuition assistance, when it translates into a demand on the baal habos who does not even daven in his shul? Should it not be the responsibility of the shul to pay salaries that will allow the rov to pay his tuition obligation without thrusting him upon a small group from whom it is demanded that they foot the bill?

For the record: I don't think schools should offer shul rabbis (or community rabbis) automatic tuition assistance. Certainly, the rabbi helps the school. And certainly, the rabbi is there to serve the community. Nonetheless, the school is providing the great service of educating the rabbi's children, and the rabbi should pay them for it, just as others do.

And I say this as someone who just made out his checks for next year's shul dues, and tuition for four kids…

Friday, July 13, 2012

Could we be inspired by Sean O'Connor?

Our thoughts during the run-up to Tisha b'Av are all about shalom and chesed, ways we can help each other and avoid sinat chinam (baseless hatred) and build community. To a certain extent, the drumbeat is so consistent that we run the risk of thinking we already know all there is to know about kindness and doing for others.

That's why I appreciate the story of Scott Widak, a 47-year old man with Down's Syndrome and terminal liver disease, whose nephew, Sean O'Connor, posted a Reddit message asking people to send his uncle mail because "one of his favorite things to do is open mail."

As CBS tells it, he has now received more than 1,000 letters and packages, postcards and gifts.

To a certain extent, it is easier to help someone we've never met. There's no long-term obligation. There is no existing framework to dampen our creativity. There is no baggage or resentment from external factors.

Still: If so many people could do this for someone they never met, what creative ways could we devise to help those we know?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Jewish Exceptionalism

Being a rather self-centred minority [and what minority isn't?], Jews display a sense that we are exceptional in more than just our mission. We tend to assume that our foibles are Jewish-specific, as though we were the only neurotic, guilt-ridden people living in patriarchal societies dominated by women, chronically showing up late, spending as little as possible, and so on.

Some of us were disabused of this notion of ethnic exceptionalism by the movie My Big Fat Greek Wedding; I understand that one could have substituted "Jewish" for "Greek" and most of the jokes would still have made sense. But the confused sense of our own quirkiness remains for many of us.

So it is, for example, that Jews are wont to joke ad nauseam about the phenomenon of Jews schisming and opening new houses of worship at the drop (or donning) of a hat, but apparently Asians have a saying about Koreans and their church schisms, "When two Japanese meet, they set up a business firm; when two Chinese meet, they open a Chinese restaurant; and when two Koreans meet, they establish a church." [See also Eui Hang Shin and Hyung Park, An Analysis of Causes of Schisms in Ethnic Churches, Sociological Analysis 49:3 (1988).]

And so it is that Jews joke about "Jewish time" being behind the rest of the world, but searching for "Asian Time" at the Urban Dictionary yields:
The phenomenon of adding 30 minutes to the local (Zulu) time of the observer's location.
During event planning, care must be taken to analyze each party's inherent participation in said phenomenon, adjusting the allotted preset time (+30 minutes) to vary according to transportation, clothing, hygiene, and facial appearance preparations. This can affect arrival times to an event by as much as +45 or reduce the Asian Time to only +15, but never eliminate it.
The primary victim of this phenomenon must consider the implications of Asian Time and the effects of his/her decisions.
"We've said to meet up at the cafe at 8am, but I'm guessing they will show up at 0830 because they run on Asian Time."

And so it is that we - and the world - talk about Jews being cheap, but it appears that the Scotsman takes the cake for frugality. [Look at that link, and then ask yourself what would have happened, had Studebaker-Packard made a stripped-down car called "The Jew"!]

What does it all mean? Not a whole lot; just saying.

Monday, July 9, 2012

How I managed to say Baruch sheP'tarani

I was nervous in the days leading up to my son's bar mitzvah, but the tension wasn't about how he would do with the Torah reading, or whether we would have enough food for guests. I was nervous in the way many of us become nervous before Rosh HaShanah, and Pesach. Here my oldest child was reaching the age of halachic independence, when he would now be expected to fend for himself in the world of religious education – and I knew I had not prepared him adequately. And I don't mean "run a household" adequately, I mean "live a teenage life" adequately.

Does he know the laws of hefsek [appropriate and inappropriate interruption] in davening?
How complete is his knowedge of berachos for food and scent?
Could he check lettuce properly, left to his own devices?
Does he understand the nuances of yichud, kol isha, kiruv basar (aka negiah)?
Does he now what he may and may not do if his clothing becomes dirty on Shabbos?
And so on.

Like someone who knows he has not yet atoned for every sin of the past year at the end of Elul… Like a homeowner who can't shake the feeling that there must be some chametz, somewhere… I knew that I hadn't set up my son with the full knowledge of halachah he should have had.

[Yes, I am fully aware that most kids don't reach 12/13 with that knowledge. No, that provides no comfort.]

Chinuch continues after the child reaches maturity [although the precise halachic definition of the mitzvah is unclear to me]. After all, Bava Basra 21a describes parents in the period of the second Beis haMikdash sending their children to school, for the first time, at the age of 16 or 17. But still – am I not obligated to make sure my child will be capable of functioning on his own by that age?

With all of this in my head, I couldn't look at "Baruch shep'tarani" with anything less than revulsion. "ברוך שפטרני מענשו שלזה Baruch shep'tarani mei'onsho shelazeh" is the blessing recited by many when their sons reach the age of bar mitzvah; it translates to, "Blessed is the One who has exempted me from this one's punishment." With this berachah, we declare that the child is now "on his own", responsible for himself.

[The questions of where this berachah comes from, whether to use Gd's Name, whether to recite it for daughters and whether mothers should say it, are all beyond the scope of this post. Google them.]

So how could I say this berachah? But did I really want to make a halachic statement by declining to say it? [No, in case you were curious.]

Fortunately, on Shabbos morning I had an insight which changed my way of looking at the berachah. As we have discussed before [such as here], I believe that parenting teens requires greater tzimtzum, ratcheting down the direct instruction and substituting more subtlety. Now I looked at the berachah in that way: A reminder that my son was entering a new stage, and that my role would change as well.

It's not the literal meaning of the berachah, but given the odd pedigree of the berachah in the first place, I was good with that, and able to proceed.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Z'morta T'hei - The Bentcher is here!

Here is the current version of the birkon which the Rebbetzin and I prepared for our son's Bar Mitzvah this Shabbos. It's meant to be printed on paper which is 7 inches tall, 6.7 inches wide. [For the backstory on why we decided to create a birkon, click here.]

Among the 'upgrades' we hope to create for a future edition:
Al haMichyah
A halachah/guidance section in the back
More songs

We view the birkon as a work in progress; your comments would be more than welcome.

Thursday, July 5, 2012

The strategy of self-delusion

[If this sounds familiar, see the end of the post...]

A while back, a friend told me that he is a “last-minute type of person.” I wonder, though; maybe he's just lazy and irresponsible, and until he stops deceiving himself about it he won’t be able to change. [Of course, maybe he's facing a more serious biological/psychological hurdle; this post is not addressing that kind of situation.]

I see two steps in this sort of self-deception:
1) Transform the negative behavior from an action into a character trait;
2) Find positive language to express it

Herewith some examples of “thinking positively” in order to fool ourselves:
I don’t fail to respond to email in a timely fashion; I’m an “old-fashioned letter-writer”.
I don’t refuse to give tzedakah; I’m “careful with my philanthropy”.
I don’t waffle; I’m “sympathetic to all perspectives”.
I don’t attack other people ad hominem; I just “get carried away in my passion”.
I don’t speak insensitively; I “shun political correctness”.

Imagine if the villains of the Torah could have used this method:
Pharaoh didn’t deny Divine authority - he was “Type A”.
Bilaam didn’t sell himself to the highest bidder - he was a “money player”.
Haman didn’t try to destroy the Jews in revenge for Mordechai’s disrespect - he was “an aggressive kind of guy”.
Mahmoud Ahmedinajad isn’t anti-Jewish - he just believes strongly in his cultural values.

This brand of positive self-redefinition is like the software programmer’s trick of labelling a bug a “design feature.” We avoid self-awareness, and we avoid apologizing and having to change, by re-labelling our weaknesses as character traits.

Where does this come from? The art of the cover-up often starts with parents and teachers and sympathetic friends, who use this method to avoid offering honest criticism. “He’s really a good guy, he just…” “My son is great at ____, he just ….”

Of course, if you lie only to yourself and don’t let it affect social behavior, that’s only your problem, and you can limit the fallout. Had Kayin kept his delusions to himself (“I’m not failing to give my best crops; I’m careful with my philanthropy”), Hevel would have survived.

But self-delusion is rarely a bloodless sport, because we live in a world of other human beings with whom we interact, and who are affected by the negative traits we conceal from ourselves. Shuls, community organizations, businesses, book clubs, we all depend on other people to function responsibly and productively, and when people turn a blind eye to their own character defects, the world suffers.

But no, the answer isn’t for us clear-sighted people to go around highlighting everyone else’s flaws. Somehow, I don’t think תוכחה of “You’re not a last-minute type of person, you’re lazy,” or even something more mild, is really going to inspire change in all but a masochistic few.

No, the answer, as always, is to start by working on ourselves.

Too bad I don’t have any problematic traits to change.

[I originally posted this four years ago, but only had two comments, both from people I don't see around here anymore, so I figure it's legitimate for re-posting in a week when I shouldn't be spending time on new posts...]

Wednesday, July 4, 2012

T minus 3 days...

... to the Bar Mitzvah.

The boy knows his parshah and haftorah, and has written his dvar torah, thank Gd.

The Birchon/Birkon is complete, and at the printer. We've already found five errors, but it's too late now.

The name of said Birchon/Birkon is זמורתא תהא; like it?

The plans for Friday airport pickups are more-or-less set, until the inevitable delays throw everything off.

Hosting is all set; people here have been wonderfully generous with their homes, I'm glad to say.

My suit is home from the shaatnez-checker at last, all clean.

I have moved the dozens of sefarim which reside on various pieces of furniture [because they are too restless for our ubiquitous bookcases, apparently] to an undisclosed location to ride out the storm.

The esteemed Rebbetzin is juggling the table assignments for meals.

I've been having a hard time with liquor selection for the kiddush. I'm against the whole idea of a shul drinking culture in the first place, but the point of a kiddush is to celebrate with the community, and this is the community's practice, so I'm going with it. But I really dislike the whole drinking culture. We're also putting out a lot of grape juice.

I'm thrilled that we have quite a few friends from our Allentown and Rhode Island communities coming in; for this alone, any tircha is worthwhile.

T minus 3 days...

Monday, July 2, 2012

Is Artscroll's Assistance Anti-Semitic?

A frequent visitor to my shul in Allentown was wont to label ArtScroll "Anti-Semitic". His claim was straightforward: Siddurim and Chumashim offering copious instructions, simplified translations and Reader’s Digest commentary result in a dumbing-down of the Jewish community.

His comments remind me of my first experience leading a Rosh HaShanah minyan. I was guest-rabbi for an auxiliary minyan in a flagship Centrist Orthodox synagogue, and I was told that my job included announcing page numbers throughout the long chazarat hashatz (repetition of the amidah).

I asked my rebbe whether announcing pages might constitute an interruption in the davening, and he replied that it probably would constitute such an interruption; he felt that most people don’t really need the page number announcements.

Over the years since, though, I've learned that many people like those at that minyan, even with yeshiva education, really have needed page number announcements for parts of Rosh haShanah and Yom Kippur, and even for parts of the Shabbos davening.

And so I would myself over the years: Should I force them to figure out the page numbers themselves? Am I contributing to the collective dumbing-down by announcing pages for them?

As on so many issues, I think the answer is both Black and White.

It's Black: Some Jews need the page numbers, and won't follow the davening without them. For many under-educated Jews, the alternative to these boosts is to do nothing at all. If they were unable to follow, they would tune out. To take the “shul as a business” analogy I find useful on occasion: The demand for our product is not so great that we can afford to place hurdles before the consumer.

And it's White: For other Jews, this is a dumbing-down that keeps them from learning for themselves. The result of this calculation is that the least common denominator group gets its accessible davening, but the rest, who don’t really need that assistance, are not challenged to exceed themselves. This is not a good thing.

Still, I would suggest that there are other ways to challenge this group of Jews who do not need page numbers announced, who do not need simple translations, etc:
We can encourage them to work on their chesed and their understanding of כל ישראל ערבין זה בזה (the responsibility we have for each other) by finding ways to help their under-educated neighbors.
We can offer them advanced shiurim, dvar torah sheets, etc.
We can challenge them to set up chavrusas, with whom they will learn more than they could ever learn from a shiur (yes, even one of my vaunted shiurim).

I think the page numbers, translations and abridged commentaries must remain. To borrow from Vayyikra 25:25 - “If your brother should become impoverished and sell his inheritance, then his close relative shall come and redeem his brother’s sale.” Our brethren, by unavoidable circumstance or by sale or by incompetence, have lost their inheritance. It is our responsibility to redeem it and return it to them.