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Still Scorchin' after all these weeks.


More on Usurious Bank Practices

Washington Post yesterday stated that Congress will pass legislation that will halt the practice of automatic overdrafts from debit cards. Consumers will no longer be clobbered with huge "fees" (read penalties) for being a penny overdrawn. People should not let this fall by the wayside and let the Congress know that consumers need to be protected.


Begging Forgiveness: Do It For Yourself

Too often the perfunctory request for forgiveness is only offered to those of whom we are guaranteed a positive outcome, but, in fact, have not seriously wronged at all.

I offer the following story. A close friend whom I wished to visit because my family was away had told me not to come because a mutual friend was visiting and basically two was company and three was a crowd. It seems my observant lifestyle would have cramped whatever style he had envisioned for the weekend. I immediately wrote a letter saying how upset, hurt I was that somehow our being together was less important than how we might have spent the time. If this was an indication of our friendship, then there really wasn't much friendship at all.

What did I want from that letter? I wanted a response, and as each year, each birthday went by and no response was forthcoming, I came to the realization that what I had written seemed to be true. He didn't really care, and that hurt worse that the previous rejection.

One day, five years later, a letter arrived in the mail (this was a long time ago!) from my friend who apologized not only for what had happened, but for why it had taken him so long to respond. He had had a dream recently that included me, both of us looking for someone's house that we couldn't find. The following day he picked up a random book at a new age book store and it happened to be my translation of Sharre Orah that had recently been published. When he saw my name on the cover, the signs could not be ignored and, finally, he felt impelled to write a letter.

It was clear that I, too, had been waiting lo these many years for that letter. I wrote him back immediately, and he came to visit me for a few days soon after. This is not the end of the story. The visit was not a great one. The memories of our friendship were not rekindled in the present. After the visit, we didn't manage to keep in touch, and years have since gone by without us being in contact.

Once, I got a call from a mutual friend that David was having a special birthday and his girlfriend was organizing a special party and she had requested messages from people who were important to his past. Without hesitation, I sent a message, happy to modestly contribute to this celebration. I received a response, but there was no subsequent correspondence.

David's visit had filled a hole that was in my heart. His acknowledgement that he had been bothered by the way we left things allowed us to discover whether we should be friends based on who we were now and not on what we had done to each other. The hurt went away and I can fondly remember the times we had together.

The point is that fixing what we have done wrong does not have to end in some kind of grand epiphany, but your last memory of someone who once mattered to you, should not be one of disappointment and hurt. People should be able to reclaim the moments when they mattered to each other. It is worth the risk of rejection to try and do this.

It was true that because I had already approached him and been open about how offended and disturbed I was that it was up to him to respond. We don't always get a nudge from a dream and a chance encounter with a book, and we shouldn't need it.

How many Yom Kippurs need to elapse, before we free ourselves from the shackles of our own design. The Mishnah says: Transgressions between people cannot be atoned until one has mollified the injured party. These pains last for years. They don't go away until they are addressed, and even if the outcome isn't dramatic, or even positive, knowing that an effort was put forth, takes the burden off you and places it on the injured party.

The Mishnah says once one has apologized three times, the injured party carries the sin--and carry it, he will.

Please, don't let another Yom Kippur go by. Do yourself a favor.


Haredi woman dies leaving behind over 1400 descendants

Rachel Krishevsky died at the age of 99 leaving over 1400 direct descendants behind. It is stunning to realize that having lived a long life one could leave an auditorium full of family behind. This is the idealism of a community who consider children a joy and a mitzvah. She lived near the shuk in Machaneh Yehuda, and I am certain her loving home didn't have much space, but her children didn't seem to mind. They opted to continue the tradition and had large families of their own.

There were many positive responses to the Shoah. A Jewish army is one, but this too, is an answer that is worth contemplating and appreciating.


Joe Wilson the New Abbie Hoffman, Irony and the Enigmas of Derech Eretz

In the Ordeal of Civility, John Murray Cuddihy's book on the reasons for the Jewish disproportionate intellectual impact on the twentieth century, he recalls the antics of Abbie Hoffman in Judge Julius Hoffman's court. Abbie was repeatedly held in contempt for calling the judge "Julie". Cuddihy noted that to be held in contempt was to be held in contempt of the civility of the court. He wryly pointed out that the Judge was a yekke, a German Jew, while Abbie came from the ostjuden, the prost (vulgar, common) Galician Jews, and that was the subtext of their conflict.

Now, the hippies of congress are the southern republicans, challenging the legitimacy of these hallowed halls by disruptive uncivil behavior that makes light of protocol and house rules. The yekkes are the democrats who decry the feisty ridicule of their President and their party. It is a bit ironic, isn't it? Look who is challenging the foundations of this country now? Except the issue is not the war in Vietnam, but...health care, and guns.

There is no simple term for civility in the Talmud, although the one often used is Derech Eretz which literally means "The Way of the Land". In its earliest usage the phrase meant an occupation. "The study of Torah goes well with Derech Eretz, (an occupation)" In other contexts, it is broadened to include ways to behave while one is out in the world. When God visits Abraham after his circumcision, the Torah is letting us know that visiting the sick is a nice thing to do.

Civility is not mandated, but suggested by God's example. The Midrash Tanchuma notices that the daily Succot sacrifices decrease in number, unlike the daily Passover sacrifices that stay the same throughout the seven day festival. The Midrash explains: Ths teaches derech eretz. It's like when you have a guest, the first day you feed him chicken, the next day fish, the next day vegetables until finally, you feed him beans.

In other words, the Torah is giving a tip on how to gently unload a freeloading guest, letting him know that he has overstayed his welcome. Derech Eretz does literally mean, "the way of the land", the way one gets along in the world. One is required to work, to get along with others, and to either understand or provide social cues. Civility is not singled out because it is intertwined with the whole business of living. All of these components are equal partners in how to get along in a balanced way.

Derech Eretz means how your time should be occupied when engaged in society. The uncivil upset the tenuous rules, the code that allows us to not only get along, but to go along. They challenge these restrictions and upset our foundations because they hold them in contempt. They either wish to make the land go a new way, or they simply love the attention they get from being naughty. Those impervious to Derech Eretz are always upsetting to those who are happy with the status quo.

Abbie Hoffman wouldn't have been entirely displeased with the redneck Woodstock in Washington last weekend. Sometimes this is really a whacky place!


The Parchments are Burning: A memorial service for the victims of September 11th

On the first anniversary of the fall of the towers, I, along with my intern (now, Rabbi) Elliot Kaplowitz created a memorial service that was used by Hillels and synagogues throughout the country. The graphic design was created by the incomparable Maria Radacsi. Nowadays, our students have no memory of that chaotic, horrific day. It's worth a look, so if you are so inclined, Parchments are Burning: A September 11th Memorial Service ">

Why Don't We let the Banker Beware Instead of the Buyer

Yesterday, I read an article in The New York Times that made my blood boil. It is well known that Jewish Law and American business practice do not see eye to eye on whose responsible for making sure that merchants charge a fair price for their wares. The Mishnah in Bava Metziya makes it clear that the responsibility falls on the merchant to be within one sixth of the market value of a particular item, while American business invokes caveat emptor "let the buyer beware". This, however, is what happens when you rely on the foxes to guard the chicken coop.

When Peter Means returned to graduate school after a career as a civil servant, he turned to a debit card to help him spend his money more carefully.

So he was stunned when his bank charged him seven $34 fees to cover seven purchases when there was not enough cash in his account, notifying him only afterward. He paid $4.14 for a coffee at Starbucks — and a $34 fee. He got the $6.50 student discount at the movie theater — but no discount on the $34 fee. He paid $6.76 at Lowe’s for screws — and yet another $34 fee. All told, he owed $238 in extra charges for just a day’s worth of activity.

Mr. Means, who is 59 and lives in Colorado, figured employees at his bank, Wells Fargo, would show some mercy since each purchase was less than $12. In addition, a deposit from a few days earlier would have covered everything had it not taken days to clear. But they would not budge.

Wells Fargo Bank is sleazier than those check cashing store fronts that charge high fees for getting your own money. At least they tell the customer what their charging up front. In this case Mr. Means finds out only after the fact that his "overdraft protection" was costing him five times as much as his purchase. Also, his sin is in not realizing that a deposit had yet to clear--not that he had insufficient funds.

Worse yet, is the exploitation of those who use debit cards in favor of credit cards. These are people who are trying to be fiscally responsible by paying as they go, instead of accruing heaps of credit card debt. Their reward is to be clobbered by usurious stealth interest under the guise of penalties--or overdraft "protection".

How do banks defend this practice?

Some experts warn that a sharp reduction in overdraft fees could put weakened financial institutions out of business.

Michael Moebs, an economist who advises banks and credit unions, said Ms. Maloney’s legislation would effectively kill overdraft services, causing an estimated 1,000 banks and 2,000 credit unions to fold within two years. That is because 45 percent of the nation’s banks and credit unions collect more from overdraft services than they make in profits, he said.

Oh, poor baby! Now, we know the truth. Your local neighborhood bank is nothing more than a check cashing storefront masquerading as a respectable institution. They now rely on fees from the more vulnerable in society in order to stay in business. Charging exorbitant fees is a no-risk proposition that allows banks to fund adventurous mortgages that also exploit the poor.

The Torah understood loaning as a means for helping people out of difficult circumstances and therefore eschewed the practice of charging interest. The world could not tolerate this level of idealism, so that the practice of charging interest is reluctantly allowed under Jewish law, but now one can see the perversity of putting a price on money, and the consequences for those who play by the rules. It seems a no brainer that charging these fees would be halachically prohibited. I don't know if I'm more upset by the practice, or by the sneakiness of so called respectable institutions.

I once heard a lawyer joke, but it seems more appropriate for bankers these days. "What's the difference between a banker and a rooster? A rooster clucks defiant..."

There's a special place in hell for these people.


Lust One In Smells the Rotten Egg: Elazar Ben Dordia and the Flatulent Harlot

There is a popular Talmudic narrative that probably owes its prominence to its lurid (at least to Western ears) content. It is the dramatic story of Elazar Ben Dordia who was governed by his lust for harlots to the point that once he traveled seven rivers to sample the favors of a prostitute who was renowned for her "skills". During their moment of intimacy, she broke wind, and told him, "Just like this gas will not return to its original place, so too, Elazar will not be returned and atoned." At this point Elazar, struck by the poignancy (and the pungent nature) of this statement asks the mountains, the constellations, the heavens and earth to advocate on his behalf, but he is refused by all. He realizes that it is up to him alone, and his remorse for the wasteful life he has led ends up killing him. A heavenly voice welcomes Rabbi Elazar Ben Dordaya to the world to come.

The context of the story is a discussion of whether one can return from being an idolater and live. The Talmud concludes that if one has provocatively and willfully engaged in this ultimate betrayal, the return from it would be so perilous that the process itself would be fatal. The Talmud then asks whether the same would hold true for other sins, or is it only idolatry that exacts such a price. The answer given is that one does not die from turning away from sins. The Talmud challenges this answer by relating the aforementioned story where it seems that the process of turning away from sin did in fact take Elazar Ben Dordaya's life. The Talmud answers that because he was so profoundly addicted to this behavior, his devotion to these base desires was tantamount to idolatry. In other words, abject and fatalistic submission to any desire is as false of a god as one can have.

It is presumed in this passage that all desires have the potential to govern one's life, but that acts of will can conquer and even transform those desires. The first step is to acknowledge, like Elazar does that it is no use appealing to others when in the end, it is we who have control.

The Maharal of Prague points out that Elazar's last name "Dordia" means dregs in Aramaic. He says it is indicative of how out of control he was. His first name El-Azar means literally that God will help, so his name personifies the struggle of being helped out of the dregs, the misery of not being in control of your desires. Once we are so out of control that we worship that which is antithetical to our well-being then the return is so perilous that survival is not possible. The narrative witnesses that everyone is redeemable, but not everyone survives the redemption.

But since redemption, is the preferred goal over survival, even this story might be considered optimistic. When Elazar Ben Dordia is through asking for support from those things that were here before he was and will certainly outlive him, he is thwarted in his efforts. It is then he says: אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי (This process depends on me alone).

It is a sobering message to realize that we are responsible, but an empowering one as well.

There may always be french fries, and they may be engineered to be addictive and tempting, but we don't have to eat them. That does not exonerate the complicity of the food industry, but focusing on the battle that is won more handily, the one between the fries and our bellies, may be a better use of time.


Make French Fries Treif!!! That's What the Former FDA Chief says! (Well kind of)

The Diane Rehm Show interviewed the former head of the FDA, David Kessler who has just written a book entitled The End of Overeating. His thesis is that eating is a salient stimulus that is hardwired into our brains. It is not something we can unlearn, but we can create "new wiring" that will mitigate the unhealthy impulse to overeat. Eating is different than other "addictions" because we actually need to eat, unlike needing to smoke or drink alcohol.

In the middle of the interview, Kessler opined that people have to adhere to absolutes regarding unhealthy foods. One cannot hardwire a brain to eat some french fries. Once that door is opened, the old wiring takes over and three fries turn into thirty-three before one can murmur "supersize me". In other words, you have to make french fries treif!

The Rambam argues, echoing the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot that one does not eradicate desire, but one can conquer it, channel it so that it serves a higher purpose. One can and should resist the impure impulses, but he doesn't seem to think that it is possible to eradicate them. There will always be a struggle between what we want and what we should do, but it is a struggle where we believe we can prevail--most of the time.

The Hasidic masters believed that it was possible not only to conquer these desires but to transform them so completely that the desire was no longer there. Our souls can become so much closer to the Divine source that the base "natural" desires are no longer an impediment to reaching this potential.

The Hasidic rewiring allows for a new brain every Yom Kippur, while the Rambam encourages a new resolve for the old brain to behave better, and do what it has always been capable of, and always will be. He assumes that some people will need to engage in extreme denial for a period of time, but the goal is to get to the place where one moderates behaviors that are detrimental when overdone--like overeating.

Kessler says that may not be possible when it comes to compulsive eaters. They need to create new taboos in their head that will make them turn up their nose at those salient stimulators. In other words, those foods (and you know what they are) need to become as treif as bacon and elicit the same level of disgust. For those of us who have never partaken of certain foods, it is not difficult to refrain from eating them, but I am told by those who once ate them, but now don't, that the desire lingers. It is just that they have rewired a new "taboo" that prevents them from going down that road.

The problem with applying a kashrut mentality to unhealthy foods is that these foods are more unhealthy for some than for others. There is less of an objective standard, but there is little argument that the world would be a healthier place without the provision of large portions of fat and sugar laden foods that are engineered for everyone to eat more than they should.

Kessler argues that just as tobacco went from being socially acceptable/desirable to being uncool, the same thing has to be done to certain foods as a first step. Many of the Jewish community have taken on the mantle of extending the definition of treif to unfair labor practices, industries that are ecologically insensitive, and the like. There has not been, however, the same outcry regarding industries that stuff our stomachs and psyches with murderous doses of sugar, fat, and salt in super-sizes. Isn't this a more direct and immediate threat to our personal well-being? I mean, it's killing us now--isn't it?

It's not likely that such a movement will emerge, nor is it necessarily desirable, but if one does wish to take control over these appetites, you might want to do what Kessler suggests, and for observant Jews, that means--make them treif!


Quote of the Day...from the Talmud

Rava said: Length of days, fertility, and income are not the products of merit, but of mazel. For look at Raba and Rav Hisda both of whom were righteous men.

When either of them prayed, the rains came.

Rav Hisda lived to be ninety-two.

Raba lived to be forty...(Moed Katan 28a)

Each day brings new possibilities, but each day is a gift.


The Good One Who Ran Away: Ode to Bongo Barry

A childhood friend died suddenly and his untimely demise evoked speculation from which a subtle undercurrent of panic could be felt among his contemporaries. "He was overweight." "His family had a history of heart disease." Somehow, these reasons were supposed to immunize we, the fifty somethings, from a similar fate. Nobody wants to be cheated out of his three score and ten, so we blame the victim. Deep down inside, we know the truth--it could be any one of us at any time. After all, there are plenty of fat, old people. I, unfortunately, am not able to mollify myself with rationalizations that have little bearing on reality. When it's your turn, it's your turn, and it often--more often than not--feels too soon.

His was a life filled with celebration, music, and children. He was a music therapist/performer who brought a sense of celebration to the Dewey Decimal System, the anatomy of ants, and the art of drumming. He was beloved by the local community of musicians and they showed up in great numbers to celebrate all that he had achieved with children, with his persona, and with his craft.

I knew Barry from my synagogue youth group. He was younger and was always pleased to be with one of the older guys. Growing up in an almost exclusively Jewish millieu, he was a typical product of Jewish American suburban culture, but in young adulthood he became so profoundly alienated from the Judaism of his youth, that Judaism and his Jewishness played the most minor of roles during his funky, eclectic memorial service. No kaddish, no burial, only the slightest acknowledgement of those who almost exclusively nurtured him through high school.

One could ask why I went only to see the tradition I revere, snubbed in such an overt fashion. I went because his eighty year old mother is still alive and I knew she would get comfort from seeing some of his old friends come to pay their respects. She did. Barry intermarried, and he succeeded in freeing his daughters of the Jewish baggage that he wished to leave behind. More than I blame him. I blame us.

Even though there are many ways to be a Jew, membership to any part of the Jewish community comes with a hefty price tag, and too often, the materialism and pretension that comes with it. Barry made a choice to live through music, and certainly there were sacrifices that attend such a decision. We as a community let him know in many ways that these are choices that a Jew shouldn't make. He shouldn't help autistic children. He shouldn't be silly at libraries creating cacophonous symphonies of percussive sound to the delight of young and old. This may be a way to work ones way through college, but this is not a path for a grown man to make a living.

His communities were those who made similar choices. Those who were fulfilled by entertaining, educating and supporting the most vulnerable in our society. Those who somehow manage to feed their families by doing what they love. Such conviction takes courage not appreciated by those who make "great" livings doing something they hate.

That Barry found little resonance in Jewish symbols, Jewish traditions, Jewish song and dance and celebration is not entirely our fault, but I can't help but wonder what a little appreciation and acceptance might have done, not only for him, but for us as well. Certainly, he could have found company with those Jewey Jews who have maintained the spirit of the sixties throughout their lives, but why seek out that which you feel you already know and don't much care for?

The Jewish vacuum at his memorial service meant we missed the scores of children's performances and songs. We missed drum circles with a Jewish vibe. Songs that taught the holidays in our Hebrew schools. We missed somehow, a spirit that grew up among us and saw little of value to take with him. He bears some responsibility for this, but, then again, so do we.

Lech B'Shalom Barry. I'm sorry we missed you.


Elul, Teshuva, & Teddy Kennedy

If you look at my mother's library, you can't help but notice the many shelves of Kennedy memorablilia. JFK's assassination kept my mother in bed for days. Teddy's death marked an end of an era not only for them, but for her.

I haven't had much interest in the Kennedys over the years, but the stories I've been reading over the past few days belie the feigned disinterest I have managed to cultivate. I, too, more than I care to admit, am a loyal subject of Camelot.

He was the most layered of individuals. His appetites and his flaws were fodder for the mainstream media and the tabloids, but few would define him only by his sins. Moreover, his last seventeen years of devoted public service illustrated that people can change, grow, and bring honor and respect after a tawdry, and somewhat dengenerate past. His, was an almost wasted life, but ultimately redeemed by the best parts of him.

Over and over again, the papers recount stories of his concern for individuals, their families, and the loyalty that inspired. One such instance was recalled on NPR by Boris Katz, an MIT professor. Boris was a refusenik in Soviet Russia over thirty years ago. His daughter, Jessica, was a toddler with a serious disease that was beyond the expertise of the Soviet medical system. Dr. Katz demonstrated in front of Red Square to bring international attention to his plight.

One night at 1 o'clock in the morning, he was alerted to expect a visitor. Teddy Kennedy was at his door accompanied by KGB agents and Soviet officials. Once inside, Kennedy told his "escorts" that they could leave now, which--, to the astonishment of Boris--they did! Days after that Kennedy visit, Boris was granted permission to emigrate to the United States, and the first person to greet him on the tarmac, was Teddy Kennedy.

Daughter Jessica was recently married and works for the city of New York, helping find housing for the disabled. Boris attributes her interest in public service to the events that brought her to the United States. The interviewer wondered whether he had the opportunity to ask the Senator why he had taken such a personal interest in his plight. He said he never did, but he knew the answer.

"He was one of those rare individuals who truly cared about others."

He understood deeply that during times of trial is when people feel, not only to be vulnerable, but invisible. Not to personally acknowledge their suffering and offer comfort exacerbates the loneliness of afflictions. His acute awareness of this made him seize every opportunity to bring comfort to others. The caring for individuals suffering, whatever their ailments, were as important to him as any major policy issue in congress, and the personal testimony of scores of people attest to that.

It is these stories that illustrate where I often fall short, and has led me to resolve to do better. This was Teddy's Elul legacy to me for which I am chastened and grateful.


What physicians once were and what they may not be now.

I am old enough to remember house calls from my pediatrician, Dr. Pakula who called me "Johnson", and for some reason, I, as a small child thought this was hysterical. Dr. Pakula was part of our family. He entered rooms that were reserved for those with whom we were most intimate. He was privy to information that was not readily given to many who might be considered good friends. He knew us, he cared about us, and he was considered family. It would have been the most reasonable thing in the world to discuss end of life options with Dr. Pakula, because we trusted him.

Nowadays, avuncular images of the family doctor have been replaced with demonic apparitions of "death panels", and an innocuous piece of health care legislation that allows reimbursement for counseling becomes an ominous foreshadowing of bureaucrats cajoling the vulnerable and defenseless into dying "early".

It is too easy to only dismiss this hysteria of "death panels" as ignorant people being stirred up by demagogues, but the deeper fear, I feel is a true one. Anyone over fifty remembers a more personalized medicine that has eroded considerably over the years. Even though the statistics would tell us that we live longer and better than we did fifty years ago, our experience tells us that doctors cared about themselves a bit less and us a bit more. There was a time when they knew us better.

This impression will not show up in statistics, but our quality of life is ascertained by our quality of community. Now, nobody has a "family doctor", but a "general practitioner", the practice of which has become the most unattractive option for those entering the medical profession. It doesn't pay, and there is no time allocated by the insurance companies to develop relationships with patients.

The following Talmudic passage emphasizes the power and the limitation of healing, but more importantly, it underscores the profound impact of genuine concern and empathy.

Rabbi Elazar fell ill, and Rabbi Yochanan went up to him but he was obscured because the house was dark. When Yochanan revealed his arm, light fell from it. When Rabbi Elazar saw this he broke down and cried.

Rabbi Yochanan asked: Why are you crying? If it is because of the Torah you have not learned, isn’t it taught: One will learn much, one will learn littler, but most important is that one direct his heart toward heaven? If it is because of your income, not every individual merits both tables (the table of plenty and the table of Torah). If it is because of children that you have lost, here is the tooth of my tenth son.

He answered: I am crying for this beauty that will be ravaged by dust.

Yochanan responded: This is truly worth your tears.

Both of them then cried together!

After awhile Yochanan asked him: Are these afflictions dear to you?

He answered: Not them, nor their reward.

Then give me your hand. He gave him his hand and helped him stand.

The fear expressed by many is a veiled yearning for the days when the Dr. Pakulas were considered part of the family.

For the complete translation of this piece of Talmud click here.


Now Quentin Tarantino Gives His "Jewish Fantasy"

I can't see his movies. Once my brother took me to see Reservoir Dogs, and I spent too much time avoiding eye contact with the screen. I guess it was only a matter of time until, he reckoned with the ultimate horror of the twentieth century, and, of course, Jews are weighing in on whether he should or shouldn't have.

Tom Segev, in his history, 1949, The First Israelis, speculated that whatever Tarantino had in mind, there were Jews who would have and tried to do much worse. According to Segev, the well regarded Hebrew writer and poet, Abba Kovner had plotted to poison the water supply of Germany in 1945 to avenge the murder of the six million. Other accounts say that his plot was only directed at German POW's. Either way, the British were on to him and deported him to Egypt.

Kovner was unrepentant, and held the entire German people accountable for the murder of his people. In 1945, he wouldn't have shed a tear over the death of a German child. This was a visceral response rooted in a particular time under what were extaordinary circumstances. To revisit the moral implications of these actions from the comfort of our air conditioned homes would be obscene if it weren't so damn silly. The question isn't who are we to judge, but rather, who are we to have an opinion in the first place? And if we deign to have an opinion, who cares?

The Sages when offering triumphant Jewish stories under Roman occupation rarely speak in terms of physical triumphs, but moral triumphalism is the preferred medium for exacting vengeance. Hanina Ben Tradyon's executioner jumps in the fire with him, convinced of Rabbi Hanina's spiritual superiority. The materialists rejected this view as hollow and mourned the fact that Jews had become so passive thereby making Jewish blood such a cheap commodity.

Neither the spiritualists, nor the materialists had the whole story. While it is true, "That not with valor nor with might, but rather with My spirit..." (Zecharia 4:6) will we ultimately triumph. It is also true that when "someone actively pursues another to kill him, he should get up early and kill him first." (Sanhedrin 72a) For Kovner, the question was what to do if you failed to pre-empt the tragic consequence.

It's a question of balance.


Blame It On the iPhone

Some may have noticed that I have been posting less recently. There are three possible explanations:
  • I had a break from teaching for the last three weeks, and if I'm not teaching, I'm not learning.
  • I simply have nothing to say, but hope to have more to say soon.
  • I have recently purchased an iPhone which has me mesmerized with its apps, its packaging, and its ability to keep me in touch will all my email accounts, at all times.
I think the iPhone is making me stupider. My colleagues marvel at the promptness of my responses these days, but what they may not know, is that I'm using them as a pretext for perfecting the two thumb two step (touch?) of typing and texting. I know the day will come when I will resent this virtual ball and chain, just as the celebrity resents not being able to get a cup of coffee without being accosted, but for now, I have been ensorceled by the allure of this miniature marvel. It is a doomed relationship, but even brief passion is better than the numbness one now gets from one of those not so smart cell phones.

Oh, have to go, I heard a ding!


The Jewish and Academic Calendar

One of the great frustrations of anyone who observes the Jewish calendar are the conflicts that emerge when dealing with the secular rhythms of American life. The audible sigh of relief that the Chagim fall on weekends can be heard in many quarters.

It is curious that Jewish holidays are never on time. They are always early, or late. I've never heard it said that Rosh Hashanah is on time this year. Nevertheless, the Jewish new year is in sync with the academic calendar. Both begin the year at around the same time.

School starts usually in Elul, just when we are preparing ourselves for the New Year. It is the only time the academic and Jewish calendars coincide. I don't count Chanukah and xmas only because it was xmas that enhanced the importance of Chanukah. Certainly, there was nothing inherent in Chanukah that would make one take a break from school.

A major theme of Rosh Hashanah is that not only our community, but the entire world is being judged at this time. It is a season of new beginnings for the entire world community. Elul is a time to change patterns of behavior that have proven to be destructive just as the school year affords those opportunities. This type of personal work is much easier when the general culture is also beginning a new term. Let everyone see themselves as preparing for the first day of a brand new term.

It's a new semester folks, and change is possible.


Butter, the metaphorical toxin, with apologies to Julia Child

I have always been a firm believer in my own kind of alternative medicine. For sedation, when sleep may evade, my drug of choice is a mystery novel. Mostly, they are mediocre and have me asleep within a half an hour. On occasion, these "whodunits" will have the opposite effect, but at least I was entertained.

Often novels open up with a famous quotation meant to foreshadow the essence of the book. This time, the quotation alone was enough to get me out of bed and send me on a two hour odyssey of discovery. The verse in question was the twenty second verse from the fifty-fifth Psalm:
The words of his mouth were smoother than butter, but war was in his heart.
Midrash Tehilim assumes that the author King David is referring to the threat posed to his Kingdom by his son Absalom, and the treachery of their mutual advisor Achitophal whose words were "smoother than butter".

The Hebrew word for butter in this context is מחמאות and, to my knowledge, it is the only time it appears in Tanakh. In modern Hebrew, Machma'ah means a "compliment" without the pejorative connotation indicated in the verse. Compliments are suspect in Jewish tradition because they provide openings for negative comments.

For instance, I would say that Reuben is a wonderful dancer which allows someone to say, but his breath could knock a buzzard off a manure pile. Had I not offered the compliment, there would have been no opportunity to speak of Reuben's unfortunate halitosis.

Much of what passes for debate on health care is based on the suspicion that our silver tongued President has nefarious designs that are the opposite of what he is saying. We are being "buttered up"--a phrase which may very well come from this very verse--only to be consumed by death panels, interminable lines for urgent care under Dickensian conditions, and rationing. These complaints, however, seem to emerge from an agenda that has little in common with these fears. Certainly, duplicity is familiar territory for every politician. Even the President rations truth in the doses he deigns appropriate for we, the rabble.

More interesting is the understanding that the Biblical origin of מחמאות indicates that compliments are never seen as being free from ulterior motives and are intrinsically tainted with the disingenuous stain of hypocrisy. The fact that we crave them nonetheless says that we all want others to believe the lie about ourselves, especially when being praised by others.

As Rosh Chodesh Elul approaches, this is not the time to indulge in flattery, but in the painstaking scrutiny that can lead to change and possibly transformation. For more reasons than one, it is time to remove the "butter" from our spiritual recipes and see ourselves as clearly as we can.


The Gates of Wounded Feelings

The saga of the cop and the Harvard professor created an opportunity for yet another referendum on race in America. Widely regarded as a tempest in a teapot, why did it captivate the attention of so many? The Talmud has an answer.

One of the most well know Talmudic Aggadot, is the showdown between R. Eliezer Ben Hurcanus and the Sages, where in spite of all evidence to the contrary Rabbi Eliezer's opinion is thwarted and the sages prevail, even though a heavenly voice supported the opinion of Rabbi Eliezer. The epilogue for most readers occurs when Elijah the Prophet is found wandering around the marketplace and when asked what God was doing when the sages rejected His opinion with a prooftext from the Torah, He answered with a smile, "My children have defeated me, they beat me!"

This, however, is not the end of the story, nor is it the primary purpose of the editor of this chapter. Later on, Rabbi Eliezer, who was punished with a ban for being so defiant, took it so personally that a third of the wheat in the world was destroyed by the pain expressed from Rabbi Eliezer. Furthermore, it was Rabbi Eliezer's pain that brought on the demise of Rabban Gamliel.

What is learned from this?
"All the gates to God have been locked except for the gates of wounded feelings." (Bava Metziaya 59b)
The grievances of a working class Cambridge cop and a black, public intellectual, once again, opened the gates of wounded feelings, closing temporarily, the gates of the health care debate, the unemployment crisis and the billions of bonuses enjoyed by bloated deadbeat bankers. Instead, the nation's attention is preoccupied with the drinking habits of our nation's leaders as the media plumbs the socio-economic subtext of an arrest that shouldn't have happened.

The Mishnah in Perek Hazahav in Bava Metziya reminds us how devastating hurt feelings can be. The myth of "sticks and stones" is not something that ever made sense in Jewish tradition. Hurting someone with language is as tangible as cheating them financially. As the Mishnah states:
"Just as one can cheat a person in financial transactions, so too, one can cheat him with language alone."
For a look at some of the relevant verses, and the Mishnah that unpacks the potential destructive nature of language, click here.


Post Tisha B'Av Musings

Today, I was among over 80 attendees from many countries listening to Rabbi Brovender on webyeshiva.org. He elucidated a couple of kinot (liturgical poems of lamentation) and gave the following insight. When the Prophet Jeremiah in the fifth chapter of Lamentations, asks that God should "Remember what we once had", what is the Prophet assuming? That God can forget? What does it mean for God to remember, and what does that teach us about Jewish memory?

Going back to Noah, memory is also invoked. It says after the flood that "God remembered Noah". It wasn't like there were that many people around for Noah to get lost in the shuffle. So, what does memory mean in a Divine context. Rabbi Brovender then said, when the Prophet enjoins God to remember what we once had, he doesn't imply that God has forgotten. He is asking God to activate the dynamic of what once was that has presently been put on hold.

Similarly, in one of the kinot when it says that "God didn't remember the covenant with Avraham", it's not that God forgot, but rather that the process has been halted, and he petitions that the process be renewed.

As Faulkner once said: Not only is the past important, it's not even past.

The class was given in memory of my teacher and Rabbi Brovender's colleague and friend Rabbi Jay Miller. I think Rabbi Miller would have liked it.


Wolpe's Original Text on R. Yochanan and Resh Lakish

The text excerpted can be found in Jeffreygoldberg.theatlantic.com. Look in the archives for July 23rd.


"For me, Rabbis are just average Joes..."

Tablet.com has some insight and background into the Syrian Rabbinic Roundup this past week. They conducted an audio interview with Zev Chafets who wrote about the Syrian Jewish community for the NYT magazine a couple of years ago.

At one point, he was asked whether he was shocked that so many rabbis were included in the corruption scandal that has shaken New Jersey. His answer was that he had been a Jew for sixty-two years and from what he sees rabbis are just "average Joes" no more or less exemplary than those in the general community. When Chafets lived in Israel, he witnessed first hand the corruptions of the religious parties that were seemingly no worse, but no better than the Godless socialists. His remark saddened me because, he no longer has any expectations from the rabbinate and sees them as cynically exploiting their position for personal gain, just like so many others in power.

We rabbis should see ourselves as people who are less impressed with our position, but daunted and committed to the mission of serving the Jewish community and leading by example. Too often, many of us are more impressed with our position than the gravity of our mission. The fallout is total disregard for not only us, but the Torah we have learned, and even worse, the Torah we have taught.

I believe that observant communities are exemplary when compared to how non-observant communities behave. They have fewer criminals, safer neighborhoods, and have a better track record for caring for the most vulnerable. Nevertheless, Rabbi Kassin may have taken a bad hit from the perp walk that starred him, but, ultimately, it was God and the Torah who will bear the brunt of the blow. And that's the kind of stuff that gave us solemn occasions like Tisha B'Av.

This is something we all need to do Teshuva for.

"Woe to the generation whose Judges are judged." (Ruth Rabba, Petichta)


Rabbi David Wolpe Misses the Point on the death of Rabbi Yochanan and Goldberg takes the bait.

Jeffrey Goldberg quotes his rabbi, David Wolpe, on the Talmudic tradition of argument.
The Talmud tells us that when Resh Lakish -- Rabbi Simeon ben Lakish -- died, Rabbi Jocanan was inconsolable. No one else challenged Rabbi Jochanan's conclusions so vigorously or engaged him in such sharp argument. Repeatedly the Jewish tradition emphasizes that disagreement, even fundamental disagreement, need not be the same as personal hostility.
The point, I guess, could be made that one should be dispassionate in arguing fundamental disagreements, but this is hardly the example to illustrate it. After all, it was during a fairly abstract argument that Rabbi Yochanan killed Resh Lakish, after each one hurled personal insults at the other. Rabbi Yochanan was so angry at the time that his own sister who was married to Resh Lakish could not convince him to have mercy on her husband. It is the most tragic story in the Talmud, and the lesson learned is that those who challenge you the most, are the ones who help you define your thinking. It was, however, Rabbi Yochanan's failure to understand this that gave us this lesson.

The Talmud repeatedly argues for forgiving the passions of those who are overzealous in argument if they are truly arguing for the truth and not some ulterior agenda. I don't think they presume that one can easily distinguish passionate engagement from personal hostility. The tragedy of Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish is that after the moment of anger had passed, there was no road back to reflection and forgiveness, but the disagreements themselves were inevitably personal.

If someone attacks your understanding, something that you have internalized, it may be very difficult not to take it personally. It could be that the one who can easily argue principles dispassionately doesn't care about those issues so much in the first place. Christopher Hitchens--who is brought as an example of someone with whom Wolpe disagrees fundamentally, but civilly--I think, would agree.

The problem with Wolpe is that he doesn't seem to care about what the Talmud is saying, he only cares about using it as a pretext for what he wishes to say. I congratulate Wolpe for living in this Elysian Field of civil discourse, but I hardly believe that our Sages are fellow travellers.

Please, Rabbi Wolpe, let us know what you think, but leave the Talmud out of it.

For the whole story of Rabbi Yochanan and Resh Lakish, plus other powerful Talmudic narratives, click here. You can find the R. Yochanan and Resh Lakish story on page 11.


Quote of the Day

"Wanting to be someone else is a waste of the person you are."
--Kurt Cobain

He should know...He committed suicide


Baruch Atah...OK fine, but what does it mean?????

It is interesting to note that Medieval classics like the Rokeach, Shiblei HaLeqet, Kolbo and Abudarham are works that are referenced more than they are learned. Only when one wants to explore a topic are these books revealed in greater detail. I was asked to give a class on the Siddur to which I reluctantly agreed. My hesitation came from feeling that this once a week class would require much thought and preparation for a topic I regarded as less than exciting. Boy, was I wrong!

Every week I've been exposed to these early Medieval Halachic authorities who instead of writing codes, wrote what amounts to brief essays on Kaddish, Pesukei D'zimra, and Baruch. The Talmud has pithy aphorisms in random places that give insight into the meaning of many of these prayers, but these writers extend what have become popular quotations with questions that rarely occur to those who routinely and somewhat mindlessly utter their prayers each day. I count myself among them. Prayer is a time for declaration, not analysis, but analysis of prayer is an appropriate enterprise for learning--I, like many, never got around to doing it.

Last night I lifted a couple of paragraphs from Rav David Abudarham's classic 14th Century work on liturgy. He wrote this book with the following purpose in mind:
"the customs connected with prayer have become varied from one country to another, and most of the people do not understand the words of the prayers, nor do they know the correct ritual procedures and the reasons for them."
He poses the following question: Why is it that most Brachot begin by addressing God in the second person and end by referring to Him in the third person. We begin with Baruch Ata (Blessed are You) and we end by saying Borei Peri Hagafen (the one who created the fruit of the vine). Why doesn't it say, "that You created the vine.

He explains that this is reflective of how we experience God which is primarily through His actions. Because we believe all things come from Him and no other entity, because we believe this, we demonstrate this by addressing God as an intimate. We cannot, however, presume to know God's essence, so that when we attribute what He has made, we switch to the third person. For aspects of God are both present and hidden. This is also reflected in human beings. Our actions are revealed, but the essence of our heart remains hidden within us. Whereas our deeds are connected to God only through mitzvot, our hearts, our thoughts have the potential to be continuously connected to the Holy One.

He also clears up the issue of what it means to say Baruch Atah. We are not blessing God--How would that make sense anyway? We are acknowledging that God is the source of all blessing. Baruch atah means "You are the source of blessing", and then the rest of the Bracha makes sense..."King of the universe, who created the fruit of the vine."

Sometimes one has to be pushed to learn something that he should have known a long time ago.


"This is all my fault."

So said Robert E. Lee to his troops after his costly defeat at Gettysburg. He then offered his resignation to Jefferson Davis thereby accepting full responsibility for losing what would later be considered the turning point of the Civil War.

Well, in the midst of this financial crisis, I have yet to hear those words from the Masters of the Masters of the Universe, or from Greenspan or Paulson. In fact, we are "treated" to a flurry of books and memoirs that state the opposite, or worse, finger someone else, or even worse, "I'm no more of a scoundrel than anyone else in this business."

At least Medoff pleaded guilty.

"In a place where there are no people, strive to be a person!" (Pirkei Avot 2:5)

It is not colossal errors that show the measure of a man, but how one chooses to be accountable brings him up or down to size. These imposters, posing as leaders, never even tried or probably understood what it means to "...be a person."


Maureen Dowd: Uninformed, or Just a tinge Anti-Semitic

Either Maureen Dowd, or some snarky editor at the NYT, gave her column the title Pharisees on the Potomac. Her point was to recount the hypocrisy of the Republican leadership. If you look up Pharisee in the OED, you will find that the second definition legitimates this usage, but then again, look at the second definition of a Jew "...a grasping extortionate person." Does that allow the NYT to have an editoral entitled "Medoff Jewed lots of Jews in Florida"? The only difference is how educated the NYT staff might be.

One assumes, and hopes that this is a literacy problem and nothing more for Ms. Dowd, and whomever edits her column. Still, the larger issue is the fact that this word is part of the English language and is not considered an epithet or defamatory.

One may not defame a people in the NYT, but their Sages and their Ancestors are fair game.

Gettysburg Visitor Center and Battlefield: Unforgettable

It has been long overdue for me to take my twelve year old son to Gettysburg, PA. It's about a 90 minute drive for an unforgettable afternoon. The new visitor center and museum offer an orientation that does what it is supposed to do. It makes you want to see the battlefield. The newly restored Cyclorama, a 360 degree mural that weighs thousands of pounds is presented succinctly, but brilliantly.

Six thousand soldiers died, and over 40 thousand maimed in three days of relentlessly fierce fighting. The spirit of the Union and Confederate dead hover over the place, as palpable as a humid day in July. Go visit! It is as moving of a place as any in Washington DC.


The Hearings, Sotomayor, Hillel, Shammai and the nature of interpretation...

I'm addicted to these hearings not only because they are so "Talmudic", but because it reminds me of the intellectual limitations of those who represent us in the Senate. Although she is no Bork when it comes to parrying the same challenge over and over again, Judge Sonia Sotomayor does more than hold her own.

Any serious student of Gemara understands that interpretation of law never happens in a vacuum. Either consciously or unconsciously one brings his/her own experiences to understanding what's in front of them. They are, however, shackled by what the parameters of a phrase will allow and that phrase still has to ring true in context.

One may argue that the right to abort a fetus is an extension of the Constitutional right of privacy , or one may say that it isn't a legitimate understanding of the 14th amendment. When Roe vs. Wade became law, it did not contradict anything in the Constitution, but the case redefined our understanding of the 14th amendment. An extension of personal liberty would certainly be within the what one might call the spirit of the law.

If, however, one sees abortion as murder, and the fetus as the most vulnerable of society, then this conclusion is an obscenity. What one brings to the table will color the way one understands the law--the pretense of being a robot, is just that, a pretense. In the end, one's argument has to pass muster, and that is the litmus test for its validity. The fact that the argument emanated from a manor on a plantation, or a housing project in the South Bronx is irrelevant.

As much as the Talmud valued concepts well argued, it valued temperament even more. When Both houses of Hillel (the kid from the projects) and Shammai (the man with the house on the hill) argued, a heavenly voice declared that "These and these are words of the living God, but the law goes like Hillel." (Babylonian Talmud, Eruvin 13b) Why like Hillel?

Because they were humble in their demeanor and gentle--and they always were careful to quote Shammai's position, before their own. It was said of their master, Hillel, that he never lost his temper and was profoundly patient. One could argue that this sensitivity came from his humble origins, and this was reason enough to follow Hillel.

In the end, the most clever argument may not bring the truest decision. The Torah expected judges not only to be beyond reproach, but to not favor a particular background when cases come before them. Nevertheless, they must be empathetic to the plight of their fellow Jews for creation cannot be sustained if scrutinized through the lens of absolute justice--justice has to be coupled with mercy.

The Torah demands no less, and the Constitution shouldn't either!


Missing MJ in Tel Aviv

It reads:

"Blessed Be the Righteous Judge"

Shocked and aggrieved we announce the untimely demise of

"Michael Joseph Jacobson"

the singer "Michael Jackson"

His admirers who are in mourning

Sarah Palin--Rage as an organizing principle

Beyond the Tina Fey caricature is the undeniable fact that millions--it seems--identify with her. Many who often feel, by virtue of their military service, their skin color and their religious convictions that they are the real America, but, through some bizarre sleight of hand, they have become...marginalized.

They are living in a nightmare come true when along comes Sarah. She looks like us, she talks like us, she's kinda cute, and her kids don't always behave the way we would like...just like us! What else matters? Identity politics is not only the province of Sarah Palin supporters, but we all, and I do mean all of us, want to identify with our leaders as somehow the most idealized version of whom we would like to be.

For frum Jews, she, like most evangelicals, is adamantly pro-right-wing Israel--so, go no further. Bibi, Ha'aretz reports is already calling Rahm Emanuel and David Axelrod self-hating Jews behind closed doors. Often, frum Jews are not as interested in social policy as they are in small government and an unhindered and blindly supported Israel. The belief that 'government will only waste my money so why give it to them' is widespread and so is the 'fact' that democrats/liberals are less reliable allies of Israel than republicans/conservatives. (Pat Buchanan notwithstanding). This is an argument that has merit. I'd like my charity dollars to go where they will do the most good, so let me decide, but how should one decide if one is not going to rely on the governement for social programs?

Living in exile as we are, we may look to the Talmud as to what our responsibility is to our neighbors.
The Sages taught: One should support financially the idolatrous poor with the Jewish poor, visit their sick with the Jewish sick and bury their dead with the Jewish dead. (Babylonian Talmud Gitin)
Add to this, the understanding that how we are perceived as a people actually does matter. The Talmud further states that we have a duty to "sanctify God's name" or at least not profane it--the most egregious and severe of all sins. How do we do that? We do that by being exemplary, that we demonstrate our love and concern for all. Such respect makes others say, "He is good, his Torah is good, and God is good." The way we love God is by being visibly, demonstrably, lovable.

Not by being angry, not by delegitimating others when we disagree, and not be capitalizing on the rage of others. This is true for everyone, including those who are the supporters of Sarah Palin. We need to understand the origin of their generosity and compassion as well as the injustices that they have endured.

I believe many of these people have been profoundly and unfairly insulted. We know that wisdom comes in many shapes and sizes--not only from the hallowed halls of the ivy league. It is easier to have two dimensional pictures of adversaries and certainly it justifies salty rhetoric, and salacious gossip. Caricaturizing the adversary is a national past time.

It's just not a particularly constructive one.


David Brooks Discovers Dignity

So do the readers of the NYT! His latest op-ed piece rates as the most emailed article of yesterday's paper. Here's a snippet:

(George) Washington absorbed, and later came to personify what you might call the dignity code. The code was based on the same premise as the nation’s Constitution — that human beings are flawed creatures who live in constant peril of falling into disasters caused by their own passions. Artificial systems haveto be created to balance and restrain their desires.
This is an idea that is at least two thousand years old, as it says in Pirkei Avot

Who is considered mighty, one who conquers his impulses." (Pirkei Avot 4:1)

I would never use the term artificial systems because the struggle between impulses and a moral, or higher calling is a natural one. The desire to serve an ideal is as deep and natural as any other impulse. It is called a desire for a reason, and it is natural for human beings to wish to be good, just as it is natural to be selfish and narcissitic. The notion that we are flawed is also a natural conclusion from the intellect. This is not just a minor point, but it goes to the heart of the matter. Is hearkening to our better angels an artificial action to control who we really are? Or is the impulse to do so the process by which we become who we really should be. The distinction I think is a serious one.