Monday, December 18, 2006

The Greatest Story on Earth

It was 11 PM. I was in Charlotte, North Carolina and returning to my hotel room after a wedding. I turned on the television, hoping to get a mindless rerun, but to my surprise….I got an evangelical sermon!! The preacher was encapsulating his sermon into four points. The first of these points was: “There Cannot be Another Holocaust”. He reminded his audience about Genesis 12:3, God’s promise to Abraham (“in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed”) and then explained how Christians must protect Jews, and how critical Jewish survival is to the world. I was pleasantly surprised by the content, and thought to myself:

“Hallelujah!!”.

It is gratifying to see that many Christians are now dedicated to preserving our survival. (I’m sure my great grandfather would have found this hard to believe.) . But at the same time I was saddened. How many Jews think this way about themselves? How many of us take Genesis 12:3 as an inspiration?

I know some expressions of Jewish uniqueness can be arrogant and triumphalistic; however, for Jews to therefore ignore their own story is foolish. Even a casual observer cannot overlook the epic history of the Jews. As Winston Churchill put it: "Some people like the Jews, and some do not. But no thoughtful man can deny the fact that they are, beyond any question, the most formidable and the most remarkable race which has appeared in the world." Many non-Jews, like Churchill and this preacher, recognize the remarkable Jewish heritage. Simply put, the Jews have the most remarkable story in history.

And yet, too many Jews ignore their own story. Leon Weiseltier calls them “slacker Jews”, who are content with a trivial “lox and bagels Judaism”, and are too lazy to learn about their own heritage. The little they do know is negative, and relates to the Holocaust and other catastrophes. It’s a shame that too many Jews have no idea what Genesis 12:3 is about, or why a preacher on late night TV is preaching about Jewish destiny.

It’s time to stop being “slacker Jews”. If we want to be part of the greatest story on earth, we better know something about it. We need to go beyond the tragic and the trivial.

The Talmud tells about Rabbi Hanina Ben Teradyon’s martyrdom. Hanina was wrapped in a Torah scroll, and together they were burned at the stake. As Hanina was dying, he told his students that as he saw the Torah’s parchment burning, but the letters flying in the air.

Hanina is telling us an important message: Beyond the destruction, there is inspiration. Despite the burning parchment, the letters live on, ready to inspire another generation. The flying letters are the key to a Jewish future.

The Jewish future cannot be about ashes alone. We need to catch the flying letters, and tell the greatest story on earth.

Wednesday, December 13, 2006

The Neturei Karta are Circus Freaks Part III

See this piece in today's Jerusalem Post about the reactions other ultra-Orthodox Jews are having to the visit to Tehran.
The Neturei Karta are Circus Freaks, Part II

Here's a second version of thie previous op-ed (see below), written for Jewish papers and more critical of the media's motives in constantly emphasizing the Neturei Karta in their stories. I hope to send it out to different Jewish papers this week.


Why are the Neturei Karta Media Darlings?

It infuriates mainstream Jews. Iran’s President, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, organizes a conference devoted to Holocaust denial, and a group of Hassidic Jews, the Neturei Karta, attend. They repeat Ahmadinejad’s anti-Israel slogans, and even partially agree with his Holocaust denial theories. Of course, all of this is diligently covered by the media, and newspapers are sure to feature pictures of bearded, caftan wearing Neturei Karta members shaking hands with Ahmadinejad. Indeed, newspaper articles on virtually every anti-Israel protest are accompanied by a picture of the Neutrei Karta holding signs proclaiming “stop Zionist atrocities”. The Neturei Karta are upsetting enough; even more infuriating is the ridiculous amount of attention lavished on this group by the media. All of this invites the question: Why are the Neturei Karta media darlings?

The Neturei Karta are a miniscule group, with a thousand or two supporters worldwide. Historically, they are a mid-1930’s radical breakaway from the Edah Hacharedis, the main anti-Zionist organization in Jerusalem. After the Holocaust and the establishment of Israel, other ultra-Orthodox anti-Zionists softened their views, and the Neturei Karta found themselves more isolated than ever. In turn, the Neturei Karta’s theology grew even more radical, and the behavior of its leaders increasingly bizarre. For example, a leader of a Neturei Karta affiliated group currently living in St. Agathe, Quebec, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes (Helbrans), spent time in a U.S. jail for kidnapping. For the Neturei Karta, anti-Zionism is the focus of their theology, and as a consequence, they demonize all Zionists as disciples of Satan.

Virtually all Jews are appalled by the support that the Neturei Karta gives to Israel’s anti-Semitic enemies. Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, the group’s elder statesman, has close ties to the Palestinian leadership, and was on Yasser Arafat’s payroll. The Neturei Karta maintain close ties to Iran as well. In June 2000, Rabbi Yisroel David Weiss supported Iran’s accusations that 13 Jews had spied for Israel; this, while governments around the world protested these false arrests. Neturei Karta’s leaders have cultivated relationships with Louis Farrakhan, and Abu Hamza, a radical British cleric later imprisoned under Britain’s Terrorism Act. Because of their bizarre behavior, they have been condemned multiple times by other ultra-Orthodox groups, and they are viewed by them as infuriating oddities. Simply put, the Neturei Karta are a fringe group, far less relevant than the Hare Krishna.

Yet, despite being a marginal phenomena, the Neturei Karta receive a lot of media attention. Certainly, the Neturei Karta work tirelessly at public relations, issuing press releases, placing advertisements, and traveling all over North America to march with any anti-Israel group. But the media attention given to the Neturei Karta goes beyond successful PR.

Some of the outsized attention given to the Neturei Karta has to do with journalistic practice. There is shoddy journalism; many journalists are ignorant of the Jewish community, and have no idea that the Neturei Karta are a fringe group. In addition, journalists are swept away by the Neturei Karta’s flowing beards and billowing caftans. As Hassidic Jews, they are exotic figures who seem to have stepped straight out of the 18th century. Because of this, the Neturei Karta are the perfect photo op. And in an image driven media culture, photo ops are the news.

The Neturei Karta’s protests are also a “man bites dog” story. Here you have very Jewish-looking Jews denouncing Israel, the Jewish state. The value of this story becomes magnified in what Deborah Tannen called “an argument culture”. Contemporary media, much like pro wrestling, thrives on conflict. In that regard, the Neturei Karta are the “Hulk Hogan” of pro-Israel events, protesting in order to irritate and annoy, hoping their protests will start fistfights with supporters of Israel. All of these factors encourage journalists to turn kitschy performance art into a front page story.

While poor journalism is forgivable, of greater concern is the ideological bias behind the media’s fascination with the Neturei Karta. In a politically correct culture that despises military action and assigns moral superiority to any victim, Israel is the ultimate bully. Journalists who sympathize with the Palestinian cause find Jewish solidarity with Israel puzzling. These journalists are left searching in vain for some sort of internal Jewish discord over Israel’s right to exist. When they discover the Neturei Karta, they accept them uncritically, because the Neturei Karta offer a story of internal debate unavailable elsewhere.

Sadly, when journalists give the Neturei Karta prominent coverage, they have taken a circus sideshow and put it on the front page. There are many important debates about the Middle East, but instead of those, these journalists have chosen to focus on a fringe phenomenon and consider it newsworthy.

It’s a shame the media seems to make this journalistic mistake, over and over again.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

The Neturei Karta Are a Bunch of Circus Freaks

Everyone seems to be agog about the Neturei Karta Ultra-Orthodox Jews who participated in a conference on Holocaust denial. (It seems their hatred for Israel trumps their love for Jews.) Anyway, as far I can see, they are a tiny group of bizarre misfits, and sort of Jewish circus freaks. I'm including below an article I wrote that was previously published in the Gazette this August.

Why Are Fringe Rabbis on the Front Page?


No news story about an anti-Israel protest would be complete without a quote from a member of the Neutrei Karta, a group of Ultra- Orthodox Jews who oppose Israel. Indeed, at a recent anti-Israel rally, the Montreal Gazette, put a picture of a Hassid holding a placard on its front page. But who are the Neturei Karta, and are they truly newsworthy?

In the early 1900’s, before the State of Israel existed, Zionism was debated among Orthodox Jews. A significant group supported Mizrachi, a religious Zionist organization that worked together with secular Zionists. However, many Orthodox Jews rejected Zionism. Some, part of a coalition called Agudath Israel, were concerned by the lack of religiosity in the secular Zionist leadership. A much smaller group, coalescing around ultra-Orthodox groups in Hungary and the Edah Hacharedis organization in Jerusalem, took the extreme view Zionism was a heresy. In their view, Jewish belief in a Messiah obliged loyal Jews to wait for the Messianic redemption, rather than take matters into their own hands. The group most prominent in contemporary demonstrations, the Neturei Karta, was formed in the mid-1930’s as a radical breakaway from the Edah Hacharedis.

The Holocaust and the establishment of the State of Israel transformed Orthodox views on Zionism. Rabbi Issacher Shlomo Teichtal, a prominent anti-Zionist, became a religious Zionist because of the Holocaust. Formerly anti-Zionist groups, such as the Hassidic communities of Belz, Klausenberg, and Lubavitch, adopted a more positive and pragmatic view toward the new Jewish state. Indeed, Agudath Israel had its representatives sign Israel’s Declaration of Independence. For most Orthodox Jews, rejectionist anti-Zionism was a matter of the past. Even many of those who have retained an anti-Zionist stance, such as Satmar Hassidim, currently value Israel as place where Jews can live in safety, and refuse to make any common cause with Iran, Hezbollah and Hamas.

Today, the Neturei Karta have about 1,000 supporters. Finding themselves more isolated than ever, the Neturei Karta’s theology has grown even more radical, and the behavior of its leaders is increasingly bizarre. For example, a leader of a Neturei Karta affiliated group currently living in St. Agathe, Rabbi Shlomo Elbarnes, spent time in a U.S. jail for kidnapping a teenager. For today’s Neturei Karta, anti-Zionism is the focus of their theology, and as a consequence, they demonize all Zionists as disciples of Satan.

Indeed, the Neturei Karta are enamored of Israel’s enemies and even anti-Semites. Rabbi Moshe Hirsch, the group’s elder statesman, has close ties to the Palestinian leadership, and was on Yasser Arafat’s payroll. These Neturei Karta maintain close ties to Iran’s radical regime as well. In June 2000, Rabbi Yisroel David Weiss supported Iran’s accusations that 13 Jews had spied for Israel; this, while governments around the world protested these false arrests. Neturei Karta’s leaders have also cultivated relationships with Louis Farrakhan, an American preacher known for his anti-Semitism, and Abu Hamza, a radical British cleric later imprisoned under Britain’s Terrorism Act. Because of their bizarre views and behavior, they have been condemned multiple times by other ultra-Orthodox groups, and they are viewed as infuriating oddities. Frankly, the Neturei Karta are a fringe group, even less relevant than the Amish or the Raelians.

Yet, despite being a marginal phenomena, the Neturei Karta receive a lot of media attention. Certainly, the Neturei Karta work tirelessly at public relations, issuing press releases, buying the occasional advertisement, and traveling all over North America to join with any anti-Israel group they can find. Due to sympathetic journalists, they manage to get a lot of media attention.

Of course, the Neturei Karta seem made for media. People are fascinated by Hassidic Jews in general, as exotic figures who seem to have stepped straight out of the 18th century. For journalists, the caftan wearing extremists of the Neturei Karta are an exotic “man bites dog” story, with very Jewish-looking Jews denouncing Israel. Indeed, Jewish solidarity with Israel puzzles many journalists, and leaves them searching in vain for some sort of internal Jewish discord. The Neturei Karta offer a story of internal debate unavailable elsewhere.

Contemporary media, much like pro wrestling, thrives on conflict. In that regard, the Neturei Karta are the “Andre the Giant” of pro-Israel events, protesting in order to irritate and annoy, hoping this will initiate conflict with supporters of Zionism. Sadly, when journalists give the Neturei Karta prominent coverage, they have taken a circus sideshow and put it on the front page. There are many important debates about the Middle East, but instead of those, these journalists have chosen to focus on a fringe phenomenon and consider it newsworthy.

It’s a shame the media seems to make this journalistic mistake, over and over again.

Friday, November 17, 2006

A Generation Without Sacrifices

We are the blessed generations. We, the Boomer and Gen Xers of North America, have had it better than any other generation in history. No Holocaust, no Communism, no World Wars, and no Great Depression. We can take for granted exceptional wealth as well as unprecedented luxuries and technologies. 21st century North America appears to be a contemporary Garden of Eden.

At the center of this Garden of Eden stands the consumer. A culture of consumerism worships the individual, catering to every possible appetite. Advertising campaigns feature taglines like “because you’re worth it” and “for me, myself and I”. The service sector keeps growing economically, and the customer is king. Consumers are entertained and pampered, and offered exotic pleasures. It’s a great time to be alive.

Yet there is trouble in this new paradise. People simply aren’t happy. Remarkably, even though life has vastly improved in the past century, research shows that people actually feel less happy than previous generations. (Greg Easterbrook has called this “The Progress Paradox”). Apparently, happy lives require more than “me, myself and I”.

I was considering this “progress paradox” while reading the Biblical narrative of Akeidat Yitzchak, the binding of Isaac. In this narrative, Abraham is told by God to sacrifice his son Isaac; and Abraham is immediately ready to comply with God’s command.

Most people are extremely disturbed by this narrative. It is of course disturbing on a moral level: How could God command Abraham to commit murder? But the text also disturbs us because it is so foreign. Abraham’s selflessness is out of place in a self centered culture of consumerism. And that’s precisely our problem.

I believe the Akeidah holds the answer to the “progress paradox”. Without character, material comfort is meaningless. The extreme self-sacrifice of the Akeidah will hopefully never be necessary; yet the selflessness Abraham displayed is a basic ingredient to living a good life. Overindulgence is a series of empty comforts, but an altruistic sacrifice is not only meaningful, but actually makes you happier.

The Akeidah’s message needs to be heard more clearly. Wendy Mogel, a psychologist working with an affluent clientele, felt frustrated by problems that seemed to transcend her therapeutic techniques. She realized that her clients were not suffering from psychological problems, but rather from parental overindulgence and overprotection. What they really needed was solid values to anchor their families. In response to their problems, she wrote a book entitled “The Blessings of a Skinned Knee: Using Jewish Teachings to Raise Self Reliant Children”. Genuine happiness requires serious values, values that include antiquated notions like self control and selflessness.

Yet these values are usually ignored. Some couples will refuse to have an additional child because it’ll dent their standard of living. They assume this will make them happy, yet this is a tragic mistake. By trading in their baby for a BMW, they have performed a bizarre 21st century Akeidah, sacrificing children for material goods. This faux Akeidah is a recipe for a meaningless, materialistic life.

It’s time to unravel the “progress paradox”. We must learn that values are more important than vanity, and noble sacrifices actually pay dividends.

Friday, October 20, 2006

Senseless Fate, Meaningful Destiny

It doesn’t make sense. Recently, the absurdity of fate has dominated the headlines. An outgoing 18 year old, Anastasia De Sousa, goes to school in the morning; a gunmen bursts into her school, Dawson College, and she’s shot dead. A highway overpass collapses, killing 5 young people. Beyond the headlines, everyone has been personally touched by an absurd tragedy. Fate seems senseless.

Fate’s absurdity engenders strange reactions. Some of us become superstitious, nervously clutching rabbit’s foots and red strings, hoping these will bring us luck. Others become fatalistic. While visiting Northern Israel during the Lebanese war, I asked our driver Ofer if he was worried about the Kaytushas raining down. He said no, because ‘when it’s your time it’s your time’.

Fate often seems unjust, and the unanswered question of blind fate makes philosophers of us all. Some are certain that they can explain every twist of fate, secure in the knowledge that someone else’s sins are the source of all suffering. Others are angry at God and the world, upset that the utopian vision of their childhood has been shattered by reality.

I have an aversion to these philosophical ruminations. Personally, I prefer the view of the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot, that says we simply do not know why the wicked prosper or the righteous suffer. By accepting fate as a mystery, at least it won’t be an insult, an affront to the victims who are often blamed for their own misfortune.

Fate doesn’t require an answer, it requires a response. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik notes there are two phases of life: fate and destiny. At times man is passive and helpless, a mere object of fate. At other times, man can take control of his environment and become the master of his own destiny. Most of life seems to fluctuate between moments of fate and moments of destiny. However, even in our worst moments, fate does not reign supreme; we can always choose how we respond to fate.

It is in the response that a meaningful destiny is found. Do we respond with cowardice and confusion, or with a sense of higher purpose? We can choose either to surrender to fate or to struggle for a meaningful destiny.

Rabbi Seth Mandell recently told me a story. (Seth directs a foundation in memory of his son Koby, who was murdered in a terror attack. The foundation runs camps for children who have lost a family member to terror.) A girl in his camp was so grief-stricken that she had begun to cut herself on the wrist. On the first day of camp, the girl’s counselor saw the cut and remarked “time heals all wounds”. The girl angrily reacted and said “it does not”, a global reference to all wounds, both psychic and physical. The counselor persevered in befriending the girl. Towards the end of the camp, the girl stopped cutting herself and the wound healed. Noticing this, the counselor lightheartedly remarked “I guess time does heal all wounds.” The girl responded: “no, it does not…. But love heals all wounds”.

This phrase is a formula for transforming fate into destiny. Fate may cut us deeply, and leave us angry and confused. But with a little bit of love, we can still find a way to heal our wounds and reclaim control of our destiny.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Bring Them Home

A new post on my other website, about Gilad Shalit, Eldad Regev and Ehud Goldwasser.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

New Post on My Other Website

I'm trying to stay disciplined, and use this website for insights into life in general, and the other one for issues specifically related to politics, Israel and Judaism. Here's the link.

Tuesday, September 05, 2006

Is Freedom Normal?

There's an interesting piece in today's Jerusalem Post by Michael Freund. He makes the argument Al Qaeda and their fellow fanatics will be a fleeting historical phenomena:

"Like the Communists, Islamic fundamentalists seek global domination, and they have no qualms about murdering the innocent to further their goals. Their aims are totalitarian, and their means are depraved. As US President George W. Bush pointed out in a speech last October, these two ideologies both speak of justice and devotion, but offer only oppression and misery in their stead.

Ultimately, however, the fundamentalists will fail, just as the Communists did, because both seek to vanquish the basic human desire for freedom."


I'd like to agree with the argument, but wonder if freedom is really that "normal". Westerners take it for granted that one should be free; however, it is hard to say this is a normative assumption in most societies. From Pharoah, who thinks the idea of universal freedom to be comical, to Aristotle, who believes people are naturally masters or slaves, to the multiple totalitarian regimes around the world, there is no shortage of societies that believe freedom to be abnormal.

So, I guess I'm not sure if the argument is true, but certainly hope so!!

Friday, August 25, 2006

Weddings During Wartime

There is a time for everything. Even emotions must follow an etiquette of proper timing. As Ecclesiastes says: “There is a time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance”.

This summer, I had a full slate of summer weddings at the same time that the war in Israel was going on. At times, I’d enter a celebration right after hearing bad news on the radio. I wondered whether this was the right time to rejoice.

It’s insensitive to ignore communal suffering. Jewish tradition obligates everyone to reduce frivolous activities during a time of crisis. (One view even requires couples to diminish marital relations). This tradition added to my difficulty: how can we celebrate when Israel is suffering?

The Jewish calendar offers a solution to this dilemma. In Talmudic times, a singles holiday was held on Tu b’Av, the fifteenth day of Av. Young men and women would gather at celebrations to find a match. It was the most joyous of holidays in the Jewish calendar.

However, the Tu b’Av tradition is strange. Just six days earlier is the ninth of Av, the day we mourn the destruction of the two Temples. Isn’t it deeply inappropriate to have a single’s holiday right after a day of mourning?

The answer is that joy plays many functions. Joy can be a diversion, a frivolous distraction. In times of tragedy, such a celebration is insensitive because it ignores the suffering of others. However, joy is also a genuine response to tragedy.

After a tragedy, we can remain frozen, unable to continue on. Unfortunately, by refusing to live life to the fullest, we will have allowed the tragedy to claim a new victim, and enlarged the scope of destruction. Mourning can collaborate with death, allowing death to overtake the living. In these moments, one must celebrate to assert that life goes on.

Tu b’Av teaches us that a good wedding is a genuine response to tragedy. The Talmud says that when a bride and groom rejoice, it is as if a section of Jerusalem has been rebuilt. By marrying, the young couple have reversed the tide of tragedy, and have taken a step on the road to redemption.

In the first week of the war, Shlomi Boskila and Maya Lugasi got married in northern Israel. Because of Kaytusha attacks, they couldn’t use the hall they had booked, so they got married in a bomb shelter. Their new venue may have been cramped and the crowd small, yet their wedding made a huge statement. As Boskilla put it: "This shows … that not even 20,000 missiles can destroy the happiness of the bride and groom". In times of tragedy, a wedding like this that expresses courage and affirms life is exactly what is needed.

There is a time for everything. Sometimes, wartime is the right time for a wedding too.

Tuesday, August 08, 2006

Friday, July 14, 2006

The Blank Page’s Message

It just sits there, quiet yet intimidating. Another sermon to be written, and all I have is a blank page. Will I have something inspirational to say?

Inspiration is hard to come by. Maimonides points out that inspiration is like a bolt of lightning: enlightening, sometimes shocking, and extremely uncommon. And so, the blank page taunts me, a reminder of my own uninspired mind.

Rabbis searching for sermons aren’t the only people who need inspiration; it is required on a daily basis. Everything significant in life, from relationships to friendships to work, can either be inspired, or routine.

Of course, our dull everyday routine is often necessary. We simply cannot live in a constant state of high energy. Much like sleep, we all require some quiet routine to replenish our strength. Yet, like sleep, if we slip into the routine all the time, we end up living our lives in a spiritual coma, unaware of the powerful moments constantly available to us. Living without inspiration is a true waste of life.

So where do we find the inspiration to fill the blank pages of our lives? Strangely enough, in an empty box. When you give a two year old child a toy, they are usually more enchanted with the empty box. To them, a box is filled with possibilities; you can put things in it, turn it upside down, and stick it on your head. Two year olds know that even an empty box is inspiring.

In actuality, a forty year old doesn’t find inspiration, he uncovers it. A forty year old has, over the years, covered the inspiration of an empty box with layer upon layer of routine. To find inspiration, a forty year old has to peel back the layers of routine, and rekindle childlike excitement.

When we remove the thick covering of routine, we inspired by a fresh look at life. At times, we find ourselves enthralled by the little things we take for granted. On other occasions, we are angered by the mediocrity and petty corruption we are willing to accept as a matter of course. Most importantly, without routine to hold us down, our creativity soars because we are willing to explore the unfamiliar. The inspiration we need to renew friendships, relationships and work is already within us, waiting to be rediscovered.

As a Rabbi, I often find myself settling with a routine, repeating themes, citations and anecdotes. This is why that blank page is so frightening; I’d really like to find something inspiring to say.

But the blank page, like the empty box, is exploding with possibilities. The blank page is filled with messages, if I can only figure out how to dig them out from under a mountain of clichés.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

As you know, I've been very concerned about the situation in Darfur. An article about a visit I took to Ottawa with a group of March of the Living students is found here.

Friday, June 23, 2006

Is it Good For the Jews?

For 21st century Jews, the question seems old fashioned, a vestige of the era of Yiddish and chicken shmaltz. However, on occasion, this question slips through our minds: “is it good for the Jews?”

I understand why we think these narrow-minded thoughts. As Jews, we have spent the last 2,000 years focusing on survival. Years of persecution have taught Jews to be sensitive to changes in the political environment. Survival often depended on figuring out if a news story was “good for the Jews”.

Yet this question, so critical to one generation of Jews, appears absurd to a generation of Jews raised in a secure milieu. This question now seems funny, good material for borscht belt comedians. For Canadian Jews, news is not a life and death affair.

Unfortunately, an enduring byproduct of this question is narcissism. Compulsively worrying whether or not everything is “good for the Jews” means you stop worrying about what is good for the world. While we no longer fear for our survival, we have not outgrown a self centered focus on exclusively Jewish concerns.

That is why there is no shortage of “old fashioned” Jews, who may not worry if anything is good for the Jews, but are too cynical to worry if it’s good for the world. They mock Jews who worry about human rights. Helping outsiders is futile, naïve Jewish kindness that will simply be ignored. Their view is that Jews should worry about Jews, period.

It is critical to care both about oneself and the rest of the world. The famous Rabbi, Hillel, put it so well: “If I am not for myself, then who will be for me? And when I am for myself, what am I?”. Of course we must worry about survival. But what are we surviving for? To remain a ghettoized curiosity, cutoff from the world? God told Abraham that “in thee shall all the families of the earth be blessed.” If we ignore the world, we are ignoring Abraham’s legacy.

That is why I took a trip to Ottawa, with a group of March of the Living students, to talk to MP’s about the situation in Darfur. For the past three years, the Government of Sudan has been massacring tribes in the Darfur region. Between 200,000 and 400,000 people have died, and up to 2.5 million people have been driven from their homes. Our group felt we just had to raise our voices in protest.

We went to Ottawa not just as Canadians, but as Jews. We went because we had just visited Auschwitz, and felt compelled by history to make our voices heard. We went because the Torah obligates us to love the stranger. We went because you cannot be a good Jew without caring about humanity.

We went, because if you think about it, human rights is “good for the Jews.”

Friday, May 26, 2006

Are We Running in the Right Direction?

We are born to run. Man is an ambitious being, created to get things done. In fact, without a good challenge, we start to fall apart. Boredom is not only frustrating, it’s downright dangerous, and without challenges, people get depressed. Elderly people who are inactive tend to die at a younger age than those who are busy and challenged.

Because we are born to run, we try to run as fast as possible. Since the beginning of time, man has competed to see who is the fastest. The ancient Olympics were at first a 190 meter race, and later expanded to include chariot racing and other sports. Man has raced camels, horses and dogs, just to see who has the quickest animals. We run marathons and sprints, and race on bicycles and on skis. And in the 20th century, with the arrival of motor technology, we have begun to race motorcycles and cars and motorboats.

As history moves on, all of us run faster. There is no question that as technology progresses, the pace of life speeds up. Today, we can fly off to Europe and China at a moment’s notice, and order what we need off the internet. We have Palm Pilots to make us more efficient, and we can dash off phone calls from our cell phones and e-mails from our Blackberrys in a moment’s notice. Mankind continues to move faster and faster, achieving bigger and greater victories every day.

Now, the ultimate race, The Grand Prix, is coming to Montreal, and along with it a great deal of glamour and glitz. It attracts the international jet set of the wealthy and successful, people who are considered winners in the race of life. It is the perfect symbol of the 21st century: speed, wealth, accomplishment.

While I salute the accomplishments of the swift and successful, and appreciate the need for speed (I’m a blackberry addict myself) I feel there is still something missing. As we run and rush, we neglect to ask a simple question: are we running in the right direction?

There is a small prayer recited when a book of the Talmud is completed. In it, we remind ourselves to build meaningful lives, and not to follow those who live selfishly and foolishly. The prayer says “we run, and they run; we run to an eternal life, and they run to an empty pit”. Anyone can run; the problem is that sometimes we can run in the wrong direction.

Running the wrong way gets you nowhere fast. There’s the famous story of the Minnesota Vikings football player Jim Marshall, who mistakenly ran the football the wrong way, and scored for the opposing team. Imagine if we’re doing that in life? What if we’re doing all of this running, only to land up in an empty pit!

We need to run, but we need to run in the right direction. In Pirkei Avot, it says one should “run like a deer….to do the will of God.” A real champion crosses the right finish line.

Unfortunately, there is no Grand Prix for those who run in the right direction. You don’t have TV cameras following those who devote their lives to spirituality and kindness. But every time a person runs to help the poor, every time we hurry home to hug our spouses and children, every time we squeeze our schedules so we can study Torah and pray, we will be winning the race of life.

Moving fast is not enough. To be a true winner, you have to be moving in the right direction.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

The March of the Future

It’s a bizarre place to take a group of high school students. On this year’s March of the Living, I traveled with the teenagers to Poland and Israel. Frankly, it is a gut wrenching journey. An itinerary that includes ghettoes, concentration camps and death camps is gruesome, even for people with thick skins; so why were sixteen year olds visiting these sites in Poland?

We went because we had to go. No one wants to visit some of the most horrific places on earth. But for Jews, history is current events. Year after year, we sit at the Seder and recount the exodus from Egypt. Even though 3,300 years may have passed, the exodus is still our story, one that reminds us who we are. Certainly the most recent chapters in our story, the Holocaust and the State of Israel, cannot be ignored. And so we traveled to Poland and Israel, on a journey to reconnect with our history.

In some ways, 60 years ago could not be more distant. Here they were, a group of comfortable 21st century teenagers armed with ipods, cellphones and digital cameras, confronting the unimaginable. At first, many of the students found it difficult to feel sadness; they simply could not grasp what they were seeing. It was too foreign, too unbelievable.

That changed when the survivors began to speak. Traveling with us were six survivors, eyewitnesses to the Holocaust. As we heard their stories of suffering and survival, everyone’s tears flowed.

The survivors, all senior citizens, did not come along to serve as guides. They came back to Poland, one last time, to offer testimony on behalf of the six million. This was their last chance to make sure that future generations do not forget.

Our digital era teenagers may not have realized it, but they are the last generation to hear eyewitnesses to the Holocaust. As time marches on, there are fewer and fewer survivors. Ultimately, we will be left with witnesses of witnesses; our ipod wearing teens are the ones who will retell the story of the Holocaust in the future.

When I returned, a student asked me: will there be a March of the Living 50 years from now? Will people still care about this story?

My answer to her was simple: It’s in your hands. You will decide whether future generations remember the horrors of the Holocaust and the miracles of Israel. You will decide if future generations know what it means to be a Jew. The future of the Jewish people is in your hands.

On the March of the Living, I saw the Jewish future. I saw a group of ordinary teenagers learn about Judaism with idealism and intensity. I am proud to have gotten to know them. To be honest, I can’t think of better people to entrust with the Jewish future.

Thursday, May 11, 2006

In Poland, I was Thinking of Darfur

On the map, Poland and the Sudan are a continent apart. Yet, when I visited Poland three weeks ago, my mind continually wandered off to the Sudan. What I saw in Poland reminded me how today, in the Sudan, history once again repeats itself.

I did not go to Poland for a holiday. I was traveling with the March of the Living, an educational program that brings teens to visit the concentration camps. We toured the sites of awful atrocities: Treblinka, Majdanek, Auschwitz-Birkenau. We stepped inside a gas chamber; the thought of what had occurred there was overwhelming. We viewed a display of children’s clothes, taken from toddlers before their death. A survivor spoke to us about the time when a few Nazi thugs went to his barrack, took a two by four, walked over to a bunk, and pressed it down on the necks of four sleeping inmates until they choked.

And then we arrived at the greatest monument to man’s inhumanity to man. In the concentration camp of Majdanek, there is a dome of ashes. Inside the dome is a mound of human ashes over fifteen feet tall, the horrific proceeds of burned victims. The sight is simply too hard to bear. Our students were immediately overwhelmed with grief, and began to weep. They had come face to face with evil.

It was here that I remembered Darfur. Intellectually, I understand the human capacity for evil, yet it is difficult for my heart to accept it. Living in an open and tolerant country like Canada, it is difficult to imagine the hatred necessary to perpetrate these crimes. Our shining record on human rights leaves us blind to the reality: human beings can be exceptionally evil. They can slaughter other humans by the million, and burn their bodies into a pile of ash. And this sort of evil didn’t just happen 60 years ago. It continues on today, in the Darfur region of Western Sudan.

For the past three years, the Government of Sudan, along with allied militias, have been massacring black tribes in the region. Tens of thousands have been murdered, countless women have been raped, and up to 2.5 million people have been driven from their homes. Various estimates peg the death toll at somewhere between 200,000 and 400,000. Today, thousands of miles from Poland, a genocide marches on.

It is critical to remember that without indifference, the Holocaust could not have occured. During the Holocaust, the world ignored the plight of the Jews. At a conference in Evian in 1938, and at a later conference in Bermuda in 1943, the entire world community refused to help Jewish refugees fleeing from the Holocaust. The United States refused numerous requests to bomb Auschwitz, and Canada refused Jews entry during the Holocaust, sticking to a policy of “none is too many”. The Holocaust amply demonstrated, as the famous quote goes, that “the only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing”.

The same pattern of indifference has repeated itself with Darfur. Until recently, there has been a virtual media blackout about Darfur. Media studies show that in June, 2005, TV news spent 50 times more coverage on the Michael Jackson molestation trial than it did on the Darfur tragedy, and it devoted 12 times the coverage to the tomfoolery of Tom Cruise than it did to Sudanese oppression. Obviously, celebrities matter more than mass murder. In addition, most members of parliament have kept a wary distance from this issue, afraid that a proper resolution to this humanitarian crisis will require Canadians to make costly commitments. So, as diplomats debate and discuss this issue, a genocide ensues. Only recently has the government of Canada, as well as a multiparty group of parliamentarians, started to pay attention to Darfur.

After visiting the concentration camps, many of the teenage students I was with began to search for a way to respond. They wondered if the slogan “never again” really had any meaning, if after the Holocaust, the world stood by during subsequent atrocities in Cambodia, Bosnia and Rwanda. They wondered if they could make a difference for the people in Darfur.

As their Rabbi, I felt responsible to do something. Before leaving to Poland, I had explored the possibility of a lobby mission to Parliament about Darfur. But I was afraid that no one would pay attention, and it would be a waste of time.

After coming home from Poland, I realized I had to go to Ottawa, no matter what. How could I do otherwise, after seeing the dome of ashes? There were now 6 million voices in my head, shouting “never again”. And prodding me was the passion of these students, wondering if they could make the world into a better place.

At the end of June, I will visit Ottawa with a group of students from the March of the Living, and talk to anyone who will listen. I have to. I cannot ignore what I saw in Majdanek, and I will not disappoint the students.

Monday, April 17, 2006

More Bar Than Mitzvah?

At times, even a Orthodox Rabbi can have trouble with tradition. In particular, I believe it’s time to change our Bar-Bat Mitzvah traditions.

Yes, we’re too rigorous in our Bar-Bat Mitzvah “traditions”. (I somehow neglected studying these “traditions” in Yeshiva.) “Tradition” states that each Bar-Bat Mitzvah must include a night affair, a game room for the teens, and expensive giveaways. In addition, the event must have the proper caterer, florist, photographer, band, D.J. and videographer. Despite my own traditional inclinations, these “traditions” make me uncomfortable. To me, these “traditions” smack of true fanaticism.

Yes, these indulgent Bar-Bat Mitzvahs are actually the products of fanaticism. George Santayana once said “a fanatic is someone who redoubles his efforts while losing sight of his goal”. Considering this, our Bar Mitzvahs are events only a fanatic could love. Having abandoned all but the most perfunctory religious rituals, our Bar-Bat Mitzvahs have become oversized celebrations with a slightly religious veneer. The contemporary Bar-Bat Mitzvah is an empty festivity, a party that celebrates itself.

Many have remarked that our Bar-Bat Mitzvah celebrations are “more bar than mitzvah”. Indeed, there are many non-Jews who are clamoring for a Bar-Bat Mitzvah of their own (no Haftorah necessary). An article in the Wall Street Journal 2 years ago, reported on the “faux Bar Mitzvah”, a party for affluent non-Jewish teens who felt neglected because they had missed out on the big Bar-Bat mitzvah party. Of course, the very existence of the “faux Bar Mitzvah” reveals a sad truth, that even our “real” Bar-Bat Mitzvahs are pretty phony as well, much more about bars than about mitzvahs.

I know this may sound radical, but it is time to bring religion back into the Bar-Bat Mitzvah celebration. I agree that the Bar-Bat Mitzvah should follow some serious preparations; preparations where the young person has done communal volunteering, some serious Torah study, and has spent more than an obligatory three weeks coming to services. At the celebration itself, Judaism must be a priority, not an afterthought. And after the Bar/Bat Mitzvah is over, the guests should have something better to talk about than the gowns and the hors d’ouerves.

At a recent Bat Mitzvah, the young woman got up to explain the theme of the night. The theme of her Bat Mitzvah was not a kitchy movie or pop musical group, but rather a quote from the Mishna: “Whoever saves one life, has saved an entire world”. She explained that this quote had inspired her to donate the gifts from her Bat Mitzvah to help buy an ambulance for the Magen David Adom. This act of remarkable charity made it a memorable Bat Mitzvah, an evening that celebrated Jewish values.

I hope this young woman’s generosity will inspire others to follow her example. It’s about time we break tradition, and make the Bar-Bat Mitzvah into a religious event again.

Sunday, April 02, 2006

Hi! the article about Seville (somewhat edited) appeared in the Toronto Star. For the unedited version, see below, on March 28th.

Thursday, March 30, 2006

Stop Whining and Start Moving

I have nothing against complaints. Complaints are society’s quality control mechanism, targeting ineffective things for improvement. More importantly, righteous protest is the first stop on the road to freedom. From the Exodus to the civil rights movement, outcries against injustice are a call to responsibility.

Yet there are complaints, and there are complaints. Many of today’s protests are old fashioned whining, with paranoia and self pity masquerading as calls for justice. A few insensitive cartoons in an obscure Danish paper, and all of a sudden you have a worldwide cause celebre. A public figure makes an errant remark, and all of sudden, there are accusations of anti-Semitism or sexism or racism. These complaints are more about making noise than pursuing justice.

Whining is a form self pity, and a way to shift the blame to someone else. This way, we are no longer responsible or in control. And it is natural. We all like to indulge in self pitying fantasies of helplessness.

So how do you break out of a whining spell? Do you need to read books or attend workshops? Actually it’s very simple. You just have to move on. When the Jews were being chased by the Egyptians at the Red Sea, they cried out to God, paralyzed by uncertainty. God’s answer was simple: "Why are you crying out to me? Tell the Israelites to move on”. God’s advice, to rephrase it in a less formal way, is to “stop whining and start moving”.

God tells the beleaguered Jews at the Red Sea to move on, because no one should ever believe that they are helpless. The moment we start whining, we must find ways to take action, any action, to change our circumstances. Even in the bleakest moments, a person can choose his destiny.

I draw inspiration from people who made the best of awful situations, like Rami Harpaz. Harpaz was an Israeli pilot who was an Egyptian prisoner of war for 3 years, along with 9 other Israelis. During this time, they conducted classes for each other, and worked on plans for their lives once they were freed. Then one day, a parcel arrived with a copy of J.R.R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, and they immediately started to work on a translation. Together, the ten P.O.W’s completed a translation, which is now one of two standard Hebrew translations of Tolkien. They may have been prisoners, but they refused to give up. Harpaz put it best in a recent interview: 'Falling into captivity presents one with a number of choices. You can either pity yourself and wallow in misery, or do something to organize your time as constructively as conditions allow”. His advice is useful to anyone, no matter what their situation: when you’re feeling sorry for yourself, you have to stop whining and start moving.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Hi! this is a first crack at an op-ed about Seville (see links in previous post).

Can Imams and Rabbis Make Peace?

This story does not have a happy ending.

Last week I traveled to Seville, Spain to attend the Second World Congress of Imams and Rabbis. On the surface, the Congress, organized by the Hommes de Parole Foundation, followed a good plan. First, you bring together religious leaders, who ostensibly are committed to goodness and generosity. Then, they meet in Andalusia, the cultural center during the “golden age of Spain”, where arts and literature, along with warm Jewish-Muslim relationships, blossomed in the 9th – 12th century. You start the proceedings in areas of common concern, like family, technology and secularization, and set a positive tone for a more freewheeling conversation on the following day. After four days of proceedings, you hope these leaders can contribute something positive towards world peace, and towards peace in the Middle East, in particular.

With all of this careful planning, the conference began with high hopes. But, like the “best laid plans of mice and men”, it quickly started to unravel. A session on the first day about family was disrupted by sharp voices of discord. An Imam from France was angered by a proposal the night before to outlaw insults to religious figures such as Mohammed; he called this proposal ludicrous. Some of the Palestinian Imams issued harsh attacks on Israel, and insisted that the only thing worth talking about was the Arab- Israel conflict. The Israeli Rabbis became leery and apprehensive. At the same time, many of the Rabbis and Imams from other places around the world were wondering if their concerns, often local ones, would be drowned out by the politics of the Middle East. This conference now felt uncomfortable and chaotic, the religious version of a bad day at the U.N.

Yet precisely when chaos started to set in, a quiet transformation was taking place. Rabbis and Imams began to talk to each other. Over dinner and in the lobby, conversations about the theological, the political, and even the trivial began to sprout. At night, the musically minded sat together and shared Jewish and Muslim songs. I began a series of heartwarming conversations with Ibrahim, an Imam from London. We spoke of the challenges we both faced in our communities, of being religious minorities, of sustaining faith in secular times. While no comprehensive solution to the Mideast conflict was achieved, many of us genuinely connected on a personal level.

These informal interactions made the conference into a genuine success. It’s impossible to expect that a couple of clergymen will fashion a blueprint for peace in a half a week. But what we did do is open lines of communication. Perhaps someday, both communities will have more to say to each other. For now, communication is an excellent first step.

More importantly, the conference offered an alternate model of reality. The general expectation is that any gathering of Jews and Muslims will be much like a wrestling match: noisy, nasty, and ultimately embarrassing. Yet in Seville, we realized that Muslim-Jewish conflict need not be the norm. The vast majority of us sat together, ate together, and became friends with each other. Despite disagreements and disputes, we appreciated our time together. Unfortunately, the comfortable everyday socializing we had in Seville is far too uncommon elsewhere.

In one of my conversations with a Muslim diplomat, I related to him a Chassidic story. A King is told by his advisors that there is no healthy grain for the coming year. The only grain available is diseased and will temporarily turn the entire population insane. The King and his advisor realize they have no choice but to eat the tainted grain themselves, and then lose their own sanity. But they decide that both of them will make a mark on their foreheads. This way when they look at each other’s forehead, they will realize for a short moment they are both mad, that their imagined reality is completely distorted. I explained to him that conflicts between Muslims and Jews, like all conflicts, are a bit of temporary insanity. And for three days, the Rabbis and Imams were stopping for a moment to look at the mark on the forehead, and remembering what peace could be like.

The conference of Imams and Rabbis did not proceed as planned. But well executed plans are not the only barometer of success. Success can lurk under the surface, at coffee breaks and late night conversations. Sometimes, it is an achievement for Rabbis who have never met an Imam, and Imams who have never met a Rabbi, to sit and talk to each other amicably.

As I was switching planes in London, Ibrahim came over and gave me a big hug. No, we weren’t anywhere near the end, but at least we had made a first step. And I realized that this story doesn’t have a happy ending….yet. However, many of us were moving in the right direction, one conversation at a time. And if we keep talking, it just might have a happy ending eventually.

Friday, March 24, 2006

Hi! i'm back from Seville. I will be posting about this early next week, I hope. In the meantime, you can read about it here and here and here.

Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Beat the Deadline

An e-mail recently arrived from my ever patient editor, stating: “Reminder-Today is the deadline for your column”. Yes, I had forgotten about the deadline, and I hurried to get something finished in time.

Deadlines work. They motivate procrastinators to finally get something done. They push people to make quick decisions. That’s why on the Home Shopping Network, it announces “there are only 23 minutes left to buy this item”. Deadlines come when a window of opportunity is closing, and people don’t like missing opportunities.

There is something jarring about the word deadline. And for a moment that day, the word deadline reminded me of that ultimate dead-line, death.

We ignore this ultimate deadline. Woody Allen put it this way: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Indeed, the Midrash says that the ability to repress thoughts of death is a divine gift, without which we’d become depressed and cease to be productive.

However, disregarding death is a mistake. The Bible says “the heart of the wise man is in the house of mourning”. The house of mourning can be a house of learning, with the ultimate deadline teaching the lessons.

Life is easily wasted. The famous quote of Marcus Aurelius, “live each day as if it were the last”, reminds us that the key to life is beating the ultimate deadline. Enjoy life before it’s too late. The Talmud says “grab and eat, grab and drink, for this world we will leave is like a banquet”. Live a meaningful right now. Rabbi Eliezer says that one must repent every day, because each day may be one’s last. Life’s too short to ignore our spiritual possibilities.

Death also teaches us what’s truly important. Our priorities change if we think about what our legacy will be. A French newspaper prematurely published an obituary for Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite in 1888. Nobel read his own “obituary”, and disturbed by its critical tone, decided to create a better legacy for himself by establishing the Nobel Prizes.

You don’t need to establish (or win) a Nobel Prize to create a legacy; even small acts of greatness count. The Talmud tells of an elderly man who was planting a carob tree, a tree which takes 70 years to bear fruit. A Rabbi asked the man: do you expect to eat carob fruit 70 years from now? The man answered, that he was planting the tree for his children, much like his father before him had planted trees for him as well. This simple tree was his legacy, an act of intergenerational love lived on, well past any deadlines.

I hope my editor will be happy; I’m getting this article in on time. I also hope that some day, when I face the great editor upstairs, I will have everything I need in order, just in time for the deadline.

Monday, February 06, 2006

Lost in Time

I am starved for time. Pressing matters appear out of nowhere to shred my schedule, and my "to do" list gets pushed to the next day. Then, on the next day, the same "to do" list will most likely be neglected again.

Yes, I should learn something about time management. Indeed, there's no shortage of books about the subject. And there are "next generation" organizers (good organizers are never of this generation), promising to make us more efficient and successful. These books and tools are great. But what truly confounds me is not my own inefficient habits. Rather, I am perplexed by time itself.

How should I spend my time? At a certain point in life (middle age, to be
exact) we begin to wonder more and more whether we are using our time wisely. We have spent the previous twenty years driving ourselves harder and harder, utilizing time as the highway to distant goals. Each time we reach a goal, we race headlong into another project, working again on future objectives. At times, when our work is challenging and satisfying, we can imagine racing down this highway forever.

At the same time, I have doubts about this endless highway of ambition. Aren't we supposed to stop and smell the roses? Perhaps time is like a hot cup of tea, meant to be slowly savored in Zen like tranquility. Maybe, the rat race is just a soul stifling sideshow. It might be better to pull a Gauguin, and disappear into the South Pacific. So I am torn, with voices in mind my pushing and pulling, debating the relative merits of leisure and late night work.

The voices in my mind (all former Yeshiva students) quote Bible to me. The Sabbath is a day of rest, and sitting back and appreciating God's world is something holy. Yet, the Torah promotes an ambitious work ethic. The Book of Job says "man is created to work". Appreciation and ambition both make convincing arguments, and both are correct.

What time really demands is the ability to shift gears. One must be able to move between ambition and appreciation, depending on the situation. At times you have to leave the fast paced business world to spend time with family, and at times you have to pick up the pace and accomplish more. True time management is learning how to find time for both labor and leisure. For those of us lost in time, it may be best to put aside the next generation planners and consider some ancient advice. The Book of Ecclesiastes tells us "There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven". There is a time for smelling roses and a time for running races. The key is to accept the fact you have to do both.

Tuesday, January 24, 2006

The Miner’s Tragedy and the Narrowing of the Orthodox Mind

The dual tragedies of the Sago mine explosion and the Alma mine fire, which left 14 dead, had a powerful impact on public opinion. Immediately after these disasters, there were calls for reexamining mining procedures, and finding new ways to upgrade mine safety.

As could be expected, Jewish organizations stayed silent. Mine safety is not considered a “Jewish” issue. This parochialism is perhaps forgivable in secular Jewish organizations whose entire purpose is to protect specifically Jewish interests. However, I find it disturbing that religious organizations, particularly from my own community, the Orthodox community, have not spoken up. Their mission is to articulate an Orthodox voice on matters of religious importance. And mine safety is an important religious issue.

Safety is a religious obligation. The Bible requires that a roof be properly gated to prevent people from falling off it. The Talmud understands this commandment as a general directive to remove any safety hazard. The late chief Rabbi of Israel, Rabbi Benzion Uziel, included in this commandment the employer's responsibility to ensure occupational safety, and the late leader of the Edah Hacharedit, Rabbi Yitzchak Isaac Weiss, saw this commandment as an injunction against reckless driving. If all forms of safety are a religious concern, why are Orthodox Jews silent about mine safety?

Regrettably, the silence on mine safety can be traced to a false dichotomy between the ethical and the ritual held by some in the Orthodox community. They see ritual requirements, such as the kosher laws and the Sabbath, as “true” Judaism, and underemphasize Judaism’s ethical and humane requirements. This is why it’s not unusual for Orthodox Jews to be extremely punctilious about ritual commandments, and at the same time smoke like chimneys and drive like maniacs. In particular, we ignore what Rabbi Walter Wurzberger called “an ethic of responsibility", for committed Jews to take responsibility for the world politically, ethically, economically. Even worse, basic interpersonal ethics are at times ignored. Indeed, all too often, we are treated to the sad scene of Jews walking out of criminal court proudly displaying knitted kippahs and fur shtreimels and black fedoras. They remember God, they just forget His ethical commandments.

This false dichotomy between the ethical and ritual is not new. Amos and Isaiah react to unethical people who want to buy God’s favor by performing the ritual of sacrifices. The prophets denounce this hypocrisy, and explain that God despises the sacrifices of unethical people, and ask man to “learn to do well; seek justice, relieve the oppressed, judge the fatherless, and plead for the widow”.

While the ritual commandments play an indispensible role in Judaism, it is important to recognize that ritual is a double edged sword. On the one hand, ritual can create true piety by intensifying man’s relationship with God, and reinforcing man’s moral integrity. On the other hand, ritual can disintegrate into superstition, with rituals becoming a magical way to call down God’s blessing, wholly disconnected from issues of character and morality.

In contemporary society, there is a new phenomenon behind this false dichotomy. Orthodox Jews are often seen as exotic figures straight out of the movies. We look different, eat different foods, and have different holidays. In a recent interview with a Quebec magazine, the reporter asked me why Orthodox Jews wear kippot, what is an eruv, and why we eat in the sukkah. What interested him most were the “unusual” things Orthodox Jews do. To many outsiders, Judaism is about the things that make us mysterious and different.

Unfortunately, we have internalized the Hollywood view of Judaism. Because we are obviously different than the rest of society, we imagine the primary purpose of Judaism is simply to be different. This is why mundane topics like safety and ethics are neglected; after all, being ethical isn’t all that exotic.

Even influential Jewish thinkers are vulnerable to this misconception. In a recent article in the Jerusalem Post, an important Orthodox writer argued:“…if Judaism was merely a good-deeds religion there would be nothing to differentiate us from many secularists and people of other faiths…… this is not what Judaism is primarily about. Our religion is about Torah and mitzvot, about obedience and limitations….”. Sadly, this writer unwittingly provides the recipe for a narrow Judaism more interested in being different than in being good.

Of course, as both Rabbi Akiva and Hillel emphasize, ethics are the foundation of Judaism. Yet this emphasis does not devalue the Torah’s rituals. On the contrary, combined with ethics, these rituals become part of a powerful, meaningful whole. Judaism is not about being exotic, it's about being holy. Defining Judaism solely by being different puts us in danger of becoming caricatures of ourselves.

Indeed, many great Rabbis hold a much broader view of Judaism. Rabbi Yehuda Amital, the former Rosh Yeshiva of Yeshivat Har Etzion, was once asked what position he would seek if he was asked to join the Israeli cabinet. He explained he would want to be minister of Health, because Halacha demands one be more stringent about health than any other religious requirement. The late Klausenberger Rebbe, Rabbi Yekusiel Halberstam, saw treating other human beings with great compassion as his legacy, and made it his life’s work to open a hospital in the city of Netanya. To these Rabbis, safety and ethics were not at all secular concerns.

Safety is a religious issue, and there is a Jewish view on the mining disasters. Thinking otherwise produces a movie set Judaism that is both narrow minded and empty.

Tuesday, January 10, 2006

The Lost Art of Hello

It should be easy. The Mishnah says “one should greet everyone with a pleasant face”. At first glance, this Mishnah seems redundant. Doesn’t everyone say hello?

Actually, saying hello is not so simple. Yes, we imagine that we greet others properly. But in actuality, life can get in the way. When we’re rushed or stressed or haven’t had our first cup of coffee, (my personal weakness), the greeting we give is often meager and grumpy. Without a good mood it’s hard to give a truly welcoming hello.

And that’s too bad. A greeting is too important to be a rote reaction dependent on a passing mood. A proper greeting is a mini-mission, an attempt to add warmth and cheer to another person’s day. You must block out annoyances and distractions, and offer a genuine person to person welcome.

Unfortunately, the welcoming hello is a lost art. People don’t say hello anymore. We certainly don’t address strangers, even when crowded together in an elevator. In fact, big city etiquette demands we avoid making eye contact, acting as if the other person isn’t really there. But we don’t only ignore strangers. Even with acquaintances, our greetings are designed to offer a minimum of friendship with a maximum of time efficiency.

Even worse is how we treat proper greetings with contempt. People who offer greetings are often held at a distance, as if they are some sort of threat. In particular, I am shocked how people in the service field are often abused. We turn our heads away from Wal-Mart’s greeters, and shout our complaints at the secretary before she has a chance to say good morning. Their welcoming hellos are usually ignored.

Small towns do things differently. As the sociologist Ferdinand Tonnies noted, big cities develop because it is in the economic and political interests of those who live there. They are instrumental societies based on personal interests. By contrast, in small towns the community is an end in itself. People are there because they desire living in a community. That’s why strangers will receive far more hellos in Thunder Bay than they will in downtown Manhattan. Small towns know what community is all about.

It’s time to bring that small town spirit into our communities, however large they are. Isn’t it distressing that on Shabbat, in Montreal or Brooklyn or Miami, people don’t automatically say “good Shabbos” in the street to each other? Isn’t it wrong for a visitor to enter a synagogue without even one person offering a hello?

I am proud that in our synagogue there is a small cadre of people who perform the lost art of hello. When someone enters, they greet them and make them feel at home. Armed with a few words of conversation, they keep the spirit of community alive. Their mission is simple yet holy: “greet everyone with a pleasant face”.