Friday, November 25, 2011

Interest Free Loans: The Uncharity

Charity comes straight from the heart. Everybody can feel the pain of those in need, which is why compassionate people want to give the hungry food. When it comes to charity, the Jewish community can certainly take pride in the remarkable sums that we raise each year to take care of the poor. This philanthropic excellence highlights what is called “the Jewish heart”.

But charity at its best doesn’t only come from the heart; it comes from the mind as well. Charity should be given in a way that maximizes the impact on the recipient, and it should be given in a way that best preserves the dignity of those in need. The Bible tells us that we need to dream of a day when “there may be no more destitute among you”; to accomplish this, we must not only give from the heart, but also from the mind. When you give from the heart, you give the poor food; when you give from the mind, you give the poor a livelihood.

The Jewish tradition of giving from the mind is best expressed by the interest free loan. The Bible insists that we lend to our hand “to strengthen” those who are slipping by lending them some money. As the 11th commentator Rashi explains, to strengthen a person when they slip will save a great deal of effort; a lot less help is required to help someone who is slipping than to help someone who has fallen. Lending to someone who is in a credit crunch is much easier for the community than supporting someone who has fallen bankrupt.

But the interest free loan is more than a preventative measure. It is actually a form of charity that isn’t charity, the “uncharity”. Maimonides, the great medieval Jewish thinker and author, explains that there are different levels of charity; the highest form of charity is found when you give someone an interest free loan or a job. By giving someone an opportunity to flourish independently, we have given them the greatest gift of all, and by giving someone a loan rather than a gift, we have preserved their dignity. Ironically, the greatest form of charity is not a charity at all, it is the uncharity, where the recipient leaves without a handout, but with his head held high and with hope for a better future.

Today, the world has begun to understand the Jewish wisdom of the uncharity. Microlending, another form of what Jews have practiced for decades, is now making a powerful impact on the developing world. It is based on this simple wisdom that one must always give from the heart and the mind, and look to enable the poor to feed themselves. The practice of this “uncharity” can remove poverty from the world, by enabling the poor to support themselves in dignity and pride.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

Steve Jobs, Noah, and Living Outside of the Box

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Welcome Home Gilad

Tears are running down my face; I have just heard the news that a deal has been reached to bring Gilad Shalit home in a few days. I read articles about the deal, and I cry.

No, I have never met Gilad Shalit; yet I cry about his return anyway. I don’t know his family, yet I have spoken about Gilad every Shabbat for the last five years. In that time, I’ve lobbied the Canadian Parliament for Gilad, run publicity campaigns for Gilad, and written articles for Gilad.

And now I cry for joy. I cry for Gilad.

There is of course, a big question about Gilad’s release: is it worth it? There’s been a great debate about whether or not this deal is a good idea or not. In return for Gilad, 1,000 hardcore supporters of Hamas will be released. Hundreds of them have blood on their hands. Some argue that not only is Israel giving up too much, but that this deal will encourage Hamas to continue acts of terror. And of the 1,000 who are released, who knows what harm they will do?

The other point of view maintains that bringing Gilad home is important for the morale of every soldier. Hamas needs no encouragement to do acts of terror, but Israeli soldiers and their families need to know that the government of Israel will do anything for their release. Both points of view have real merit, and even though it sounds wishy washy, I find it hard not to nod in agreement with both sets of arguments.

But today I’m not thinking of debates; I’m just happy for Gilad and his family, and that’s what’s unusual. I’m left wondering why I’m crying for a total stranger. Is it normal to walk around with teary eyed about someone you’ve never met? And I know I’m not the only one to cry; I’ve seen the reactions of everyone around me to this news. Gilad is not a celebrity, he’s certainly no Steve Jobs; he’s just a nice young man who had the misfortune of being kidnapped. Yet for five years, millions of people have been thinking about Gilad every day, and today, they are crying tears of joy. But why are they crying?

Actually, there’s lesson about Jewish identity in our tears. To be Jewish is not just to be part of a religion or a nation, it’s to be part of a family. The Book of Genesis tells a story of a family, the family of Abraham and Sara, the family that ultimately gave birth to the Jewish people. One would think that Genesis would be a lot shorter, and would only dwell on the spiritual and political achievements of this family; after all, we just want to know a little bit of the early background of the nation, before jumping into the actual history of the Jews. But instead, Genesis goes on at length about this family’s dynamics, telling all about feuds and competition and love and forgiveness. It does so, because Genesis isn’t merely the prologue to Jewish history, it is the foundation of Jewish History. The lesson of Genesis is that even when the family evolves into a nation, the nation never stops being a family. We are, to use the Biblical phrase, “Israel’s children”, brothers and sisters in one large family of thirteen million people.

For better or for worse, this sense of family is very much a part of Jewish identity. Jews, even total strangers, will treat each other with all the familiarity, warmth and dysfunction of any family. Yes, we argue too much, often about petty things; but when the chips are down, we’re there for each other. One feels connected to a fellow Jew no matter where they are from, whether it be Montreal, Montivideo or Mumbai, because we’re all from the same the family.

And that’s why I had tears in my eyes upon hearing of Gilad’s release. Even though we don’t know each other, Gilad is still part of our family; and even though we haven’t met, Gilad is still my brother. Like millions of other Jews, I’m really happy Gilad’s coming home.

So, welcome home Gilad. Your thirteen million brothers and sisters have been waiting for you.

Friday, September 23, 2011

How to Keep a Defeat From Becoming a Failure (pre-Rosh Hashanah video)

Thank you Abigail!

Tuesday, August 30, 2011

My Problem with Jason Alexander

I got a sick feeling in my stomach when I read that Jason Alexander, (who played George Costanza on the hit T.V. show Seinfeld), was going to headline fundraising events for the Federation’s annual campaigns in Montreal and Toronto. Of course, events like these are not unusual; similar occasions elsewhere regularly feature all sorts of celebrities, including sports stars, politicians, business executives, models and movie producers. But it still bothers me that we need celebrities to sell charity.

Make no mistake; I absolutely supported inviting Jason Alexander. (full disclosure – I’m a Vice President of our local Federation). Federations have first and foremost a responsibility to raise money to feed the poor, to support Jewish education and to defend the state of Israel. The Montreal and Toronto events sold out, due to the celebrity power of Jason Alexander; and that translates directly into more money for communal needs. If Jason Alexander can help the community feed even one more poor family, then I’m all for inviting him. The needy family receiving some extra support certainly won't mind.

I didn’t have a problem with Jason Alexander’s presentation either. Yes, I cringed when I heard some of the sarcastic things he said about his Jewish background. He made fun of his Hebrew school, his Bar Mitzvah, and his parent’s hypocrisy. Judaism doesn’t inspire Jason Alexander spiritually. But I can’t fault him for that; like many Jews of his generation, Jason Alexander was taught a hollow Judaism, an empty piety based on guilt, fear and hypocrisy. You can’t blame the messenger for the message he delivers.

Actually, my problem with Jason Alexander isn’t with him, but with the size of the audience that went to see him. It’s always easy to get a sellout crowd for a man whose major accomplishment in life was appearing on a hit TV show that ran for nine years. While he was speaking, I couldn’t help wondering; would a similar crowd have come out for Natan Sharasky, who spent nine heroic years in a Soviet prison? Sadly, a hero like Sharansky just wouldn’t sell the same way. Today, celebrity matters most, and style is prized above substance; in virtually any venue, an Oscar winner will sell more tickets than a Nobel Prize winner. The reality is that an actor from a “show about nothing” is far more popular than the real people who have done something, and celebrities garner far more respect than the fireman, policemen and soldiers who risk their own lives daily in order to protect and save the lives of others. North American culture seems to get more superficial by the day.

For Jews, this superficiality is especially dangerous. Far too many Jews subscribe to the movie set version of Jewish identity. All you need is a few Jewish props, and you’re an authentic Jew: a plate of gefilte fish on the table, some cantorial music in the background, and a conversation sprinkled with a few Yiddish words. A Jewish style Jew will know all of celebrities in Adam Sandler’s Hannukah song, but none of the Rabbis in the Mishnah. In an era of superficiality, it’s easy to latch on to a Jewish identity that is about nothing.

Jewish identity used to be about something. Jews have disagreed on about virtually everything, but there was once a universal consensus that Judaism is a serious, thoughtful undertaking. Instead of chasing movie stars, Jews used to pursue ideas. Indeed, Jews have always been passionate about learning. Jerome, the Church father, remarked that in the fourth century that the average Jew knew the Tanakh by heart. In Eastern Europe, bakers and coachmen would hurry to the shtibl to study some Ein Yaakov and weekly Parsha. Even the illiterate would come to synagogue, hoping to catch a snatch of enlightening conversation. We have always seen ourselves as “the People of the Book”*, a name that we have proudly embraced. At the very least, to be Jewish means to be passionate about ideas and learning.

But now superficiality threatens to undermine this vital tradition. The new Jewish “Stars of David”** are known for their acting and not their actions. For too many Jews, Jewish learning is no longer a passion. Sadly, we are no longer the People of the Book; we’re now the People of People magazine.

And that’s my problem with Jason Alexander.

* (the phrase "People of the Book" first appears in the Koran)

** (name of an actual book about Jewish celebrities. Jason Alexander is interviewed there as well).

Monday, June 20, 2011

Circumcision is Incompatible with the 21st Century: An Orthodox Rabbi Agrees

It’s easy to dismiss the supporters of a November ballot initiative in San Francisco to make it “unlawful to circumcise, excise, cut, or mutilate the whole or any part of the foreskin, testicles, or penis of another person who has not attained the age of 18 years.” Like all true believers, these “intactivists” engage in junk science and exaggerated rhetoric about “male genital mutilation”. Further discrediting the anti-circumcision cause is the fact that the movement’s leadership peddles propaganda that borders on the anti-Semitic, such as the anti-circumcision comic book “Foreskin Man”, which reads like a sophomoric plagiary of a superhero cartoon, a racy Penthouse fantasy and Der Sturmer. One could imagine that after November the intactivist movement will quickly pass from center stage. But that would be a mistake.

Circumcision is unsettling. As the actor Russell Crowe wrote on Twitter: "I love my Jewish friends, I love the apples and the honey and the funny little hats but stop cutting yr babies.". Despite the politically incorrect tone, Crowe makes it clear why the anti-circumcision movement is here to stay: circumcisions are bloody and make babies cry. Even the committed among us are uncomfortable, and most of us look down nervously when the mohel begins the ceremony. It’s painful to enter the Covenant of Abraham.

In the past, circumcision was considered attractive because of its health benefits, and even many non-Jews were routinely circumcised. Today, it’s debatable if circumcision’s health benefits warrant it being a standard procedure. Without a clear medical rationale, non-Jews will stop circumcising their children, and marginally affiliated Jews are sure to follow. The Jewish community can no longer rely on doctors to do the mohel’s job, and regardless of the outcome in San Francisco, it will be a lot harder to convince apathetic Jewish parents to perform circumcisions. Why would any parent want to endure the blood, pain and tears of their baby’s circumcision for no reason?

In short, circumcision is a marketing nightmare; outside of a deep commitment to Judaism, there’s no good reason to do them. This point is significant, because the Jewish community is intoxicated with marketing. Federations commission countless surveys to find out what young Jews want. Jewish professionals search for ways to make their programs “hipper”. The almighty “social media” must be deployed in the battle for the hearts of the younger members of the tribe. Grant money flows liberally to market driven, cutting edge, jargon laden programs with a social media presence.

I can’t argue against good marketing; representatives of a religion that has prized ideas should be able to communicate well. But there’s a thin line between marketing well and being “market driven”. The market driven vision believes that the customer is always right. So if it’s Yiddish or yoga or Jewish jokes that turn young Jews on, let’s pour community resources into a Yiddish Yoga Yuckfest. (With bagels, lox and cream cheese, of course). Instead of challenging young Jews, a market driven vision of Judaism seeks to produce a 21st century Judaism that will make our customers happy.

But here comes the problem. Aspects of Judaism like circumcision will always be unpopular in customer surveys. If we leave the future of Judaism in the hands of marketing experts, challenging rituals like circumcision or Passover or Yom Kippur will be ignored, and we will end up with a smooth syncretistic mumbo jumbo that has no resemblance to our 3,000 year old tradition.

I’m a modern Orthodox rabbi who talks a great deal about the place of Judaism in the 21st century. But increasingly I’ve come to realize that circumcision is incompatible with the times, as is much of Judaism. But Jews should be proud of how different we are. In an era of unprecedented individualism and hedonism, Jews declare that community is critical, even for an eight day old baby. We take pride in a ritual that affirms that sexual desire is not meant to be left unrestrained, but must be shaped by values of fidelity and devotion. When others seek endless comfort, we are willing to say that doing the right thing might be painful, but it’s still worthwhile.

Over the years, I’ve met inspiring people from the Former Soviet Union who performed circumcisions under heroic circumstances. Defying the Communist dictatorship, they would huddle surreptitiously and perform the covenant of Abraham on children of varying ages. The amazing thing is that these Jews in the FSU had no Jewish education whatsoever. But even with only a rudimentary knowledge of Judaism, they understood that being Jewish means going against the current, and being Jewish requires personal sacrifice.

Even though North American Jews enjoy freedom and prosperity, we need to explain to young Jews that they too have to be willing to defy the spirit of the times to be Jewish. After all, Judaism is more than apples, honey and funny little hats.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Survivor's Guilt and The 614th Commandment

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for a wonderful job videotaping, and to Lorne Lieberman for his encouragement and ideas.

Monday, March 14, 2011

The Pope Pardons the Jews!!!!

This item is big news for some.

I wrote a short response, because I think the problem has always been with a misunderstanding of the context of early Christianity.

Forgiving the Jews

Did the Jews kill Jesus, or did the Romans kill Jesus? It doesn’t really matter.

The sources on the crucifixion are fragmentary and contradictory. But even if an archeological discovery proved the Jews responsible, it shouldn’t make the slightest difference in Christian-Jewish relations.

For centuries, some Christians projected their anti-Semitic biases onto the events surrounding the crucifixion. They imagined the Jews set out to kill Jesus because he was a Christian, and only a people that hates Christians could do that. They imagined the Jews set out to kill the Son of God, and only demonic people could do this. Because of this, countless Jews were persecuted as “Christ-killers”, and Crusade upon Massacre upon Pogrom were perpetrated against the Jews.

Jewish and liberal Christian scholars once spent a great deal of energy trying to prove decisively that the Romans were responsible for the crucifixion; they imagined if Jews ceased to be “Christ-killers”, then anti-Semitism would diminish.

This was a mistaken approach, because it reinforced the myth that somehow Jesus was a Christian cast into a foreign Jewish society. In actuality, the crucifixion occurred in the aftermath of an intramural Jewish struggle, involving theology and politics; all involved were proud Jews. These sorts of internecine battles sadly still occur today, in events like the assassination of Yitzchak Rabin.

The Jew vs. Jew context of the crucifixion narratives render the question of who killed Jesus irrelevant to Christian-Jewish relations. Vatican II recognized this. Pope Benedict XVI continues to recognize this. It’s a tragic shame that Christians in previous generations couldn’t recognize this; far too many Jews lost their life due to a theological fraud, an anti-Semitic misreading of ancient Jewish history.

Monday, January 31, 2011

Our Friends, Our Enemies, and Ourselves

My synagogue has recently been in the news. On a cold January Saturday night, vandals broke the windows of six different Montreal synagogues, including my own, an attack that was reported in the media the world over. In 2011, even a small wave of anti-Semitism is big news.

The fact that Jews still have real enemies will come to some as a bit of a shock. This attack provided an ugly reminder that even in open and democratic countries anti-Semitism is still very much alive. Living in a liberal society, we sometimes imagine that anti-Semitism is the result of some sad misunderstanding, and if only we can have anti-Semites meet with Jews, this age old hatred would melt away, Hollywood style. But that would be a mistake. In the online comments section of the Globe and Mail newspaper, multiple comments were removed by the moderator; a quick glance at some of the remaining comments gives you the flavor of what was removed. One commenter wrote that “Maybe the reason there is so much hatred toward Jews is because people feel in their heart something isn't right. This makes the news ?!? But truth about 9/11 and "dancing Israelis" Mossad boys doesn't make the news.” Another commenter wrote “I suspect that this was done by local kids... jewish kids stirring things up. Or maybe somebody not so young, cranking up the goyim guilt factor.” Like anti-Semites of every era, these writers believe that Jews should be hated because they are conspiratorial and evil. Paranoid hatreds like anti-Semitism are impervious to diplomacy and conciliation. Our synagogue’s broken window is a reminder that Jews still have real enemies.

At the same time, the aftermath of this attack demonstrated how many friends our community has. I got a call from the leader of the Liberal opposition in parliament, Michael Ignatieff, and an e-mail from the Minister of Immigration, Jason Kenney. My inbox was a veritable interfaith gathering, with multiple responses from Ministers, Priests and Imams. Most touching was a note from the grandson of a Dutch man who had defended Jews from the Nazis, and had died in Sachsenhausen because of his activism; he wrote me to say that he would continue his grandfather’s legacy, and do anything he could to protect the Jews. 2011 is not 1938. The Jews are integrated into the mainstream, and most Canadians see an attack on Canadian Jews as an attack on Canadians, just as most Americans would see an attack on American Jews as an attack on Americans.

Contemporary acceptance of the Jews is remarkable by any standard. In a recent book, political scientists Robert Putnam of Harvard and David Campbell of Notre Dame found that Jews are the now most warmly regarded religious group in the United States. Sadly, the people who seem to show the least enthusiasm for Judaism are the people who matter the most: young Jews.

It’s sad that it takes a broken window to get Jews to think about their Judaism; in the aftermath of this attack, I heard from people I rarely see in synagogue. Like many North American synagogues, the majority of our members visit infrequently; and unless someone throws a rock through our window, the synagogue is forgotten 362 days a year.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks jokes that the one way to fill up synagogues would be by putting up large signs outside declaring “no Jews allowed”, because contemporary Jews would be certain to join any institution that would refuse them membership. Sacks is absolutely correct. Jews have had enormous success battling hatred and discrimination; we have made our way into country clubs that once restricted membership, and moved into neighborhoods that had restrictive covenants. But we are finding it much more difficult to handle success, and as Jews enter the mainstream, they leave their Jewish identities behind.

The Jewish world has changed in the last 100 years. Yes, we still have enemies, some as vicious as our enemies of 100 years ago. However, we have many more friends today, and Jews are a North American success story. What has changed the most is who we are ourselves. Jewish identity is increasingly defined by what we oppose: anti-Semitism, terrorism, and Holocaust denial. Otherwise, we have only the vaguest idea of what it means to live as a Jew.

But anti-Semitism may eventually fade away. And if anti-Semitism disappears, what will become of Jewish identity?

Monday, January 17, 2011

Anti-Semitism is My Problem. And it’s Your Problem Too.

(The news story can be found here.)

The first time I can remember encountering anti-Semitism was as a child of seven. An older child had spotted my kippah and started to make exaggerated faux "sneezing" sounds, saying "ah-Jew", with a sharp emphasis on the J. She repeated it several times, to make it amply clear what her true intent was.

As a young child, you aren't sure how to react. Do you start a fight? Do you shout? It'll make you look sillier. So you walk away, more comfortable avoiding anti-Semitism than confronting it.

Most of my life I have worked among Jews and lived in Jewish neighborhoods, and I’ve only had a few small experiences with anti-Semitism. And so, when I heard a vandal had broken a window in my synagogue, I went about my business, much like I had as a seven year old boy, some forty years ago.

My initial reaction is a common one in the Jewish community. After all, we think, this attack is not the end of the world. A broken window is a minor headache, several hundreds of dollars in damage and a five minute cleanup. So Jews shrug off petty attacks like this, realizing that they don’t even merit a footnote in the history of anti-Semitism.

Jews understand that we have it a lot better than our counterparts in Montreal 50 years ago, let alone our ancestors in the middle ages. So we ignore minor attacks, a defense mechanism that allows us to cope with world’s longest hatred. And when anti-Semitism does reach toxic levels, Jews have always found the courage to carry on in the face of persecution.

But when I got home and told my children about the attack, it felt uncomfortable. My children are less cynical than I am, and expect more from Canada. Yet I was telling them that their synagogue had been attacked. It was then that I realized I had reacted the wrong way.

Even when Jews try to forget about petty anti-Semitism, it really hurts inside. When someone has a break-in in their home, they feel their personal space has been violated and their sense of security been undermined. The broken window at our synagogues brings a similar sense of violation, and more. The perpetrators broke this window because they hate Jews; they hate me, they hate my wife, they hate my children, and they hate my community. They hate us just because we’re Jewish. I shudder to think of what these perpetrators would do if they found one of my children alone in a dark alley.

So a broken window is also a lot more than a broken window; it’s a direct attack on the Jewish community. And the Jewish community deserves better in Canada in 21st century.

The question that keeps popping up is "what can we do?". Well, we can start with the basics - condemn anti-Semitism. This may seem like motherhood and apple pie, but it's not. Some groups hide their anti-Semitism behind inflammatory slogans, using political conflicts to pursue an agenda of hatred. Others find it difficult to condemn anti-Semitism, thinking that because Jews have achieved remarkable success, the threat of anti-Semitism is unimportant. They feel that if you can well afford to fix the window, the broken window doesn’t hurt. These critics belittle anti-Semitism, seeing it a minor headache unimportant to most Canadians.

What we need to understand that Anti-Semitism is not just a Jewish problem; it’s everyone’s problem. History has shown that any tolerance for hatred opens the door for greater hatred. Anti-Semitism is an ideological illness, something that can spread if left unchecked. For the last century, the Jews have been the proverbial canary in the coal mine; the people who first target Jews continue on to murder millions of others. For the fomenters of hatred, Anti-Semitism is merely a phase in a grand plan of upheaval and destruction.

We cannot underestimate the violence of one broken window, and as Canadians, we cannot tolerate this type of hatred in our country. It’s time for public figures and the leaders of faith communities to condemn these attacks. Because anti-Semitism is not only my problem, it’s your problem too.

- Rabbi Chaim Steinmetz