Monday, August 31, 2009

Flying Rabbis and Building Fences: The Right Way to Respond to H1N1

It was the perfect newspaper picture: fifty Rabbis sitting on a plane, sounding the shofar. They were on a special charter flight flying over Israel, hoping to use special prayers to ward off an onslaught of H1N1.

Now, I love prayer; without it, Judaism is unthinkable. And I appreciate how these Rabbis want to protect the entire community. But even so, I wasn’t happy with this flight. By emphasizing an exotic form of prayer, these Rabbis seem to have forgotten that in Judaism, using purel is also a religious act.

Safety is a religious obligation. The Bible requires that a roof be properly gated to prevent people from falling off it. 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. So why are Rabbis flying around in planes instead of handing out purel dispensers?

Regrettably, this can be traced to a false dichotomy between the ethical and the ritual. Some mistakenly see ritual requirements, such as the kosher laws and the Sabbath, as “true” Judaism, and underemphasize Judaism’s ethical 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 the responsibility of committed Jews to take responsibility for the world politically, ethically, economically.

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. To the mass media, Judaism is primarily about rituals that make Jews mysterious and different.

Unfortunately, Jews have internalized this view of Judaism, and we now 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.

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 health measures are the authentic Jewish response to H1N1. Thinking otherwise produces a movie set Judaism that is both narrow minded and empty.

(much of this is recycled from an old post of mine)

Friday, August 28, 2009

H1N1, Flying Rabbis, and Building Fences - Parshat Ki Teitze

We thank Lessy and Earl Kimmel of Montreal for sponsoring this video.

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project.You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ! Please e-mail if you are interested.

Thursday, August 06, 2009

A Test Too Easy To Pass: The Problems of Wealth and Security

We thank Anna and Joe Mendel of Montreal for sponsoring this video.

Thank you to Abigail Hirsch for videotaping this video, and to Lorne Lieberman for his support of the video project.

You can sponsor these weekly videos with a 54$ donation to TBDJ! Please e-mail if you are interested.

Wednesday, August 05, 2009

Why Jews Fight, Why Your Kindly Uncle is a Racist, and Why Your Cousin is Volunteering in Senegal: The Mysteries of Love Explained, in 1000 Words

Montreal’s Orthodox Jewish community is situated alongside a five mile stretch of Van Horne Avenue-Fleet Road. On this road, ranging from west to east, is every philosophy of Orthodoxy from left to right. In the west is the “modern” Orthodox area; traveling east, you pass through the neighborhood of the Lubavitch Chassidim. Further east are the neighborhoods for “Litvishe”, and then “Chassidishe” Jews.

In June, communities in the west and east gathered for the sake of “pidyon shevuyim”, releasing captives who have been unjustly incarcerated. In the east, a communal meeting was held on behalf of Yaakov Grunwald, Yoel Goldstein and Yossi Bandau, three young Chassidic boys who were caught smuggling drugs and imprisoned in Japan. In the west, synagogues gathered to pray for Gilad Shalit, the 23 year old Israeli soldier who was kidnapped by Hamas on June 25th three years ago.

Of course, I worry about all of these young men. I worry for the prisoners in Japan, who naively thought they were making a delivery for a member of their community. I worry for Gilad Shalit, who is being held by violent, hate filled terrorists who want to torture and murder him. But I worry most about our community. How is it that on one side of Decarie barely a word is mentioned about Grunwald, Goldstein and Bandau, and on the other side, all are silent about Shalit? Each community seems to pursuing narrow interests, working to release the captives that are one of their “own”. It seems that despite physical proximity, the world of the “modern” Orthodox community in the west and the ultra-Orthodox community in the east couldn’t be further apart. And the divide within the Orthodox community in Montreal is a common one, found in communities around the world from Brooklyn to Beit Shemesh. And as disappointing as this inter-Orthodox divide is, it pales in comparison with the battles between secular and religious in Israel, and the split between Reform, Conservative and Orthodox Jews around the world. And of course, if we consider the divisions between Jew, Christian and Muslim, Black and White, ethnic rivalries, political rivalries, etc, etc., you begin to realize that the world can be a pretty divided place. Loving one’s fellow man is a challenging task indeed.

What makes love so difficult? There are two primary challenges. One is xenophobia, the fear of the stranger. Human nature is such that we meet people who are different than us with condescension and concern. The stranger is viewed as a threat or an inferior, either as someone who we fear may abuse us, or someone whom we desire to abuse. In some instances, both xenophobic images are combined. The biblical Egyptians, frightened at the increasing strength of the local Jewish population, decide to enslave the despicable, insect-like Jews. Later, the Nazis would also present a contradictory picture of the Jews, as both manipulative, omnipotent creatures, and as dirty and despicable vermin. The incoherence of this picture is irrelevant; xenophobia stirs up the irrational.

Ironically, xenophobia doesn’t discriminate in its pursuit of discrimination. Any difference, including skin color, religion, and even gender can inspire xenophobia. And xenophobia is a two way street; Christians can hate Jews because of their religion, but Jews can hate Christians just as intensely. The subtlest of differences can feed the paranoia xenophobia depends on.

The second challenge to love comes from closeness. Freud used the phrase “the narcissism of small differences” to describe the work of British anthropologist Ernest Crawley. Crawley discovered that groups with greater degrees of similarity would often treat each other with greater degrees of enmity and aggression than strangers. Indeed, the people most similar to us upset us the most, because we expect them to be exactly like us, and are disappointed when they aren’t. (Which is why it shouldn’t be a surprise that in the Book of Genesis, sibling conflict is the virulent and frequent. Siblings are the ones most like ourselves, and therefore the people most capable of inspiring the narcissism of small differences).

The narcissism of small differences is why many Orthodox Jews spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about the material and size of their kippot, and why the minutiae of Shabbat laws can inspire a synagogue battle royale over the use of frosted greetings on birthday cakes. Despite being only .02 percent of the world’s population, even Orthodox Jews find it hard to get along with each other.

Everyone wants to love someone, and so many choose to love some people and ignore others. Some people love those closest to them so intensely, they immediately disdain those who are different; xenophobia gets in the way of universal love. Others desire to embrace the exotic, and find it difficult to care for their boring and unenlightened kinfolk; here, the narcissism of small differences gets in the way truly universal love. This is why your uncle, who is deeply devoted to community, says the most despicably racist things at the dinner table; and this is why your cousin volunteers summers in Senegal, but completely ignores the people of Sderot.

The Torah requires that we open our hearts to both kinds of love. It commands us to love the neighbor, the people closest, and most annoying, to us; it also requires that we learn to love the stranger, the person who is suspiciously different. The genius of these two parallel commandments is that for some it is a challenge to love the stranger, while for others, it’s loving our neighbors that gets complicated.

God demands of us to love his children, all 6.6 Billion of them. That includes your irritating second cousin and the strange looking foreigner on the subway; and believe it or not, it even includes the Jews five miles down the road.