Friday, July 27, 2012

Olympic Dreams and Jewish Nightmares: Times of Israel

This essay was posted in the Times of Israel - Olympic dreams and Jewish nightmares
Falkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”
In a passage found in this week’s Torah portion, (Deut. 1:19-25), Moses, speaking to the generation born in the Wilderness, the one that will cross over into the Promised Land, describes the travails of the prior generation, the one that died en route. Yet he uses the term “you,” implying that they themselves had experienced the events. For that generation, the past became present.
This weekend, for the entire world, the past will become present. As we focus on the opening of the Olympic Games in London, we’ll recall that in the heyday of the ancient Olympiads, every four years wars ceased for the moment while the spirit of athletic competition prevailed.
For Jews, the spotlight will be on events that took place simultaneously across the sea, at the western end of the Mediterranean, while the ancient Olympics flourished in Greece. In 586 BCE, the Babylonians sacked the Temple and destroyed Jerusalem. The spectacle of London on Friday followed by the sadness of Tisha B’Av on Saturday night will give us reason to reflect on the potential of nation states to live together in harmony – and to pummel one another into oblivion.
The modern Olympics began in Athens in 1896, precisely the year when Herzl published “The Jewish State,” responding to the anti-Semitism he witnessed while covering the Dreyfus trial in Paris for his Viennese newspaper. Herzl’s ideal was not unlike that of the Olympics. He envisioned a “normalized” Jewish nation, no different from all other nations. His Jewish State would have Jewish garbage collectors, Jewish journalists, Jewish prostitutes and Jewish athletes. He probably never could have imagined that his visage would grace a billboard for a falafel stand, but he probably would have liked the “normalcy” of the idea.

He envisioned a nation of “modern Maccabees,” and in that area, at least, Israelis have not disappointed. They’ve become adept at a number of Olympic sports, particularly sailing and, of all things, judo. I suppose it is appropriate that Jews are so good at “Jew-do.” Not only does the sport sound Jewish, but it celebrates the art of turning physical weakness to one’s advantage; its success is all about perseverance, strategy, mental toughness and balance. It’s a mind-body sport. We like those.
Ben Gurion said that the Land of Israel would not be delivered on a silver platter, but Yael Arad delivered a silver medal, Israel’s first-ever medal, at the Olympics in Barcelona in 1992, 500 years — almost to the day — after the Jews were evicted from Spain…on Tisha B’Av. It was a stunning way to say to the Spanish people, “We’re baaack,” and to cap a century of nation-building that began with Herzl.
So now Jews are normal again, just like the other nations. The Star of David will be held proudly with all the other flags on Friday.
But Herzl’s normalcy has brought the Jewish nation closer than ever to the kind of insecurity that plagued those who fought for national survival in 586 BCE and 70 CE, and 1948 and 1967. His modern Maccabees can’t live the carefree life that he imagined. Being normal has not yet yielded its fruit. Normal nations fall victim to great powers, get absorbed into empires and succumb to whims of warfare.
On Saturday night, as we begin the fast of Tisha B’Av, we’ll still be waiting for that glorious quadrennial ceasefire enjoyed by the athletes of ancient Olympia.
And all we’ll hear will be the lamentations of the widows and destitute of Jeremiah’s sacked and sackclothed Jerusalem.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Munich Plus 40

Join us this Friday evening when, during Kabbalat Shabbat services at 7:30, we'll commemorate the 40th anniversary of the horrible terror attack on Israeli athletes at the Munich Olympics. While this stain on the Olympic movement will not be recalled officially at the opening of the London games, ours is the burden, obligation and gift of memory.  Memory leads to vision - and this is in fact the Shabbat of Vision (Shabbat Hazon).  And so, we'll remember.

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Matisyahu (the Beardless One), My Rebbe (Times of Israel)

JULY 17, 2012, 7:37 PM 

I read with great interest the Times of Israel’s feature on Matisyahu, the “reformed-Hasidic” reggae singer who has shed his beard and simply refuses to be labeled.  My interest was piqued for two primary reasons:
-          I was at the concert described in the piece and absolutely stunned at the fervor of his fandom.
-          Now that he has shed his beard, he has become a model for a very different kind of Ba’al Teshuvah, one who sheds all masks while returning to personal authenticity.
I had never seen the singer in concert before and was excited that he would be coming to my home city of Stamford, a New York suburb turned corporate center that has attracted droves of young people with its revitalized downtown.  The outdoor concert (which took place in Columbus Park, not the Town Center, as the article intimated, but I nitpick) was part of a popular weekly summer series.  The Jewish community came out in droves, with the noticeable exception of the ultra-Orthodox, possibly because it took place during the Three Weeksand possibly also because of the artist’s mysterious recent transformation, his Yerida to beardlessness.
Matisyahu in Stamford, last week
I wondered whether he had been excommunicated to some corner of hell reserved forapikoroses, prime role models of Return that had somehow left that stereotypic fold.  Had he become like Elisha ben Abuya, the Talmudic sage whose forays into religious doubt had turned him into the original Voldemort in his colleagues’ eyes, He-Who-Must-Not-be-Named?  The Talmud simply calls Elisha “Aher,” the Other.  Should the Jewish community be ashamed of Matusyahu for this Spinoza-like independent streak?
We should be proud and he should be extolled.
At the concert, the throng of young fans were whipped into a frenzy, totally focused on the performer (as much as one could be given the  flasks of liquid refreshment being shared and some smoke that was not of the medicinal variety).  And they were singing about, well, the themes of the Three Weeks:
Jerusalem, if I forget you,
fire not gonna come from me tongue.
Jerusalem, if I forget you,
let my right hand forget what it’s supposed to do.
Put yourself in my shoes.  Any rabbi would absolutely sell his soul to be among thousands of 20 and 30-somethings, Jews and non Jews, swaying, hugging and singing about Jerusalem and other timeless Jewish themes.  He had us all lifting up our eyes toward the mountains as he quoted from Psalm 121.  He had us all dreaming of a better world with his rousing finale, “One Day.”
Sometimes in my tears I drown
But I never let it get me down
So when negativity surrounds
I know someday it’ll all turn around because
All my life I been waitin’ for
I been prayin’ for, for the people to say
That we don’t want to fight no more
They’ll be no more wars
And our children will play, one day.
I turned to my college student son and asked, “Do his fans really know what they are singing about? Do they connect his music to Judaism?”  He assured me that they do.
Matisyahu, with or without the beard, is the best ambassador of Judaism to the younger generation that we have (with the possible exception of Natalie Portman), and he takes his role seriously. But without the beard, he is something more.  He is real.
The Beardless One still observes Shabbat and eats kosher.  He sends his kids to Jewish schools.  He honors his parents.  And he prays, though not as consistently.
But the Beardless One does things that the Ba’al Teshuvah could not do.  His transformation communicates a passionate desire to continually grow and never to fall into stale patterns.  He’s become the Jewish Madonna – oh wait, she’s Jewish too; OK, Lady Gaga – never allowing his physical appearance to BECOME him. He has forsaken dogmatic certainty and halachic purity for a pinch of doubt and a dose of theological humility, and these have brought him to a deeper, more spiritual and more authentic Jewish place – more authentic for himself and for his children.
As he states in the Times of Israel interview:
“When you are raised in a religious family, you learn that there is no alternative. That there is one ultimate truth.  And you can see it might come in various shades and colors. At the end of the day there is one truth and that one truth is this.  I’ve had to talk to my kids and explain that maybe that’s not so. Basically what I tell them is that no one can ever be sure of anything — and in this life, your teachers, parents, yourself — you can have your own ideas, your own opinions, intuitions feelings, etc., whatever it is. But never to be too sure of yourself, and never to be too sure of anyone because, at the end of the day, we don’t know.”
I was always suspicious that Matisyahu would veer toward fundamentalism, which, given his popularity, could have dangerous repercussions.  But now he has forsaken the messianic for the messy and shed his 18th century Polish garb and the Brooklyn beard for the windblown blonde coif of a newly minted Californian.
No doubt the facial hair will return, as he himself as promised.  But that’s OK.  He’s already shown us that Crown Heights is not necessarily the journey’s end for any Ba’al Teshuvah, and that the process of Teshuvah in fact never ends.  It involves an eternal struggle with a tradition that is itself constantly evolving and with an elusive God who persistently refuses to be painted in anything other than infinite shades of gray.
He is relatable, he is approachable and he communicates the message that there are many ways to be Jewish – and, equally important, that there many ways to LOOK authentically Jewish.  Some might consider that heretical.  I consider it heroic.
Matisyahu, the Beardless One, is my rebbe.

Tisha b’Av And The Numbing Of America: Jewish Week

Perhaps spurred by the trial over Michael Jackson’s death, there has been increasing concern over what is being called a painkiller epidemic. A Los Angeles Times found that deaths from prescription pain medication far surpass those from heroin and cocaine combined. An estimated 50 million Americans live with chronic physical pain, and countless more are facing emotional distress. Many of them are people are doing all they can to deaden their torment, and their doctors are obliging.

We are witnessing the Numbing of America. 

Judaism advocates just the opposite, encouraging us to engage the pain head on, echoing the advice author Jonathan Franzen recently gave to a group of graduates, “To go through a life painlessly is to have not lived.” Jews spend nearly half the summer in an uncomfortable state of mourning over tragedies that occurred centuries ago, culminating in the fast of Tisha b’Av. Leviticus 16 commands us, regarding Yom Kippur, “Afflict yourselves,” and from the Hebrew word “afflict” we get an entire Talmudic tractate called “Ta’anit,” which describes numerous fast days prescribed by the rabbis particularly in times of drought. The rabbis were gluttons for fast days, it seems. More pain, more gain — and more rain.

Reb Nachman of Bratzlav would go to extremes to torture his body. He would fast for days on end to control hunger. Legend has it that he would roll naked in the snow to manage his physical desires (and this is without having a hot tub on the backyard). Most amazingly, he never scratched himself. Never. Over the centuries, Jews have had lots of practice in the art of managing the pain caused by others. The sages called divinely inflicted trials “Yisurim shel ahava,”“Afflictions of love.” Thank you very much, God. And “Ta’anit” extols the person who joyfully bears the misery that befalls him.

Late last summer, I gained a new perspective. One Friday evening during services, I began to experience severe discomfort in my abdomen and headed for the emergency room, where the problem was diagnosed as a kidney stone. I spent the next three nights in the hospital, where managing the pain from that stone became the defining factor of my life.

The nurses kept asking me, on a scale of one to 10, how much pain I was feeling. I was never sure what to answer. If I said “10,” I’d come off as a wimp. Football players feel more agony than this while they’re still singing the National Anthem. But if I said “two,” they’d wonder why I’d even bothered to come. I hovered at somewhere around a 6.5 but really just wanted to say, “a lot.” All I can say is that the morphine didn’t help.

I’m not sure pain can be quantified. The throbbing of a kidney stone can’t be compared to the agony of a broken leg, the breakup of a marriage or a sudden death in the family. It all hurts. But for me, the proper number at that moment was infinity. All that mattered was the pain. Everything else became secondary.

I’ve made hundreds of hospital visits over the years, but never before was I the one in the bed. I thought of that old joke where the shul president visits and tells the rabbi the good news that the board passed a resolution calling for his full recovery, by a vote of 8-5. But with Hurricane Irene roaring outside, no one could visit, not my president, not my family. It was just me, my kidney stone and my Percocet.

By the third day, I was attuned almost exclusively to the rhythms of my own distress. With the hospital on emergency power, the world around me was tuned out. The same nursing staff cycled back a few times, so I got to know them. But interestingly, no one asked what I do. It’s just one of the ways pain transports us to a totally different world, one that bypasses the outer trappings of a life and cuts right to the core, stripping us, Job-like, as naked as we were at birth.
In a moment of weakness, I remarked to a nurse, “This is a nightmare.” She looked somewhat taken aback. And then I heard a voice within me, the voice of the guy who has been on the other side of that bed for all these years:

“Idiot! Are you kidding me? THIS is a nightmare? Walk down the hall and I’ll show you a real nightmare. You call yourself unlucky? You’re walking out of here. There are people dying and you’re carrying on and kvetching because of a little pebble. Get a grip! Man up!”

After that, I was OK. Grubby, but OK. I realized my pain would in fact recede. It gets better. For those with kidney stones, it really does.

So I stopped complaining. I left the hospital with a supply of pills and managed my pain until the stone finally slid from my body three weeks later. My personal Passover — it passed, and it was over!

Judaism is not sadistic, but it does encourage us to confront our own pain, right from day one (or more accurately for boys, day eight) because only then can we become more attuned to the suffering of others. Percocet has its place, but pain does too. And so does Tisha b’Av — it reminds us of the unbelievable courage of so many and of our miraculous ability to heal.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is spiritual leader of Temple Beth-El in Stamford, Conn.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Abortion and capital punishment: Developing a Jewish culture of life

Last April, my home state of Connecticut became the 17
th state to eliminate the death penalty in future prosecutions, the fifth in the past five years. Nationally, the tide appears to be turning away from the death penalty as even some death penalty supporters are beginning to be troubled at the extent to which human error has claimed innocent life. Since 1973, 138 prisoners sentenced to death were later exonerated. And those are only the mistakes that were caught in time. We have no idea how many were not.
It was an aptly timed move, as the Connecticut legislature cast its vote during Passover, a holiday commemorating the prime biblical example of capital punishment on a national scale. But the Destroyer of Exodus fame was not a human judge, jury or executioner, and therein lies the core Jewish belief that such punishment is best left in divine hands.
Judaism has much to teach on that score, and some of those lessons could help bridge the gap between social conservatives and liberals. The current American election campaign is being waged primarily on economic issues, but those core matters of life, death and faith, abortion, birth control, euthanasia and capital punishment, are never far from the surface. It is only a matter of time before they re-emerge, as recently happened with the spat with Catholic bishops over family planning coverage and the health care law.
Since the days of the Bible, Jews have always been reluctant to impose the death penalty. The Torah mandates the death penalty for 36 offenses, ranging from murder to kidnapping, adultery, incest, rape, idolatry, apostasy, disrespecting parents and desecrating the Sabbath. But during the rabbinic period, the sages effectively abolished capital punishment, understanding that while most convicted murderers may indeed be guilty, if only one innocent person is hanged by the state, all citizens of that state are guilty of murder. We can quibble about God’s role in the tenth plague, but there is no denying that Judaism is sending a clear message about human fallibility. If we kill someone innocent, we’ve committed the ultimate crime. And human judges, precisely because they are not God, will make mistakes.
human judges, precisely because they are not God, will make mistakes.
human judges, precisely because they are not God, will make mistakes. (justice image via Shutterstock
Rabbi Moshe Feinstein asserts that the Torah promotes capital punishment for so many crimes in order to educate people about the severity of the offenses, rather than to end the lives of the offenders. That practice has continued to this day in modern Israel, where not even terrorists with blood on their hands are put to death. Only those convicted of crimes against humanity (i.e. Adolf Eichmann) have been executed. But otherwise, we always need to err on the side of life. Judaism is, in the truest sense of the term, “pro-life.”
One staunchly pro-life Connecticut legislator, Republican T.R. Rowe, a Catholic, crossed party lines to support the repeal, seeing it as consistent with the “culture of life” he seeks to promote. He challenged that those who protect the “worst of the worst” should also protect the ones who are most innocent of all: those not yet born. It is a challenge that both liberals and conservatives need to take seriously.
In this polarized political climate, one legislator’s crossing of the aisle is nearly as noteworthy – and miraculous – as the crossing of the Red Sea. Rowe is to be commended for pushing us to step out from behind political and denominational barricades to seek a church-state dialogue that aims to protect innocent life while also safeguarding our precious liberties.
We can find that in the Jewish approach. Judaism always seeks to defend the imperiled, even to the point of allowing the desecration of the Sabbath when it can save a life. But the threat must be immediate, not potential or theoretical.
Even were capital punishment proven to deter potential murderers – and that is not the case – the prospect of potentially saving a life in the future is trumped by the very real possibility that an innocent life, that of the wrongly accused prisoner, might be taken now. A culture of life suggests that the death penalty either be repealed or, if remaining on the books, rarely be implemented.
But what of abortion? Here too, for Judaism, the immediate trumps the theoretical. The sages did not advocate abortion on demand. They just simply made it clear that when the choice is between saving a real human life, in this case the mother, or a potential human being, the unborn child, the real takes precedence over the potential. The prevailing Jewish view is that a fetus is not a fully realized human being until it is born. Since it is not human at conception or while in utero, a culture of life would imply, from a Jewish perspective, that the focus be on the life of the mother. For many rabbis, that concept extends to less immediate but still perilous threats to her physical and mental health. As long as the fetus remains in her body, it is the mother’s life that matters most.

A culture of life would imply, from a Jewish perspective, that the focus be on the life of the mother. (abortion image via Shutterstock)
It is possible for our society to promote a culture of life regarding both capital punishment and even abortion, but only when there is first a culture of dialogue and consensus building. Rep. Rowe has courageously demonstrated that such potential exists, even in this polarized environment. Religious groups can set an example by engaging in vigorous interfaith dialogue rather than latching onto one political party or another and attempting to impose their own parochial vision on the state. Where there is first consensus building, religious values can inform public policy-making.
There is a broad consensus that the state must protect innocent human life. No government should be guilty of allowing an innocent human being to die. It’s a good place for a respectful dialogue to begin, one where religious groups can be active participants, as voices of conscience and wisdom, promoting reasoned argument rather than partisanship. But the state should not attempt to define conclusively when human life begins, since there is no consensus on that issue. That is a matter between pastor and congregant, a question of personal conscience rather than public law.
A culture that reveres life is a worthy goal. To get there, we must first cultivate a culture of dialogue.
Originally posted on the Times of Israel site