Thursday, December 31, 2009

Winter Break Edition

While everyone is on break, I thought I would post a quick link in connection to the unfolding news story about the attempted terrorist attack on Christmas day of the Northwest flight landing in Detroit.

The event sparked renewed speculation about Israel's own air security, and many have wondered why America can't do a better job of implementing Israel and El Al's approach.

Check out this article for more on the subject.

See you back here in a few weeks! Enjoy the rest of your break and Happy 2010!

Friday, December 11, 2009

Hanukkah 2009 Spectacular

Ah's that time of year.  Hanukkah has arrived.

For our college students out there, the holiday coincides with the ending of your semester, and the pressures of finals.  Here's the good news: your winter break is a pretty spectacular gift to enjoy.  Hope you're going to get to do something fun during it.

We'll start by reviewing the basics.  The traditional story of Hanukkah goes something like this: way back in the day, around 168 BCE, a super-evil Greek king named Antiochus IV came to rule over the Land of Israel and wanted to prevent Jews from being Jews.  Antiochus was in favor of Hellenism (Greek civilization), and basically came to force it upon the Jews of Israel.  There were Jews that were in favor of Hellenism (and of ultimately assimilating completely into Greek culture) and there were Jews (Judah Maccabee and Company) who sought to both stop Jewish assimilation and rebel against the totalitarian Greek rule.  It took a few years, but eventually Judah and his followers (aka the Maccabees) were victorious.

According to the Talmud (written a solid 650+ years later), there was a great miracle at the conclusion of the war.  The Maccabees returned to Jerusalem to rededicate (the word Hanukkah means Dedication) the damaged Temple.  One day's worth of oil lasted for eight.  Thus, we celebrate the 'miracle of light' for eight days.

There's a different version of the story that is more historically accurate, but potentially less fun.  When I learned it: I thought - on some small level, this must be what it's like when Christmas-celebrating kids learn that Santa isn't real!  (TANGENT: One of my earliest memories as a kid is waking up on Christmas morning and searching my house for the presents that Santa was supposed to have left the night before!!!  We didn't celebrate Christmas in my house - but I had somehow absorbed the whole Santa story, and was devastated when my parents went on to explain that 'Santa doesn't leave gifts at Jewish homes.') 

Anyway, I guess that's just a long way of warning you that you may not actually want to know the 'real story of Hanukkah' but if you do, you can find it here.

One of the great themes of the Hanukkah story is the Jewish struggle against total assimilation.  In other words, Hanukkah is a chance for us to celebrate our Jew-Pride!  Yeah...we may be a little bit different from everyone else.  But - so what?

One of the best ways that we American Jews have expressed that is through our own depictions of Hanukkah in pop culture.  You've got to check out everything on's Top 10 Hanukkah moments in TV history.  Here are a few of my favorites from their collection.

1) Jon Stewart (in song) trying to convince Stephen Colbert to celebrate Hanukkah!

The Colbert ReportMon - Thurs 11:30pm / 10:30c
A Colbert Christmas: Jon Stewart
Colbert Report Full EpisodesPolitical HumorU.S. Speedskating

2) More general Hanukkah highlights from "The Daily Show":

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Best Hanukkah Moments Mashup
Daily Show
Full Episodes
Political HumorHealth Care Crisis

3) Some of you will remember Adam Sandler's classic "Hanukkah Song" that he premiered on SNL in 1994. Here is an updated version, featuring the voice of Neil Diamond (!) and some cool animation.

One final piece of kitsch - involving Senator Orrin Hatch of Utah. In addition to being a longtime senator (and proudly observant Mormon), Hatch has also gained some very low grade notoriety for his religious singing (composition and performance). Anyway...there's a long story behind it, but low and behold, Orrin Hatch has written (a pretty catchy) Hanukkah song! Check it out here.

I'll close with some basic resources to help make your holiday complete. You can click here for a treasure trove of Hanukkah recipes. You can click here for the rules of dreidel. You can click here for a copy of the Hanukkah blessings. And, finally, enjoy the entertaining (and informative) video below on the proper way to light the menorah.

So...I hope you enjoyed these Hanukkah "gifts." May they instill a little bit of Jewish Pride in each of us, during this holiday season.

Wishing you and your families a Happy Hanukkah, and an enjoyable winter break. I'll be posting again in mid-January, when you are back at school, and I'm back from a little time away....Until then, Shabbat Shalom - and Happy Hanukkah.

P.S. If you're going to be in San Diego over the break, and want to get together for coffee, drop me an email!!

Friday, December 4, 2009

A Call to Arms

This week, President Obama announced his decision to send 30,000 additional troops to Afghanistan.  The so-called "surge" will begin immediately, even as the President also announced plans about a timetable to begin WITHDRAWING troops from that region of the world in 2011.  You can watch a video of the President's speech below, or read a transcript of it here.

The news of the President's decision is significant, not just because of the serious implications that it carries for the brave men and women who serve in uniform.  But, also, because it comes at a time when we - the American people - remain disconnected from what is going on on the other side of the world.

Consider, for example, the startling results from the recent poll conducted by the non-partisan Pew Research Center for the People and the Press.  The most interesting highlights from the poll for me:
  •  Only 46% of Americans believe that the Afghani people will be able to stand up to the Taliban
  • 49% of Americans think that the US should 'mind its own business internationally,' and let problems on the other side of the world remain the problems of the other side of the world
  • As a result: only 32% of Americans were in favor of sending MORE troops to Afghanistan.  (Regardless of what you think about the President, you have to at least give him credit for not making his decision based on public opinion polls.)
Our views on the war in Afghanistan are shifting at this very moment.  A few years ago, when the horrors of 9/11 were fresh in our mind, the country was firmly committed to both: capturing those responsible (out of a desire for justice), and eliminating al-Qaeda in such a way that the terror network would no longer be a threat to the safety of the West. 

Remember the moment when President Bush visited the World Trade Center site a few days after September 11?  Do you remember the cheers of the crowd, when he implied that we would be taking military action?  Relive the moment, with the video below, which records one of the key turning points in his presidency.

So much has happened since that day in New York City.  Approximately 5200 soldiers have made the ultimate sacrifice, giving their lives in Iraq or Afghanistan.  (One of the things that we Jews learn from our study about the Holocaust is that big numbers are impersonal.  More important is the reality that there is a name, and story, behind every number - behind every person that is lost.  Please do take a moment to scan through the list of names of soldiers who have died in Iraq and of those who have died in Afghanistan.)

And yet, even with all of that sacrifice (not to mention the sums of money - too large even for me to try to comprehend), so little has happened.  Here we are: eight years later, and Osama bin Laden remains free.  And the threat of terror looms as large as ever.

Given all of this, now is a logical moment for each of us to re-examine our own thoughts about the war.  And in this Jewish forum, now might be a good time for us to revisit the Jewish ethics (and laws) of war.  What constitutes a "kosher" war, a morally-justified war, according to our tradition?

This was a question that Jewish scholars wrote at length on eight years ago, as the war opened.  My teacher, Dr. Mark Washofsky, wrote an excellent piece summarizing the Jewish perspective on the question of "permitted war," and the work remains relevant today.  You can find it here.

Washofsky draws on old Jewish paradigms to breathe new life into the question of: under what circumstances is war morally defensible?

He argues that wars fought in self-defense are most certainly defensible, within the framework of Jewish Ethics (remember: Judaism is not pacifistic). 

In the context of the current wars that our country is now fighting: are these wars wars of self defense?

On the one hand: yes, of course they are.  We know this to be true, if we see 9/11 as an act of war against our country (and many would argue that the threat of terrorism continues to affect our sense of national security today).  President Obama reminded us of this in his speech the other night.  And Senator McCain, perhaps the most well-respected Republican voice in Congress on matters pertaining to the military, agrees.  (See McCain's response to the President's speech here.)

Ultimately, though, if we follow Dr. Washofsky's responsum down to its conclusion, we learn that the morality of the current war in Afghanistan hinges on the question of whether or not we believe that al-Qaeda is about to attack us at any moment (meaning that our action carries the weight of being a preemptive strike - which is absolutely permitted in Jewish law), or whether our action is merely preventive in nature (i.e. there's a pretty good chance that al-Qaeda might attack us, and so, therefore, it would behoove us to take some kind of action to prevent it from happening - which is not permitted in Jewish law).

It may not seem like there is a big difference between those two positions...but, within Jewish law, trust me - it's a big one.  Making a preemptive strike against an enemy that is clearly about to attack at any moment is absolutely morally justified in Judaism. 

A preventive attack....where we are not absolutely certain that we are going to be attacked (by terrorists coming from/influenced by Afghanistan) a grayer area. 

In this regard, you might consider the provocative views of Boston University professor Andrew Bacevich.  He situates himself on the conservative portion of the political spectrum.  He's a Vietnam Veteran, and the father of a soldier who died in Iraq.  You can read a sample of his writing here.   Or you can listen to a recent radio interview with him by clicking here, then click on the mp3 link below the Dec 2nd show, and then fast forward to the 10:40 mark).

Determining whether a war is preemptive or preventive can be a largely subjective analysis.

Nonetheless, during this season, as we prepare to wish Godspeed to a new round of departing troops, I would argue that we have a basic civic obligation to figure out where we stand on these matters.

Of course we support the troops.  No matter what.

But do we support the decisions of the politicians who control their fates?

Did President Obama's speech resonate with you?  Perhaps Senator McCain better represents your perspective?  Or maybe the voice of Professor Bacevich, speaking from outside of the national security establishment in Washington, really resonated with you?

Whatever your opinion, we'd love to hear your thoughts.  Consider posting something here on the blog, or emailing Rabbi Brown privately.
Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Giving Thanks (Or: Ode to Tofurky)

Ahhh....Thanksgiving.  One of my favorite holidays.  Richly meaningful.  And richly delicious.
I've written in the past about the seasonal trauma that Thanksgiving sometimes wreaks on students returning home for the holiday (and their parents).  If you're a parent or student in that situation, re-read my post here.

As for the culinary delights of the holiday, what do you like to eat?  I'm a huge fan of mashed potatoes.  Check out the Food Network's List of 50 Mashed Potato recipes.  I'm going to try out the Sweet Potato-Apple one later this weekend....(Yes, my wife is a little skeptical.)

For the vegetarians and flexitarians among us, how about a shout out to extol the virtues of Tofurky!  You can roll your eyes all you want.  I love it. 

 But even I have my limits:

Of course there's so much more to the holiday than just the food!  There's all the drama associated with Thanksgiving travel.  If you've ever been hit with holiday travel stress, then "Planes, Trains, and Automobiles" is worth watching again!

As far as other Thanksgiving themes are concerned: this week's Torah portion (Parshat Toldot) tells the story of the dysfunctional relationship between twin brothers Jacob and Esau.  It's perfect timing for any of us who have struggled with our own  family relationships, which sometimes come to a boil around the holidays.  Check this out for some tips on avoiding a full family meltdown.  Better yet: embrace your family's wackiness by laughing about it.  What better way to do that than by also laughing at other's people's families (like the ones in the movies)!  (I'm a fan of "The Family Stone" - ok, it's a Christmas movie, and not a Thanksgiving one, but the family dynamics are the same!)  Check out clips from the movie here.

All of that aside, there are some serious issues that are worthy of our consideration on this Thanksgiving.


Given that the Dept of Agriculture announced this week that the US was facing its highest rate of food insecurity (number of families that struggle to put food on the table) since such surveys began in 1995, we should be acutely aware, during this holiday season, of those around us who are in need.  This is some very tangible evidence (of data collected months ago) of the toll that the economic crisis is taking on families.  Perhaps your families have been hit hard during the last year as well.  (Click here for the San Diego Jewish community's response to the crisis.)

With the economic crisis in mind, we have this interesting Jewish paradox when it comes to Thanksgiving.  On the one hand, our tradition insists that we temper our joy and celebration, when we realize that there are others around us who suffer.  (This is best encapsulated by the famous rabbinic midrash that has God chastising the angels for joyously celebrating in heaven after the Israelites miraculously escaped the Egyptians at the Splitting of the Sea....God teaches us that - no matter how great our own personal blessings are, it is wrong on some level to fully celebrate when other human beings (in the midrash's case, the Egyptians) are suffering in the world.)

The ethos of that midrash is the basis for our Passover seder custom of dipping our finger into the wine for each of the plagues.  Our joy (represented by the wine) is lessened when we recall the suffering of others.

You might consider incorporating a version of that ritual into your Thanksgiving meal: symbolically acknowledging the suffering of others, even during this time of celebration.  (If you're not going to be serving wine at your table, and you don't want to stick your fingers into that Tofurky Jones Soda,  you might just go around and invite anyone who wants to share a story of someone they know who is suffering right now, or to simply call out - and raise your table's awareness to - the many kinds of suffering that exist in the world today (economic, racial, etc.).

My friend and colleague, Rabbi Phyllis Sommer of Chicago, offers other great suggestions about how to transform your Thanksgiving meal into a seder-like experience.  Check them out here.

We also have a Jewish imperative to give thanks for the abundance of our lives.  Whether you believe that our abundance comes from God, or from the many hard-working people (I'm thinking here of the farmers who toil in the fields and the textile producers who toil in factories) who produce the stuff we consume; nonetheless, we are Jewishly called to give thanks, and acknowledge the gratitude owed to the hard work of others.  For it is only because of them that we are able to enjoy that which we have been blessed with.  A great way to give thanks, after your meal, is to recite the creative English Birkat HaMazon (Grace After Meals) that appears here.

For an even more meaningful Thanksgiving this year, you might consider attending our community's Interfaith Thanksgiving Eve Service, or Jewish Family Service's Thanksgiving Day Run for the Hungry.

Wishing you and your families a Happy and Healthy Thanksgiving.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, November 6, 2009

The Binding of Isaac: A Tribute to our Veterans

This week's Torah portion, Parshat Vayera, includes the haunting text of the Akeidah - the Binding of Isaac.  We Jews have been scratching our head, and wrestling with this text, for as far back as the Torah goes.

For those who don't recall the story - this is the one where God calls out to Abraham and asks (demands, actually) that he offer up his beloved son Isaac as a sacrificial offering to God.  Keep in mind that Abraham is the first Jew, and that the future wellbeing of the Jewish people (total world population of Jews at this point in the story: maybe about 3) most certainly depended on Isaac.

How can we make sense out of a story that is absurd: absurd that Abraham would so willingly sacrifice his son, and absurd (and terrifying) that God would have asked him to do it in the first place?

My ethics (and my identity as a relatively new father) have pushed me in the direction in the last few years of making sense out of this story by critiquing Abraham.  Sometimes biblical characters are anti-role models (i.e. that we read and learn about them so as to do precisely the opposite of what they do!).  It used to be that this was one of those moments for me...where the only way that I could figure out how to authentically deal with the text was by speaking against it, or critiquing it.  (One such critique can be found here, posted by the intellectually provocative humanistic synagogue of Cincinnati.)

This year, though, I'm in a different place.

I was in Canada earlier this week (Toronto to be exact), taking part in the opening portion of the Reform Movement's Biennial convention.  And I was incredibly moved by a phenomenon that I witnessed among the many Canadians that I encountered during the trip: in my hotel, at the convention center, on the streets, and on television. 

You see: practically everyone was walking around with these bizarre red and black felt lapel pins on.  Check out this picture of Prince Charles, currently on an 11 day state visit to Canada.  He's wearing two of them!

I learned that the pins are meant to represent a poppy flower.  Why do Canadians wear the poppy during this time of year?  Turns out: the poppy calls to mind the brave soldiers of World War I (and by extension all subsequent wars) who gave their lives in combat.  (For more on the connection between the flower and the tribute to the troops, see here.)  Canadians honor their soldiers, and their veterans, on November 11th, just like we do.  The only difference is: Canadians wear the poppy.

During this season, patriotic Canadians wear the poppy. 

The amazing thing is: nearly everyone does it.  I was in awe of the phenomenon - primarily (and sadly) because my cynicism made it hard to imagine so many Americans gathering together in solidarity for such a cause.

Contrary to my earlier reading of the Binding of Isaac, the poppy reminds me of the glorified notion of service to our nation - most often in the form of serving in our armed forces - and the sacrifice that so often comes along with it.

Maybe Abraham really should be praised: for being willing to give up the thing that was most precious to him - more precious even than his own life - in the name of a cause (namely: the God he so fervently believed in).

The confluence on this year's calendar of the reading of the Binding of Isaac this Shabbat, and our observance of Veteran's Day this coming week, has got me thinking: what, if anything, are we willing to sacrifice?  What terribly valuable thing (our life, a material object, money, a child - God forbid) would we be willing to put on the line, and potentially give up, in order to defend the cause, belief, or ideology that is at the core of our beings?

Could we ever imagine ending our own lives - like the Jews on Masada did - in order to escape from Roman political and religious tyranny?

Can we ever imagine the sacrifices that former Prime Minister Yitzchak Rabin surely understood that he was making - sacrifices of risk - as he turned a decades-long career as a soldier into the lauded role of peacemaker?  Last weekend, Jews around the world marked the 14th anniversary of his passing.  San Diego's commemoration of his death will take place - coincidentally - on Veteran's Day.  Click here for more info.

Do you remember the Elton John song called "Sacrifice" from way back in 1989?  Listen to it here:

The song - actually really really depressing - talks about how it's easier for two former partners to live apart in separate worlds, rather than to live together.  If Elton John teaches us that "it's no sacrifice" to live apart, then that must mean that there is a lot of sacrifice that comes with being in a relationship with others (and the logic applies equally, whether we're talking about relationships between individuals or between countries).  We have to compromise during disagreements.  We have to risk getting hurt.  And most of all, we have to be prepared to sacrifice what we cherish most, for what we believe in.

So...on this Shabbat preceding Veteran's Day, I hope we all take a moment to: 1) not be so hard on Abraham the next time we read the Akeidah; 2) thank a veteran (or current soldier) for their dedicated and inspiring service; and 3) begin asking ourselves: Who am I?  And what am I willing to sacrifice for the things that are centrally important to me?

I'd love to hear your thoughts.  I invite you to publicly post a response on the blog, or you can email me for a more private exchange.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, October 23, 2009

Somewhere Over the Rainbow

This week's Torah portion, Parshat Noach, brings us back once again to the story of Noah and the Flood.  According to the story, God realizes that nearly the whole of humanity has become corrupt and lawless.  It seems that God's whole experiment of creating people that have the ability to make moral choices for themselves didn't work out too well.  And so, God commits the equivalent of filicide.  (I'm not making this up: filicide is the disturbing phenomenon of parents killing their children.  Read all about it here.  Turns out that there have been many famous perpetrators of filicide.  Most famous victim: Motown singer Marvin Gaye, who was shot to death by his father in 1984.)

The filicide piece is an awfully dark and disturbing setup to a story that we usually associate with preschoolers...cheery songs about Noah going into the ark with the animals "two by two" (my 3 year old can't stop singing that one these days!), the whole bit about the dove at the end, and of course: the cheesy ending with the appearance of the rainbow.

"And God said: This is the sign of the covenant that I give between Me and you, and every living thing that is with you, to generations forever.  I have set My rainbow in the cloud, and it shall be a sign of the covenant between Me and the earth.  And it shall happen, when I place a cloud over the earth, and the bow will be seen in the cloud, I shall remember My covenant between Me and you and every living being among all flesh, and the water shall never again become a flood to destroy all flesh."

(Tangent: "I shall remember My covenant..." - I'm always puzzled by that phrase.  Does that mean that God could conceivably forget something as important as this?  Traditional commentators have long maintained that that is a mis-reading of the text.  However, in light of the great tragedy of the Holocaust, in which some have suggested that God either forgot about the Jewish people, or somehow metaphorically 'fell asleep at the wheel' and didn't realize what was happening...this phrase from the Torah portion does in fact become more relevant and thought provoking. Anyway...back to the rest of the rainbow passage:

"And the bow shall be in the cloud, and I will look upon it to remember the everlasting covenant between God and every living being, among all flesh that is on earth....And God said to Noah: This is the sign of the covenant that I have confirmed between Me and all flesh that is upon the earth" (Gen. 9:12-17).

My big question: why in the world would God choose the rainbow as the symbol of the covenant (or relationship) between God and humanity?

One explanation focuses on the seeming miraculousness of the phenomenon of the rainbow itself.  Seeing the miracle of the rainbow is somehow supposed to remind us of another miracle (God saving the future of humanity through Noah).

Sforno, of 16th century Italy, wrote that it was supposed to be a reminder to us of the circumstances that led to the flood in the first place: when we see the rainbow, we should remember to repent and improve the way that we live our lives (and inspire other people to do the same).

There are a whole bunch of other interesting Jewish interpretations here.  My favorite one is the kabbalistic belief that the different colors of the rainbow represent the different aspects of God (the sefirot).

To me, the different attributes of God are really a metaphor for the diversity of humanity.  If we (as Jews) believe that there is a little bit of God inside each one of us (an idea derived from the notion that we are all created in the image of God), then the diversity of God's attributes can also represent the diversity of humanity.

I would like to think that this might be one reason why the gay rights movement chose the rainbow as its symbol.  In choosing a rainbow (keshet in Hebrew), perhaps the founders of the LGBT rights movement were trying to make a plea for diversity - for an acknowledgement on our part that WE ARE ALL DIFFERENT - AND THAT THAT IS OKAY.

Maybe the real message behind the story of the flood is the same: that in producing a miraculous rainbow at the end, God is proclaiming: that although the people of Noah's generation couldn't figure out how to get along with one another, and tolerate one another...that it is possible.  Just as the different colors of the rainbow manage to appear together harmoniously - so too do we have the ability to get along.  No matter that we may be different colors, or religions, speak different languages, or have different sexual orientations.  We have the ability to get along with one another!  It is an amazing truth of our human potential.

If only we would use that ability a little more often.  Then maybe spotting a rainbow wouldn't seem all that remarkable.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Tofu: The Other White Meat

Mark Twain once wrote that: "Part of the secret of success in life is to eat what you like and let the food fight it out inside."

Ahhh....if only life were that easy. Do what we want. Eat what we want. With complete disregard for the implications of our actions. The Greeks had a name for this philosophical approach to life. They called it hedonism. And for some reason, I think it's pretty hilarious that the notion of "living for the moment" - for achieving a sense of personal pleasure in the moment, in complete disregard of anything else, is an actual philosophy. To me, it just sounds like going on vacation. (How ironic that there are a chain of resort hotels that call themselves Hedonism...)

Let's be clear: Judaism and hedonism just don't get along very well (maybe with the slight exception of Purim). One of the functions of Jewish law is to establish the difference between right and wrong in the world. We know that murdering and stealing are wrong. We don't get to do those things, just because they might feel good.

For some reason, though, when it comes to food, our ethical senses have always been blurred. Over the centuries, we humans have convinced ourselves that we have a RIGHT to eat and consume whatever we want. If it tastes good, and gives us a sense of pleasure, we should eat it. No matter what.

Killing another animal? No problem. Fattening it up while it's alive, specifically so that it will taste better after it's slaughtered? No problem. Genetically manipulating a fruit or vegetable so that it is guaranteed to grow (and taste) perfectly every time. No problem.

Quick tangent: I remember learning about the genetic engineering of vegetables for the first time YEARS AGO - at Disney World of all places. Check out the video and quick article that the Christian Science Monitor put out last year about it. I know, I know...who am I to complain about the genetic manipulation of veggies? Everyone's doing it. Even Disney. And if I'm going to continue shopping at my local Ralph's for my groceries then I have no choice but to buy produce that has been scientifically messed with. But still: it's a little weird, isn't it?

Anyway: low and behold, Judaism has a long history - not just of opposing hedonism in general - but specifically of opposing hedonistic eating. Our laws of kashrut (the jewish dietary laws) are the obvious example here. Certain kinds of animal (like cows) are in. And certain kind of animals (like pigs) are out. We're not supposed to eat bacon. Doesn't matter how good it tastes.

It's interesting to note that Jewish dietary practices evolve (or devolve depending on your perspective) over time. We're potentially in a period of change right now. Jews across the denominational spectrum are chattering about the extent to which fair labor practices, the humane treatment of animals, and the environmental impact of food production should have on whether any given food is classified as "kosher." Hazon has been doing a lot of great work in this regard. And, the Conservative Movement has been on the front lines of this effort, having recently introduced new kosher guidelines and a new heksher (a logo or label to indicate that a food has the 'seal of approval' of a particular mashgiach, or kosher inspecting authority):

But what about getting 'back to basics'? Back to the original Jewish style of eating: vegetarianism.

This week's Torah portion, Parshat Breishit (the first of the Torah!), notes the following:

God said, "See, I give you every seed-bearing plant that is upon all the earth, and every tree that has seed-bearing fruit; they shall be yours for food. And to all the animals on land, to all the birds of the sky, and to everything that creeps on earth, in which there is the breath of life, [I give] all the green plants for food." And it was so. (Gen 1:29-30)

The Torah can't be any clearer: It was God's initial intention, at the beginning of time, that Adam and Eve not kill/consume animals. Animals weren't even allowed to eat one another! From these two verses, a long and elaborate Jewish tradition of vegetarianism emerged. (You can read a lot of the later Jewish sources on this here.) the Torah went on to allow certain kinds of meat to be eaten. But that doesn't mean that we should.

Noted author Jonathan Safran Foer made an impassioned case for vegetarianism in last week's NY Times Magazine. I strongly urge you to read his article here. He also narrates a graphic but important video that you can watch here.

If you take the time to read the article and/or watch the film, I am pretty confident that you'll give vegetarianism more serious consideration. And, if not vegetarianism, then maybe you'll become a flexitarian (like me!). Flexitarians are MOSTLY vegetarian...We aspire to give up meat completely, even if we haven't done it just yet.

There are so many good reasons to eat less meat. And the only good reason to eat more of it is...because we like how it tastes. That might be good enough for Mark Twain. But we Jews should live our lives to a higher standard. We should be more mindful of our impact on other animals, and on the planet. And we should eat more tofu and veggies as a result.

Shabbat Shalom.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

New Year. New Start. New You.

So...I don't know if any of you had the chance to see this past Sunday night's episode of the Fox animated comedy "Family Guy." (I've never really seen the show, but it made it on to my radar screen a few weeks ago, when I heard that it had been nominated for a Best Comedy Emmy. Although it didn't win the award, lots of people are all abuzz - because even "The Simpsons" - still going strong after more than twenty years on TV - has never been nominated!)

At any rate, the title of this past week's episode was "Family Goy" and dealt with all different aspects of Judaism and Jewish identity. We'll get to that in a second. To begin with, consider putting off your work (or homework) for a little while, and watching the 21 minute episode, below. Disclaimer: yes, there are all sorts of offensive and terribly inappropriate things here. We're talking sex stuff, gender stuff, and just for good measure: it's pretty religiously offensive (to Judaism and other religions). For your viewing enjoyment, I've cued the video past the first seven minutes of the Kathy Ireland bit. Unfortunately, that means that the video opens with a joke about breast cancer. (Who makes jokes about breast cancer?!)

If you can get past the offensiveness, there are actually some really funny moments here. And there's tons of food for thought.

Say what you will, if this isn't really your kind of humor...but you've got to give the show credit for being richly infused with Jewish cultural references and associations - even when they're used crudely, they're astounding. For example, the piece where Peter leans out the window, without a shirt on, with a rifle, to try to shoot his Jewish wife Lois (!!!) on the street is an obvious reference to the horrifying scene in "Schindler's List" where Ralph Fiennes shoots Jews randomly for sport. The joke (if you can call it that) starkly reminds us that for anti-Semites, Jews are just objectified as objects of hate.

(By the way, in case you missed it, another excellent Holocaust-themed movie starring Fiennes was "The Reader.") Anyway..back to Family Guy..errr...Goy.

The most poignant moment in the episode (for me) comes when Lois' mom realizes that her husband has unwittingly convinced her to repress her Jewish identity for decades. Lois, then, comes to believe that Peter (apparently a lapsed Catholic) was doing the same to her (even though she just finds out that she's Jewish in this episode).

There's something to this: to what extent do we allow the other people in our lives to 'repress' (maybe that's too harsh of a word) who we really are?

We all know about the incredible pressure that our friends, peers, family members, etc. put on us to conform. To what extent do we bend to those pressures? This stuff comes up when we struggle with:

And of course, it comes up when we struggle with the nature of our Jewishness.

Lois proudly declares to Peter that she isn't going to let him repress her Jewish side. It's a powerful moment: in an instant she teaches us what it means to have the courage to be ourselves, regardless of the social repercussions.

This weekend, Jews around the world will be marking the holiday of Simchat Torah. (To learn more about it, click here.) On Simchat Torah, we end our reading of the Torah...and then we start at the beginning all over again!

The content of the Torah (our story and history) doesn't change. And yet: we experience that story anew each and every time we encounter it, AS IF IT WERE THE FIRST TIME.

That image of rewinding the story...of giving the story a "do-over" if you an incredible image for us to keep in mind as we embark on the journeys that will take us forward into the new year. maybe Peter and Lois are the WORST role models that ever existed....but this episode of "Family Guy" does teach us about the value of standing up and courageously claiming the freedom to be ourselves: the kind of individuals, friends, and Jews that we all dream to be in the year ahead.

Chag Sameach.

PS: The Jesus character at the end of the episode was wrong: the Last Supper wasn't a Passover Seder! The reference to the seder, and to Peter's mistaken claim (when he put Lois on the cross!) that the Jews killed Jesus are really not laughing matters. Take the time to learn more by reading this.