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.