Friday, February 19, 2010

Purim: The Madness of Anti-Semitism

It's a few days early, but I wanted to blog today on the upcoming holiday of Purim (Sunday February 28th).  (I'm also out of town next week, so...if not now, when?)

Purim is such a happy holiday, that we often lose sight of the terribly disturbing events that set the holiday story in motion.  Let us not forget: we rejoice only because we managed to overtake the evil Haman, and stop him from committing genocide against the Jews of Shushan.

Thus, Purim isn't just an opportunity to get happy.  It's also a chance for us to step back and reflect about the state of anti-semitism (the irrational hatred of Jews) in the world, and in our own lives, today.

There is ample anecdotal evidence of persistent violent anti-Semitism in Europe today.  This article is just one tiny representation of that. As far as widespread anti-Semitism in the United States in general, I strongly encourage you to check out the ample resources of the Anti-Defamation League, which tracks such incidents.

Hitting more closely to home is the question of anti-Semitism on our college campuses.  For our college students: have you experienced it yet?  (I hope you don't!)

Some have suggested that the most prominent expressions of anti-Semitism on campus today concern Israel.  Opponents of Israel, and of Zionism (the belief in the right of the Jewish people to have a homeland of their own in Israel) express themselves in ways that are not just in political opposition to Israel - but are actually in religious/cultural opposition to Jews.

I don't know if you have heard about it, but lots of people (in the American Jewish community) have been talking about what happened a few weeks ago at UC Irvine, when the Israeli Ambassador Michael Oren came to speak there.  You can read a posting about it on the LA Times website here.  And you can watch some video from the event here:

There's a lot to digest from this incident. Clearly this is an expression of anti-Zionism. Is it anti-Semitic as well?

There are obviously issues of free speech involved.

But, for me, the core question is one of dialogue. I was really struck by Ambassador Oren's response (which you can see in the above video) that he wished that the pro-Palestinian protesters would have stayed, instead of marching out en masse. Clearly the Ambassador is of the mindset that dialogue is a constructive process that will be necessary when/if we ever reach a peaceful conclusion to the Arab-Israeli issue.

But what are the limits? At what point are we no longer Jewishly obligated to engage in the "other." (As someone who personally comes to these questions from the left side of the political spectrum, my default approach is to never shun dialogue, if it is an alternative to violence.) But I would call your attention to the VERY IMPORTANT and thought-provoking piece by Rabbi David Ellenson, written in 2007 during the Iranian President's controversial visit to New York City. It seems ever-relevant in light of the UC Irvine incident, because it seems hard for me to imagine that the pro-Palestinian protesters were interested in "real" or authentic dialogue. As Ellenson puts it, they seemed to be using the occasion for mere propaganda.

As Purim approaches this year, I would encourage you to do some soul-searching of your own. Think about the occasions in your life when you have experienced anti-Semitism (whether at college, or in school earlier in your life, on the ballfield, etc.). What was the nature of it? How did it make you feel?

If you have the chance to celebrate this Purim, and you've experienced a little bit of anti-Semitism in your life, then I would encourage you to also celebrate the fact that we live in a pretty amazing country - a country that officially prohibits such reckless attitudes and behavior - a country that celebrates the notion of being a bit different. Definitely watch the video here if you haven't seen it already.

Use this week as a chance, as well, to think about how you might respond the next time you encounter anti-Semitism (whether it be in the classroom, on the quad, in your dorm, or in your neighborhood). To what extent can/will you engage that person in dialogue, to try to get them to realize how painful their words/actions were to you? And to what extent will you shun dialogue, if you come to believe that they are actually filled with a disgusting sense of hate?

Much to think about...I'd love to hear your thoughts on these questions.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, February 12, 2010

All You Need is Love

(Spoiler Alert: I will be using some of this material in my remarks tomorrow at Shabbat morning services.)

I know: Jews aren't "officially" supposed to mark the occasion.  But come it really all that terrible to take one day out of the year to tell your significant other (or someone else that's special in your life) that you love them?

LOVE IS IMPORTANT.  According to the Beatles, "all you need is love."  Check out the video from the debut of that song below (you get extra points if you can spot a 24 year old Mick Jagger in the background):

There is an interesting story behind the song, and how it came to be recorded.  It seems that the Beatles had been approached by the BBC to represent the UK in the first worldwide live television broadcast.  400 million people tuned in on June 25, 1967.  And: that number would have been much higher, had the Soviets and their allies not pulled out at the last minute - in protest of the West's support of Israel during the Six Day War, which had just recently ended.   

BEATLES HISTORY FOOTNOTE: This was apparently the final time that the Beatles appeared together on live television.  (This is separate from the final live but non-televised performance that the Beatles did on the roof of the Apple Records building in London on January 30, 1969.  Watch video footage of that here.)

"All you need is love" is also a perfectly apt title for us this week, as we use the excuse of Valentine's Day to consider what Judaism has to say about...LOVE.

As it turns out, Judaism has quite a lot to say about the subject!  We'll only have the chance to touch on a few aspects of the subject in this posting; we'll save the rest for next Valentine's Day (or, if you can't wait that long, then maybe we can discuss it on Tu B'Av.)

We should begin, of course, with this week's Torah portion: Parshat Mishpatim.  Two verses from the parsha basically summarize the Biblical approach to love.  Prepare yourselves:

When a man seduces a woman, and lies with her, for the marrying-price he is to marry her, as his wife.  If her father refuses to give her to him, silver is to be weighed out…(Exodus 22:15-16)

Here we have the classical Jewish approach: LOVE AS A COMMERCIAL TRANSACTION.  

In ancient times women were objects of (financial) value.  They were "owned" by their fathers, until their future husbands came along and "bought" them!

This particular passage deals addresses the problem of when a guy comes along and seduces a woman without her father's permission or knowledge.  In biblical times we would have called that a SCANDAL.

Look....obviously we don't treat women as commodities in the same sense today.  (THANK GOODNESS!)  But this text is still useful because it suggests that one Jewish way of expressing love for your partner is by paying up.  

Think about the way that Valentine's Day in its least inspiring form is a Hallmark holiday.  Some of us just go thru the motions for Valentine's Day - we buy a card and a (lame?) gift - just to get credit for a partner or loved one that we 'remembered them' on the holiday, even if there was nothing very significant (and not too much effort or meaning) behind whatever it is that was purchased.

Just like the Torah portion: love is expressed by way of money spent.  A commercial transaction.

Thank goodness that there are other expressions of love in our tradition.  

Like lovey-dovey romantic love!

Consider this poem, from the medieval Jewish poet par-excellance, Judah ha-Levi (1075-1141, Spain).  He wrote:

My sweetheart's dainty lips are red,
With ruby's crimson overspread;
Her teeth are like a string of pearls;
Down her neck her clustering curls
In ebony hue vie with the night,
And over her features dances light.
The twinkling stars enthroned above
Are sisters to my dearest love.
We men should count it joy complete
To lay our service at her feet.
But oh what rapture is her kiss!
A forecast 'tis of heavenly bliss!

Now that is some good stuff!

The term "romance" typically refers to chivalric love....where one partner extols the virtues of the other, and reveals the depths of their feelings...perhaps making promises of fidelity for all time.
I love this poem (pun intended) because ha-Levi uses this incredible language to praise the one that he loves.  (My one criticism: he praises his lover's physical attributes....Surely we live in a day and age where we understand that beauty and attraction is more than skin deep?)

No offense to any of you out there that just go thru the motions of Valentine's Day, but don't you think that ha-Levi's expression of love is so much deeper and more meaningful than a simple box of chocolates?  Using Valentine's Day to tell our partners how we feel about them, and what they mean to us - that seems to me to be an incredibly Jewish thing to do. 

(By the way: ha-Levi is also responsible for giving us the notion of LOVE AS AN EXPRESSION OF ZIONISM, thanks to his incredible poem "My Heart is in the East," which you can find here.  More on this some other time...)

My romantic Valentine's Day gift to you: listen to the Radiolab clip here.  If you have a partner that appreciates a little lovey-dovey romance, you should listen to it with them!  :o)

All of that being said: our tradition also has the notion that love is something even BIGGER than an emotion that exists between two loving partners, or between parent and child, or between two close friends.  Judaism also believes that love is something that describes the relationship between us and God.

Thus, a third expression of love in Judaism is LOVE AS AN EXPRESSION OF THEOLOGY.

The authors of the Bible (I'm thinking here specifically of the Song of Songs) use romantic love between two partners as a deeply profound metaphor for the love that exists between God and the Jewish people.

Dr. Avivah Zornberg, the noted Israeli Bible scholar, commentator, and critic, picks up on this, when she writes:

Powerfully, the Israelites’ choice to receive the Torah is portrayed as a personal, almost an eccentric moment of desire.  Objectively, Sinai offers the human being little of what he naturally seeks in […] life...  Unaccountably, however, the Israelites are drawn to the imagination of Sinai which, to them, offers substantial shade and sweet fruit. 

Echoing the Bible, Zornberg compares the relationship that exists between God and the Jewish people to a relationship between lovers.  

Sometimes, in a relationship, love seems like an unlikely thing.  We have expressions like "opposites attract" to concretize this.

Why is that person attracted to that person?

Our rabbis projected that others might have asked the same thing about God and the Jewish people.  Why, some must have wondered, would the Jewish people ever agree to believe in one mysterious, invisible God?  And why would they agree to follow so many difficult rules and commandments?  (No stealing and murdering?  Where's the fun in that, they must have wondered.)

Zornberg, quoting the rabbis, answers that the only thing that could possibly explain the attraction between these opposite and unlikely partners is the existence of a profound and enduring love.  A deeply held and understood awareness of destiny - that we are "meant" for each other on some level....that God is the only one that can get or understand us....and similarly that we Jews have a unique way of understanding and appreciating God.  Thus, for us, as Zornberg put it - Sinai offers us "substantial shade and sweet fruit."

Love as theology.  What an amazing, and specifically Jewish notion, of thinking about love on this Valentine's Day weekend.

So....wishing all of you a weekend filled with love, whether you find it by purchasing or receiving a box of chocolates; or whether you celebrate or discover romance in your life; or whether, most significantly, you become newly aware of the loving presence of God in our world, and in your midst.

Shabbat Shalom.


Friday, February 5, 2010

The Bright Side of "Idol" Worship

Spoiler Alert: I'll be using some of this material as part of my remarks on Shabbat morning at Temple Solel.

Well...lots of people are abuzz about the beginning of the new season of American Idol...especially given the pending addition of Ellen DeGeneres as a new judge.  Check out the video here to see Ellen describe her thoughts about the new gig in her own words.

For me, one of the most interesting things about the Idol phenomenon is how widespread it is.  It's not just the top-rated reality TV show on right now.  It's the number one show period.  And it has been for more than five years!!!!! There are only two other shows in American television history that have sustained this level of popularity for a similar length of time: "All in the Family" and "The Cosby Show."

What is it about "American Idol" that gets so many people excited and worked up?'s a reality show.  And's cool that we can have a say in how things turn out in terms of the winner.

But, for me, what is most interesting about "Idol" is that we - the viewers - are given the power to transform someone that is largely unknown into a major A List celebrity.

In America: we LOVE our celebrities.

We are obsessed with them, actually.

We let them take over our movies, and our television shows.  We demand to see them, and read about them, in any number of magazines.

And it's not only that we idealize their lives....we actually want to become them.

Needless to say, our own Jewish tradition has a lot to say about all of this.  And there's no better place to begin than with this week's Torah portion, Parshat Yitro, which includes the giving of the Ten Commandments:

For our discussion today, we'll put aside all of that stuff about not murdering, etc...and focus in on the Second Commandment:

"You shall have no other gods besides Me.  You shall not make [for] yourself a sculptured image – an idol, or any likeness of what is in the heavens above, or on the earth below, or in the waters under the earth.  You shall not bow down to them or serve them."  Exodus 20:3-5

In ancient times, this commandment really was concerned with the fact that our Israelite ancestors would be worshipping idols from a polytheistic (belief in multiple gods) religious tradition.  And so, in an effort to establish a contrast between polytheism and monotheism (belief in one god), this commandment was put into effect.

But it would be a mistake for us to think about idol worship in those terms today...for two reasons.  First of all: because Jews (IMHO) shouldn't have a grudge with a well respected religion like Hinduism (which includes the worshipping of gods represented by statues).  More importantly: I read the prohibition against idolatry as a condemnation of anyone that seeks to invest the most important parts of themselves: their hopes and dreams – their own happiness and and fulfillment – in a person or object, rather than in God.

I think this is really important, so I'm going to say it again: I read the prohibition against idolatry as a condemnation of anyone that seeks to invest the most important parts of themselves: their hopes and dreams – their own happiness and fulfillment – in a person or object, rather than in God.

Isn't that what we do when we get overly excited about celebrities?  We project so much respect, love (or is it lust?), and admiration onto celebrities that we not only become obsessed about them (needing to know every minute detail about their weight loss/gain, or about what's going on in their love lives).  But - worse than that - our "respect" for them transforms them into these scary "role models."  We want to be like them.

We want to look like them.  We want to have as much money as them (so that we can have the fancy cars and clothes that they have).  Because we think that we'll then be "happy" like them (in quotes because I wonder how many of them are actually happy).  Our own sense of self esteem and fulfillment is sometimes unhealthily tied to whether or not we are somehow living up to "their standards."  

This is the realm of eating disorders.  Of depression.  And of our young people, especially, struggling to find paths of meaning and fulfillment when they realize that they can't all be "perfect" (again in quotation marks because no such thing exists) like the stars we see on our screens.

Check out this blog post from the New York Times a few days lays out some really interesting food for thought about the relationship between the pressure we put on our celebrities, and the pressure we put on ourselves as we unwittingly seek to be like them.

Our rabbis asked the question: if idol worship is so dangerous to our own personal health, and to the health of our community and society, why didn't God just make it (and everything else that is evil in the world) disappear?

The Zohar, the medieval Jewish sourcebook of Kabbalah and landmark mystical commentary on the Torah, answers that question with the following comment:

"One is forbidden to pray that everything wicked be removed from the world.  For had the Holy One removed Terach from the world when he made and worshipped idols, Abraham would not have come into being."

This is an amazing text.  First of all: it really provides an answer to everyone who questions why there is evil and suffering in the world, by establishing the Jewish belief that (however unlikely it may seem) something good and beautiful can always come out of something horrible and devastating.

More to the point of our discussion here, the Zohar teaches us that Abraham (the first Jew!) was born the son of an idol maker and worshipper.  In similar fashion we are taught to seek out something positive from the so-called idol worship (of celebrities) that is so pervasive in our own time.

In that spirit, I would say that we should use the coming days (which are sort of a nexus of celebrity worship in our society, as we mark the confluence of the Super Bowl, the various movie and music award shows, etc.) to step back and reflect on our own attitudes toward celebrities.  And let's be honest with ourselves when we ask ourselves the questions: how much do I try to be like them?  How much do I want to actually be them?  And how healthy is it, really, to rely on them for our sense of self-esteem, and sense of self-fulfillment.

Those are hard questions.  PARENTS: You might consider reaching out to your kids to ask them.  They need to be asked.  I know it from my own work with teens.  This is not some made up issue.  This is a reality that a lot of our kids are inhabiting.  For their health's sake, let's begin having these difficult that something good might come from this weird celebrity obsession that so many of us suffer from.

Shabbat Shalom.