Friday, May 21, 2010

Being a Mensch = Being a Miracle Worker?

So... It's that time of year.  Our college students are hunkering down for their final exams.  Some of them have already left campus for the semester (or graduated!  Mazel Tov!).  Everyone is looking forward to the quickly-approaching summer.

Which means: that this will be our last official Etanu posting of the school year.  I'll post again as needed during the summer, if current events demand it.  But for the virtual self will be taking a little break.

If you find yourself in Encinitas in person, give me a ring, as I'd love to have coffee or catch up with any of our students.  Many of you are travelling this sightsee, to volunteer, or to study -- in Israel and beyond.  I'd love to see pics and hear how all of those experiences go for you.  Please do keep us posted.

This week's Torah portion is Parshat Naso, and continues the Torah's ongoing narrative about concerns related to ritual purity and other such seemingly-bizarre issues that our Biblical ancestors gave a good deal of thought to.

But buried in all of this is a beautiful little gem of a teaching.

One of the things that the parsha explains is the institution of the Nazirite.  Nazirites were people (men and women!) in Biblical times that could make a vow (or sacred promise) to take on extra religious obligations for a certain period of time.  Kind of like getting extra credit in religious school -- but the extreme version of that.

Anyway, the section about Nazirites is introduced in the following way:

"Speak to the Israelites and say to them: If anyone, man or woman, explicitly utters a nazirite's vow, to set himself apart (yafli) for the Lord..." Numbers 6:2

Now our rabbis always approach Torah with the belief that every word is in there for a reason.  And so: you can imagine the head scratching that ensued in every generation, when they came upon the Hebrew verb that is used here in the text to express a sense of separation: yafli.  (This is not the typical Hebrew word that would be used to indicate separation.  So, why this verb?) 

Yafli shares its Hebrew root pey-lamed-alef with the word niflah, which means "miracle" (in the same linguistic family as "pelephone," the Hebrew word for cell phone: literally a miracle-phone!!!).

Ibn Ezra, of 12th century Spain, offers the following as explanation for the Torah's strange choice of wording: "[A nazirite's] action is a miracle, because most people in the world act in accordance with their desires and lusts, and this person [the nazirite] acted in exactly the opposite way, forbidding to himself that which the Torah permitted."

Another commentary goes further, relating the story of a man who once asked a rabbi: "Why is it that righteous people are often referred to as osei nifla'ot - miracle workers?  Are they really able to perform miracles?!?"  The rabbi answered him: "According to Ibn Ezra, every person who keeps himself holy and abstains from the vanities of this world is referred to as a pele - as a miracle.  As that is the way that righteous people behave, they were given this name, signifying their abstention from the vanities and lusts of this world."

What an amazing set of insights.  Ibn Ezra, living more than eight hundred years ago, already had an understanding of human nature: that we are unfortunately inclined/seduced into making mistakes.  And so it is truly miraculous when we are able to transcend that part of ourselves (often called our yetzer ha-ra) and still choose to do good, and be righteous in the world. we don't have any notion of Nazirites in our Jewish world today.

Yet, like our Biblical ancestors, we do have a choice about the way that we live our lives: we can choose to be just like everybody else...and make the same mistakes, and have the same human failings as everybody else.  Or we can choose to live lives of holiness: lives in which we consciously and voluntarily go out of our way to make choices of righteousness...choices that are truly miraculous, if you think about all of the temptations that are out there, and that we confront, every day.

My hope for you, and for all of us, is that as we head into this summer, we remember the example of the Nazirite...and in doing so, remember that we, too, can do miracles, by living lives of holiness, and of good.

Shabbat Shalom.

PS - Although it is kind of "goody two-shoes," you may want to check out this website, which is filled with stories of people doing amazing, miraculous things.

Friday, May 14, 2010

It's Good For the Jews - But What About the Rest of the Country?

Earlier this week, President Obama announced Solicitor General Elena Kagan as his nominee to the vacant seat on the Supreme Court.  You can watch the video of the White House announcement here:

Appropriately enough, a majority of the conversation (online, in print, and on television) has been about Kagan's qualification for the position, what her legal views are, etc.  In other words: all of the stuff that you'd expect people to talk about and evaluate after hearing about that someone has been nominated to the Highest Court in the Land.  Here's Jon Stewart summarizing his take on the nomination so far:

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
Release the Kagan
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But dig a little deeper and you'll discover that the media and blogosphere are also abuzz about what Kagan's confirmation would mean in terms of the changing demographics of the Court.

For example...her gender.  If she's confirmed, that'll make three of the nine justices female.

For me - it's an atrocity.

Not an atrocity that there would be so MANY women on the court. atrocity that (even with Kagan's confirmation) there would be so FEW women on the court.

(Keep in mind that, according to 2008 data from the Census Bureau, 50.7% of the US population is female.)

Obviously, it's an open philosophical question whether one thinks that the Supreme Court should reflect the demographic realities of the country.  For what it's worth, I think there is some value - at least in taking these demographics into consideration - to the extent that the justices do "represent" the entire country. they don't represent us in exactly the same way that our Congresspeople do.  Nonetheless, they are acting on our behalf to insure that the legislation that Congress passes is legal and legitimate - and in that sense they are representing us...kind of looking out for our needs. 

Thus, the argument in favor of a Court that reflects the demographics of the country.  Because if the entire Court were old Protestant white guys, would they really be able to do a credible job of empathetically evaluating whether certain legislation was "just" for young African Americans.

(I know - someone out there is going to flame me for completely mis-describing the role of a justice.  What can I tell you?  I'm not a strict constructionist.)

Anyway....all of that brings us to the question of the representation of religious diversity on the Court.

One of the things that everyone is all aflutter about this week is the fact that, if Kagan is confirmed, than it will mean that for the first time ever, the Court will be devoid of Protestants.  This is indeed remarkable and noteworthy, considering that our Founding Fathers were largely Protestant.  We often forget that the US is a predominantly Protestant country.

According to the 2007 report from the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, 51.3% of the country considers themselves Protestant.  (That number has shrunk in recent decades.)  Nonetheless: it is incredible that the majority religion in the country would have no representation on the Court.

Catholics, who currently hold six out of the nine seats (66%) on the Court, account for 23.9% of Americans.

And then there are us Jews.  Potentially three out of nine seats (33%) on the Court, even though we account for only 1.7% of the American population.  Astounding.

It's far more astounding than the numbers we put up for Congress.  According to a separate Pew Report on the religious backgrounds of members of Congress, Jews make up 8.4% of Congress as a whole (House plus Senate), and a whopping 13% of the Senate.

But those numbers are nothing on 33% of the Supreme Court!

Okay: so it's hard to see a down side (besides some lame muted anti-Semitism) for us to the appointment of another Jewish Supreme Court Justice.

But: in the broader scheme of things, is it worth asking if there is such a thing as Too Many Jews on the Supreme Court?

Wouldn't there also be value for Jewish Americans if the President had nominated someone representing another demographic minority of Americans (on the presumption that individuals of minority background are predisposed to be sensitive to the needs of other minorities).  I'm thinking, here, of the 15.4% of Americans who are Latino/Hispanic.  Or the12.8% of Americans who are black.

Or: are we living in a post-racial, post-ethnic, post-religious moment in American life where it is considered politically incorrect to ask these questions, and concern ourselves with the identities of our Supreme Court nominees?

I'm not sure what the right answer is...But I do get to ask the provocative questions.  I'd love to hear what you think.

Shabbat Shalom.

PS: Our movement's Religious Action Center in Washington is encouraging people to post questions that they would like Ms. Kagan to answer during the confirmation hearings.   On the same page, there's also a link to the Twitter dialogue on the nomination.  Find it all here.  (Click here for the RAC's statement on Kagan's nomination.)

Friday, May 7, 2010

Vendor vs. Vendor


I'm not sure exactly what this says about me as a person - but I have been captivated by the news stories coming out of New York City in the last week - in response to the attempted act of terrorism in Times Square last Saturday night. 

Why has the story interested me so much?  Maybe it's because I've spent plenty of time in Times Square during different points in my life (especially the seasonal trips to the city that my family made while I was growing up in New Jersey).  Maybe it's out of concern that this could have been (God forbid) another 9/11?  I don't know...But for whatever reason, I have been staying tuned.

Obviously this stuff is serious - even the allegation of suspected Islamic extremists looking to attack of American citizens is deeply disconcerting.

But you'll forgive me, because I am naturally inclined - after spending so much time reading about all of the serious stuff associated with something like this - to look for the "lighter side" of this story.

I found it a few days ago, when I stumbled upon this blog page from the New York Times.  Ah....only in New York.  :o)

If you've been following along with the news reports since last weekend, you might have heard that the police were able to evacuate the area, and thereby prevent mass casualties, thanks to the tip of one of the street vendors who was manning his post, and happened to notice suspicious smoke coming out of a nearby vehicle.

Awesome.  A hero in the making.  Joe Schmo NY street vendor saves day by doing his part to tell police about a suspicious object.

Except that - according to the aforementioned Times blog - it may not have been quite that simple!

It seems that there is some dispute as to who the FIRST street vendor was who alerted police about the suspicious vehicle.

Let me just say: this was a big enough situation that it seems obvious to me that there is room enough for two heroes here.  That's the position that Mayor Bloomberg and President Obama have taken - in attempting to honor both vendors (injured Vietnam veterans, incidentally) for their courage and civic-mindedness.

Here is Lance Orton, one of the vendors, telling about his experience:

What really caught my attention about this minor news story was the "trash talking" that Mr. Orton did about the other vendor, Duane Jackson.  Of Mr. Jackson, Mr. Orton said: "He was across the street, with his arms folded, looking around, while we were doing what we did. [...] There can't be two heroes.  I don't want anyone riding on my story."

Mr. Orton's implication is that Mr. Jackson is lying about his role in the events of last Saturday.  That's a serious charge considering the events of the week: a concerted attempt by one of the vendors to besmirch the character/reputation of the other.

I, myself, am at a loss of words to describe this argument.

Thankfully, our tradition has a lot to say about it.  And it all stems from this week's Torah portion, Parshat Behar-Bechukotai

In the midst of the Torah's discussion about the rituals of shmitta (letting the land rest every seven years) and yovel (forgiving loans every 50th jubilee year), our text contains the following:

When you sell property to your neighbor, or buy any from your neighbor, you shall not wrong one another. […] Do not wrong one another, but fear your God; for I, the Lord, am your God.  (Lev. 25:14,17)

Twice the Torah repeats the commandment that we shall not "wrong one another."  Why twice?  Surely both instances cannot refer to the same kind of 'wronging.'  Our rabbis teach us that every word in the Torah MATTERS, and has something unique to teach us.  Thus it must be that the text refers to two different kinds of wronging: that of the economic variety (associated with verse 14) and that of the gossipy variety (verse 17).

Interestingly, both come into play with our situation of the vendors.  There are economic implications if people presume that such and such vendor was the hero (people are more likely to want to stop and shop there, get their picture taken with that person, etc.) and there are economic implications if one of the vendors turns out to be a fraud (God forbid) - because then one would presume that shoppers in the know would avoid spending money there.

Of course, the Talmud teaches us that the latter 'wronging' - where we spread false information about another - is even worse.  The loss of reputation, or shame, that we cause cannot be replaced in the same way that money can.  Thus the Talmud goes so far as to say that a person who embarrasses another in public is like the worst kind of murderer, who may never be forgiven for their sin.  (Yikes!)

There are other theological ramifications to Vendorgate (yes, that's my pathetic little name for this incident), which we'll have the chance to explore in greater depth tomorrow at our Shabbat morning service. 

In the meantime, here are some questions for you to consider:
  •  Do you agree with the significance that Judaism attaches to the importance of never embarrassing another in public?
  • Have you ever (unwittingly) been guilty of embarrassing another?  Did you try to repent (or make up) for the act?  Is that kind of repentance ever fully possible?
  • What's up with Lance Orton and Duane Jackson?  Are they both legit American heroes (well...they already are for their service in Vietnam, but in terms of the incident in NY)?  Or is one of them trying to pull a fast one on the other (and the rest of us)?
As always, I'd love to hear your thoughts about this - either publicly here on the blog, or privately.

Shabbat Shalom.