Friday, February 25, 2011

Reform Judaism: Nothing to Be Ashamed Of!

The talk radio host Glenn Beck made news this week when he compared Reform rabbis (and by extension Reform Jews everywhere) to Islamic fundamentalists. He subsequently apologized for these comments - see below.

His offensive comments were made during his February 22 radio program.  You can hear them here (the relevant part begins at around 2:55).

Beck's comments stem from an earlier incident...which began when Beck called into question George Soros' past - and specifically his behavior during the Holocaust.  (Soros is a Holocaust survivor and noted philanthropist who supports primarily liberal causes, which Beck takes issue with.)

A coalition of 400 rabbis from across the Jewish spectrum, organized under the umbrella organization Jewish Funds for Justice, recently took out ads in prominent newspapers condemning Beck for his attack on Soros, and for his too-frequent comparison of his political enemies to Nazis.

Beck's February 22 comments were a response to those ads.

His initial comments earlier this week were quickly and widely denounced by the URJ (our Reform Movement) and the ADL (among others).

The good news is that yesterday - February 24 - Beck apologized for the comments at the top of his show, describing his original Feb 22 remarks as being misinformed and "one of the worse analogies of all time."  He followed up those on-air remarks with an open letter to the ADL reiterating his apology.  Abraham Foxman, national director of the ADL, accepted the apology and now considers the matter closed.

Jewish Funds for Justice does not.

What do you think?

My initial inclination - as a Jew - is to generally be open to an apology.  Our understanding of teshuvah implies that forgiving someone is as important a mitzvah as asking for forgiveness.  Of course, our Jewish understanding of teshuvah presumes that the offender won't repeat his error again in the future.  Only time will tell if Beck will hold himself to a higher standard than Tuesday.

In the meantime...putting aside his offensive comparison of liberal Jews with radical Islamists (we have literally nothing in common)...let's examine his original contention that there is something wrong with a religion that applies its values to the political process.

I don't have to tell you that that notion is anathema to Judaism.  Our values aren't just ideas that we live out in the privacy of our own homes.  They make up our hopes and dreams: our collective vision for what life on this planet could be like if we were able to figure out a way to get along, and care deeply for one another.

Part of what it means to be a Jew is to take those values out into the world, and to practice them.  That's why it's such a mitzvah to give tzedakah to the unknown homeless person on the street -- because even though they are not related to us, or connected to us in any concrete way...nonetheless, we Jews believe in our moral obligation to help that stranger...and to end the plight of the homeless everywhere.

Fighting homelessness (or your other favorite social justice issues) isn't just done on the street.  It's done in Washington, where all Americans have the opportunity to lobby their representatives for either more or less funding for this cause or that cause.

To be sure, Jews comes in different political stripes.  We have Jewish Democrats and Jewish Republicans.  And those two groups tend to disagree on a lot of issues.  Quite passionately.

But one thing that they have in common is that neither is embarrassed about their Jewishly-informed passion to engage on the pressing political issues of the day.

And I, for one, agree.  There is nothing to be ashamed of about being a Reform Jew in general.  And there is nothing to be ashamed of about wanting to be politically involved...and to base that involvement on one's own individual religious values.  Just the opposite.  It's a mitzvah to be involved Jewishly and politically in that way.

I understand, and respect, that there might be some in our community who are/were fans of Glenn Beck, because of his advocacy for a political agenda that many in this country are captivated by.

But if this most recent incident has left a bad taste in your mouth - about who Beck is, and the political tactics that he represents, you might consider adding your name to the Jewish Funds for Justice petition that continues to circulate, calling for him to be fired - not in response to this week's remarks which he has apologized for, but for his repeated and inappropriate invocation of Holocaust metaphors that are insensitive to Jews.  You can find that petition here.

In the true spirit of democracy, and of respectful discourse, I encourage you to share your thoughts on this matter by weighing in in the Comments box below.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, February 18, 2011

Paying Our Fair Share?


Though the college students who frequent this blog might not realize it, it's Tax Time.  The H&R Block lawn signs are up.  Your 1099s have been mailed to you.  This is the season for us to calculate what we owe, and then fork over our share to the government, which will theoretically use it to fund things like government salaries, the military, scientific research, social service/safety net programs, and (if President Obama has his way) high speed rail.

This week's Torah portion (Parshat Ki Tisa) gives us the opportunity to step back and consider our position on tax policy...and more specifically: the Jewish ethical stance as to WHO should be taxed (and by how much).

That taxes exist as a necessary evil is something enshrined in the Sixteenth Amendment of our Constitution. 

But - as you may be well aware - there is also significant disagreement in American life today about how the burden of taxes should be distributed. Our current system has graduated tax rates: the more you earn, the higher the tax rate you're supposed to pay.  (We'll that's a dangerously simplified explanation of it, anyway.)

There have been any number of alternatives floated in the last few decades.  Maybe we should move to a flat tax, which would stipulate that all Americans' earnings would be taxed at the same rate.  Others would do away with income taxes altogether, and shift to a nationalized sales tax approach.

We often think about this issue as a political one.  You can see that Democrats (p.24-ff.)  and Republicans have vastly different partisan approaches to this subject.

But it's a religious issue as well.

In this week's Torah portion, we learn that Moses instituted an annual half shekel tax on every adult (male) Israelite in order to fund the building (and in subsequent years, operation) of the Tent of Meeting.  (The Tent of Meeting was the portable structure that our ancestors carried with them as they wandered thru the desert, which they used in order to encounter God.)

The text (Exodus 30:15) is explicit that EVERYONE in the community pays the same amount: one half shekel.  The rich are not allowed to pay more, and the poor cannot pay less.

The Jewish critique here is one of unfairness: the contribution of the poor man represents a much larger percentage of that person's wealth than the contribution of the rich one.

Our tradition offers us a few responses to this difficulty.  Rabbi Joseph Caro, author of the monumental Shulchan Aruch (16th century), notes that there is nothing inherently unfair about the half shekel levy, for the rich man and the poor man each benefit equally from the Tent of Meeting.  The same religious sacrifices are performed on behalf of both in that structure.  Thus, they should in theory each pay the same. 

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch, of 19th century Germany) disagrees.  He believes that the Torah is not meant to be read literally in this case, because such a reading would be contrary to Jewish ethics.  As a results, he imaginatively argues that the rich are supposed to give fully according to their abilities, and the poor should do the same.  If both do that, then it will be as if they both gave the same amount - which they did, to the extent that both gave substantially - even if the actual monetary value of their donations was vastly different.

Here we have two very different approaches: one extreme which believes that the services of the community should be funded radically evenly by everyone giving the exact same amount (Caro's initial proposal), and the other extreme (Hirsch) which believes that the services of the community should be supported mostly by the rich (who are able to give the most - freely and easily).

To what extent are these two extremes caricatures of Republican and Democratic tax policies?  I know that that is a loaded question in this hyper-partisan atmosphere of our country.  I'M NOT TAKING SIDES, JUST ASKING A PROVOCATIVE QUESTION!  :o)

With tax policy high on Congress' agenda in the coming year (Republicans are looking to make permanent the tax cuts that were passed during the Bush Administration), these are not just academic questions.  How we answer them will have a real long term fiscal impact on our economy and society.

In the spirit of political pluralism, and of compromise, there is a third way: one that might navigate a course in between these two extremes.

Rabbi Moshe Isserles (16th century Poland), who penned the Ashkenazic gloss on Caro's (Sephardic) Shulchan Aruch, suggests that half of a community's taxes be raised according to the wealth and means of the taxee, and half raised via a uniform amount charged to everyone.  He notes that many of the Eastern European communities that he was familiar with had already embraced this pluralistic model  - 450 years ago! 

To what extent can Isserles' ruling serve as a model of compromise for our times as well? 

As always, I'd love to hear what you think.

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, February 11, 2011

Privacy: In Peril?


Several weeks ago, I blogged about the dangers of the Internet, in the context of how dangerously easy the online world makes it to engage in gossip.

This week's Torah portion gives us the chance to explore the dangers of the Internet from a different perspective: that of our privacy (or lack, thereof).

A central question that our society has to wrestle with right now is whether or not there should be any notion of privacy online.  The success of facebook (which is built on the premise that the more we share about ourselves to others, the better) challenges long held beliefs about what we share with others.  (Everyone would do well to read the Time Magazine Person of the Year profile of facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg to see his views about privacy.)

There are social ramifications to what we share about ourselves online:  if we post something via a social networking app about something we did that was clearly at odds with a policy of our employer's, we could lose our job.  With specific regards to facebook, one of the ways that you can minimally protect yourself against this sort of thing is to be more actively involved in manging your facebook privacy settings.  Better yet: be extra judicious about what you put online in the first place!

And there are also economic ramifications.  Right now, many online advertisers have the ability to sneakily read the cookies in our computers.  In doing so, they learn about our recent Internet activity, and can then customize advertising that fits a profile based on our background and interests.

Thankfully, Congress is finally moving with legislation that will begin to offer Internet users a minimal amount of protection from corporate America's invasion of our online policy.  To get up to speed on some of the proposals that Congress is considering, click here or here.

How coincidental that this week's Torah portion (Parshat Tetzaveh) offers us one of the foundational prooftexts for the longstanding Jewish assertion of a fundamental right to privacy.  Tucked into the details of the Torah's description of the unique garments that Aaron was supposed to wear when he was serving as High Priest in the Tent of Meeting, we read that:

"On its [Aaron’s High Priest robe] hem, make pomegranates of blue, purple, and crimson yarns, all around the hem, with bells of gold between them all around […] so that the sound of it is heard when he goes in to the sanctuary before the Lord and when he goes out – that he may not die (Exodus 28:33-35)."

How curious that the Torah would go out of its way to insist that the garment should have bells on!  It was the Biblical Author's way of suggesting that no one - even the High Priest - has the right to enter a space without knocking...without getting the permission and consent of the person(s) who might be inside.

Internet privacy is of course not exactly the same thing as being concerned about someone walking unannounced into your home.  But our tradition absolutely sees it as conceptually similar.  Because when someone consumes data about us online without our permission, our privacy has been violated - in a way that carries all of the same consequences as someone who comes in unannounced.

Relatively little has been written about these issues from a specifically Jewish context.  One text that is worth reading is the decade-old responsum from the Conservative movement on the subject.  At one point in the document, it asserts that "In sum, individuals, under Jewish law, have a right to decide who will have access to their correspondence and private information."

In a day and age in which our identities can be compromised so easily, and at a time when companies can easily scan our online history without our permission - the problem does not just fall to Congress.  We cannot sit around and wait/hope that the Legislative Branch will somehow miraculously protect our best interests.  The responsibility falls to us.  This week's Torah portion teaches us clearly: we have a right to privacy.  What steps are we willing to take to protect it?

Will we be more vigilant about the browsers that we use and the sites that we visit?  Will we be more thoughtful about who we share our facebook profiles with?

Or is privacy an outdated notion?  In this day and age of Wikileaks, maybe transparency and full disclosure are more valuable?

What do you think?  I'd love to hear your comments. 

Shabbat Shalom,
Rabbi Brown

Friday, February 4, 2011

All Stressed Out

There's nothing like a good, upbeat news report to put a smile on your face!

Unfortunately, the New York Times' article last week about a recent survey of mental health on college campuses does not fall into that category.  The Times' piece is well-worth reading - I'd rather not summarize it here.  Suffice it to say: stress and depression levels are the worst that have been measured in the 25 year history of this well-respected study.  The economy seems to be the primary reason for all of this: students are concerned earlier than ever about financial aid; they're nervous about finding jobs at school/during the summer/after graduation; and their parents are hurting because of the recession too.

The news of this survey and its results scares me.

Mental health doesn't just exist in a vacuum.  It organically impairs so many other aspects of our lives: our ability to socialize with others; our ability to complete our school work; and our ability to stay physically healthy. 

I wish I could wave a magic wand and make all of this stress disappear.  But, alas, that is not a part of my rabbinic superpowers.  Instead: I want to devote the rest of this week's blog posting to some basic coping mechanisms.  And - if it isn't obvious by now, I should note that these suggestions are as relevant to the adults who follow this blog, as they'll be to our college students.  Here are three important steps that we can all take to manage our stress:

1) We should remember that coping with stress or mental health challenges is not something that we have to experience alone.  Nor should we.  I cannot overstate how vitally important it is for all of us (even the most relaxed among us!) to consider seeking out a rabbi, counselor, or therapist to talk to.  There is something about the sense of release that comes from unburdening your stresses with a non-judgmental professional that is strikingly different from the experience of sharing your innermost secrets with a best friend.  Counselors are trained to listen, and to help you reflect on who you are, and why you get stressed out by certain things more than others. 

The great news is that, for college students, free or heavily subsidized counselling is almost always available on campus by the university.  Your school probably has a Counselling Center that could assist you. 

If you prefer a Jewish venue (beyond calling me, which you're all welcome to do), you might consider calling your local Jewish Family Service.  JFS's almost always offer subsidized counselling services.  (The only thing Jewish about JFS counselling is that there's a stronger likelihood that the counselor is Jewish.)  Click here for JFS of San Diego or click here for the North American directory of the Association of Jewish Family and Children's Agencies to find a JFS near you.

Local rabbis and Hillels can always refer you to a more secular oriented counselor or therapist if you prefer.

So: seeking out a person to talk to is one step toward managing stress.

Another is exercise.  I'm a huge believer in the notion that our bodies, minds, and souls are joined on some deep existential level.  When we "exercise" (or care) for one aspect of ourselves, the other two cannot help but benefit from it as well.  Thus, our minds can be eased by a little exercise. 

If you haven't gotten hooked on exercising yet, you may not realize that most campuses have incredible fitness facilities that are free to students.  Take advantage of it, and skip out on pricey gym memberships.  And if working out in a gym isn't your thing (it isn't mine either), then head outside.  Get some fresh air by going for a walk or a run.  Or find a local state or national park to do some hiking or biking.  Sitting on your butt and watching television might distract you from the challenges of life for the first half hour.  But that's not a long term solution.  Exercise, on the other hand, can provide you with a regular outlet to burn some stress and clear your mind. 

Finally: our souls.  Perhaps you have never seriously given thought to it.  But I'm your rabbi - so take it from me.  Even if you don't believe in God, you should believe in the existence of your soul.  Not as something that needs to be "saved" (Jews don't buy into that).  And not as connected to anything having to do with the afterlife.  But think about your soul as the essence of your inner self: a spark inside that needs to be tended, and cared for, just like our bodies and minds.  The inner life of our spirit (if I may call it that) affects us - just as our physical and mental health does.

What can we do to foster that sense of inner awareness?  Attending synagogue and praying formally are obvious answers.  Making time to study more about Judaism and your Jewish identity is another way to go.  You might begin on your own with a website like, and then reach out to me for further reading suggestions.  Yoga and other meditative practices can also be a route toward greater inner awareness.

Whatever you choose from these three keep in mind that we all have to choose something.  Because to do nothing is to make ourselves vulnerable to the pervasive pain and suffering that is spreading through our society right now because of the economy.

This week's Torah portion (Parshat Terumah) echoes this message.  Our parsha is focused on the many details concerning the building of the Tabernacle: that portable structure that our ancestors carried with them through the dessert, allowing them to encounter and interact with God wherever they went.

Our rabbis ask the question: does God really care if the Tabernacle is exactly X feet long and Y feet wide.  Does the Holy One actually need this structure to dwell in at all?

The rabbis of the Midrash laugh at the notion that the Blessed Holy One, whose presence pervades the universe, needs any kind of physical structure from us.  Instead, we learn that the Tabernacle - with all its detail - was meant for us.  As a set of suggestions or guidelines - a recipe, if you will, for us to build something in order to construct some meaning out of a sometimes meaningless existence.

Or, to put it in other words: our ancestors were stressed out, just like we are.  And their coping mechanism was to devote themselves to building this structure - and then using it.

We would do well to follow their example.  Today I have outlined a list of possibilities...different activities that we can build into the everyday routine of our lives.  And our hope is that - just like our ancestors in the days of old - these structures or routines will enable us to find a sense of healing, and of meaning, that will enable us to cope with the sometimes difficult task of making it through the day.

Shabbat Shalom,

Rabbi Brown