Friday, September 16, 2016

Technology and the High Holidays

  Neil Postman was a professor of education at New York University. He published his last book, Building A Bridge to the 18th Century, in 1999 and passed away in 2003. Some of his works are considered classics in the field of education and I recall reading him in graduate school in the early 1980s.

          Postman was known as something of a skeptic concerning technology and maintained in his final book that many technologies are being created to solve problems which don’t exist. For example, he wrote (in 1999) that Bill Gates was working on a technology “that would make obsolete the task of locating and then sending recordings into action.  One approaches the machinery and speaks the words "Frank Sinatra" or "Pavarotti" or, if you can imagine it, "'The Spice Girls," and we hear them. May one ask, What is the problem solved by this? The answer, I am told, is speed. We are a people who measure our lives in seconds. Five seconds saved here, five seconds there, and at the end of the day, we have perhaps saved a minute. By year's end, we have saved over five hours. At death's door, we may allow ourselves a smile by gasping that we saved a month and a half, and no one will ask, But for what?”

          As a matter of fact, the technological innovation decried by Postman in 1999 now sits on the counter which divides our kitchen from our den, albeit not invented by Bill Gates and not manufactured or sold by Microsoft. It’s called the Amazon Echo and it will play music by a particular artist, in a particular genre or even a specific song upon request. It does quite a bit more than that as well. While Postman attributed the quest to develop this technology to a desire to save time, it seems to me that its main virtues are rather saving space and resources. If I buy an album or an individual song as an electronic file rather than on a CD or phonograph album (remember those?) it does not take up storage space in my home. It does not require whatever raw materials went into its manufacture nor the emission of carbons to deliver it.

          Keleigh and I also both have Kindle E-readers, and as a result we rarely purchase physical books. Since we are both voracious readers, our book collections were literally consuming all the available wall space in our previous home as well as being stacked on floors and tables and piled in boxes in our basement. The advent of the Kindle has let us keep up with our reading without being engulfed by mountains of books.

          Of course there are downsides as well. Digital technology has changed the music business and it’s much harder to make a living as a musician unless you hit it big. (The Amazon Echo actually is better in this regard than MP3 players, because it doesn’t play pirated or illegally-shared files.) E-readers and Amazon have lead to the closing of the Borders bookstore chain as well as many local, independent booksellers.

          Postman was not calling for a moratorium on technology but rather reminding us that while it has benefits, there are costs as well. He posed an important question: “Which people and what institutions might be most seriously harmed by a technological solution?“

          Technology is not going away, and in our religious school we have harnessed it to provide what I firmly believe is a better education and a better experience than was provided before. A balanced approach is called for. But as the High Holidays approach, Postman’s questions still echo. Who benefits and who is harmed? And most importantly, what are we going to do with the time we save?

Friday, September 2, 2016

Thoughts the Morning After Seeing a Bruce Springsteen Concert

If you see me this evening and I am a bit groggy, it is because Keleigh and I got home at 1:45 this morning from the Bruce Springsteen concert at Nationals Park. Bruce Springsteen’s music has been part of the soundtrack of my life. His high school was 15 miles from mine (although I am ten years younger than he is). I was vaguely aware of him even when I was in elementary school as there was a riot after a performance by his band Steel Mill at a nearby swim club. Some of the locales he mentions in his lyrics, like Madame Marie’s, Kingsley Ave. or Highway 9, are very familiar to me, and when I was in high school and he already had two albums out, I ran into him in the sporting goods department of K-Mart.

But it has been a long time since I had last seen a Bruce Springsteen performance. I’d seen him twice at the old Capital Center, once in an acoustic performance at the Wiltern Theater in Los Angeles when I was living there, and a couple of times at unannounced performances at The Stone Pony in Asbury Park and Big Man’s East in Red Bank. The power of a Springsteen performance is not just in the musicianship but in the stories he tells through his lyrics. The characters who populate his songs are very specific but also universal. People who have been beaten down by life but not broken. They either walk tall or don’t walk at all. They tell their boss “I’m not a boy, no, I’m a man  . . . and I believe in the promised land.”

In this week’s Parasha we are reminded more than once that we were slaves in Egypt, and that therefore we are to act with compassion towards those who have less than we do. If someone becomes poor, we are to provide them with whatever they need -- which the sages tell us means that we’re responsible not only for their subsistence but for their dignity as well. We are to have empathy for others and put ourselves in their place,to imagine what it would be like if we were they. Springsteen in his songs plays a role similar to that played by Nathan the Prophet in King David’s court.

Last night was the first time I heard Springsteen perform “American Skin (41 Shots).” This song was inspired by the 1999 shooting of Amadou Diallo in New York City. Plainclothes police officers mistook him for a suspect they were after. He reached for his wallet to show the police he was not the man they were looking for, one of the officers thought it was a gun, and 41 shots later Amadou Diallo was dead.

When the song first came out, the New York City police union called on the public to boycott Springsteen’s performances. This pattern is so familiar in our society where so many people want to see things as cut-and-dry, binary. If you are concerned about African-American men being killed by police, you are anti-cop. But it shows a fundamental misunderstanding.

In the song, a (presumably African-American) mother has “the talk” with her son Charles (yes, that is his name.)
She says, "On these streets, Charles

But that isn’t the only story Springsteen tells. The refrain of the song is as follows:
Well, is it a gun? Is it a knife? Is it a wallet? This is your life.
It ain’t no secret, no secret my friend;
You can get killed just for living,
In your American Skin.

Who is speaking these words? It’s somewhat ambiguous but it seems to me that the speaker here is the police officer who has to make a split-second decision. If he makes the wrong decision someone could get killed -- maybe him, maybe the suspect. I’m thankful my job doesn’t carry those kinds of stakes on a regular basis.

Springsteen wants us to put ourselves in the shoes of all these characters. The mom who knows that her son’s skin color instantly makes him a suspect; the young man who doesn’t understand why that should be and why he has to follow different rules than his white classmates; the police officer who goes to work every day knowing that he might come home in a coffin; and the police officer’s family who never really sleeps while their loved one is at work.

If we can’t see ourselves in all these people, we’re flunking the empathy test and falling short of the standards the Torah sets for us.

Friday, July 1, 2016

Walls, Spies, and American Jews

A friend and congregant has been sitting shiva for his mother and there have been minyanim (prayer services) at his house both morning and evening. I want to share with you a Torah thought I had yesterday morning connecting the weekly Torah reading to the secular calendar.

This week’s parasha, Shelach, begins with the story of the Twelve Spies Moses sent shortly after the Exodus to scout out the Land of Israel. Ten of the twelve tell Moses upon their return that it will be impossible to conquer the Land because the inhabitants are too strong. How do they know? Because their cities are surrounded by big tall walls.

Rashi points out that the spies got it backwards. Heavily fortified cities do not mean strong people. They mean weak people, fearful people. Strong people don’t need to hide behind walls.

We have been having our morning minyan services in Jedd’s backyard, which is visible from two streets and of course to all the neighbors. And yet we are out their davening wearing tallit and tefillin, which look pretty odd to those who aren’t familiar with them. Throughout most of Jewish history -- even in America until fairly recently -- Jews in the Diaspora would have been too afraid to pray with tallit and tefillin in such a visible manner. But because as American Jews we are not fearful, we do not feel the need to hide ourselves behind a wall.

Because I’m a student of Jewish history, I realize how utterly amazing this is. Throughout most of our history we would never have dreamed of something like this. If Jews would have been comfortable praying outdoors in a residential area, it would have only been because Jews lived segregated from the rest of the population. But we are blessed to live in a country which believes in and practices religious freedom. We live in a country which allowed us or our parents or grandparents to come here and thrive even though they didn’t speak the language and had a different religion than almost everyone else.

On this July 4th weekend let’s give thanks for the blessings of freedom we enjoy in this country.

Friday, June 17, 2016

Some Thoughts After Orlando

This has been a very difficult week for our country.

The murder of 49 people in an LGBT nightclub in Orlando has brought out some of the best and some of the worst in people and in our national character.

The gunman was an American-born Muslim, the son of immigrants from Afghanistan. In the midst of the massacre he called 911 and reported that he was acting out of loyalty to ISIS. But he also claimed loyalty to both An-Nusra and Hezbollah. This is kind of like someone claiming simultaneous loyalty to the Ku Klux Klan, the American Nazi Party, and Louis Farrakhan’s Nation of Islam. ISIS and An-Nusra both stem from an extremist interpretation of Sunni Islam, but they split in 2014 and have been actively fighting each other in Syria. Hezbollah is Shiite and not even considered to be Islamic by the other two -- and most likely, vice-versa. While the killer may well have been motivated by a perversion of Islamic teachings, he was also reportedly a regular at the nightclub and on gay dating sites. Since he is now dead, we will never know what motivated him to do what he did.

What we do know is that people were murdered because of who they loved and who they were. We also know that, too sadly, some Americans are singling out other Americans of one religion because of the actions of one adherent of that same religion. As Jews, we know from our own history what happens when all of us are blamed for the actions of one or a few of us.

Europe has had a problem in assimilating Muslims into the larger society. There are all kinds of reasons for this, beyond the scope of this brief message, but the result is that there are hundreds of thousands if not millions of Muslims in Europe who are deeply alienated from the countries in which they were born, reside, and have citizenship. The same is not true in the United States. American Muslims are a lot like their Jewish neighbors. They are professionals, doctors, scientists, engineers. They enjoy higher than average incomes and higher than average levels of education. They think that their neighborhoods are pretty good places to live, they are not particularly religious, and they wish that their leaders were doing more to combat extremism in the religion. Commentary Magazine, which is certainly right-of-center and hawkish on Israel and the Middle East, just published an excellent article on this topic and I encourage you to read it.

On Monday evening I attended an interfaith Iftar (Ramadan break-fast) where the local Muslim community reached out to the LGBT community. It was very moving to see our Muslim neighbors coming to grips with the anti-gay attitudes in their community and wondering how to move forward. We Jews have our own mess to clean up in this regard, and while we have certainly made progress there is still quite a ways to go.

Rabbi Shai Held of Machon Hadar and the Jewish Theological Seminary wrote this week: “One of the biggest problems with religion is that people stubbornly, insistently reduce God to their own size; they imagine that God loves the same people they love, and that God hates the people they hate. This is not just insidious theology; it’s actually idolatry, because people are just worshiping a blown up version of themselves. So let me say it simply: God’s love transcends all of that.”

A lot of people in America are hurting today: LGBT folks, Muslims, others who feel put upon or marginalized for all kinds of reasons. Our task is to be the hands of God in this world, and reach out to those who are hurting and say “God loves you and so do I.”

Monday, May 23, 2016

Thoughts on our 45th Anniversary

On Sunday May 22 Kehilat Shalom celebrated its 45th anniversary. These are my thoughts on the occasion:

As a rabbi I generally look to Jewish wisdom when I am called upon to write a message for a particular occasion. If we were celebrating a round number I would turn to Pirkei Avot, which in its fifth chapter gives the significance of every anniversary from twenty all the way up to 100 -- but only in increments of ten.

What is the significance, then, of a 45th anniversary? Gematria is a kabbalistic method of understanding the significance of words based on the numerical values of their letters, since every Hebrew letter has a numerical value. The best-known example of gematria may be the Jewish predilection for making donations in multiples of 18, since 18 is the numerical values of the Hebrew word “chai,” life.

The number 45 yields לב אחד, “one heart.” When we act together for the good of our kehila, our community, our country and our brothers and sisters throughout the world, we act with one heart.

The number 45 also yields איזה טוב ה, “how good is God.” When we act with one heart, we come closer to God and we bring God’s goodness into the world through prayer, through study, and especially through acts of lovingkindness. These are the things which our kehila exists to do, and these are the things that God has created us to do. How good is God when we act with lev echad, one heart.

And finally, the number 45 yields לא זז, “not going anywhere.” As long as our kehila continues to act with one heart and make plain the goodness of God in this world, we are not going anywhere.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Kitniyot Revisited

Last year shortly before Pesach I was asked during a Kiddush Konversation about an article which had been published in Voices of Conservative Judaism which summarized a responsum by Rabbi David Golinkin permitting the consumption of kitniyot during Passover. My response was that Rabbi Golinkin was an Israeli Conservative rabbi writing for the Israeli community and that I was not prepared to endorse the practice unless and until it was permitted by the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards of the Conservative Movement (CJLS or Law Committee.)

A quick review of the term kitniyot. Often translated as “legumes,” kitniyot are foods which Ashkenazi Jews have traditionally avoided during Pesach even though they are not chametz, leaven. Sephardic Jews have always eaten them. Among the products considered kitniyot are beans, rice, peas, corn, and mustard. Although Ashkenazi Jews have refrained from consuming them during Pesach, it was permitted to possess them and thus they were not sold before Pesach or disposed of as chametz is. Knowledgeable Ashkenazim knew that it was even permitted during Pesach to eat from utensils which had been used to prepare or serve kitniyot as long as one avoided the kitniyot themselves.

At the end of December 2015, the Law Committee passed (by a vote of 19-1 with 2 abstentions) a responsum by Rabbis Avram Reisner and Amy Levin permitting all Jews to consume kitniyot during Pesach with certain guidelines. It’s important to understand what those guidelines are because this responsum is not a blanket permission to eat any product that seems not to contain chametz just by glancing at the ingredients.

Rabbis Reisner and Levin go through the history of this practice and the various reasons that have been adduced as to why it has been followed. (It should also be noted that throughout history there were a number of great sages who viewed this as a mistaken custom and tried to eliminate it, while others said that while there was no real basis for it it should nevertheless be observed out of deference to previous generations.)

No one is absolutely sure why Ashkenazim originally prohibited kitniyot but the classic halachic literature has adduced three possibilities:
  1. kitniyot were either stored or cooked in the same manner as chametz and people might accidentally eat chametz thinking it was only kitniyot;
  2. kitniyot were harvested, stored and transported together with chametz and there was a possibility that the two would become mixed together;
  3. kitniyot and wheat (the most common chametz grain) were usually cooked together and it was considered impossible to permit one without dragging in the other.
Rabbis Reisner and Levin point out that these reasons are no longer cogent. Our marketplace is not like those of previous generations; we buy our foodstuffs in discrete packages, produced and labeled with both governmental and market oversight. We need not be concerned that permitting one will perforce lead to the accidental consumption of the other.

And yet, we are generally careful not to override centuries of precedent without very good reason. In my words -- not theirs -- the burden of proof is on the one who wishes to change previous practices. We don’t have to justify why a certain practice should be maintained; we need to justify why a certain practice should not be maintained.

What then is the justification for overturning this custom?

Rabbis Reisner and Levin cite two: increasing the joy of the holiday and the inflated cost of products under Pesach supervision.

Some years ago the Law Committee had already approved consumption of kitniyot by vegetarians who feared that they might not get enough protein over the holiday. This reasoning is now extended to all of us; many Jews who are not vegetarians are nevertheless seeking to cut down on their consumption of meat and of other animal products, for both health and ethical reasons. Beans in particular serve as a good source of protein in the absence of meat and permitting all Jews to consume beans on Pesach will increase our ability to eat a healthy diet without a lot of meat or dairy.

Similarly, we are all aware of how incredibly expensive kosher-for-Passover products can be. Permitting kitniyot will allow for a more balanced diet with less reliance on pre-packaged, expensive foods, and Rabbis Reisner and Levin point out that keeping the cost of Jewish observance reasonable has been cited as a halachic principle going back as far as 3rd century Babylonia.

The CJLS thus rules as follows:
In order to bring down the cost of making Pesah and support the healthier diet that is now becoming more common, and given the inapplicability today of the primary concerns that seem to have led to the custom of prohibiting kitniyot, and further, given our inclination in our day to present an accessible Judaism unencumbered by unneeded prohibitions, more easily able to participate in the culture that surrounds us, we are prepared to rely on the fundamental observance recorded in the Talmud and codes and permit the eating of kitniyot on Pesah.

However, this is not a blanket permission to rely on ingredient lists to determine if a product is acceptable for Pesach. While such a procedure might be justifiable during the rest of the year (given that prohibited food is nullified by permitted food which is 60 times its volume) it is not permitted during Pesach because there is no nullification of even the smallest amount of chametz which might have become mixed in during the manufacturing process.

These are the particulars of what is now permitted:

  1. Fresh corn on the cob and fresh beans (such as lima beans in their pods) may be consumed and purchased before or during Pesach like any other fresh vegetables.
  2. Dried kitniyot (beans, rice, legumes) can be purchased only before Pesach and must be sifted before the holiday to remove any grains of wheat or other chametz which might have gotten mixed in. Because of similar concerns of mixtures, they should only be purchased in boxes or bags and not from bulk bins.
  3. Frozen kitniyot can only be purchased before Pesach and the consumer must either ascertain that the product is not produced on the same equipment as chametz (a real issue for frozen vegetables since the advent of bagged vegetable mixtures containing pasta) or else sort through the contents beforehand to remove any possible chametz.
  4. Processed foods including canned beans still require Pesach certification due to the possibility of admixtures of chametz during production.

The good news regarding processed foods is that products from Israel with reliable certification “for those who eat kitniyot” are increasingly available, and the O-U has started certifying a small number of kitniyot-containing products as well for their Sephardic constituents. These products may now be consumed by all.

I want to also point out that just because something is permitted does not mean it is required. Failure to do everything the law allows you to do is not a violation of the law. I have no doubt that many of our people will be uncomfortable changing practices which they and their families have observed for centuries if not millenia; if this is you, you are of course free to continue refraining from kitniyot.

Similarly, since the synagogue kitchen should follow practices which allow as many Jews as permissible to feel comfortable with what they are eating or drinking, current practice for the Pesach seder and for kiddushes during Passover will remain unchanged for the foreseeable future.

If you have any questions or concerns, or would like a copy of the full responsum by Rabbis Reisner and Levin, please feel free to be in touch.

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

Some Brief Thoughts on Jewish Values and Public Policy

A recent article in the New York Times discussed Sen. Bernie Sanders’ statement that his father was a “Polish immigrant” without noting that his father was specifically a Polish Jewish immigrant. My friend Rabbi Michael Paley, who knew Sen. Sanders while serving as the Hillel Rabbi at Dartmouth College, stated that “nobody in Poland would have considered Bernie a Pole.” This is precisely so; my paternal grandmother was born in Warsaw but she was not Polish in any meaningful sense. She was not so much a Polish Jew as a Jew who lived in Poland.

American Jews, however, are American in ways that diaspora Jews have historically not been. This is not unique to the United States; it applies to Jewish community in other democracies as well but the American Jewish community is much larger both numerically and as a percentage of population than any other diaspora community. We have a significant impact on public policy. There are currently ten Jewish senators and 19 Jewish members of the House of Representatives. Three of the eight current Supreme Court members are Jewish, as are two of President Obama’s former Chiefs of Staff and the current and previous chairs of the Federal Reserve.

While Jews as individuals take all kinds of positions on issues of the day, I have always been intrigued by how to determine what Judaism per se has to say about a particular issue. I think this is not always a simple task, because the Jewish tradition never anticipated that Jews would be equal citizens in a pluralistic democracy. Jewish texts were written either for Jewish polities which were of course governed by Jewish norms; or for Jews who lived as at best a tolerated minority in a non-Jewish polity and had no voice in how they were governed. So the situation of American Jews is something which heretofore was unknown.

Our recent Kiddush Konversation about “Assisted Suicide in Jewish Law” was very interesting in light of the above. It is clear to me that halacha does not allow a Jew to commit suicide nor does it allow a Jew to assist another Jew to perform a forbidden act -- so that a Jewish physician could not assist a patient to commit suicide. But I went on to say that while I was quite certain that Jewish law forbids assisted suicide, it was not at all clear to me that it necessarily follows that Jews were obligated to oppose the so-called “Death with Dignity Act” now being considered by the Maryland legislature. After all, we Jews consistently tell our Roman Catholic friends that just because their religion forbids abortion is no reason for the state to enshrine their particular view as law for those of other religions or of none. That being the case, why should we ask the General Assembly to enshrine our particular view as law? How is this any different?

One of the things which I love about our Kiddush Konversations is that they are truly conversations. It is not a lecture or a sermon, there is real give-and-take. And in our discussion, I think we arrived at a methodology that might help sort some of these questions out.
While Judaism is clear that non-Jews are not required to observe halacha, there are certain values which Judaism posits are valid for all human beings, not just Jews. So it seems to me that a first step in arriving at a legitimately Jewish position on an issue is to ask, first: what are the values at stake. And second: are these values for everyone or just for Jews?

Let’s take a less controversial example than Assisted Suicide. No one doubts that Judaism permits non-Jews to eat non-kosher meat. But one of the values associated with keeping kosher is tza’ar ba’alel hayyim, avoiding cruelty to animals -- and thus the requirements of kosher slaughter which is designed to be quick and relatively pain-free. And this value is not just for Jews, so that while we would never seek to require non-Jews to keep kosher, it seems perfectly legitimate for Jews as Jews to back legislation which seeks to ameliorate the suffering of animals.

This methodology doesn’t solve all our dilemmas, of course, but I believe it is the start of some clearer thinking about the role of Jewish values in our public lives.