Tuesday, January 31, 2012

It's A Small World -- And Getting Smaller

Here’s an interesting statistic for you to ponder: in 1994, half of the world’s population had never made a telephone call. Fifteen years later, in 2009, there were 3.3. billion mobile phone subscribers out of a total world population of five billion.

The impact of new communications technologies has been enormous. The Internet certainly shaped my life, since as many of you may know, my wife Keleigh and I met through jdate.com, the leading Internet dating service for Jewish people. At the time we met, Keleigh was living in Atlanta and I in Baltimore. Though we knew a few people in common, it would not have occurred to any of them to introduce us because we were “geographically undesirable” for each other. But when I began organizing a conference to be held in Atlanta and realized I would be travelling there frequently, I changed my Jdate search to Atlanta rather than Baltimore, and the rest is history!

Some technological changes happen invisibly. The widespread usage of fax machines is such an example. When they first came into use, you might ask someone if they had a fax number, but at a certain point the question was no longer “do you have a fax machine?” but rather “what is your fax number?” Our assumptions had changed almost imperceptibly. My first fax machine purchase came in 1989 when I was the director of the Hillel Foundation at the University of Virginia. Some months later, the Hillel national office required every Hillel Foundation to have a fax machine.

Other technological devices have also achieved almost full market saturation. When is the last time you called someone and got neither a live person nor an answering machine or voice mail system? If it happens, as it sometimes does, we get annoyed. We expect that the person or office we are calling will have voice mail. Similarly, it is rare to ask an adult if they have a cell phone or an e-mail address. It is simply assumed that everyone has both.

This technology can be a blessing, but there are downsides as well. The proliferation of ways to be in touch creates an expectation of instant access, and we can be frustrated if we want to reach someone and can’t. A friend of mine, also a pulpit rabbi, reported that a congregant left him a voice mail at his synagogue on Thanksgiving day and was very annoyed that he did not return the call until late the next morning. While this was clearly an extreme example, I noticed last year at a meeting of the Rabbis Without Borders Fellows that all but one of the 22 rabbis present had a “smartphone” as opposed to a regular cell phone. This meant that all of us were able to receive not only phone calls but e-mails, text messages, Facebook postings, and Twitter tweets while we were studying together. It was nice to know that I could be reached easily in case of an emergency -- and a couple did arise -- but it also meant that I could never fully clear my head and enter completely into the discussions that we were having.

So are these new technologies good or bad?

I would maintain that, in fact, they are neither. My understanding of the Jewish attitude towards technology is that in general it is morally neutral. Virtually any technology ever invented can be used for good or for bad, but the ultimate use of technology depends on the human beings who control it. The Internet can be used for good purposes -- such as helping people to meet and form families, or raising money to help those in need. Or it can be used for bad purposes -- such as scamming people out of their money or helping pedophiles prey on young people.

Technology has changed certain of our expectations -- that we can reach anyone easily and instantly, that I can buy virtually anything and have it delivered the next day, that I can browse a restaurant’s menu online before deciding to go there. But it did not change human nature. My meeting Keleigh was facilitated by the Internet, but both of us met a lot of other people before we met each other, and we still fell in love the same way people have been falling in love for thousands of years -- through human contact.

The new technologies have in a way made the world a smaller place. You can set up a Google feed to notify you any time your name appears anywhere on the Internet. I have such a feed, so if my name appears in a newspaper, magazine, blog, or any other type of website I will know about it in very short order.

As a result of such a feed, a rabbi I know discovered recently that another rabbi had given a sermon which was highly critical of her and the organization which she runs. Because the rabbi who had made the criticisms posts all of her sermons on-line, the other rabbi’s Google feed found it and she knew about the sermon two days after it was delivered.

Most of my sermons are not posted on-line, and it would be hard for me to post them, since except for the High Holidays I speak from notes rather than a prepared text. But I do send out a “Two-minute Torah” e-mail almost every week, I have this blog, and Beth Jacob’s Voice is also put on our website every month. I know that what I write can potentially be read by anyone anywhere on the globe who has access to the Internet.

Anything posted on the Internet has two audiences; the intended one, and everyone else in the world. A d’var torah I gave on Shabbat morning is heard by a handful of people. But a bulletin article, a two-minute Torah or a blog post can be read by anyone, and I have in fact received e-mails from people all over the world who have read our online bulletin, been forwarded one of my Torah discussions, or read my blog, and wanted to share their questions or reactions to them.

As we become more aware of the fact that anything posted on-line is accessible to anyone and takes on a life of its own, I wonder if we will become more sensitive to each other.

About fifteen years ago I spent a year as a Scholar-in-Residence at a Trappist monastery in Northern California. The one really uncomfortable moment was the Easter Vigil.  The liturgy of the Easter Vigil struck me as very supersessionist, positing that the whole story of the People of Israel was merely a prelude to the birth of Jesus. I got so uncomfortable that I got up and left. And the next day, a number of monks sought me out. One of them said that he, too, became uncomfortable listening to the readings. "I said to myself, how must Rabbi Charles be hearing this?"

The anonymity of the Internet has in many ways coarsened our discourse. If you read the comment sections of our local newspapers, you will be distressed at how the most innocuous news story -- say the opening of a restaurant or a store -- can bring out vitriolic, hate-filled comments. But in the last few weeks the Norwich Bulletin has changed its comments policy. Users now must register and provide their physical mailing address to the Bulletin before being allowed to post comments. Their name and address are not made public, but the Bulletin verifies the person’s identity before they are able to post. The number of comments has gone way down, but the level of discourse is much less crude and angry than before.

Interfaith and inter-ethnic dialogue programs work on the principle that if you know members of a group personally, you are less likely to hate the group as a whole. The important new book on American religion, American Grace by Robert Putnam and David Campbell makes this point quite well. They say -- and they have the statistics to back them up -- that Americans are being increasingly divided between fundamentalists on the one hand and secular, atheist, or “spiritual but not religious” types on the other. The broad center is rapidly disappearing. And yet, despite the fact that many Americans adhere to religions which, at least on paper, are quite intolerant, even fundamentalist Americans in general tend to be quite tolerant. I may belong to a church which teaches that everyone else is going to hell, but I also have friends and relatives who are of a different faith or none at all, and I know they are good people and going to heaven. It's one thing to hate or attack an abstraction, it's another thing when you actually know the person.

As the spread of new technologies helps us to “know” more people from all walks of life, will our discourse become kinder? Will we have more empathy and understanding for those who are not like us? It remains to be seen. The technologies available to us have changed, but the human being remains the same.

Two-minute Torah: Captive Mentality

In a recent discussion on Ravnet, the e-mail group for Conservative rabbis, one of my colleagues shared a question that was asked him by a young religious school student. Why was the tenth plague (death of the firstborn) necessary? Why didn't the Israelites just leave during the ninth plague (darkness)? After all, no one would see them go!

In some ways it's definitely a child's question. If you want to take it at face value, I suppose you could say that if it was too dark for the Egyptians to see the Hebrews sneak out of Egypt, it was also too dark for them to find their way out of the country. But another colleague writing into Ravnet said that our ancestors' failure to sneak out under cover of darkness was an example of slave mentality. They could not just leave, they had to have permission. And until Pharaoh told them they could go, they had to stay put. It was a rule.

But Pharaoh had the same sort of captive mentality. Already by the seventh plague, his advisors are urging him to capitulate and let the Hebrews go. Speaking of Moses, they say: How long will this man be a snare to us? Let the people go, so that they may worship the Lord their God. Do you not yet realize that Egypt is ruined?"

But Pharaoh cannot let the people go. Not because God has hardened his heart. But because he cannot do so. Let the slaves go free, and what happens next? The entire edifice of royal power will collapse. It is the same reasoning that prevented the British from letting the American colonies go free; and when the British finally did surrender, their military band played "The World Turned Upside Down."

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks writes: "Pharaoh remains an enduring symbol of a failure to listen to his own advisors. He could not see that the world had changed, that he was facing something new, that his enslavement of a people was no longer tolerable, that the old magic no longer worked, that the empire over which he presiding was growing old, and that the more obstinate he became the closer he was bringing his people to tragedy.

Knowing how to listen to advice, how to respond to change and when to admit you’ve got it wrong, remain three of the most difficult tasks of leadership. Rejecting advice, refusing to change, and refusing to admit you’re wrong, may look like strength to some. But usually they are the beginning of yet another march of folly."

Our contemporary society could take a lesson from Rabbi Sacks' words. Politicians and officials dare not change their mind in the face of new circumstances or new information, lest they be accused of "flip-flopping" or of weakness. And thus, the march of folly continues.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Two-minute Torah: The Groaning of the People and Haitian Relief Efforts

The Sefat Emet, a Chasidic commentator who lived about 100 years ago, teaches us that the reason the generation of the Exodus merited redemption is because of a verse in this week's Parasha, VaEra. In Exodus 6:5, God says to Moses "I have heard the groaning of the Israelites." The Sefat Emet says that this "groaning" was the Israelites call to God for deliverance, which is a necessary condition for redemption. In order to gain freedom, one has to believe that freedom is possible.

I came to understand this very strongly when I visited Haiti in 1993. I was part of a group of ten rabbis sent there on a fact-finding mission to meet with Catholic and Protestant religious leaders who were trying to restore democracy after the coup which had overthrown the democratically-elected President Aristide in 1991. We learned that the Haitian people identified very strongly with the story of the biblical Israelites. They are a deeply religious people and we saw an "Israel Clinic," a "Jerusalem Art Center" (where I bought a couple of paintings which now hang in my study, a number of bakeries called "El Shaddai" and even a taxicab called "L'Adonai."

We learned that the movement towards democracy in Haiti began in particular with Catholic priests and nuns who started literacy projects among the poor and the rural farmers. Throughout the era of "Papa Doc" Duvalier from the 1950s through the 1980s, the majority of Haitian people had become accustomed to their oppression. But when they began to learn to read and to think of themselves as human beings, beloved of God no less than those who ruled them, they began to long for freedom and a better life.

Last week marked the two-year anniversary of the devastating earthquake which destroyed much of Haiti’s capital city, Port-au-Prince, and killed 220,000 people. Two years after this horrible disaster, relief efforts are still underway.

I want to point you in the directions of some ways you can help. The Jewish Federations of North America have a link to donate funds for Haitian relief at  https://www.jdc.org/donation/donate.aspx . You can also donate through American Jewish World Service at https://secure.ajws.org/site/Donation2?df_id=3460&3460.donation=form1. The Haitian Health Foundation is located here in Norwich and run by my friend Dr. Jeremiah Lowney and his family. You can make a donation to this worthy organization at https://www.givedirect.org/give/givefrm.asp?CID=11299.

Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, January 13, 2012

Two-minute Torah: Moses Slays the Egyptian

You are probably familiar with the story of Moses killing the Egyptian overseer who was beating a Hebrew slave, which appears in Exodus 2:12. 
This act, of course, lead to Moses fleeing Egypt which then lead to his encountering God in the Burning Bush and his return to lead our ancestors out of bondage.

But Rabbi Meir Shapiro of Lublin
, who lived in the early part of the last century, read this incident as an allegory of something far deeper: “And he looked this way, and that way, and when he saw that there was no man, he slew the Egyptian, and buried him in the sand.” 

Rabbi Shapiro writes: " Moses learned about the oppressiveness of Egyptian culture when he went out among his brethren and saw their suffering. He understood the nature of Egyptian culture. “He looked this way and that way”: he turned to the Left and to the Right, to all the different parties and classes, seeking help from them; “and saw that there was no man”: and there was not a single individual willing to stand by the weak; “and he slew the Egyptian and buried him in the sand.” It was then that he killed the Egyptian within his heart, divorcing himself totally from Egyptian culture. "

In other words, according to R. Shapira, the “slaying” of the Egyptian was not literal but a battle within the soul of Moses. Rabbi Shapira of course lived in the early part of the 20th century but after the Communist takeover of Russia
. He understood that whatever differences might exist between the left and the right in Eastern Europe they were not very different in their attitudes vis-à-vis Jews and Judaism. He also understood that a society is judged on how it treats the weakest and most vulnerable members. Moses needed to slay the “Egyptian in his heart” to embrace his destiny and his role.

The hardest struggles are not external but internal. All of us have an "Egyptian" in our heart whom we constantly need to struggle against and kill off.

Friday, January 6, 2012

Israel and the American Synagogue: Two Crises of Meaning

What should it take to be a member of a synagogue?
    On the face of it, it's a stupid question. If you want to join the synagogue, you fill out a form, you attest to the fact that you are Jewish, you send in a check, and you're a member. That's it. We define membership by payment of membership dues.
       But  I'd like to ask you to do a thought experiment with me.
     Imagine that an unexpected benefactor left your synagogue a bequest of tens of millions of dollars which was to be added to your synagogue's existing endowment. Imagine furthermore that while none of the principle could be spent, all of the interest income could be, but there was a further stipulation that the synagogue could no longer charge membership dues. 
    How would we define membership if dues didn't factor into the equation? Would we simply ask people to fill out a form, which would entitle them to all the benefits of membership? Or would we ask something else? Perhaps attendance at services a certain number of times per year, or participation on a committee, or bringing a certain number of canned food items for the soup kitchen?
    A further question: if we did not charge dues, but required active participation in some other way, would synagogue membership increase? Or would it remain stable, or perhaps even decrease? Maybe it is easier to ask people to give money than to ask them to put "sweat equity" into the congregation.
    It's not likely that the scenario I described is going to come to pass any time soon, but it is worth thinking about as synagogues go about the task of redefining themselves. I raise the point because a congregation is really nothing more than the sum of its members. A congregation is not a building; the building is the place where some of what the congregation does, takes place. A congregation is not the board, or the rabbi. The building, the board, and the rabbi can contribute to the success of the congregation, or to its failure, but ultimately, the congregation is its members.
    I started thinking about this question for a couple of reasons. One, of course, is that I am always thinking about synagogues and how they can become the kind of vibrant congregations I remain convinced that they can be. But it is also because of a provocative recent book by Daniel Gordis called Saving Israel: How the Jewish People Can Win a War That May Never End. Danny is a fellow Conservative rabbi; we shared an office suite when we both were on the staff of the University of Judaism in Los Angeles. He has lived in Israel for about ten years, and is currently on the staff of the Shalem Center, a moderately right-of-center Israeli think tank.
    I think it is always important -- and sadly, too rare in contemporary society -- to read and discuss books that you might not necessarily agree with. And as I thought I might, I disagree with some, but not all, of what Danny writes. Having said that, I think that he is onto a larger point which is undoubtedly correct.
    You might not realize it if all your knowledge about Israel comes either from the US media or the publications of the various Jewish organizations, but the main threat to Israel today is not external. It is, rather, internal -- a crisis of meaning, if you will. Many Israelis, in particular those from the non-religious majority, are questioning their very commitment to their country.
    The problem is that many Israelis no longer really understand why Israel is necessary. Why should they continue to live in a country where everything is twice as expensive as it is in the U.S., yet salaries are far lower? Why should they continue to send their sons for three years of military service and their daughters for two? Why should they continue to do a month of reserve duty until their 50s? Why should they raise their kids in a Hebrew-language rather than English-language school system, thus placing them at a severe disadvantage in an increasingly global economy? And even though the security situation is much improved over the last few years, why should they continue to live in a place where the risk of death or injury from a terrorist bomb or Kassam rocket remains very real? If the average Israeli has no good answer to these questions, they will leave, or if they remain, they and their kids will evade military service, faking a disability or, in the case of girls, falsely claiming to be Orthodox. And Danny cites statistics which show that evasion, once unthinkable, is now a growing phenomenon. As is the brain drain of educated Israelis moving to the United States, to Europe, the Third World, and other places.
    So Danny's larger point, I think, is that it is not just a question of which military, diplomatic, or economic policies Israel adopts. The larger question is whether Israel can recapture a sense of purpose, define its raison d'etre and once again capture the imagination of its people, and of world Jewry, in a way that makes the necessary sacrifices seem worthwhile.
    Danny's book has helped me to sharpen some of my own thoughts about the challenges contemporary synagogues face. Many synagogues have spent a lot of time and energy trying to figure out what a synagogue should do. But our real question is not what we should do. It is what we should be.
    The entire Conservative movement is in crisis because we no longer know what we should be. Individual congregations here and there are thriving, but most are not.  The majority of Conservative congregations in this country were either founded between 1920 and 1960, or switched to Conservative Judaism from Orthodoxy during that period. Conservative Judaism met a real need for first and second generation American Jews. They wanted a place of worship which was traditional enough to remind them of the Old Country, but they wanted men and women to sit together in the American fashion. They wanted decorum, everyone sitting at the same time and standing at the same time and saying the same prayers at the same time, not the anarchy of the old-fashioned shtiebl. They wanted a rabbi with a high level of secular education who gave his sermons in English.
    The Conservative synagogue of 80 or 90 years ago was designed to help Americanize the children of immigrants while providing a religious education consonant with the realities of life in the new country. Their Jewish commitments, and those of their children, could be taken for granted. What was needed, was a way to make those Jewish commitments fit in with the larger American society.
    The synagogue was also the social hub of the community. Despite the rhetoric of the American "melting pot," society was really a mosaic. Jews lived among other Jews, for the most part, and members of other ethno-religious groups also lived by and large with their "own kind." Jews lived mostly in Jewish neighborhoods, had mostly Jewish friends, and even if they achieved prominence in business or politics, could never quite achieve full acceptance by the dominant WASP power structure.
    Eighty or ninety years later and things are completely different. We don't need the synagogue to help us learn how to become Americans. We don't need the synagogue as the locus of our social lives, because all of us have many non-Jewish friends. As communities age, fewer and fewer people need the synagogue to give their kids a Jewish education and prepare them for Bar or Bat Mitzvah.
    The question is, do we need synagogues at all? I believe the answer is yes, of course, or I wouldn't devote my life and my career to it. You probably believe the answer is yes, as well, or you wouldn't bother to pay your dues -- even if that is, in fact, the only thing you do as a synagogue member. But why do we need a synagogue at all? What does it mean to be a member? The answers to our Diaspora "crisis of meaning" are no less important than the answers of our brothers and sisters in Israel.


Thursday, January 5, 2012

Two-Minute Torah: The Midrashic Origins of the Sh'ma

Scholars of liturgy tell us there are three categories of prayer: petition, where we ask God for something; thanksgiving, where we thank God for something; and praise, where we praise God for something. Admittedly, the line between prayers of praise and of thanksgiving can be a little unclear.

When teaching this material, I then go on to ask about the Shema. Most of us have been taught at one point or another that the Shema is the "most important prayer in Judaism." If so, which category of prayer does it fit into?

The students then discover that the "most important prayer in Judaism" is not, in fact, a prayer at all. It isn't even addressed to God -- it's addressed to us, Israel, the Jewish people.

What is the origin of the Shema? There is a legend that places it in the encounter in this week's parasha between Jacob and his grandsons Ephraim and Menashe. The biblical text itself tells us that when Jacob was on his deathbed in Egypt, Joseph brings his sons to visit their grandfather. He doesn't know who they are and asks Joseph "mi elleh?," who are they?

Now we delve into the realm of midrash. Why didn't Jacob recognize his own grandchildren? Perhaps because they were dressed as the children of an Egyptian noble and spoke Egyptian rather than Hebrew to each other. So Jacob could not possibly believe that these assimilated young men were indeed his Hebrew grandchildren. When told that this is indeed who they were, he was distraught.

At that point, the grandchildren said to him "Shema, Yisrael. Listen up, Israel (remember that this was Jacob's other name, given to him by the angel). Adonai Eloheinu, Adonai Echad -- Adonai is our God, Adonai alone." And Jacob was so relieved to hear this, he replied "baruch shem k'vod malchuto l'olam va-ed -- praised be God's name for ever and ever!"

This midrash comes to teach us that the essence of Jewish identity is not language or dress but belief and behavior. We are Jews not because we share our ancestors dress and language -- indeed, many Jews do not even have Jewish biological ancestors -- but rather because we share the Patriarchs' and Matriarchs' faith in God and observance of mitzvot.