Friday, May 31, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: Espionage Fail

When I studied international relations as an undergraduate a long time ago, I learned that there are two different aspects of foreign intelligence. The first is gathering information, the second is analyzing that information. They are two distinct tasks, though related. It is not enough for me to know what my potential adversary is doing. I also have to know why he is doing it and what it means. My intelligence-gathering effort can be highly accurate, but if I analyze my data wrong, I am still likely to blunder.

In this weeks Parasha, Shelach-Lecha, Moses sends 12 spies to scout out the Land of Israel. They come back, and their report throws the populace into a panic. They've concluded -- well, ten out of the 12 have concluded -- that the current inhabitants of the Land are strong and thus the Land is unconquerable.

How do they know this? Because, they report, the cities are well-fortified. Well-fortified cities mean a strong population.

Rashi points out that the spies were successful in gathering information but performed very poorly in the analysis section. Well-fortified cities are not the sign of a strong populace, he says. Quite the opposite. Cities are surrounded by high walls because their inhabitants are fearful, not because they are strong. And we know from elsewhere in the Bible that the inhabitants of Canaan feared the Israelites. We read this in Exodus at the Song of the Sea, and we will see this again almost 40 years later, when the Israelites finally conquer the Land in the haftarah which we will read Shabbat morning.

Strong, self-confident people do not need to live behind walls. We often project onto others the characteristics we most dislike about ourselves. Ten of the twelve spies lacked self-confidence. Describing their sighting of the "giant" inhabitants of the Land, "we were in our own eyes as grasshoppers, and thus we were in their eyes as well." How did they know that the Canaanites saw them as "grasshoppers"? They didn't, but because that is how they felt about themselves, they assumed that that is how they were perceived by others.

Robert Burns wrote a poem asking for the blessing of seeing ourselves as others see us. Perhaps no less important is to hope that others not see us as we see ourselves!

Thursday, May 23, 2013

Two-Minute Torah: Learning by Doing or Seeing

There is a curiosity in this week's Torah portion, B'haalot'cha, right at the beginning. God instructs Moses concerning how the Menorah, the lampstand for the holy tabernacle, is to be lit. Then we find this statement: ”Now this is how the lampstand was made: it was hammered work of gold, hammered from base to petal. According to the pattern that the Lord had shown Moses, so was the lampstand made. ”

In other words, God did not give instructions to Moses on how to construct the Menorah; instead, in some mystical way that commentators have struggled to understand over the centuries, he showed him what the Menorah should look like.

There are some things that cannot be described, they have to be experienced. For me, the classic example is baseball; if you've ever tried to explain the infield fly rule to someone who grew up in a country where baseball isn't played, or who never watched or played baseball as a child, you know what I'm talking about.

I believe the Torah in this small vignette is talking about Jewish education as well. In some sense, God was the first Jewish educator and Moses his student. Much of what God wanted to teach Moses could be taught frontally, through words, but some things just had to be experienced.

Many things in Jewish life are this way. Most people who know how to lead services learned to do so by attending services regularly. I have never successfully explained to someone how to wrap tefillin but if you have a pair of tefillin, I can show you how to wrap them.

Throughout most of Jewish history, Judaism was transmitted mimetically -- you learned how to do Jewish things by observing your parents and other adults. For all kinds of reasons, that mimetic tradition has been disrupted, and now we rely on formal and informal Jewish education (day schools, supplementary Hebrew schools, Jewish camps and campus Hillel Foundations) to transmit Jewish knowledge and identity. But sometimes, there is simply no substitute for learning by doing.

Friday, May 3, 2013

The Paranoia Gap

A few weeks ago I started teaching our 10th grade Confirmation Class. It’s a real privilege and a lot of fun. One of the things that strikes me about our teens is how utterly comfortable they are with their Jewishness and at the same time, how multicultural and multiethnic their groups of friends are. There is none of the discomfort that previous generations had, none of the wondering about how accepted they really are in the United States.

A couple of years ago I had the privilege to spend a day studying in a small group of rabbis with Prof. Barry Kosmin, the leading demographer of American Jewry. He introduced me to a term I had never heard before -- “the paranoia gap” -- which refers to his sense (there are no data on this) that the older a Jew is, the more likely he or she is to feel that antisemitism is widespread in American society.

There is good reason for this. The perceptions we have growing up tend to stick with us over time. There was a time when in many towns and cities, certain neighborhoods were closed to Jews. The best colleges and universities had Jewish quotas. Jewish lawyers started their own firms because the most prestigious firms would not hire Jews. Jewish hospitals were started, not as many believe in order to treat Jewish patients, but rather because Jewish doctors could not get residencies in other hospitals.

In purely religious matters, virtually every Christian denomination taught that Jews could not achieve salvation, since only through Jesus was salvation attainable. New Testament Bible readings and Christian prayer were common in the public schools, since “majority rules” and the majority of Americans were Protestant Christians. Incidentally, Jews were not the only ones affected by the dominance of Protestantism in public life; the Catholic parochial school system was a direct result of the public schools seeking to indoctrinate their students in Protestant Christianity.

Today all of this has changed. There is virtually no field or profession which is closed to Jews. Protestants are no longer the majority in America though they are still the plurality -- that is to say, there are more Protestants than any other religious group in America but they are now slightly less than half the population. There are NO Protestants on the Supreme Court, which today consists of six Catholics and three Jews.

Prof. Kosmin shared with us an interesting poll which was conducted for Time magazine in 2010 regarding how Americans view members of different religious groups. According to this poll, Jews are the group viewed most favorably by other Americans, though just barely. Seventy five percent of Americans have a “very favorable” or “somewhat favorable” view of Jews; the Protestants follow at 74 percent and the Catholics at 73 percent. The Mormons and the Muslims are not viewed as favorably; 57 percent have a “very” or “somewhat” favorable view of Mormons and 43 percent a “very” or “somewhat” favorable view of Muslims.

And yet, I regularly receive forwarded e-mails warning me of the rising tide of antisemitism, often, frankly, based on false or misleading information. (As an aside, check the Internet hoax site before forwarding a questionable e-mail.) Orthodox Rabbi Alan Brill, who teaches theology at Seton Hall, a Catholic university, recently wrote that “the ADL (Antidefamation League) fleeced American Jewry out of $54 million last year by arguing for the virulant Antisemitism everywhere.” (, accessed April 17, 2012). While “fleeced” may be too strong a word, I share Rabbi Brill’s feeling that antisemitism is not our main problem in America. Most of the money spent combating it would be better spent on Jewish education, Hebrew literacy, camps and day schools.

There is a Talmud text, Shabbat 63a, which deals with the question of what the world will be like after the Messiah comes. While there is certainly the more well-known opinion that the Messianic era will be filled with all sorts of supernatural phenomena, the Talmud also preserves the opinion of Shmuel that the only difference between the Messianic era and the present day is “servitude to the nations.” In other words, in Messianic times everything will be as it always was except that the Jews will be free to determine their own destiny.

Is this not the case now? To the extent we continue to believe that antisemitism is our main problem, we divert time and money from doing what is really necessary to insure the Jewish future -- building an educated, confident, and Jewishly-committed community. Our failure to do this, and not antisemitism, is what endangers our future.