Archive for September, 2014


Wednesday evening and Thursday morning, worshippers filled Congregation Sherith Israel’s awe-inspiring sanctuary for Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year (5775). This told me a lot about what’s going on in China and the Islamic State.

Let’s start with the synagogue. Most Friday-night Shabbat services draw 50–75 worshippers, Saturday mornings fewer. A guest cantor, musical group, speaker or bar- or bat-mitzvah may attract 100–200 people—a fraction of the Rosh Hashanah crowd. So if most congregants rarely attend Shabbat services, what draws them to the High Holy Days?

I suspect they are “touching base”—reminding themselves that they share a heritage with generations present, past and future. They may drift away during the year, but they return annually. They engage in a natural human tendency to seek meaning in life beyond the material.

China’s population mirrors that desire. Over the past 40 years, China has developed a large middle class. It’s not exactly America’s middle class, but hundreds of millions of Chinese live above the poverty level and enjoy disposable income. China’s upper crust flaunts fabulous wealth. But this doesn’t seem to be enough.

In the current issue of foreign affairs, John Osburg reviews Evan Osnos’ book, Age of Ambition. It seems that many middle-class Chinese remain dissatisfied. They want more from life. Osburg writes, “Perhaps the most significant response to the perceived moral and spiritual crisis has been a surprising flourishing of religion.” In China, that religion is in great part Christianity. Because religion offers alternative ways of thinking, it disturbs the Communist Party.

Which brings us to the Islamic State. A number of ISIS fighters come from the West—Europe, the U.S., Australia and so on. Many were born there. They have access to education and prospects. Yet they’re drawn to ISIS, which does not promise the lifestyle of the rich and famous.

Now, I don’t think that Islamists like those of ISIS, Al Qaeda and their offshoots are anything but twisted in their religiosity. Most have little or no Muslim schooling. Granted, some verses in the Quran offer a basis for hatred of others. Likewise, so do some verses in the Torah. However, 2,000 years ago the Rabbis reinterpreted or rejected troubling narratives and commandments. They moved forward. Islamists want to go 1,400 years backwards.

ISIS’ Western fighters and supporters seek higher values they feel they can’t find at home. Young, impressionable and testosterone-fueled, they succumb to a concept of universalistic religion—Islam isn’t just right for them, it’s mandatory for everyone. Moreover, only their version of Islam is acceptable. They choose the path of Eric Hoffer’s “true believer,” preferring the simplicity of unswerving faith and incredible brutality over the often-messy business of questioning, debating and even changing positions every so often.

The quest for meaning follows many paths. Islamism proves grotesque in its bloodthirsty righteousness. It’s not that ISIS’ followers aren’t human. It’s that their religious choices forsake basic humanity.

May each of us in this New Year advance our own quest for meaning in the direction of peace, recognizing that we are all children of the same Creator and all deserving of the same respect.

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Last Wednesday night, Hurray for the Riff Raff (Yosi Perlstein, resident fiddler) appeared on the 13th annual Americana Music Awards Show in Nashville. They performed “The Body Electric,” a cut on their latest CD, “Small Town Heroes.” “The Body Electric” should be mandatory listening in every locker room in the National Football League.

Alynda Lee Segarra sings, “And tell me what’s a man with a rifle in his hand gonna do for a world that’s so sick and sad? He’s gonna shoot me down, put my body in the river. Cover me up with the leaves of September.” This isn’t paranoia. Survey after survey demonstrates that millions of women suffer from domestic violence at some time in their lives.

The NFL’s response to domestic violence has been less than impressive. A number of players have been arrested for assaulting girl friends or wives, and the league has struggled to implement a meaningful policy. The case of running back Ray Rice, recently released by the Baltimore Ravens, has become notorious. A video from an Atlantic City casino shows Rice slugging his girlfriend (now wife) wife in an elevator and knocking her unconscious. “Gee, who knew?” NFL commissioner Roger Goodell virtually said. Yet a video released earlier and seen by the NFL shows Rice dragging his victim out of the elevator as if he was taking out the garbage. So how did Goodell think she got into that state?

Rice settled with legal authorities last May. When he completes a pretrial diversion program, third-degree aggravated assault charges will be dismissed. The NFL, with its zero-tolerance policy, later suspended Rice for two—count ‘em, two—games. Uproar followed. The Ravens felt the heat and cut Rice. He is appealing through the NFL Players Association.

The San Francisco 49ers face the same challenges. Defensive end Ray McDonald was arrested August 31, charged with assaulting his pregnant girlfriend. Citing due process alongside its own zero-tolerance policy, the Niners played McDonald in their first two games. Of course, they were missing another defensive end, Aldon Smith, their best pass rusher. Smith was suspended for nine games for weapons possession and a false bomb threat. This followed prior substance abuse. Other Niners players have problems, too, suggesting that individual player photos may now consist of mug shots.

Oh, and Arizona Cardinals running back Jonathan Dwyer was arrested Wednesday on charges of aggravated assault against the mother of his 18-month-old child. Police said he head-butted his wife and broker her nose. This followed charges against Minnesota’s all-pro running back Adrian Peterson for beating his son. The Vikings decided to let Peterson play, heard the uproar that followed and suspended him with pay.

Yes, men in all walks of life hurt women and kids. But few corporations or groups are as visible as the NFL—or wave the flag and salute Mom and apple pie as publicly and piously.

So here’s a suggestion for the NFL: Forget the usual halftime show at this season’s Super Bowl. Hire Hurray for the Riff Raff and several other artists to sing about domestic violence. Pay them a decent fee. Then donate the savings on the bloated budget to organizations supporting women. Sometimes you have to put words to music before people hear them.

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Last Friday night, I led Kabbalat Shabbat services at Congregation Sherith Israel. I gave my drash (mini sermon) from notes. My theme: There aren’t two kinds of people in this world. There are “three.” Here basically is how it went.

First—appreciating showmanship—I asked three volunteers to choose a card from each of three categories: dessert places, movie stars and verses from the week’s Torah portion, Ki Tetse (Deuteronomy 21:10–25:19). My task: relate Baskin-Robbins, Felicity Huffman (of “Desperate Housewives” fame) and Deut. 22:5, “A woman must not put on man’s apparel, nor shall a man wear woman’s clothing…” What? That’s difficult?

To begin, Torah presents us with two basic sexual identities—straight male and straight female. It forbids sex between men. It doesn’t mention sex between women, possibly because such relations don’t lead to procreation and legal claims concerning inheritance. Now, let’s put it all together.

Baskin-Robbins’ 31 flavors reveal much about sexual identity. Human beings encompass a broad variance in anatomy (witness the challenges the Olympic Games have confronted defining who can compete as a man or a woman), sexual identity and sexual preference. Thus the existence of the “third” kind of person within the broad category of “not two.”

Felicity Huffman starred in the 2005 movie “Transamerica.” As Bree, a transgender woman—born physically a man but identifying as a woman—she was about to have surgery that would make her as anatomically close to a woman as she could be. Sadly, Bree’s mother couldn’t accept her. But trying to impose one of two flavors in a 31-flavor world accomplishes nothing. The “third kind of person” isn’t making a choice but fulfilling complex physiological and hormonal imperatives. I know.

My son Yosi, fiddler with the band Hurray for the Riff Raff, was born my daughter Rachel. Yosi was bat-mitzvahed and confirmed at Sherith Israel. But she had trouble understanding her sexual identity. So did we. She wanted to be known as a boy and be called “he” or “him.” Beyond that, his sexual identity couldn’t be squeezed into any particular mold. We were confused. Rachel was delicate and feminine in many ways. But we were open. We concluded that Yosi—he later legally changed his name—was simply Yosi. And Yosi is not just a wonderful musician but also a wonderful son and human being.

In this light, I cite another reference to “three kinds of people.” The late Rabbi Michael Signer wrote about people who read the Bible. Pre-critical readers accept everything. Critical readers find flaws and reject everything. The third group, post-critical readers, acknowledges what it finds disagreeable while still holding to the Torah and its wisdom. Post-critical readers live with the biblical cognitive dissonance about which I wrote last week.

So did the Rabbis of the Mishnaic era two thousand years ago. This week’s Torah portion condemns a wayward, defiant son to stoning. Yet the Rabbis made capital punishment virtually impossible. They didn’t turn away from the Torah; they used elements of the text to make their case

A final story, possibly apocryphal but True with a capital T. During the Holocaust, Jews in a camp fiercely debate God’s existence. Finally, someone announces it’s time for Mincha, the afternoon service. All go off to pray.

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This week’s Torah portion Ki-Tetse (“When you go out”) presents 74 of the 613 commandments. Some, like caring for your neighbor’s lost possessions (Deut. 22:1–4), offer noble precepts we readily understand. Others, like the treatment of a woman taken captive in war (Deut. 21:10–14), offer positive but not totally satisfying principles. Still others, like stoning a wayward, defiant son (Deut. 21:18–21), put us off. Yet this last commandment remains in the Torah, which Jews still read. This cognitive dissonance—holding contradictory ideas in some kind of balance—offers a lesson to consider.

The Rabbis of the Talmud as well as later scholars understood Biblical cognitive dissonance. They found ways, using the Torah as their guide, to negate what they found objectionable in the Written Torah. Often, they cited the Oral Torah (Mishna), put into writing and edited ca. 200 CE. Traditional Judaism believes that God gave the Oral Law to Moses on Mount Sinai along with the Written Torah. Did He? Or did the Rabbis simply believe that some commandments, even if God-given, were too harsh and that interpreting the Law, once presented, lay in human hands?

As it happens, the Torah calls for the death penalty for about three-dozen offenses. The Rabbis resisted. They found rationales for making the death penalty—including that for the wayward son—all but impossible to impose. Still, Rabbi Simeon b. Gamaliel stated the minority opinion—which, importantly, also is recorded—that failure to uphold the death penalty “would multiply the shedders of blood in Israel!” (Mishna Makkot 1:10.) The majority had its way, often redefining Torah but never abandoning it.

I find it interesting—and natural—that weekly Torah study sessions at Congregation Sherith Israel leave many attendees aghast. Even people who have taken part for some time periodically express surprise or even outrage at commandments and/or the biblical narrative. What’s new? Jewish tradition has dealt with biblical cognitive dissonance for two millennia.

In this regard, I often wonder about—and salute—so many people who come to Shabbat services, particularly on Friday nights. Many do not believe in God. Yet their prayers address God. Whom are they praising or asking for help? Here, too, cognitive dissonance holds sway. Yet they approach Shabbat worship understanding that they can find great comfort in connecting with their heritage, each other and their innermost selves even if they’re not sure what God is—or if God is.

I suggest that people who engage in what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge termed “the willing suspension of disbelief” navigate the world’s inconsistencies in a healthier manner than those who don’t. Rather than insist on a world that can only be described in terms of black and white, they acknowledge the broad gray scale that confronts us.

The older we get, the less certainty we find. But cognitive dissonance needn’t be emotionally and spiritually crippling. Jewish tradition, including the discussions and debates within our community today, should reassure us that we are not the first to ask difficult questions. And we are not alone. May that provide us with considerable comfort.

I will be leading Kabbalat Shabbat services at Sherith Israel tonight. I invite you to join us and, if need be, deal with your own cognitive dissonance in a warm and supportive environment.

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