Posts Tagged ‘Congregation Sherith Israel’

HOOPS, GENESIS AND CANCER

Last Monday, Boston Celtics basketball star Kyrie Irving apologized for saying that the earth is flat. A plethora of questionable beliefs challenge science. They threaten our individual and national health.

The Creation Museum in Petersburg, Kentucky dismisses evolution. Its website states, “The Creation Museum shows why God´s infallible Word, rather than man’s faulty assumptions, is the place to begin if we want to make sense of our world.” Its exhibits include the Garden of Eden. Adam is seen only from above the waist—and he’s ripped! Down I-75 in Williamstown, Ark Encounter offers a life-size Noah’s ark and all the animals—including dinosaurs.

Dinosaurs? Despite the work of paleontologists, creationists believe the world is 6,000 years old. This is consistent with the Rabbis of the Talmudic era, whose math included the lifespans of the first humans, Abraham and his descendants plus various events and later monarchial reigns. So this past Rosh Hashanah, the world turned 5,779.

But other than perhaps some ultra-orthodox sects, Jews don’t take Genesis literally. Maimonides (1135-1204), the great Spanish physician/philosopher, even declared Torah to be metaphor.

The first chapters of Genesis (B’reishit) pose question after question that delineate Torah as mythos, not science. The sun was created on the fourthday. What constituted days one through three? A different concept of “day.” It required no sunrises and sunsets. “There was morning and there was evening” because God created light apart from the sun and separated it from darkness.

And who were the people Cain feared after he killed his brother Abel? Where did his wife come from? This puzzled the Rabbis, too. Some posited that Cain and Abel each had twin sisters, although the biblical text doesn’t mention of them. Adam and Eve conceived Seth, from whom all humanity descends. Did Seth have incestuous relations with one or more of his aunts? His uncle’s daughters? Or did God create other humans right after Adam and Eve and keep them in reserve? Beats me. But it’s fascinating.

Questioning has been the key to studying Torah for two thousand years. I deeply appreciate the scholar Richard Elliott Friedman (Commentary on the Torah) writing of Gen. 1:17 (“in the image of God”), “Whatever it means…” and of Gen. 5:24 (“and he [Enoch] was not”), “I do not know what this means.”

That’s precisely because Torah involves something other than science. According to Friedman (on Gen. 2:1), the biblical creation story “…conveys a particular conception of the relationship between humans and the cosmos, of the relations between the sexes, of the linear flow of time, of the Sabbath.” This provides lots to think about, which is why I’ve read the weekly Torah portion for the past 25 years and attended Torah Study at Congregation Sherith Israel for the past 20.

Science also thrives on questioning. Theories evolve. They must be proved. They can be disproved. New theories take their place. Empiricism, not faith, guides critical decisions. That’s why, despite the recent outbreak of global anti-vaccine hysteria, Australia just announced it could eliminate cervical cancer in the next two decades by vaccinating children against the cancer-causing papillomavirus.

Faith need not make apologies. It has its place. But faith should render unto science what is science’s. As when creationist theme parks harness computer science to advertise on the Internet.

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ANCHOR BABIES AND OPEN EARS

Tuesday night, I attended a workshop, “Speaking Across Conflict,” at Congregation Sherith Israel. It related to heated discussions—and lack of discussions—about Israel among Jews. Rabbi Melissa Weintraub led the workshop. She is co-director of Resetting the Table, a program of the Jewish Council for Public Affairs’ Civility Campaign. The basics are simple. Implementing them is challenging.

Rabbi Weintraub emphasizes listening to people with whom you disagree. You focus on what’s important to others—the hard part—rather than on how to counter their positions. After listening, you can offer your own views. Regrettably, shouting is a hallmark of Israeli politics and Jewish responses. It also corrodes American politics. Republicans and Democrats shun dialogue and define accusations as valid arguments. Acrimony abounds. Little gets accomplished.

Immigration is an issue generating more heat than light. The nation faces three basic choices: One: Open our borders to everyone. Two: Close our borders to everyone. Three: Establish quotas regarding how many immigrants we take in and their qualifications. The last option represents our current law, but it badly needs updating. Times have changed since my parents and father became citizens 101 years ago.

The hue and cry is deafening. Some Americans can’t understand why people who enter America in violation of the law can stay here. They’re accused of being anti-immigrant. They’re not. They support immigration within the law. Others cannot imagine how the nation can purge itself of eleven million people who arrived illegally. (Yes, it’s illegal to violate the law). Many “illegals” have lived here peacefully and productively for years. Solving the problem requires a new mindset. We have to listen to each other’s concerns, acknowledge them and find ways to compromise, understanding that this issue cannot be framed in simplistic black and white.

Take “anchor babies” or birthright citizenship. Donald Trump wants to do away with automatically granting citizenship to babies born in the U.S. of non-citizens. The right screams, “Hell, yes!” The left screams, “Hell, no!”

Let me say that I think Donald Trump is a joke. A bad one. He’s a lightning rod for know-nothings, addressing legitimate issues in infantile ways. That being said, I have doubts about birthright citizenship. I recognize the existence of the 14th Amendment and the practical concerns regarding authenticating parental citizenship, as well as adopting a new Constitutional amendment. But birthright citizenship is hardly a universal concept.

Of the developed nations, only the U.S. and Canada provide birthright citizenship. Great Britain, France, Germany and Australia—among many others—restrict citizenship for babies born within their borders. I don’t suggest that other nations’ laws are inherently better than ours. I’ll skip Sharia law practiced in Saudi Arabia and Iran, thank you. But reasoned arguments relating to birthright citizenship can be made pro and con.

It’s time we recognize that it’s not treasonous to listen to different views. It’s also time we replace presidential debates with actual discussions. Candidates would be required to listen and acknowledge when other candidates present their views at lengths greater than those of sound bites. They would wait their turn then offer their own positions—uninterrupted.

Running our mouths does nothing but run down the nation. We might discover a lot more substance between our ears if we take our fingers out of them.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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EXTRAORDINARY ORDINARY THINGS

Life often seems routine. We wonder, isn’t there more? Yet we find comfort in life’s everyday rhythms. The problem isn’t that we surrender to the mundane. It’s that so much in our ordinary lives is extraordinary—and we’re blind to it.

Attending Shabbat services last Friday night at Congregation Sherith Israel then Torah Study on Saturday morning unveiled a continuing miracle. Many people still find fulfillment in tradition and community. Saturday with friends reminded me how extraordinary it is that people enjoy being together, laughing together, sharing experiences.

Sunday, Carolyn and I visited Alcatraz. San Franciscans often take the Rock for granted. But we returned to see the Ai Wei Wei exhibit. Waiting for the ferry gave us the opportunity to speak with two advertising executives from Perth, Australia. I’m a retired ad creative, so we had a lot in common. The routine ferry ride was anything but. The water is a magical place if only for ten minutes.

The prison looked the same but not. Entering the New Industries Building, we came face to face with a colorful Chinese dragon at least 150 feet long. Further on, we saw portraits of political prisoners from around the world created with LEGOs. We also encountered a huge sculpture based on birds’ wings—metal panels above which teapots perched. Tibetans long have used solar power to cook.

The visit to Alcatraz brought into focus the daily marvels of living in a city surrounded by the Pacific, the Golden Gate and the Bay. I walk a lot, and the vistas from the Coastal Trail off Land’s End and any number of other trails and streets offer blue water, white sales, massive tankers and the green (for now) Marin Headlands. Views of the Golden Gate Bridge—which I can walk to—always delight. And while I live in an urban place, Mountain Lake is only two blocks away.

As to the workweek, mine is hardly ordinary. I write fiction. I just brought out a new novel, Flight of the Spumonis. I’ve started another and very different book. Yes, there’s a routine to writing. It is work. But the experience of creating a story with characters reflecting the human condition is very special.

I often wonder how we can read a novel or watch a movie or TV show (we just finished Bosch and started House of Cards), get caught up in a story then forget that “they” are us. Each of us is a character in our own story. Every day brings new plot twists—challenges to our social relationships, work efforts and attempts to give order to a world that often seems random at best, senseless at worst. Our lives contain real texture—drama if you will—because they’re filled with joy and sorrow.

It’s all about how you see life. We can dismiss ourselves as specs in a vast universe—which we are. Yet we’re thinking creatures capable of contemplating that universe. Nature and science lead us to wonder at it all. Questions abound. Why do we love? Why do we hope? Why do we sacrifice? Why do we mourn? Why do we write blogs? It’s extraordinary.

Read the first two chapters of FLIGHT OF THE SPUMONIS here at www.davidperlstein.com. You can get a signed copy from me—$20 plus $3 postage if required—or order a soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com.

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THE YEAR OF LISTENING

During the Jewish month of Elul (August/September) leading to the recent High Holy Days, I made a semi-resolution. The Sages caution against making vows and for good reason, so I avoided going that far. But I determined to try to be a more attentive listener. That’s a challenge.

I took inspiration from Pirke Avot (Wisdom of the Fathers) 4:1 attributed to Ben Zoma: “Who is wise? One who learns from every person.” So often, we only pretend to listen to others while our mental wheels spin on and on. We hear words, but the thoughts and intentions behind them don’t register. We’re too engrossed in googling our minds for ways either to refute the speaker or demonstrate that we know more.

Many people, myself included, love to engage in forms of mental gymnastics. But at the age of seventy, I’m increasingly aware not of what I do know but of what I don’t. I’ve recognized the possibility—indeed, the probability—that others can offer ideas worthy of reflection rather than rebuttal or revision.

Not that I’m waving the flag of false humility. Kohelet (Ecclesiastes) 3:7 advises that there is “A time for silence and a time for speaking.” Obviously, I’m still blogging. Moreover, we all have a responsibility to add knowledge to a discussion or class. When we withhold a fact or considered comment, we deprive others of a learning experience. And while good judgment is required, we have an obligation to correct an error that might mislead others.

Attentive listening also can improve personal relationships. At Congregation Sherith Israel’s Rosh Hashanah services, Rabbi Julie Saxe-Taller gave a sermon on listening without defensiveness when an issue arises. Rather than protesting, interrupting or displaying anger, she said, we do better simply to hear the other person out. Yes, disagreement and anger have their places. But they too often become knee-jerk reactions when someone else speaks about a subject or offers an opinion that may make us uncomfortable or even be contentious.

I started practicing attentive listening last Saturday morning at Torah Study. It went fairly well. I spoke only once—to ask a question. I focused not on what I know but on what others know or how they might get me to look at a piece of the text in a different way. Members of the group may not hear very much from me for the next year (at least), but that’s because I’ll be listening to them.

This brings to mind mid-term Congressional elections only a few weeks off. Our senators and representatives in Washington have a less-than-praiseworthy record when it comes to listening to members of the other party—and sometimes to those of their own. I don’t expect Republicans to become Democrats or Democrats to morph into Republicans. But failing to listen attentively reflects a disturbing preference to demonize others rather than find common ground. Such elected officials say they seek to strengthen the nation. They only weaken it.

So here’s to listening and learning something new. I can’t promise that I’ll succeed, but I won’t fail to try.

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THE FOLLY OF FRATRICIDE

THE FOLLY OF FRATRICIDE

There’s an old saying: “Two Jews, three opinions.” Yes, it’s a stereotype, but Jews laugh at this one. We know it’s true. A multiplicity of opinions leads to lively discussions, new ideas and even consensus. Respect is the key. Without it, opposite views can lead to crippling disunity. That’s the case with some commentary on the current Israeli-Palestinian negotiations.

A few weeks ago I wrote in “John Kerry’s Framework” that the Secretary of State would offer proposals requiring major concessions by both sides. The “framework” will call for East Jerusalem to be capital of Palestine and no right of return for Palestinian refugees to Israel. What’s new won’t be the proposals but an American secretary of state publicly espousing them.

How do Israelis feel? Six million Israeli Jews, nine million opinions. According to former Mossad head and former member of the Knesset Danny Yatom, polls show that most Israelis favor a two-state solution. At the same time, most don’t trust the Palestinians.

So Israelis are torn by a desire for peace and a fear that they have no partner. Those who favor a Palestinian state must contend with their own doubts and the Israeli right, which opposes Palestinian statehood. The Israeli right and its American supporters view those who favor the framework as naïve—at best.

Passionate differences of opinion have long been with us. Over 2,000 years ago, Jews for and against Greek culture in Judea engaged in bloody warfare. Jewish zealots seeking a purer Judaism attacked Hellenized Jews mercilessly and drove out the Syrian Greeks. Hence the holiday of Chanukah. The same antagonism continued under Roman rule. It produced two rebellions, the destruction of the Second Temple, crushing defeats, the exile or death of much of Judea’s Jewish population and even a name change to Syria Palestina.

This brings me to last Wednesday night. J Street, a Washington, DC-based Jewish organization favoring a two-state solution, held a town hall meeting at Congregation Sherith Israel in San Francisco. Danny Yatom was the featured speaker. The American-Jewish right castigates J Street as betrayers of Israel. Yatom, once commanding general in the West Bank, is hardly an Israeli traitor. He favors Secretary Kerry’s framework. There are risks, says Yatom. And if attacked from Palestine, Israel will defend itself. But Israel must seek the two-state solution, according to Yatom, because the status quo or a single Israel from the Mediterranean to the Jordan will destroy Israel as a Jewish democracy.

I’m not a member of J Street. And I was a bit skeptical when I arrived. But nothing regarding J Street’s “Pro-Israel, Pro-Peace” theme rang false. No speaker suggested anything other than that Israel be Jewish and secure.

However, another theme presented itself: affording Palestinians dignity. It’s not easy to recognize as fully human others who’ve sought your destruction. And dignity must be reciprocal. Arabs will have to look at Jews in new ways

Still, peace and security need not be at odds. Israeli Jews and American Jews can come together, too. Not by diminishing our opinions but by speaking rather than shouting to offer each other the dignity and respect we all deserve.

J Street’s website presents an FAQ debunking myths about its positions. It’s worth a look.

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Read the first three chapters of The Boy Walker, at davidperlstein.com. Order in soft cover or e-book at Amazon.com, Barnesandnoble.com or iUniverse.com. Check out Green Apple Books and Books, Inc. in Laurel Village. And read my short-short story “White on White” in the Winter 2014 online edition of Summerset Review.