Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Let's Answer to a Higher Authority

This morning I got one of those emails comparing the number of Nobel Prizes and cool medical and technical inventions cooked up by Jewish scientists with a lesser number attributable to Muslim professionals.   I do love seeing how many brilliant things come out of the Jewish keppe.  We are truly the people of the book in so many ways.

On the other hand, it saddens me that we play "My dog is bigger than your dog" with the Muslims.  Yes, some of the Muslim world harbors a terrible hatred toward Jews (also toward Americans and the whole westernized world), but I try not to forget that Islam is not just a reflection of extremism any more than Judaism is a reflection of our own bad actors - there have been more than a few, though thankfully not often of the terrorist sort.  I try to remember that Muslims took us in and guarded us during the Crusades and at other points of expulsion from European countries.  Without the kindness of Muslims, Maimonides may not have survived.  More recently, an Egyptian doctor was given the Righteous Gentile award for the work he did saving Jews during the Holocaust, the Muslim countries of Tunisia and Morocco protected its Jews while occupied by Nazi invader.  In my own community a Muslim doctor founded and runs at great peril to himself an international organization dedicated to fighting Islamist extremism.  And in direct controversion to the letter I received this morning, much of early math and physics was developed within the Muslim world.  

Millions of peace-loving Muslims do not want to spend the best parts of their lives on conflict with Israelis or other Jews.  Some of these are partners in attempts to build bridges between the two cultures.  There is a facebook page called Israel Loves Iran, https://www.facebook.com/israellovesiran, where Israelis and Iranians are coming together to talk about peace.  An Iranian artist filmed a video asking people on the streets of Iran what they wish for Jerusalem, and the response is honest and overwhelmingly about peace.  The video is called "Your heart and mine are one."  http://youtu.be/fVX8oW_qS5E.  It's in Iranian but has subtitles.  In response, a group of Israelis published their own version of One Wish Jerusalem, http://youtu.be/rtSVwTtKQGc.  The thing that strikes me the most strongly is how alike all these people look and how alike are their hopes for peace - none of them wish to live under the threat of violence for the rest of their lives.  כולנו רק ילדים של אלוהים.  We are all just children of G-d.  

Please understand: I am not defending Muslim extremism in any way, shape or form.  I'm properly terrified of certain imams in Iran and extremist cells in Syria, and I think I might support much of Bibi Netanyahu's military strategy were I Israeli.  I dialogue regularly with my non-Jewish liberal American friends trying to explain the realities on the ground in Israel and in the middle east.  And yet I think it critical that we do not lower ourselves to the level of those, for example, who create the textbooks of the Palestinian children, in which Jews are vilified and Israel is absent.  Like Hebrew National hot dogs, we must answer to a higher moral standard.  How else will we ever get to peace?  

Saturday, October 5, 2013

Every Baby Boomer Who Looks At the Clock Asks This Painful Question

"A person who has mastered peace of mind has gained everything." ~ Rabbi Simcha Zissel Ziv

"As long as one lives a life of calmness and tranquility in the service of God, it is clear that such a person remains remote from true service." ~ Rabbi Yisroel Salanter

"Why is my life - and the whole darn world for that matter - still so far from being what I thought it was supposed to be?" ~ Every baby boomer who just looked up at the clock and figured out that time is running short.

We late boomers coming of age in the 1970s first opened our eyes philosophically speaking onto a mind-boggling public display of soul-stretching, quite the likes of which has not been seen in our western American culture before or after those years. The soul-stretching was both personal and communal.  With the war and race riots in our faces, it may have been inevitable.  Who knows?  John Lennon challenged each of us to  "All shine on, like the moon and the stars and the sun." Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young begged us to come together: "We can save the world, rearrange the world."

While the desire to find political enlightenment took young people to the streets, the desire to find personal enlightenment took us outside our own normative paths - the culture and religions we were brought up with, for example. Those who had little discipline or interest in philosophy and theology opted for a fast-tracked, scientifically-induced enlightenment, experimenting with psychotropic drugs like LSD (lysergic acid diethylamide) and magic mushrooms.


Those who craved context for their experimentation had a choice of options including meditation, Buddhism, Taoism, Native American shamanism, Kabbalah and other, more obscure mystical practices.

Back then, in my immature perspective on the matter, I tried it both ways and found that enlightenment seemed to come in two flavors.  One I experienced as intense, super-hero style "knowing."  I remember accepting a tab of acid during my freshman year of college, and then heading off to a concert.  Standing in the space between the first row of seats and the stage, I had an excellent view of the musicians.  I spent the concert being amazed by my ability to see deeply into the soul of each musician.  Thanks to the acid, I knew each of their personalities instantly and intensely.  The key to my insight, I still recall clearly, was each musician's cheekbone structure.  Bone structure, it seemed, offered a detailed blue print to the individual soul.  Acid's power of enlightenment, by the way, had its limits.  Under the influence, I entirely missed the fact that the fellow standing next to me had absent-mindedly tucked the lit end of a cigarette into my upper arm.

The other flavor: figuratively, an out-of-body experience, the feeling of connectedness with the entire universe, the sense of everything being One with Itself, the exact opposite of the aloneness of individuality. It was a spiritual equivalent of becoming aware that you are a drop of water in a vast ocean - together with all other drops merged into the inseparability of the waves, despite your drop-ness.  I kinda, sorta, experienced this, too, in a small town between San Jose and the ocean, under the tutelage of a woman who taught me vocal toning, a form of meditation.  There were weeks on end when I "just loved everybody," wondering whether there was any means to pass this healing feeling along to the rest of the world.

A rabbi once told me that sometimes his congregants dove headlong into certain ritual practices in search of transcendence from the mundane.  He said that, although he was always glad to see people adopt Jewish ritual into their lives, it sometimes appeared to him that these congregants were more interested in escaping reality than in finding a spiritual practice to deepen their lives.

This last statement, finally, brings me back 'round to the two quotes I began with, quotes from rabbis who in their time were teachers of the Jewish spiritual practice called Mussar.  These quotes, which seem at first blush to be in opposition, taken together suggest that we might want to reconsider our youthful ideas about what "enlightenment" looks like.  And the third quote - my own, of course - suggests that simultaneously, we might also want to reconsider the ideas we've held since childhood of what "the good life" looks like.  I don't know about you, but my story was a common cultural one - an early marriage to a boy I would recognize as "the one," followed by children, and a meaningful life of service to family and community.  The communal piece of this story suggested that, as a community, the world was making slow progress toward peace.  That our generation would be stewards of a better world.  Such pretty little visions both, and yet they have been incredibly difficult to pull off.  Children are still dying of hunger.  Men are still bombing buildings.  Companies are still stripping our earth of its resources and leaving pollution and destruction in their wake.  Personally, I've been waylaid, had a gun held to my temple, beat up, robbed, raped and left crying by the side of the road - in some cases figuratively and in other cases literally.  I'll let you wonder which is which.  I've also, by the way, been blessed many times over through family, children, friends, work and service opportunities.

The stories articulated by parents and institution, stories by which we would faithfully steer from childhood through to old age - all unintentionally set us up to feel incompetent when it didn't happen that way and we can't get it done.  I know many people who's stories are more complicated than mine.  I know a few whose stories were more realistic for our times.  But I don't know of anyone whose stories have been easy to pull off.  In fact, I don't know too many people whose lives haven't been fraught from time to time with unexpected trauma, strength-sapping loneliness, mind-numbing boredom - leaving us with that one big question:  "Is this all there is?"   And, as my rabbi pointed out, these stories set us up to feel cheated somehow, with a desire to escape.

Rabbis Salanter and Ziv, however, tell us a different story.  Our true paths require struggle and growing pains.  And when they mention service, we know that what is true for us personally is also true for our communities - communal growth will require struggle.  The key to our enlightenment as individuals and as members of our communities is not to find a way to jump over the struggle, but to work our way right through the struggle, becoming all that struggle can teach us.  And somehow, there is peace of mind to be forged and brought to the work, both personally and no doubt as a community, and we must find it.  And while psychedelia, religious ritual and meditation may be tools we can bring to the party, anything less than a grounded approach to this struggle will distract us from our journey of growth.

To see the struggle as an intentional part of both personal and community life is, for me, comforting and strangely freeing.  It releases me from asking myself, "Why is my life still so far from being what I thought it was supposed to be?" It releases me from wondering why my generation did not manage to "save the world."  Both of these are particularly painful questions to have to ask the older one gets and the less time one - or one's generation - has to "get it right."

Instead, the rabbis open the way for me to ask, "What is the most constructive thing I can do in this place where I currently find myself?"  And for my community, to know that this struggle is not mine alone, but all the generations - and they will continue to strive after I no longer can.  We are all drops in the same sea, despite our drop-ness.

I'm about to begin the study of Mussar with a friend.  I look forward to a journey that promises to help me distinguish the path I am destined to from the detour I've stumbled down in search of something illusory.  If you're interested in following my journey, I'm sure I'll be writing about it here.

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Don't Waste Precious Time Apologizing

Nepal © Sandy Price 2012

All of us are bound to misstep.  As we trip through life, it is inevitable.  How precious, then, is the early innocence of children.  How important the opportunity to teach children kindness toward one-another.

There are two categories of wrong-doing, that which is between the wrong-doer and God - or the between you and yourself or the Universe if you're not a God person - and that which is between the wrong-doer and another person.

Remorse - meaning, a recognition of wrong-doing, followed by confession and a firm intention not to repeat the behavior - might more easily be addressed toward God or to the mirror or put out there to the Universe. More easily because the consequences for putting it out there in this way are negligible.  It doesn't stir up any bad feelings or initiate conflict.

It should come as no surprise, however, that in the latter case - wrong-doing toward another person -apology, remorse and restitution must be directed toward the individual who sustained the harm.

Today's Chofetz Chaim addresses an utterance of speech that could result in harm to someone, but as of yet has not. In that case, one's duty is not to run to the target of the speech and apologize, but instead to rush to preempt harm by contacting everyone who has heard and let them know the statement was inaccurate.


Monday, September 30, 2013

On the other hand!

image from http://blog.unstash.com
Today's Chofetz Chaim:

I'm having a harder time with this one.

If someone is on the receiving end of harm, and you observed it, you are not allowed to tell.  Nope, you are not.

Unless, that is, there is a reasonable chance that telling will serve a constructive purpose.  However, "constructive purpose" is very narrowly defined as the likelihood of restitution or the imminent possibility of further harm from the same quarter.  When restitution is unlikely and you can ascertain that the victim is not vulnerable to further harm, you must hold your tongue.  Since nothing positive will come of tattling, revealing what you know is still considered unwarranted gossip.

I get it that if you're pretty sure that no good will come of telling, then telling is simply gossip.

On the other hand, we westerners have a deep-seated desire to know who done us wrong.  If we were the victim and someone else saw the bad guy, we'd want to be told.  We don't like letting people get away with things. Oh, and we like to plot retribution, hold grudges, make sure the perp gets his due.

And even if not restitution, if we tell, won't the perpetrator learn something valuable about his behavior when people look askew at him, ostracizes him even?   And when the community sides with the victim, won't it thereby restore a bit of the value and dignity that was stolen from the victim when the perp disregarded the victim's feelings, rights or needs?

On the other hand - we Jews have so many hands, just ask Tevya - such  gossip is sure to stir the pot, creating rancor in the community.  Turning community member against community member. Promoting judgment before understanding. Seeing, after all, is not the same as understanding motive or circumstance.

Perhaps the Chofetz Chaim felt we should not rush to judgment, or that peace in the community holds the higher value.

Sunday, September 29, 2013

When Gossip is Good

MY NEW YEARS RESOLUTION. The Jewish New Year just happened - I want to study the Chofetz Chaim, the primary Jewish texts on the impact of speech written by Rabbi Israel Meir Kagan. Rabbi Kagan's ideas are universal and not specifically Jewish, so I hope some of my Facebook & blogger families might like to study with me. I'd love stories, conversation and opinions that support or differ from the Chofetz Chaim. 

Today's thought: 

There are circumstances when it is permissible to tell someone about gossip going around about them. One circumstance is when to do so would help open a person's own eyes to a bad situation (e.g. behaviors impacting relationships or work, or when they are thought to be the victim of abuse), enabling him or her to improve their own lot. However, if you're pretty sure that the person either does not have the emotional strength to act on your information, or is not ready to act and so will refuse to "see" what is being shared, then we are prohibited from relaying the gossip. The reason: Even when your true intention is to help, if no good will come of it, it is still "just gossip."

Read more about the Chofetz Chaim by clicking here

Thursday, August 29, 2013

Haggadah Diaries - This is the way it happened to me!

I cannot find the artist.  If anyone recognizes this work, I would love to give recognition.

My daughter Jody and I have finally embarked with some amount of seriousness upon our Haggadah journey.  We want to create a Haggadah for the world we find ourselves in and not just for our family.  This is something I've wanted to do for so long that I'd almost given up on it.  But my desire to do this with one or both my daughters rather than alone helped me to procrastinate until one of them was ready. Perhaps I am now being rewarded for my patience.  We shall see.

A Haggadah, for those who may not know, is the book used on Passover at the seder or celebratory dinner.  The word Haggadah itself means "telling," and therefore an apt title, because the story of the exodus of the Jewish people from Egypt is the evening's theme.  The seder is explicitly designed to transmit the Exodus story from family elders to the youngsters so our history will not be forgotten, and thus many of the Haggadah's devices are kid-friendly. For example, there is a game of hide-and-seek with a matzah, a recitation of four questions by the youngest among the group, singing, dipping and dripping liquids, and of course, story-telling.

This is one of Judaism's most important and symbolic holidays for reasons I'm sure we will get to later.  The point I want to make now is that Passover is the only holiday of this magnitude left to be orchestrated within the family home instead of the synagogue.  This hugely important holiday is left to each household to figure out its own practice.  If you think about this, despite fifteen steps for running an official seder laid out in the Haggadah, leaving the seder to the whims of the kvetchers, the hurriers, the shy, the hoggers, the deniers, the too-busy, recalcitrant readers, interested neighbors, and no doubt worst of all, the hungry, seems like a very a brave and risky move on the part of our forefathers.

On the contrary, it turns out that the forefathers had something.  It turns out that more Jews make time for Passover seder  than any other holiday except the High Holidays.  And not only do they attend, but Jews have taken to heart this lack of oversight, personalizing their seders in every way imaginable.  Jewish families over the centuries have integrated creative re-enactments, props, thematic twists, current events, art work, music and who knows how many other ideas into their seders to make them meaningful and enjoyable.

What is it that drives Jewish families to embrace this holiday so thoroughly?  To add their personal imprimatur to the historic order of business laid out in the Haggadah?  I could certainly ask myself that question.  I was driven to create my first Haggadah to satisfy my own eclectic seder table, often a reflection of our multicultural, secularized Jewish America, with non-Jewish or non-practicing family members, friends who have "always wanted to attend" a seder, children of assorted ages, teenagers who wish they were somewhere else, and almost always one hungry person who is loudly asking if this year, we could please use the 30-minute Haggadah.

A story relayed by anthropologist Barbara Myerhoff and edited and reprinted by Steve Zeitlan on www.myfolklore.org rather poignently and with humor gets at one answer.  Myerhoff actually videotaped a family seder as part of a research project, and captured this tale:

"Arnold was very aware that his [young adult] grandsons didn’t know anything Jewishly, and he wanted this tradition passed on. So after saying the opening prayers, he introduced his older grandson and said, “My grandson Marc will lead the seder.” Greg had been given a chance to lead the seder a couple of years before. So Marc was expecting this, and he said under his breath as he came into the house, “If he tells me to lead it and breaks in and interrupts it and takes it over, I want you to know I’m leaving.” He said this to his mother as we all went in. So we were all very tense. This combination of intentions does not make for a relaxed evening, but seders are never relaxed.

It was a sacrifice for the old man to give up leading the seder because it was something he loved to do, but he was doing this to assure that his grandsons would be prepared to carry it on. What happened during the course of the evening was that the boy slowly changed into a man. You could see it happening before your eyes—this is the wonder of working with videotape—and it became a rite of passage for him. It was the bar mitzvah that, in a sense, he had never had. He began the seder as an ignorant, unsure boy, and by the end of the evening he was commanding the situation with a good deal of authority.

It so happened that by the end of the evening, he was rather drunk as well. So the videotape has this wonderful mixture of authority and slippage. When his grandfather put him in charge of the seder, he began to take a lot of wine because he was very nervous, and his grandfather turned to him and said, “You can’t do that, you’re supposed to have four cups.” The grandson said, “Look, these are my sacred cups, and then over here I have my other cup. I’m drinking from that one, and I do the required four cups at the right time.” And the grandfather said, “That’s an interesting idea. Do you think I could do that too?” And so an innovation was made that you knew was going to get passed down, and that generations from now in this family they would tell the story of how this came about...."

I love this story for the way the grandfather relinquishes his own control to give his grandson a chance to own the history for himself.  I love this story for the way the grandson lived into the role, and put his own stamp on their family tradition by separating the sacred cups from his "other" cup.  Anyone making a seder in their own home surely has a deep desire to see their children link themselves to their Jewish history and carry the story forward as their own.

Tradition teaches us that in every generation, we ought to look upon ourselves as if we personally had gone out of Egypt.  But for being taken out of Egypt by God's hand, we would all still be slaves in that land.   How can we, so far in time and space from Egypt, come to see that experience as ours?  By inviting our children to follow the same structured seder with its fifteen steps that our forebearers followed year after year across time, and then by adding to that structure the highly personalized experience of seder in our own homes.  By laying our own family stamp upon the seder, we link our own unique story to the Exodus story.  We nest our intimate family story within our ancestors' larger story.  Then we can each of us say, "This is the way it happened to me."

Wednesday, August 28, 2013

5 Steps to A Nicer Work Place


Rosh HaShanah, the Jewish New Year. is also the holiday that bookends an annual block of time when Jewish people are bidden to revisit their behavior over the past year.  We are to apologize to our fellows and to our God for those actions we regret, and take steps to turn away from behavior we are not proud of and back onto a path of righteousness. Although we hope to complete this process during the period between Rosh HaShanah and Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in reality, undoing great harms can only be begun during that period. Forgiveness and making true change is a process and will go on. 

The High Holidays, as the events of this time period are often referred to, provides an opportunity not only to be conscious about the pain we may have inflicted - knowingly or not, intentionally or not - but to articulate our regret aloud to those people whom we've injured.  Acknowledging our remorse, and also on the flip side, accepting sincere apologies offered to us, can lead to healing and more "Shalom," peace in our lives.  

Rosh HaShanah has implications beyond the personal.  It presents a perfect opportunity to ease tensions at the workplace too.  

A great online article at eJewish Philanthropy by Steven Donshik called "The Tshuvah Process in Jewish Communal Organizations" offers five steps to help you turn a tense organizational situation around, but these are also excellent steps to apply in a personal relationship, if you're not sure where to start.  "T'shuvah"," by the way, means "to turn."  To turn away from what we no longer wish to be.  To turn toward our better selves. 

Donshik's five steps are below.  Or click here to link to the full article.

  1. Identify the people with whom you feel tension or discomfort.
  2. Gain clarity about whether the relationship is weak because of something they said or did to you or something you said or did to them.
  3. Decide to approach the other person to “clear the air” and “straighten out the relationship.”
  4. Set a time to meet with the person so you can engage in a meaningful conversation, rather than catching them on the go.
  5. Begin the conversation by saying that you have felt tension between the two of you or you realize that the two of you have not gotten along and you would like to try and make amends. Focus on what it will take to strengthen the relationship; do not go over and over who did what to whom.