Friday, March 18, 2016

An Open Letter to Donald Trump

March 18, 2016

Dear Mr. Trump:

We are writing to you as you prepare to address the largest pro-Israel gathering in North America. We care deeply not only about America's relationship with Israel, but the values and character of this special land. We hope you will use this occasion to articulate the values that friends of Israel hold so dear. 

To begin, you should use this opportunity to categorically repudiate racism. There is simply no place for it in our shared discourse. As the only democracy in the Middle East, Israel enshrined in law its commitment to protect the rights all of its inhabitants irrespective of religion, race or sex. When the Jewish people returned to Israel after centuries of persecution and exile, they chose to pursue a path of inclusivity. Rather than perpetuate a culture of prejudice, they chose instead to create a culture of tolerance. Freedom of worship is sacrosanct in the Holy Land and upon its founding, Israel’s government vowed to safeguard the holy places of all religions. You should declare in no uncertain terms that bigotry is as dangerous as it is wrong.

We also call upon you to denounce the language of hatred and xenophobia. There is no mitzvah in the Torah repeated more often than the embrace of the stranger. The Jewish story is itself the history of exiles seeking shelter; of refugees seeking asylum. And since it became a sovereign nation, Israel has proudly stood by and supported peoples of all backgrounds in their times of need: From Haiti to Taiwan; from Sudan to Nepal. Jewish tradition demands that we look past what separates us and instead keep our eyes trained on our shared humanity.

Finally, you need to reassure our community that you understand that there can be no moral equivalency between a sovereign government acting in self-defense on the one hand and a terrorist organization committed to genocide on the other. The pro-Israel community is starving for peace. The notion of shalom represents one of our greatest aspirations – one for which we pray daily. But a lasting peace will only come with the help of a political ally who recognizes Israel's right to self-determination. Let your listeners know that you would never strong-arm Israel into negotiating a peace deal when Israel has no partner for peace.  

Mr. Trump: In these fraught times, make it clear to the pro-Israel community that you stand not only with Israel’s people, but with Israel’s principles. We cannot abide a discourse that inflames intolerance and foments fanaticism. The future of our people is too important.

Rabbi Yitzchok Adlerstein
Rabbi Herschel Billet
Rabbi Yisroel Ciner
Rabbi Daniel Cohen
Rabbi Mark Dratch
Rabbi Ira Ebbin
Rabbi Yitzchok Feldman
Rabbi Joel Finkelstein
Rabbi Barry Gelman
Rabbi Yaakov Gibber
Rabbi Yaakov Glasser 
Rabbi Efrem Goldberg
Rabbi Zev Goldberg
Rabbi Ezra Goldschmiedt
Rabbi Moshe Grussgott
Rabbi Kenneth Hain
Rabbi Shmuel Herzfeld
Rabbi Joshua Hess
Rabbi Barry Kornblau
Rabbi Daniel Korobkin
Rabbi Doniel Z. Kramer
Rabbi Simcha Krauss
Rabbi Joel Landau
Rabbi Philip Lefkowitz
Rabbi Yosie Levine
Rabbi Marc Mandel
Rabbi Adam Mintz
Rabbi Jonathan Muskat
Rabbi Elazar Muskin
Rabbi Ariel Rackovsky
Rabbi Zev Reichman
Rabbi Shaul Robinson
Rabbi Zvi Romm
Rabbi Benjy Samuels
Rabbi Allen Schwartz
Rabbi Ronald Schwarzberg
Rabbi Mordechai Sevy
Rabbi Adam Starr
Rabbi Josh Strulowitz
Rabbi Mayer Waxman
Rabbi Jay Weinstein
Rabbi Michael Whitman
Rabbi Neil N. Winkler
Rabbi Alan J. Yuter
Rabbi Dovid Zirkind

Thursday, June 14, 2012

A Summer Book List for Readers Unwilling to Rest Their Minds

Over the course of the year, I keep a growing list of books recommended to me by friends, congregants and colleagues. From this list, I have excerpted the most popular suggestions and added a number books from a variety of fields that have piqued my interest for one reason or another. Getting to all of them over the short summer may prove a bit ambitious, but I invite you to peruse these titles and to submit your own favorites which I will be happy to include in a future post. Happy reading.

Bad Religion: How We Became a Nation of Heretics, Ross Douthat
As the youngest-ever op-ed columnist for the New York Times, Ross Douthat has emerged as one of the most provocative and influential voices of his generation. In Bad Religion he offers a masterful and hard-hitting account of how American Christianity has gone off the rails—and why it threatens to take American society with it.
Writing for an era dominated by recession, gridlock, and fears of American decline, Douthat exposes the spiritual roots of the nation’s political and economic crises. He argues that America’s problem isn’t too much religion, as a growing chorus of atheists have argued; nor is it an intolerant secularism, as many on the Christian right believe. Rather, it’s bad religion: the slow-motion collapse of traditional faith and the rise of a variety of pseudo-Christianities that stroke our egos, indulge our follies, and encourage our worst impulses.
These faiths speak from many pulpits—conservative and liberal, political and pop cultural, traditionally religious and fashionably “spiritual”—and many of their preachers claim a Christian warrant. But they are increasingly offering distortions of traditional Christianity—not the real thing. Christianity’s place in American life has increasingly been taken over, not by atheism, Douthat argues, but by heresy: debased versions of Christian faith that breed hubris, greed, and self-absorption.
In a story that moves from the 1950s to the age of Obama, he brilliantly charts institutional Christianity’s decline from a vigorous, mainstream, and bipartisan faith—which acted as a “vital center” and the moral force behind the civil rights movement—through the culture wars of the 1960s and 1970s to the polarizing debates of the present day. Ranging from Glenn Beck to Barack Obama, Eat Pray Love to Joel Osteen, and Oprah Winfrey to The Da Vinci Code, Douthat explores how the prosperity gospel’s mantra of “pray and grow rich,” a cult of self-esteem that reduces God to a life coach, and the warring political religions of left and right have crippled the country’s ability to confront our most pressing challenges and accelerated American decline.
Balzac's Omelette, Anka Muhlstein
"Tell me where you eat, what you eat, and at what time you eat, and I will tell you who you are." This is the motto of Anka Muhlstein’s erudite and witty book about the ways food and the art of the table feature in Honoré de Balzac’s The Human Comedy. Balzac uses them as a connecting thread in his novels, showing how food can evoke character, atmosphere, class, and social climbing more suggestively than money, appearances, and other more conventional trappings.
Full of surprises and insights, Balzac’s Omelette invites you to taste anew Balzac’s genius as a writer and his deep understanding of the human condition, its ambitions, its flaws, and its cravings.

Being Wrong, Kathryn Schulz
To err is human. Yet most of us go through life assuming (and sometimes insisting) that we are right about nearly everything, from the origins of the universe to how to load the dishwasher. If being wrong is so natural, why are we all so bad at imagining that our beliefs could be mistaken, and why do we react to our errors with surprise, denial, defensiveness, and shame?
In Being Wrong, journalist Kathryn Schulz explores why we find it so gratifying to be right and so maddening to be mistaken, and how this attitude toward error corrodes relationships—whether between family members, colleagues, neighbors, or nations. Along the way, she takes us on a fascinating tour of human fallibility, from wrongful convictions to no-fault divorce; medical mistakes to misadventures at sea; failed prophecies to false memories; "I told you so!" to "Mistakes were made." Drawing on thinkers as varied as Augustine, Darwin, Freud, Gertrude Stein, Alan Greenspan, and Groucho Marx, she proposes a new way of looking at wrongness. In this view, error is both a given and a gift—one that can transform our worldviews, our relationships, and, most profoundly, ourselves.

Better, Atul Gawande
The struggle to perform well is universal: each of us faces fatigue, limited resources, and imperfect abilities in whatever we do. But nowhere is this drive to do better more important than in medicine, where lives may be on the line with any decision.
Atul Gawande, the New York Times bestselling author of Complications, examines, in riveting accounts of medical failure and triumph, how success is achieved in this complex and risk-filled profession. At once unflinching and compassionate, Better is an exhilarating journey, narrated by "arguably the best nonfiction doctor-writer around"

Imagine, Jonah Lehrer
Did you know that the most creative companies have centralized bathrooms? That brainstorming meetings are a terrible idea? That the color blue can help you double your creative output?
From the New York Times best-selling author of How We Decide comes a sparkling and revelatory look at the new science of creativity. Shattering the myth of muses, higher powers, even creative “types,” Jonah Lehrer demonstrates that creativity is not a single gift possessed by the lucky few. It’s a variety of distinct thought processes that we can all learn to use more effectively.
Lehrer reveals the importance of embracing the rut, thinking like a child, daydreaming productively, and adopting an outsider’s perspective (travel helps). He unveils the optimal mix of old and new partners in any creative collaboration, and explains why criticism is essential to the process. Then he zooms out to show how we can make our neighborhoods more vibrant, our companies more productive, and our schools more effective.
Collapsing the layers separating the neuron from the finished symphony, Imagine reveals the deep inventiveness of the human mind, and it’s essential role in our increasingly complex world.

Joseph Karo: Lawyer and Mystic, Raphael Jehudah Zwi Werblowsky
Joseph Karo (or Caro) was one of the Kabbalistic mystics of 16th century Safed, Israel. However, he is far more famous for his compendium of Jewish Law (Halakhah) entitled the Shulkhan Arukh). Indeed, it became (and still is) the ultimate book of traditional Jewish law--more than Maimonides' books! It seems amazing that the author of such an outstanding and orthodox work could not only be a Kabbalistic mystic, but also write a book about his Maggid. Sometimes (as in the Maggid of Mezerich), a Maggid is a preacher (usually itinerant). But, in this case, the Maggid is a spiritual on non-material being who instructs a person (you can interpret it as a spirit guide or angel or whatever). In this instance, even more interesting than that, Karo's Maggid is considered the essence or embodiment of the Mishnah (the Oral Torah or law later included in the Talmud which is, essentially, a commentary on the Mishnah). I think Jung would probably take a symbolic or archetypal view of this, and one could argue that it was really an aspect of Karo's psyche--but, who knows? It's not that easy to read this book, and the information in it is not all that wonderful or earthshaking, IMHO. But, it is, nevertheless, a major contribution to the literature of Kabbalah in English. It might be interesting to compare it to the works of Stewart Edward White (e.g. "The Unobstructed Universe").

A Letter in the Scroll: Understanding Our Jewish Identity and Exploring the Legacy of the World's Oldest Religion, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks
For too long, Jews have defined themselves in light of the bad things that have happened to them. And it is true that, many times in the course of history, they have been nearly decimated: when the First and Second Temples were destroyed, when the Jews were expelled from Spain, when Hitler proposed his Final Solution. Astoundingly, the Jewish people have survived catastrophe after catastrophe and remained a thriving and vibrant community. The question Rabbi Jonathan Sacks asks is, quite simply: How? How, in the face of such adversity, has Judaism remained and flourished, making a mark on human history out of all proportion to its numbers?
Written originally as a wedding gift to his son and daughter-in-law, A Letter in the Scroll is Rabbi Sacks's personal answer to that question, a testimony to the enduring strength of his religion. Tracing the revolutionary series of philosophical and theological ideas that Judaism created -- from covenant to sabbath to formal education -- and showing us how they remain compellingly relevant in our time, Sacks portrays Jewish identity as an honor as well as a duty.
The Ba'al Shem Tov, an eighteenth-century rabbi and founder of the Hasidic movement, famously noted that the Jewish people are like a living Torah scroll, and every individual Jew is a letter within it. If a single letter is damaged or missing or incorrectly drawn, a Torah scroll is considered invalid. So too, in Judaism, each individual is considered a crucial part of the people, without whom the entire religion would suffer. Rabbi Sacks uses this metaphor to make a passionate argument in favor of affiliation and practice in our secular times, and invites us to engage in our dynamic and inclusive tradition. Never has a book more eloquently expressed the joys of being a Jew.
This is the story of one man's hope for the future -- a future in which the next generation, his children and ours, will happily embrace the beauty of the world's oldest religion.

Strictly Kosher Reading, Yoel Finkelman
For centuries, fervently observant Jewish communities have produced thousands of works of Jewish law, thought, and spirituality. But in recent decades, the literature of America's Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) community has taken on brand-new forms: self-help books, cookbooks, monthly magazines, parenting guides, biographies, picture books, even adventure stories and spy novels - all produced by Haredi men and women, for the Haredi reader. What's changed? Why did these works appear, and what do they mean to the community that produces and consumes them? How has the Haredi world, as it seeks fidelity to unchanging tradition, so radically changed what it writes and what it reads? In answering these questions, 'Strictly Kosher Reading' points to a central paradox in contemporary Haredi life. Haredi Jewry sets itself apart, claiming to reject modern secular culture as dangerous and as threatening to everything Torah stands for. But in practice, Haredi popular literature reveals a community thoroughly embedded in contemporary values. Popular literature plays a critical role in helping Haredi Jews to understand themselves as different, even as it shows them to be very much the same.

The Art of Fielding. Chad Harbach
At Westish College, a small school on the shore of Lake Michigan, baseball star Henry Skrimshander seems destined for big league stardom. But when a routine throw goes disastrously off course, the fates of five people are upended.

The Hare with Amber Eyes, Edmund de Waal
Edmund de Waal is a world-famous ceramicist. Having spent thirty years making beautiful pots—which are then sold, collected, and handed on—he has a particular sense of the secret lives of objects. When he inherited a collection of 264 tiny Japanese wood and ivory carvings, called netsuke, he wanted to know who had touched and held them, and how the collection had managed to survive.
And so begins this extraordinarily moving memoir and detective story as de Waal discovers both the story of the netsuke and of his family, the Ephrussis, over five generations. A nineteenth-century banking dynasty in Paris and Vienna, the Ephrussis were as rich and respected as the Rothchilds. Yet by the end of the World War II, when the netsuke were hidden from the Nazis in Vienna, this collection of very small carvings was all that remained of their vast empire.

The Honest Truth About Dishonesty, Dan Ariely
The New York Times bestselling author of Predictably Irrational and The Upside of Irrationality returns with thought-provoking work to challenge our preconceptions about dishonesty and urge us to take an honest look at ourselves.
  •     Does the chance of getting caught affect how likely we are to cheat?
  •     How do companies pave the way for dishonesty?
  •     Does collaboration make us more honest or less so?
  •     Does religion improve our honesty?
Most of us think of ourselves as honest, but, in fact, we all cheat. From Washington to Wall Street, the classroom to the workplace, unethical behavior is everywhere. None of us is immune, whether it's the white lie to head off trouble or padding our expense reports. In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, award-winning, bestselling author Dan Ariely turns his unique insight and innovative research to the question of dishonesty.

Generally, we assume that cheating, like most other decisions, is based on a rational cost-benefit analysis. But Ariely argues, and then demonstrates, that it's actually the irrational forces that we don't take into account that often determine whether we behave ethically or not. For every Enron or political bribe, there are countless puffed résumÉs, hidden commissions, and knockoff purses. In The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty, Ariely shows why some things are easier to lie about; how getting caught matters less than we think; and how business practices pave the way for unethical behavior, both intentionally and unintentionally. Ariely explores how unethical behavior works in the personal, professional, and political worlds, and how it affects all of us, even as we think of ourselves as having high moral standards.

But all is not lost. Ariely also identifies what keeps us honest, pointing the way for achieving higher ethics in our everyday lives. With compelling personal and academic findings, The (Honest) Truth About Dishonesty will change the way we see ourselves, our actions, and others.

The Invisible Bridge, Julie Orringer
Paris, 1937. Andras Lévi, a Hungarian-Jewish architecture student, arrives from Budapest with a scholarship, a single suitcase, and a mysterious letter he promised to deliver. But when he falls into a complicated relationship with the letter's recipient, he becomes privy to a secret that will alter the course of his—and his family’s—history. From the small Hungarian town of Konyár to the grand opera houses of Budapest and Paris, from the despair of Carpathian winter to an unimaginable life in labor camps, The Invisible Bridge tells the story of a family shattered and remade in history’s darkest hour.

Thinking Fast and Slow, Daniel Kahneman
Daniel Kahneman, recipient of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his seminal work in psychology that challenged the rational model of judgment and decision making, is one of our most important thinkers. His ideas have had a profound and widely regarded impact on many fields—including economics, medicine, and politics—but until now, he has never brought together his many years of research and thinking in one book.
In the highly anticipated Thinking, Fast and Slow, Kahneman takes us on a groundbreaking tour of the mind and explains the two systems that drive the way we think. System 1 is fast, intuitive, and emotional; System 2 is slower, more deliberative, and more logical. Kahneman exposes the extraordinary capabilities—and also the faults and biases—of fast thinking, and reveals the pervasive influence of intuitive impressions on our thoughts and behavior. The impact of loss aversion and overconfidence on corporate strategies, the difficulties of predicting what will make us happy in the future, the challenges of properly framing risks at work and at home, the profound effect of cognitive biases on everything from playing the stock market to planning the next vacation—each of these can be understood only by knowing how the two systems work together to shape our judgments and decisions.




Thursday, May 24, 2012

Preaching in the Post-Sermon Age

For anyone interested in understanding more deeply the trajectory of American values and American culture, Charles Murray’s newest book, Coming Apart, is an important text. Murray argues that over the past 50 years, two utterly disparate classes have emerged from the once monochrome American landscape. Those who belong to the upper class overwhelmingly attend a certain set of colleges, marry one another and live in enclaves, removed and apart from people unlike them. Meanwhile, the core values that form the backbone of this upper class – marriage, industriousness, honesty and religion – are eroding precipitously among the lower class.

These discrepancies in values have produced alarming trends. While only seven percent of children among the upper class are born out of wedlock, the number is a staggering 45 percent when it comes to the lower class. The employment gap is yawning. And people described as lower class pursue education less vigorously and tend to be far less active contributors to their local communities.  

More and more, America is dividing along class lines and the members of these respective classes are becoming increasingly ignorant about the lives of people unlike themselves.

In one of the most provocative segments of the book, Murray asks the reader to take a self-graded survey to establish how much exposure one has to the world that is not her own. Think about your own answers to questions such as these:
·         Since leaving school, have you ever worn a uniform?
·         Have you ever walked on a factory floor?
·         Have you ever had a close friend who could seldom get better than Cs in high school even if he or she tried hard?

With a plethora of data to support his arguments, Murray’s case is compelling and his diagnosis is sobering.

By his own admission, Murray’s agenda is descriptive rather than prescriptive. But in considering paths toward rectifying what has gone wrong, he alludes to two phenomena that are worth thinking about through the lens of Jewish values.

First, there is the problem in terms of isolationism. As Murray writes, Members of the upper class are woefully out of touch with their lower class counterparts. Contact between these two communities is simply too infrequent.

Any prescription that speaks to this issue surely has to include a formula for bringing different kinds of people together. The Jewish tradition ensures this happens organically by casting as wide a net as possible.

For devout practitioners with communal conscience, daily obligations mean regular contact with people outside one’s immediate social circles. While Jewish history is rife with the establishment of charitable societies and institutions for the promulgation of Jewish values, individual duties in Jewish law cannot be outsourced. Simply put, there is no substitute for personal involvement. Mitzvot like visiting the sick; comforting the bereaved; lifting up the widow, orphan and stranger; or inviting guests into one’s home are obligations that demand a constant and ongoing degree of contact with people who are by definition in another state.

For those who are affiliated but less rigorously committed, it is in the realm of worship that one is meant to gain exposure to people of different life stages and backgrounds. Synagogue demographics may be influenced by geography, but esteem and honor in the congregation is awarded based on virtue: Those who privilege study, charity and personal piety are accorded honor, further obscuring potential distinctions of caste.

And for those who attach to the Jewish story only a few times a year, it will be the holidays that help individuals clear the hurdles of class difference. In Temple times, all Jews living in the Jewish state, irrespective of class, were enjoined to make three annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem.

The vision was that all Jews would celebrate their holiday as a single community. And while this practice is essentially outmoded, its ethic remains very much alive. For it was the contemporary equivalent of an economy class community retreat. Find ways for people to leave their natural habitats and their natural comfort zones and, in the course of things, they will find the human ties that bind them. 

Short of demanding day-to-day civic involvement on the part of its citizens, one could envision numerous ways to encourage the coming together of the divided American classes Murray so aptly describes. David Brooks has suggested a post-high school year of mandatory national service. Think of the benefits of Teach for America – both for the students and the teachers. Another thought is to develop ways to intelligently improve and integrate the public school system. In the “SuperZips” Murray describes, many public schools are highly regarded and considered perfectly viable alternatives to expensive private schools. The trick would be to maintain high academic standards while absorbing a meaningful minority of children coming from lower class backgrounds.

Either of these propositions would surely represent a step in the right direction. The second, and much tougher nut to crack, however, is the challenge of mobilizing the upper class and encouraging its rank and file to preach what they practice. In this age, the ethic of non-judgmentalism predominates. As a result, the elite are generally unwilling to tell others what they really think.  Members of the upper class know what works for them, but say to themselves, “Who are we to tell others what is virtuous?”

The rabbis, too, are leery about the efficacy of moralizing. While the Torah commands: Rebuke your neighbor, the Talmud is quick to point to the words that immediately follow: but do not bear a sin because of him. The rabbis propose that the second clause qualifies the first. One must be absolutely certain that his well-intentioned rebuke does not encroach on the wrongdoer’s dignity. While there is a place for dogmatism, there is also a place for sensitivity. For one engaged in the virtuous act of reproach, discretion is an even higher virtue.

Whatever the principle, in practice Murray is certainly right to have identified that we live in a post-sermon culture. As Leon Wieseltier recently put it, “We believe that truth is a form of hegemony. We suspect that pluralism may require perspectivism, or at least a denial of the possibility of objectivity. We wish to be right without anybody else being wrong.” Outside the Ultra-Orthodox community, this sentiment is particularly prevalent even among teachers and rabbis, whose task would have once been described in terms of conveying truths. Today, they use a vocabulary of encouraging, persuading, inspiring and perhaps influencing their congregants or students. Preaching is out of vogue.

Perhaps over time the pendulum will swing again and those possessed of good values and good ideas will gain the self-confidence to share them with others. In the meantime, we would do well to recall the words that were among the last Moses taught to his people: Remember the days of old, consider the years of ages past; ask your father, he will inform you, your elders, they will tell you. That there will be voices of wisdom and sage counsel is a given. But the verse presupposes its readers will have relationships with those wise men and women such that when the time comes, they will be able to access them and learn the lessons of history and experience.

If we want to start bridging the values gap in this great country, the answer is not to re-learn the art of effective preaching. The answer is to re-learn the art of effective relationship building. The upper class does not need to preach more; it needs to reach out more. Our day-to-day lives are filled with dozens of transactional relationships. Think of the clerks, the tellers, the maintenance staff, the drivers, the doormen, the delivery boys and the receptionists. Imagine if we transformed even one of these into a meaningful relationship. The capacity to preserve American exceptionalism is in our hands. Opportunities abound. All we need to do is seize them.

Tuesday, April 10, 2012

An Endnote to Joseph Cedar's Footnote

Footnote is a splendid film. The critical acclaim it's received is well-deserved. The acting is superb. And the narrative tension is thoroughly compelling. Its provocative argument surely inspires every viewer to revisit his/her own relationship with his/her parent or child.

Weeks after seeing the film, one scene still remains clear in my mind: An elite group of renowned academics and dignitaries, responsible for the bestowal of Israel's most coveted prize, holds a committee meeting in a room so cramped that everyone seated must rise to allow enough room for the door to open. The portrait is at once uproariously funny and at the same time offers a poignant metaphor - perhaps for the place of academia in the Israeli imagination.
I quibble only with the most basic assumption of the plotline. As an American and as a grandchild of immigrants to this country, I grew up believing deeply in an ethos wherein a father always hoped that his child would surpass him. The notion of "creating for our children opportunities that we never had" seemed ubiquitous. It was always the implicit, if not explicit, dream of the post-war generation that its heirs would live less trying, more comfortable and more prosperous lives. The idea that a father could be competitive with his son, let alone jealous of him, seems quite foreign.

I don't believe either that this ethos is a strictly American one. It strikes me that it is a very Jewish one as well. As Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written, Judaism is the only civilization whose golden age is in the future. The Haggadah's end note, like Yom Kippur's, is "Next year in Jerusalem." This message is not consigned to our liturgy; I believe it holds a place in the heart and mind of every Jewish parent.
One doesn't need to be an expert on Freud to recognize that tensions between children and parents abound. But for me, Cedar's character goes too far. I can accept that the film portrays an extreme case of paternal jealousy. But I would prefer to believe that this is the rare exception rather than a representative model of the rule. If, as a people, we are not intent on making better lives for our children, then it is we who have betrayed our past.

Monday, April 2, 2012

The Purpose of a New Haggadah

Why write a new Haggadah?

More than 7,000 versions of the Haggadah have appeared over the course of our history. In a contest of most-oft-printed Jewish texts, it is hard to imagine what might even run a close second. Given this, one must surely believe one has something either radically new or profoundly important to contribute if one is going to be so bold as to attempt the feat of adding value to a saturated field.

Jonathan Safran Foer's New American Haggadah is this year's most notable attempt. And the justification for this attempt as he describes it in The New York Times' Week in Review is beautifully written and well-put. He writes: "Our grandparents were immigrants to America, but natives to Judaism. We are the opposite: fluent in “American Idol,” but unschooled in Jewish heroes. And so we act like immigrants around Judaism: cautious, rejecting, self-conscious, and feigning (or achieving) indifference. In the foreign country of our faith, our need for a good guidebook is urgent."

If only the content of his guidebook were as compelling as his case for writing it.

It would be almost impossible to add to Leon Wieseltier's outstanding critique of the Haggadah in the current issue of The Jewish Review of Books. (I referenced the piece in my recent Shabbat Hagadol sermon on the Haggadah's wicked child.) In a word, the Haggadah does not live up to its billing.

If one is searching for a Haggadah that speaks to the contemporary moment while remaining steeped in and faithful to our tradition, one would be hard-pressed to do better than Rabbi Jonathan Sacks' Haggadah whose only shortcoming seems to be its unimaginative title.

But returning to Safran Foer's argument, we are surely on the verge of a critical juncture if we have not already passed it. I applaud him for spending his time and deploying his talents on the project of enlivening the dialogue around Jewish ideas. Any attempt to engage Jews and reconnect them to their tradition should be supported and encouraged. If the genre of the New Haggadah is an entry point for unlearned Jews, then by all means - let us write more Haggadot.

Wednesday, March 28, 2012

Peter Beinart and the Bridge I'm not Buying

Whether or not to dignify Peter Beinart's odious claims in his recent New York Times op-ed and forthcoming book with a response is a question worth thinking about. In claiming that we should refer to West Bank settlements as "undemocratic Israel," and that we should boycott products from this part of Israel, Beinart has crossed a line. From one perspective, to respond is itself to give a modicum of credence to the outlandish position he articulates. We freely acknowledge that there are all kinds of illogical and preposterous claims about Israel and the Jewish people. Yet we let them pass without comment because they represent no threat. We trust that level-headed, straight-thinking people will recognize them for what they are and dismiss them out of hand.

But I would argue that the appearance of Beinart's words in the mainstream media forces our hand. Too many opinions are shaped by arguments like these when they go unchecked. As Leon Wieseltier wrote recently in the Jewish Review Books, the Haggadah reminds us that when questions of consequence about Judaism emerge, we should have confident answers at the ready.

Many good critiques of Beinart have already appeared. Jordan Chandler Hirsch's review of Beinart's book is a good place to start. Daniel Gordis has likewise weighed in on Beinart's editorial.

It is also worth reading Ruth Wisse's Jews and Power. In it, she makes a powerful argument about the perils of our tradition's tendency to go down the path of self-blame rather than point the finger at our adversaries. We are so busy trying to defend ourselves against ridiculousness, we forget that we have a story of our own to tell. If we believe we are the ones possessed of the winning narrative, we should be shouting it from the rooftops.

Whenever the pendulum swings too far in one direction, it opens a door of opportunity to entertain the opposite pole. Perhaps now is such a time.

The moment we retreat from our moral high ground is the moment we play into the hands of our enemies.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

Not Your Grandmother's Bible: Canonicity, Dead Sea Sectarians and Revelations

Among the fundamental questions any community must address are questions of canon. What are the core texts that unite the community? What is considered required reading? What teachings are so basic that one can engage in conversation working on the presuption that one's interlocuter is familiar with them?

The Talmud wonders about this when it comes to the Hebrew Bible. Ecclesiastes is included. Ben Sira is not. Songs of Songs is in; Ben Sira is out.

In visiting recently the Discovery Center's exhibition on the Dead Sea Scrolls (which ends April 15), one notices that the Dead Sea sectarians who authored and/or preserved the scrolls, had a much wider set of texts. In addition to all the books of the Hebrew Bible (with the notable exception of Esther), the Dead Sea Scrolls contain numerous books of the apocrypha and pseudepigrapha. (Needless to say, there are no mentions in the scrolls of anything to do with Christianity. The exhibition's bizarre attempt to connect the Dead Sea sectarians to Christianity is baffling.)

I juxtapose this observation to a recent review in the New Yorker:

Given that we have far too little literacy of the Hebrew Bible, it is hard to imagine where there might be room or time to give serious attention to the Christian Bible. But a little time devoted to reading a review of Elaine Pagels' new book, Revelations: Visions, Prophecy, and Politics in the Book of Revelation, might be time well spent. In his recent New Yorker review, The Big Reveal: Why does the Bible end that way? Adam Gopnik highlights the most compelling aspects of this new text. Most fascinating to me, is the argument that Revelations is not so much an attempt at prophecy as it is a contemporary social critique. In fact, Pagels argues that the book is actually an anti-Christian polemic. This of course, makes the fact that it was canonzied all the more stunning. 

Issues of canonicity are always subtle reminders that we do well to evaluate and re-evaluate our own literacy of the canon. It's often more appealling to venture into the world of the contemporary, but at what expense? Have we claimed sufficient mastery of the texts we are "supposed" to know to justify the attention we give to everything else?