Thursday, December 25, 2008

arnold jacob wolf z"l

First, here's a story he was fond of telling:
He was a young man in the pulpit in Chicago - this was back in the late 60s or early 70s - and there was a man in town, a slumlord, who treated his tenants horribly. This was a matter of Torah, and Arnold had to preach about it. The thing was, the man was a congregant. Well, Arnold preached, and did everything but come out and name the man outright. After the service, the congregant came up to him. "Boy, Rabbi. You sure gave it to them!"

He marched with King, they said, though I would not hear him talk about until years later ("We weren't brave," he said of those days, "We were scared people doing brave things."). He had fought against the war in Vietnam, and against poverty in the United States, and he spoke - loudly - of the need for a Palestinian state in the West Bank when that was seen as close to treason by most of the organized Jewish community. He was one of the last of the great prophetic social-justice rabbis, and one of the last of the Hillel directors who made the the college campus the location of the most interesting Jewish teaching of the time.

There's a lot by and about him on the Web; zil g'mur, as they say, go and study. But what might not come across is what he taught by the way he taught. It's become a very groovy thing these days for rabbis to lead "discussions" which usually involve letting a couple of congregants say something, and then going blithely on to the point he or she wanted to make in the first place. But Arnold created a space in which every participant had equal access to the text, everyone listened to and responded to everyone else, and such authority as Arnold had came only from his ability to ask better questions and suggest more compelling answers than the rest of us. And so the overarching lesson was that what he did was (in theory) something we all could do, and the existential meaning of a religious teaching within the grasp of anyone who was prepared to do the work.

This belief in the radical competence of each student - which was merely the extension of an overall ethical stance - was combined with a deeply held faith that Torah was important, desperately. It wasn't a game, it wasn't an entertainment. It was about nothing less than repairing a profoundly broken world. More than anyone I've ever known, Arnold seemed to live out the dictum, "It is not up to you to complete the work, but neither are you free to stop trying" - only in his case the work involved breaking down a wall, and the only tool available was his high, hard forehead. And for some reason, there was something about that that made you want to join him. You got the sense that you, too, could make some justice happen, could make the world a little bit better. And you, too, wanted to be part of a Judaism that mattered.

I'm not even touching on who he was to me personally; but that I am a rabbi, and the kind of rabbi I've tried (usually unsuccessfully) to be, has a lot to do with him. I miss him.

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

you can't keep a good god down

When the Young Heroine introduced me to Terry Pratchett's Discworld, the first book she gave me was Hogfather. It's hard to explain in a sentence if you're not familiar with the series, but it takes place in a cosmos that's very similar to, but not identical with, our own, and the Hogfather is that world's equivalent to Santa Claus. The book is quite wonderful for a number of reasons, oneof which is that you're reminded of how little of the Western Christmas has to do with Christianity and how much with paganism, but there's also this passage (and remember, read "Santa Claus" for "Hogfather")
Was the Hogfather a god? Why not? thought Susan. There were sacrifices, after all. All that sherry and pork pie [left on the table for him]. And he made commandments and rewarded the good and he knew what you were doing...
It's true: the Hogfather, er, Santa, is a god. And we know which one. Making a list and checking it twice? Going to find out who's naughty and nice? That's not a Christmas song; that's U'netaneh Tokef, the solemn prayer from the High Holy Days about the Book of Life. The god who punishes the naughty and rewards the nice, who listens to prayers and gives points for trying, but is ultimately concerned with behavior is, when you get down to it, the God of the Jews.

Ok, ok, we all worship the same God, so let's say, "the God as understood by the Jews". Which is different than the Christian understanding, because one of the main points of Christianity is the idea of "Justification by Faith," which is to say that one cannot get on God's good side through works or deeds; you are justified, or made right with God, through faith [Yes, I do know that this is a gross oversimplification, but still]. And so you have to ask, how does it happen that at one of the two foundational festivals of the God of Faith, the most popular character is an avatar of the God of Works. Or: how is it that in the middle of celebrating the obsolescence of Judaism, it keeps popping up?

And here's what I think: That as attractive as the doctrine might be that you don't have to "do" you just have to believe, and that God's grace is so great and given so freely that all one needs is be open to it, there is something about being human that needs the idea of justice. We can't help believing that it really does make a difference if you're naughty or nice independent of your personal faith. The official doctrine may say what it will about Grace being a totally free gift; there is something deep inside of us that is sure that the difference between a Wii and a lump of coal in your stocking depends on just how good a boy or girl you've been.

This does not necessarily mean that the Jews are saying anything true about God, but it does mean that we are saying something true about being human. Which is that the idea of justice is real, it is as much a part of us as love and beauty. And that there's much more of a universal sense of what counts as "naughty" and what as "nice" than we might otherwise think. Whatever we believe about God or gods or subatomic particles colliding, we are stuck sharing a common moral imagination, a capacity for recognizing the right, and an understanding that that's how we're supposed to live.

(Oh yes, Dick Cheney? If there were a Santa, you'd be in for some serious coal. Ho, ho, ho).


Just for Hanukkah fun, here's another quiz.

Which is worse: lying to a lot of people about
a) whether another country poses an immanent threat,
b) whether a product is addictive and will kill you, or
c) whether your money is safe.

No peeking, but if you said "c", you get to be in both the Atlantic and the New York Times.

Look, I'm not carrying a brief for Madoff; he's a liar and a thief on an unimaginable scale, and has hurt many, many people. But I find the idea that he's beyond the possibility of atonement, well, bizarre. First of all, I'd have thought that that kind of judgment involved an insight into the mind of both God and the sinner that's beyond most mortals. But let's get technical. This is probably a reflection of my own ignorance, but I'm not familiar with the text that says that God's forgiveness is dependent on making full restitution. The Talmud, after all, explicitly discusses the possibility of atonement for murderers, and even Maimonides talks about the possibility of effective deathbed repentence (when it's probably too late to make any kind of real recompense).

And if it were true that you could only gain forgiveness for what you've repaired, think of how many of us would truly be without hope. I know that there are people I've hurt whom I'll never see again to reconcile with; am I, too, beyond forgiveness? And wouldn't the "pay it all back first" clause privilege the rich over the poor? I mean, if rich man Deevies takes poor man Lazurus' one sheep, he can pay it back, but if Lazurus takes Deevies' Lamborgini to the chop shop, that could be well over a lifetime of earnings right there.

But of course this is silly. Real repentence isn't about what you do, it's about what you become. Of course, that has to lead to action, but the classic Jewish teaching is that teshuvah has to do with a rejection of the kind of self you were for a better kind of self. That begins with an honest appraisal of what you've done, an ownership of your actions and their consequences, and an honest attempt to repair the damage you've done to the world.

What would it be like to look on a life of lies and theft, on the wreckage of private lives and public institutions, to grieve for the choices you've made and pain and loss you've caused, and to know that it's up to you to try to bring healing to the pain you've caused. Near impossible to do, perhaps, but not to imagine. In fact, it's important to try to imagine it, because in that way we get an understanding of what repentence really requires, and what we have to do to deal with our own faults. And is it really unbelieveable that if Bernie spends the last years of his life as a true penitent, learning about the people he had hurt, trying humbly to good works, that God would have room for him?

After all, did subvert the Constitution? Did he promote torture? Did he teach hatred or inspire violence? Did he abuse children? It seems to me - again, without trying to mitigate the severity of Madoff's crimes - that if we're to have a focus for moral outrage that Bernie is a bar too low. After all, he will spend the rest of his life disgraced and in jail, while men like Kissinger and Rumsfeld will live out their days free, wealthy, and in the company of sycophants. And that is unforgiveable.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

different from you and me

So, I've been thinking about the bonus John Thain isn't getting, all ten million dollars of it. That's a lot of money. How much? Well, it's more than the total of everything I will earn in my entire life. Ok? His one year bonus on this side, my entire lifetime earnings on that, his wins. And maybe I've missed it, but I haven't seen anything in the news that this is going to beggar him: pull the kids out of school, sell the house and move into an apartment in Queens, anything like that. My guess is that losing out on more than my gross lifetime domestic product in a single year will have no more than a symbolic impact on him. And ya know something? There are people a lot richer than him.

It strikes me that when you have that much more - I mean, that much more - money, your experience of the world must be vastly different. First, there are a whole range of anxieties or frustrations aren't there when there is nothing that is too expensive for you. I certainly don't mean that the rich have no frustrations and no anxieties, of course they do. But the ones that occupied a lot of the emotionaly energy of the people I know even before the recession - can I afford my child's school, can I afford the right doctor or dentist or shrink, will I be able to retire, what would I really like to do if I didn't have to make money - just aren't on their radar. But more broadly - and tell me if I'm wrong - I imagine their entire interface with the world is different. The things they see and do on a daily basis, the people they talk to, the questions life poses them, to what extent do they live in the same world as I do?

It's this that I'm really wondering about - in a society as economically polarized as our is, to what extent is any kind of shared discourse possible? Perhaps our common humanity is enough to make our fundamental experience of life essentially similar, or perhaps the expereinces we share more powerful, more numerous, more important than the ones we don't, so that we really do inhabit the same common space. But I'm not so sure. Someone who has never had an empty cab pass him by or never had to teach his son how to behave with a policeman will never quite get the black experience, and unless it's brought to his attention won't even think about the fact - he won't even know how different his expereince of America is from that of his black neighbor. Americans who think of the police as their protectors and Americans who think of the police as a kind of occupying army or security guards hired to protect a party they're not invited to are not sharing a "commonwealth," let alone a political or cultural discourse. Mightn't vast wealth differences work the same way?

I don't know what the implications might be if I'm right, but because Americans are so hung about about class we haven't begun to talk about it. I think, perhaps, we should.

Thursday, December 4, 2008

enemies of the state

Okay kids, here’s a quiz: They throw stones at Israeli soldiers, they deny the legitimacy of the Israeli government, they threaten the security of the Israeli state. The organized Jewish community should consider them

a) Friends of Israel

b) Enemies of Israel

You’ve got ten minutes.

This shouldn’t be too hard, but for far too long we’ve refused to take the radical settler community for the danger that they are. In fact, the Israeli government has frequently subsidized them, subsidizing even those actions that have broken Israeli law. Now, when the government spends money on building infrastructure supporting illegal settlements, or on the defense of illegal settlements, that’s money they’re not spending on social services, or settlement of immigrants, or the like. Which means that the money you and I give to support those services, well, we too are subsidizing those illegal settlers. Again, I’m making the easy case; I’m only talking about those settlers who are breaking Israel’s own law.

And for all kinds of reasons having to do with, I don’t know, the romantic hold of the story of the pioneers, or a belief that Jews should be nice to other Jews (a belief the settlers certainly do not hold), or a fear that at some level they are more authentic Jews than we, we continue to grant them a presumption of legitimacy. Even if they’re misguided, we say, they’re still living out the Zionist dream.

Enough of that nonsense. Zionism is a political movement that had at its heart the establishment of a state. The settlers have abandoned politics for a strange volkish messianism, and they have nothing but scorn for the state, its system of government, and its founding documents.

The settlers are anti-Zionists, and until we start insisting on that basic truth at least in our own internal discourse they will continue their stranglehold on the government.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

no one can say you can't play

In the recent issue of CJ, a publication of the Conservative movement, R. Brad Artson, Dean of the Ziegler School (and a classmate of mine back in the day), makes a powerful case for what might be called “strong pluralism”, a movement with room for both egalitarians and non-egalitarians; those in favor of normalizing lesbian and gay Jews, and those not. It sounds open and warm and all kinds of good things, but it’s also wrong in a way that ultimately betrays itself.

See, the deal with a tent of whatever size is that everyone inside it has to be welcome everywhere inside it. Right now, under the banner of “halachic pluralism” a rabbi has the option of counting women as witnesses to legal documents or not. Sounds fair – I should be able to choose who gets to sign a document I’m supervising. But it currently means that a person can be converted by one Conservative rabbi in full accordance with the standards of the Movement – can be fully observant, can be a Conservative rabbi for heaven’s sake – and can find that he or she isn’t considered a Jew by rabbis in other synagogues if a woman was one of the witnesses. That’s not pluralism, that’s nonsense. “Pluralism” is not a right to delegitimize other members. While we should embrace the idea that practices and beliefs in the Movement may vary from shul to shul and from Jew to Jew, there cannot be bubbles where one’s fundamental status is changed simply by being there. Relationship to God and the Covenant cannot be contingent on location.

Further: not only must every member of the Movement have the right to be recognized as a member throughout the Movement, each member living a path sanctioned by the CJLS has the right to be recognized as an observant Jew. That is, while one blade of pluralism may give the individual rabbi the right to decide who to marry or who to use as a witness, the other blade must constrain said rabbi from judging others who are living according to Conservative Halacha.

I don’t think anyone can know how this will play out with GLBT issues, but at the very least it must mean that gay and lesbian Jews cannot have their condition defined for them by someone else. By accepting a responsum that says that homosexual desire is neither chosen, nor pathological, nor immoral, the Committee on Jewish Law and Standards has given gay and lesbian Jews recognition as “normal,” and that recognition, it seems to me, cannot be negotiable.

Pluralism may allow for a lot of things, but even under the biggest tent, no one can say you can't play.