Friday, October 30, 2009

You can't be serious?!

From "Calling Democratic health care bills "seriously deficient on the issues of abortion and conscience," the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops is urging priests around the country to speak out against the legislation from the pulpit this Sunday."

I am wondering how a bill attempting to create more access to affordable, reliable health care could possibly be deficient on the issue of 'conscience'? With so many in the Catholic community on the fringes of the socioeconomic divide, I just cannot fathom how their religious leaders are focusing on such a narrow issue found within the healthcare debate. It is as if they are forgetting the needs of their constituency. I'm not saying there is not room for healthy debate on the issue of abortion, but in this case, what the Bishops are proposing appears to run contrary to their own religious heritage. They are rejecting the notion of universal healthcare in its entirety because they reject a provision of it that actually is not a provision at all.

As I recall, Jesus himself tended to those that society ignored, the widows, orphans and lepers. Isn't there a mandate within Catholic tradition to help all those who are most in need to be able to receive quality health care? Or am I missing something here?

Within Jewish tradition, our rabbinic heritage argues that it is the obligation of society as well as the responsibility of individuals to ensure everyone, regardless of need, religion, wealth, poverty, have access to healthcare. To learn more I recommend reading Matters of Life and Death by Elliot Dorff who quite cogently explains the intricacies of this issue from a Jewish perspective.

Religion certainly does have a role to play in the healthcare debate. I just think it should be focused on speaking on behalf of the masses and the moral and religious obligations involved. And not co-opted by a select few who speak on behalf of narrow ideological concerns rather than on behalf of the broader community.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

Bikur Cholim

“Rabbi Helbo once fell ill. Thereupon Rabbi Kahana went and proclaimed: "Rabbi Helbo is ill!" But none visited him. Rabbi Kahana rebuked the scholars, saying, "Did it not once happen that one of Rabbi Akiva's disciples fell sick, and the Sages did not visit him? So Rabbi Akiva himself entered [the disciple’s house] to visit him, and because they swept and sprinkled the ground before him, he recovered. ‘My master,’ said the disciple, ‘you have revived me!’ Whereupon Rabbi Akiva went forth and lectured: ‘He who does not visit the sick is like a shedder of blood’" (Babylonian Talmud Nedarim 39b).
We may no longer take the position of Rabbi Akiva. Nonetheless the sentiment expressed in his words emphasizes the centrality of this mitzvah to the Jewish experience. The mitzvah of Bikur Cholim, visiting the sick, is one of the great mitzvot de-rabbanan (rabbinic mitzvot) described in Eilu Devarim. Bikur Cholim is a concept that includes a wide range of activities focused on comforting and supporting people who are ill, recovering from surgery, or are homebound. Bikur cholim can include such activities as: visiting patients in a hospital, rehabilitation center or nursing home; visiting people who are restricted to their home; or by calling and reassuring those who are ill or homebound.
There are a wide variety of reasons to perform this central mitzvah. For one, it lifts the spirits of those who are ill and ailing. It also helps them to feel connected to the community, especially if they are no longer able to actively participate like they once did. Also there is scientific evidence that those who receive regular visitors and well-wishers tend to do better when receiving demonstrations of support. Plus there is the added benefit that when you visit those who are ill, you feel better about yourself by performing this central mitzvah.

Thursday, October 8, 2009

Family Guy

For a summary of the most recent Family Guy episode: 'Family Goy' please go to the following link:

I admittedly am a really big fan of Family Guy. Much of the humor speaks to my generation (Gen. X), and there were definitely some funny moments in this episode. However I found myself also disappointed in it as well. I think they did a much better job of challenging assumptions about Judaism in their banned episode: "When You Wish upon a Weinstein" as well as to a lesser extent in "Road to Germany."
I also did not particularly appreciate the reference to Shindler's List, which was also referenced in a recent episode of Grey's Anatomy as well, but in a much funnier way (if that is possible).
Needless to say, there are many Jewish writers and at least two lead Jewish actors on the show (Seth Green & Alex Borstein). And the feeling I get is they only have a nominal understanding of their own tradition. There are so many areas to be mined for humor. Why they need to keep going to the basest stereotypes and Holocaust 'humor' is beyond me.
Though I must admit that I did appreciate Stewie of all people reciting the candle blessings for Pesach correctly.
So all in all, I enjoyed a few of the jokes, but mostly I was very much disappointed in the lazy writing in the episode given that it could have been so much better.

Friday, October 2, 2009

Lulav and Etrog - A User's Guide

“On the first day you shall take the product of the beautiful (hadar) tree, branches of palm trees, thick branches of leafy trees, and willows of the brook and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days” (Leviticus 23:40). The four species are:
• Lulav (לולב) – a ripe, green, closed frond from a date palm tree
• Hadass (הדס) – boughs with leaves from the myrtle tree
• Aravah (ערבה) – branches with leaves from the willow tree
• Etrog (אתרוג) – the fruit of a citron tree

A midrash in Vayikrah Rabba 30:12 explains the items as symbols of the importance of unity among different types of Jews.
1. The etrog, a fruit, has both a flavor and a scent, like a Jew who is both learned and observant of the commandments.
2. The lulav is from a date palm, and so it has a taste but no scent. It is likened to a Jew to is learned but does not apply that knowledge in action.
3. A myrtle has a pleasant odor but there is nothing tasty about it, and it parallels the Jew who has little book learning behind his or her observance.
4. Finally the willow lacks both fragrance and food value, just like the Jew who neither studies the Torah nor observes the commandments.

Midrash (Vayikra Rabbah 30:14) the rabbis use a quote from Psalms to learn more from lulav and etrog comparing each element to a part of the human body. “All my bones shall say, ‘God, who is like You!” (Psalm 35:10). The metaphor is applied in this way:
1. The long, straight, flexible lulav is likened to the spine.
2. The tiny myrtle leaves are like the eyes
3. The elongated willow leaves resemble the lips.
4. Round and firm, the etrog is symbolic of the heart.

As in the first example, holding all parts of the lulav and etrog together for the blessing informs the meaning of the metaphor. The secret ingredient to achieving the true happiness promised by Sukkot is to feel unity within, to be true to oneself and not say one thing and feel another.

The Mitzvah of netilat lulav:
1. Take the lulav in the right hand and the etrog in the left (unless you are a lefty – then do the opposite). Hold the etrog stem side up. Be sure to have the spine of the lulav facing the person holding it. The myrtle (the one with smallish leaves) should be on the right and the willow should be on the left.
2. Say the blessing:
"Baruch ata Adonai, Elo-heinu Melech ha'olam, asher kid'shanu bi'mitzvo-sav, vi'tzivanu al ni-tilat lulav."
Blessed are You, Adonai our God, Ruler of the Universe, who sanctified us with Your mitzvot, and instructed us to raise up the Lulav.
3. The first time you wave the lulav and etrog follow with the Shehechiyanu.
Begin by switching hands with the etrog facing stem side down
Baruch Ata Adonai Eloheinu Melech HaOlam shecheyanu, vikiyamanu, vihigiyanu laz'man ha'zeh
R. You then wave the lulav in the following directions:
East, South, West, North, Up, and Down – reminding us how God is all around us.

One other note: According to Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakkai (BT Rosh Hashana 30a), we take up the lulav every day of Sukkot in remembrance of the Temple. The modern observance is to do this every day except on Shabbat.
However there is a tradition in the Mishnah that states if the first day of Sukkot is Shabbat, then one fulfills the mitzvah on Shabbat (Mishnah Sukkot 4:2). Except the majority of Jews throughout the world do not fulfill the mitzvah of netilat lulav on Shabbat (perhaps as a reminder of the destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem).

Thursday, October 1, 2009

Roman Polanski and Jewish Tradition

Roman Polanski is considered by many to be one of the greatest filmmakers of his generation. Polanski’s first feature film, Knife in the Water (1962) received an Academy Award nomination for Best Foreign Language film. Many of his other films continue to be held in high esteem like Rosemary’s Baby (1968) and Chinatown (1972), which received 11 Academy Award nominations including one win for best original screenplay. Polanski, a holocaust survivor, received the Academy’s highest award, best director, in 2002 for the Pianist.
However, Polanski truly is a person of Shakespearean stature, accomplished, revered, and deeply troubled. It is well known that Polanski’s second wife, Sharon Tate and their unborn child were slaughtered in the famous Manson murders of 1969. Polanski was devastated by Sharon’s murder, with whom he described his time with her as the happiest of his life.
But Polanski is most well known today for the events that took place 30 years ago in 1977 with the seduction and rape of 13 year-old Samantha Gailey. Following a plea agreement and a 90 day psychiatric evaluation, Polanski fled the United States fearing further prosecution. In 2009, Polanski was arrested as he was entering Switzerland where he was to receive a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Zurich film festival.
In response to Polanski’s arrest and possible extradition back to the United States, there are some, especially in Hollywood clamoring for his release. Even Samantha Gailey (now Geimer) has expressed a desire to have the events put behind her. However there is also the adamant call by many to see Polanski brought to justice for the crimes he perpetrated and admitted to.
The Jewish community is very ambivalent about the Polanski case. On the one hand, we note the horrors and tragedies that have followed Polanski throughout his life. We also acknowledge the prominence he has brought in terms of Jewish portrayals in cinema. At the same time, we are also a tradition of tzedek, tzedek tirdof, justice, justice shall you pursue. And that even though Polanski has admitted remorse, and done teshuvah to a degree, there is still a price to be paid for his crimes that time cannot erase.
As a father and a husband, I am personally appalled by anyone who would defend Polanski’s actions. Rape is one of the great violations, and even Judaism when speaking about issues of life and death argues it is better to die than be forced to commit rape (Babylonian Talmud Tractate Sanhedrin 74a).
So clearly Polanski broke one of American society’s cardinal rules: rape of a minor. He also broke one of Jewish traditions great prohibitions as well. And no matter his many accomplishments since the incident nor the failings of the U.S. legal system make up for this fact. Polanski should in the eyes of both American and Jewish legal precedent have to do time for his crimes. As this time of year teaches us, no matter our past circumstances, we are still all to be held accountable for our actions.

Sacred Guests (Ushpizin) and Holy Spaces - Sukkot

In the Essential Kabbalah Daniel Matt writes, “The essence of serving God and of all the mitzvot is to attain the state of humility, that is, to understand that all your physical and mental powers and your essential being depend on the divine elements within. You are simply a channel for the divine attributes. You attain this humility through the awe of God’s vastness, through realizing that ‘there is no place empty of it.’”
During the first week of October, we will be celebrating the fall festival of Sukkot. Known as heChag, the Festival, Sukkot commemorates both the fall harvest and the time our ancestors wandered in the wilderness before attaining the land of Eretz Yisrael. During their travels, they built portable structures, sukkot, which we commemorate with our annual construction projects to this various day. There are numerous guidelines for how to build a proper sukkah. One of the key elements is that it must have a natural covering by which you can see the stars in the night sky.
Another element involves dwelling in our sukkah. In particular we are to dine there and invite guests to join us. Family, friends, and ushpizin, sacred guests including Abraham, Moses, and Aaron, as well as Sarah, Miriam, and Devorah all join us as we celebrate together.
There is another observance associated with Sukkot, though in truth, it is actually a separate holiday. It is the festival of Hoshana Rabbah. Hoshana Rabbah takes place on the last day of Sukkot, and is considered to be the day when our fates are sealed in the Book of Life. It includes a service with seven Hakafot with the Torah, lulav, and etrog all while Hoshanot are recited. Five willow branches are also beaten on the ground to help us symbolically remove our sins as the penitential season comes to an end.
But more than that, Hoshana Rabbah is the time where we invite God to join us as we dwell one last time in the Sukkah. In many ways this is akin to the kabbalistic notion that there is no place devoid of God.
May your sukkahs this year be strong and lasting. May you be joined by wonderful and delightful company. And may you find God’s holy presence in all of your dwelling places, which in turn, may help you find holiness in yourselves, in your lives, and in the greater world as well.