Thursday, April 25, 2013

Judaism IV: A New Hope - My Two Cents


Nowadays it is very in vogue to declare the demise of Judaism and Jews.  With intermarriage, assimilation, secularism, particularism, post-denominationalism, atheism, un-affiliation, decline in participation, failures of our institutions, and the like, it would appear that we are doomed.

That we are facing certain modern challenges is indeed striking.  But this existential idea that we are going to disappear, does not play out either against the facts or against our history.

I can't help but think this is a little bit of hubris and arrogance on our part.  Jews and Judaism have faced much greater, much more insidious "threats", and survived.  And by the way, most of the 'threats' listed above, are not threats at all.  Many of them represent opportunities for inclusion and growth, we just have to be more open and welcoming.

Are demographic and sociological numbers concerning?  To some degree, it depends upon how you look at them.  Throughout most of our history, most Jews have not been strident observers.  And in the cases they were, it was often through communal pressures. 

It has become clear that though there are fewer among us who choose to affiliate, those who do affiliate are as strong if not stronger in their Jewish identity and connection to our heritage.

Judaism at its best, has always been dynamic.  It has always faced the challenges of its times.  We overcame the destruction of the first and second Temples.  We overcame Roman rule.  We have survived the anti-Semitism of the Middle Ages and modern times. 

True our communities are becoming increasingly consolidated.  True our institutions are struggling with membership and income.  And yet, our professionals are as excellent as they have ever been.  Our methods of teaching are perhaps better than at any time.  True we are just one priority amidst the myriad of priorities modern families face.  But let's not forget, we are a priority.  Do we have to make a more compelling case? Perhaps.  Do we need to continue to be more relevant?  Absolutely.  But not because we are doing this out of a desperate attempt to remain viable, but because this is what we have always done.

Yes we are likely to see the continued consolidation of our beloved institutions.  Our congregations are not going anywhere, but there will be fewer of them.  But then again, perhaps it is also time to change the paradigm of two Jews - three congregations. 

Also living a Jewish life is increasingly expensive.  Synagogue dues, JCC dues, religious school fees, High Holy Day tickets, and the like to cause a serious drain on the pocketbook.  And we do very much have to deal with the issue of making a Jewish life more affordable.  It will require us to re-examine how we conduct the 'business' of congregational life.  But there are already many intelligent individuals who are exploring new models and new approaches. 

Judaism, at its heart, is an approach to how we treat our fellow human beings through the prism of ethical monotheism.  This means we are in a covenantal relationship with God, no matter how we define God.  This means we are encouraged and expected to act in ways that brings greater holiness in the world.  Whether or not we choose the halachic path is only part of the conversation.  Ultimately our goal is to leave the world a little bit better than we found it.  And Judaism helps to provide the framework for this endeavor.

I hear it often: Judaism is at a crossroads.  Truth be told, Judaism is always at a crossroads.  As long as we continue to be dynamic in our traditions, observances, and the like, we will take on these crossroads and keep moving ever forward.  But to do nothing and bemoan that life is not like it once was, helps no one.

Instead let's take on these challenges and turn them on their head, so that they become opportunities.  Judaism is not going anywhere, so let's get away from eulogizing it and instead refocus on celebrating it.

True our communities are becoming increasingly consolidated.  True our institutions are struggling with membership and income.  And yet, our professionals are as excellent as they have ever been.  Our methods of teaching are perhaps better than at any time.  True we are just one priority amidst the myriad of priorities modern families face.  But let's not forget, we are a priority.  Do we have to make a more compelling case? Perhaps.  Do we need to continue to be more relevant?  Absolutely.  But not because we are doing this out of a desperate attempt to remain viable, but because this is what we have always done.

Yes we are likely to see the continued consolidation of our beloved institutions.  Our congregations are not going anywhere, but there will be fewer of them.  But then again, perhaps it is also time to change the paradigm of two Jews - three congregations. 
Also living a Jewish life is increasingly expensive.  Synagogue dues, JCC dues, religious school fees, High Holy Day tickets, and the like to cause a serious drain on the pocketbook.  And we do very much have to deal wit the issue of making a Jewish life more affordable.  It will require us to re-examine how we conduct the 'business' of congregational life.  But there are already many intelligent individuals who are exploring new models and new approaches. 

Judaism, at its heart, is an approach to how we treat our fellow human beings through the prism of ethical monotheism.  This means we are in a covenantal relationship with God, no matter how we define God.  This means we are encouraged and expected to act in ways that brings greater holiness in the world.  Whether or not we choose the halachic path is only part of the conversation.  Ultimately our goal is to leave the world a little bit better than we found it.  And Judaism helps to provide the framework for this endeavor.

I hear it often: Judaism is at a crossroads.  Truth be told, Judaism is always at a crossroads.  As long as we continue to be dynamic in our traditions, observances, and the like, we will take on these crossroads and keep moving ever forward.  But to do nothing and bemoan that life is not like it once was, helps no one.

Instead let's take on these challenges and turn them on their head, so that they become opportunities.  Judaism is not going anywhere, so let's get away from eulogizing it and instead refocus on celebrating it.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

A Response to Boston


The goal of terrorism is to get us to change our way of life.  It is to make us afraid while maximizing the largest number of causalities and damage.  And the second we start turning on each other, it works.

Terrorism makes us feel vulnerable even at our happiest moments.  Whether this act was domestic or international the result is the same.  People have died and many many more are wounded with some still fighting for their lives.
We all want answers.  We all demand justice.  And one day, we pray, we will have answers, and we will have justice.  

And for a time we will feel closer to one another.  For a time we will not focus on the differences that divide us. And then those feelings will slip away and we will return to a sense of normalcy.

But what we should not ever forget are not only those who lost their lives, and those who are suffering, but also the depth of the human spirit.  The depth of so many to risk their lives to help those in need.  There are stories floating about of marathoners who after completing the race, all twenty-six miles of it, went and donated blood.

This is what terrorists truly seek to destroy, our faith in one another. But that faith is far too strong for any attack to defeat.  We may not always agree with one another.  But the greatest blessing we can find is in each other.  

A prayer for strength from Naomi Levy(with slight edits):
"When I am lost, help me, God, to find my way.
When I am hurt, shelter me with Your loving presence.
When my faith falters, show me that You are near.
When I cry out against You, accept my protest, God, as a prayer too.  As a call for You to rid this world of all pain and tragedy.
Until that day, give us the will to rebuild in spite of the suffering
To choose life even in the face of tragedy.  Amen"

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Continuing the Conversation on Responsible Gun Ownership


According to social media and the traditional media it would appear that there are really only two views on guns.  One view is that all guns must turned in except for those in law enforcement and the military.  The other is that there should be no exclusions for private ownership of guns whatsoever.

While neither of these views represents the majority of Americans, they do contain within them some wishful thinking.  The first view ignores the fact that there are over 300 million guns in our country today.  There is simply no way all of those guns will be turned in.  That is the reality.  Also we have a societal history and relationship with our guns that is part of the fabric of our society.  This means guns are not going anywhere.

On the other hand there is also the belief that we must have a well armed citizenry to protect us from among other things: our government and the United Nations.  This sort of thinking is beyond wishful, it is delusional.  The government represents us, the people (at least in theory).  And as the stories of standoffs can attest, if the government is coming after you, there is little you can do.  One of the classic arguments is that if the Jews had guns, the Holocaust would not have happened.  The reality is, look at the Warsaw Ghetto.  The Jews there armed themselves and resisted.  They held back the Germans for an entire month.  And then, they died.  Just being armed is in no way a protection against a well trained and well armed military.

There is also an argument floating around that if you take our guns away (which almost no one is proposing) only criminals would have guns.  So don't pass any laws because only citizens follow the laws.  Well isn't that the whole point of a legal system?  To hold everyone accountable?  Without laws, it would all be anarchy and chaos.  Just look to Somalia.  Therefore the must be another more sensible approach to this challenge

With regards to gun control, what I think really is going on is the central tension between rights and responsibilities.  For those who fall on the side of rights, they believe all rights to be inherent, and therefore there should be little if no restrictions on rights.

And yet, the Bill of Rights, which was an addendum to the Constitution, contains rights that can be restricted.  For example there are certain types of speech that are not permitted.  The classic example is of someone yelling "fire" in a crowded movie theater.  With regards to the free expression of religion, another "inherent' right,  is that any religion that would seek to engage in human sacrifice would equally be forbidden under the law as well.

Guns too also have certain limitations, like if someone has a felony conviction.  So already we can see rights are not as absolute as we might wish or believe them to be.

As a Jew, I tend to err on the side of responsibility.  The term mitzvah, though often mistranslated as 'good deed' really means commandment, or in modern terms, obligation or responsibility.
Therefore if we change the conversation to responsible gun-ownership in order to ensure rights, the conversation widens significantly.  I feel that every responsible citizen, with certain exclusions like felony convictions and mental illness does have the right to keep and bear arms.  But I also feel they these same gun owners also bear the burden to me as a fellow citizen to do it in a responsible fashion.

One of the analogies that comes up often are cars.  We are expected, under the law, to drive in a safe manner other wise we can be held accountable.  Our cars have to be periodically tested and insured.  Does everyone follow these laws?  Of course not, but the majority of Americans do.  Car sales are regulated and licensed .

And these are for machines of transportation, not even for machines with a singular purpose, which is to kill.  Guns are weapons.  That is their purpose.  We can use terms like 'self-defense' and 'sport' but their design is to kill.  This does not make them inherently good or evil, but is reflective of what they are.  They are weapons.  And as such, we should handle them with extreme care.

So if we have certain responsibilities when it comes to car ownership, shouldn't we expect similar levels of responsibilities when it comes to gun ownership?

I would think the people most angry when events like Aurora, Tucson, and Newtown take place would be legal gun owners.  These assaults represent, among other things, a direct assault on their rights.

And the only way we can continue to ensure the rights of citizens to keep and maintain firearms is by ensuring that it is done in the most responsible fashion possible.

I think it is fair to have debates about background checks for all gun purchases.  I think it is fair to hold gun dealers accountable when they sell guns to people they shouldn't.  I think it is fair to keep track of guns in the same way we keep track of cars and trucks.  I think it is fair to really have a conversation if it is necessary for the average citizen to be more well armed than the police.  Because these conversations are what responsible citizens do in order to continue to ensure the viability and the future of the rights we all hold so very dear.