Thursday, May 29, 2014

Why the Fights are so Vicious...

According to a recent article in the Jewish Daily Forward Orthodox Rabbi Stuns Agudath Gala With 'Heresy' Attack on Open Orthodoxy Rabbi Yaakov Perlow, the Novominsker rebbe and the rabbinical head of Agudath Israel was quoted as saying, "“The Torah must be guarded from the secular forces that seek to corrupt its values and the lives of [Jews], from intruders who sometimes in the name of Judaism completely subvert and destroy the eternal values of our people.”

This quote was in reference to the Open Orthodox founded by Rabbi Avi Weiss. Rabbi Weiss has also founded the yeshiva Chovevei Torah, whose teachings are dedicated to Halacha and modern observance Avi Weiss

We should note that New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio was in attendance at the event where Rabbi Perlow made these remarks. It was an evening dedicated to the Mayor’s vision of universal preschool, in which the yeshivot would play a significant role.

What is interesting in part, about Rabbi Perlow’s remarks is he is now turning his venom towards Modern Orthodox Jews having written of Reform and Conservative Jews altogether. And what he is implying is that Jews who are not ‘Jewish’ enough, in his eyes, are the greatest evil that Judaism faces today.

My article started with the title, “The fights are so vicious.” The rest of the quote, which comes to us from the academic world is, “because the stakes are so low.” I mean this somewhat tongue in cheek. Proportionally , there are very few of us in the world today, and I am distressed by how much time we devote to attacking one another.

It fascinates me how much time is devoted by the more “observant” to denigrating those not like them. It is not as if we in the Jewish world don’t have serious enemies like anti-Semitism around the world or the so-called BDS Movement, which is seeking to eradicate the State of Israel. Instead this man is focused on attacking his fellow Jews.

I used to be bothered by what the Ultra-Orthodox had to say because in my younger years, I deep down believed that somehow they might possibly be more ‘authentic.’ And then I realized, their devotion to the word of the law often contradicts the spirit of the law. They are so devoted to following Halacha, to the detriment of others that they have forgotten God’s central mitzvah of, “You shall be holy, for I the Lord Your God am holy” (Leviticus 19:1-2).

Rabbi Perlow’s hateful words definitely sting. He is using them to attack a man in Rabbi Weiss, who I have had the pleasure of studying with and learning from. Rabbi Weiss has a vision of an openly pluralistic observance deeply rooted in tradition, and he is not deserving of such an attack.

More than that, when one begins spewing hate in the name of God, I feel they are the true transgressors. Thankfully for Rabbi Perlow, Yom Kippur is coming up in just a few months. This is good because he certainly has both some teshuvah and explaining to do because he is clearly missing out on understanding the true eternal values of our people.

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Predicting the Unpredictable


I am fascinated by predictions. Thankfully in today's 24 news cycle, predictions abound. Part of what is so fascinating about all of these predictions is how often they are wrong. And not just wrong, but wildly wrong. What is so fascinating about this, is that, more often than not, those making the predictions have little basis on which to make their supposed predictions. This in turn helps to explain why they are so often wildly wrong.

The ones most often associated with wrong predictions are meteorologists. However I don't think we give them enough credit for their knowledge base, the complexity of predicting the weather, and how we often do not understand what it is they are predicting. For example a 40% chance of rain prediction does not mean that it is 40% likely to rain, but that given the current model, it rains 40% of the time. Which means it is pretty likely that it will rain.

On a personal note, this past brutal winter in Baltimore, I 'discovered' on the internet a meteorologist who was hands down, the best at predicting snowfall. He did not always get it right, but he was more right than most. So when there was snow predicted, guess who I turned to...

Having just completed the NFL draft, I often wonder: why do we not evaluate the predictions of the 'experts' two, three, five years down the road? It is one thing to predict whether or not someone will be drafted, it is another to predict whether or not they are an NFL talent. Teams live and die by getting these predictions right. Why don't we ask the same of the on-air talent who make the same predictions? It would at least help us to know who is really worth listening to.

In Jewish tradition our ancestors turned to prophets and sages for their advice and predictions. One of the most well known was Jonah, who was greatly concerned not that his predictions of doom and gloom would come true to the Ninevites, but that instead they would listen and heed his warning. Thus resulting in a 'failed' prophecy. Most prophets did not want their predictions to come to fruition, save for those during and after the Babylonian Exile.

What they wanted was for the people to heed their words and do instead what was right in the eyes of God. They were not in it for their own glory, but instead for the betterment of Israel.

So too we should ask ourselves, are those whose predictions we follow really in the business of helping make society better or are they in it for their own glory? Often you can tell the difference based on how accurate their predictions really are.

Tuesday, May 6, 2014

Prayer and Public Spaces


I grew up in Houston, Texas. And though it frustrates some of my friends, I am proud to call myself a Texan. Texas is one of the only states in the U.S. that just about everyone else in the world has heard of. I don't know if this is because of the TV Show Dallas or simply because of our hubris as Texans. Or perhaps a combination of both.

They say there are three religions in Texas: God, Football and family, usually in that order. For those of you fans of Friday Night Lights, you get the sense of just how important football is both is small town and in big cities.

It is a tradition in Texas to start every high school football game off with a prayer. I know this because I was in marching band all throughout high school. Every Friday night, everyone in the stands would rise for the prayer before the game. The prayer usually asked God to help keep the players safe (which I find very fascinating because they are engaged in a game built on the premise of hitting other people really hard), and to make sure that it is a good game representative of the best values of both schools. No problem so far. But inevitably the prayer would either begin or end in Jesus name.

Eventually I stopped rising for the prayer, which led to conflicts within fellow members of my marching band. They were upset because they felt I was disrespecting their religious tradition, and I was upset because I felt the Christian emphasis at a public, non-religious event was disrespecting me as a Jew. I still feel that sting to this day. The ability to enjoy the game and be an active participant was taken from me not because I was in a church, but because I was in a stadium.

This is part of the reason why I am deeply concerned about the Supreme Court's recent ruling regarding Town of Greece vs. Galloway. The heart of the ruling according to the LA Times is, "that the Constitution does not require government-sponsored religious invocations to be 'addressed only to a generic God.' The 5-4 opinion puts the court's stamp on a trend in conservative communities to include more overtly religious references in public meetings."

As the article goes on to say, "Speaking for the majority Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, said those who 'feel excluded or disrespected' by such religious invocations could simply ignore them. 'Adults often encounter speech they find disagreeable.'" So basically his argument is the majority rules and if a public meeting in the public interest demonstrates a commitment to a religious tradition other than your own, tough.

I feel the central argument is part of a larger false narrative which is the United States as a Christian nation. When in fact it was founded in part by Christians seeking asylum from religious persecution. Many of the founding fathers of our nation believed in God, but some were Deists, others agnostic, and some varying denominations of Christian. What they all had in common was the belief of not forcing a religion onto the population akin to centuries of tradition in Europe.

As a religionist, I have no issue with God being invoked in meetings, and I have even been invited to do my share of invocations. What I have an issue with is use of an exclusionary God which removes a minority of people in attendance. As a democratic society it is not the responsibility of the majority to force their beliefs on the minority, but instead the opposite should be true. The vast majority of Americans do believe in God and in a personal relationship with God. But how we express that is so incredibly personal, why take that away when engaged in public discourse is so beyond me.

Needless to say I am saddened by the Supreme Court's ruling. I just hope they don't say a word when a prayer in offered up in the name of Allah or Vishnu or Zeus or Satan or HaShem, because that would only make them hypocrites.