Tuesday, August 4, 2020

Why the Selfies?

Why the selfies?

As you have no doubt noticed, I am not particularly handsome. I am not a brilliant photographer. I am not a celebrity. Not a star. No one special in the great scheme of things.
I decided a few years ago to share myself on social media in the areas where I am a little exceptional. I am an observant Jew who is more open to other kinds of people than most observant Jews. That is interesting. Nowadays I write poetry. I like to share little comments about the world and snippets of wisdom or thoughts that come to my hand. I have something to share, I think.
If you were my neighbor. You would see me taking down my garbage cans. You would see that I dress funny. Sometimes I dress very traditionally Jewish, sometimes kind of Moroccan and I wear lots of different kinds of hats. You would see books in my hand, Torah books, books of Sufi poetry, all sorts of books. You would see my ever-present phone and computer.

I would be a person among all the people you know. We are not static photographs in each other's minds. I am not fixed forever in my neighbor's mind dressed in my Shabbat robes. He has also seen me in my jeans. We are changing from day to day. So I let my images change with my mood or circumstance. I try to choose photographs that "say" something important about the guy you might encounter if you were here. Or maybe better, about something you might miss. Sadly we miss a lot about one another. Selfies can be a way to reveal those things. They are a double-edged sword. We can use the selfies to hide behind some ideal curated version of who we are or we can use them to reveal hidden faces. I hope and try to do the latter. I am sure I sometimes fall into the former.

So the "selfies" are mostly a way of putting "a face" to me.
Is it an expression of "ego?" Yes, to the extent that I have unilaterally decided that I am interesting enough to be worth sharing with the world. That is a fairly egotistical assertion and it is fair that I own it. My saving grace is that I am grateful that others choose to share themselves with the world too and just as i hope you have an authentic curiosity about me, I hope i have an authentic curiosity about you.

So how about you? How do you choose or not choose to use your own image?

Friday, July 31, 2020

So, Am I A Religious Fanatic?

So I am a religious fanatic?


The great Chassidic master, Rebbe Nachman said:
`Don’t be a fanatic. Serving God is not fanaticism. Those who run after worldly goods are the true fanatics. The world will consider you a lunatic if you abandon all worldliness in your quest for the Godly. This is said to be fanaticism. Yet even this is not necessary. You can serve God with restraint’
(Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom p.159).


Rebbe Nachman makes two points here. One is that there is no need to be extreme in the service of God. That is very powerful and I will return to it. The second point is very powerful too and tends to be overlooked.  Being a “fanatic” is not restricted to religion.  “Fanaticism” is extreme imbalance in any area of your life. So, while the world is pretty clear that someone who studies scripture and meditates for 18 hours a day is a “fanatic”, so is the person who works 18 hours a day, late into the night. It would seem extreme to meditate 6 hours a day but when the average American watches TV for 6 hours a day, we rarely call them a “fanatic.”  When people expend huge amounts of money on lavish rituals, they are fanatics.  If they expend that same money on golf fees or gourmet restaurants, we rarely call it fanaticism.  Rebbe Nachman’s point is that our tendency to extremism and imbalance is not restricted to religion. Oftentimes,  the label “religious fanatic” is not so much about the extent of the imbalance as in the area of imbalance.  Fanatic pursuit of wealth, and other forms of entertainment or self-satisfaction are rarely deemed fanatic, though clearly those pursuits have profound impact on a person’s life and well-being as well as the well-being of those around them.


Rebbe Nachman’s second point is that on really does need to avoid imbalance and extremism in the religious life. He is not cautioning against having an observant life but about pursuing extra stringencies. He recommended keeping Jewish law faithfully but without extra stringencies (except for one commandment, done with all the “extras”)


`It would be enough,’ he said, `if we were worthy of keeping all the Torah’s commandments according to the law, without going beyond it…. True devotion consists mainly of simplicity and sincerity. Pray much, study much Torah, do many good deeds. Do not worry yourself with unnecessary restrictions. Just follow the way of our forefathers. `The Torah was not given to ministering angels’ ‘(Talmud, Brakhot 25b)

-Rabbi Nachman’s Wisdom pp. 370f)


In practical terms, Rebbe Nachman recommends a moderate approach to religious observance defined by the parameters of Jewish law.  To be clear, this is not moderation defined by Protestant-influenced Western secularism.  To the Western eye, a moderate practice of Jewish law might still look pretty  “fanatic.”  Still, this message is powerful. It is a much needed corrective in the “frum (observant Jewish) world of today where there is an ever increasing tendency to embrace the most stringent religious opinions and extreme practices.  Religious practice seems to have embraced the materialist motto “more is better.”  Rebbe Nachman’s call to a sincere and simple practice of traditional Judaism defined by halacha (Jewish law) is certainly as salient today as when he made that call. The great danger is that one say will come to blame God for the torturous life-style we have created for ourselves in His name.

It also carries with it an air of judgment by which we tend to judge those less extreme as inferior or heretical. Remember though, that you can also be fanatically anti-fanatical as well.  So while the fanatic is branding you a heretic, you are branding the fanatic an imbecile or maniac. It all gets very messy.


Rebbe Nachman invites us to see extremism and imbalance as not just a religious problem but a human problem.  It is an approach to life that we can carry not only into our pursuit of spiritual goals but in our pursuit of just about everything. And in every area of life, it kills our happiness and squashes our souls.

Am I a fanatic? Sometimes more. Sometimes less. Like everyone, I struggle to find balance and moderation, not just in religion but in my other passions and pursuits.   I am content to be in the struggle and rarely with my victories.  The main thing is never to give up. Spoken like a true fanatic.



Sunday, December 10, 2017

What we have in common. A short list of values and principles shared by many Muslims and Jews.

We believe that God is a absolute simple unity without parts or likeness of any kind

We believe that God has communicated to man through prophets

We believe that we relate to God, even to know God’s will for us through the medium of law, through divine commandments revealed in scripture and understood through certain oral traditions and to varying degree logical reasoning. 

We believe that God cares as much about how we interact with other people as He cares about how we interact with him.

We believe in regular prayer at set times with set liturgy, a spiritual script said multiple times every day.

We believe that God wants us to dedicate ourselves to Him in all areas of our life including  things like eating, drinking,sleeping and marital relations

We believe that man is the “viceroy” of God in this world, the pinnacle of creation who bears a special responsibility for this world.

We believe that our actions matter,  and have implications that go beyond this life in the form of reward and punishment after death.

We believe that life is a  purposeful journey tailor made just for us, including its most difficult trials.

We believe that in matters of moral choice we are given free will by our Creator.

We believe that part of the mission of mankind is to create ever more perfect societies.

We believe that the property of other people is precious and that business should be done with the utmost of integrity.

We believe that our actions shape us and make us who we are.

We believe that giving to others in the form of both charity and acts of kindness are pillars of what it means to be truly human.

We believe that out of self-respect should come modesty and true humility.

We believe that the physical distinction between male and female is spiritually significant, giving rise to somewhat different practices for men and women and varying degrees of gender segregation when deemed appropriate.

We believe that religious action should be infused with intention.

We believe that the religion that God commands is moderate and balanced. Extremism, especially violent extremism, is an aberration and distortion of our faith.

We believe that peace is our highest value and that without it we are unable to enjoy the many gifts which God gives us.

We believe in supporting and defending the most vulnerable in society, the widows and orphans

We believe in engaging in a profound spiritual struggle with our lower selves and unworthy motivations and desires.

We believe that awe of God and love of God are both modes of service.

We believe that the highest calling of mankind is to be a servant or slave to God, that the greatest fruit of free will is to be obedient to God.

We believe that all greetings begin with peace and all prayers end with peace.

We believe that without the peace to enjoy we are collecting G-d’s blessings with a damaged vessel, a leaky bucket.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

The KKK / ISIS Analogy

An ancient Jewish hermeneutical principle teaches that the “mashal” is not like the “nimshal”  an analogy never completely matches that which is being analogized.  The semanticist Alfred Korzybski expressed this with the words “The map is not the territory.”  When we analogize two things we can expect significant overlap but not perfect correspondence. Here too in this meme (as many have pointed) the correspondence is not perfect.  Still I think the overlap is worth exploring and meaningful.

People have asked,  “Is it really fair to compare the KKK, a tiny fringe group who define themselves by  attitudes to race to ISIS which is enjoys wide popularity in the Muslim world and represents a legitimized, albeit repugnant to some, interpretation of Islam?”   Beneath this question are some problematic assumptions.  The KKK while now quite small was a major force in the reconstruction south. They were mainstream and politically powerful.  The KKK, even today, links its racist attitudes to Christianity. In fact, nearly all racist groups in America including the KKK espouse what scholars of American religion call “The Christian Identity Movement” which roots their racism solidly in Christianity.  To this day, the KKK uses the symbols of Christianity, the crusader cross on the uniform and the flaming crosses. The Christian Identity Christianity claims not just to be an authentic interpretation of Christianity but THE authentic interpretation of Christianity. The ADL estimates that there are 25,000-50,000 people who openly identify with this movement primarily in the US and Britain http://archive.adl.org/learn/ext_us/christian_identity.html  According to the ADL, they are heavily involved in criminal activity ranging from hate crimes so terrorism.  The CIA estimates that ISIS fighters number something less than 40,000. So even the numbers are not so incomparable.
But OK, so a bunch of hicks and skinheads believe some weird kind of Christianity but every one knows THIS is not Christianity.  Our Christian neighbors don’t believe this stuff but I am not so sure about the Muslims.  Get real, ISIS IS Islam.
Muslim scholar after Muslim scholar says it isn’t.  (Here are links to a few http://www.beliefnet.com/columnists/commonwordcommonlord/2014/08/think-muslims-havent-condemned-isis-think-again.html)  Like Judaism, the parameters of the religion  are not decided by popular vote but by scholarly convention.  If every major thinker in Islam says its not Islam it is not Islam.  Non-Muslims need to get the pain that Muslims feel at seeing their religion dragged in the mud and represented by a sheer brutality that Muslims reject. 
But do they really?
It is true that Muslim organization after organization has completely condemned ISIS,  but don’t people really support them? What about the Al Jazeera poll?  81% of Al Jazeera readers said they supported the victories of ISIS. Wow, that is scary. It would be if it were in any way a representative sample of anything. The Al Jazeera poll only appeared on the Arabic service  (the English service has a very different, wider audience and seems to have more autonomy than the Arabic service.)  It represents a very small sample even of the Arab world focused in the gulf states and Egypt. Al Jazeera Arabic is regarded as a propaganda arm of the Qatari leadership, suspected of being the bank rollers of ISIS. Reporters involved in the poll have resigned claiming that the poll was falsified. So the Al Jazeera poll is most likely tells us a lot about the anti-Shia hatred of a small powerful Sunni elite rather than some broad base of support for ISIS.
So the analogy is fair in the sense that both the KKK (and the Christian Identity Movement) and ISIS represent themselves as THE authentic representatives of their faith. In both cases this is a claim that is widely rejected by scholars of that faith. In neither case is their wide popular support.
When it comes to the potential danger of these two movements the analogy reaches its limits. The KKK and its allied groups appeal to a world of white privilege that has largely been dismantled by the civil rights movement and largely made irrelevant.  Christian Identity  will attract a small number of the disgruntled white working class in the US  and Britain but its appeal is very limited.   ISIS may have a broader appeal. ISIS pitches it’s call to action in two directions. It pitches to those in the Middle East who have faced the hopelessness, poverty and oppression of colonialism followed by tyrannical despotism. To them this vision of a  “Just” Islamic state may seem a plausible alternative to the politics of power and privilege. The other appeal is to the Muslim youth of the West conflicted by the seeming emptiness and rootlessness of Western civilization. Teens in the West are barraged with messages of empty despair about themselves.  One can never be beautiful enough. One can never own enough.  Intuiting the utter bankruptcy of this view of the world, youth may look for meaning in a cause.  ISIS and its allies stand at the ready, to recruit young people to what they describe as a life of meaning and heroic purpose.

The take-home message here?
We need to get that it is as painful for Muslims to see their religion represented by the ISIS as it would be for most Christians if the KKK or Skinhead churches were said to represent Christianity. That news agencies and other “officializing” media insist that ISIS is somehow a legitimate take on Islam feels unfair and hatefully discriminatory to Muslims.  The meme reminds us that we can legitimately see ISIS both as a band of religious crazies who, like the KKK, cloak their politics and their hatred in a perversion of faith.

We need to think very deeply about the ways that media uses ISIS to consistently dehumanize and indeed, demonize all Muslims.  What are the implications of these attitudes for our policies and actions as individuals, communities and nations.

Lastly, should we take ISIS seriously? YES, VERY SERIOUSLY. To do that we also need to think about the ground on which ISIS grows.  We need to examine our role in supporting a culture of despotism and hopelessness in the Middle East. We need to look at the ways in which we foster a culture of meaninglessness in the West.  

Rebbe Nachman of Breslov taught, “If you believe you can destroy, then believe you can fix.” 

The threat of ISIS is an invitation to fix the world, to create a world in which people seek heroism in doing acts of kindness in which people find meaning in service to humanity not the raw pursuit of power. ISIS sells false idealism and false hope. We need to sell real idealism and real hope.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Zayde raises his voice to tell a new story

There I was at the seder table at Passover looking just like the Zayde in the picture book. Long beard, white robe.  I looked at the book and saw what Zayde was proclaiming with such great glee and I was more than a little disappointed.  The book allows for an ambiguous reading.
"The bad goyim have always wanted to kill the Yidden." “Bad Goyim” here could mean bad non-Jews who want to kill Yidden versus good non-Jews who do not or simply that Goyim are by definition bad and want to “kill out” (Yeshivish for genocidal murder) the Yidden (Yiddish for Jews).  I believe the intent of the Hagadah is the first. There are indeed those in every generation who may hate Jews and despise our the ethical monotheism we stand for and try to destroy us and our message. God protects us and our mission from ultimate destruction. I deeply believe that.  At the same time, I think most children would read the words as "Goyim are bad and always want to kill Jews."  
       It is a familiar formulation of Jewish history.  They hate us and want to kill us.  The “they” is interchangeable. If we have friends among the nations for a time, they will one day be our enemies.   As Rashi brings down in his commentary on Genesis 33:4  “Halacha b'yadu'a Esav soneh l'Yaakov “  “It is the law and well-known that Esau hates Jacob.”  The enmities between Jacob and Esau,  Jews  and the European World, and Isaac and Ishmael, The Jews and Muslims, are eternal unchangeable facts of life and our history proves it. (Rashi, on the other hand, probably was commenting on the relationship of two brothers not presenting a template for history)

Even the gentile prophet Bilaam confirmed it.

As I see them from the mountain tops,
Gaze on them from the heights,
Behold it is a people that dwells alone,
Not reckoned among the nations. (Num. 23: 9)

A people that dwells alone!
We a lonely, pariah nation with no friends, no allies, perpetually hated and under siege. 

In an important essay*, Rabbi Jonathan Sacks shares what he calls an "epiphany" in which he realizes how dangerous this thinking can be and has been for the Jewish people.

He writes;
"If you define yourself as the people that dwells alone, you are likely to find yourself alone. That is not a safe place to be."

The Talmud explains that Bilaam’s blessings were really curses.  To be alone and isolated is no blessing.  Indeed, as Rabbi Sacks, points out one of G-d’s first comments to man is “Its not good for man to be alone.”

Rabbi Sacks takes his point further,

"To be different is not necessarily to be alone. Indeed, it is only by being what we uniquely are that we contribute to humankind what we alone can give. Singular, distinctive, countercultural – yes: these are part of the Jewish condition. But alone? No. That is not a blessing but a curse."

This vision of the world, our despised isolation and the inevitability of  Jew hatred colors everything from our personal interactions to Israeli foreign policy.
We have no real friends, only eternal enemies in the guise of fair-weather allies. The drive to isolation can look like the cowering ghettos of pre-war Europe or like the militaristic bravado of contemporary Jewish politics. Whether on the defense or the offense, that internalized sense of perpetual siege leaves us stunted and twisted.

Given this vision of the world we are lead to two social strategies, isolation or assimilation.  We can either segregate ourselves and protect our fragile world under siege or avoid the hate by giving up our identity.  The latter strategy is pretty successful in the United States, it would seem. But so it seemed to some in Germany as well.  When the Nazis came to power even the most assimilated German Jew was not safe.   As we are often warned, “You just wait. It can happen here too!” Neither isolation or assimilation are reliable refuge.

Isolation leaves us alone and vulnerable. Assimilation leaves us gone.

What is the third option?   We in the United States, at least, have the option of living robust, happy, enthusiastically observant Jewish lives while actively engaging our non-Jewish friends and neighbors in such a way as to help them appreciate who we are and what we stand for.  Jewish life need not be a mystery. How many of your non-Jewish colleagues have any idea what Shabbat means to you?  Do they know why you keep kosher?  Do they know what kind of God you believe in?  In my experience, most non-Jews know little about Judaism or what it means to be Jewish.

 Walls of distrust come down when people share who they are. In the strength of our own identity and groundedness  in faith, we are able to be open to others and to discover common values and concerns.  We can embrace the simple human beauty that the Torah boldly calls being in “the image of G-d” (so to speak)

Won’t this lead to assimilation?  Aren’t friendships and relationships just the precursors to assimilation and intermarriage. Maybe. Yet the walls of distrust have not prevented assimilation. It was this isolation that has driven the vast majority of Jewish people away from out faith.  They left the isolation but they took some with them. Ironically many very assimilated Jews prefer to live in fear that one day they will be “outed” or to identify with Israel’s plight as the “pariah” among  nation-states. They prove everyday that you can be assimilated and still be alone.

What prevents assimilation is the opportunity to live an authentic and happy Jewish life, fiercely proud of who you are and bold about sharing what you believe and what you care about.  It is to live, as much as possible, without fear. It is to preserve our tradition because it is precious not because we believe that it is in perpetual jeopardy at the hands of our non-Jewish neighbors.

I don’t deny there is plenty of genuine Jew-hatred in the world.  This year, in the wake of horrific attacks on Jews in Europe, no one would say there is not.  I don’t know that you can cure anti-Semitism completely but I do know that you can refuse to let it make you sick. Being hated is not an identity for a healthy people. 

Rabbi Sacks writes;
"To be a Jew is to be loved by God; it is not to be hated by Gentiles. Our ancestors were called on to be “a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.” The word kadosh, “holy,” means set apart. But there is a profound difference between being apart and being alone…"

This Zayde too raises his voice and beams with pride at his family and celebrates his Jewishness.  I too will assure my children of the survival and thriving of the Jewish people. I too will affirm my faith in God and gratitude for the mission He has given us. I will tell them that  embracing our holiness means re-embracing our mission to be a “light unto the nations”  not in some patronizing  way but in the way of teachers, friends and colleagues. It means  to share the wisdom of Torah and to be willing to hear its echoes in the voices of other peoples, other nations and even other faiths.


Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Hater's Handbook

 Many have wondered, "How can I possibly earn the coveted Jihadi Jew 'Hater of the Day' Award?" Here are a few simple guidelines for being a a more effective, and even award-winning hater. These very same principles, adapted for domestic use, can turn your very own home into a war zone.

1) Never refer to “them” by name.  Try “These people” or “You people.”

2) “These people” are two dimensional beings who only have one motive at a time “kill, kill, kill” or “Gimme, gimme, gimme.”

3) “These people” have no innocent children only enemies in training

4) When backed against a wall call them “baby killers.”

5) Reject any comparison as "moral equivalency" which is impossible because YOU are always RIGHT and THEY are always WRONG

6) Assume the worst at all times, ESPECIALLY in the presence of any evidence to the contrary.