Archive for January, 2013

Bumper Sticker Religion

Have you ever noticed the theological debate occurring on car bumpers? Cars are not only a mode of getting from here to there, but a billboard for expressing opinions and engaging in discussions on a variety of topics. Proud parents will paste something like this on their bumpers “Parent of an Honor Student at (fill in the blank) School.” The parent whose child is not quite as smart will counter with a bumper sticker that reads, “My child can beat up your honor student.” What has caught my attention is the religious discussion taking place on car bumpers.
It begins with the “Jesus fish.” I am sure you have seen this: a drawing of two curved lines intersecting in a way that creates a very simple picture of a fish. One story of its origin is that it was a way for early Christians to identify each other in times of persecution. One person might draw the top half of the fish in the sand, the other, if Christian, would complete the bottom half. In the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus refers to his followers as “fishers of men.” Further, the Greek word for fish apparently is an acronym for “Jesus Christ of God Son Savior.” In any case, the Jesus fish is a common symbol stuck on the backs of cars. The subtle version is just a fish with a cross where the eye would be. The more declarative version is the fish with the word “Jesus” in bold letters in the middle.
Here is where the debate gets interesting. The more scientifically minded are sporting a fish on their bumpers that has little feet on the bottom and the word “Darwin” emblazoned in the middle. This fish makes the statement that evolution trumps faith, or at least trumps the faith of those who take the first chapters of Genesis to be literal as opposed to metaphorical truth. The person displaying the “Darwin” fish probably believes that evolution is the opposite of faith in Jesus. But I have met Christians who do accept evolution as scientific fact. Where is their special fish? Perhaps it could be a fish with little feet on it but with “Jesus” written in the middle? Other Christians, however, have introduced a new fish into the debate. Their fish has the word “truth” in the middle and it is swallowing the footed “Darwin” fish. I would guess some theories are a little hard to digest.
There are other fish variations, each representing another group trying to join this bumper sticker conversation. There is a fat fish with the word “Buddha” in the middle. I first saw this fish about 10 years ago and I am still meditating on the connection between the fish and the Buddha. Buddhism is all about enlightenment, trying to recognize what is the false veil about the world in which we live. Buddhism is also about eliminating the barriers between the self and the rest of the world, seeing everything as a connected whole, attempting to free the self from the boundaries of ego and suffering. Perhaps the presence of “Buddha” inside a fish is a symbol of the interconnectedness of everything – but that seems a bit too deep for a plastic symbol pasted on the back of a car.
We Jews have a fish in this discussion as well. As you might expect, it has something to do with food. It is a fish with the word “gefilte” in the middle. Have you ever tried gefilte fish? I like it but many find it either too slimy or too fishy. I guess the deeper meaning of the Jewish fish is that if you put enough red horse radish on something, you can mask any flavor.
Expressions of “bumper sticker religion” go way beyond the various fish symbols. Between spending a lot of time behind cars and a little internet research, I have explored multiple religious bumper sticker slogans. You might have seen the sticker that announces “Jesus is my co-pilot.” Other religions have their response to this. Buddhists say “Buddha is my co-pilot.” Moslems say “Allah is my co-pilot.” Hindus say “Ganesh is my co-pilot.” What I have never seen is a corresponding bumper sticker for Judaism. I have to wonder why?
There could be no universal sticker for Judaism because of the different orientations of the different Jewish movements as to who or what the co-pilot might be. Orthodox Jews’ sticker would read “halachah (Jewish law) is my co-pilot.” For Chabad it might be “The Rebbe is my co-pilot.” The Conservative Movement’s bumper sticker would probably read something like “you only need a co-pilot if you are driving to synagogue on Shabbat.” Reform? Well it might say something like, “You get to make an informed choice as to who the co-pilot will be.” Reconstructionists would look for the new meaning in bothering to have a co-pilot and Renewal Jews would assert that we are all co-pilots.
I have to admit that I admire how Christian bumper stickers really put their beliefs about God out for all to see. Often they state something about how the Christian should be in relationship with God. For example, “Saved by Grace,” is a simple statement of basic Christian belief that salvation comes through the grace of God. Or this, “Die hard but die saved,” which I think is saying that the manner of your death is not as important as the state of your belief at the time of your death. Christian bumper stickers can be humorous like this one, “America needs a faith lift.” Clever if borderline politically incorrect. Lest you think that only jewish homes can house a princess, consider this bumper sticker, “Blessed by Jesus, spoiled by my husband.”
Yes, everyone is part of this bumper sticker religious discussion. Moslems say “Allah bless America.” Hindus say “yoga stretches the soul.” Even the atheists chime in with the mocking, “There is a sucker born again every minute.”
Jewish bumper stickers are rarely about theology. Usually they express something cultural or political. Our ethnic neuroses are exposed in stickers like, “I don’t need a shrink, my mother is Jewish.” I really like this one, “Genius on board – average student with Jewish mother.” “Never pay retail,” says one bumper sticker which is either an insult implying that Jews are cheap, or a compliment pointing out why so many Jews are indeed financially successful. My favorite one is, “Optimists see a bagel, pessimists see a hole.” It is Jewish because it focuses on food. It is Jewish because it gives a pithy truth, although if you think you can see a real bagel in Tallahassee you are truly an optimist.
But I think the real reason we Jews do not express theology through mobile symbols or signs is that serious Jews already know what the real symbols and signs are. They are Shabbat, which is called “a symbol for all eternity,” as well as tallit and tefillin, the ritual symbols Jews are commanded to wear as reminders to spend our day doing mitzvoth – the commandments. We are always supposed to be looking for the next opportunity to do a mitzvah, not for the next symbolic expression of hubris. Perhaps the first mitzvah we could perform would be to scrape all of the religious bumper stickers from the backs of cars. I wonder what debate that would start?

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But Is It Anti-Semitism?

But Is It Anti-Semitism?
A few weeks ago, the same day that Chuck Hagel was nominated to be Secretary of Defense, my cousin in Germany sent me a link to an article that describes a very hot topic. A well known liberal journalist, Jakob Augstein, was listed on the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s list of the 10 worst anti-Semites in the world. This is a serious charge anywhere, but especially in Germany, where relations with Jews and with Israel are taken quite seriously. When Audrey and I travelled in Germany last summer, we were impressed by the serious efforts of the Germans to preserve key Jewish institutions from pre-war Germany, as well as the educational efforts to teach rising generations about Judaism and Israel. Berlin, in particular, has fostered a renaissance in its Jewish community, which includes thousands of Israelis who find the atmosphere there quite welcoming. In this repentant Germany, a charge of anti-Semitism is quite serious, and the accusations against Augstein have caused quite a stir.
In checking the Simon Wiesenthal Center’s web site, here are some of the quotes they used to reach the conclusion that Augstein was number 9 on the list of the world’s top 10 anti-Semites:
a. “Gaza is a place out of the end of times…1.7 million people live there on 360 square kilometers. Israel incubates its own opponents there.”
b. “Israel is threatened by Islamic fundamentalism in its neighborhood. But the Jews also have their fundamentalists, the ultra-orthodox Haredim. They are not a small splinter group. They make up 10% of the Israeli population. They are cut from the same cloth as their Islamic fundamentalist opponents. They follow the law of revenge.”
c. “With backing from the US, where the president bust secure the support of the Jewish lobby groups, and in Germany, where coping with history, in the meantime, has a military component, the Netanyahu government keepsthe world on a leash with an ever swelling war chant.”
Allow me to take a moment to look at each quote. The first one (a) I see as common sense. The situation in Gaza is intolerable from many perspectives. While I completely support the right of Israelis to defend themselves against rocket attacks – really they have no choice in this – the long term outlook for Gaza is terrible. The living conditions there are indeed a breeding ground for terrorism. The real discussion is how much of the responsibility for this is Israel’s versus Hamas. But the essence of the statement given above is true.
I completely agree with the second quote (b). We saw an example of Jewish fundamentalist extremism late 2011 in Beit Shemesh, Israel. Ultra Orthodox men spit on an 8 year old girl going to school, calling her a prostitute because they felt her clothing was not modest enough. The little girl was dressed, in what by all reasonable standards, very modestly (long skirt, long sleeves). All religious groups have their fundamentalist, unreasonable component. I know that the Haredim in Israel are not strapping bombs around their waist and becoming suicide bombers, but they maintain attitudes most of us see as reprehensible in other religious groups. A dilemma occurs when an outsider such as Augstein criticizes Jews. Is our reaction just a knee jerk tribal response or is there a whiff of anti-Semitism in his remarks?
If so, it comes only in the third quote, specifically by the use of the term “Jewish lobby,” the term which has gotten Chuck Hagel into trouble. This is a loaded term that insinuates some kind of Jewish conspiracy or control. But we need to ask, is this enough to classify someone as an anti-Semite? Especially when compared to number 10 on the Wiesenthal Center’s list, Louis Farrakhan. Here are some of his quotes:
a. “Jews control the media. They said it themselves…In Washington right next to the Holocaust Museum is the Federal Reserve where they print the money. Is that an accident?”
b. “Brothers and sisters, you’ve gotta stop being guided by the controlled media that is owned by Zionist forces that want to make you pawns in the struggle of Israel and Zionism.”
These quotes reflect attitudes right out of the fictional “Protocols of the Elders of Zion.” They perpetrate all of the fictional canards about Jewish control over banking, over media as part of the so-called Jewish conspiracy to control the world. Farrakhan is without question anti-Semitic. So I have to ask if Augstein is in this category?
Much of Augstein’s comments are criticisms of the Israeli government. In a debate with Dieter Grauman, the President of the Central Council of Jews in Germany, hosted by the German magazine, “Der Speigel,” he defends his remarks by saying he is not anti-Semitic, but just voicing criticism of Israeli policy that is coming from many sources including Israeli journalists. Grauman counters that it is Augstein’s selection of language, and he gives a number of examples, that makes his comments anti-Semitic. Grauman points out very correctly, that some phrases act as code words to Jews, invoking terrible emotions and images. Augstein essentially argues that he is just being a detached journalist, and should a journalist, who happens to be German, be more circumspect in his criticism than an Israeli, a French or a Dutch writer? For the full text of a very interesting debate, use this link:
<a href="//http://www.spiegel.de/international/germany/dieter-graumann-and-jakob-augstein-debate-anti-semitism-controversy-a-877427.html" Their discussion highlights a real problem. At what point is criticism of Israel anti-Semitic? The Wiesenthal Center classifies anti-Israel the same as anti-Semitic in the heading of their list. I really question if this is a fair equivalence. The extremes are easy to identify, but does someone like Augstein, or Hagel for that matter, deserve the label of anti-Semite because of an unartful, crude comment? Are we Jews so hyper sensitive to any criticism that we have lost sight of what is real prejudice? Here is the really big question: is the plethora of Jewish watchdog organizations really helping us or are they starting to work against Jewish interests?
An internet search reveals an alphabet soup of organizations dedicated to fighting anti-Semitism. It is fair to ask if we need all of them. Do we need the Wiesenthal Center along with the ADL (personally I favor the ADL for some historically courageous stands). What about the myriad of other watchdog and educational organizations? At what point are these groups just diverting money from the institutions needed to maintain vibrant Jewish community structure, such as synagogues, federations, Jewish Community Centers, and Jewish Day Schools? Do some organizations need to hype anti-Semitism in order to justify fundraising? I do not really have an answer, but the question needs to be asked.

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Segregation or Tradition

Segregation or Tradition

                This past Friday (January 11) I moderated a panel for the Village Square’s “Faith, Food, and Friday” series titled “The Most Segregated Hour of the Week?”  This phrase was how Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. referred to 11 AM on Sundays , at which Christian worship in this country has traditionally been segregated.  As the Jewish presence on the “Faith, Food, and Friday” panels, I volunteered to moderate this segment because I felt this was not really a Jewish issue and I could be an objective manager of the conversation.  After all, what segregation really occurs in Jewish congregations?  Yes, in Orthodox shuls women sit separate from men, but if you are Jewish you go to a synagogue regardless of denomination.  Yes there are separate Sephardic and Ashkenizic congregations and of course the minhag (customs) in each vary, but even that traditional demarcation is fading away, as I know many traditionally Sephardic congregations that have significant Ashkenazic membership and every synagogue (including my own) has Sephardic members.  As I said, if you are Jewish you go to shul, no matter what race or country of origin you might be.

                Prepping for the panel included a meeting with Dr. Richard Mashburn, the associate pastor of Bethel Missionary Baptist Church, the largest and most historic African American congregation in Tallahassee.  The hour plus we shared over lunch was one of the most instructive I have spent in a very long time.  Dr. Mashburn, who is 75, has a combination of incredible life experiences (including 20 years as a colonel in the military and first hand brushes with vehement racism), education, wonderful humor and an all-around beautiful soul.  He is also blunt.  When I asked him what historical forces shaped the development of the black churches, his one word answer was, “racism.” 

But he told me so much more.  For African Americans, the time spent on Sunday mornings in church, apart from white bosses, white prejudice, and white domination was like time spent in heaven.  For a population in the 19th and much of the 20th centuries faced with a work week of drudgery and hardship, Sunday church was a major respite.  Participants dressed in their very finest clothing (and still day – no jeans or informal clothing in these churches) and experienced a dignity denied to them in the white world.  The amazingly rich, soulful and joyful musical sounds are born of these emotions as well as the dynamic preaching style accompanied by vocal congregational feedback.  Suddenly I realized this was very much like a Jewish experience.  I remembered the Kabbalists of the 15th and 16th centuries, having been forced out of Spain, finding their way to Palestine, and eking out a miserable, difficult subsistence.  Shabbat was the time in Eden, a taste of the world to come.  Suddenly I felt connected to this discussion in a very profoundly Jewish way.  When people are in a time of struggle, when life itself is a constant battle just to survive;  escapes into a different reality are what not only keeps one sane, but human.

During the panel discussion we discussed the future.   So many barriers have now fallen, most significantly the barriers to interracial dating and marriage.  Dr. Mashburn pointed out that at all family gatherings assisted by the church (for example funerals), there are white members of the extended family present.  Further, African Americans are themselves moving into different, more integrated churches.   Dr. Mashburn pointed out to me that many of the younger, more financially successful, professional African Americans, do not like many of the aspects of worship in the traditional African American church. 

One of our regular panelists is the founding pastor of a church not even 10 years old, and hers is far more integrated than most main stream churches.  Everyone professes to have “open and welcoming” congregations, but the real integrated worship is in the younger congregations, because the generations behind mine care a lot less about the divisions that used to bother us. They care less about race, about homosexuality; about a host of other items that are “issues” for the older generations.  So their religious institutions are far more integrated.  People are coming together more and more. 

And this is a good thing, to a point.

I realize that the word “segregation” carries a lot of baggage.  We associate it with segregated schools, with separate public facilities for blacks and whites.  Yet, there is a disturbing aspect to the breaking down of segregated worship.  Do we really want a world in which all of us become more or less the same, that is part of a kind of amalgamated uniform group?  If the richness and emotional power of worship in the black church fades away, we will have lost something very precious.  As I thought about this, I realized the same problem faces the Jewish community as well.

This country has been fantastic for Jews.  Yet, because it is so welcoming, meaningful expressions to Jewish continuity are on the wane.  There are many dynamics at work here.   Some of them have to do with the graying of traditional religion in general.  Some of them have to do with the willingness of young generations to accept things we would not.  Some has to do with the availability of everything and anything on the internet.  Some has to do with the secularization of wider swaths of American society.  Some has to do with the increased focus on individual versus community fulfillment.  Some has to do with intermarriage.  All of these are topics worthy of their own conversations. 

But it would be a sad thing for the world to lose its Jews.  It would be a sad thing for Jewish thought, literature, spirituality and learning to gradually disappear.  It would be a sad thing for the only vestige of Judaism to be bagels and chicken soup.  It would also be a sad thing for the world to lose the institution of the African American church.  That institution has meant so much to the development of the African American community.  It is a source of inspiration spiritually and musically.  The question is, can we preserve ethnically based religious experience and still create a community in which we work together?

And that is the ideal.  There are issues facing our communities that go beyond the barriers of culture, religion and/or race.  At the program last Friday, Pastor Brant Copeland pointed out that the ideal would be for us to work on issues without barriers, yet continue to preserve the beauty and uniqueness of our  individual worship traditions.  I do not know the answer.  I just have this question; how much is segregation necessary to preserve our traditions? 

Here is the link to the program “The Most Segregated Hour of the Week?”


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Taxes and Tzedakah

The agreement passed by both houses of Congress last week in order to avoid the “fiscal cliff” has started to take some over a rhetorical cliff. I cannot say that I really understand the nitty gritty of what was passed, but there are no shortage of experts who seem willing to explain it to me. Of course there is a wide range of thought over the consequences of the tax deal. A fair amount of buzz arose around this tweet from Ari Fleischer, “I increased donations to charity in 2012. This deal limits my deductions so I, and many others will likely donate less in 2013.” I have a hard time imagining that Fleischer did not realize that sparks would fly once this tweet was circulated.
The positions line up exactly where you think they would. Left wingers can hardly keep from calling Fleischer a variety of names. “Miserly” would be one of the kinder ones. The “Wall Street Journal” ran an article on how the new tax provisions would decrease charitable giving. On the other hand Professor Len Burnam of Syracuse University ran an article in “Forbes” explaining how it would not affect charitable giving and might even increase it. Rather than have a conversation that circles around the tax code, or around whether Fleischer is a realist or Scrooge, why not have a different kind of conversation? Let’s have a conversation about the kind of values we want our community to express. Jewish tradition has a LOT to say about that.
We can start with Deuteronomy chapter 15. In the course of describing some of the laws regarding the sabbatical year and sh’mitah (remission of loans), we are told not to tolerate poverty. Indeed, verse 8 says to “open your hand” and lend that person a sufficient amount for whatever he needs. Notice the command is to lend, not give. Picking up on this, the Talmud teaches “Rabbi Abba said in the name of Rabbi Simeon b. Lakish, ‘He who lends is greater than he who performs charity.’” A reason given for this is that someone in need may feel shame in accepting charity. By extending a loan, we are preserving the recipient’s dignity and showing trust that it will be paid back. Note this would be an interest free loan (per Exodus 22:24), so the lender would be losing the potential profit from investing his capital in something else. But that is not all the lender would lose. The sabbatical year is the year of sh’mitah. Any unpaid loan is forgiven. Deuteronomy 15:9 specifically directs us not to turn away from lending what a poor person needs, even if the sabbatical year is approaching.
Charity (tzedakah) is also commanded by Torah (an example is Leviticus 19:9,10). Contrary to the approach encouraged by American culture in which we gauge our donations by how much of a tax break we receive, charity is an obligation for everyone under Jewish law. In the Talmud we are told, “Even a poor man who lives off charity should perform acts of charity.” (Gittin 7a) That is very much in tune with the political conservatives’ belief that everyone in society should have “skin in the game.” Jewish tradition agrees but with some significant qualifiers. The highest reward for the performance of the mitzvah of giving charity is the opportunity to do the mitzvah. The reward is certainly not a tax break, nor is it even necessarily a better place in the world to come. It is the joy of having, for that moment, come into consonance with God through the act of giving. Any reward is dependent upon the extent of kindness in the act of giving (Sukkah 49b). That seems obvious. The better you feel about your giving, the more fulfulled you feel. If you give grudgingly, you resent the act and look for some other kind of reward from it. Further, one must respond to need immediately, without delay (see a great story about Nachum Ish Gamzu, Ta’anit 21a on the consequences of delaying your response to need). From this perspective, the delays in Congress in responding to the needs of victims of Hurricane Sandy are reprehensible.
Finally, all of this is done because we are aware of being part of a larger community. We are part of the community and have obligations to the community. The longer we live in a community, the greater our obligations to the community. Contemporary American culture pushes us more and more to be focused on the self. Jewish tradition honors individuality, respects individual rights, yet places them in the context of our membership in the wider community. “When the community is in trouble, let not a man say, ‘I will go to my house and I will eat and drink and all will be well with me.’” (Ta’anit 11a)
A discussion framed by tax codes and the personal benefits of charitable giving really misses the bigger point, which is best described by another, wider meaning of the word tzedakah. For tzedakah also means “righteousness” and “justice.” I want to know how to better implement these values. How do we promote morality in our communal actions? How do we promote a just society? These are conversations worth having.

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Why Bother?

Another blog, why? Why indeed should I bother to add one more voice to the conversations happening on the internet? I have thought a lot about whether to go ahead and do this, or to not bother. Am I really all that much smarter than the next person? Do I really think my perspective is so very different that people must read my words? In deciding to start this venture I did vacillate between a sense that blogging is an expression of ego, versus the thought that I might actually have something to contribute to the conversation. Clearly I decided to go ahead and here is why.
I have the privilege to be the rabbi of the main Jewish congregation in the capital of the fourth largest state in the United States. In fact, Temple Israel is the largest Jewish congregation along the I 10 corridor, west of Jacksonville and east of New Orleans. Because of the confluence of state government and two major universities, this is an intensely interesting city in which to serve. I am involved in a lot and I observe a lot. On the one hand Tallahassee is in many ways a progressive community, yet in others it is very conservative. As to Jewish presence, will let’s just say this is the “other Florida,” the one to which most Jews do NOT retire. The surrounding culture is very Christian so many of my involvements involve interfaith matters. Many times I am the spokesperson for the Jewish community. This is the deep south and I am an unabashed Yankee. So the first reason I decided to start this blog is to share a perspective born of the position fate has allowed me to occupy.
Further, I am dismayed by the tone of discussions that now exists. Whatever the media, I see lots of anger and lots of just plain craziness. Here are two examples. First, in the aftermath of the tragic shootings at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Connecticut, AOL ran a rare editorial outlining a recommended course of action to address violence and shootings. They invited comments and the first comment posted said that all “automatic” weapons should be banned. The second comment called the first commentator an idiot for not knowing what an automatic weapon really was. Subsequent comments descended into an ever angrier tone with people mocking and swearing at each other. Is the internet really just a tacit permission to write what you would never say in polite society? If so, how very sad.
My second example comes from inside the Jewish world. I read an article regarding the practice of metzitzah (the mohel sucking the blood of circumcision off of the wound as part of the ceremony of circumcision). Health authorities have determined this is a very dangerous health hazard and should be discontinued. I would imagine most people would be horrified at the very thought of this practice occurring. The article was well thought out and made good points about why discontinuing this practice should not even be an issue any more. Yet some of the commentary, rather than yielding to the findings of modern medicine, tried to use Jewish law to justify continuing what is clearly archaic and irrational (if you disagree I am happy to have the halachic argument another time). For some of the discussants it seemed that displaying facility in the methods of arguing Jewish law was taking precedence over just plain common sense.
My point is there is a lot of anger, a lot of irrationality, and a lot of unreasonableness – especially on the internet. My goal is to be an open minded, reasonable observer, hopefully with a touch of humor, helping to balance the scales just a little bit. I imagine a scale with two pans (like the scales of justice) with each side being loaded with opinions. On the one side is all the nastiness, the unwillingness to consider another perspective. On the other side are the voices of reason. I just want to be one of the voices loaded onto the “reasonable” side.
I have named this site “The Jewish Observer.” I am Jewish and will make observations. This is also my way to give just a little kavod (honor) to former New York Times columnist Russell Baker, who used to title his wonderful and witty column “Observer.” For years he was my favorite columnist. If you end up reading this, I hope you will enjoy.

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