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Archive for April, 2013

Buried under the media coverage of the tragedy at the Boston Marathon last week, and the subsequent manhunt, was the defeat of a number of gun control measures in the Senate last Wednesday. Most telling of all was the defeat of a provision to expand required background checks to people purchasing at gun shows and on the internet. This provision was an attempt to prevent those with mental illness and criminal records from buying guns through these currently unregulated avenues.

In the aftermath of the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, CT last December that left 20 children and 6 adults dead, the background check legislation was the one piece that seemed to have a chance of passage. Indeed, one could see problems with most of the proposals floated, by both the right and the left, but tightening background checks has been supported by the vast majority of Americans in poll after poll. A recent CNN poll indicated that increased background checks were favored by 86% of Americans, and a Washington Post/ABC poll showed that 86% of gun owners supported this as well. This all means that the NRA, who purports to represent gun owners, is out of step with their own constituency.

But not really.

One has to remember that gun owners, sportsman, and recreational shooters are no longer who the NRA represents (see previous blog post “It’s Not About the Guns” from February 20). No, the NRA is merely a shill for gun manufacturers. Their opposition to background checks, along with their congressional allies, purportedly arises out of a concern that they would not work, only lawful owners would comply. In addition the old hue and cry over the curtailment of 2nd amendment rights is raised as though this misinterpreted amendment was a direct decree from God and not the pens of 18th century humans, who could have no concept of the consequences their writing would bring. Both of these objections ring very false.

The bill proposed by senators Manchin (D, W. VA) and Toomey (R. PA), while targeting gun shows and internet sales, exempted gun transfers between family members and friends. This exception, designed to attract support from NRA types, is the main flaw with the legislation. But no provision will ever suffice for the NRA and its minions. The only way for any industry to grow is to expand sales. The expansion of gun sales is at cross purposes to creating a safer community. ANY impediment to selling a gun is going to be opposed by the NRA because it is the safeguard of profits for its backers.

Despite the flaws with this particular background check bill, if it would even prevent a tiny amount of killings, dropping the number of deaths by guns from 30K to 29.5K, it is worth enacting. Kowtowing to the NRA’s radicalism is costing human lives. Are they really worth the increased profits of gun companies? The Talmud teaches us that “to save a single life is as if one has saved an entire world.” Extending and strengthening background checks, even if imperfectly, seems a small price to pay for any lives saved.

What about 2nd amendment concerns? There is legitimate debate whether the 2nd amendment is a guarantee to all citizens to own weapons or just to maintain a citizen militia. Even the Supreme Court, however, while holding the 2nd amendment establishes the rights of citizens to own guns, does not strike down the government’s authority to regulate that ownership, much like we regulate owning cars. For our political leaders to not step up and begin a process to curb the uncontrolled distribution of guns is more craven than the NRA’s blatant lobbying for gun manufacturers. Senators and congressmen are elected to represent the best interests of the people – and 86% seem to agree on what is their best interest. It seems just plain wrong for Congress not to be on board.

President Obama was right. Their actions were shameful. I would characterize those senators blocking expansion of background checks as dancing on the graves of the 26 killed in Newtown in December. Shame on them.

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Afraid of Sharia?

A bill is making its way through the Florida Senate, SB 58, whose stated intent is to limit the influence of foreign laws in American courts. This sounds benign enough on the surface, but upon examining the bill, and its sponsor, multiple red flags appear. Lawyers will point out that legislation of this sort presents problems of interference between the branches of government. After all, don’t our judges know what is or is not admissible into their courtrooms? Should they not have the latitude to decide what is relevant to a case? Further, there is the question of how a state can enforce a law that affects federal courts. But all of this is for the lawyers to argue. For me, there is a question of intent behind this law that reveals a rather scary mind set.

The bill is sponsored by Senator Alan Hays. He previously introduced a bill, that failed, which mentioned Sharia law in particular. When asked to give an example of Sharia law influencing an American court, his response was to compare his legislation to inoculating against a disease. In other words, he had no examples. His legislation is born out of his fear of a word – Sharia – which given the history of the past 12 years in the United States has become a rather radioactive word.

Sharia is to Islam what Halachah is to Judaism and Canon law is to the Catholic Church. A key difference, however, between Sharia and Halachah on the one hand, and Canon law on the other, is that neither Islam nor Judaism have a central institution or leader whose interpretation of law binds all members of the faith. The Church is an ecclesiastic authority headed by the Pope, and all Catholics have an obligation to follow the law as interpreted by that authority. Whether they do or not is another issue, but the authority exists.

In Judaism the authority of each rabbi in his (or her) community is to be respected by other rabbis. There is certainly a long tradition of fierce debate and argument over the application and interpretation of Jewish law among rabbis, but once a rabbi makes a decision for their community, visiting rabbis are obliged to respect that decision. This ideal is not the reality, as there are fierce divisions between the various streams of Judaism; thus an ongoing argument over whose interpretations are authentically Jewish. This just underscores the fact that NO rabbinic authority can claim to speak for all Jews. Even within denominations there is politicization over the exercising of authority. The Orthodox rabbinate in Israel, for example, is not recognizing conversions by all American orthodox rabbis – to the consternation of the American orthodox rabbinate. Further complicating this scene are the ethnic differences between Jews from various regions. The minhagim (customs) of Ashkenazic, Sephardic, Greek, and Yemenite Jews, just to name a few, are very different. There is no unified Jewish voice on halachah.

The same can be said of Sharia law. Interpretation of Sharia varies in Islam according to the stream (e.g. Sunni and Shia), according to geography and according to time. All of Islam agrees that the Quran and the teachings of the prophet are the law, but the interpretation of verses of the Quran depends on the cleric and the perspective of the group he is leading. Islamic law, like Jewish law, is a living organism, that is evolving with time. New circumstances require new insights into the divine word of each religion. What is fair for Americans to ask, and what Moslems (and Jews) can answer is this: what is the relationship of your religious law (Sharia, halachah) to American law?

For Jews, halachah holds sway for religious ritual, but for criminal, tort and civic law the law of the land prevails. Most Jewish authorities see no conflict between the basic values, basic ethics that drive halachah and American law. We see them as compatible. The American Islamic community takes a very similar perspective. American Moslems see the underlying values and ethics of Sharia reflected in the underlying values and ethics of American law. There is no need for the United States to adopt Sharia law as basic American values make it possible for Moslems to practice their religion freely in the United States. In some areas where Islamic law allows a practice that is not in accordance with American law, the Moslem community does not ask for an exception. An example of this is polygamy, which is allowed under Sharia. It is rarely practiced but it is allowed. American Moslems happily conform to American law.

So what drives Senator Hays and others who seem so afraid of Sharia? It is a conflation of all of Islam under one heading – one that defaults to the harshest applications of Sharia. What is lost on Senator Hays, and those who fear Sharia, are the many Moslem scholars who see these applications (or misapplications) of Sharia as shallow, literal, and not moral. Ironically, Senator Hays, in his arguments for his bill, heavily quotes Rabbi Jonathan Hausman, rabbi of Ahavath Torah in Stoughton, MA. Rabbi Hausman aligns himself with the Dutch politician Geert Wilders, who, among other things, wanted to make the construction of mosques in the Netherlands illegal. Hausman has spoken at an affair co-hosted by the JDL – the Jewish Defense League – whose founder, Meir Kahane embraced the physical expulsion of all Moslems from Israel and the West Bank before his murder by an Arab gunman in 1990 in Manhattan. It is not surprising that the most radically violent wing of the Jewish world would characterize the entire Islamic world as violent radicals (that is, after all, what radical Moslem groups do – characterize all of the Jewish world by the actions of its most radical elements). What is disconcerting is that an American politician would draw on the fringe of any group to support a law that could have devastating effects on Americans of all types.

That is what makes the mindset so scary. When we react to the cartoon version of a word/concept/belief as opposed to making the effort to research and understand it, the result will be destructive; not only to the party it is intended to harm, but to others in society as well. To pass a law for which there has been no demonstrated need, just a reaction out of fear and ignorance, creates a potential for harm to be done to all Americans.

Post script: In doing some research for this post I have been struck by the many parallels and similarities between Jewish law, halachah, and Islamic law, Sharia. More on this to come.

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Digital Shabbat?

I admit I was not excited about the topic of last week’s “Faith, Food, and Friday” session: “The Church of Facebook, Worship in the Digital Age.” After tackling issues such as same sex marriage and the intersection of faith and politics, this seemed a tepid topic; potentially a real snooze. Moreover, what could I add to the conversation? I see social media as useful, but not something I enjoy using (OK, stop snickering as you read this blog). I am competent but not an expert in the use of computers and the internet. I am not a Luddite who wishes for the good old days of manual typewriters. I like the conveniences that computers provide (like everyone else I cannot imagine doing my work without one). So I wondered what could generate a real discussion around religious organizations using modern technology? Boy was I wrong.

Let’s start with Dean Inserra, pastor of City Church, which uses all cutting edge technology and social media to engage and promote the church. He is blunt with his comments that churches (or synagogues) that do not recognize how the social networks and internet have changed community and communication are doomed to fail. He aggressively tweets, texts, posts on Facebook to get out his message of the Gospels. Rather than fight congregants who bring their iphones to church, he engages them through their iphones as they use their Bible apps to follow the Biblical readings and sermons. Don’t fight the presence of technology, he says. Use the technology as a way for them to participate in the service.

I have colleagues who agree with Dean completely. At a synagogue in Miami Beach, one young rabbi conducted High Holiday services and urged worshippers to text their feelings which were posted on a screen in the front of the sanctuary. Other colleagues are using the new prayer book app to conduct Shabbat services, displaying everything on a large screen in the front of the sanctuary thus eliminating the need for siddurim (prayer books). Here is where I find I have something to say. Is all of this just utilizing technology to better engage Jews in services, or, are we losing something that is essential to being Jewish? Maybe I am just showing my age, but I believe the latter.

Shabbat (the Sabbath) is supposed to be a time that is radically different than the rest of the week. Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel expresses this beautifully in his book, “The Sabbath.” Shabbat is to be a “palace in time.” It is that time in which we acknowledge that we did not create the world, and ultimately, have little or no control over the world. It is a time to disengage from the material, mundane activities that occupy our work week, and to slip into a different mode. I must ask this question: how do we create that palace in time by using iphones – those devices that so absolutely control our existence the rest of the week?

I do not mean to be insulting to my Christian friends, but Christians do not have the same sense of the deepness of Shabbat, the real spirituality of experiencing Shabbat, as traditional Jews. Shabbat is supposed to be a taste of the Garden of Eden, of paradise. It is a powerful thing to not engage in the mundane for 24 hours, to stop spending money and to stop using “things” to manipulate the world. This is an essential Jewish contribution to the religious world. When someone enters a synagogue for Shabbat services, why do they need to be in touch with the rest of the world via electronics? What is so important (other than a doctor on call e.g.) that one cannot at least turn the phone off if not leave it at home? The experience is supposed to be “otherworldly.” Tweets and phones ringing are decidedly of this world, not of paradise.

So I have made the decision not to make use of the latest technology in services. I have a funny feeling about even projecting things on a screen during Shabbat. The one compromise I do make is to utilize our sound system simply because of the mitzvah of allowing the elderly and those with hearing difficulties the best chance to hear and participate in the service. Judaism is a religion of sound much more than sight. Our music, our chanting is compelling. Each service contains a teaching of Torah – where sound is crucial. How do tweets and apps enhance the Shabbat feeling at all? Where is the disengagement from the mundane and the attempt to focus on the divine?

I must also pose a final question. How much of the use of technology in services is an expression of our own ego, our own obsession with the latest gadget or tool or program? I worry that the tolerance and use of iphones in services, even to follow the liturgy, feeds our self absorption at a time we need to be reaching beyond ourselves. The liturgy has its own power. The music has its own power. Torah has its own power. None of them need enhancement, at least for the duration of Shabbat.

I agree that social media, the internet and all it has to offer are crucial to communicating with congregants and potential congregants. For six days a week our institutions should use all means to get out our message, to engage the community. For six days a week we should be as savvy in the use of social media as possible. But on Shabbat, just let it rest.

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Pesach Lessons

I have always loved Pesach (Passover for the non-Jewish readers). I love the seder with friends and whatever family can make it to Tallahassee. I like the week of not eating out, but depending on what we fix according to the food regulations at home. I like that we begin to count the Omer, connecting the holiday of liberation to the holiday of accepting the responsibility of Torah – Shavuot. This is one of those joyful times that make it very fun to be Jewish. Many years, I do not delve into the meanings of Pesach much beyond what we read in our Hagadahs during seder – that is – all of the standard lessons. That is unusual for me as I like to explore the depths of our various holidays, but Pesach has always been this kind of nice, relaxed spring celebration. This is the year I went a little further.

For some reason I was more attuned to looking a bit beyond the surface this year. It really started as I looked at the liturgy for the service on the morning of the first day of Pesach. During the Amidah, we refer to Pesach as chag hamatzot, (the holiday of matzahs) and then as z’man cheruteinu, the time of our freedom. The Hebrew consonants in the word matzot (matzahs) is the same as the Hebrew word mitzvoth (commandments). So I began to read the phrase (also based on a teaching by Rashi I had seen) the holiday as chag hamitzvot, “the holiday of commandments.” Pesach is a time during which even the more casual Jew becomes a bit more aware of the commandments. By refraining from eating leaven, by eating matzah, or by attending a seder, many Jews who are not daily or weekly participants in ritual mitzvoth participate in the holiday. We become a bit more “commandment aware.” For me, this leads more profoundly to z’man cheruteinu, the time of our freedom. We tend to forget that the Exodus story does not end with the crossing of the Sea of Reeds, but continues on to the giving and acceptance of Torah, complete with all 613 commandments. It is the acceptance of responsibility that more clearly defines and gives meaning to our freedom.

This leads me to the second meaning of Pesach that struck me a bit more profoundly this year – the yearning and desire for freedom. I read a wonderful article by Rabbi David Hartman z/l, published in 2012. To access please follow this link: http://www.hartman.org.il/Blogs_View.asp?Article_Id=1104&Cat_Id=414&Cat_Type=Blogs
Hartman addresses the ways we wrongly focus in the run up and during Pesach. He criticizes two typical reactions by Jews, the obsession with food and cleaning out chometz for the holiday, and the stress on the miracle of God’s deliverance from slavery in Egypt. Rabbi Hartman teaches that Pesach is the time we become increasingly aware of the human yearning for freedom, and consequently of our obligations to help relieve human suffering and oppression. There is human obligation and action at the center of the Exodus story as much as there is a response and involvement by God. Rabbinic tradition recognizes this with midrashim such as the famous one in which Nachshon ben Aminadav plunges forward into the sea while Moses is standing praying to God to intervene. God points out to Moses that Nachshon’s action, that is human action, is a necessary precursor to divine intervention.
But perhaps the most impactful reflection I had about Pesach is from the educational perspective. In the Haggadah we read about the 4 sons (or children); wise, wicked, simple and too young to ask. We can pin these four types of children to the four times in the Torah we are told to instruct our children about the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12:26-27, Exodus 13:8, Exodus 13:14, and Deuteronomy 6:20-25). The Mishnah, in Pesachim10:4, takes all of this and concludes, “According to the knowledge of the child his father instructs him.” Rabbinic tradition recognizes that different children learn in different methods and at different paces. Rather than looking at the passage about the 4 sons as a contrast between the good and the evil son, we might learn more by looking at the whole passage as a lesson in differing the different learning styles that different children require. Talmud is replete with teachings regarding both what we teach our children and how we should go about it. Rabbinic literature considers pedagogical issues such as student to teacher ratio, what lessons are appropriate for children of varying ages, the differing speeds with which children learn, and the learning styles of various children.
I teach students working to become bar/bat mitzvah as well as teens ranging from 15 to 17. I see how much of what is happening in our public schools is absolutely failing these children. I also see how those in good schools, programs, or with good teachers are lifted by those experiences. I see firsthand the results of the failures of schools to teach critical thinking, to foster love of learning, and sometimes teach outright false information. Of all the issues facing our community and our country today, none, to my mind, is more critical than addressing the quality of educating our children. Pesach has been joyful this year. But as it draws to a close, the message of the 4 sons, of how we are obligated to ensure proper education for all of our children, is the lasting reflection I am carrying forward. I hope everyone had a Pesach sameach.

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