Archive for May, 2013

I enjoy being friends with whom I love; sharing good times and celebrations. Years ago it was our children’s b’nai mitzvah. Now it is time for the weddings. I was not a rabbi when all of our children were 13. I am now. That means I look at the wedding not just as a joyful moment for our friends and their children, but as a rabbi analyzing the professionalism of what my colleagues are doing. I try not to let this detract from celebrating with friends, but I guess it is unavoidable. Kind of like a classical musician attending a concert, who could not help but analyze the music and offer criticism.

I am kind of tempted to do a cheesy ripoff of the great Dickens novel and say, “it was the worst of times, it was the best of times.” There, I did it. How else to describe the pair of weddings I witnessed the past two weekends? I am so very fortunate to attend the sacred moments of dear friends. But a wedding has more at stake than a concert, however. It creates a memory that the new couple will look back upon for their entire lives. So as I began, it was the worst of times, it was the best of times.

Let’s do the easy part and discuss the best of times first. This was the wedding of a former student of mine who himself is now in rabbinical school. His parents are close friends of ours. The rabbi was superb. The traditional wedding liturgy is beautiful in its simplicity and content. The highlight is the sheva b’rachot, the 7 wedding blessings, which increase in expressions of joy as they progress. At this wedding, conducted by the bride’s family’s rabbi, the couple elected to create their own vows. The rabbi let the simple beauty of the liturgy take a central role, giving space for the couple to creatively express their love for each other. Hardly a dry eye was the result. The rabbi then proceeded to add just enough of his personal reflections and humor to complete the ceremony and make it very personal. His connection to the family and his appreciation of the groom were sincere. The result was a holy moment on which all present will look back upon years from now and smile.

Now comes the hard part, looking at wedding number 1. This was also the son of dear, long time friends. It was officiated by two clergy, a rabbi and a priest. OK, I know what you might be thinking – that I am objecting to an interfaith wedding or to a ceremony that tries to blend two traditions that I frankly find unblendable (not really a word so I have just invented it). I have thought a lot about both of those possibilities before writing this. I do not object to the marriage at all. Even though the bride was nominally Catholic (it was her parents who insisted on involving a priest), she is a thoroughly delightful, bright, accomplished young lady who truly is a great match for our friend’s son. Even more, it was clear that despite the goofiness of the ceremony, these two are so happy to be together nothing could dim that or lessen its value. No, in the end, all of my difficulty came from what the rabbi represented – a shallowness and a lessening of the rabbinic calling.

For the rabbi behaved less like a rabbi and more like a character in a skit from Saturday Night Live. She over enunciated the Hebrew (even mispronouncing some). Waved her arms in dramatic gestures, made grandiose statements about love, and clearly did not really know the bride and groom, but was putting on a great show of intimacy and knowing them. The couple found this rabbi on the internet. She is one of many who make a living (who am I really to criticize how people put food on the table?) conducting any ceremony, anywhere, for anyone (not just weddings but any religious ceremony). She advertises how beautiful the wedding moment is and how all couples, regardless of religion deserve to have that wonderful, sacred moment.


The sacredness of the moment comes from the sincerity expressed during that moment. So I wonder how a wedding officiated by someone found on the internet, which tries to force together two very different traditions essentially just to please a parent or a grandparent. The first wedding I described was authentic. It was grounded in a 3 thousand year old tradition, making good use of that tradition yet giving the couple the space to express themselves. All of this raises a question; how does the interfaith couple have an authentic ceremony?

I think there are a few different ways. First, choose a religious tradition, at least for the ceremony, and let the clergy of that tradition just do the best wedding he/she can do, with appropriate adjustments to the couple’s situation. The best service any clergy can do for a couple is to know when it is not appropriate for them to officiate. The elements must be genuine. A second possibility is to have a religiously neutral officiant, like a judge or notary – especially if the family has a close connection to someone who fits that description. A secular ceremony conducted by someone who knows either family is far preferable to a “rent-a-clergy.” Another choice is for the couple to write a ceremony and have a close friend conduct it. It is easy to get licensed to do weddings online, which sounds counter to what I have been saying, but if a close friend does this and conducts a ceremony crafted by the bride and groom, that is also far more real than what I just witnessed. Other clergy might disagree, but religion does not have to be part of a wedding ceremony for it to have deep meaning for the couple. And IF religion is part of the ceremony, my humble opinion is it should be an authentic presentation of the religious tradition. It should be used if and only if this has meaning for both bride and groom.

But most disturbing to me is the denigration of the rabbinate as authentic teachers and representatives of Jewish tradition by creating sham ceremonies. In the name of making people feel good, of being accommodating, of trying to be everything to everyone, a rabbi (or any clergy) dilutes the power and sincerity of the moment. Rabbis are supposed to be teachers. We can sometimes teach best by telling a couple why our participation in a particular ceremony is not appropriate. Being a rabbi sometimes means accomplishing more by lessening ourselves.

It is of no surprise, and I feel speaks very well of the couple in the wedding we witnessed, that they realized the silliness of what happened in their ceremony. They did what they felt was necessary to please parents, and I know their fate as a couple does not hinge on the rabbi’s performance. They will look back at the experience and laugh over a funny story. That’s great, but wouldn’t it be better for them to look back at their wedding ceremony and smile over how meaningful it was for them?

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We have lost our sense of proportion over what causes hysteria. Please, after reading the following do not think that I am trivializing school shootings or any other tragedies that have occurred over the past decade or so. I am just trying to put some things into perspective. The consequences of the tragic events that have afflicted our country are not only the deaths and injury to a variety of innocents, but what seems to be the death of common sense as well.

I am sure you have read numerous reports of the insane applications of zero tolerance policies in schools. Just in the past few months a 6 year old girl was suspended from school for talking about shooting a friend with a “Hello Kitty” bubble blowing gun. A 7 year old boy nibbled a pop tart into the rough shape of a gun and waved it around was also suspended; as well as two 7 year old boys who pointed pencils at each other and make shooting noises. While purists can find justification for the strict application of zero tolerance rules for all of these situations, really isn’t the suspension of these young children just getting hysterical for minor incidents? As Kathleen Parker pointed out in a recent column, could the teacher not just say, “cut it out,” and perhaps use the incident as a teachable moment about appropriate behavior?

Our propensity for hysteria is also evident in politics. To listen to the reports on Fox News, the Obama administration is riddled with scandals. Three are getting gleeful play on right wing news outlets: the IRS requiring a longer questionnaire from Tea Party groups to acquire non-profit status; the secret subpoenas the Justice Department issued for private phone records of Associated Press reporters; and the ongoing investigation into killing of the American ambassador to Libya in Benghazi.

Let’s look at each of these for just a moment. Certainly it is wrong for the IRS to single out one group over another. The fact that the groups the IRS required to submit longer applications for non-profit status are ideologically opposed to the existence of the IRS, is no excuse for treating them any different than other groups. Lost in the hysteria, however, is a simple question: why do any political groups deserve non-profit status? The intelligent conversation that should emerge from this situation is a review of who gets non-profit status. Instead, we will get a drum beat of how the administration is targeting those with whom it does not agree. Instead of realizing that the IRS sometimes overreaches, and the administration is not plotting the overreach, we will get hysteria from right and left wing media (condemning or defending Obama, depending on their perspective).

The subpoenas by the Justice Department are disturbing. They raise questions about the relationship between government agencies (CIA, military) and the press. They raise questions about the boundaries between the need to protect American citizens and our protection of society’s liberties such as the existence of a free press. But I must ask; where was the hysteria over the loss of so many personal freedoms with the passage of the Patriot Act? Why is this the incident that pushes the media into a frenzy?
The Benghazi questions are being spun by some into a scandal worse than Watergate. To my mind, the administration’s handling of Benghazi, not only the preparations that led to a lack of security at the consulate but also the handling of the aftermath is more Keystone Cops than Nixonian. This is bad and embarrassing, but not sufficient cause for hysteria. Like the previous examples, it seems to be media exposure that lends fuel to the hysteria surrounding the incident. I am not saying that any of these examples of government mess ups are justifiable or in any way correct. They are just not worth the hysteria the media stokes over them.

So I have a theory. As information becomes more and more available; that is, as the media becomes more and more ubiquitous, the size of the crisis (or perceived crisis) that causes hysteria becomes smaller. In other words, the bigger the mouthpieces, the smaller the issue needs to be to cause people to go into panic mode. Allow me to give an example.

On October 30, 1938, significant stretches of the US and Canada went into panic mode over a supposed invasion of the United States by Martians. Orson Welles, did a special presentation of his radio show, Mercury Theater, for Halloween by presenting an updated version of H. G. Wells novel “The War of the Worlds.” Presented on CBS radio as a series of “newscasts,” the broadcast began as a presentation of music by “Ramon Raquello and His Orchestra.” The program was “interrupted” by reports from the supposed landing site in Grover’s Mills, NJ. Welles timed the first “news report” to coincide with the time a large part of the audience tuned in after a break in a popular program on NBC radio, so many listeners did not catch the disclaimer that this was a dramatic presentation. The result was that panic ensued. Jack Paar, later the host of television’s “The Tonight Show,” was hosting CBS radio in Cleveland and fielded panicked calls from listeners. When he assured them it was just a dramatic presentation, many accused him of concealing the facts. Throughout the northeast and eastern Canada, folks began to leave their homes thinking the Martians had landed. If you wish to listen to the original broadcast in its entirety, just go on YouTube and type in “Orson Welles War of the Worlds.”

We can laugh about this now, but understand in pre-World War II America, during the Depression, with few electronic media outlets (only radio, no TV and certainly no internet), the supposed landing of aliens from space was not only a very big deal – but at least for a few moments – believable. An investigation into the IRS in 1938 would not have created this kind of hysteria. Neither would the bringing of a bubble gun to school or boys pretending to “shoot” each other with pencils. During a time with limited media outlets (radio, newspapers, telegraph) the cause of hysteria would have to be something amazing. For another example please see the Halley’s Comet panic of 1910. However, during a time in which everyone is able to receive and broadcast information at a whim, the really big things are fast easily debunked (it would not take long to learn a Martian invasion was a hoax). So the everyday occurrence, the things that should not cause a problem, are taken and escalated into crises. Every small thing becomes a reason to panic. It is how we are continually entertained by the news. The small becomes big.

There is a common denominator between the great panics of the past (Martians, comets about to collide with the Earth) and the small ones of today (children pretending to shoot guns in schools, the usual screw-ups of the government and its many agencies). Whether big or small hysteria causes us to abandon common sense and lose our focus on the things that will really make a difference.

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I want to know, really, why the shock over the election of Mark Sanford to represent South Carolina’s first congressional district. Democrats/liberals seem to be stunned that a person who cheated on his wife while governor, misused state funds to visit his mistress in Argentina, and tried to cover up the whole mess by saying he was hiking on the Appalachian Trail; would win handily by a 10% margin. Folks in the liberal media (MSNBC for example) have a really fun time pointing out the hypocrisy of avowed Christians in South Carolina who are so high minded about morality yet seem quick to forgive Sanford for his sins by voting for him.

Republicans/conservatives, on the other hand, are gleeful of this victory as sign that voters are just plain sick of Obama, liberal politics, and a congress dominated by Nancy Pelosi. If the last surprises you, Sanford’s big campaign bit was to debate a cardboard figure of Nancy Pelosi as the representative of all things he was against in Washington. Conservatives (who I am guessing are mostly Christian) are touting Sanford’s victory as a triumph of redemption. Sanford has admitted his sins and taken a few years to do his penance. As Christ forgives (so goes this narrative) so too must the voter who truly cares about American values forgive to counter the liberal/Democratic scourge in DC.

Political analysts have taken variations on the above narratives to try and parse how Sanford beat Elizabeth Colbert Busch, the sister of comedian Stephen Colbert. No need to recount any of those theories, as I have a very simple one – tribalism. We tend to support our own. It is no secret or any surprise that most congressional districts are rarely in play at election time. They are heavily liberal or conservative, black or white, Republican or Democrat. Imagine an election in Berkley, CA between a morally flawed Democrat and an ethically pristine, moderate Republican. It does not matter that the Republican is honest, ethical and not a right wing Tea Party member. It would not matter if the Republican supported some bi partisan initiatives such as immigration reform. The congressional district of Berkley, CA will vote for the Democrat every time.

This is tribalism. In the case of elections it is political tribalism. We make excuses for people we see as members of our “tribe.” Unless the transgression is unspeakably violent, we will justify our support for one of our own. We will rationalize bad behavior through a range of mental gymnastics. This is important in order to understand a lot of behavior that has existed in the Jewish world. It also helps us understand some of the angst in the Jewish world over the shifting ground we find ourselves navigating.

A great example is Israel. For most of my 58 years criticism within the Jewish community of Israel was muted and very qualified if it happened at all. The only really vocal critics of Israel were Jews who had for the most part left the Jewish fold. Committed Jews who criticized Israel risked being labeled as “self-hating” Jews. I am guilty of accepting questionable behavior by the Israeli government under the justification that Israel faced special circumstances. Yes, for decades I have supported a two state solution to resolve the conflict with the Palestinians, but my default position has always been to support Israeli government, no matter who was Prime Minister, to give them the benefit of the doubt – because of my ingrained tribalism.

Because of the Jewish historical narrative of constant persecution, Jews become defensive when a member of our tribe is under investigation for crime, or accused of wrongdoing. If that person’s guilt is beyond a shadow of a doubt, we will either moan about how this person’s behavior is “bad for the Jews” (see Bernie Madoff) or maybe take a perverse pride in the cleverness that person showed in pulling a fast one over the eyes of “the goyim.” God forbid that person wrongs other Jews or steals from Jewish concerns (see Bernie Madoff). Such a person is beyond redemption, not necessarily for the crime but because it negatively impacted other Jews. This is all tribalism.

When the kosher meat processing plant in Postville, Iowa was investigated and shut because of hiring illegal immigrant workers and for employing children in dangerous jobs, many Jews were more concerned about the impact on the price of kosher meat than the ethics of the illegal acts. This is all tribalism.

But the breaking apart of Jewish tribalism is causing angst in the Jewish world. The younger generations are less prone to cutting the Israeli government a free pass just because it is Jewish. Yiddish is pretty much dead as a spoken language, and we look back fondly at what once was the Yiddish theater or the Jewish radio stations of the 1930’s and 1940’s. Young Jews see these as cute anachronisms. Indeed, as we move farther from the immigrant generations, the ethnic/tribal pull of Judaism weakens. Conversely, what I find very interesting is that among non-Jews interest in Judaism even to desiring to convert is increasing. (OK, I admit this is anecdotal based on my 12 years in Tallahassee, but I bet the trend holds beyond my experience). My generation and older is far more tribal than my children’s generation and younger. We bemoan their lack of loyalty to our “tribe.” They see us as too hung up on ethnic ties and not concerned enough with issues of justice, or happiness, or the need for all to just accept each other. I like differences. Younger generations seem to fight differences.

My guess is that the same dynamics that are breaking up Jewish tribalism are slowly eroding political and cultural tribalism. The backlash to this erosion is expressed in movements like the Tea Party or the radicalism of the NRA. But in many areas of our country tribalism is alive and well. Just check out district one in South Carolina.

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One of the hottest You Tube videos of the last few weeks, at least in Jewish circles, has been the “save the date” rap video of Daniel Blumen. This production, done to the “Welcome to Atlanta” rap song, features a young Daniel rapping away about his big day. Featured in the video are Shaquille O’Neal, Charles Barkley, Frank Ski and the mayor of Atlanta. Oh, I forgot, the rabbi of The Temple in Atlanta, where the bar mitzvah took place appears as well, high fiving the almost of age rapper. It is important to mention the rabbi, because since the video hit You Tube, he has been inundated with calls and emails questioning the appropriateness of his participation in what some feel is a production that denigrates the whole concept and rite of passage called “bar mitzvah.”

If you want to see another bar mitzvah invitation with even more ramped up production value, watch the You Tube video of Jorel Hoffert (yes, he really is named after Superman’s father). His is to the Queen songs “We will Rock You” and “Bohemian Rhapsody.” Jorel is half Asian and half Jewish. His father is a music producer and that experience shows up in the level of sophistication of the production. Anyone who was offended by Blumen’s invitation will be horrified by young Jorel’s. One scene shows him sitting on the toilet. In another he is pointing to his crotch singing “I’ve got some chutzpah.” Finally, in the “Bohemian Rhapsody” segment of the video he sings “I’m just a young boy hoping for some money.”

If you want to see either invitation, just Google their names.

Comments posted on both young men’s (and I use the term “man” loosely here) You Tube offerings are mostly positive, people pointing out their creativity and as one person wrote, “There is nothing wrong with infusing more fun into a 3 hour service in an ancient tongue.” True enough, these are invitations to the event, not the event itself. So the first question I raise is this: have our b’nei mitzvah ceremonies become so boring, so bereft of meaning that that the event is now to be judged by the entertainment value of the electronic invitation? I am just asking.

And both of these invitations are creative. Adapting the lyrics to the tunes is no easy task, and I bet that Daniel and Jorel both had a hand in the writing. Some of the visuals combined with lyrics are definitely entertaining. My only criticism of the production values is that both are way too long – over 3 minutes of adolescent prancing around in each. Thank God they were not trying for a full 15 minutes of fame.

Am I offended by the content of the videos? Not really, well, OK, I don’t like watching a kid on the toilet or pointing to his crotch or emphasizing the monetary rewards of celebrating a bar mitzvah; but I cannot say I am offended. Should the rabbi of the Temple in Atlanta have been in Daniel’s invitation? Why not? Or more accurately, how could he have ever said no? At least the young man has enough of a connection to the rabbi to even ask him to participate. I suppose we should be grateful for that. No, for the most part the contents were clever and other than being disappointed that two of my favorite “Queen” songs were kind of butchered, I cannot say I was offended.

But, (isn’t there always the but?) the whole thing makes me wonder about parents and children. I do not see much difference between producing these internet invitations and the bat mitzvah party of Lisa Niren of Pittsburgh in 1998. She loved all things about the movie “Titanic” so her father recreated the Titanic in the ball room of a hotel. The recreation of the luxury liner even included steaming smoke stacks as well as the famous picture of Kate Winslet on the prow of the Titanic but with the girl’s head super imposed. The movie played continuously through the party and the seating area for the children was called steerage (an editorial comment on where children should be kept perhaps?). This whole affair was rumored to cost 500 thousand dollars – in 1998! Nor do I see much difference between all of this and the creation of a bust of the bar mitzvah boy out of ice or chopped liver (done by some families when I was growing up).

None of this offends me. It all just makes me a little sad, because of the implications of overindulgence of children by parents. I cannot really judge the Blumens, Hofferts, or the Nirens just by one video or one newspaper report about a party. But I do question what kind of children are being raised in families who pamper their children to this degree. What are the lessons being taught to the kids? Are they learning any boundaries of propriety? I do not have an answer regarding these families, but I do ask the question.

When a child becomes a bar or bat mitzvah it means they have attained the age of taking responsibility for Jewish actions. We know that for most, their Jewish actions will be based on what the parents model for their kids. What, exactly, are these parents modeling? I want to know if young Daniel or young Jorel has been taught to observe any mitzvoth? Have they served meals at a homeless shelter? Have they done something to demonstrate concern for something or someone other than themselves? If the answer to this is “yes,” then by all means, the videos and parties are just for fun. But if not then by making them the central focus of this rite of passage, a valuable teaching moment is lost. And that is just the wrong way to observe this rite.

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