Friday, May 22, 2020

Who wants to die to save J.P. Morgan Chase?

Maybe I should avoid reading financial columns and websites.

Recently many have been concerned about the economic harm secondary to attempts, such as stay-at-home orders, to mitigate COVID-19. That economic harm is real and we shouldn’t ignore it.

On the other hand, some of the writers seem to be concerned mostly about harm to big corporations, not so much about people who are either kept from working or  continuing to work in conditions that endanger their own lives. The latter category includes not only first responders and medical workers, but also supermarket and drugstore employees and many others.

Concern for the profits of big businesses cannot, in Jewish thought, take precedence over the needs of human beings. Corporations may be people (too) in American law, but they’re not people in a Jewish frame of reference. 

I don’t know anyone who would volunteer to die in order to save J.P. Morgan Chase.

Still more un-Jewish is the suggestion that the virus should be allowed to rampage through the population in order to “cull” the ranks of those who aren’t economically productive: those who are old, disabled, poor, or unemployed.  The most extreme advocates of this like the idea because it would reduce future spending on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid.

There is a name for that ideology, and it’s not one that I willingly write. You won’t have trouble thinking of it.

Judaism, in contrast, requires us to relieve suffering, respect the old (I admit that I’m officially old), and care for the poor.

Jewish law does have provisions for the protection of businesses, but they predate “big business.” For example, if a community has one kosher bakery (a sole proprietorship) and not enough Jews to support another, a rabbi could prohibit the opening of a second one.

Above all, Judaism requires us to preserve human life. Even those who observe Shabbat most strictly know that saving a life overrides the rules. If someone may be seriously ill, calling an ambulance is a requirement even if your Shabbat observance otherwise bars using the telephone.

This is why many synagogues and other Jewish organization will not resume in-person programming right away even when  state government allows it. New York is now allowing religious gatherings of up to 10 people--an exact minyan, which is no coincidence--but the Orthodox Union and the Rabbinical Council of America advised congregations to wait 14 days to see what happens, and then consider limited reopening only if there has not been an upsurge of COVID-19 in their areas. The unaffiliated shul that I'm affiliated with is not planning to resume in-person services until there is an effective treatment or a vaccine.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

Ordinary spirituality

When we talk about spirituality, we often seem to mean what psychologists call “peak experiences.”

You know: the kind of experience that leaves you overcome with awe and wonder.
“Peak” in this sense doesn’t really refer to mountaintops, but common descriptions of peak experiences often seem to involve mountains. For example, reciting the morning prayer Modeh ani at the top of a mountain precisely at dawn.

That could be deeply moving. Or it might not be—that’s unpredictable. In any case, it requires getting oneself up to the top of the mountain in time for sunrise.

Such experiences are necessarily rare, and we can’t count on producing one on demand. So I’d like to talk here about ordinary spirituality, the experiences that available without extreme effort. 

Let’s start with one that’s available every Friday evening. When we sing “L’cha Dodi” early in the service, we turn toward the entrance  for the last verse in order to welcome Shabbat, which is seen metaphorically as a bride arriving to wed the entire Jewish people.

Instead of turning back toward the front immediately at the end of the verse, try visualizing a bride proceeding slowly down the aisle while the chorus is sung. Turn slowly as she walks along and see if it enhances your experience of Shabbat.

Or try to abstain from gossip whenever the opportunity arises. (This is harder than it sounds.) Remember as you do so that gossip is worse than just “not very nice”: it’s lashon hara, evil speech, which is prohibited by the Torah.  

You might try choosing food consciously. Maybe you’re not interested in keeping kosher, but would “Biblical kashrut” make sense for you? That means avoiding just pork,  shellfish, and intentional combinations of meat and milk.

Or perhaps “eco-kashrut” has some appeal: choosing locally grown food when you can, looking for natural products, or increasing the plant-based portion of your diet.

What about visiting a sick person? This is an important mitzvah for all Jews, not just rabbis. In particular, find out whether someone recently home from the hospital needs help with shopping or getting to follow-up medical appointments. (If you could consider doing this on request, even for someone you might not yet know, please tell us.)

Most important: when you do any of these things, remember that it’s not just nice, or good for your health. It’s a Jewish action, a mitzvah.

A former Archbishop of Canterbury, William Temple, is quoted as saying, “It is a mistake to suppose that God is only, or even chiefly, concerned with religion.” Temple is of historical interest for another reason: in 1942, he and Rabbi J.H. Hertz founded the British Council of Christians and Jews, and throughout World War II he exhorted the Allies to intervene against the slaughter of Jews in Europe. 

It must have been a radical step for the chief cleric of the Church of England to say that God might not be very concerned with religion. After all, he was in the religion business, so to speak.

It is, however, a very Jewish idea. Our tradition holds that how well, or how much, you pray is of much less importance than how you live.

Sunday, September 1, 2019

Choosing not to choose

In July, I presented three sessions at NewCAJE, the New Conference on Alternatives in Jewish Education.

I also attended many sessions, including one asking “Can the Center Hold?” with Dr. David Starr, who was one of my teachers at Hebrew College. He’s also a JTS-ordained rabbi, and by “center” he meant “Conservative Judaism.”

Conservative Judaism has portrayed itself not only as the philosophic center of Judaism, positioned between Orthodox and Reform, but also as the “big tent” that had room for everyone. For decades it was the largest movement in American Judaism, but the desire to include all Jews was a constant strain. On one hand, a large share of members became more liberal in practices and views. On the other, a minority wanted the Conservative movement to be more like Orthodox Judaism.

Today the Reform movement is the largest in America. It is also probably the philosophical center, not only because of moving toward the center itself, but also because so many American Jews have moved to the left of Reform.

As I see it, the fastest-growing segment of American Judaism is “Just Jews”: those who do not define themselves by affiliation to a movement, even if they happen to be members of a movement-affiliated congregation. I expect to see growth in the number of communities like ours, attempting to include all Jews by “choosing not to choose.”