Wednesday, December 28, 2011

Advice, mine and others'

An online magazine, EdJewTopia, asked Jewish educators for eight pieces of advice on Jewish education. Here's what I said:
  1. Israel education isn’t a magic bullet. While visiting Israel has a powerful effect on anyone who feels even the slightest bit Jewish, studying Israel in class is only meaningful if the student already feels Jewish. Otherwise it’s just social studies.
  2. Learning prayers doesn’t make a person religious. The experience of praying, and of attending religious services, is different from that of studying prayers.
  3. Time on task matters. Less class time = less learning. Also, less attendance = less learning.
  4. It takes commitment. Modeling mature Jewish belief is more important than transmitting information.
  5. Students need multiple role models. On the other hand, a teacher, principal, or rabbi is automatically in a different category from anything that most students imagine for themselves.
  6. Parents have more influence than do teachers. Family support for students’ education—in the form of living Jewishly—is essential.
  7. It takes a village. Well, a Jewish community. Learning to be part of the Jewish community is an essential goal of Jewish education. The school, the family, and the whole community need to work together.
  8. You’re still Jewish after the bar/bat mitzvah ceremony. Teaching only what is needed for the Mitzvah Event is a recipe for disaster. Jewish learning is a lifelong process.
Read the rest of the submissions here.

Tuesday, December 27, 2011

The Tebow Effect

One subject seemed to dominate the religion news this fall: Denver quarterback Tim Tebow’s overt religiosity. Many conservative Christians admire and imitate it, while it makes some others—including liberal Christians, Jews, and Muslims—uncomfortable.

In any case, it’s hard to miss. In addition to kneeling on the field, Tebow habitually refers to God, and specifically to Jesus Christ. At the end of every game, he says, “First I would like to thank my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.”

There has been, however, very little criticism of Tebow from Jewish, Muslim, or mainstream secular quarters. It’s not because we’d be afraid to speak our minds: there are other reasons.

First, we all know that football, however public its appeal, is a private enterprise, not the government. (Stadium construction sometimes receives support from local or state government, but the teams don’t.) Football is a business, and businesses are free to endorse religion, tolerate it, or oppose it, in accord with their owners’ beliefs and their conclusions about what is good or bad for business overall.

Second, Tim Tebow is, by all accounts, exceptionally decent and likable. The Muslim author Ibrahim Abdul-Matin writes:
Tebow is unique because he is both an underdog and a winner. He is both humble and non-judgmental—a dynamite combination for any human being. Finally, his fellow teammates love him, he does not drink, smoke or do drugs, he is celibate, unmarried, and he has a winning smile and personality.
Hardly anyone claims that Tebow, the son of Baptist missionaries, is trying to force his religion on others. There’s wide consensus that he’s merely expressing his own belief—something that everyone has the right to do.

This hasn’t stopped news media from trying to stir up controversy. Fox News attempted to connect it to their annual complaints about the so-called war on Christmas, claiming that those who questioned his public displays of religion were waging war on Christians.

The Wall Street Journal asked representatives of various religions about Tebow, specifically whether they might preach about him. Rabbi Joe Black, of Temple Emanuel in Denver, replied,
Tim Tebow is broadcasting the fact that he believes in God. God is actively involved in his life. We call ourselves people of faith. Is that how we perceive God? And if not, how do we perceive God?
At Temple Sinai in Denver, Rabbi Rick Rheins, a Colts and Bengals fan, said that he might preach about Tebow if the Broncos made it into the playoffs.

The chairman of the Colorado Muslim society, Khaled Hamideh, said,
I know I’m a Muslim and he’s a Christian, but I admire somebody who thanks God for everything that He gave him. The team has rallied around him not because of his religious beliefs but because they believe this guy has something in him that pushes him the right way.
Almost all American Jews over the age of 50 know the Lord’s Prayer—a Christian text, although it expresses Jewish theology—from memory, because we were made to recite it every day in public school until 1962. Abdul-Matin, observing that football tends to be a very Christian sport, says that he knows it, too, but because he played football, and teams at all levels pray it in the locker room.

That’s the only part of this that is a genuine issue for us. Pro football can do whatever it wants, but I’d be concerned if Jewish players were, or felt, marginalized in public-school sports because they chose not to participate in non-Jewish prayer.

Saturday, October 29, 2011

My love-hate relationship with Sukkot

The author of the Kosher on a Budget blog wrote last Wednesday, "Much as I love Sukkot, I would be lying if I said that I wished another three-day yomtov was starting tonight."

I love Sukkot, too. And I live in a climate where it's hard to love Sukkot, because the weather is consistently lousy. This year it rained almost all the time, and it's usually quite cold during Sukkot. On the other hand, a rabbi from Winnipeg once told me about how they sat in the sukkah in their parkas. It's not as cold as that.

Most of my community doesn't love Sukkot. I can count the number of sukkot built at homes on my fingers. When I invite guests to mine, I keep a stack of jackets and sweatshirts handy, because most of the guests, no matter how clearly I tell them, don't really believe that we're going to sit outdoors for at least a couple of hours.

I'd say that people see the sukkah at the shul as more symbolic than functional.It's hexagonal, and no matter how much you think that this makes it like a Star of David, that's not as functional as rectangular for a sit-down meal. Sit-down meals don't figure in the congregation's plan; the shul sukkah is used for about 10 minutes for a kiddush after the morning services on the yom tov days and the chol ha-moed Shabbat, and that's it. This year I hosted a lunch meeting--of an interfaith group--in the sukkah at the shul, and that was the only time anyone sat down in it for any longer than the time needed to say leyshev ba-sukkah.

I started building a sukkah at home when I lived in a region where the weather, although tending to be just as rainy as here, was considerably warmer at this time of year. It's more attractive to build and use a sukkah where you expect better weather.

I've also lived in Los Angeles, where I worked for a shul whose sukkah would seat 100 people for lunch. I was about to say that people who have lived in Israel for any length of time are more likely to build a home sukkah, but in my current community, that's not true at all.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

God is Beautiful?

Two days before the annual meeting of the Jewish Center and Federation on June 14, I attended the annual meeting of the Southern Tier Interfaith Coalition (STIC).

The STIC annual meeting included a presentation by George Dardess and Peggy Rosenthal that was based on their book Reclaiming Beauty for the Good of the World: Muslim & Christian Creativity as Moral Power

In a nutshell, their book explores Christian and Muslim beliefs (George is an ordained Roman Catholic deacon and a scholar of Islam) through the art inspired by them, and argues that religious art is not merely decorative, but a means of motivating adherents to live beautiful lives—lives devoted to the service of God and humanity.

I was surprised that they found many similarities between Christian and Muslim religious art, because much of Christian religious art is representational, even allowing representation of Divine beings, and Muslim religious art never is. Jewish religious art falls in the middle: we have no pictorial representations of God—“graven images” are forbidden, and it’s a fundamental Jewish belief that God has no physical form—but we permit representations of historical persons such as Moses or Miriam as long as they do not become objects of worship.

Rosenthal and Dardess don’t discuss Judaism in their book, and I think that it might be difficult to make the same argument. Although the latter part of Exodus directed the Israelites to have the ritual objects for the Mishkan, the tabernacle in the wilderness, made by the best artisans and of the finest materials, neither visual arts nor music had a prominent role in Jewish religious life from the destruction of the Second Temple until modern times.

On the other hand, we have a tradition called
hiddur mitzvah, the enhancement (or beautification) of mitzvah. This refers to our preference for using beautiful ritual objects instead of utilitarian ones. For example, it is completely permissible to light Shabbat candles in glass candleholders from the dollar store, and doing so fulfills the mitzvah, but many families choose to use silver or brass candlesticks, or one-of-a-kind candleholders made by an artist. Tradition warns us, however, about going too far with hiddur mitzvah; it would be wrong to be more concerned about the quality of the object than about the meaning of the mitzvah, and once we have nice Shabbat candlesticks, we usually don’t search for better ones.

Part of Dardess and Rosenthal’s thesis is that the beauty of religious art represents the beauty of God. Jewish liturgy uses many adjectives to describe God, but beautiful is not typical; God is more often described as awe-inspiring—not the colloquial sense of “awesome,” but something closer to fearsome.

The most characteristic adjective describing God in Jewish though, however, is
holy, and the Torah tells us that because God is holy, we should be holy. We achieve holiness by—guess what—devoting our lives to the service of God and humanity. So the goal seems to be the same even though the means may be different.

Friday, April 8, 2011

Rewards and recognition

In a family program last month for Kitah Bet (grade 2), we asked the students to create a description of an ideal parent while their parents, in another room, wrote about their own parents.

One item on the students’ list was that parents should reward good behavior. We didn’t ask how parents should reward good behavior, but most parents would agree that tangible rewards are rarely appropriate—they would seem too much like bribes.

The same question comes up with respect to accomplishment in school. Although there is some disagreement, most educators oppose the routine use of tangible rewards. We feel that academic accomplishment should be recognized but that the accomplishment is its own reward.

But how should it be recognized? Should our school have an honor roll? I can remember when it was common for teachers in the public schools to affix gold stars to students’ work, and now we can get six-pointed star stickers. Whether we do this or not, most students seem to be eager to receive praise for their work.

A radical strain in educational theory argues, however, that accomplishment should not be praised. Most teachers naturally limit public praise of individual work in order not to discourage other students, but some educators are also concerned the praise for work already completed may intimidate students—that it may create a fear of not being able to repeat the accomplishment.

This concern is particularly associated with the secular educator Alfie Kohn. His book Punished by Rewards argues that not only bribes, but also grades, praise, and incentives of all kinds may be counterproductive.

Kohn is slightly less radical than those who oppose all praise and recognition, but he recommends that praise be interpretive rather than evaluative. For example, if shown a child’s drawing, instead of saying, “Very good!” he might respond, “The way you’ve drawn the sky is interesting.”

In the mainstream of child psychology, there is more general agreement that praise should focus on the accomplishment, not on the child, emphasizing actions (which the child has the capacity to change) rather than abilities (which are largely innate). Thus, a parent or teacher might praise the effort a student puts into a project, or the study method the student used. We might also recognize the basic facts of the accomplishment, such as the number of test questions answered correctly, and help the student to understand what could be done to improve. We would avoid praising a student for intelligence, dexterity, or ability with languages.

This is a special concern in the Jewish Community School because we are considering introducing the Mitkadem program for Hebrew. Unlike conventional textbooks, Mitkadem is designed to be self-paced after the beginning levels, and because every unit must be learned to the point of mastery, there is no such thing as a poor grade.

With self-pacing and learning for mastery, the result is that students who attend regularly and work harder complete more units in a year than do students who are absent frequently or make less effort. A student’s progress is measured by the number of units completed. We will need to consider whether to recognize students for the units completed and what number of units would constitute satisfactory or better progress.


There was a time in America, circa 1950, when the nouns “Communist” and “Jew” were closely associated. In a 1948 survey by the American Jewish Committee, 21% answered yes to the question “Do you think most Jews are Communists?” An informal survey showed that more than half the people mentioned Jews in responding to the question “What do you think of the atom [spy] stories in the newspapers?” even though the question didn’t mention Jews.

Similarly, in the Peekskill Riots of 1949, rioters with rocks and baseball bats attacked audience members arriving for a concert by the black singer Paul Robeson, who had defended Communism. In addition to shouting anti-Communist slogans, the rioters shouted anti-black and anti-Jewish slogans.

These episodes come to mind because of the hearings scheduled by Rep. Peter King, who represents a district on Long Island, to investigate radicalization among Muslims in the United States. The New York Times observed, “Notice that the hearing is solely about Muslims. It might be perfectly legitimate for the Homeland Security Committee to investigate violent radicalism in America among a wide variety of groups, but that doesn’t seem to be Mr. King’s real interest.”

Writing in USA Today
, David P. Gushee, a professor of Christian ethics at Mercer University in Georgia, said, “The focus, after all, is on the purported radicalization of the ‘American Muslim community.’ Not a tiny pocket. But all Muslim Americans can fall under this umbrella of suspicion.”

The Times concluded that Rep. King was “more interested in exploiting ethnic misunderstanding than in trying to heal it.” The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights warned that King’s investigation “will inevitably stoke anti-Muslim sentiment and increase suspicion and fear,” and said that terrorists should be identified by behavior, not religion or ethnicity.

There is unanimous agreement that activity by Islamic extremists in recruiting terrorists must be investigated, but many experts warn that a heavy-handed investigation of entire community would be more likely to stimulate radicalization than to prevent it. Furthermore, 30% of U.S. Muslims suspected of terrorist activity since 2001 were found through tips by other American Muslims.

The anti-Communist hearings in Congress led by Sen. Joseph McCarthy in the 1950s never investigated Jews as a group, even though many Jews were called to testify before his committee and lost their livelihoods because of it. Several members of McCarthy’s staff, including his chief counsel, Roy Cohn, were Jewish. Cohn, however, is reported to have said that, “not all Jews are Communists, but all Communists are Jews.”

More than once in our history we have been branded as radical, subversive, or dangerous across the board, and it is wrong for us to treat any other religious or ethnic group in the same way. We should keep in mind the statement by Denis McDonough, the deputy national security advisor: “We must resolve that, in our determination to protect our nation, we will not stigmatize or demonize entire communities because of the actions of a few. In the United States of America, we don’t practice guilt by association. And let’s remember that just as violence and extremism are not unique to any one faith, the responsibility to oppose ignorance and violence rests with us all.”

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Stumbling blocks

February was Jewish Disability Awareness Month. If this is a surprise, I should add that it was the third annual Jewish Disability Awareness Month.

I missed the first two altogether and learned about the third after it had begun. According to Rabbi David Saperstein, during February Jewish institutions and organizations were supposed to “undertake a variety of initiatives to raise awareness of disability issues, whether it’s by hosting a panel on disability issues, studying relevant Jewish texts and discussing their application to daily life, volunteering with organizations that aid people with disabilities, or embarking on a holistic re-examination of how the community—our synagogues, schools and other communal institutions—includes, or fails to include, people with disabilities.”

So why did we miss this? One reason is that religious entities, including all houses of worship, are exempt from the Americans With Disabilities Act, the law that mandates physical and programmatic access in other settings for people with many kinds of disabilities. Being under no compulsion by civil law to address disability issues, we could choose to ignore them. Another is that the ADA’s requirements for barrier-free design don’t apply to existing buildings, only to new construction and major alterations.

Nevertheless, for both ethical and practical reasons, most new synagogue buildings have included entrance ramps as well as elevators when necessary, as well as wheelchair-accessible restrooms and drinking fountains. Some, but not all, have provided for wheelchair seating in their sanctuaries, accessible telephones, and other accommodations. Some, including many existing synagogue buildings, have added assistive listening systems.

The ethical reasons include the Torah’s injunction, “You shall not insult the deaf, or place a stumbling block before the blind.” Stumbling blocks come in many forms, including less-than-accessible buildings, Shabbat services (how many sanctuaries have wheelchair access to the bimah?), and prayer books. We are also told, “Do not separate yourself from the community,” which implies that we should not impose separation on others.

The practical reasons include the Jewish need for unity. Especially in a community as small as ours, we cannot afford to exclude anyone, even inadvertently. Rabbi Saperstein suggests that accommodation for disabilities may be especially important in the Jewish community: the rate of disability increases with age, and the median age in the Jewish community is several years older than in the general population.

Disability awareness is particularly timely for our community because we are preparing to house all of our Jewish activities in one building. Half the space in that building is on a level that is currently accessible only by stairs, and there is no wheelchair-accessible restroom on either floor. The facilities committee has pledged to make necessary accommodations but may not have planned for everything that is needed, so I hope that everyone with specific concerns will be sure to share them with the committee.

Not only academic

Occasionally the parents of new students tell me, “We’re not religious, but we want our children to learn about their heritage.” This requires a careful reply: I explain that the religious school is not an academic course in Judaic studies, and that our chief goal is to develop each student’s capacity to participate in religious and community life.

It can result in a mismatch of expectations, but adults who describe themselves as “not religious” often mean that they are “differently religious.” For example, they may identify strongly with Jewish values but rarely attend worship services. It would only be a concern for us if they wanted their children to acquire academic knowledge without learning about religious living.

This is not to say that we have no goals for academic learning. We are, after all, “the people of the Book,” and the field of Jewish learning is vast. Many aspects of Jewish life require specific knowledge, and teaching that knowledge is an essential function of a Jewish religious school.

Nevertheless, the style and goals of religious school have changed since I was a student. The Reform religious school that I attended operated very much like public schools of the time. If you behaved too badly, you could even get detention! Textbooks were longer and more detailed than those we use today; now we would consider them boring and perhaps irrelevant. They also looked old-fashioned even then, suggesting that Jewish learning was something of the past rather than of the present.

Today we expect our textbooks to look contemporary and fresh, and we want a different style for our religious school. In addition to the necessary academic knowledge, we want our students to discover the pleasures and rewards of Jewish life and to learn how to be part of a Jewish community.

The difference between religious and secular school is especially marked in the classes for our youngest students. Secular schools, driven by state standards, now emphasize discrete academic skills even in pre-kindergarten and kindergarten. Religious school has not moved as much in the same direction: in the Gan Yeladim, we emphasize the formation of Jewish identity through activities that allow children to experience the pleasures of Jewish life.

We don’t stress specific knowledge or skills at that age as much as public schools have come to do, for two important reasons. One is, as child psychiatrist James Comer wrote, that “Emotion precedes attention which precedes learning. Information-learning needs relationship; the quality and culture of environment matters.” A child’s mastery of Jewish content is enhanced through acculturation to, and identification with, Jewish culture and life.

The second is that much of our pedagogical strategy builds on the students’ learning in secular (“regular”) school. This is especially apparent in Hebrew. For generations, Hebrew instruction in schools like ours did not begin until the third grade or later, because students develop reading proficiency most readily when they have already developed skills in phonetic reading in English.

Accordingly, our Hebrew program in the early grades is mostly oral, focusing on practical Hebrew vocabulary (the names of ritual objects, items in the classroom, etc.) and Hebrew songs, to create a cultural background for learning to read Hebrew. Because more children now leave the first grade with reading skills in English, our Hebrew curriculum for the second grade provides opportunities to transfer those skills to Hebrew.

It seems noteworthy that, although state academic standards for public schools have existed for many years and are frequently revised, New York released standards for social and emotional development and learning—in draft form—only in 2010. One of the draft standards’ illustrations of social and emotional learning reads, “In an effective play-based kindergarten the teacher is attuned to the children’s play themes and builds on them.” I’m surprised that they don’t mention the Gan Yeladim.

Sunday, February 13, 2011

Why Is Evolution So Scary?

Delivered on February 12, 2010, Evolution Shabbat, at Congregation Shomray Hadath

Today is the anniversary of the birth of Charles Darwin in 1809, making this Evolution Shabbat. It’s part of a three-day Evolution Weekend, which the Islamic Association in Big Flats observed yesterday and some Christian churches will observe tomorrow.

The purpose of Evolution Weekend is to explore the relationship between science and religion, with the specific goals of mustering religious support for the teaching of evolution in public schools and resisting efforts to insert “creation science” or “intelligent design”—both terms are code words for a particular religious view—into the school curriculum.

I said last year that the appearance of conflict between the Torah and modern science is not a problem for most Jews, even the most Orthodox Jews. All of us fall on the side of teaching the best science. If it seems to conflict with the Torah, we deal with it in various ways: by reading the creation story in Genesis as metaphor, as many liberal Jews do; by treating science and religion as separate spheres of knowledge, as most Orthodox Jews do; or by treating any conflict as a demonstration of the limits of our knowledge and understanding. The last of these was the approach of Moses Maimonides, the Rambam, about 800 years ago, so it has the authority of time. (Maimonides generally opposed excessively literal readings of Scripture, although he also said that literal readings were not conclusively wrong.)

Thus, even ultra-Orthodox schools in Israel—there is a parallel system of religious day schools, also funded by the government—do not object to teaching the theory of evolution on the grounds that it is untrue or contrary to Torah. On the other hand, according to Noah Efron, a science professor at Bar Ilan University and a member of the Tel Aviv city council, some of them do object to devoting the total amount of time to science that government standards require—not because they think it’s untrue, but because they think it’s unnecessary.

But if evolution is not a big problem for Jews, why am I speaking about it today? One reason is that others make it a problem for us. Both for the sake of our own children and for the sake of our society, we have to care about what is taught in public schools.

Another reason is some of the things that give others problems with evolution really do matter to us, even if we often choose to ignore them. What I’m suggesting is that the first Biblical account of the Creation addresses innate human needs. I mentioned last year that we all see the point of teaching the version of the Creation in Genesis 1 to children, because it represents the world as orderly and meaningful, one in which God knows what God is doing. Like other ancient creation stories, it serves psychological needs that still exist.

In particular, the fact that human beings are the last thing created on the sixth day leads us to feel that we are the point of the whole shebang: it’s all leading up to God’s creation of us. This view is supported by God’s seeing that the creation on the sixth day is not merely good, but very good, and by Gen. 1:28, “God blessed them [humans] and God said to them, ‘Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.’”

The King James version of the Bible, familiar to almost every English-speaking person, doesn’t say, “master it.” It says, “subdue it” and “have dominion.”

In other words, God didn’t only create us last. God put us in charge.

That idea, by itself, would seem to authorize unlimited appetites of all kinds—including desires for land, possessions, and money. Although it’s implicit in the text, that reading has no standing in Jewish thought. The most traditional Jewish view is that we were created to serve God, not to be God’s stand-ins on earth. It’s not a license to drive other species to extinction or to make parts of our planet uninhabitable. We’re not even commanded to exterminate snakes. A traditional view would be that every species is precious to God, even snakes.

But I do think that this is why some people so firmly defend the Biblical account of Creation and so vigorously oppose the theory of evolution. In an evolutionary view, no species is inherently more important than any other: we all evolved together and it seems that the paths of evolution, the mechanisms by which it takes place, are the same in all of us. For example, the same genes are found in wildly different organisms, sometimes performing different functions, and the genetic differences among species are comparatively minor.

But we want to be more important than other species, and we don’t like being told that we’re not. In the evolutionary view, we do things because we have evolved in a way that makes them possible, not because we were given special license to “have dominion” over all other animals.

In a sense, this is the difference between what James Kugel, one of my teachers, now calls the “small human” and the “big human” points of view. In the “small human” point of view, each person is only a tiny part of the universe, while in the “big human” point of view, each person’s psyche fills the entire universe and everything else is perceived either in relation to it or as a component of it.

Kugel says that “small human” is the ancient view, in which humans can readily perceive relationships to the Divine, while “big human” is the modern view, in which we perceive the Divine as existing only within ourselves.

It should follow that those who defend the Biblical account and oppose the evolutionary account would also oppose efforts to protect the environment, because the Biblical account can be read to justify doing just about anything we please to the environment. Remember, by that view, we’re in charge; we “have dominion” over all other animals and we don’t owe them a thing.

And that’s exactly what is happening. The same religious extremists who denounce the theory of evolution and try to force “intelligent design” into schools have now decided to broaden their fight against science by promoting a so-called Biblical view of environmental stewardship. What this means is largely to claim that human-caused global warning has to be a myth because it’s contrary to the Bible. It’s a religious attack on protection of the environment.

This is most evident in a new 12-part DVD entitled
Resisting the Green Dragon. Its distributors state, “Around the world, environmentalism has become a radical movement. Something we call ‘The Green Dragon.’ And it is deadly, deadly to human prosperity, deadly to human life, deadly to human freedom, and deadly to the gospel of Jesus Christ.”

I think it’s significant that the first “deadly” they list is “to human prosperity.” To my mind, that suggests that it’s profit, not spirituality, that’s really behind it all.

The Jewish view is almost completely the opposite of this. Our tradition would say that the Torah exists not to give us unlimited rights over the world, but to limit what we can do. That is certainly the thrust of rabbinic thought, and I venture to say that even our earliest rabbis would have been baffled by a claim that environmental stewardship was contrary to Torah.

But we want to believe that we’re important, that we’re the center of everything. I think that this need, although exaggerated by modern culture, is hard-wired in us. Some religious traditions, such as Christian asceticism and, more notably, Buddhism, try to eliminate it.

Jewish tradition does not. Rabbinic law is realistic; it attempts to impose limits. So, while the Talmud instructs us to say,
Bishvili nivra ha-olam—“The world was created for my sake”— our tradition warns against taking that too far.

A favorite Hasidic story concerns Rabbi Simcha Bunem, who was known for moderation. He carried in two notes in his pockets. When things went especially well and he felt a lot of pride and self-importance, he would reach into one pocket, take out one of the notes, and read it. It said, “I am but dust and ashes.”

But if he was overcome by anxiety and self-doubt, he would reach into his other pocket and read the other note. It said, “The world was created for my sake.”

Bishvili nivra ha-olam. The world was created for my sake. For our sake: bishvilanu nivra ha-olam.

But if we are mindful of evolution, we must add, “not only for our sake.”

Monday, February 7, 2011

All too real

A fascinating blog post by Dr. Douglas Fields, a neuroscientist at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, contrasts the civility of 1950s television comedies such as Leave It to Beaver with the rudeness of today’s reality television, and argues that the loss of civility is harming the development of our children’s brains.

Fields is hardly alone in stating that exposure to bad behavior is harmful, but where others focus on the risk that children will learn and imitate bad behaviors, Fields emphasizes biology. He writes, “A disrespectful, stressful social environment is a neurotoxin for the brain and psyche, and the scars are permanent.”

In summary, he says that bad social behavior causes anxiety that inhibits the development of neural pathways within the brain. The human brain continues to develop through adolescence and into early adulthood, with different structures developing at different times, and if a stage of development is inhibited or interrupted, it does lifelong harm.

The middle-school years seem to be especially critical for the formation of connections between the two hemispheres of the brain, and Fields writes, “Impairment in integrating information between right and left hemispheres is associated with increased risk of craving, drug abuse and dependence, and a weakened ability to make moral judgments.” Parents and teachers already know that the middle grades in school are characterized by increases in gossip, namecalling, and exclusion; the last thing children need is any influence that encourages these behaviors.

The kind of civility that Fields says is beneficial to brain development is part of what Jewish tradition calls
derekh eretz. Literally “the way of the world,” it comprises both good manners and courtesy, and other aspects of proper social behavior, but in common usage it means respect for others.

Jewish schools often struggle to encourage
derekh eretz, but I can say from personal experience that lecturing children to “show a little derekh eretz” has little effect, even after explaining what that means. What does work is pointing out examples of its presence or absence. For example, a parent or teacher who is reading a story to young children might comment when a character says or does the right thing, or when another character says or does the wrong thing.

The same applies to television. Recently Sara Baim drew my attention to another article discussing reality television, published in the online magazine Tablet ( by Marjorie Ingall. Ingall describes moral lessons that can be learned from Top Chef and Project Runway, and also discourages watching certain other shows, but the key is parental guidance— not only about what to watch, but about how to interpret it. If your family watches any of these shows, it’s best for parents to watch with children and comment on examples of good and bad behavior.

Tuesday, February 1, 2011

President Washington and the Jews

Washington’s Birthday isn’t a Jewish holiday, but maybe it should be. Our country’s first president made a statement about religious liberty that is still a touchstone for tolerance, saying that the United States the United States should give “to bigotry no sanction, to persecution no assistance.” Washington wrote this 1790 in a letter to the Touro Synagogue in Newport, Rhode Island (interior shown above). Touro Synagogue was built in 1763 in a style that blends traditional Sefardi layout and decoration with the neoclassical architecture of 18th-century America.

During and after the American Revolution, the synagogue was one of the most important buildings in Newport. It survived a British occupation of Newport partly because it was used as a hospital, and during George Washington's visit to Newport in 1781, to meet with Generals Lafayette and Rochambeau to plan the final battles of the Revolution, a town meeting was held at the synagogue. Later, Touro Synagogue served as a meeting place for the Rhode Island General Assembly, the Rhode Island Supreme Court, and the town of Newport.

Touro Synagogue still has an active congregation, Jeshuat Israel, which follows Sefardi Orthodox liturgy.

Jews had come to Rhode Island in 1658, only four years after America’s first Jews arrived in New Amsterdam, because of the guarantee by Roger Williams (right) of religious freedom and liberty of conscience. The acceptance of the Jewish community in Newport and President Washington’s letter to the congregation contrast with the situation in some other states. Connecticut law during this period prohibited Jews from settling in that state, even though there was already a small Jewish community in New Haven, and the first synagogue in Massachusetts was not founded until 1842.

I think of Washin
gton’s letter whenever politicians attempt to define the United States as a Christian nation, suggest that people of any other religion are interlopers, or demand that the Ten Commandments be posted in public buildings. For the record, we revere the Ten Commandments as much as anyone—perhaps more, because we had them first—but Jewish tradition does not place those ten above all other instructions in the Torah. Furthermore, although the Bible texts, from Exodus and Deuteronomy, are the same, Jews and Christians divide the text into discrete commandments differently, so that our Ten are not quite the same as others’ arrangements of them.

Monday, January 24, 2011

Top Ten Questions that Christians Ask Jews

The Rev. Gary McCaslin invited me to speak on this topic at the First Baptist Church of Painted Post, NY, on January 16. Here's some of what I said:

1. Are you going to have another Jewish Food Festival?
Obviously the most important question. Yes, on March 27.

2. Why is your Sabbath on Saturday instead of Sunday?
The Biblical basis for the Jewish Sabbath is the statement in Genesis that, on the seventh day, God rested. We have always understood the seventh day to be Saturday. But our liturgy also says that the Sabbath is
zecher litziyat Mitzrayim - a remembrance of the exodus from Egypt - even though we do not claim that the exodus from Egypt took place on a Saturday. While the exodus is the most important event in all of Jewish religious history, the resurrection is the most important event in Christian religious history, so it was natural for most Christians to celebrate the Sabbath on Sunday.

3. Why do the dates of Jewish holidays change every year?
The Jewish calendar is based on the lunar cycle - the phases of the moon - and the lunar month consists of 29.5 days. As a result, the lunar year is about 355 days. Relative to the solar year, everything moves up about 10 days each year. But many of the Jewish holidays relate to the seaons: Rosh Hashanah must be in the fall, and Passover must be in the spring. To preserve the relationship to the seasons, whenever the lunar and solar calendars become too far out of synch, an entire month is added to the year, causing everything to jump back. The Muslim calendar is also lunar but is not corrected to stay in synch with the solar calendar.

4. Is the Jewish Bible the same as the Christian Bible?
The Jewish Bible is essentially the same as what Protestants call the Old Testament (excluding the Apocrypha). If you start reading at Genesis and read through to Chronicles II, you've got it. However, because Jewish Bibles always follow the text handed down by our scribes, while Christian Bibles sometimes follow other texts, there are slight differences, plus the differences in translation that you also find among Christian editions of the Bible.

5. Do you believe in heaven and hell?
Traditional Judaism believes in an afterlife, often called the
olam habah, the World to Come, but doesn't profess to know a great deal about it. Progressive branches of Judaism tend not to emphasize any afterlife, and most of us would say that we don't know and can't know.

Traditional Judaism also believes in the bodily resurrection of all the faithful, to take place in the future when the Messiah comes. Progressive branches of Judaism also downplay, or completely disclaim, belief in a Messiah and in physical resurrection.

6. Why don’t you all go back where you came from?
This question is most often asked in voicemail at my office, usually in a message left in the middle of the night.

For me, "back where you came from" would be Ohio.

The first Jews in what is now the United States arrived in New Amsterdam in 1654 when it was still a Dutch colony. Other Jews settled soon after in Newport, Rhode Island, partly because Roger Williams had promised completely religious freedom and liberty of thought there, and Newport became one of the most important Jewish communities in the colonial and revolutionary period.

7. Do you really not “have” Christmas?
It's hard for Christians, living in a predominantly Christian country, to imagine that there is anyone living among them who genuinely ignores Christmas altogether, and it is frankly hard to ignore the secular manifestations. But many Jews do.

Others, perhaps a majority in our region, have Christians among their extended families and may celebrate with them. It's somewhat like being an American in Canada on July 1, which is Canada Day: you can enjoy the fireworks and parties even though it doesn't have the same meaning for you that it would for a Canadian.

8. What do you think about Jesus?
Jesus has no role in Judaism, and we don't think about Jesus very much at all.

9. Was Jesus a rabbi?
Jesus doesn't appear in any lists of our early rabbis, and the references to him in the Talmud, some of them veiled, are unfavorable. On the other hand, a large share of what he is reported to have taught is consistent with the teachings of our early rabbis, and so I am inclined to think that he must have been part of the same circle.

One thing that is confusing is that Christian tradition is quite negative about the Pharisees and seems to prefer the Sadducees, but the teachings of Jesus are closer to those of the Pharisees, from which the early rabbis emerged. The episode of whipping the money changers in the Temple appears to be a criticism of the Sadducees.

10. Do you believe that Christians are saved?
I really want to ask, "saved for what?" Or perhaps, "Do Christians believe that Jews are saved?"

The idea of salvation is really not central in Judaism, and we are much more concerned with life in this world than with salvation in the future. We emphasize righteous living, and the concept of being saved through faith is incomprehensible to us. In theological terms, this would be "justification by works" rather than "justification by faith," although we wouldn't use those terms.

Among modern rabbis, only Mordecai Kaplan used the term salvation very much. In his writing, however, it seems to mean whatever makes life worth living, so it's still in the here and now.

According to Jewish tradition, no one needs to be Jewish to be in good standing with God. We disapprove of polytheism, and to a Jewish mind the Trinity is hard to understand, but our rabbis have always taught that Christians consider themselves monotheists and since we are not experts on Christianity, we don't question that.

Judaism does believe that all human beings are obligated to observe the Noahide Laws, and that everyone who does is assured a place in the World to Come, whatever it is.

Monday, January 3, 2011


Are religious choices different from consumer choices? I sometimes say that my religious brand preference is “Reconservadox,” but in consumer terms that’s like having equal preference for Macintosh, Windows, and Linux computers. Nowadays people defend their operating-system preferences with the fervor that used to be reserved for religion.

The interplay between consumer choices and religious choices is, however, more subtle. Researchers from Tel Aviv University and the Duke University School of Business have explored the idea that religion and brand reliance (investing subjective worth or value in a name brand) serve a similar psychological need: the need to publically express one’s self-worth.

In one study, they asked some subjects to write an essay on “what your religion means to you personally,” and other subjects to write about “routine activities that you typically do in an average day.” Then, both groups were told to imagine a shopping trip and to choose products that they would normally buy. Offered a choice between Ralph Lauren and Target brand sunglasses, those who wrote about routine activities were more likely to choose the Ralph Lauren sunglasses while those who wrote about religion were more likely to choose the Target brand.

This effect was limited to products where the choice represented a measure of self-expression. It had no effect on choosing among purely functional products, such as batteries (Energizer vs. a store brand). Separately, they found that individuals with high religious commitments were less likely to choose highly advertised brands, but again only for self-expressive products.

It is disturbing to think that the same psychological needs might influence both religious expression and fashion choices. Is wearing a Star of David really the same as wearing a designer-brand sweater?

The question particularly concerns parents and educators because some of the aspects of Jewish religious life that are most apparent to our children have conspicuous materialistic elements. Although we teach that Hanukkah is about religious freedom, to a child it’s eight nights of presents! The Passover seder may be a long ceremony, but at the end you get a reward for finding the afikoman!

And most of all there’s the bar or bat mitzvah celebration. Lots of presents and a big party!

It’s not quite the same, of course. To receive Hanukkah presents, a child need only be present to light the hanukkiah (and not annoy his or her parents too much in the weeks before Hanukkah). Celebrating as a bar/bat mitzvah typically requires months of lessons and practice, culminating in the terrifying experience of chanting Torah and Haftarah before the congregation.

An anthropologist would recognize this as a form of trial by ordeal. In the form that is most often described, a young man in a tribal culture is expected to go out on his own for a time, perhaps to hunt and kill a lion, perhaps to survive on his own in the forest. His success in the trial demonstrates that he has made the transition to adulthood, which the tribe celebrates lavishly upon his return.

In other words, the presents and party aren’t exactly rewards for the effort. They’re expressions of our gratitude for the young person’s having survived the ordeal.

There’s one significant difference. In the kind of ordeal that anthropologists have documented, there is a serious risk of life. Although b’nai mitzvah lessons may be tedious, they’re not dangerous, and to the best of my knowledge, no young person has ever died of mitzvah-itis.

A psychologist might look at the question slightly differently. In developmental terms, the trial by ordeal isn’t so much a demonstration of the transition to adulthood as a means of bringing it about. Developmental psychologists have found that individuals on the cusp of a major life transition usually resist it, defending their old thoughts and values vigorously, and need something to push them forward. The bar/bat mitzvah ordeal serves that function.

The weeks after Hanukkah tend to be a let-down, especially when Hanukkah comes early relative to Christmas, as it did this year. Furthermore, this is a leap year in the Jewish calendar, so Purim (carnival prizes!) is late relative to the civil calendar. (We do celebrate Tu Bishvat this month, but no presents for that.) To make things even worse, the weather may keep us at home more than we’d like.

It’s an ideal time, however, to strengthen your family’s celebration of Shabbat, not least because it gets dark early and the light of the Shabbat candles is especially welcome. Don’t worry about cooking an elaborate, traditional Shabbos dinner. Just light the candles, make kiddush and motzi, and sit down to a family dinner together.

Of course we don’t receive tangible presents on Shabbat—only the Sabbath peace. Instead, we give tzedakah before lighting the candles. I strongly encourage families to make this a regular part of their Shabbat ritual. Have a tzedakah box for each child and let the child put coins in it each Friday evening. And model good Jewish behavior: even if you prefer to make charitable gifts by check or credit card, parents should have a tzedakah box and put (folding) money in it each Shabbat. Tzedakah—it’s not just for kids!

Heschel and King

The photograph above, and on the cover of our newsletter for this month, depicts Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel and the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., at a civil-rights march in Selma, Alabama, in 1962. Although Heschel was only one of many rabbis who were active in the civil-rights movement, he was the best-known and most influential.

The descendant of several famous rabbis, Heschel was born in Poland, where he studied in yeshiva and pursued Orthodox rabbinical ordination. Subsequently, he earned a doctorate at the University of Berlin and received liberal ordination from the Hochschule für die Wissenschaft des Judentums, where he studied with many of the most eminent Jewish scholars and rabbis of his time.

He was arrested in 1938 and deported to Poland, where he lectured on Jewish philosophy and Torah in Warsaw for ten months. In 1939–40, the president of Hebrew Union College brought him to America, and he taught at HUC in Cincinnati for five years before moving to the Jewish Theological Seminary.

Heschel’s activism might be surprising, because his work as a faculty member of the Jewish Theological Seminary emphasized spirituality and mysticism, not social justice. He seems to have been somewhat underappreciated at the JTS during his lifetime, partly because critical text study rather than spirituality dominated the curriculum, and partly because his traditionalist theology had less appeal for many students than did the radical, naturalistic theology of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan.

Nevertheless, it can be argued that his social activism stems directly from his doctoral thesis, an expanded version of which was published in English as The Prophets. Heschel was critical of the idea that only observance of halakha (Jewish law) really mattered in Judaism, with theology, Biblical narrative, and history taking lesser roles or no roles at all. He saw a narrow focus on observance as both contrary to authentic Jewish traditions and impractical except in isolated communities; he wanted Judaism, and Jews, to be fully engaged with the world.

In addition to his work in civil rights, and in opposing the Vietnam war, Heschel was a Jewish representative to the Vatican II conference, where he persuaded the Roman Catholic Church to eliminate or modify passages in its liturgy that demeaned Jews, or expected our conversion to Christianity. His theological works argued that religious experience is a fundamentally human impulse, not just a Jewish one, and that no religious community could claim a monopoly on religious truth.

In short, Heschel’s message is one that speaks directly to us in 2011. On one hand, he calls us to lead Jewish lives in which we are open to the Divine presence. On the other hand, he calls us equally to work for justice and to reject insularity.

Ye and We

I was probably in high school before I learned that “Go Down, Moses” wasn’t originally a Jewish song. I had learned it in model seders in re...