Tuesday, December 9, 2014

The good, the bad, the weird

A few recent good news–bad news items:

In Jerusalem, the Women of the Wall successfully conducted a bat mitzvah ceremony at the Kotel, including having the young women chant from a Torah scroll.

That’s the good news. The not-so-good news is that it was a very small Torah scroll, smuggled into the women’s section  under a coat, because the authorities would allow the women neither to use one of the sifrei Torah kept at the Western Wall, nor to bring in a full-sized scroll.

The Women of the Wall have also  begun advertising the opportunity for bat mitzvah services at the Wall on buses in Jerusalem. That’s the good news. The bad news is that the buses are being vandalized. 

Bad news: the rabbi of a prominent Orthodox congregation in Washington, D.C., was accused of placing a camera in the synagogue’s mikveh and photographing women as they undressed.

Relatively good news: the congregation placed him on leave and made no attempt at a cover-up. Some Orthodox authorities called for women to serve on boards that supervise mikvaot. 

Rabbi Shmuley Boteach wrote, “Few stories over the past years have been as serious with regards to male religious violation of women and action is required. A comprehensive review of male access to the female mikveh must be undertaken so that all women feel and know that the mikveh is an inviolable place of religious privacy and spiritual security.”

He also wrote, “This sorrowful story also highlights the need to accelerate the establishment of female Halakhic (Jewish legal) authorities so that women can increasingly regulate private feminine Jewish matters.”

Reb Shmuley, whose new book has the title Kosher Lust, also made a startling defense of voyeurism—but only within marriage and only with consent.

Good news: also in Washington, D.C., the National Cathedral (Episcopal) hosted a Friday jummah (Muslim prayer service) on November 14. This was widely reported, even by Ha’aretz in Israel.

Bad news: the service was interrupted by a protester. Slightly better news: there was only one protester, but that’s because admission to the cathedral was tightly controlled.

The service came about through a suggestion that Ebrahim Rasool, the ambassador of South Africa to the United States, made at a memorial service in the cathedral for Nelson Mandela. Ambassador Rasool gave the sermon at the jummah.

Some reports mentioned that the Islamic group that organized the service routinely holds services in one church and two synagogues.

Mixed news: Temple Emanu-El in New York City plans to hold a mock trial of Abraham for child endangerment. U.S. District Judge Alison Nathan will preside; Eliot Spitzer will prosecute; and Alan Dershowitz will lead the defense.

The not-so-good part of this is that the idea itself isn’t news at all. Sixth-grade classes in Hebrew schools everywhere have been doing this for years, albeit without the celebrities. This may turn out to be a great event for the congregation, but it seems a bit opportunistic.

Weird news: Rabbi Ted Riter, in Jackson, Mississippi, reported that he was ordered to leave a Greek restaurant after the owner learned that he was Jewish. As the rabbi tells it, the he ordered a salad and the owner asked him, “The regular size or the Jewish size?” and then denounced Jews as parsimonious.

The owner says that he asked whether the rabbi wanted a Greek salad or a Jewish salad. The latter is supposedly a regular item at the restaurant but it doesn’t appear on the menu. He says it was all a misunderstanding and offered to name a salad after the rabbi. No indication of what the ingredients of a Riter Salad would be.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

The five percent non-solution

Perhaps you’ve heard of Pareto’s Principle, also known as the 80/20 rule. In its most general form, it postulates that 20 percent of any effort produces 80% of the results.

For example, diversified companies usually find that 80 percent of total sales come from just 20 percent of their products. In software development, fixing the top 20 percent of reported bugs prevents 80 percent of system errors—not because the other bugs are inconsequential, but because they are encountered less frequently.

Peter Greene, a teacher in Pennsylvania, adds a Five Percent Rule: the idea that only five percent of anything really matters. Greene writes,

Ninety-five percent of everything is unimportant baloney, crap that we humans use to torture ourselves and each other. Neckties. Eye shadow. Funny hats. Hair length. Only five percent of what we deal with is true and important and lasting. Only five percent of what we deal with is really important. Only five percent of what we deal with really, truly matters. It's what Thoreau was saying—simplify your life by getting rid of the 95 percent junk

Greene continues,

We can agree that a huge slice of life is wasted on inconsequential stupid stuff, and that only that small sliver, that five percent, really deserves our heart and soul and attention.

But we can’t agree on what falls within the five percent.

Greene uses this line of reasoning to argue against contemporary efforts in curriculum reform, saying that the reforms elevate the five percent of learning that one person or group might value at the expense of the five percents that others might value.

I have to dispute Greene’s implication that only five percent of curriculum matters. I concede, however, that there is a lot of room for disagreement about what elements matter, and how much each matters.

In Jewish education, there is a degree of consensus about what is important, but there is nothing close to unanimity. For centuries, Hebrew was the mainstay of the cheder, but in the twentieth century, some congregations considered it unimportant. I worked in one congregation where the teaching of Hebrew had been prohibited for the first 40 years of the congregation’s existence, and limited for the next 30.

Israel wasn’t prominent in Hebrew-school curricula until the 1960s; the first Hebrew-school textbook on Israel was published in 1957. Today, every Jewish curriculum includes Israel, but we still disagree about what to teach and when to teach it. Israeli teachers, for example, take umbrage if Israel isn’t central in every grade. 

This kind of disagreement exists in every field in the humanities and social sciences (less so in the natural sciences, where learning is more incremental). English teachers—Greene is an English teacher—can usually agree that everyone should study Shakespeare. But should everyone also read Middlemarch? Or For Whom the Bell Tolls?

I will say that the Torah is so central to Jewish life and learning that every student in a Jewish school should study it. Hebrew, whether prayer-based or modern, is helpful for participation in communal Jewish life and, at higher levels, for understanding the Torah. Similarly, ritual skills are useful in Jewish life. 

I will also say that learning to live in accord with Jewish values is more important than mastering any specific prayer or ritual. According to a survey that our school took in 2011, the parents of our students agree. We’re not trying to make our children into learned scoundrels.

What is striking, however, is that all of these subjects—Torah, Hebrew, prayer and ritual, ethics—make sense only to a student who already feels Jewish. Although study can strengthen Jewish identity, it cannot create it. 

But how does a student come to feel Jewish? Jewish life at home is the starting point; school is no substitute. The family’s participation in Jewish communal life is the next element.

Both of these are obvious. Less often cited is the family’s application of Jewish values to everyday life. Let children know that you give tzedakah (that it’s not something only for religious school) and why you give it. Explain why it is un-Jewish to participate in gossip. Make your home a model of shlom bayit (peace in the home).

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Israel and us

The Rev. Bruce M. Shipman was the Episcopal chaplain at Yale University until the board of the Episcopal Church at Yale asked him to resign. The board requested his resignation after a letter he wrote about to the Gaza situation was published in The New York Times

His letter was a response to an op-ed column by Prof. Deborah Lipstadt of Emory University that expressed concern about the growth of anti-Semitism in Europe. Lipstadt is famous for winning a British libel trial, against Holocaust denier David Irving, that hinged on whether the Holocaust actually occurred.

Shipman’s letter was brief and, in some ways, unexceptional. It doesn’t take a mountain of research to see a connection between Israel’s actions against Gaza and increasing anti-Semitism, and he criticizes Lipstadt for discounting the role of the situation in the West Bank and Gaza in it.

I disagreed with Shipman’s implication that the anti-Semitic response is justified. I disagreed even more than with last paragraph of his letter: 

As hope for a two-state solution fades and Palestinian casualties continue to mount, the best antidote to anti-Semitism would be for Israel’s patrons abroad to press the government of Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu for final-status resolution to the Palestinian question.

This is also something one of us might write, but it’s objectionable when it comes from a Christian leader.

To a Jewish ear, it sounds as if Shipman is saying, “If you [Jews] don’t get Israel under control, we [Christians] will take it out on you.”

That brings to mind the comments that flew around when African Americans first ran for mayor in large cities. I remember people in Ohio saying that they supported Carl Stokes because “he’ll keep his people in line.” We still hear this comment when an African American is appointed chief of police in almost any city.

It’s just not the job of American Jews to keep Israel in line. To suggest that we should is itself anti-Semitic.

Shipman arguably holds a special brief for the Palestinians. He grew up in Cairo, where his father was a public-health engineer for the World Health Organization, and he has spent time in Israel and the West Bank. Thus, his sensibility is probably very much like that of Protestant missionaries who have worked among the Palestinians.

It seems difficult for liberal Christians in America to understand Zionism. Mark Oppenheimer, a contributing editor of the online magazine Tablet, conducted a long interview with Shipman. Oppenheimer suggests that Christians who hold generally favorable attitudes about Jews also expect us to be just like them:  

[and] what I sometimes think is, about the philo-Semitic liberal Protestant experience, is that they don’t understand the why the contemporary liberal Jew might be a Zionist. That in their mind the last good Zionist went out sometime around the late 1960s, was a socialist on a kibbutz somewhere, was totally secular, and that they don’t actually get the lived experience of being, say, a religious Jew in Brussels today.

About two years ago, a local church asked me to speak about Zionism. I began by reading the traditional prayer from the weekday services for rebuilding Jerusalem. For Jews who recited this prayer three times a day, six days a week, for almost two thousand years, Zionism is a religious imperative. 

There are few, if any, other religions that pray for return to a specific place. Catholics do not, in general, feel about Rome the way that we feel about Jerusalem. Irish Americans may hold a special feeling for Ireland, but it’s not primarily a religious one. The idea that sane people could feel a religious tie to another country is largely incomprehensible.

Friday, May 23, 2014

People's Republic of Donetsk

There’s an old joke about a Jewish community somewhere in the Midwest that received a telegram from the UJA office in New York City:


That was what it felt like during April, when we received numerous alarming reports from Ukraine. Not all the reports were credible, and they contradicted one another. But there was no “Send money” message from the Jewish Federations of North America, at least in part because it wasn’t clear that money would make any difference.

The most disturbing report was that the “People’s Republic of Donetsk” had distributed a flyer ordering Jews to register, at penalty of deportation. The “People’s Republic of Donetsk” was apparently a pro-Russian group that had taken over the municipal government in Donetsk (the name suggests that it might be not just pro-Russian but also pro-Soviet). 

The leaders of that group repudiated the order. They said that, while it might have been distributed by their followers, it was unauthorized and had no force. Later reports suggested that it might have originated with a pro-Ukrainian group hoping to embarrass the pro-Russian faction, or (now it gets complicated) with the pro-Russian faction, hoping to pin blame on the pro-Ukrainians.

Neither Russia nor Ukraine has been a great friend of Jews, although both had large Jewish populations and still have significant numbers of Jews. 

Regardless of who issued the flyer, the tactic is ominous. 

On one hand, it reeks of Stalinist portrayals of Jews as “rootless cosmopolitans” with no loyalty to the country in which they had lived for many generations. 

On the other hand, it also evokes memories of the Nazi occupation of Ukraine. This is not to say that the Nazi persecution of Jews carries weight in Ukraine today—only that one side may have wanted to paint the other as pro-Nazi and therefore anti-Ukraine. It’s just not clear which side was behind it.

Another disturbing aspect of the situation in Ukraine is Russia’s claim that it has a right to protect ethnic Russians living in Ukraine. It sounds too much like Germany’s claim on the Sudetenland (the western part of Czechoslovakia) in 1938.

Ethnic conflicts in that part of the world are inherently difficult for Americans to understand. Although we now realize that the United States is not quite the “melting pot” we once thought, we all believe that ethnic background and national identity are separate.

Throughout central and eastern Europe, national identity is somewhat confused because of arbitrary borders drawn after World Wars I and II. It is more confused in the former Soviet Union because of Stalin’s policy of shifting large populations from one part of the Soviet Union to another. Large numbers of people from Russia were resettled in both Ukraine and the Baltic states, possibly as bulwarks against any drives for independence.

None of this makes us feel any more comfortable with the Donetsk flyer. It seems that Jews in Donetsk did not take it at all seriously, and none registered. Nevertheless, the idea that it could seem like a good political tactic and that it might have been taken seriously remains unsettling.

Saturday, May 10, 2014

I do not love thee, Dr. Rice

When Dr. Condoleeza Rice withdrew from a speaking engagement at Rutgers University, after protests on campus, one of my friends posted on Facebook that he would never set foot on the campus or donate to Rutgers again.

My friend is more conservative politically than I am - much more - and his reaction was typical of political conservatives. 

Whether Dr. Rice should have carried through with the speech or not, the arguments my friend and others make are wrong.

The most-heard argument is that the protesters are "silencing" Dr. Rice or infringing her right of free speech under the First Amendment.

These are empty rhetoric (to be polite) and utter hooey (which is what I really think). First: Dr. Rice has not been in any way "silenced." She's not being held incommunicado. She can easily obtain all the media and public attention that she wants.

Second, her right to speak is not being abridged. Although Rutgers is a state university and subject to the First Amendment (unless you agree with Justice Clarence Thomas that the First Amendment does not apply to the states, only to the Federal government), it was Rutgers that invited her to speak and it was she who chose to withdraw after accepting the invitation.

The protesters did not abridge her right of free speech, because they are not the government. When they act as individuals, even organized individuals, they're not subject to the First Amendment.

In fact, if there is a First Amendment argument to be made, it's on behalf of the protesters. The law is clear that they had the right to express their opinion.

A better argument would be that the role of a university is to promote open and honest inquiry into important subjects. It would be more in keeping with the spirit of free inquiry to allow Dr. Rice to speak and also allow others to express differing opinions.

A counter-argument can be made that Dr. Rice, when she served in the Bush administration, was no model of honesty. I'm not sure that her speech would have furthered honest inquiry - but I don't know what she would have said.

The other consideration is that Dr. Rice wasn't just giving a lecture. She was to speak at Commencement and receive an honorary degree (and a large fee). To many of the protesters, her speaking on campus wasn't as objectionable as her being honored by the university.

To be clear, even an entity required by the First Amendment to respect free speech is not required to promote the speech of any specific individual.

Free speech is a recurring issue at colleges and universities, which are full of people eager to express themselves, some too immature to take a balanced view of issues. They sometimes also have - and I know this as an insider in college administration - leaders who are more intent on public recognition than on intellectual inquiry.

Some years ago, the College Republicans at Oberlin College (I'm an alumnus and was working in the administration there at the time) wanted to fire a 21-gun salute in honor of President Ronald Reagan. This was long enough ago that there may not have been any rules about firearms on campus. In any case, the college administration did not try to block it.

Other students did block it, by simply milling around in the plaza where the guns were to be fired. The local ACLU chapter responded by censuring the college, saying that the college had infringed the College Republicans' rights under the First Amendment.

It didn't appear to me that the college, as an institution, had done any such thing. Again, the First Amendment argument seemed to fall at least equally in the other direction: the students who were milling around in the plaza were exercising their right of free assembly.

Many state universities have developed policies that work well to maintain free speech. At one where I worked, anyone could speak on campus at any time, as long as it did not interfere with classes or any other functions of the university. So protests couldn't take place inside academic buildings during classes, and amplification was allowed at only one location, the portico of the university auditorium. 

The same issue comes up regularly in New York City, with protests outside the United Nations complex. Frequently there are both protesters and counter-protesters, on opposite side of the same issue. The city police assign a separate zone to each group and keep them apart, not to prevent either from speaking, but to keep them from hurting one another.

Perhaps the best example is a well-known incident in history. In 1939, the Daughters of the American Revolution denied the use of Constitution Hall, then the only major concert venue in Washington, D.C., for a recital that Marian Anderson, an African-American singer, was to give before an integrated audience. Partly through the intervention of Eleanor Roosevelt, Anderson sang instead in an open-air concert on the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, to a live audience of 75,000 (far more than the capacity of Constitution Hall) and a radio audience in the millions.

I said that I don't know what Dr. Rice would have said at Rutgers. Although I don't respect or even trust her very much, I think it would be best if she were to give the speech somewhere else or, if that is not practical, publish it.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

Teaching altruism

Teachers know that learning proceeds best when we comment on what a student does, not who the student is. For example, it is better to say, “I see that you studied hard for the math test” instead of “You’re really good at math.”

That’s partly in order not to create persistent negative expectations when the outcome isn’t ideal. It’s easy for a student to conclude, “I’m really lousy at math” (or “I’m really lousy at Hebrew”) instead of thinking, “This subject requires some extra effort.”

Another reason, however, is to avoid creating anxiety about repeating a success. In that situation, it is even more helpful to interpret the student’s work to him or her and not state a simple judgment.

This seems to be the case consistently for academic learning, but some new research suggests that it doesn’t apply for moral development. 

Research had already demonstrated that it can be difficult to transmit ethical values to children. For example, an Israeli study of 591 families found that parents who valued compassion and kindness did not necessarily inculcate those values in their children.

The new research suggests that, for moral values, it may sometimes be better to praise a child for being a certain type of person than for doing a certain type of thing. Although many parents and teachers believe it is better to say, “That was a thoughtful thing to do” than “You are a thoughtful person,” the research leads to the opposite conclusion.

In one study, children who donated some of their winnings in a game to others were randomly assigned to three  groups. Children in one group received praise for doing something helpful, while those in the second were told that they donated because they were helpful people. The third group was told neither.

Weeks later, eight-year-olds in the second group were found to be more altruistic than those in either the first group or the third. One lesson that has been drawn is that praising a child’s identity is more effective than praising the child’s behavior.

That conclusion might not apply to younger or older children. Neither praise for behavior nor praise for identity increased feelings of altruism in five-year-olds, and both increased feelings of altruism in ten-year-olds.

On the other hand, both kinds of praise increased the likelihood that children would donate again, in all three age groups.

Popular reports on this research, such as a widely-quoted New York Times op-ed by Adam Grant of the University of Pennsylvania, have somewhat misrepresented the research results. Based on that study, we could conclude only that praising identity over behavior is effective with eight-year-olds, not necessarily at other ages.

A different study found that young children (ages three through six) were more likely to help with a task when asked to “be a helper” rather than “to help.” Research also found that exhortation “not to be a cheater” was more effective than “not to cheat.”

Those two studies suggest that helping children to develop a favorable self-image has stronger effects on behavior than only teaching desirable behavior. It’s what I’d expect: once you see yourself as helpful or kind, making the helpful or kind choice is almost automatic.

Rabbi Geoffrey Mitelman compared these research studies to the Four Children in the Passover haggadah. Nowadays we object, rightly, to labeling children unnecessarily, but the research suggests that very judicious labeling (not calling a child a rasha, wicked one) might be beneficial. Rabbi Mitelman writes:

While we may still grapple with the Haggadah “labeling” children, the truth is, our behaviors create our identity, and our identity informs our behavior. After all, some of us relish being "the curious one" or "the provocative one," some of us are always just happy to be together with friends and family, and some of us need to be shown what we are missing. 

In the end, Passover reminds us that we are free, which means that we have the freedom to choose how we act. Yet those actions will ultimately define who we are.
So with all the questions this holiday encourages, perhaps the most important one is, “What kind of person do you want to be?”

Thursday, April 24, 2014


It was news when the American Studies Association adopted a boycott of Israeli academic institutions. It was news when a major American religious denomination once again considered a divestment of companies that operate in Israel.

The reaction of the Jewish community in the United States wasn’t news. For the most part, our reaction was predictable.

There is no question in my mind about it: we should support Israel and oppose all of the boycott, divestment, and sanctions (“BDS”) proposals.

What we shouldn’t do is denounce all such talk as anti-Jewish. Many of us criticize Israel ourselves. 

We shouldn’t ignore it, either. The underlying goal of the BDS movement is to deny legitimacy to the State of Israel. Using criticisms that have some validity, it tried to influence people who mean well and whose concerns about the living conditions of Palestinians are genuine. 

The model appears to be the divestment movement against South Africa in the 1970s. The situations, however, are not equivalent or even parallel.

First: the government of Israel is elected by all the citizens of Israel, including Arab Muslims and Christians. (About one million Arabs are citizens of Israel.) Non-Jewish citizens of Israel can and do hold seats in the Knesset. South Africa had a white government in which black citizens had no role and few rights.

Second: South Africa enforced discrimination based on race and made it paramount in everything. There was even a government panel that could “change” a person’s race in official records. Israel supports a parallel Arab school system that has considerable autonomy, and protects the religious rights of non-Jews. 

This does not mean that we should be willfully oblivious to human-rights issues or to the hardships that residents of the Palestinian Authority and Gaza encounter.  Nor does it mean that Protestant denominations concerned about the conditions under which Arab Christians live should be willfully oblivious to the safety of Israelis.

For example, it is undeniable that security checkpoints can pose severe inconvenience. It should be obvious, however, that the inconvenience could be reduced if the risk of suicide attacks inside Israel were less.

Security checkpoints especially affect residents of the P.A. who work in Israel, so it should be equally obvious that any economic boycott of Israel would affect them along with Israelis.
And it should be obvious that denouncing critics of Israel as anti-Jewish is neither right nor productive. Here’s what Jerry Silverman (Jewish Federations of North America) and Rabbi Steve Gutow (Jewish Council for Public Affairs) suggest as our response to proponents of boycotts, divestment, or sanctions:

One principle that guides this work is that we should understand our audiences. And when we speak with others, we should do so with a respect for the sensitivities of that constituency so that our important messages are authentically heard. Whether on a campus, in a church or speaking with an LGBT group, we should always be clear that we stand as partners, sharing the goal of a future with peace and security — not one of conflict and BDS.

Experience and research demonstrate that what works best with these audiences—mostly made up of political and religious progressives — is not an all-good-vs.-all-bad characterization of Israelis and Palestinians. Instead, a more nuanced narrative is the one that is likely to defeat the one-sided and hostile stance of those seeking to delegitimize Israel.

This means honestly conveying the situation’s complexity, expressing empathy for suffering on both sides (without implying moral equivalency) and offering a constructive pathway to helping the parties move toward peace and reconciliation based on two states for two peoples.

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...