Thursday, January 18, 2007

Pesel America'i

I’ve been watching the tryouts for American Idol, care of Jetblue, and I’m inclined to agree with the Buddha – life is suffering.

Now, I really like this show, as I’ll explain, but I just don’t understand how they revel in torturing people who’s lack of singing talent is clearly the least of their problems. It feels like they’re having open tryouts for professional boxing, and can't get enough of it when some poor little weakling climbs into the ring and gets the snot knocked out of him.

Seriously, though, I do like this show. I began watching it because my son likes it, and it has grown on me as the seasons have gone by. Despite all of the weirdness, mediocrity and desperation, there is a genuine drama going on here. In a sense, the professional sports which I’ve watched all my life is also a form of reality TV, with all of the running drama and focus on the players. Or, to put it the other way around, reality television is just sports for a wider audience – and although the scenarios are contrived, it still seems to trigger of the joys of rooting for your team and the suspense of winning and losing.

And, let’s face it, 'Idol' is chock full of life lessons. The biggest lesson, of course, is that, while it’s great to have a dream, it’s also good to try to keep some grip on reality.

But this is not the only wisdom.

For parents, the show has given us the great axiom “Neither a Simon nor a Paula be.”

From Simon, though, we learn the value of being brutally honest. Of all the judges, Simon’s opinion is most valued because he never, ever gives false accolades. Personally, I’d rather work for a Simon than a Paula. You may not like what he’s saying, but a compliment is a compliment, and what he says is actually useful.

Randy, (who has more musical talent in his little finger than all the past winners combined), who has a nice, balanced, normal personality, reminds us how boring that can be. But it also reminds us that when you’ve got a bunch of extremist crazies around, (e.g. Paula and Simon) it’s good to have a real pro who knows what’s what.

And from Paula, who is just a complete sweetheart – I don’t care what anyone says – we learn what happens when you put too much Bourbon in your Coke.

Monday, January 15, 2007

Today Could Have Made a Difference

Today is a national holiday in honor of the life and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.. Across the country, banks, universities, securities markets, and government offices remain closed in honor of this great man, and of the civil-rights awakening which he led.

And, across the country, all school-aged children remain home in observance of this day.

Well, almost all children.

All children except Orthodox Jewish children, at least in the vast majority of Yeshivos and day schools.

For them, school is open, with a regular class schedule in place, and the day passes with hardly a notice.

My youngest son, who attends a fairly liberal modern orthodox day school doesn’t even have an assembly to tell the students about the day. If it weren’t for the lack of school bus service, there wouldn’t even be a mention of it.

There are many things which bother me about this.

First, and of least importance, this is a national holiday, and we do, after all, live in America. Most of these same schools are closed on Thanksgiving, President’s Day and Memorial Day. And, if we are reticent to show respect to this country which has given us so many things, at least we can heed Hillel’s warning “Al tifrosh min hatzibure” (“Do not separate yourself from the community”) (perek 2:5).

Second, there is a simple principle of ‘Hakarat Hatov’ showing appreciation for a good deed. It requires a high degree of myopia to not realize how much the orthodox community has benefited from all of the legislative and cultural tolerance which has been the outcome of the Civil Rights revolution. Each time we can wear our kippot to work, or leave early for shabbos, or buy a home in a non-Jewish neighborhood or keep our jobs in spite of the numerous holidays of our own which we observe, we owe Dr. King and the movement which he led a debt of thanks.

I could just end my post here and let this go as simple lack of sensitivity within our community. Our community has enough detractors without adding my voice. But, if I did, I would be overlooking the most disturbing aspect of this problem.

Our children do not associate with black children. They do not go to school with them, they don’t play with them, they don’t do extra-curricular activities with them. And we - the adults - also have very minimal (or no) social contact with blacks.

We carefully insulate our community against those who are different from us. And, when there is no contact – no personal experiance of others – the ground is fertile for the breading of hatred, fear and prejudice.

In the years which have passed since I was in school, the orthodox community has learned to be far more careful and political correct. But I don’t think that it has become less prejudiced. Blacks are routinely referred to as ‘shvartzas’. Racial jokes still circulate in our schools – sometimes not only by students. And there is probably not a single orthodox school in New York who employs a black teacher or administrator.

I am sure that most of my readers would rush to argue with this, either in whole or in part. But actions speak louder than words.

What lesson are we teaching our children when we open our schools today? Are we teaching how reprehensible and immoral racial discrimination is? Are we teaching how fundamentally wrong it is to believe that someone’s skills or character is different based on the color of their skin? Are we teaching that eradication of prejudice and hatred is a moral priority for all of us?

Or, are we reinforcing all of the negative and prejudiced ideas that we overtly or covertly teach them the other 364 days of the year.

It is time for us to wake up and take a clear look at ourselves. It is time for us to stop being the ‘deep south’ of the 21st century.

Let us start to take some real and effective steps to change the message which we are sending to our children. Let us invite black teachers to our schools to teach our children. Let our schools participate in inter-racial programs so that our children can meet and get to know children of color in a positive manner. Let us teach civil rights not just as a history lesson, but as a moral imperative. Let us hear our Rabbis and teachers darshan on the importance of tolerance and brotherhood.

And let us properly honor this great man. Let us close the schools.

In the meantime, perhaps all of us who are parents could spend a few minutes talking to our children about the meaning of this day.

Sunday, January 14, 2007

Can We Question?

This post started out as a comment on a post by Chana which discusses her feelings about “Truth and Illusions”. But I realized pretty quickly that I was writing something which was too long and too general to post as a comment on her blog. In her post, she writes about some of the issues which – independent from belief - keep one from potentially exploring religious changes. And, she writes about the things which she feels compels and impedes her own process.

While Chana writes about her personal situation, some of the issues which she raises are universal in the thoughts and emotions of those who consider the questioning of their lifelong religious beliefs. From my own experiance, I can testify as to how crucial some of these issues can be. I am not at all advocating that people not believe in Judaism or orthodoxy. Rather, I am advocating the legitimacy of asking their own questions and seeking their own truths.

1. Parents:

I owe a debt, far more than I could ever repay, to my parents. My parents raised me. They gave me life, they gave me my upbringing, they gave me literature, they gave me love. Do I cause them anguish and worry simply because I have discovered what I believe to be my truth? How much do I owe? Do I owe them my life?

You have some very real obligation to your parents, but not disappointing them with your life choices isn’t one of them. We parents tend to play up (overtly or not) how devastated and sad we will be if our children do something 'wrong'. But the truth is that it's overplayed. We love our children and feel for them, (and most of us aren’t above feeling some embarrassment when they really foul up) but we still have our own lives to live. The children, on the other hand, are the ones who will actually live the choice - that is the entirety of their lives. So our second-hand upset does not begin to compete with the full-time, direct effects which the children experience by their choices. Most good parents understand this.

No one else on earth is accountable for your actions. You yourself will have to bear responsibility for your choices. Hand in hand with this ultimate accountability is ultimate self-responsibility and ultimate freedom of choice. So, though this may sound like trite new-age stuff, you have only one life, it belongs only to you, and it is yours to live as you see fit.

2. Torah Knowledge

In order to be honest about oneself and one’s religion, one ought to investigate claims against it. The problem is that I am not yet secure in the religion itself; I have not learned the texts I need to learn. How can one hope to understand opposition if one does not even understand all that one believes? There are innumerable pages of Gemara, various commenataries, scribes, ideas. I would have to study all this, and know it well, before I could ever hope to look through the ideas countering it. For if I do not understand my religion, how could I hope to understand attacks against it?

You state that you haven’t learned enough Torah to investigate the claims against it. This was a notion which kept me practicing religion for quite a long time. But how can this possibly make any moral or logical sense? You’ve certainly learned far more Torah than biblical criticism, or ancient history, or anthropology, or comparative religion, etc.. And, since Torah defines itself as having no end, you will be troubled by this argument ad-infinitum. Moreover, though, you are smart and learned enough to know that, while you will find many more expositions on Torah anomalies, you aren’t going to come across anything which will fundamentally change the game. My experience, anyway, is that it ultimately comes down in to whether you end up thinking that the story in its entirety passes the “can a rational person believe this” test. And that is based more on the global issues than the specific minutia.

This is part of the orthodox ‘truth’ paradox. You must seek the truth. But, you may only seek it within the confines of orthodoxy.

I used to tell myself that, while I couldn’t figure out how to believe, the fact that some of the most brilliant and admirable people that I knew believed so passionately must mean that there were compelling answers to these questions. It was only when I experienced equally brilliant and moral people who did not hold these beliefs – or who believed other things which were unfathomably irrational, that I began to realize that their belief was not based on brilliant answers which they had found. It was based on the same emotional and sociological forces which hold such strong sway on all of us.

3. Trusting your Motives and Ideas

I can do nothing before I have succeeded in acquiring a kind of humility, because only the humble can seek. Humble people want answers, they want to learn, they want the truth.Proud people want to be right. Or they want others to think they are right.

You claim that you lack humility, and that this pridefulness negates your ability to seek the truth. I beg to differ. I’m sure that you have a very healthy ego, and a high opinion of yourself. But pride is not the same as feeling your worth, just as humility is not equal to feeling your worthlessness. With all of the value which you place on honesty and integrity, do you really think that you are too proud to accept a truthful idea when it is presented to you? Or, rather, do you just have enough self-confidence to not accept a problematic idea which others think is truthful but which you may not?

This is just another subset of another thing which kept me in orthodoxy for so long – questioning and second guessing your motives. The though process goes like this; “I can’t understand how the Orthodox Story can be truthful, but am I saying that because of a ‘genuine’ exploration of the truth, or do I have some ulterior motive, or some character flaw which is leading me in the wrong direction. How can I be sure that I’m right? How can I really trust my thoughts?”

This is all crazy-making. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t look at the emotional context for what you’re thinking – of course you should. But to be taught – as we all were – that we can’t trust our thoughts and feelings is just not true. The truth is that, within the vast majority of us humans, the desire and drive towards good is overwhelming. Certainly, we have weaknesses, character flaws and temptations. But, far stronger than those things is our yearning to become better people.

4. Can we Question?

Virtually all skeptics who have been brought up in orthodox families approach their skepticism in the same way. They consider skepticism to be a radical theory which they can not buy into until they are 100,000% sure of its accuracy and until the prevalent theory of faith has been irrefutably proven to be false. In the meantime - while all of this evidence is gathered, while we endlessly question the purity of our motives, while we hesitate to explore the information which may help us determine our choice - we remain practicing our orthodoxy and carrying on with our lives.

One of the Rabbeim in Ner Yisroel once explained to me that the goal of the yeshiva was not to create great torah scholars per se. Rather, the goal was to keep boys in the yeshiva until they had started their families. After that, he said, the die was cast, and reducing their level of religiosity would be virtually impossible.

Changing beliefs is incredibly difficult and painful, but it is far more difficult once you have the obligations which come to you as you get older – spouses, children, careers, mortgages, community ties, etc.. Young adulthood is the age when one has the greatest possible freedom to explore, test, experiment and change.

But, rather than granting our young adults some encouragement – or even leeway - to try to apprehend a life path which resonates with them, which is true for them, which leads them to their own happiness and fulfillment, we do the opposite. We build as many roadblocks as possible to prevent them from doing the things which would be most helpful in finding and feeling secure in their choices – be it Orthodox Judaism or something else.

The orthodox system has a zero-tolerance policy for any deviation from the ‘derech’ – the one and only acceptable path. Perhaps, somewhere deep down, we subconsciously know how weak our story line really is. So, we endlessly lecture about how seductive the dark side is, how fallible our human judgment is, and how easy it is for our minds to be corrupted. And, we prevent – through legislation, social pressure, family influence and emotional manipulation – any attempts by our youth to really test and question their faith.

What is the theory here? Is it that Abraham – through honest introspection and broad unfettered philosophical inquiry – abandoned the pagan faith of his fathers and set out on a new (then heretical) path. And, since that fateful day, some three thousand years ago, not one single Jew has had the right to engage in exactly the same inquiry? He found the one true and right answer, and now we are no longer even allowed to ask the question?

The choice of faith is very personal on many levels. Every person must choose his own path. This is not merely a right – it is a reality. Even not choosing is choosing. Try as we may, there is no way to abrogate this obligation.

And, the time of young adulthood is the time to explore the choice. Dispite what you may be told, despite what doubts and fears have been planted in your mind, you are, in fact, allowed to experiment – to try on different ideas and see how they resonate, to do different things and see how they make you feel, to make mistakes, to read and study and speak and ask and argue. And you are allowed to trust yourself, and to trust your own honesty and goodness and integrity.

You owe yourself more than to look back at life and know that you didn’t even consider making a self-directed choice at the time that you could have because you hadn’t learned enough Torah, or felt obliged to your parents, or couldn’t trust your motives.

And, no choices must be final. You are allowed to make mistakes, and learn from those mistakes. If you leave and return, you will be welcomed back with open arms, and before you know it, Feldheim and Artscroll will be bidding on your life story.

Tuesday, January 09, 2007

A Pack of Truth

Knowing can be a curse on a person’s life. I’d traded in a pack of lies for a pack of truth, and I didn’t know which one was heavier. Which one took the most strength to carry around? It was a ridiculous question, though, because once you know the truth, you can’t ever go back and pick up your suitcase of lies. Heavier of not, the truth is yours now.

From The Secret Life of Bees

With The Mermaid Chair, Sue Monk Kidd has solidified her place as one of the great American Authors of the new century. Personally, what I love best about her writing – even beyond her great storytelling ability, unique characterizations and lovely writing - is her emotional acuity.

In the above quote, she writes about the experience of her main character finally learning the elusive truth about her mother – a truth which she has sought all of her life, while at the same time constructing a protective mythology around herself. The myths which she had fabricated protected her from knowing what was too painful to know, and filled in the blanks of a history which she had no way of deciphering.

All of us balance the urges to seek the truth while at the same time striving to dig our heads deeper into the sand. Learning that a comfortable assumption was wrong is always stressful, and there are some truths which we suspect that, as Jack Nicholson put it “we can’t handle.”

Truth-processing is a fascinating human mechanism. It is part of the human experience that we are all acculturated to certain beliefs which help enhance out lives. These beliefs are not necessarily ‘lies’. They are generally just assumptions which have far less factual basis than we attribute to them. Sometimes we do push through some of them, sometimes we don’t, and the degree to which we succeed is one of the central dramas in our lives.

In the skeptical blogging world, we often witness the painful drama of this struggle. And, even more poignantly, we view the struggle to do what Kidd’s heroin realizes that she cannot do – to set down the heavy suitcase of truth and grasp for the old suitcase of myths.

Saturday, January 06, 2007

Male-Pattern Cluelessness

XGH is writing a series of heartbreakingly clueless posts about morality. The question being asked is whether orthodox practice is moral - independant of it's claim of a divine ethic. Here is part of his riff on women.

"I don't see that the way Halachah treats women is immoral. Certainly, it does not treat men and women exactly the same, but then neither does the army, or many other aspects of life. If you want a religion which treats men and women identically, then OJ is not for you. But immoral? I don't think so, except in a vague indirect way, that since women don't have a public role, that could lead some men to think they (men) are superior. Extreme Chareidism, with the limitations it puts on womens education and other rights, may be immoral in this regard. "

Where does one begin? Not immoral to be banned from any positions of leadership or authority? Not immoral to be bound by law which you have no ability to contribute to? Not immoral to not be allowed to marry and divorce at will? Not immoral to be prevented from pursuing any proffessional or artistic endeavor which calls to you? Not immoral to be unable to testify in court, or to own property after marriage? Not immoral to be unable to even study the source of the laws by which you are restricted?

The most striking thing about this is that XGH, who is a pretty thoughtful and honest guy, is completely inoculated against any feeling that the consequences of these laws are harmful to the lives of women.

I doubt that this will help, but here is a 'moshul' (parable).

There was once a land which was the very apex of Ultimate Moral Standards. In this land, half of the citizens had blond hair and half had brown hair. Because the law of the land was just and fair, there was absolutely no discrimination between the Blonds and Browns, however, the wise law of the land did provide slightly different roles for the two groups.

Blonds were allowed and encouraged to seek education in all areas, and were particularly encouraged to gain expertise in areas of jurisprudence, leadership and ethics. They alone could assume positions of political, social and judicial leadership. To them fell the weighty task of ensuring that the society maintained the Highest Moral Standards. All positions with any decision making authority at all were filled with Blonds.

Browns were not permitted to study any area of law which involved the intricacies of legislation – especially on a theoretical level. They could not study law or hold any career position which involved legislation or jurisprudence. In fact, they could not even testify in court. They not hold any political offices or assume positions of civic leadership. They could not vote for political leaders or for propositions of law.

The Blond legislators instituted law which created an equitable division of labor. Under such law, the Blonds would spend as much time as they wished in the pursuit of the study of ethics and law. Browns were required to facilitate this study by contributing a special income tax of at least 50% of their income, and were required to spend 85% of their free time providing for the domestic needs of the Blonds.

There were some special privileges which were accorded to Browns. For example, they were encouraged to recite lengthy poems which described the exalted beauty of the Ethical Law. And there were special laws which defined how they should dress, wear their hair, and socialize. In addition, to ensure equality, the law carefully maintained that the Browns were subject to any legal restriction which also applied to Blonds.

Some Radical Browns occasionally misconstrued the judiciousness of this system and ignorantly claimed that it granted Blonds greater rights than Browns. These troublemakers were never motivated by any genuine ethical issue, but were rather motivated by selfishness and influenced by evil societies which did not live up to the Highest Moral Standards.


Intentionally or not, orthodoxy has created a subjugated underclass. It is widely recognized in this day and age that those who are subject to a system of law are entitled to participate in the development of that law. The development of Orthodox law is based on exponding and applying the concepts of the Talmud - a process which women are completely excluded from. And the resulting 'box' which women must fit themselves into in order to be acceptable within the orthodox system - the opportunities which they must deprive themselves of and the life-limiting roles which they must accept - is far more debilitating than that of men.

One can, of course, argue that women are quite willing participants in this system. They are happy - in fact, they are among the most zealous advocates of the system - so if they aren't complaining, how can you say that this causes harm?

But this is always the case of an oppressed people. Women were among the strongest advocates against the suffrage movements in the 19th and 20th centuries. (Women were not granted universal suffrage in the US until 1920.) Here is an excerpt from a debate in 1911 - penned by a woman:

"The mother’s influence is needed in the home. She can do little good by gadding the streets and neglecting her children. Let her teach her daughters that modesty, patience, and gentleness are the charms of a women. Let her teach her sons that an honest conscience is every man’s first political law; that no splendor can rob him nor no force justify the surrender of the simplest right of a free and independent citizen. The mothers of this country can shape the destinies of the nation by keeping in their places and attending to those duties that God Almighty intended for them. The kindly, gentle influence of the mother in the home and the dignified influence of the teacher in the school will far outweigh all the influence of all the mannish female politicians on earth. "

There were American Slaves who fought for the Confederacy. There were African Blacks who rallied for apartheid. And, there those amongst our forefathers in Egypt who rallied against leaving the land of their oppression. There are social and emotional forces which compel those enslaved and oppressed to cling to their chains and to defend their oppressors. It is the rare and unique revolutionary who can see beyond the agony of change and disruption to envision a better day.

But this does not make these things moral, and does not mitigate the evil which is being perpetuated.