Monday, March 31, 2014


Parshat Metzora
29 Adar, 5774
March 31st, 2014

I love banter. Love it. Once I start teasing you, you can be assured of my affection.

My faith in banter comes from a love for language combined with mistrust for the way language is used. I love words and believe in their power; I also know that people regularly use language to conceal their true feelings. More often than not, in our culture, ill-will comes with a smile and a carefully worded statement from the management.

So some times, in order to display the strength of a relationship, one flips language on its head. This is the intent behind what Rabbi Shira and I do on Purim, writing “sermons” for each other that the other doesn’t see until s/he reads it, embarrassing the hell out of one another. We flip everything over on Purim, to find the hidden truth underneath; if there wasn’t real affection between us, there’s no way that we could make fun of each other. The teasing is a testament to its opposite: the real connection between people.

Lately, I’ve been challenged to think about what it means to speak authentically. This, almost criminally long essay on smarm by Gawker features editor Tom Scocca and Malcom Gladwell’s response on sarcasm in the New Yorker duel as to the nature of what makes speech authentic.

In an unfairly small nutshell, Scocca points out to damage that smarm can do. Smarm he defines as niceness, politeness, and achieving the right tone without any relationship to the content of what’s being said: basically, someone smiling at you whether they promote you or fire you, telling you that s/he feels your pain whether they’re caring for your needs or denying you benefits, etc. Smarm makes kindness untrustworthy.

Gladwell argues for the opposite, that sarcasm and mockery are tools of conservatism and the status quo; they are a quick way to take down new, revolutionary, and  important ideas, to stop upstarts in their tracks with a barrage of laughter.*

As for me, I search for authenticity in the golden mean between these two extremes. Of one of the teachers in the Talmud, Rabbah, it’s said that “before Rabbah would start teaching the rabbis, he’d say something funny, and the rabbis would laugh. After that he’d sit in reverence and begin teaching Torah.” (Talmud Shabbat 30b)

That is my test, for relationships, for ideas, and for speech. Can they hold reverence? Can they bear humor? Is there space for both? When the answer is yes, I have found the authenticity that I seek.

*For example: women should be given the right to vote? Ridiculous. One should as well give animals the same right. In fact here is a pamphlet mocking the famous feminist Mary Wollstonecrafts essay “A Vindication of the Rights of Women.” It is by the philosopher Thomas Taylor, wholly a work of satire. Much to his posthumous surprise, I’m sure, his satirical essay has become the completely serious basis for the animal rights movement.

Monday, March 24, 2014

What To Do When Spring Hasn’t Sprung

Parshat Tazria
22 Adar II, 5774
March 24th, 2014

They call spring a song:  “For now the winter is past, the rains are over and gone, the blossoms have appeared in the land, the time of pruning has come; the song of the dove is heard in our land.” (Song of Songs 2:11-12)

Here is a partial list of the songs I have heard instead of the song of spring:
·         The song of my space heater, wheezing mightily;
·         Synchronized groaning as another snow day is announced;
·         Quick clacking of heels on pavement as their owner hurries to get out  of the cold;
·         Repeated muttering, “why did leave [insert warm location here]?
(To be fair, most of that last one was my solo performance.)

The Talmud teaches that when God created the world, God did not let the seeds of all the plants sprout until Adam and Eve prayed for rain. God desires the prayers of the tzadikim – the righteous; Adam and Eve’s prayers added spiritual quality to the new world. (Talmud Chullin 60b)

We could add a little righteousness of our own. The question on many of our minds is whether we have anything to do with this brutal cold: whether it is just a tough winter or the continuing depredations of climate change.

So as we steel ourselves and wait just a little longer until the blossoms come, perhaps we could plan for a righteous spring: set up the compost bin we’ve been meaning to get to; plan our window herb gardens and vegetables; get our bikes tuned up to green our commutes; figure out where we’re going to get local produce when the season comes. 

How do you plan on preparing for a spiritual spring? Comment below.

Tuesday, March 18, 2014

Should Children Choose Their Own Religion?

Parshat Shemini
20 Adar II, 5774
March 18th, 2014

Rabbi Hanina wryly says the Talmud: “Everything is in the hands of heaven except belief in heaven.”** God can do anything, except force a free human being to believe in Her.

Belief cannot be compelled. A few centuries ago, the philosopher John Locke pointed out the contradiction of forced religious conversion. Forcing someone to convert does not make them a believer, it just makes them lie to you; belief, by definition, is sincere.

So when parents or couples say that they want to hold off on religious education until their kid is old enough to choose religion for him or herself, I understand. Belief is a fundamental choice. The protection of that choice is one of Western Civilizations most sacred values.

Here’s the problem: children are not adults. Children are also possessed of capacities that they will lose when they enter adulthood, especially their sponge-like memory. Rabbis of the Mishnah used to use teenagers as walking encyclopedia. Apparently, young teenagers’ capacity for memorization is near infinite, and fades with age.

The point isn’t academic. That which is meant to be remembered is best taught young. Prayers, melodies, Torah texts, Hebrew, rituals, laws – all these are sucked up greedily by a young mind, and, with occasional reinforcement, last a person her entire life. But any of the above are like breaking teeth when learned as an adult. Some Torah for the cooks and bakers among us: “Rabbi Nehorai said: When a person learns Torah in youth, that person may be compared to dough that has been kneaded with warm water. When a person learns Torah when advanced in years, that person may be compared to dough that has been kneaded with cold water.***

So many adults walk through our doors with the extraordinary desire to learn Torah; so many will struggle because the basic building blocks – Hebrew, the prayers, the stories, the actions – will elude them without considerable work.

When they are grown, every one of our children will choose their own religion. That freedom of choice is a contemporary inevitability. But I worry that, by not educating them young, we actually limit their choice by limiting their capacity. Like all languages, a spiritual vocabulary is strongest when learned earliest.

* He said “every man.” Nobody’s perfect, I guess  
** Brakhot 33b
***Avot de Rabbi Natan 23       

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

House of Cards


Parshat Vayikra
2 Adar II, 5774
March 4th, 2014 

I was late to the House of Cards party, but am now a wholehearted fan. Could there be two greater anti-heroes than Frank and Claire? God bless exceptionally tight TV writing.

I wish that moral outrage was the only reason to watch the show. However, there is more to these characters, and one is shocked to find oneself approving as they orchestrate the downfall of yet another poor, benighted sap taken unawares by Frank’s caramel Georgia accent and Claire’s perfect elegance.

Their cruelty is attractive; it is an outlet for our fantasies; we wish that we, like them, were not possessed of the burden of feeling quite so much, nor were so much at the whim of our own emotions, nor so anxious about the thoughts of others. The pull of House of Cards is that it lets us pretend, for a moment, that we could live without caring.

We idolize those people or characters who live untroubled by compassion, insecurity, or loneliness, for those emotions are so tiring, so utterly fatiguing, and we wish that we could set them down off our shoulders for just a moment.

Know, though, that there is a difference between cruelty and strength; where we are on the spectrum between those two poles is defined by the extent to which we care about the wellbeing of other people; so, to set our caring down and ignore it is inhuman; to grow strong enough to hold our emotionality and still accomplish something in this world, divine. “and HaShem your God will circumcise your heart and the heart of your child to love HaShem your God with all your heart, with your life, and with all that you own.” (Deuteronomy 30:6) 

Toughness necessitates exposing one’s heart, not cutting it out. Let cold-bloodedness live in fiction, where it belongs.