Monday, April 28, 2014



Something Borrowed, Something Blue
28 Nissan, 5774; Yom HaShoah
13th Day of the Omer

Read the piece. Then read the comments. They're almost more interesting.

I think she makes a good point. In fact, I think she makes such a good point that her idea isn't just limited to Pesach. I think her piece is applicable to all kinds of cultural appropriation.

In the Talmud, there are four categories of people who are entrusted with an object that belongs to another person. These are things like a renter, or someone you ask to look after a possession. But of them all, the one who is required to take the most care for your object, the most liable to return your possession to you in the condition it was received - is the borrower. To borrow is to take on the responsibility for treating another's possession as they would wish, and not only according to the borrower's needs.

When we don't honor that responsibility to the owner, we no longer call what's happening borrowing. There is an uglier word we use: appropriation.

Appropriation happens all the time. Beyond the pain of seeing what are often a people’s most treasured possessions – their spiritual traditions, their greatest cultural achievements – taken without regard to their owners’ wishes, appropriation also marginalizes the group that was appropriated from. There is a reason that commercial rock stations all around the country will throw in some hip hop – when group played coincidentally happens to be white. Rock and roll itself only became mainstream after it was appropriated from African Americans.

There is great regard for Native American traditions in our society; a lot less regard for how we treat actual Native Americans. I was in Poland to witness the huge revival of klezmer music and Hassidic culture: tens of thousands of people who aren’t Jewish coming to festivals, some even dressing the part. But Jews don’t do so well in Poland.

As a rabbi, I know something about appropriation, mostly because I’m tempted to do it all the time. It’s so much easier to massage that Hassidic story to sound more palatable or support my point. It’s so great to borrow some spiritual technique from another tradition and toss it in – we all love a little something exotic. But it’s damn hard not to do violence to the people and the context from which that tradition arose, and we lose a lot of the real meaning in the process*.

This isn’t an argument against borrowing. Borrowing traditions and ideas is what’s going to save the world and get us all to understand each other. But we can't borrow without looking the owner in the face. The message has got to be that we can’t separate a tradition from its people.

*A friend with ample experience working with modern day descendants of the Mayans asked a villager he knew about the whole world ending in 2012 thing. The villager said that people couldn’t have misunderstood that tradition more if they tried.

Monday, April 14, 2014

There Are Two Passovers


Erev Pesach
14 Nisan, 5774
April 14th, 2014

There are really two Passovers. Seriously. They are connected to each other by a single strong thread, but Passover is actually two holidays.

The first holiday is a celebration of freedom. Everybody loves this holiday. Who doesn’t love freedom? It’s an easy sell.

The second Passover is a week-long spiritual fast from one substance: hametz – any grain that underwent leavening: for all intents and purposes, bread. 
This holiday is less popular. I can’t imagine why.

The two are connected by one shared symbol: matzah.

Every year, Passover #2 gets a bad rap. Some complain about all the work we’ll need to do. Some sneer at the idea that not eating bread somehow makes a person holy. I have done both.

This year, a friend of mine suggested that I ditch the kashering* and come join him for a pretty exciting opportunity. I was surprised to realize that I didn’t want to. It wasn’t that I had to clean; it was the realization that preparing for that second Pesach is some of the holiest work I’ll do all year.

The first generation to leave Egypt knew what it was to gain freedom. Every bite of that tasteless, over-baked bread told them that they were free. The first generation always possesses the coal of lived experience, and that fire lasts them their entire lives.

We who come after have to work to remember that we’re free. The material comfort of our lives make us complacent; complacency is the enemy of consciousness; we begin to confuse the world as it is now with the world as it must be.

Cleaning for Passover, not eating hametz – these are the ways I tell myself that my world can be changed, and that it takes work to do so. When I dig my hands into the soapy water to clean, when I change the way I eat for a week, I remind myself that nothing is as fixed as it seems, nor do I have to accept it as such. I remind myself that I am free, and I teach myself that I have the strength it takes to work for that freedom – as we all do.

In Judaism, freedom is an obligation. It seems like such a paradox, “I am commanded to be free.” But the mitzvah** to become free speaks to a deep truth. Freedom is not a synonym for vacation; it is the hard-won realization that the world can, and sometimes must change, and that we should be the ones to change it. And every year, it is a responsibility in which I find more and more joy.

“In each and every generation, a person is obligated to see herself as if she personally left Egypt.” (Talmud Pesachim 115b)

*the process of making a kitchen kosher

Monday, April 7, 2014

It's Hard to Be Good - Problems of Globalization


I was eating guacamole at the time.

It is the kind of problem that spins my head right round. Globalization and modern technology make limes cheap and available almost everywhere. Because limes are awesome*, we've quickly assimilated them into our diet: guacamole, margaritas, what passes for Mexican food out here, etc.

The ready inclusion of limes in our lifestyles jacks up demand, and growers, mostly in developing countries where labor is cheap, step in to supply American markets. However growing monocultures (one species of produce in massive quantities in the same place), makes disease much more likely, and a citrus infection called HLB has been rapidly infecting much of Mexico's trees (Florida too). HLB, combined with the weather, created a huge lime shortage; prices skyrocketed.

Unfortunately, there are groups in Mexico very much interested in money wherever it is to be found, by any means necessary. It appears that drug cartels stepped in (they already launder money through Mexican agriculture), and they or other criminals are hijacking lime transports and plundering groves. The cartels have the funding to do all this because of the lucrative American market for illegal narcotics.

The Torah teaches "Turn from evil, and do good." (Psalm 15) In truth, the former is a hell of lot harder than the latter. It is easier to do good - treat people in our lives well, pay our taxes, donate to charity, do mitzvot, volunteer. In fact, I am always stunned by the sheer amount of goodness in the people around me. The strength that humans can muster is awe-inspiring.

Much, much more difficult is to turn from the evil that our society produces as a necessary consequence to its structure. Structural evil is the worst kind of problem the kind that saps slowly away at our energy, that requires concerted effort over a long period of time by many individuals to steer our conglomerate selves from our fixed path. Turning from that evil requires a high tolerance for frustration, accepting feelings of impotence, and immense restraint. Do we have the energy to fit composting into our lives, the time to check whether a fruit is sustainably raised, the restraint not to eat what we crave any given night, and the patience even the arrogance - to persuade our friends to do the same?

But I want to remind us of that strength that we possess; we have more of it than we even imagine. Our ancestors remind us that it is possible to work towards redemption for generations, and to keep hope alive. The good world that God has given us is worth the strength we can muster.

* As are avocados, and, indeed, anything that grows in the great state of California.