Monthly Archives: December 2013

How To Build Jewish (or Any) Community

As i have written about before, there is a mounting problem in non-orthodox (which for clarity I refer to as reform) judaism, of a dying community.  In many synagogues around the country, the average participant is 50+.  Now, let me make it clear, that if this is your life I’m referring to here, I am not passing judgement in any way, only displaying what I see as the facts of the situation.

In a discussion I was having with a friend, and in my thought process as I was writing another post here, I began to realize that there are a few problems that exacerbate this dilemma:

  • Basic disinterest- The majority of young Jews these days, seem to have inherited a lack of interest or atheism from their parents.  As a bit of perspective, we must remember that for many in their 20’s and 30’s, their parents were the first generation after the shoah (holocaust), in which their parents–if they had a love for any of it to begin with–often completely gave up on G-d.  This is, of course, understandable.  After all, why would one in such a situation not believe that G-d had abandoned him, and therefore conclude that there must not be a G-d or that it was all a waste.  Basically, these young jews lack the 3000 year old fire of the Jewish people, because they never knew it existed.
  • The draw of the goyishe world.  For most young jews, it seems as if the only thing that the jewish world has to offer is old people, dusty books in another language, and gefilte fish; while the goyishe world offers fancy and exotic foods, parties, art, and culture.  Or, in a religious sense, there is the draw of christianity that sways many because there is actually interest in the christian community.
  • In contrast to churches, where the guest of honor at every service is G-d, Jewish congregations often let G-d be entirely relative, or unnecessary.  To make things even more difficult for some people, G-d in judaism has no form whatsoever.  For many people this is confusing at least, maddening at most.  Christianity, on the other hand, has a physicality to their god, which lends tangibility.  Never mind that to the Jewish mind this is absolute heresy, this seems to more easily build understanding and devotion, in much the same way that most modern people, it seems, are more devoted to their boss at work, or fearful of their mother at report card time, than they are of G-d.
  • Churches also have a sense of obligation.  The congregants are obliged to attend, and participate.  Judaism takes exactly the opposite approach in reform circles, and any religious aspect is left up to the individual instead.
  • There is little to no activity at synagogue, or within the Jewish community outside of weekend services.  If you want people to take part in activities, it seems a given that there must be activities to take part in, yet many–if not most–reform synagogues lay idle 90% of the time.

There are, of course, many other problems, but these seem to be the main ones to me.  Now, what could possibly be the solutions?

I think that there are two main factors that must be addressed before anything can get better.  First, there must be a universal understanding as to the existence and nature of G-d.  For some, this may sound very forceful and dictatorial, but what company runs without knowing what its purpose is?  If you want somebody to take part in the works of a religious institution, those who do must be on the same page at least as far as this basic goes.  If people don’t want to be a part of this, thats fine.  That is what the community already exists of, however, and the reason that young people would rather not be involved.  Jewish community has to have something more to offer besides bagels and lox, and guilt from bubbe over not marrying “a nice jewish girl.”  There has to be a reason to do this, and it starts with the supernatural.

The second factor to the solution, as I see it, is obligation.  Everyone must have the obligation to participate.  Every spoke is necessary for a wheel to function properly, and in the same way a community cannot function without the participation of every individual.  We need you to live!  You make us better just by being a part!  Also concerned with obligation, is some sort of halacha (jewish law), even if it is what the community chooses.  Now, I would much prefer that everyone at least work toward full torah observance, but lets get real here; the vast majority of reform jews operate on the supposition that halacha is completely personal, and that its fine to keep none or (almost) all of the classic halacha.  If that is always the framework, community will always struggle.  Parts of a machine cannot decide what they want their job to be because it suits them.  Employees at a  company cannot decide which company policies are relevant to them, and discharge all the rest.  Drivers on the road cannot decide, each for himself, whether or not to stop at stop signs or for pedestrians.  All of these people are a community of sorts, and there is absolutely no logic to the notion that they could decide for themselves what is right or wrong and still remain a functioning engine, corporation, or rush-hour commute.  Why then is it assumed that this would work in jewish community?  Therefore I say, even if it is not full halacha, there must be halacha that is universal, expected, and practiced in the community if the community is to survive.  AND, this is not something that happens overnight, with anybody, so there should be the understanding that although it is expected it must be built up to–but it is not relative.

Third then is opportunity.  There should always be opportunity to learn, to participate, to develop.  There is no reason whatsoever that any synagogue should ever have an incomplete meal on shabbat, but instead, every week there should be cooking classes or groups that prepare for the congregation on shabbat.  There is no reason that anyone in a jewish congregation should not learn hebrew, in fact, this should be one of the obligations and there should be classes available to teach it.  There should be homework groups, movie watching groups, music groups, music classes, even pull in group Krav Maga lessons!  “Mitzvah day” shouldn’t be something that is done only one day a year, but something that is stressed every waking moment.  At every synagogue, the door should be open every day, and there should be something to come in and do.  This is the way things are at the Boys and Girls Club, and at many churches and community centers.  The truth of the matter is, if the door is closed, there is no potential for community.

Open the doors to your synagogues, and start treating them as living organisms, and they will become such.  Keep them closed, and they will continue to wither and die.

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Making Man a God

I’m tired! I’m tired of the status quo. I’m tired of widgits. I’m tired of the first question people ask being, “what do you do.” What piece of work is man; so noble in stature, so majestic in character; that he should turn aside dreams for ambition, love for money, life for desires. How like a god is a man, that he should recreate the world to take the shape that he desires, instead of living in harmony with all the creatures therein. But oh if a god, surely he would have the wisdom to trump intelligence, to say when its time comes, “You shall proceed this far, and no further, for this is all that is necessary!”

How is it that we have ascended so high into the heavens, that we forget that there is a divide?  Nietzsche said, “God is dead. God remains dead. And we have killed him.”  I would add to that “God created man in his own image. And man, being a gentleman, returned the favor.” — Rousseau.  All of the obsessions of modern man, can be an expression of this.  We have built towers to the sky, just as in Babel, but we are no nearer to knowing how to make them stand in perpetuity.  We hinge our future not on connection with the source of being, but on futures and annuities.  And worse yet, these “securities” are built upon the labors of great men who dared to dream; who dared to develop technologies that could benefit the world but instead fatten the pockets and portfolios of a chosen few while the lion’s share of people are without most of the technologies designed to benefit them.

In “modern” nations, we flush our effluent with drinking water, while in undeveloped areas there is not enough clean water to sift from the waste.  How does this idiocy continue?  Meanwhile, socialistic thoughts–while true enough in concept–disrupt the “natural” order of the world which dictates that some will have much while many will have not enough.

I don’t think the answer is through forced distribution.  I do think the answer can be arrived at by many pulling their heads out of their tucheses long enough to see that it is not all about them.  In fact, most of us could probably benefit from that.

Now, benefits have been cut for veterans, while the president flies off to vacation in Hawaii on taxpayer dollars.   Meanwhile, politicians still get full benefits for life after retirement.  Why?  What in the hell makes them so special?  They are the ones with the educations, after all, to pursue business lives after office.

And while we are on the subject, why is the National defense budget 52% of the total national budget?  Who are we defending ourselves against?  Our great enemy Canada?!  As was said by an Israeli in an episode of The Simpsons, “Try living next to Syria for a month!”  Can’t we funnel manpower and funds into the rest of the economy that is not dependent upon the war machine?  I’m for a strong military, and I thank soldiers for their service quite often, but when is enough enough?

But then I suppose we wouldn’t have all the control over oil, and the rest of the nations in the world would dislike us because we’d seem weak and scattered.  Wait a minute…they already do!

Sorry for the scattered rant there, I was just rolling with it.

Getting back to the first topic: don’t tell me what you do, tell me what you “is.”  I’m a whole lot more interested in what makes a person tick than I am with what a person ticks for.  I’m interested in the essence, the nitty gritty.  Don’t define yourself by your occupation, occupy your definition of yourself.  Shave expenses, read a book, take a walk, dream a little dream.  Take a ride in the car.  Take a stay-cation.  Enjoy life, because as far as we know, you only get one.  Use occupation as the tool that it is, instead of turning yourself into a tool.  When what is most important is the superficial, a god is created, an idol is worshipped.  Don’t turn man, money, religion, hardship, success, work, politicians or dissenters into idols.  Don’t classify people by education, occupation, transportation, habitation, or sanitation.  I promise you, none of these things last…unless you’re a politician, that is.

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Near Death Experience–or–Near Life Experience

sparkyI was working on my house this evening, and there was a wire in the way of what I was doing.  Noting that it was an old wire, and thinking that I had made all the old wiring obsolete five years ago when I rewired the house, I thought nothing of prying on it.  I thought it was dead.  As it turned out, it was very much a live wire.  Not only was it a live wire, but it was carrying the 220V that were going to our water heater!

So here I was, prying on this wire with the claw end of my Titanium Stiletto head hammer, completely oblivious to the life-threatening voltage running through the wire.  I guess I was prying too vigorously at the wire which was also against the raw edge of a thin metal bracket, when, blammo!!  Sorry for the old school Batman sound effect, but there really is no way to accurately describe it otherwise.  Bright sparks flew all over, a few loud pops were heard, and all the power went out in the house!

This is what Wikipedia has to say about titanium sparks, ” Although titanium is a non-ferrous metal, it gives off a great deal of sparks. These sparks are easily distinguishable from ferrous metals, as they are a very brilliant, blinding, white color.”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Spark_testing

I stood there, unable to move, mesmerized by the event that had just taken place.  If I had chosen to buy the new DeWalt metal handles hammer that I saw a few months ago, I might not be around to write this post.  The wooden handle of my hammer, although not the greatest of insulators, is not very conductive and this might be the only thing that kept me from serious injury or even death.  

What could I do?  Very simply, I lifted my head and said, “Baruch atah Hashem, elokeinu melech haolam (the source of blessing are you Hashem our G-d, king of the universe) who has saved me from danger.”

My wife asked me if my life flashed before my eyes, and I said no–sparks did, a lot of bright sparks!  She said, “no, that was your life!”  She said it jokingly, but there are branches of Judaism in which kabbalistic (mystic) teachings say that the world is filled with “lost sparks” that are needing to be raised up in holiness to return to the creator.  Maybe my life has been a succession of doing this.  I would like to think so, but I’m not so sure.

Maybe your “life flashing before your eyes” isn’t so much about what you’ve already done, but is a glimpse into what you need to do or will do?  That would be the idea, I think, behind a “near life experience.”  Who knows?  I’m just happy that it turned out the way that it did instead of the alternative.

An atheist, or even many theists for that matter, may say that it was just a coincidence.  I don’t believe in coincidence, I believe in choice.  Sometimes we have no idea how choices will effect our lives.  I am very glad that my friend Marc chose to give me this hammer years ago.  If I had chosen to buy a metal handled hammer, no more me (and I’d be out $70).  If I’d chosen to use my pry bar–the correct tool for the job–no more me.

I posted the picture on Facebook of my hammer, and wrote a bit about it.  Most of the comments were made from amazement.  One of my atheist friends, however, said, “If god exists and heaven is so great- why is god great for keeping you alive? Seems like a bit of a ck block to me? [sic]”

Now, I have no problem with people having different views.  He’s atheist, that’s fine.  I don’t think that I will ever understand though, why many atheists and theists alike feel the need to be rude and force their crap on others.  Even from a purely secular moral standpoint it is just plain rude.  It is so rude, in fact, that for generations there has been an idiom, “If you don’t have anything nice to say, don’t say anything at all,” repeatedly drilled into many of us by our mothers.

Whatever.  Perhaps G-d was not “saving” me.  I choose to believe that he did.  I believe that it was a miracle, just as amazing as waking up every morning.  You may see this as biology, and physics, I see it as the Creator directing the steps of man.  If you don’t believe this, good for you, and I hope for you success in all your endeavors.  When it comes to this though, you live in your world, and I’ll live in mine.

From now on though, this is my “lucky” hammer, and his name shall be “Sparky.”  I don’t believe in luck, so that is just a euphemism.  Really, it will simply be a reminder of how close one can come to tragedy, and how quickly it can happen.  I will likely keep it forever, and I am not prone to do that sort of thing.

Peace my peeps.

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Christmas is Over

1517593_10201662157568280_594315208_nI have no real love for christmas.  My (Now ex) wife and kids are still all about it, so the day started with being woken up at six am.  I finally got out of bed around seven, and came out to the living room where they were all gathered around to open presents.  Everybody enjoyed all they got, and that was wonderful.  Regardless the reason for the day, it is great when you see a seven year old open up a package with sweatpants, and be just as excited as when he opens up a large kit of Legos.

For me, the irony of the event hit when I opened up the things that my wife and kids bought me.  It was apparently a, “Buy Jewy stuff for the Jew,” type of Christmas, a jogging suit, a T-shirt, even boxer shorts.  All of the things were well thought out, and couldn’t have been more awesome!  It felt very respectful.

For lunch, we went to a friends house and made Chinese food.  We sat at the table–four jews, and my wife and kids (four goyim)–and ate/conversed together.  One of our friends asked for us to go around the table and remember our favorite christmas experiences to each other.  Let me clarify something here: she is jewish, but although she doesn’t do christmas she is still excited by it and loves that others do celebrate it.  Everybody had a story to share.  I was reminded of a conversation in the movie City Slickers, in which they ask each other what was their best day.

My most memorable christmas (I grew up celebrating christmas, in case you didn’t know) was both the best and worst christmas in my life.  Twenty years ago, my grandfather of blessed memory was in his last days.  He was in Hospice care, in the bedroom of my grandparent’s house.  Christmas eve was the night that we always celebrated, as per the Danish tradition, and we all sat in the dining room, and then in the living room during presents, trying not to be sad that grandpa couldn’t join us.  I’m not sure if we were conscious of it or not, but we were all basically trying to convince ourselves that everything was normal.  Clearly, it was anything but.  Two weeks later, my grandfather passed away.  He was the closest thing to a father figure that I ever had growing up, and although he was already an aged fifty-something with many ailments that effected his day to day life and ability to interact with all of us, he had such a huge impact on my life.  I am thankful to G-d for every minute that I was able to have with him.  I miss him every day.  This was my best christmas because it was the last that my grandfather was alive for, and it was my worst christmas for the same reason.

I realized last year that this experience was the first thing that caused me to dislike christmas.  It isn’t fair to those I love who still enjoy the holiday and time of year, but I’m not sure if anything can be done for it.

I do love the feeling that I used to get for Christmas when I was a kid.  I loved the family occasion, the meal together, the conversation, the joy.  It is the same feeling that I now get out of the jewish holidays which happen much more frequently.  Even shabbat, happening every week and seeming a bit minor to goyim is just like this.  We sit at the table, have a special meal, sing blessings, talk about our week and our dreams.  It is like all the good parts of christmas without all the bad parts.  If any jews are reading this and have never fully experienced shabbat, do yourself a gigantic favor and do so.  Go in with an open heart, and I guarantee you will not be disappointed.  If you are unsure of where to start, comment here and I will give suggestions (or maybe I’ll make that the subject of a future post).

After lunch at Miriam’s, we all planned to go see The Hobbit at four in the afternoon.  I had read the movie time the day before, but as it turned out they change their schedule every day.  The next show was at 7:10, which was no longer matinee, so I went in to talk to a manager just to see if we would be able to buy tickets for that show at matinee prices since we had planned our day around a showtime that no longer existed.  He apologized for the mix up and gave me six free passes so that we could all come back and see the show.  It was great!  We went home for a few hours, and returned to see the show–which was awesome, by the way.

I’m glad that christmas is over for another year, mostly so that traffic can get back to normal and there won’t be christmas music everywhere and at all times.  All in all, despite my general dislike for christmas both as a jew trying to keep torah as well as possible and given my personal history with the day, it was a very good day.  In fact, I am thankful to G-d for this christmas day that we had.  I was able to reconcile a few things, and actually spent a very yiddishe time on a goyishe day.

I hope that you all had a wonderful day, regardless your traditions or hang-ups.  I think that we can all do well to remember that life is too short to be full of bitter feelings, even if they are only for select things.

 

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The Trouble With Santa Claus–or–I’ll Be Watching You

holidayWhat does Santa Claus teach children in our society?  Really, the whole ethos of christmas in modern times is effected by this legendary character and his eight diminutive ruminants (or nine if you add in Gene Autry’s favorite).  As we inch along in our cars, in traffic jams that seem to last for a month–don’t go anywhere near the mall!–many of us get nauseated from the obvious commercial ramifications brought on by this creation of Macy’s and Coca Cola.  Those with children who are subject to the stalker persona from the cold north–the tune to I’ll Be Watching You by The Police comes to mind–say that its wonderful for their children.  They say that it, “encourages a belief in the supernatural,” or that it, “teaches them the beauty of giving.”  Is such a figure really necessary for all that?  Is it really the healthiest way to raise children toward these goals?

I had some returns to make at Lowes a couple of weeks ago.  As the woman was scanning the items, she asked (without looking up), “are you all ready for christmas?”  I smirked to myself a little bit and replied, “about as ready as I can get.”  She looked up, saw the kippah on my head and said, “oh!  happy haunukkah.”  She didn’t seem disappointed or anything, it was just a departure from what she expected.  I told her thank you, then asked her if she was ready for christmas.  “Oh no,” she said, “not hardly.”  Friends and family have also expressed this circumstance.  Regardless of who I’m talking to, my response is usually the same, “wouldn’t it be so nice if all you had to worry about was making and eating a nice meal, and relaxing with loved ones?”

Isn’t that really what the holiday should be about?  Easter is more like this for most christians that I know.  Jewish holidays are pretty much all centered around this.  In fact, it is commonly said that every jewish holiday can be summarized with the phrase, “they tried to kill us, we won, lets eat!”  The most important and frequent holiday in judaism is shabbat (the sabbath), during which we are enjoined to eat three full meals, and to not perform any work.  I’ll not get into the particulars of what “work” means in the context of torah (If you would like to read more about that, http://www.aish.com, and similar websites have many articles on what that means), but it is most likely not what you think.  Basically, shabbat observance consists of not exerting our will upon the physical world, attempting to live in a more spiritual plane of existence similar to “paradise” or “heaven;” similar to the elemental existence in the garden of eden.  I would be willing to bet that the vast majority of people in the world, if they ever fully experienced a properly kept shabbat, would look forward to doing such a thing at any opportunity.

But even with the understanding of the stress that people let themselves feel–immediately and for a long time thanks to the gift of credit–in relation to the obligatory materialism of such “traditions,” year after year they flock back for more punishment.  Even in judaism (in america) there isn’t much relief from such experiences, as Hanukkah has become “jewish christmas” for many who buy presents for all eight nights.  I even ended up doing this this year.  Usually, I am pretty steadfastly against presents on Hanukkah, as I don’t want to confuse the holiday to myself or my kids.  This year though, I really wanted to buy them stuff!  Now granted, I bought them mostly stuff they needed or could really use anyway– gloves, scarves, slippers, art sets, and books–but I did buy a few frivolous things that I knew they’d get a kick out of.  It did make it a bit more special for all of us.

I wonder if it was a mistake to do this.  Will they expect it next year as well?  As their mother and they are still celebrating christmas–albeit in a completely secular way–there was talk this evening about Santa Claus.  This was interesting to me, because they all have known that Santa isn’t real for the last four years.  I guess they still enjoy the mystique, the character, and the spirit of this style of gift giving.  I can’t blame them!  Perhaps it would be better if we, in this society, just taught through example that everyone is “santa claus” if they choose to be.  Instead of attributing these things to a make-believe character, wouldn’t it be more wonderful if the children were shown that real people sometimes just want to be nice to others and give them presents?  For years I have been trying to convince people that I would much rather just get a letter or a gift out of the blue, just because they saw something they knew I’d love.  So far, despite my best efforts to do this, it has not met with success.

I think the reason is that without obligation, many of us just won’t do it, even if we know that its the right thing to do.  As I touched on in my post, “Assimilation, Death of the ‘Modern’ Jew,” without obligation to keep the torah, Jews just don’t.  Perhaps the obligation by the “torah” of peer pressure and advertising is just plain a better motivator than making somebody smile.  How sad is that!?

How about getting rid of the idea of Santa all together, and instead just place random gifts around the house, with no idea who gave them?  Actually, it just dawned on me that perhaps the reason that Santa is a better fit is the same reason that for most, christianity is a better fit than Judaism.  In christianity, there is a form given to G-d.  With the Santa tradition, there is form given to the spirit of giving.  Without this form, even if it is indistinct and changes in the mind of each person conceiving it, perhaps it is just too much to grasp and so automatically makes minds and emotions reject the very concept.

Well, there is a little food for thought at least.  Whether you are celebrating christmas with or without santa, I hope you have a merry christmas.  If you are celebrating a different holiday, I hope that it is very special for you.  If you, like me, will be eating chinese food and going to see a movie–as is the custom of my people on the winter solstice–then may your egg rolls be vegetarian, your Kung Pao be spicy, and may you be able to make it to a matinee–or don’t forget to ask for your student discount–because hey, “yo mama pays retail!”

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How Can You Mend a Broken Heart?

What does a broken heart look like?  It is an affliction that takes many forms.  When I think about all the possibilities, I realize that I have had my heart broken countless times.  Even more chilling, I realize that I have broken hearts–possibly–countless times.

Perhaps the most basic explanation of my train of thought on this, is that a broken heart is the result of an unrealized dream, whether that dream is one that is only temporarily set aside, or its contents have been scattered like stardust.  Think of something as simple as a dog who thinks that he is going for a walk because you picked up his leash.  He doesn’t know that you were just moving it to put it away.  For him, in that moment, you are the greatest person in the world!  Then, you turn around, not even knowing that he had gotten all excited, ignoring him without even meaning to.

There are other, more subtle ways as well.  Imagine a child getting a gift for his father.  He is the most amazing person in his son’s world!  Not having much money, if any, the little boy cannot figure out what to get his father.  What can he afford?  He finally settles on a trinket that he finds, he wraps it, and gives the gift to his father.  The father loves his son, and desperately wants to show him that he appreciates the gesture, even if the trinket itself is of little importance.  His reaction, however, is not as real or overt as his son expected.  In a case like this, the boy may feel his dream of giving dad the perfect gift slip away.  The father may feel his inadequacy in relating to his son, and so a little part of his heart is chunked away as well.

I have known similar situations to the above, many times.  It is not always with the same characters.  Sometimes it isn’t even a gift.  There are times when my wife will change something, or do something, and expect a particular response.  Not being a mind reader, it is impossible for me to know what the response is that she expects, and usually, whatever response I give just isn’t good enough.  It isn’t enough, period, in whatever way she would prefer.  This in itself would be bad enough, but then she gives me a hard time about it.  Minor heartbreak.  Of course I’m interested.  Of course I’m appreciative.  For whatever reason though, I am unable to live up to her expectations.

Perhaps these kind of little heartbreaks seem trite.  Perhaps it seems as if I am making a mountain out of a molehill.  There are many times in life, in emotional settings, when molehills can become mountains without ever even knowing it.  When this happens, it often results in further strain, pain, and suffering, and a very difficult road to repair such degradation.

It may be the case, that broken hearts are such a part of life that we just don’t even realize 99% of the times that it happens.  I think its possible that one of the tricks to life, and to relationships, is a healthy mix of hypersensitivity and quantification.  If heartbreak is necessary in life, then it would stand to reason that there must be an ultimate need for growth in every circumstance in which it rears its ugly head.  We could all learn to be more aware of the pain that we are causing others, as well as the pain that we are going through, no matter how big.  In order to survive though, we must be aware of the scale of the heartbreak, or we will drive ourselves mad with vengeance, anger, hate, fear, jealousy, resentment, sadness, and malice.

We must also be aware, even through the most painful and seemingly insurmountable heartbreak, that it is a necessary phase of life that cannot be avoided.  In our awareness, we can also grow to have empathy for others, once we realize that they are experiencing heartbreak as well.  Sometimes this can lessen our hurt even, to know that we are not alone.  To realize that the one who you see as causing your heartbreak could quite possibly be heartbroken as well is the most justifying (I’m not sure if that is actually the word I want) step in recovery from a broken heart.  It is not “revenge” as much as its a form of qualification for your own pain, if that makes any sense.

Perhaps the most important thing to remember about experiencing or causing heartbreak, is that we are all human.  We all do it, and we have all experienced it.  That does not mean that you are an evil person if you break somebody’s heart, nor does it mean that you are a weak person if your heart gets broken.  When we miss the mark in this world, it is our duty to retrieve the arrow and fire again.  As Thoreau said, “Man by his very nature will eventually hit that which he aims at.  So, though at first he shall surely miss, better he aim high.”  Strive to be a better person.  Desire to hurt less, and be hurt less.  The only way that the world will change–however large or small that change may be–is if we consciously work to make it a better place, a truer place.

Just remember, you’re not alone.

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Assimilation, Death of the “Modern” Jew

There is a very difficult reality that is becoming more evident in modern times: assimilation is leading to the demise of non-orthodox judaism.  For the sake of this article, I will refer to “non-orthodox” judasim as “reform judaism,” and “orthodox judaism” as “torah judaism.”  This is something that many are well aware of, and if I have any readers yet, I may be preaching to the choir.  What I am going to discuss, however, is that there may be ways to counteract this trend.

There is a perhaps unfortunate truth that, to echo the words of Rambam, the furtherance of jewish involvement must have as a foundation, a belief in G-d.  Without this, a jewish community is little more than a type of country club, whose members meet every week and share common roots.  Without the existence of G-d, there is no logical reason to be jewish in modern society, as fulfillment in association can be found within so many secular or national groups.  I think that this is the dynamic within which reform judaism is losing steam.

It is quite interesting to me, that the continuance of the jewish people has been due in large part to the persecution suffered throughout the generations.  As a people set apart, jews lived in their own communities, created their own economies, and operated according to their own laws–which were derived from the mitzvoth of torah and  expanded according to ensure the keeping of the laws of the people whose lands they lived.  Since the acceptance of jews in learning institutions and society in general–beginning in Germany in the 1800’s–many jews have hung up their tallit (prayer shawl) in exchange for involvement in non-jewish society.  In order to do such a thing, however, mitzvoth of torah necessarily had to be pushed aside–the goyishe world runs on a different clock, and according to different guidelines.  Within a couple of hundred years, it seems as if the sacrifice made by so many ancestors in refusing to convert, and the progress in torah learning made over thousands of years of remaining am yisroel (the people israel) has been nullified: eighty percent (roughly) of the world’s jews are secular or reform.  There is a saying by Ahad Ha’am had to say on the subject: “More than the Jews have kept the Sabbath, the Sabbath has kept the Jews.”  I would add to that and say that, “more than the jews have continued to be persecuted, persecution has kept jews being jews.”  Within the framework of a torah community, the normal course of society is to keep the mitzvoth.  In the outside world, the vast majority of people are concerned with other pursuits.

Am I implying that in order to remain jewish, we must live in insular communities?  Not in the least bit!  There are, in fact, a great many jews in America who are both orthodox and very connected with the goyishe world.  The problem that can be seen in reform synagogues all over America though, is one of diminished involvement by youths.  The Hillel society here at the University of Tennessee Knoxville, boasts two dozen members or so, and yet has no attendance at the local synagogues.  In fact, of all the Jews under the age of 50 in the county, I am one of the only ones who attends regularly.  It is both saddening and maddening.

I recently spoke with a friend who is a grad student at the university.  I asked him why there was no interest in building or being part of the community.  In a nutshell, he said that many of the members of Hillel don’t believe in G-d, and those that do did not have a strong enough jewish upbringing to have any chance against the allure of secular society and friends.  Because their parents weren’t interested, the community will die out.  My guess is that unless there is a change, all of these families will be jewish in peoplehood only by the next generation.

He did say that there were some who expressed interest from time to time, but like he, they have not been able to find or make the time to be involved, and as with many people, didn’t know where or how to start anyway.  My response to all of this was, “take it back then!”  You want to be jewish, your parents weren’t interested when you were growing up, take it back!  Claim it for yourself!  Unless they make the conscious decision to get involved, it is probable that there will be nothing but further drift away from judaism, until it is nothing more significant than bagels and lox, and really bad tasting fish.

Possibly one of the saddest propositions associated with this lack of interest, is that most will intermarry.  This in itself seems innocent enough, but the result of intermarriage is, more often than not, either complete secularity in the next generation, or a christian family.  Why christian?  Many uninvolved jews who marry christians are drawn into the christian world by their spouses.  It is a good fit for many–religious association without impact on the rest of life.  If this is the track that will be taken, while being sad because it means a lot fewer jews in the world, at least they will have a chance at happiness in marriage.  It also means though, that torah judaism will move in to fill the emptiness.

This brings me back to the title of this post.  Reform judaism is seen by many as being “modern judaism,” as it is a way to retain an appearance of jewishness while taking part–in all ways–with the secular world.  This assimilation seems to be taking the jews of tomorrow on a path away from involvement in even reform judaism, however, and returning can only be because of a personal, newfound interest in G-d and spirituality.  For many a spiritual omnivore in the last 50 years, this has indeed been the case, giving rise to more branches within reform judaism, as they realize our tradition is more than just orders and dictates, but that the mitzvoth are actually a conduit through which to channel spirituality in daily life.  They take what they want, and discard what they don’t see as relevant, but at least they are coming to be involved.

So what is the answer?  How do we get today’s jewish youth interested in being more jewish, and ensure the jewishness of their children?  I think the only way to do this is through common halacha (jewish law) and practices.  This is what makes torah communities so successful.  When everyone around you is keeping shabbat, it is easy to do it yourself.  Even if the community decides not to keep everything the orthodox way, there still must be a standard, a benchmark of obligation and expectation.  When everyone else is keeping kosher, what real reason is there not to?  And all of these things are possible to do within the framework of modern society, as long as we remember to be devoted to these tasks.  There are jobs where you don’t have to work on shabbat.  Can’t go out friday night; go out motzei shabbat (saturday night) instead!  Make it important to express integrity with your people, and you will remain a part of your people.  Compromise and justify pushing thousands of years aside, and you will fade into the woodwork.

This is part of what makes us not only the “chosen people,” but the “choosing people” as well.

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Duck Dynasty Narrowness

There is a lot of hubbub surrounding the lead from A&E’s hit show Duck Dynasty today.  From people offended by his remarks in a GQ article, to proponents of free speech (note: I think it has less to do with “free speech” and more to do with stereotypical republican values), everyone seems to have an opinion.  Rather than let everyone else have all the fun, I figured I’d join in.  This post heavily excerpts the article from whence it came.  If you’d like to read the original first, here is the link:

http://www.gq.com/entertainment/television/201401/duck-dynasty-phil-robertson

I would like to start off by saying that I do believe that people should have the right to free speech and that it shouldn’t be censored by the government.  That is, by the way, what free speech is all about.  It has nothing to do with whether a television network decides whether or not to air a program because of something that it feels is insulting, nor is that constitutional right referring to the printing of interview comments that it considers offensive.  Because of this fact, organizations that are editorial based–like it or not–are giving an endorsement to what they print or air.  Even if something is being published because they consider the person to be an idiot, they are endorsing it in the same way that we all vote with our purchases.  If you don’t want to watch the show, and don’t like what the man says or thinks, then don’t bloody watch the show!  I don’t have tv stations, or any interest in watching this show.  I never even knew it existed until a couple of months ago, and I thought it was a hunting show!

I would also like to say that some of my comments may be offensive to a christian audience.  If you don’t think the way that these comments address, or if this is not the type of christian you are or the christianity you practice, then the comments are not directed at you.  If these comments do address you, I invite you to take the time to open up your minds, and learn how to actually live your religion.  Learn about it, and not just from christians.  Jesus was a jew, after all, and your bible exists of more than just the letters of Paul and Revelation.  I suggest that you learn hebrew, and study a hebrew text of the hebrew bible (what you call the “old testament”), starting at page one.  Do not look to christian theologians for interpretations, as this is not their book, it is the book of the jews; and jesus was a jew, you know.  He thought jewishly.  He lived jewishly.  This is completely different theology and ideology.  If it is possible, try to learn this section of the bible without christian colored glasses.  If you are stuck, and you surely will be at times–consult the internet.  I suggest http://www.aish.com, http://www.simpletoremember.com, http://www.judaism.about.com, or http://www.jewfaq.org.  You can also feel free to ask me questions, and I will answer them to the best of my ability and/or find out what the answer is.  I’m not saying “don’t be christian.”  If it works for you, that is awesome, and I am truly very happy for you.  All I’m saying is to learn more about jesus and his people.

Begin article breakdown.  There is so much ground to cover here, and there are so many possibilities for critique.  What I have done is take just some of the more ridiculous things, excerpt them, and respond. Here we go.

 

“After the flood, he said, ‘I’m giving you everything now. Animals are wild.’”–um…is that verbatim?  G-d does say, “Every moving thing that lives shall be yours as food”Gen 9:3, but does not say it in a way that implies “humans can do whatever they damn well please” as western man has interpreted to mean.  It does not say “animals are wild.”  It DOES say not to eat the limb of a living animal, which means that no humans are meant–according to the torah of G-d–to remove the limb of a living animal and eat it.  This includes even chickens which are boiled (to remove the feathers) alive because they moved and weren’t killed by the slaughtering machine in commercial plants, and lobster or frogs that are boiled alive.

Referring to blacks in the south before the civil rights movement–“They were godly; they were happy; no one was singing the blues.”–except of course for those who were, literally, singing the blues. Maybe you missed that day in Musical Theory 101…or never listened to a radio.

“They plunder beehives. They blow up beaver dams”.–so they can live up to this excerpted ideal from earlier in the article, I guess, “what he calls a “pristine earth”: a world where nothing gets in the way of nature or the hunters who lovingly maintain it.”  Good old uncle Esav was a hunter too.  There does seem to be resemblance here.

“Just inside the front door, a giant flat-screen TV shows Fox News on mute at all times,”–you don’t say. I expected Power Puff Girls.  Seriously though, if you are going to have the TV on at all times, and muted, Korean soap operas are much more fun to make up dialogue to.

“Phil On Why He Voted Romney in 2012
‘If I’m lost at three o’clock in a major metropolitan area…I ask myself: Where would I rather be trying to walk with my wife and children? One of the guys who’s running for president is out of Chicago, Illinois, and the other one is from Salt Lake City, Utah. [Editor’s note: Romney is from Boston, not Salt Lake City.] Where would I rather be turned around at three o’clock in the morning? I opted for Salt Lake City. I think it would be safer.”’–what a coincidence. I ask myself: if I’m out at 3am, should I breath paint fumes like this guy; or air like this guy?

“America was a country founded upon Christian values (Thou shalt not kill, etc.),”–tell that to the natives, the blacks, the homosexuals, hell, just about anyone!  This is a place where knowing the hebrew actually helps a lot, by the way.  The actual phrase in the ten commandments is, “do not murder.”ex 20:13

“He sees the popularity of Duck Dynasty as a small corrective to all that we have lost.”–that’s because he’s getting rich off this stupid crap.

Asked what is immoral behavior–“Start with homosexual behavior and just morph out from there.“–but not eating foods that G-d says not to eat. Oh, and “love your neighbor as yourself” is really prevalent in his preaching too, as he rails against anything that he deems to be immoral–including, it would seem, being japanese or muslim.

“During Phil’s darkest days, in the early 1970s, he had to flee the state of Arkansas after he badly beat up a bar owner and the guy’s wife. 
I ask Phil if he ever repented for that, as he wants America to repent—if he ever tracked down the bar owner and his wife to apologize for the assault. He shakes his head.
“I didn’t dredge anything back up. I just put it behind me.” Old Phil—the guy with the booze and the pills—died a long time ago, and New Phil sees no need to apologize for him”— this is the really convenient part of much Christian theology: you don’t need to make up for being an asshole, just put it behind you. That guy you killed? That car you stole? That marriage you ruined? That child you violated?  Just “put it behind you.”

“That’s the unspoken red-state appeal of Duck Dynasty. They’re godly folk. “Real” folk.” –umm…I don’t think that phrase means what you think it means.

“It’s why Willie Robertson can walk out of work on a regular Thursday afternoon and be greeted by a cheering crowd that seemingly stretches back to the horizon.”–and here I thought it was because they had their own tv show, and many americans are whores for celebrity. I was WAY off!

“Willie has just come back from Washington, D.C., where he accepted an award at the Angels in Adoption Gala. (He and his wife, Korie, adopted a biracial child named Will and are dedicated advocates of the practice.)”–3 to 5 odds the kid is gay as the day is long. Actually, I hope not–for his own sake.

“Let’s face it,” he says. “Three, four, five years, we’re out of here. You know what I’m saying? It’s a TV show. This thing ain’t gonna last forever. No way.”–really!!!??  Do we really have to wait that long?  I guess it will be to no gain; they’ll just take the next group of idiots they find and put them on tv.

“I ask Jep Robertson later on if the second generation of Robertson men shares Phil’s views on sin and morality. “We’re not quite as outspoken as my dad, but I’m definitely in line,” he says. “If somebody asks, I tell ’em what the Bible says.”’–you don’t KNOW what the bible says, you know what you want it to say!  Or need we revisit the quote from genesis?

“For the sake of the Gospel, it was worth it,” Phil tells me. “All you have to do is look at any society where there is no Jesus. I’ll give you four: Nazis, no Jesus. Look at their record. Uh, Shintos? They started this thing in Pearl Harbor. Any Jesus among them? None. Communists? None. Islamists? Zero. That’s eighty years of ideologies that have popped up where no Jesus was allowed among those four groups. Just look at the records as far as murder goes among those four groups.”–right, because there were no communists, shintoists, or “Islamists” before eighty years ago. It all started with WWII. And let’s conveniently forget about Jews, Buddhists, Bahai, Sikhs, Hari Krishnas, etc, etc.  Would they be without morals to you?  What about catholics?  Methodists?  Apparently though, Mormons are fine–after all, he’d rather be in Salt Lake City at 3 AM.

“If you simply put your faith in Jesus coming down in flesh, through a human being, God becoming flesh living on the earth, dying on the cross for the sins of the world, being buried, and being raised from the dead—yours and mine and everybody else’s problems will be solved. And the next time we see you, we will say: ‘You are now a brother. Our brother.’ So then we look at you totally different then. See what I’m saying?”–just as long as you aren’t gay, or do anything that is “wrong” according to you?  Or maybe, you can do anything you want–like not even apologize for a savage beating you gave a couple– but because you were “saved” that makes up for everything. The lack of accountability in this type of theology is what has always deterred Jews like me, and many others from committing to the religion, yet with others has made Christianity such a popular religion–from simony, to vicarious atonement (something G-d says is not even possible in Ezekiel), to not having to make atonement to the people you’ve harmed (which contradicts the teachings of jesus, btw)–“just believe” and “every little ting gonna be awright”

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Tiny Houses on The Hillside….

This post could just as well be called, “Ode to a woolen tent,” or, “Gypsy Jew longing.”

Several times over the last fifteen years, we have spent time as a family in very confined spaces.  We all lived in our friends 8×12 finished shed for a few weeks, one time.  Once, after losing a job, we would spend three and four day weekends “shell camping” in the back of our pickup truck by the beach while we looked for a job and house to move into back in our hometown; we would open up the shell every morning, and survey the surf before brushing our teeth by the cliffside.  We have made two cross-country trips as a family, the six of us living in our minivan or on the floor in friends houses.  We go camping every summer.  Whenever we get back from a trip like this, our house feels much too large, which isn’t easy for a family of six in 800 square feet!  Usually, we end up spending most of our waking hours huddled in one room together, until we finally retire to our bedrooms for the night.  I have literally started to feel agoraphobic in times like this.  Its crazy!

We haven’t always lived in a small house; for a total of three years we lived in 1000-1500 square feet, but we always seem to come back to smaller houses.  What is the draw?  Maybe it has to do with a desire to live differently from the mainstream.  I think a lot of it has to do with the familial closeness that is necessitated by proximal closeness.  It can be maddening at times, but it is quite therapeutic as well.  Without separate spaces (of any great size at least) to run off to and hide, we are forced to be with each other more of the time.  This isn’t anything new.  Throughout history, families have lived in close quarters together.  Only in the last couple of hundred years have houses swelled, while in the last hundred years family size has dwindled.

Off and on for the last 15 years, we have mused about building a motorhome from an old bus, or having some kind of RV that we could travel the world in.  Quite often, the urge rises up within me, like an itch I just have to scratch.  Usually, the fling is satiated by a couple of hours spent drawing plans for the next perfect RV, or tiny house that our family could live in somewhere.  Tonight was one of those nights.  I have drawn plans for everything from 48 square foot “how small could one person live” houses, to 40 foot long motorhomes with a furo tub, plenty of clothing storage, and a getaway vehicle stowed onboard for trips into whatever town we are close to.  I saw a video of a family that built their own RV, and went on the road in Europe for 16 months.  It was incredible!  Such an inspiration!  But alas, we remain rooted to our small, run-down (but still being remodeled for the last five years) house, where every time I work on it–and I’m a very skilled contractor mind you–I think of how much easier it would be if I only had the money to bulldoze it and start from scratch!

The whole idea of living small, sometimes migrates to other thoughts of smallness as well.  The truck I drive for work only gets 10 MPG.  I spend way too much on gas.  We are doing some remodel work at a Mercedes dealership right now, and I can’t help staring at the Smart Cars and wondering just how I’d stretch one to fit more people, to be a work vehicle, or how big a trailer I could hook up and what that would mean as far as amenities.  Or, I muse about how I would build a model T sedan version of a Smart Car, using a motorcycle engine, or the engine from a diesel tractor.  Maybe someday, I’ll be done with our house, and can get back into hot rodding again so that I can make the idea a reality.  

There are many times though, when I’d as soon chuck it all, releasing myself from the trap of modern mediocrity.  Times when I long to live as our fathers did, as shepherd in the desert.  I am no fool to think that the simple life is so simple, but without all the distractions that accompany the trappings of a modern life there must surely be a greater simplicity that would allow man to be better connected to the source of all life–in much the same way that close confines give rise to a close family.

I’m going to try and do something to flesh out these ideas that I have.  Maybe I’ll do it this Sunday–if I do, there’ll be pictures and a post here.  I have a bunch of scrap material, and would really like to build a Gypsy style, bow top caravan.  I don’t have a trailer to put it on yet, but I can build the caravan which can then be mounted to a trailer in the future.  It can be a guest room, out in the yard, until such a time that we can put it to real use.  

 

I don’t really have much more to write tonight.  It has been a long day, and I am quite tired.  I’ll leave you with some verse on the subject, and a few links.

Ode to a Desert Tent

I toil along every day,

for a dream I don’t remember dreaming.

I thank G-d for the life I have,

yet I just keep on scheming.

I don’t long for money,

although times without it are tough,

but realizing all my scheming,

would surely be enough.

For now I will soldier on,

and try to be content,

continuing to dream of life,

as a shepherd in a desert tent.

 

 

http://www.tinyhousetalk.com

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“Love Your Neighbor as Yourself.”

G-d said it.  Jesus said it.  Gandhi said it.  Along with countless others throughout history.  “Love your neighbor as yourself.”  We all know about this famous–often slightly different–line, often called the golden rule, but do we actually know about it?  Do we know what its about; what it means?

This is a tweak of the most often repeated command in the torah, “Love the stranger,” and there have been many different thoughts regarding it by the various sages and commentators of torah throughout the generations.  Here I will share with you my thoughts on the subject.

There are basically two kinds of commandments: those between man and G-d, and those between man and man.  The latter is also between man and G-d, as each man is a creation of the Holy One, created “b’tzalmo,” in his image.  The mitzvoth (commandments) between G-d and man are important, but it would seem as if G-d is more concerned with us following those mitzvoth between man and man.  I think that this is why the command to “love your neighbor,” is repeated so many times, because it all boils down to that.  The great sage Hillel was asked to teach a pagan the whole torah while the man stood on one foot.  Rav Hillel responded, “that which is hateful to you, do to no one.  That is the whole torah, the rest is commentary, now go and learn it.”  powerful and interesting words.

So, how can he say, “this is the whole torah?”  Is he just being flippant; or is there a deeper meaning that we are to learn from this?  It could be possible, that ALL of the mitzvoth are intended to be for the benefit of both man’s relationship to his fellow, and his relationship with G-d.  In fact, I wouldn’t doubt it if somebody, in some commentary, somewhere, has said this very same thing.  It seems logical to me.

-Mitzvoth between man and G-d, are meant to keep man in a spiritual plain of being, and center him around those things which are truly important in life.  From giving tzedakah (charity) to the laying of tefillin (phylacteries), to the temple offerings (these days, this is taken up by prayer), these practices teach us not to value possessions over our souls, and to build a bridge and devekut (cleaving) to The Endless One.

-If man is on a spiritual plain of being, and not valuing the material over the ethereal, he is able to connect to his fellow man who may have much more–materialistically speaking–or may have less.  He can also connect better with his fellow man who may have much more, or much less in a spiritual sense.  In this way, there is almost a kind of socialism of thought and practice, more than a socialism (charity) of economics.

-We can conclude through this scenario, that those mitzvoth which appear to be concerned only with the relationship of man and G-d, are also a main driving force to the healthy relationship between man and his fellow.

In a strictly semantic, Torah sense, the sages tell us that the word גר-ger (stranger) refers to one who has converted to judaism, and not to all strangers.  There are, in fact, many different words that refer to somebody who was or is an outsider.  Since Torah was written for, and given to the children of Israel, references in it such as “a man who…” are referring to the children of Israel.  This is not derisive or an expression of superiority in any way.  It is similar to how US law may say–in a theoretical situation– “an immigrant who….” and it would not be singling the immigrant out as being lesser, just as an immigrant.  The law would not specify, “a native born american,” because that would be understood under the language of, “a person who….”  I hope this is making sense.  Sometimes my thoughts make sense inside my head, but not once they come out, so I have read over this many times.

According to this teaching and understanding of torah, the command to “love the ger” is meaning to “love the immigrant to your people, who has taken upon himself the laws of your land.”  This is the love whose command is repeated so many times.

This does not, however, mean that it is ok according to torah to hate others who are not a part of your people (whether born or converted).  There are, in fact, more mitzvoth and halacha (jewish law) that concern the relationship between the jewish people and non-jews.  There would, for example, be no way to be “or l’goyim” (a light to the nations) if hatred of them were permitted.  And to further touch on the “spiritual plane” thought, perhaps there would be no way to be or l’goyim without being on a spiritual plane–if what we are to show the goyim is what G-d truly desires of people: respect and love for the world.

Since I have stated that all of the mitzvoth between man and G-d are also for the benefit of human relationship, then it seems to follow reason that all of the second category are ways in which we express love to G-d through his creations.  As I said above, every person is created b’tzalmo, in his image.  If the category of the first, and the category of the second are in essence expressing love to G-d, then the dictum of Hillel, “that which is hateful to you, do to nobody,” makes more sense in terms of covering the whole torah.

There is something that troubles me a little bit here, however; if we are simply not doing to others “that which is hateful” to us, are we really doing them good?  Maybe this is the same type of thinking as the Latin maxim premum non nocere, “first, do no harm.”  If we are not harming, at least we are not making the world worse, but we are not making it better either.  Once we do something though, if we are not doing harm, we must be engaged in “good.”  We must be performing acts which are ultimately beneficial to all–the main focus of all the mitzvoth!

I’m going to stop writing now, for tonight, because I’m tired and I think I’m just starting to ramble on.  Let me know what you think of this and other blog posts in the comments section below, if you please.  I am new to blogging, and find it to be quite therapeutic to be able to get my thoughts out (so I would probably even blog if only a type of diary), but I would like to be able to morph my style and content into a more interesting version of itself.

Shalom, salaam, forever.

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