Saturday, September 29, 2012

My word of the week: Contextomy / Chol ha-Moed Sukkot

My new vocabulary word of the week is contextomy. It’s not a medical procedure, but rather a fancy term for quote mining, which is quoting out of context in order to distort meaning. This is beyond Stephen Colbert’s “truthiness,” beyond what spin doctors produce.

Creationists are famous for using contextomy to make their fallacious arguments. Mitt Romney’s first campaign ad provides a disturbing example. Paul Ryan’s speech at the convention was so riddled with lies and distortions that even a FOX NEWS columnist took aim at his dishonesty. 

Public discourse these days is too often dominated and steered by contextomy, spin, obfuscation, and dog-whistle messages -- all forms of intentional dishonesty.

Our liturgy contains an interesting contextomy taken from Exodus 34, which we read this Shabbat, chol ha-moed Sukkot. Known as “The Thirteeen Attributes,” the prayer book includes only the positive attributes of God; but Torah follows them with several less savory descriptions of God.

(6) The Lord passed before [Moses] and proclaimed: “The Lord! The Lord! A God compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, (7) extending kindness to the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin [here’s where the prayer book cuts off the verse, but in the Torah it continues:] yet He does not remit all punishment, but visits the iniquity of the parents upon children and children’s children, upon the third and fourth generation. (Exodus 34:6-7)

Compare these verses with Exodus 20:5-6 where God’s judgment and punishment are recounted prior to God’s compassion and kindness.

You shall not bow down to [idols] or serve them. For I the Lord your God am an impassioned God, visiting the guilt of the parents upon the children, upon the third and upon the fourth generations of those who reject Me, but showing kindness to the thousandth generation of those who love Me and keep My commandments. (Exodus 20:6-7)

Why does one passage lead with God’s compassionate side, and the other lead with God’s judgmental side? And what has this to do with the nature of public discourse in our society?

I would posit that the two passages reflect Israel’s experience of God. Context -- as critics of contextomy rightly preach -- matters. In the case of the passage that leads with God’s judgment and punishment (Exodus 20:6-7), the Israelites are assembled at the base of Mt. Sinai. They have witnessed God’s plagues against Egypt (including the sins of the Egyptians visited on their children in the horrifying death of the firstborn sons) and they have seen God’s retribution at the Reed Sea.

Now Mount Sinai was all in smoke, for the Lord had come down upon it in fire; the smoke rose like the smoke of a kiln, and the whole mountain trembled violently. The blare of the horn grew louder and louder… (Exodus 19:18-19)

At this moment, God’s power and retribution loom large in the experience of the Israelites. But they do not leave out the rest of the truth of God’s kindness that they have come to know.

By the time we come to chapter 34, which contains the verse only partially quoted in the prayer book, the Israelites have built a Golden Calf, Moses has smashed the first set of tablets, and a punishing plague has taken those guilty of idolatry. Yet the people have also seen that the pillar of cloud -- God’s presence among them -- remains at the Ohel Moed (Tent of Meeting) (33:10), that God continues to speak directly to Moses (33:11), and that God will continue to lead them through the Wilderness (33:14). In fact, God reveals the goodness and compassion of the Divine Presence directly to Moses,

…“I will make all My goodness pass before you, and I will proclaim before you the name Lord, and the grace that I grant and the compassion that I show.” (Exodus 3:19)

At this moment, the people are imbued with a sense that God is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in kindness and faithfulness, and so those are the words expressed first, but not to the exclusion of the full truth as they know it. The Israelites are honest.

The Rabbis make much the same point about speaking the truth of our experience of God. The Talmudic sage Rav Chanina (B.Yoma 69b) tells us that:

…the seal of the Holy One blessed be God is TRUTH (emet).

How do we know this? A midrash in the Talmud, tractate Yoma, tells us that Moses, from his experience, praised God as “great, powerful, and awesome,” but Jeremiah and Daniel could not. Jeremiah prophesied the siege of Jerusalem by Nebuchadnezzar of Babylonia, and the destruction of the First Temple; he did not experience God as “awesome.” Daniel experienced the Exile in Babylonia; he could not say “powerful.” The Rabbis ask: How could Jeremiah and Daniel uproot the phrasing --  “great, powerful, and awesome” -- that Moses had instituted?

R. Elazar said: Because they knew that the Holy One blessed be God is truthful. Therefore they could not speak untruthfully about God.

The midrash teaches us that God desires honesty, not false piety. This is a fine message for Creationists, but also for all of us in our public and political discourse.

It’s a message that the festival of Sukkot drives home. During Sukkot, we leave our hermetically sealed homes and live for a week in a sukkah. The sukkah is both an image and an experience of openness and transparency -- honest reality, no pretense, no lies. The sukkah strips away our insulated borders. Its permeable walls and ceiling, open to heaven, allow the wind and rain to come through. It is time to leave our hermetically sealed ideological environments, where we choose our news to fit our views, accept quote mining and spin as substitutes for truth, and build walls to keep challenging perspectives far from us.

I extend plaudits to the Jewish Council for Public Affairs, who recently opened a section of their website devoted to civil discourse in America. I’ll close with their words:

We will discover civility in the guarding of our tongues and the rejection of false witness. We will find it wherever we show care for the dignity of every human being, even those with whom we may strongly disagree. We will find it by listening carefully when others speak, seeking to understand what is being said and trying to learn from it.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Leadership: politicians and statesmen / Parshat Vayeilech

My best wishes for a good and sweet New Year. Perhaps the most beautiful blessing I've heard comes from my friend Rabbi David Novak: "No matter where you find yourself in the... world this Rosh Hashanah, may you all have days that are rich in blessings, days that are saturated in happiness, days that are deeply fulfilling, and most importantly, days in which you know love." May you and your imbibe deeply of these blessings in the year to come. Shanah tovah u'metukah.

What do Orin Smith, John Morgridge, and Moses have in common? First, let’s note where they differ. You’ve heard of Moses. Have you heard of Smith and Morgridge? Orin Smith was CEO of Starbucks Coffee from 2000 to 2005, John Morgridge was the CEO of Cisco Systems from 1988 to 1995.

Smith and Morgridge are great leaders according to Jim Collins, author of From Good to Great. Collins characterizes a great leader as one who “channels ambition into the organization and its work, not the self, setting up successors for even greater success in the next generation.” Collins has in mind CEOs of major corporations, but could be talking about Moses. Collins further says that great leaders are a “paradoxical mix of personal humility and professional will.” Moses in a nutshell.

Parshat Vayeilech is only 30 verses long. Moses draws to a close his illustrious career and writes down his Torah. From the very beginning of this address, he assures the people that although he cannot accompany them across the Jordan into Eretz Yisrael, Joshua and God will be with them. He is not abandoning them; he is preparing for their future after him,

Moses went and spoke these things to all Israel. He said to them: “I am now one hundred and twenty years old. I can no longer be active. Moreover, Adonai has said to me, ‘You shall not go across yonder Jordan.’ It is indeed your God Adonai who will cross over before you, and who will wipe out those nations from your path; and you shall dispossess them. Joshua is the one who shall cross before you, as Adonai has spoken.” (Deuteronomy 31:1-3)

There is an enormous difference between being a celebrity and being a leader, though the difference is sadly often obscured in our society. Many who enjoy the limelight are often looked upon as people with opinions to hear and wisdom to bestow. True for some, but not for most.

We need to reclaim the model of genuinely great leadership. Moses is our model: patient, loyal, determined, modest, and resilient. Even more, he is the quintessential personification of Jim Collins’ ideal CEO: “[one who] channels ambition into the organization and its work, not the self, setting up successors for even greater success in the next generation.”

The Rabbis elaborate on Moses’s determination to “[set] up successors for even greater success in the next generation.” The midrash reports that:

When Moses saw that his sons were not worthy to succeed him in the dignity of his office, he wrapped himself in his tallit and, standing up in prayer before the Holy One, said: “Master of the universe, let me know who shall come and go [in the position of leadership] before the people. Let the Lord, the God of the spirits of all flesh, set [the right] man over the congregation (Numbers 27:15-16). Master of the universe, the disposition of every one of them is revealed to You. The disposition of one is not at all like the disposition of another. After I depart from them [i.e. die], when You will be setting another leader over them, I beg you, set over them a leader who will put up with each and every person according to his particular disposition…”

The Holy One replied, “Moses, you have made a proper request. So I shall show you all the judges and all the prophets whom I will set up over My children from this time until the dead shall be brought back to life [in the messianic age].” … God showed him that Joshua would rise up in his stead, and Joshua would turn over his authority to Othniel, as will all subsequent leaders to their successors. Then the Holy One said to Moses: “Each of these I showed you has one disposition and one spirit. But as to what you asked for earlier, at the end of time there will be a person within whom, to be sure, there will be but one spirit, yet it will have the capacity to bear the weight of the spirits of all people -- that person is the Messiah.”

The midrash pictures Moses seeking a successor who will be devoted to the people -- each and every one of the myriad who left Egypt. Moses even understands that his own sons are neither politicians nor statesmen. They are celebrities but not leaders.

Give that the 2012 Presidential Election Season is in full swing, I will go one step further. There is a world of difference between a politician and a statesman. James Paul Clark (1854-1916, 18th governor of Arkansas) said: “A politician thinks of the next election; a statesman of the next generation.” Or, as George Pompidou (1911-1974, French Prime Minister and subsequent President of France) put it a bit more cynically, “A statesman is a politician who places himself at the service of the nation. A politician is a statesman who places the nation at his service.”

Moses is a statesman. We don’t need more politicians. We need statesmen, genuine leaders.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, September 10, 2012

Partial Credit / Nitzavim

Jimmy’s spelling test lay on his desk. He looked at it. “Satelite” had a pronounced red mark through it. Jimmy approached the teacher’s desk. “Mrs. Jones,” he said, “can I have partial credit for satellite? I spelled part of the word correctly.”

Within weeks of the launch of the Hubble Space Telescope into orbit by the Space Shuttle Discovery in April 1990, it became clear that something was very wrong with Hubble’s primary mirror: it was the wrong shape.
(The Hubble Space Telescope as photographed by the Space Shuttle Discovery)

The edges were too flat by 2.2 µm (micrometers); that’s a bit more than 2 millionths of a meter or, if you prefer the British system of measurement .000858 inches (less than nine ten-thousandths of an inch). Those 2.2 micrometers made a world of difference to scientists studying objects in deep space.
(Polishing Hubble’s mirror)

According to the report issued by the investigating commission headed by Lew Allen, director of the Jet Propulsion Laboratory, Perkin-Elmer, the manufacturer of the mirror, had ignored test results that suggested spherical aberration. The commission found that Perkin-Elmer had made numerous mistakes along the way, from failing to involve optical designers in the mirror’s construction, to ignoring quality control data. This is not to say that Hubble produced no images; it produced blurry images. Should Perkin-Elmer get “partial credit?” Few people thought they should.

When it comes to teshuvah (repentance) and our relationship with God, Torah takes a different stand: partial credit is always given. With Rosh Hashanah coming next week, we all have teshuvah-on-the-mind.

Parshat Nitzavim tells us that, looking ahead, Moses can see the ups and downs, the blessings and curses, in Israel’s future. Since hard times and suffering are presumed to result from Israel’s distancing herself from God and the Covenant, Moses twice speaks of Israel returning to God. The first time Moses says Israel will return “up to” or “until” God, and the second time “to” God:

When all these things befall you -- the blessing and the curse that I have set before you -- and you take them to heart amidst the various nations to which the Lord your God has banished you, v’shavta ad Adonai Elohekha / and you return up to the Lord your God, and you and your children heed his command with all your heart and soul, just as I enjoin you this day, then the Lord your God will restore your fortunes and take you back in love. (Deuteronomy 30:1-3)

And a few verses later:

And the Lord your God will grant you abounding prosperity in all your undertakings, in the issue of your womb, the offspring of your cattle, and the produce of your soil. For the Lord will again delight in your well-being, as he did in that of your ancestors, since you will be heeding the Lord your God and keeping his commandments and laws that are recorded in this book of the Teaching -- v’shavta el Adonai Elohekha / once you return to the Lord your God with all your heart and soul. (Deuteronomy 30:9-10)

Moses uses a different preposition in each occurrence. What difference can two letters make? Even one preposition can suggest different meanings: consider “he came by the office today” and “he came by his fortune honestly.” How much the more so can two different prepositions convey different meaning.

Moses first says Israel will return “ad Adonai Elohekha” (“until” or “up to” God) which suggests approaching and making contact, but going no further. “El” (“to”) conveys a completed connection. If I walk along a road until a store, you might picture me standing outside. But if I walk to the store, you assume I went inside.

Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, noticing the two different prepositions, interpreted them in this way: ad (“until,” “up to”) conveys the Jewish people’s physical return to their homeland, language, and culture. It is the first step in teshuvah: approaching, although not fully attaining. El (“to”), in contrast, connotes a complete return, all the way to God. For Rav Kook, a staunch Zionist, aliyah was a prerequisite of complete return to God. It is only after the Jewish people make aliyah and build the Land, he continues, that they merit the divine assistance mentioned in this same passage: Then the Lord your God will open up your heart and the hearts of your offspring to love the Lord your God with all your heart and soul, in order that you may live (Deuteronomy 30:6). Barriers cast aside, Israel will do complete teshuvah and return all the way to God.

We read Parshat Nitzavim the week before Rosh Hashanah. We find ourselves deep into the season of repentance, a time for spiritual reflection and moral introspection. As much as we commit ourselves to change and promise ourselves we will chart a new course, sometimes we start along the path but falter or get stuck in a rut. We have high hopes for self-improvement, but sometimes we do not entirely fulfill them.

Rav Kook taught that we learn something significant from these two tiny prepositions -- ad and el. Coming all the way “to” full and all-encompassing teshuvah is not the only thing of value. Coming “up to” means we have achieved partial success, and this too is precious in God’s eyes. This means that we should acknowledge and value what we have accomplished even if we have not yet reached our end goal. God gives partial credit.

Partial change leads to greater change. It’s a step in the right direction, and is, by itself, worthwhile and significant. It is success in its own right. Think back for a moment on the changes you had hoped or promised yourself last Rosh Hashanah that you would make this year. Don’t think about the goals you didn’t reach; think about the progress -- even small steps forward -- that you made. God gives partial credit. Please give yourself partial credit. A new year is unfolding before you -- a year of opportunity.

In December 1993, the Space Shuttle Endeavor blasted off its launching pad on a mission to repair Hubble. It was among the most complex missions NASA had ever undertaken. For 10 days, seven astronauts worked tirelessly to install the correct optics, replace the Wide Field and Planetary Camera, replace the solar arrays and four of Hubble’s gyroscopes as well as numerous electrical components, and upgrade her computers.

(Astronauts F. Story Musgrave and Jeffrey A. Hoffman repairing Hubble)

In January 1994, NASA released the first of the now much sharper images produced by Hubble.
(Hubble images before and after the repair of the mirror)

I mention the service mission because it was the first of five service missions to Hubble. Each approached solving all Hubble’s problems. Each accomplished a partial repair, a partial solution. Each took steps forward. Each gets partial credit.

May our efforts toward change and self-improvement -- incremental for most of us -- be fruitful. May we always remember that God gives partial credit, and follow that model.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Where are you from? / Ki Tavo

When my older daughter was in fifth grade, her teachers conceived what they thought was a great idea. Hoping to enlarge the meaning of Thanksgiving, the children were instructed to assemble a bag of artifacts from their family’s “country of origin.” On the Wednesday before Thanksgiving, each child was to dress to represent the culture of that country, present their bag of tricks, and place a pushpin on a world map on the country they “came from.” My first thought was: how can the African American kids do this? I was caught off guard by my daughter’s distress and anger. She asked acerbically: Do I do Russia, which Grammy’s family left because of pogroms? Or do I do Germany, which Grandma left after Kristallnacht? Should I dress up as a Cossack or a Nazi? On that Wednesday, one parent confided to me: This was tough for my son. We’re five generations in America. We have no idea where our ancestors came from. Our cultural icon is the golden arches of McDonalds.

We all want to know where we come from. What could be more natural? Parshat Ki Tavo describes a ceremony for the Israelites entering the Land of Israel to perform that acknowledges their roots. Here, succinctly, is the Jewish foundational story of our origins -- so succinct that it found its way into the Passover haggadah.

My father was a fugitive Aramean. He went down to Egypt with meager numbers and sojourned there; but there he became a great and very populous nation. The Egyptians dealt harshly with us and oppressed us. They imposed heavy labor upon us. We cried to the Lord, the God of our ancestors, and the Lord heard our plea and saw our plight, our misery, and our oppression. The Lord freed us from Egypt by a mighty hand, by an outstretched arm and awesome power, and by signs and portents. He brought us to this place and gave us this land, a land flowing with milk and honey. (Deuteronomy 26:5-9)

But what do the scholars say? Here, as briefly as possible, are three academic theories about ancient Israelite origins:

First: The conquest described in the Book of Joshua happened in the 13th century B.C.E. William F. Albright, John Bright, and G. Ernest Wright are proponents of this view based on excavations of Lachish and Hazor. But Kathleen Kenyon excavated Jericho itself and found no evidence of destruction even near that period in history. The second theory is known as the Infiltration Theory, and is championed by Albrecht Alt and Martin Noth. They explain that 12 semi-nomadic tribes entered Canaan from another area at the time of the “Conquest” and settled in the land. Because they had ethnic affinities, they were able to coalesce into one nation: Israel. A third theory, the Peasant Revolt Theory, was offered by G.E. Mendenhall and is based largely on the Amarna letters. It holds that there was no displacement or movement of the population and no entry from without. Rather, native peasants in Canaan withdrew from the oppressive regimes of city-states ruled by overlords who oppressed them. Having withdrawn, they formed a nation.

So did we come from Egypt? Or were we indigenous to the Land of Israel? As scholars continue to marshal evidence, and debate, this much I can say: the story of the Exodus and our origins in oppression and slavery, the magnificent redemption at the Reed Sea, and the spectacular Revelation at Sinai form the troika of ideas, symbols, and ideals that have fueled us for three millennia: Creation (of not only the universe, but the nation Israel), Revelation of Torah, and Redemption (a past redemption that serves as a paradigm for the future).
These three themes -- Creation, Revelation, Redemption -- permeate Judaism. They surround the Shema in the morning and evening prayers. They are echoed in the three pilgrimage festivals of Pesach, Shavuot and Sukkot. They define our religious-history: Creation is our past, Revelation (Torah) is our present, Redemption is the future we long for and work toward.
Coming from the tar pits of Egypt, we are schooled to empathize with those who suffer, who are repressed, whom injustice holds back. Torah reminds us frequently: We were slaves of Pharaoh in Egypt (Deuteronomy 6:21) -- we know the pain of slavery. Receiving Torah at Sinai teaches us the binding power of sacred text, interpreted and reinterpreted in every generation, guiding us in finding answers to the most perplexing moral questions we face, and offering ethical values to improve life for ourselves and others. Experiencing the Redemption at the Reed Sea, we know that miracles (however we define miracles) can happen, and that God (however we conceive God) is an integral part of changing the course of our lives for good. Keeping hope alive is so often crucial. When we seek redemption we can remember that it is possible. And not just for us -- for everyone.
If we can truly absorb the values that Creation, Revelation, and Redemption hold for us, so that they ooze out the pores of our skin (which is to say: shape our worldview and inform our choices and actions) then we will be fulfilling our mission that you shall be, as [God] promised, a holy people to the Lord your God  (Deuteronomy 26:19).

Fifth-graders are not the only ones curious to know whence they come. Alex Haley touched a deep nerve in the human psyche when he published Roots in 1976 and made Kunta Kinte a household name. Torah teaches us that our roots are less in time and location than they are in ethical values and spiritual goals. These are the ethics from which we come, and to which we continually try to return.

Where do you come from? Where are you headed?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman