Monday, September 22, 2014

Shanah tovah u'metukah

May the new year, 5775, bring you and yours the blessings of 
health, contentment, joy, and prosperity.
And may we see our prayers for peace and justice 
throughout the world come closer to fulfillment.
שנה טובה ומתוקה

Saturday, September 13, 2014

Someone Sees and Now We All See / Nitzavim-Vayeilekh

My morning gym routine begins on an elliptical machine that faces five television screens. Yes, five. The morning TMZ released the infamous video of Ray Rice punching his girlfriend into unconsciousness in a hotel elevator in Atlantic City last February (2014) there was a moment when all five stations were showing the video simultaneously. Somehow, just somehow, the NFL and the Ravens claim they only had access to a video taken from outside the elevator, showing Rice dragging Janay Palmer’s unconscious body into the hallway, but neither organization managed to get hold of the second video until TMZ broadcast it for all the world to see. At this time, NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell still maintains he and the NFL never saw the second video until TMZ broadcast it, though Associated Press claims to have spoken to a law enforcement source who sent a copy to them last April. In a personal communication with an official high placed in the Raven’s organization, I learned this past week that the Ravens knew from the beginning the full extent of what Rice did to Palmer in the elevator — with or without the second video—and although they took no action until TMZ broadcast the second video.

The NFL’s tepid response when the incident first surfaced and the video taken outside the elevator was available to all months ago is shameful: Rice was suspended for the first two games of the current season. Those of us who have worked with battered women know that in the vast majority of cases, the first time a man is caught battering a woman is far from the first time he has beaten her, but even were it not, two games out is a slap on the wrist. NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell later announced that his organization was ratcheting up the penalty to a six-game suspension for a first offense, which delivers the message that men who physically assault women get a free pass the first time they are caught. The Ravens, for their part, did nothing until the TMZ video forced their hand; then they “released” Rice and the NFL suspended Rice “indefinitely” (which has the sound of “not permanently).

Torah has a passion for justice. It is often couched in a theological wrapper that moderns find difficult to digest. In this week’s Torah reading, the combined parshiot of Nitzavim and Vayeilekh, we find Moses reminding the People Israel that their lives abound in choice. Endowed with free will, they can choose blessing or curse, which is to say that their behavioral choices carry consequences for which they are responsible. Moses turns to the subject of idolatry:

Perchance there is among you some man or woman, or some clan or tribe, whose heart is even now turning away from the Lord our God to go and worship the gods of those nations—perchance there is among you a stock sprouting poison weed and wormwood. When such a one hears the words of these sanctions, he may fancy himself immune, thinking, “I shall be safe, though I follow my own willful heart”—to the utter ruin of moist and dry alike. The Lord will never forgive him; rather will the Lord’s anger and passion rage against that man, until every sanction recorded in this book comes down upon him, and the Lord blots out his name from under heaven. The Lord will single them out from all the tries of Israel for misfortune, in accordance with all the sanctions of the covenant recorded in this book of Teaching. And later generations will ask—the children who succeed you, and foreigners who come from distance lands and see the plagues and diseases that the Lord has inflicted upon the land, all its soil devastated by sulfur and salt, beyond sowing and producing, no grass growing in it, just like the upheaval of Sodom and Gomorrah, Admah and Zeboiim, which the Lord overthrew in His fierce anger… (Deuteronomy 29:15-22)

What has been happening in the inner offices of the NFL and Ravens organizations is a kind of idolatry. Certainly there are no easily recognizable idolatrous images, but that only makes the idolatry harder to recognize and in some ways more insidious. The worship of image and profit has blinded many in these organizations to the simple fact that their players—worshiped as super-heroes in modern, secular, American culture—are implicitly and explicitly role models whose behavior influences other people. The NFL and team organizations hold out their players as “community leaders” to garner fans and consequently attendance and profit, yet they want to disavow as much responsibility as possible when things go awry. They thought they were “immune” and “safe” until the videos appeared. Will God wreak ruin and havoc on them in retribution? Not from my theological perspective, but later generations will indeed suffer the “plagues and diseases,” the “soil devastated by sulfur and salt” of the attitude that battering women is just something some men do, and it needn’t be addressed unless and until the men are caught in the act, and even then, unless people make an inordinate fuss it can be swept away with words rather than action.

Physical assault of women and girls is a significant and prevalent “poison weed and wormwood” in our culture, as it has been throughout human history. One could easily argue that the situation is worse—indeed condoned and even encouraged—in other cultures in our world today. Honor killings happen regularly in the Islamic world. Female infanticide and sex-selection abortions are rife in China. Genital mutilation is still practiced in Africa. Sex trafficking continues unabated around the globe—and can be found here in the United States, as well. Yet we who think of ourselves as modern and enlightened people have not expunged the scourge of assault against women, and to treat it as only a problem if people take notice and raise their voices in loud choruses of objection is deeply, deeply troubling.

Talmud[1] relates that when the great Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai lay on his deathbed, his disciples gathered around and asked him for a final blessing. The Rabbi blessed them with these words: “May your fear of Heaven be as strong as your fear of human beings.” The surprised disciples said to him, “Is that all?” Rabbi Yochanan responded, “Yes, would that it were so. For you should know that when a person does something wrong he says, ‘I hope no one sees me.’” If we think another person sees us doing something wrong, we refrain because we don’t want to be seen. Rabbi Yochanan tried to teach his disciples to live at all times, in all places, and in every situation — especially those in which they were tempted to do wrong — to be aware that they were in God’s presence.

The measure of integrity and morality is not what we do when the blaring spotlight illuminates our every move. The measure of integrity and morality is what we do in the dark, when no one knows.

The story is told that the Chofetz Chaim was traveling home in a horse-drawn cart. The driver stopped the cart along the road next to an apple orchard. “Look out for me, Rabbi,” he said. “I’m going to get a few apples. Let me know if someone sees.” The driver jumped out of the cart and headed to the orchard. The rabbi called out, “Someone sees!” and the driver came scurrying back to the cart. They drove on a bit further and came to another apple orchard. Again the driver jumped down and asked the rabbi to serve as lookout. Again, no sooner did the driver set foot in the orchard than the rabbi called out, “Someone sees!” and the driver came running back. The driver looked around, didn’t see a soul, and said to the rabbi, “Rabbi, I don’t see anyone. Why did you tell me twice now that someone sees when there isn’t anyone around?” The rabbi replied, “Someone always sees. Even when people cannot see what we do, God sees and knows. And so do we in our hearts.”

So long as no one “saw—which is to say, made a big fuss—life with Rice went on as usual. Since last February, the primary issues for the NFL and Ravens organization was image, and now reputation rehabilitation. In other words, it is more about PR than about principle, damage control but not fixing the problem.

Releasing Rice was a necessary move but not a sufficient action. Here are several more ideas for both organizations: (1) Donate funds and volunteer hours, in abundance, to women’s shelters such as House of Ruth ( in Baltimore. (2) Launch a massive public service campaign to educate the community about the evil of violence against women. (3) Provide the entire team classes and counseling on anger management and self-control. (Physical assault of women is not the only violence problem that has cropped up among major league ballplayers.)

As Shabbat closes this week, we will begin Selichot, the prayers of repentance, the formal beginning of the High Holy Day season. The core spiritual work of the High Holy Days is to engage in deep and difficult introspection and to confront who we are not only in the light of day, but also in the dark of night. We talk a lot about apologizing to the people we have offended, but we talk far less about admitting the things we have done or failed to do that no one but we, ourselves, and God know about. These are the things Rabban Yochanan b. Zakkai had in mind. This is what the cart driver thought he could get away with. These are the things the NFL and Ravens clearly hoped to avoid taking responsibility for.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

[1] BT Berakhot 28b.

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

A Summer of Bad News / Parshat Ki Tavo 2014

The news is causing us stress. Accordingly to a survey conducted jointly by the Harvard School of Public Health, the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation, and NPR, 25% of Americans surveyed who reported experiencing considerable amounts of stress in the past month attributed much of it to the news they consume. If that is the case, this past summer must be a researchers bonanza: In addition to Malaysian Airlines jets seemingly dropping out of the sky, the Supreme Court Hobby Lobby decision that puts religious liberty and womens reproductive health and freedom at risk, and the death of Michael Brown and subsequent protests and rioting in Ferguson, Missouri, we also watched as the jihadi terrorists of ISIS cut a bloody swath across Iraq and Syria and beheaded two Americans, Hamas rockets flew into Israel and war erupted in Gaza, and the Ebola outbreak in West Africa affecting five countries claimed hundreds of lives and threatened many more.

It is all riveting. And according to Prof. Mary McNaughton-Cassill (UT-San Antonio), who studies the nexus of media and stress, were in for far more stress as news becomes a 24/7 aspect of our lives, reaching us through conventional print and broadcast media, cable, and social media. Many of us even receive real-time alerts on our cell phones, which serve to ring alarm bells day and night. Life appears darker and more foreboding, the world increasingly dangerous and threatening, in the shadow of a non-stop newsfeed that itself feeds on calamity and catastrophe. New media outlets compete fiercely for our attention, favoring sensationalistic, emotionally-wrenching, violence-soaked images and stories to keep us transfixed. Not a day goes by that I dont hear or read the words the world is imploding or the world is going to hell in a hand-basket or things are getting worse and worse multiple times.

This weeks Torah portion, Ki Tavo, could lead us to the same sense of doom and gloom, but the Sfat Emet (Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter of Ger, 18471905) finds hope and inspiration in just two words in parshat Ki Tavo. Moses discourse to the Israelites promises the Israelites fame and fortune if they obey Gods covenant. On Mt. Ebal, Moses erects an altar and stone monuments coated with plaster and inscribed with words of Torah to reinforce his point. Then Moses directs that after the people cross the Jordan River, they are to assemble on the slopes of Mount Gerizim and Mount Ebal to hear the curses that will befall those who violate the covenant, and the blessings that will come to those who obey it. And if thats not enough, this is followed by the Tokhechah (lit. rebuke), a long list of cursesthreats, reallyfar longer than the list of blessings and promises: drought and famine, plague and pestilence, insanity, servitude, war and decimation.  So abysmally negative and frightening are the images invoked by the words that the Tokhechah is unnerving to read or hear. Therefore it is traditionally read in synagogue in a hasty undertone. The Tokhechah sounds this summers news. Where in this can we find hope and inspiration?

Moses opens the discourse:

 הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה, יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ מְצַוְּךָ לַעֲשׂוֹת אֶת-הַחֻקִּים הָאֵלֶּה--וְאֶת-הַמִּשְׁפָּטִים; וְשָׁמַרְתָּ וְעָשִׂיתָ אוֹתָם, בְּכָל-לְבָבְךָ וּבְכָל-נַפְשֶׁךָ.

The Lord your God commands you this day to observe these laws and rules; observe them faithfully with all your heart and soul.

The Sfat Emet focuses on Moses emphasis on this day. He reminds us that both midrash and Rashi explain Torah to be teaching us that, Each day these [words of Torah] should be like new in your eyes. But why is the sense of newness conditioned by like? Why should Torah be like new, the Sfat Emet wonders?

Is something out there trying to fool the person giving him something that isnt really new, but is like new? God forbid! It is really within human power to renew each thing. The renewal is there within everything since God renews each day, constantly, the work of Creation. Constantly means in each moment. Nothing exists without the divine life-force, and the point in each thing that comes from God never grows old, since Gods words are constantly alive and flowing.

It is precisely because everything comes from God (the divine life-force), which is continuously alive and flowing, that newness (that, is, possibility) inheres in every moment and every situationtoday and every day. That which is, is a given, but it does not define
what will always be. The Sfat Emet is talking about hope and optimism, which many people find so difficult to hold onto lately.

 The world of the Sfat Emet was as fraught as ours, and he well understood the difficulty of maintaining a high level of optimism in the face of overwhelming reality. This he readily acknowledges but hastens to remind us that nonetheless, behind, beneath, and beyond everything is God, the life-force, and therefore the possibility for change is always present. Here is how he expressed it:

However, darkness covers the earth (Isaiah 60:2). The outward shell hides that flowing point. Thus Scripture says: There is nothing new under the sun (Ecclesiastes 1:9). That is the natural world that hides the renewal.

This is a beautiful religious metaphysical ideal. Yet at the same time we cannot fail to recognize that much of the violence perpetrated around the globe is connected with religion or a direct outcome of religious beliefs and claims. Voltaire (16941778) said, Those who can make you believe absurdities can make you commit atrocities. Harvard professor of psychology Steven Pinker would agree. Raised in a Jewish family, Pinker converted to atheism as an adolescent. He is highly critical of religion and scripture, and argues that religion is not a force for peace. In his recent treatise, Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined, he writes:

The scriptures present a God who delights in genocide, rape, slavery, and the execution of nonconformists, and for millennia those writings were used to rationalize the massacre of infidels, the ownership of women, the beating of children, dominion over animals, and the persecution of heretics and homosexuals. Humanitarian reforms such as the elimination of cruel punishment, the dissemination of empathy-inducing novels, and the abolition of slavery were met with fierce opposition in their time by ecclesiastical authorities and their apologists. The elevation of parochial values to the realm of the sacred is a license to dismiss other peoples interests, and an imperative to reject the possibility of compromise.

Pinker argues for optimism and hope. He tells us that our era is less cruel and violent, and endowed with great peace and cooperationon the scale of families, neighborhoods, tribes, and nationsthan in any period in human history. Drawing on academic research from the arenas of cognitive science, psychology, history, economics, sociology, and archaeology, Pinker painstakingly argues that our lives are safer and better than any previous generation, and the trend is continuing thanks to state monopolies on force, international commercial trade, the expansion of human rights (include the empowerment of women), and the cultural proliferation of scientific reasonbut not thanks to religion. His optimism renews a sense of hope for a better future, but his seemingly categorical castigation of religion is troubling.

The Sfat Emet shows us that Pinker is not necessarily correct. His commentary on this day continues:

But it is within the power of a person to light up that point within the darkness; The Lord your God commands you this day God commands you to find this day the revelation of light, the shining speculum, within the very deed that hides the point. You do this by means of the mitzvot, since the commandment is a candle. The mitzvah exists within the corporeal world of deeds, but it also contains the divine life-force in the command to do it. Thus it gives the person power to become attached, by means of it, to the hidden light. This is the meaning of this day these laws and rules By means of the mitzvot, God gives you the power to find this day also in the deed

While the Sfat Emet doesnt point it out, Torah confirms his view that it is in mitzvot that find the power to transform possibility into reality, also from this weeks parashah.

הַסְכֵּת וּשְׁמַע, יִשְׂרָאֵל, הַיּוֹם הַזֶּה נִהְיֵיתָ לְעָם, לַיהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ.  י וְשָׁמַעְתָּ, בְּקוֹל יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ; וְעָשִׂיתָ אֶת-מִצְוֹתָו וְאֶת-חֻקָּיו, אֲשֶׁר אָנֹכִי מְצַוְּךָ הַיּוֹם.

Silence! Hear, O Israel! This day (i.e., today) you have become the people of the Lord your God: Heed the Lord your God and observe Gods mitzvot and laws, which I enjoy upon you today. (Deuteronomy 27:9-10)

But it is not enough for the potential to exist. We must grasp hold of it. We must seize the possibility to set a new direction and transform the possible into reality. By aligning ourselves with God, the life-force, by engaging in the life-affirming and life-giving activities of mitzvot, we remain positively engaged with the world through thought and deed, and do not succumb to the darkness that so often seems to envelop the world, especially when we turn on the news. The mitzvot encompass far more than ritual (though even rituals point to elevating morals); on a more fundamental level, the mitzvot entail an ethical system for living based on a foundation of empathy, compassion, and justice. This summer we saw more examples of religion at its worst; the Sfat Emet offers us religion at its best: a spiritual, religious way to keep hope alive and fan the flames of optimism, to fuel our endeavors to transform potential good into solid reality.

We are in the month of Elul, a time when we recite Psalm 27, the psalm of repentance, daily through Hoshana Rabbah. Psalm 27 closes with these words:
Yet I have faith that I shall surely see
Adonai’s goodness in the land of the living.
Hope in Adonai.
Be strong, take courage, and hope in Adonai.
© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman