Tuesday, February 7, 2012

“Six degrees of Separation”

You remember the game, name a movie and then try to connect it to Kevin Bacon by connecting actors or actresses that shared appearances, one to the other, in movies. The theory is that any movie (in the 90’s anyway) could be connected to Kevin Bacon in six steps or less. (Leading to the less popular and mathematically disproved theory that Kevin Bacon is the center of the universe.)

In John Gaure’s similarly named play, Six Degrees of Separation, one of the characters says, “I read somewhere that everybody on this planet is separated by only six other people. Six degrees of separation between us and everyone else on this planet. The President of the United States, a gondolier in Venice, just fill in the names.... I am bound to everyone on this planet by a trail of six people.”
It’s a fun idea. It’s an amusing party game for people inclined to trivia. It is even the basis of some interesting math projects. However what it is NOT is a form of comunication. And to try to use it a such is to beg for miscommunication and misunderstanding.

You are familiar with the idea. Instead of telling a friend that you felt slighted by a remark, a look, a missing invitation or failing to offer help, one might complain to a mutual friend, who repeats it. Soon people are talking in terms of conclusions, rather than actions: “She is insensitive.” “He is mean” “They only care about themselves.” And the real issue remains lost in translation. Additionally, it is nearly impossible to defend one’s reputation against unfounded accusations, especially in something so subjective such as opinion and perception. Pirkei Avot warns us not to rush to judge another man "Judge every person favorably" (1:6) and isn’t it often less the situation and more our assumptions about someone that fuel these negative conclusions?

In general, arguments and complaints by “six degrees of separation” only serve Lashon Hora and, sadly, sometimes slander. Why is it someone accused cannot speak directly to an accuser? Or vise versa. It would serve to keep these types of problems from becoming inflamed and serve to find solutions, which should be our objective. The Torah demands two witnesses in a case. Those witnesses are to be first hand, never someone who “heard” from someone else, who “heard” it from someone, and so on and with good reason.

Besides, consider your own experiences. Have you ever been surprised by someone being hurt by a remark you made or a perceived slight? Often people simply have hurt feelings and/or misunderstandings that are just that and can be sorted with a direct conversation. We could help further this if we suggested to a friend that they speak to a person directly. What good outcome has complaining or accusing behind someone’s back has ever served? It only serves to damage another’s reputation and we are to treat each other with respect; "Let your friend's honor be more dear to you than your own." Pirkei Avot (2:15)

There are two commandments in the Torah that address inappropraite speech. “Thou shall not go up and down as a tale-bearer among thy people.” Lev. 19:16 and “You shall not wrong one another.” Lev. 25:17 and the Rabbis DO attribute the latter to speech. Further, any negative speaking done about another is said to not only damages the subject’s reputation but the speaker’s and especially the listener’s because no harm could be done if no one listened. The Tulmud says that disparaging speech kills three: the person who speaks it, the person who hears it, and the person about whom it is told. (Arachin 15b). And if the comparison of Lashon Hora to murder doesn’t convince us of the power of speech, then perhaps we should be reminded that the entire universe is said to have been created by speech.

In most cases, people should be willing to speak for themselves and directly, to the person or people involved, in order to keep things above board and honest. If you’re looking for the truth, best to go to the source. It takes courage to be sure. And if it not worth mentioning directly, perhaps that itself is a good measure-that it is not worth mentioning at all. After all, we are connected, according to some theories, by six people or less.

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Pecking Order

Those of you who are close to me know that recently I had my tire slashed in the synagogue parking lot. (I park there,sometime even when I am not in the building, because it is close to our house and in view of my kitchen window.) And while I can’t know the motive of the culprits, I do know it was purposeful as evidenced by the one-plus-inch wide puncture in my sidewall. (I am not so bad a driver as to be able to run over a foreign object with my sidewall.) I reported it to the police and an officer politely took a report. I called my insurance company, but since the repair was less than my deductible-they offered some sympathetic words, some paper work and little else. I asked my mechanic if I should show the tire to the officer, as the slice was much more visable once the tire was removed. He seemed embarassed to tell me he didn't think much would happen.

Not so long ago we had a guest speaker come to the synagogue. Her name is Eva Schloss and she is an author of The Promise and Eva’s Story, both about her experiences as a Holocaust survivor. Like her stepsister, Anne Frank, Eva was found in hiding and taken to a camp at 15 years old. During her speaking engagement, one of the questions asked was “Do you think this could happen again?" Her answer was not only that it could, but also that it seemed likely. The worries she sighted for the Jewish people in the world today parallel the ones she saw in Nazi Germany: the difficult economic decline, the increase in anti Semitic overtures, and the acceptance of people wanting to play the ‘blame game’.

Schloss also told us about Nazi officers, who had escaped and never faced trials like Nuremberg and were interviewed years later. Not only had they not apologized, or even offered feeble excuses,as some citizens had, she told us of one man, who when asked if he had any regrets, was quoted as saying only that they hadn’t been able to finish the job!

Online and in social situations, more recently, I have seen more infighting among Jewish people, than I care to. (Sometimes this is based on denomination, sometimes not.) A woman I know fairly well belongs to a synagogue that is independent, which means they have members of more than one denomination. This presents, what I can only imagine are some remarkable challenges. But who would have guessed that one of the challenges would be infighting and back biting among members.

More recently, a friend of mine posted on FB that she dreamed she had married to a conservative Rabbi. (She is Orthodox.) This post led to a good deal of congratulations and good-natured joking… at first. Then some of the comments started to lean toward the aggressive, the judgemental and, I thought, a little mean. I even began to wonder if this was the purpose of the post, however, this doubt is more a reflections of my state of mind and a harsh social climate, rather than any fault of my FB friend.

I understand the urge to be proud of one’s identity-but are we so separate? Do we have to be? I recall that old adage that ‘anyone less religious than me is a heretic and anyone more religious, a fanatic’. But it also occurs to me that in Eva’s books, or in any other account I have ever read of the Holocaust, no one ever asked about a Jewish person’s affiliation before the victims were carted off and locked up, or worse.

One need only read a list of headlines to see that incidences of anti Semitism are on the rise. And, just as effectively, read the nasty comments left on related online articles. People are quite vocal about their beliefs, especially negative ones. And it is no secret that anti-Zionism has become the new anti-Semitism. One need only blame their hatred of an entire people on perceived political ideals and imagined injustices.

During a recent meeting (whose purpose will remain nameless, as it doesn’t really matter) I saw two people arguing with each other in a way that would make you think they were enemies rather than those with a common goal. One of my colleagues remarked before she left-that someone should tell people- “We DO have enemies, and they are NOT the people in this room!!

(So I am.) Ahavas Yisrael

Tuesday, August 30, 2011


In the news, whether politics, current events, or celebrity following, “shame” seems to be the word. People seem to have lost the ability to discuss or debate an event or topic, or plainly just refuse. When we see celebrity news in even limited amounts, it tends toward the use of drugs, relationship failure, threats of jail, or drunkenness. It titillates. Not so much is even made of who won an award or their work as a whole.

Even much has been made of shame in child rearing. I can’t tell you how many times as a teacher I have heard variations of the theme that all ‘so and so’ really needed was a ‘kick in the pants’. When in truth, most of the time children who needed the most guidance had very clearly been kicked enough.

The Rabbis say, “Whoever shames his fellow person in public has no share in the world to come. He is one of those who will go down to Gehinnom and never come up again.” Shame is, of course, closely related to Lashon Hora.

“Shaming” is described as a “whitening of the face.” Can someone die of embarrassment? It seems unlikely, however, because of the comparison of the blood draining from the face and causing the person to go pale as well as the damage to their reputation in the community, shaming is compared to murder.

Leviticus 19:17 tells us, “You shall surely rebuke thy neighbour, and not bear sin because of him.” Notice that it doesn’t say you should shame him, nor does it say you should talk about him to the general public. His errors should not be expounded upon, or speculated upon, and certainly not for entertainment purposes or to further a cause. It does not say, either, that he is answerable to you. Rashi’s interpretation is that we are to have a stand against sin, but not shame the sinner. This sounds like a delicate balance.

One example of how this may be achieved is the story of Tamar who recounts the pledge she had from her father-in–law, Judah, but not that they had had relations. Another example is when Joseph revieled himself to his brothers in Egypt. He did this without on lookers and only out of absolute necessity. His brothers had sold him into slavery only after abandoning a plot to kill him, so if he wanted to shame them, he clearly had a lot to work with. So did Tamar. Tamar’s relationship with Judah resulted in a pregnacy. Aditionally, she had the proof of the belongings he had left behind and the rather scandulious fact that he had mistaken her for a ‘harlot’.

There once was a beautiful custom of woman wearing borrowed clothes on Yom Kippur when unmarried men would be looking for brides. Rabbi Shimon ben Gamliel said, "… the daughters of Jerusalem would go out wearing borrowed white clothing so that they should not embarrass those who did not own such.” Given the current economy, perhaps this is worth remembering. Further, we are also not allowed to speak ill, even of the dead. "One who shames those who sleep in the dust has also committed a grave sin."

We know that it is human nature to measure a person against our own yardstick, and since they are not us, find them wanting. How quick are we to ‘tell some home truths’ once we are angry? How anxious to pontificate about someone’s perceived shortcomings, especially when things don’t go our way? How hasty are we in joining in? But the parameters are clear. We are not to shame someone for being not as smart or not as wealthy or not as educated, as we would like him or her to be. We are not to shame people for owing us money, past offences, ancestry, or personal weakness. There are rules of etiquette built around this, too numerous to name here.

And if we believe that Gehinnom is a spiritual condition, rather than a place, then maybe the point is that shaming someone not only harms the target and both their reputation and connection to the community, but we harm ourselves, spiritually and socially, when we undertake these behaviors. And that’s a shame.

Sunday, August 14, 2011

Are you talking to ME?

“Are you talking to me? Are you talking to ME?” who can forget this famous line forged by the character of Travis Bikle of Taxi Driver fame. They have been repeated over and over in comedic content and in drama. How often in writing do we see ourselves, and wonder that? So many stage plays and novels begin with a standard disclaimer of denial of real persons, places, or things. Good writing, we are told is universal; it appeals to a wider audience and holds some agreed upon, universal truths that speak to us all.

And aren’t Drushas, in part, good writing? Or at least good speaking? I have had some of my best conversations of the week just outside of out Shul because of the Rabbi’s Drusha. I have even asked myself, sometimes kidding and some times less so, if the Drusha was about me. Is he talking about me being… impatient? Judgmental? Unkind? Might I have treated someone unfairly? Some might find this type of introspection upsetting.

It was recently remarked to me that ‘people want uplifting messages’ and that maybe true. But is really the job of a good Rabbi to make us all only feel good about ourselves? And is he responsible for any discomfort people experience at all?

Judaism has specific rules for specific situations and though some customs change from place to place the rules do not. Nor does custom ever replace the rules. It is the job of a spiritual advisor to let you know about these rules. Try not to shoot the messenger. Every discussion, like every pancake, has two sides. For example, when there is a dispute about how something should be done and the Rabbi tells everyone what the rules are, there is always going to be a ‘side’ that didn’t get what he or she wants. I repeat, try not to shoot the messenger. And don’t ask your friends to shoot him either. Rabbis don’t just arbitrarily make up rules. And they DO have to be sure the rules are followed in the synagogue. It is up to you to decide to follow them in your own life.

The Rabbi often reminds us a this time of year, with the High Holiday on the horizon, that it is human nature to easily turn a critical eye toward our fellow man, but difficult, at best, for us to aim that all seeing lens at ourselves.

So, to be clear, he is talking to you…maybe through some universal truth, maybe by offering to educate you on some rule or custom you hadn’t known about, or maybe by giving you the means to become more introspective. But you cannot really hold any one other human being responsible for your internal dialogue or your journey or whatever processes you are going through. He can offer support and spiritual guidance.

The Torah is about behavior-and the Drusha is about the Torah, if it makes you regard your own behavior with a critical lens then perhaps it is not about you personally, but IT IS ABOUT YOU because it speaks to you. And that makes it a really good Drusha.

Friday, June 24, 2011

“The world rests on three things: justice, truth, and peace" (Avot 1:18)

What a peaceful world it might be, if even in the face of opposing view points, without politicing…people rested their arguments on the topic at hand in a direct and respectful manner. More often than not, reasonable people could find reasonable solutions. One need only regard the nightly news to find sensationalizing of current events, false analogies and character assasinations that all but completely veil the original and true concerns.

Consider recent political news: A new flotilla of Pro Palestienian activists is ready to set sail and try to break through Israel’s navel blockade. Brg. Gen. Yoav Mordechai has said on Israel Radio, “There is an unequivocal directive from the government to enforce the navel blockade that is recognized by international law, and we will not allow it to be broken.” News of the proposed fotilla comes nearly a year after the flotilla, where nine were killed, and Israel has already warned of a potential use of force, yet activist set to participate still insist on refering to themselves as “peace activists”. Is there really any doubt as to their true agenda?

Further, consider the proposed ban on circumsision in San Fransisco. Is it really about children’s rights, as ‘intactavists’ claim or is it a ban intent on hindering the practice of Judasim? The writer of the proposed ban in SF, Mathew Hess, is also the author of the notoriuosly anti-semetic comic “Foreskin Man”, which has been sited by the Anti Defefamation League for “gross Anti- Semetic imagery and themes.” ADL Associates representative Nancy Appel has been quoted as saying, “This is an advocacy campain taken to a new low. It is one thing to to debate it, it is another thing to degrade it. This reaches a new low and is disrespectful and deeply offensive.”

When did it become good debate or quality discussion to disparage and degrade one’s opponent? I cannot help but think that these types of tactics betray not only an argument without substance, but often an agenda and are acts of hatred. “Tale-bearing and unkind insinuations are proscribed, as is hatred of one's brother in one's heart (Lev. 19:17).”

At worst, humans fall prey to particpating in this, inadvertantly or not. At best, we can guard against it and demand facts, direct sources, and laws in support of a position, rather than emotion and hearsay. We have to trust each other with the truth and the ability to make democratic decisions. The facts should not be eclipsed or silenced by retoric. It’s okay to ‘fight’, but fighting fairly and ethically is paramount. “The reputation of a fellow man is sacred.” (Ex. 21:1).

Sunday, June 5, 2011

Foreskin Man: Fanning the fires of Anti-Semitism

Okay, just as I am nearly about to concede that most people are acting primarily out of concern and information available, even if that information is sometimes misinformation, when some reprehensible creation has to prove me wrong. Enter Foreskin Man. So how like the propaganda of nineteen thirties Germany, to depict the caricature of the bad, evil, scary Jew who will do something unspeakable, with, usually, enough left unsaid that the imagination runs wild. But Foreskin Man leaves no spurious image or wearisome stereotype left to our imagining. And frankly nothing here seems to be all that mysterious.

Even the people who will decry that the Jewish people always claim anti-Semitism in the face of opposition will have a difficult time ignoring the very blond super hero “Foreskin Man” or his darker skinned and exaggerated featured nemesis, the Model Monster. Even if one could block out the less than subtle stereotypes, then enter the ridiculous gore-ifying of the religious rite beyond any recognition. The cover of the particular issue I saw shows the mother shielding the child protectively. Umm. The mother who likely called the Mohel and requested his services, you mean? Seriously. Not to mention his blood spattered shirt.

from Foreskin Man

The writer of the comic is Matthew Hess, who says that the comic is not intended to be Anti- Semitic. According to Hess, "It takes an unflinching look at the practice of circumcising children, as well as those who perform it. The characters are drawn accordingly to convey that message." If I take him at his word, then I can’t help worrying more than a little bit about what true colors and unspoken bias Mr. Hess might be unintentionally channeling through his art.

So far the Anti Defamation League has sited the comic for “grotesque antisemitic imagery and themes”. And Nancy Appel of ADL associates said, “This is an advocacy campaign taken to a new low. It is one thing to debate it, is another thing to degrade it. This reaches a new low and is disrespectful and deeply offensive." But these remarks have not kept the comic from supportive pages on Facebook or items being marketed at CafĂ© Press. (Please feel free to call them or write emails to express your displeasure.)

One can’t help but wonder about how Hess’ group, Male Genital Mutilation Bill, feels the argument is going if they are willing to resort to this type of propaganda. Not well, I’d surmise, if the comic book is any evidence. (If only there were a white, very blond, super hero with Nordic features to tell people what to think!) I’d like to believe that popular culture definitions of an issue wont make a difference, except to those most limited or on the fringe of society. But history has proved this belief wrong.

In the interest of fighting popular culture with popular culture, I recall the character of George Castanza of Seinfeld fame, who gave this advice in a sketch, “It’s not a lie, if you believe it.” If George where a real person, I would be compelled to remind him- that yes, yes it still is a lie, even if you choose to believe it.

A Cut Above?

Banning Circumcision in SF
(Warning: contains adult content)

So let me get this right…you can pierce it…you can tattoo it…and in some cases you can show it off while dancing and in others cut it off entirely! These are your rights. But what you simply cannot do is keep a covenant with G-d and have a circumcision on the eighth day of life. Hmmm. This November voters in San Francisco will have the opportunity to vote on a ban that should it pass will make it illegal to circumcise under the age of eighteen.

Normally, I shy away from making statements about the ‘war on religion’ as I have heard it stated, as it has always rung a little paranoid if not outright ‘fringe element’ in my ears, but this argument under the circumstances makes itself. Who else, after all is bound, and I do mean bound, to have one? The importance of the event is underscored in the Torah when Moses’ wife performs her son’s bris herself in Exodus. “So Zipporah took a flint and cut off her son’s foreskin, and touched his leg with it, saying, ‘you are truly a bride groom of blood to me’ “ And by doing so she saves Moses’ life as G-d was prepared to kill him for having not carried out this command.

I am also reminded of the story of Jonah and the big fish. Many people seem to gloss over the fact that Jonah ended up in the fish because he was trying to avoid what G-d asked of him. He was to go to Nineveh and foretell of its destruction. (The message stands out, that one can return to G-d, if one is sincere. This is bore out with the timing of this reading, as it takes place on the Day of Atonement.) But another message is clear as well-when G-d asks us to do something; it is not really a conversation. It seems best, with us as with Jonah, not to try to avoid his “requests”.

While arguments have been made regarding the relative health benefits of circumcision, and they are many, reduced instances of urinary infections, reduced risk of other infections such as herpes and syphilis, and the Human Papilloma Virus which causes cervical cancer in women (British Medical Journal), the fact of the matter is it that for Jewish people it is first and foremost a religious ritual.

Many laws are designed to save us from ourselves and to this I say, if you dislike the practice of circumcision, you find it wrong or inappropriate then don’t practice it. But don’t interfere with a religious obligation that you do not understand. And I know there will be arguments that people do understand…so let me say that if YOU are not obligated to have your child circumcised then don’t. But don’t force your options on the people who practice this for religious reasons and view this practice in an entirely different light. And I encourage lawmakers and others who wish to understand the practice better, to make an appointment with a Rabbi (A Jewish one-which I know sounds redundant, but I have found people who use this title and are not.) because this is a person who, having studied for years and years, understands the laws.

The arguments comparing circumcision to female genital mutilation while numerous and varied are moot, because the two are incomparable. It is an effort to sensationalize the argument and thus gain support for a law that would undermine the religious freedoms of many. The argument wants my heart to go out to women who are abused in the most indelicate and unsanitary of circumstances and it does. But I am also moved as much, in my heart and in my soul, by the thought of the tragic possibility of a Jewish man deprived of a bris.