Monthly Archives: February 2015


The other day I watched the latest ISIS video on YouTube.  I found it horrifying, almost too gruesome to watch. It was not a beheading – that I will not watch. I would never want my clicking on it misconstrued as support for this kind of obscene brutality.

The video I viewed was of ISIS terrorists, some clad in traditional Moslem garb, and others in secular garb, destroying ancient artifacts in an Iraqi museum. It made me feel ill to watch these statues and friezes getting smashed with tire irons and sledge hammers.

Why would anyone break into a museum – before it’s even opened to the public – in order to destroy large artifacts and steal smaller ones in order to sell them on the black market? What’s the motivation? These were beautiful relics from the palace of King Sennacherib and other recent archaeological finds from the ancient Assyrian empire. What could possibly be offensive?

The answer comes from the bottom of the screen where the following is written. “The monuments that you can see behind me are but statues and idols of people from previous centuries, which they used to worship instead of God. Those statues and idols weren’t there at the time of the Prophet nor his companions. They have been excavated by Satanists.”

It’s like what happens when creationists run into dinosaurs and realize that the very existence of these old bones means their version of creation doesn’t work so well. All of the statues and relics and idols in the museum signify that civilizations in the Near East existed 1000 years before Mohammed. For these men, such thought is impermissible. For them, history begins with Allah and will end with Allah. There can only be one path, one moral code, one way.

These frightening men believe that they are the sole arbiters of culture and religious belief. They think that they can destroy all notions of history and culture and art that do not align with their terribly narrow and toxic take on the universe. They want to obliterate the past and control the future.

Diversity is the enemy of ISIS. It is the enemy of all fundamentalist sects. Diversity destroys all totalitarian regimes. Diversity leads to equality: of men and women, of Christians and Jews and Moslems, of theists and atheists, of all humanity. Diversity is the champion of multiculturalism.

One of the things I love about progressive Judaism is our collective understanding that we alone do not determine the trajectory of the universe. We share in the travails and the triumphs of all humans. The central progressive Jewish lesson is the lesson our mothers taught us: “you have to learn to share.”

We must continue to uphold proclaim dignity for all human beings. We can’t let ourselves be led into cynicism and extremism by the actions of thugs and terrorists. We must be thoughtful and wise and openhearted without being naïve and self-delusional. That’s not easy. But in the end, we must continue proclaiming that everyone has to learn to share.

Of course Isis cannot control the ultimate warp and woof of history. They may destroy ancient artifacts, but they cannot destroy history itself. They will swing their sledgehammers. But in time, it is their ideology that will shatter. The oneness of God’s creation will win out, because it must.

Shabbat shalom


Living in this Mess

 I really didn’t want to write about the snow and the cold. Really. It’s so in our faces… why belabor the obvious? But I read the New York Times today with interest and alarm. It inspired me to think about the current environmental/meteorological situation through a Before Shabbat lens. And so what follows is a Before Shabbat list of reflections on this white stuff. Because what we’re living with is more than just a simple inconvenience.
1. The Lines Are Drawn Between Good and Evil – or at least, Nice and Not Nice.

Being on the road during this snow emergency – and it is still a snow emergency! – one comes to appreciate fellow drivers who motor with caution. When you approach an intersection bordered by Mt. Everest you have to anticipate the possibility that a car is lurking at the summit. Just slow down a bit… is this too much to ask? For some apparently yes, it is too much. The lack of common courtesy for people in extremis is a measure of the compassion of a culture.
2. He Never Complained

Certain families say of certain loved ones, living and dead, that they never complain. No matter what, they are always positive and optimistic. I would like it to be said of me by my children and my spouse that I never complained. They won’t say that. I have been complaining – a lot – about the snow. It’s so cold! It’s so icy! I hate having to walk the dog at night! Blah blah blah… I hate hearing myself complain about this situation. The fact is that we are all in it together and moaning about it changes nothing. Hang in there! Or as Nahum of Gimzo said, “Gam zu le-ṭobah,” [It will turn out fine], which is characteristic of the irrepressible optimism of the Jewish world-conception (Ta’an. 21a).

But… don’t say this is no big deal. Don’t say “What do you expect? We live in New England.” This is unprecedented.
3. Have Some Rachmones

When I do complain about driving or being cold, I need to pause and consider that there are folks who depend on the T to get to and from work, which means that they have been waiting in long lines, crowded into buses and trolleys and train cars. And then they’re lucky because at least they’re getting home!

There is true suffering out there in the snow. Job loss, homelessness, businesses in peril, roofs collapsing, and so forth. As it said in the Times, “We are being devastated by a slow-motion natural disaster of historic proportions. The disaster is eerily quiet. There are no floating bodies or vistas of destroyed homes. But there’s no denying that this is a catastrophe.”
Let’s stay tuned in so as to anticipate how we can alleviate some of the impact of this huge mess.
Shabbat Shalom


Is Valentine’s Day Good for the Jews?

A friend of mine owned a Jewish bakery. One of his employees was very Orthodox, from an insulated Orthodox family and community. When the baker suggested creating a line of Valentine’s Day cakes and cookies, she was horrified. “This is a kosher bakery! You can’t display such a thing! It’s like puttingtreif in the window!”

Inevitably someone will call to ask me, “Rabbi? Is it ok if my kids exchange Valentine’s cards with other kids? After all, it’s a Christian thing, isn’t it?” This is a variation on the Halloween question as to whether it’s appropriate for Jewish kids to hit the streets on October 31st in search of tricks and treats.

My ruling on this is unambiguous. Valentine’s Day is as Christian a holiday as Halloween. Which is to say, not at all. There was at least one, if not more, saints named Valentine or a derivation thereof. They were remembered on February, as well as in July.

However, the connection with love and pink hearts is a totally secular phenomenon attributed to a few sources. The first source is Geoffrey Chaucer, the famed author and cultural icon of the Middle Ages who is credited as being the father of English literature. Apparently the Middle Ages was a time when there was a leisure class with time to dwell on romance and flowery language. Chaucer took advantage of this trend, creating a lasting connection between romantic love and chivalrous deeds.

The British, not generally known as the most passionate of people (or is this the influence of Downton Abbey?), are the second source of Valentine’s Day traditions. Valentine’s Day has historical roots mainly in Greco-Roman pagan fertility festivals and the medieval notion that birds pair off to mate on February 14. The history of exchanging cards and other tokens of love on February 14 began to develop in England after Chaucer, and then drifted across the Channel to France and eventually across the Atlantic to the US shores.

America was a ripe and ready market for European cultural transplants. Valentine’s Day, fuelled by the rise of capitalism and industry in America was a perfect match. Which introduces us to the third source of Valentine’s Day: the greeting card industry. Valentine hearts, candy, flowers and so forth, have been pushed at every conceivable commercial angle to the tune of billions of dollars in revenue.

To reiterate, there is absolutely no Jesus anything in Valentine’s Day. None. Whatever Jewish allergy to Valentine’s Day still exists, particularly among Orthodox and some Conservative Jews, has a lot to do with a fear of cultural assimilation. If a holiday or custom is safely located in Torah, it’s ok. But to take a secular practice and engage in it brings Jews right up next to non-Jewish activities that could be misconstrued as Christian. Therefor Valentine’s Day among traditional Jews is what is called pahst nischt, “not ok”.

Postmodern Judaism embraces full participation in secular American behaviors. July 4th, Thanksgiving, Halloween, and Valentine’s Day are all expressions of being an American. The idea of being included within a collective besides the Jewish experience is an utterly new thing in Jewish life. It is a true expression of inclusion and citizenship that is actually quite precious.

So by all means, enjoy Valentine’s Day if you choose. Just don’t use being Jewish as an excuse to short someone a box of candy.


In the opening sequence of the very noir movie Blue Velvet, the camera pans across a quiet, bucolic scene. But as the camera zooms in closer and closer and closer, we end up looking into the subterranean world below the pleasant scene. And there we see worms and centipedes and insects and rot. It is classic David Lynch imagery. Everything is fine, we say, but glance at the underbelly of the world and there find horror, or at least the very unseemly.

It’s a nihilistic notion that the world rests on a rotten foundation being eaten out from under us by voracious beasts, large and small. Because the decay is so far out of our reach, it seems unlikely that there’s a thing we can do about it. In such a hopeless world, does anything we do make a difference? Or can we just suck it up and learn to live with the rot?

These thoughts came to mind as I read yesterday’s New York Times. Researchers at Weill Cornell Medical College released a study on Thursday that mapped DNA found in New York’s subway system — a crowded, largely subterranean behemoth that carries 5.5 million riders on an average weekday, and is filled with hundreds of species of bacteria (mostly harmless), the occasional spot of bubonic plague, and a universe of enigmas. Strikingly, about half of the sequences of DNA they collected could not be identified — they did not match any organism known to the National Center for Biotechnology Information or the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.  Almost half of the DNA found on the system’s surfaces did not match any known organism and just 0.2 percent matched the human genome [emphasis mine].

What does it mean to live on a planet that has been researched and measured and analyzed, only to be told that almost half of a sample of DNA from a New York subway matched no known organism? Are their alien species taking the train to Brooklyn? What forms of life have we still not bumped into formally?

It’s a mean and angry world filled with fanatics who would burn us all alive. It is a scary world filled with fundamentalists of all stripes who denounce diversity as evil.  Do they outnumber us or we them? We can despair over the cooties, seen and unseen, and give in to the rot. Or we can just keep on keeping on. There are no guarantees. There are no neutral zones. There’s no such thing as true safety.

Jews have every reason to give up. We have every rational excuse to jump ship. History has pummeled us senseless. We have all heard stories of Jews who changed their names, who denied their Jewishness, survivors of various anti-Jewish violence who raised their kids as Christians because it was too scary to be “out”. We decry their behavior but we should instead acknowledge their fear as something real to be respected and pitied. The truth is that in the fight or flight equation, running away is a legitimate choice.

The guy who did the DNA subway research was inspired by watching his baby daughter at preschool, sticking stuff in her mouth and then handing to the next kid who does the same and so forth. He marveled at her resilience and wondered just how much contact we had with others. And apparently, even after subterranean contact with utterly unknown bacteria and other microbes on subway poles, humans manage just fine – even without Purell.

Yes we’re still here… Against all odds, despite all cooties.  Like a fiddler on a roof we struggle to keep our balance as we play our music. And not just because of tradition, though Tevye is correct… Long after other nations and peoples have risen and fell, we continue to exist because we have a story to tell, a story that acknowledges the rot while not being overcome by it. Life isn’t so great… but the alternative ain’t so hot.

The early mapmakers wrote in the unknown and unmapped regions, “Here there be dragons.” And do you know how the Jewish people respond? Full speed ahead.

Shabbat Shalom,