Monthly Archives: February 2023

What If

“What if?”, is one of the most exciting questions in the human lexicon. “What if”, is the key to open the heavy door of  complacency and the status quo. “What if” gives permission to explore all the places we’re told to avoid. It’s the moment when Dorothy dares to look behind the curtain to see who the Wizard really is.

Asking questions is dangerous for those invested in not rocking the boat. “What if” dares to suppose that what you see is NOT what you get. And that can be the stuff of disruption and the harbinger of change and even revolution.

What if is foundational to science. One assumes that any experiment, complicated or grossly simple, begins with what if. The James Webb Space Telescope (JWST), a multi-billion dollar project began when a few cosmologists got together with a few astrophysicists and a few astronomers and collectively asked, “What if? What if we could send a telescope into space, a million miles away from Earth, far enough to avoid light and heat and gravitational pull and scan the Universe? What if we discover findings we weren’t expecting?

JWST has found a trove of startling phenomena, some of which has changed everything we thought we knew about the Universe. Just recently, JWST has detected galaxies from very early in post Big Bang time that shouldn’t be there. They are huge, way bigger than anything that fits what the Universe was “supposed” to look like in the early formation era. The Pennsylvania State University’s Joel Leja, who took part in the study, calls them “universe breakers.”

“The revelation that massive galaxy formation began extremely early in the history of the universe upends what many of us had thought was settled science,” Leja said in a statement. “It turns out we found something so unexpected it actually creates problems for science. It calls the whole picture of early galaxy formation into question.” That’s what happens when you mess with assumptions and ask, what if?

Pushing the envelope, looking just past the margins, wondering what’s on the other side, whether it’s dark or light, is a Jewish preoccupation. From Spinoza onward, we’ve asked, ”What if?” We’re not afraid to imagine alternate worlds and systems. Whether it’s the early Reformers of the 19th century who dared to ponder an alternate expression of Judaism (What if the Torah was a human document), the disaffected Jews of the 19th century who were profoundly troubled by the societies in which they lived (what if there were a radical alternative to the brutalty of capitalism), or the intellectual Jews who looked at the world and sought to explain it in a new way: what if human consciousness included the unconscious (Freud)? What if there was a dimension called spacetime that warped gravitational force and explained relativity (Einstein)?

We love messing with what is to explore what might be. It’s in our DNA. Of course there are Jews who fight this natural rebelliousness in favor of keeping the rules narrow and the doors to change locked up. But in the end, the urge will bubble up. The Women of the Wall will keep gathering on the plaza to the Western Wall, and ultra-Orthodox Jews will slap them and kick them and try to prevent them from praying. There is a law before the Knesset that will prohibit women from wearing a tallit in public under penalty of incarceration. But WOW will keep going back, asserting that they have the right to gather and pray and read from the Torah. What if, they will ask, if women were truly treated as equal to men?

Asking what if and then daring to reflect on the answer is how we keep going, how we grow and evolve. It’s mind altering for scientists who imagined that early galaxies would be small and diffuse. But they asked anyway. And now look what they’ve done! As astronomer Joel Leja said, “We’ve found something we never thought to ask the universe — and it happened way faster than I thought, but here we are.”

What if…? Women reading Torah at the Wall? Jewish life flourishing after the Holocaust? New Jewish traditions emerging? As Dr Leja said, “…here we are.”

The Medium is the Message

Paul Simon sings, “These are the days of miracle and wonder/ This is the long-distance call/ The way the camera follows us in slo-mo/ The way we look to us all.” Those words evoke the overwhelming amount of information that swirls around us 24/7/365. The endless news cycle, always hungry for new stories, finds all kinds of data and angles. It never stops.

Sometimes the sheer quantity of info comes at us as fast as a fire hose. Those are the times it can feel like way too much to handle. But for all my complaints, I deeply appreciate the access I have to knowledge from all over the world. Stories from Africa and the Far East places that, as a kid, were so far away and so exotic are now at my fingertips.

In these days of miracles and wonder, I can access live music from Mozambique and watch cooking shows from Taiwan. I can participate in a tour of the Louvre as I sit at home. It feels like, in so many ways, my Universe has opened up so much wider than I ever could’ve imagined in my wildest dreams.

I’ve had a cornucopia of very substantial international cultural and intellectual content from which to choose. As a result, my life has been enriched. I feel more connected to my world.

This proximity to so much, this shrinking of distance and erasure of boundaries is sometimes a double-edged sword. Because I don’t get to see only the good stuff. I see floods in California and murder in Memphis, and the aftermath of a terrorist attack in Jerusalem. And now: the unspeakable devastation in Turkey and Syria. As so many of us have done, I’ve watched videos of buildings collapsing, body bags lined up, and drone footage of neighborhoods that look like the set of a post-apocalyptic movie. I’ve heard cries of children and adults alike as they contend with an utterly smashed and disfigured Universe. They are cold, hungry, in shock.

And here I am, comfortably ensconced, watching it all. And it’s a terrible feeling. I am utterly powerless. Is this too much? Am I a voyeur? Should I look at all? The answer is that I must look. I must see the hardships of my fellow human beings. I must feel their pain and their loss. Marshall McLuhan, a founder of media theory, called the world a “global village,” reflecting this truth that we are drawn more closely together by increased exposure to each other.

We are all created in the image of God. This metaphor demands that we open our hearts with empathy and concern. We are powerless to intervene, and that is frustrating. But we can be present in spirit. We can follow the stories and share sorrow. We can speak out loudly for justice and aid. Sometimes that helps, and sometimes it doesn’t.

I can send tzedakah to an organization with access to sites in Syria and Turkey. My research has uncovered a few good and trustworthy charities that fit the bill.

1. The Syrian American Medical Society (SAMS) Foundation is a global medical relief organization working on the front lines of crisis relief in Syria, neighboring countries, and beyond to save lives and alleviate suffering. SAMS proudly provides medical care and treatment to every patient in need.

2. Doctors Without Borders In northwest Syria, teams from DWB have been able to work since the early hours to respond to the destruction because they already had a presence in the region.

3. The International Red Cross Across Syria, around 4.5 million people living in hard-to-reach areas continue with limited access to essential life-saving assistance and protection. Almost 400,000 live in areas with little or no access to basic supplies or assistance. There has been growing international concern about the suffering of thousands of people in these areas. The ICRC will concentrate on delivering medical services.

 In this global village where we see appalling suffering and terrible deprivation, doing something – anything! – is better than doing nothing. We are, after all, neighbors on the same small planet.

Groundhog Day — Again

Yesterday I went to the Arsenal Mall Majestic Seven Cinema to see a special screening of Groundhog Day, a breakthrough film released thirty years ago directed by Harold Ramis. It stars Bill Murray as Phil Connors, a weatherman who finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. Groundhog Day is a huge favorite of mine. I saw it for the first time the year it was released at the North Park Mall Cinema in Dallas. I later bought the VHS tape and watched it all the time.

Groundhog Day is a rare movie that comes in like a comedy but goes deep. It is charming, disturbing, sometimes dark, meaningful, and funny. It tells a story about arrogance, hubris, and the ineluctable flow of time. There are true life lessons to learn from this film.

Throughout the movie, Phil Connors finds himself reliving the same day over and over again. Each time he experiences the day, he learns a little more about himself. At first, Phil tries to take advantage of the situation by living recklessly and indulging in every conceivable form of debauchery (it’s rated PG, so not to worry). But soon, the thrill of wanton excess leads him to deep darkness. He experiences his miserable life as torture, and as he explains to his producer, Rita Hanson (played by the fabulously openhearted Andie McDowell), he commits suicide several times – and yet awakens every morning back in his b&b in Punxsutawney, PA, at 6 am, with Sonny and Cher singing “I Got You Babe.”

As he continues to relive each day, he goes through something of a Kubler-Ross journey. Eventually, he understands that life is more than just getting through each day. He realizes life is about the people we meet, the things we do, and the memories we create. The movie suggests that we should cherish every moment of our lives and make the most of our time on earth. Phil’s experience reminds us that life is short and that we must curate every scene.

Groundhog Day was written by two nice Jewish boys: Harold Ramis (may he rest in peace) and Danny Rubin. They do not claim that it is a Jewish movie. In fact, over the years, they received an enormous amount of fan mail from religious leaders from various faiths, all claiming that they see the film’s religious themes through the particular lens of their faith. Christians see Jesus and resurrection, Buddhists see karma and reincarnation. And Jews?

Well, this Jew finds Groundhog Day to contain profound Jewish teachings about appreciating life and taking up the responsibility to actively engage in the betterment of the world on the most intimate level. Phil knows that a man will choke on a piece of steak in the course of his day, so he learns the Heimlich maneuver to save him. Phil watches a kid fall from a tree and times his walk to catch him. When a carful of octogenarians gets a flat tire, he’s there with a new tire and a lift. None of these acts are Nobel Prize-worthy. And yet, these are the acts that matter. The little things don’t mean a lot; they mean everything.

This is a definitive example of our life’s task: to be a better human by extending ourselves to others. It doesn’t come naturally to Phil. He has to overcome his intrinsic narcissism. Who knows how many endless days it takes him to learn to, at last, break through? The movie points out that redemption can only be found in the relationships we form. And those relationships only truly matter when they are open and honest, which is why this film always resonates so profoundly for me as a Jewish movie. It’s all about being present for others. This is our holy mission as mandated by God.

My master teacher of essay writing and criticism, Roger Ebert (ז״ל), didn’t say Groundhog Day was a Jewish movie. But he knew how to caressingly describe its Jewish heart:  “We see that life is like that. Tomorrow will come, and whether or not it is always Feb. 2, all we can do about it is be the best person we know how to be. The good news is that we can learn to be better people. There is a moment when Phil tells Rita, “When you stand in the snow, you look like an angel.” The point is not that he has come to love Rita. It is that he has learned to see the angel.”