This is a personal blog. I write here as a private citizen and nothing contained herein is to be associated with any organizational affiliation.
David Letterman has a new book out and in an interview with David Itzkoff in the NYT connected to its publication he offered the following observations on tzedaka (not using that word) and happiness:
“…Asked if his work on “This Land” had made him want to contribute to more charitable causes, Mr. Letterman answered that this was something he had “done actively for a long time.”
“But,” he continued, “I’m not going to tell you what it is, because I’m from the old school where if you start talking about it, you’re not doing it for the right reason.”
But whatever cause he chooses, he said, there remains “this huge chasm of injustice, just by virtue of being born in the wrong place.”
All he could offer on the subject, Mr. Letterman said, was a lesson he had learned as “a person who spends a great deal of his time wondering why he’s not happier.”
“I have found that the only thing that does bring you happiness,” he said, “is doing something good for somebody who is incapable of doing it for themselves.”
As a familiar sardonic tone crept back into his voice, Mr. Letterman continued: “It always works. It never fails. And so I guess from that standpoint, it’s not generous. It’s really sort of selfish.”
You could say that it sounds as if the comedian has studied Maimonides’ teaching on the subject (unlikely as it might be). It is better to give anonymously than it is to make oneself known, says the Rambam and the highest degree of tzedaka is to help someone become self-supporting. At the same time, his hard won knowledge as to what constitutes happiness can be fairly characterized as wisdom. Way to go David.
My Passover message to you is, if you have not seen it already, get yourself to the movie “The Gatekeepers.” This is the documentary that features six former heads of the Shin Bet—Israel’s domestic security agency responsible for the prevention of terror.
The film makes it clear that these very tough, very dedicated and very smart men, try though they might to do right while protecting the people of Israel, face an impossible task. This is only minimally due to shortcomings of theirs and the agency they head. It is primarily because the occupation itself is impossible.
Complicating matters further are political leaders who act like, well, politicians; ideologues both Jewish and Islamic with whom there is no reasoning; and the brutalities inherent in every war, no matter how just.
I won’t tell you the conclusions that the former directors draw, but I will say that it is difficult to imagine anyone not being informed and impressed by what they have to say. At the same time we can take pride that Israel can produce such a movie. It is a powerful testament to the strength of its democracy, even as it is to its shortcomings.
Finally, if there are sufficient “wise sons and daughters” at your seder, “The Gatekeepers” is an excellent place from which to launch a discussion on the Haggadah’s message of freedom from oppression.
Chag Sameach—a happy Pesach to all.
Here is something from a posting I wrote for our CCAR rabbinic list serve. It is part of an ongoing discussion regarding J Street and other organization’s views on how to best support Israel and facilitate peace at this time. There are some references to previous postings but you should be able to extrapolate easily enough. Sadly, it is more depressing than I wish it would be.
“It seems that the core question and point of disagreement among us is, as they say in Israel, “Yesh partner or ain partner?” (Is there someone with whom we can conclude a deal or not?) I appreciate the evidence brought to bear by each side but frankly, I don’t know that any of us really knows the answer. And I don’t expect we will until such time as genuine negotiations commence (yes, with our enemies). But letting the talks take place and having the onus fall where it may is not something either side seems eager to do right now–and it’s not difficult to understand why. The price of failure would be too high.
We all saw what happened after the Palestinians shouldered the blame for the collapse of the Camp David negotiations in 2000. And with the current turmoil in Syria and Egypt, those neighbors might like nothing more than an excuse to turn their unwanted attention towards Israel.
There are also questions about our side’s commitment to a two state solution–at least as far as the current Prime Minister is concerned. The Palestinians can point to statements–and actions–of his government that are as objectionable to them (land continually appropriated for new and expanded settlements) as some of theirs are to us. They too wonder, “Yesh partner or ain partner?” (in Arabic of course).
Again, we won’t know the answer, and more critically we won’t have peace, until such time as the two sides find a way to sit down and hash it all out. Which leads to the other reason why neither side wants to negotiate now–because neither appears ready or willing to make the painful compromises that will be necessary.
It is also worth remembering that the participation of a superpower has been all but essential to conclude Israeli-Arab agreements. It may be true, as has been pointed out, that as soon as you want something in the shuk, the price goes up. Well if the US wants peace, the parties can’t charge America as much as they can charge one another. But how much does the US really want/need a final resolution to this conflict right now and how much are we (or the Quartet, remember them?) willing to pay for it? These too are answers we won’t know until all of the parties get themselves around a table.
The avoidance of all this has given us the path we’ve been on for some time–that of least resistance and inertia. It is the path of concurrent posturing before respective constituencies while kicking the can down the road. I believe it is only a matter of time before this “policy” leads to a new round of bloodshed and recrimination. With Hamas and Hezbollah armed as never before, the consequences for Israel will be greater than ever before.
Better to sit down now and find a way to make the compromises that everyone knows must be made–painful and far from perfect though they be. Then empower the 90%+ of the people who want to find a way to live alongside one another in peace do just that. I hate to think it will take another war before this can happen–but it just may.”
Parent of the Year!
At a rabbinic conference I attended that combined study and skiing (really) last week in Vail, Colorado, I was moved to give my “Parent of the Year” award to a particular dad. Unfortunately, I do not know his name, or even what he looks like.
Here is the story. I was in the mid-mountaintop lodge at Vail, where our group was meeting for lunch. While walking from one part of the lodge to another I overheard a young boy, perhaps nine or ten years old, who was tagging along behind his father say, “You know what I don’t like?” The dad immediately responded, “I don’t care.”
This is not always the best way to respond to our children’s concerns but in this instance, it may well have been.
Allow me to elaborate. Vail is not only a spectacularly beautiful mountain, it is one of the world’s finest ski areas. Anyone who is there cannot help but be uplifted. Having the opportunity to ski there it is a greater blessing and privilege still. Being taken by your dad, who had to work hard to be able to bring you, when presumably he could have gone with his buddies instead, well it doesn’t get much better.
Still and all, for some reason our intrepid youngster found the need to focus on something that he “didn’t like.” The dad was having none of it. His response essentially said, “Kid, if you are skiing up here, at Vail, with me or the family, on a school day no less, and want to talk about what you don’t like, you are barking up the wrong tree. Get real. Be grateful. If you have to tell me something, find a way to tell me that. For your sake (and mine), that’s what you need to focus on.”
I hope everyone can appreciate this. Maybe you had to be there. In any event, to you, anonymous Dad, goes my Parent of the Year–if not Parent of the Decade–award.
My 20 year old cousin was killed by a handgun thirty years ago. For some time after that, as part of my rabbinate and as part of my citizenship, I was a handgun control activist. I felt pride that I, along with millions of other Americans, had a hand in passing the 1993 Brady Law which required an FBI background check and a waiting period before a handgun could be legally purchased.
After that however, the failures were far more numerous than the successes. The pro-gun lobby simply outspent, outworked and sometimes even out-argued those who believe that the bloodshed in this country could be at least somewhat curtailed with sensible gun legislation. In time, I am not proud to say, I let the cause drop from my activist agenda. It was too much of an uphill fight and there were other, more winnable battles to fight.
Things may have changed in the wake of the massacre at the Sandy Hook Elementary School. At the very least it seems that people are demanding an honest conversation on the issue. The fact that NBC invited 31 pro-gun United States senators to appear on Meet the Press yesterday and not one accepted speaks volumes. Very well then, we’ll begin the conversation without them.
I for one, intend to be active again. I have signed a petition at https://petitions.whitehouse.gov/ and I invite you to do the same. It has been too long. And it has been too bloody. This is not the kind of nation we deserve. But it is up to us to prove it.
On Operation “Pillar of Defense” (Amud Anan)
No country in the world accepts that enemy rockets can be fired into its territory with impunity. Israel is no exception. As Prof. Moshe Maoz of the Hebrew University recently put it in a related context, “Israel does not have a sense of humor here.”
The Hamas regime in Gaza remains sworn to Israel’s destruction and has been firing rockets into Israel for its own internal purposes. Such provocations can only be suffered for so long and yesterday, Israel responded by taking out the Hamas military commander, Ahmad Jabari, with an air to ground missile.
Not surprisingly, it provoked a violent response. As of this writing over 200 rockets have been launched from Gaza into Israel. (Thank you Iran—and others.) Some have been intercepted by Israel’s “Iron Dome” anti-missile batteries (thank you America) but others have not. Though most of the rockets have reportedly fallen in unpopulated areas, there have been fatalities, injuries and destruction. More is certain to follow.
It is unlikely that any long term strategic goals will be fulfilled during this operation by either side. When it is over, both Israel and Hamas will be standing. Given that, it would be best to find a way to end the hostilities as quickly as possible. A cease fire that leads to restored quiet along the Israel-Gaza border will happen sooner or later. It will be best for all concerned if it happens sooner.
On the surface it seems to have been a relatively quiet election for the Jewish community. Scarcely a mention of us–unlike say in 2000 when we were at ground zero in Palm Beach County, Florida.
But don’t be fooled. We were very much a part of this election’s narrative. As follows:
The Jewish experience in America is the immigrant experience. The Jewish experience in America is the minority experience. The Jewish experience in America is the experience of striving. The Jewish experience in America is the experience of advancement through education. The Jewish experience in America is the experience of reward through meritocracy. The Jewish experience in America is the experience of help and opportunity for others. The Jewish experience in America is the pursuit of fairness and justice for all.
These experiences have defined our families since we first set foot on these shores. And these experiences were affirmed and validated–for us and for others–by the election of 2012.
Enabling us to have these experiences is no small part of what has made America the world’s greatest nation. And enabling others to have them will insure that this greatness continues.
Congratulations to the United States of America on this vital day in our history.
Prof. Yehuda Bauer, an Israel Prize laureate and Holocaust scholar of worldwide stature, recently challenged elements of the long-held conventional understanding that the Roosevelt Administration declined to bomb Auschwitz primarily because of American anti-Semitism. In the process he emphasized many of the critical nuances that must be a part of that discussion, including the fact that the Jewish Agency in Jerusalem (the Sochnut), originally opposed the bombing as well.
In an article published in The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs, Dr. Bauer asserted that bombing the camps would have killed many Jews and that even bombing the railroad tracks leading to them would have had relatively little effect as they would have been quickly rebuilt. In addition, the Nazis would have found other ways to continue the extermination, e.g. death marches. He noted that some 50% of Jewish victims during the war were murdered outside of the death camps.
Dr. Bauer also raised the related question of why the US and Great Britain did nothing to stop the mass starvation that killed 2 million Indians on the subcontinent in 1943. “Was Jewish blood any redder than the blood of others?” he asks. His conclusion, that the best tactic for stopping the annihilation(s) was the defeat of the Nazi regime, is essentially identical to the one that Roosevelt proclaimed, publicly and privately, throughout the war.
To read more of this challenge to the charge that “the US could have saved the Jews but didn’t” and to see how that charge is being used in the political arena even today, click here for an interview with Prof. Bauer in Ha’aretz by Tom Segev (registration for ten Ha’aretz articles per month is free and well worth it) or here for a follow up analysis from FailedMessiah.com. You can download the full text of Prof. Bauer’s original article in The Israel Journal of Foreign Affairs (Volume 6, No. 3) here.
This Election season I have three things to say.
1) Vote! And be sure to cast an informed ballot. By informed I mean one that is not shaped by the torrent of special interest advertising and funds that are accountable to no one and nothing—least of all the truth. This is not a sunny time for American democracy. The unlimited flow of money to politicians, now legal, has been incredibly corrupting. It is no small part of the reason for the gridlock we see in Washington and the fact that our government has subordinated everyday citizens’ interests to moneyed interests. It is also no small part of the reason for the inequality of opportunity that plagues America today. Yes it stinks. But vote anyway. It’s the best chance we have.
2) In the Presidential contest, I will be voting for Barack Obama. I’ve been disappointed by his Presidency in significant ways but I believe he has done as well as anyone could have under the circumstances and that he warrants a second term. At the same time I fear what the Republican Party has recently become. As Supreme Court Justice Sandra Day O’Connor reportedly told Justice David Souter as she retired from the bench, “What makes this harder is that it’s my party that’s destroying the country.” I’m sorry to all of my Republican friends—but your party has become beholden to some very frightening partisans. Please do what you can to save it. It is not healthy for our democracy.
I am also not voting for or against either candidate because of his stand on Israel. Israel and the US have a strategic alliance that transcends party and personality. It is solid because it is in the overriding interest of each country to keep it that way. If anything, I fault Obama for allowing Netanyahu to shift the agenda from peace with the Palestinians to Iran. (And yes, I hold the Palestinian leadership responsible for this as well.) Iran is a serious threat to Israel. But if there is no peace agreement with the Palestinians, and soon, Israel will lose its Jewish majority and become a de facto apartheid state. This is no less an existential threat to Israel than a potential Iranian bomb, make no mistake.
By the way, if you want a President who will stand foursquare with Israel, history has shown you are more likely to get that from a Democrat than a Republican. No need to take my word for it. See this article from former Mossad head Efraim Halevy who makes the point far more persuasively than I can.
And don’t misunderstand. Standing foursquare with Israel is not ipso facto healthy for Israel. The case can be made that not challenging some of Israel’s self-destructive behavior has enabled more of the same. But we can leave that discussion for another day.
3) In Florida, I’m voting against all of the proposed state constitutional amendments except #9. Crafted by a highly partisan legislature who chose not to pass them as laws, they have passed them on to voters in a shameful abdication of responsibility. Good luck trying to read and understand them in the voting booth. They deserve a “no” vote just on principle.
Beyond that, I believe most of them are bad law. They reflect what have become hard right positions on issues like religion, women’s right to choose, health care and judicial independence. Others would become de facto tax increases for most Floridians (because they will give special tax breaks to certain designated groups that will have to be made up by the rest of us)–and they claim to be the party of lower taxes. The one amendment I’m voting for (#9) is a homestead property tax exemption for the surviving spouse of a military veteran or first responder. They deserve it and it will have a minimal fiscal impact on the rest of us.
There you have it. Remember to vote—early if possible. (There’s less chance of a foul up that way.) And a thoughtful Election Day to all.
“Why are we working?” “Are we making a living or making a life?” And, “What should we do when we stop working?” To what end is our leisure? Do we become bored “doing nothing” or is leisure our most fulfilling time? If such questions speak to you, and particularly at this time of year they should speak to a lot of us, I commend to you this piece by Notre Dame Professor of Philosophy Gary Gutting. It appeared recently in the online version of the NYT.
Political support has become, for many, less a thought-through expression of a particular ideology and more an expression of a particular cultural outlook. This is true both in the US and Israel–and in many other working democracies as well. Education level, ethnic heritage, religious perspective, and especially, the place in the cultural hierarchy in which we see ourselves, can determine our support for political parties and candidates far more than rational arguments about specific policies. The social, economic and religious groups we belong to are among the strongest predictors of who we will support in democratic elections. The political ideology we subscribe to is often more an expression of cultural identifiers than the other way around. Perhaps it has always been this way, but it is especially apparent now.
For example, if we see ourselves as self-made individuals, having earned our way to privileged status, we are likely to wonder why we should extend ourselves to help others achieve what we were able to do “on our own.” On the other hand, if our perception is that we or those around us were only able to climb the socioeconomic ladder because others built institutions, programs and legal safeguards that enabled us to do so, we are more likely to support people and parties who promise to protect those structures.
Or, if we see ourselves as members of a victimized group or are resentful of a perceived cultural elite, we will be drawn to those who fan that sense of victimization and resentment. And if we see an “other” as being even remotely responsible for our unhappy predicament (and any “other” will do, from an immigrant group to the government itself) we will be susceptible to appeals that cast aspersions on that other, either explicitly or implicitly.
This is in part why it is all but impossible to persuade someone to alter his or her political perspective. It is not a matter of rational and intellectual argument so much as it is one of cultural self-definition and life circumstances. And that is something that is essentially non-negotiable.
I wish you a good election season and a shana tovah.
Glory be. The United States of America has taken a huge step forward in making health care affordable and accessible for most–still not all–of its citizens. Read this from Rabbi Eric Yoffie, immediate past President of the Union for Reform Judaism, writing in the Huffington Post, on why this is a moral imperative. You can also see my post from March 22, 2010, when the legislation originally passed, by scrolling down. The words I wrote then still hold.
Remember the Palestinians? No they have not gone away. And no, the saber rattling over Iran has not made them irrelevant. The Palestinian issue remains a genuine “existential threat” to Israel as a Jewish democracy.
An irony of the past several years, in which Mahmoud Abbas’ Palestinian Authority has sworn off terror and coordinated with Israel on most security matters, is that the Israeli government and many Israelis have taken the quiet on the Palestinian front for granted. In an Op-Ed in today’s NYT, Nathan Thrall, a Middle East analyst at the International Crisis Group, points out the myopic folly of such a position.
Here is a link to a revealing interview on the subject of a possible Israeli-Iranian war with former head of the IDF, Director of Military Intelligence and Vice-Premier Moshe Ayalon. Interviewed by Ha’aretz journalist Ari Shavit, one of Israel’s most respected, Ayalon makes the case for a preemptive strike against Iran. The interview is both sober and sobering and provides more than a small window on the thought of the Iran “hawks” in Israel’s current government.
Shavit is appropriately sharp and challenging on this highest stakes issue. Leave yourself some time to give this article its due. If there is a strike against Iran, the questions that supporters of Israel will have to answer–to others and ourselves–are the ones that Shavit poses. Whether you live in the Diaspora or in Israel, see if Ayalon’s answers sit well enough with you. (If the link doesn’t take you past the paywall, you can register for free and get access to 10 “premium” Ha’aretz articles per month. This should be one of them.) Continue reading