Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Sunday, July 26, 2009

Disgusted and Disgusting

This morning I am reflecting on the most recent scandal in the Jewish community. It seems that in the NJ and Brooklyn area the FBI arrested several rabbis and other "Orthodox" Jews for being part of a massive money laundering and corruption ring. Among them was one Levi Yitzchak Rosenbaum -- who is accused of being "the main U.S. broker for an international trafficking network" - Trafficking in organs!

Its been a bad year for the Jews -- in my view, particularly the Orthodox -- Rubashkin, continued evidence of sexual abuse (without recourse, by the way), riots in Jerusalem including the burning of a welfare office to defend a woman accused of attempted murder of her child, "Jewish residents of Judea and Samaria" -- i.e. settlers riding on horseback to burn Palestinian olive tree groves -- and now these guys. Add this to Madoff, and its been a pretty rotten year. With just about 7 weeks before the introspective period of the high holidays, a few thoughts. And a rant.

What galls me about this is, for one, the basic inhumanity of all of these people. Come on, organ trafficking at a huge profit? Extortion? Terrorizing farmers? Give me a break.

However, I think there is a deeper, more disturbing observation here. It has to do with religion and religious fundamentalism.

There used to be a tendency to look at religious fanatics and write them off as "crazy or bad apples." Now, it is fashionable to look at people -- Muslims in particular -- and say -- "Well so much for the religion of peace. Look what the Koran says about such and such... the religion is at fault and anyone who is a religious Muslim must be a fanatic and that the only good Muslims are secular or those who outwardly reject parts of their traditions (the Hadith, etc.)"

We don't say the same thing about Christian fundamentalists -- the Kansas people who protest at soliders' funerals or kill doctors who perform women's health services. We look at them as outlyers -- but I think that somewhere we also look at their theology as being corrupt or at least suspect.

So, what about the Jews? I am tired of people circling the wagons on this issue. I expressed my concern to a couple of prominent rabbis in my community -- people that I respect. One, who shall remain nameless because of my real respect for his scholarship and community involvement said (and I paraphrase): "I hope that people don't use this as a partisan issue in the community" -- in other words, don't blame the Orthodox for the sins of these people.

Another community leader said something similar when I wrote about this on Facebook. She attributed this chillul Hashem - desecration of God's name -- to free will. This implies that is has nothing to do with our teachings and our tradition.

I would propose that our tradition and the way that it is taught -- particularly among those who consider themselves to be the most learned and pious -- is at the core of this problem. Rather that this being deviant behavior, it is the logical conclusion of those who read the texts and surround themselves with those who agree with them.

If you look at our tradition, there is a very disturbing theme that runs throughout the Torah and the Talmud -- exclusivism. It is at the core of being the "chosen people". That in and of itself is not a bad thing. For a people to have a certain "self esteem" is not unusual. And, it's healthy. How else does one perpetuate a way of life in a competitive environment.

However, at the root of our tradition is also a strain that says that other people -- whether its non-Jews (referred to in religious literature as "ACUM" -- the worshippers of stars and constellations -- or Jews who do not observe the stricture of Jewish law (more on that later) are not "friends" and in some cases not considered human beings. This extends in some small measure to women -- who are excluded from rituals and delegated to a second class status for reasons that are explained away.

How is this expressed?

"And you shall love your neighbor as yourself". The Talmud says that this is one of the centerpieces of the tradition -- the proverbial golden rule. However, the accepted interpretation of this verse (quoted by Rashi) is that your neighbor is only one who observes the Jewish commandments.

This has profound implications for Jewish law.

I will provide a few concrete examples:

There are many activities considered to be work that are forbidden on the Sabbath. One of the discussions that arose in Talmudic literature involves doctors saving lives and people going into burning burnings etc. The rabbinic ruling is that one is permitted to enter a burning building or to provide life saving treatment to Jews only. But not to non-Jews. In a later period, it was determined that "in order to keep the peace" (in other words to avoid persecution at the hands of the non-Jewish majority) one can (if they have to) provide medical treatment or rescue non-Jews.

In addition, a Kohen (one of the priestly caste -- children of Aaron) who serve in the Temple and are to remain religiously pure can not attend funerals with the exception of their closest relatives. (Mother, Father, Sister, Brother, Spouse, Son or Daugther)... no grandparents, step-childen, friends etc. However, they are permitted to attend the funeral of non-Jews. Since non-Jews are apparently not people.

I could go on and on. I won't even begin to discuss the second class status of women who are grouped with children, the mentally handicapped and the slave as ineligible to provide testimony at trial, lead religious rituals and the like.

And don't get me started about homosexuals.

So, the deciet and and lawlessness observed in the fundamentalist communities is perfectly explainable. If you treat others with disrespect and disdain why should you worry about child labor in Iowa, burning welfare offices in Jerusalem, physically attacking women in Beit Shemesh, extorting and laundering money in New Jersey and selling kidneys all over the world?

After all, as long as you eat glatt kosher, wear a big yarlmuke and use some of that filthy money to support religious instituions that promote your values, you are a good Jew.


As we approach Tisha B'av, where we traditionally think of the destroyed Temple from two thousand years ago and some pray for the restoration of a messianic religious theocracy in the Holy Land, let's consider the filth in our own midst and the ugly parts of our tradition that must be rejected and expunged. Otherwise, the exile will go on and on. If not in our bodies, then in our spiritual fabric.

Tuesday, July 21, 2009

Is this offensive to Jews?

Gentle reader,

I've gotten a request in my official capacity to "speak out" against this mural in Harvard Square? Does this strike you as something that the Jewish community should be doing?

Please let me know your thoughts...


Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Random musings...

That's my awesome dog Lily. More on her later.

Fringes annoy me. And I am not talking about Tzitis (They annoy me too in a different way)

The lefty fringe leaves me somewhat speechless. I just can't get my head around what they are thinking on most issues. The right fringe scares me. I always feel that violence is just around the corner with those folks. What's most annoying is when the left and right agree... Buchanan and Finkelstein... weird and annoying.

Today's shanda regards the neturei karta woman who was arrested in Jerusalem for starving her 3 year old son. They arrested her while trying to pull out his feeding tube. Probably Munchhausen's by Proxy. That's a terribly sick woman... the shanda was the group of charedim who rioted and torched a Jerusalem welfare office to protest the arrest. Click here for more on the story... Don't these idiots have anything else to do? Oh yeah... they don't work, serve in the army or play ball... so not much else there. They need a little midnight basketball and to get off welfare and stop being parasites.

So why is the All-Star Game such a let down every year? I remember watching it with my family is some random motel room during family trips... Maybe inter league play has killed the mystique. I still would have liked to have seen Griffey vs. Randy Johnson... not going to happen. Maybe in some far off old timers game. Does any team other than the Yankees still do one of those? I haven't seen such a thing in Cleveland, Seattle or Boston.

I am frustrated learning to use Twitter. I usually master this kind of stuff quickly. Its just a mystery to me. I'd prefer that people follow this rather than 140 characters.

So we had our Iran divestment bill hearing today. We had great support from our friends in the legislature. I have to say that this should not be their number one priority right now. The state is hemorrhaging money and disabled children, seniors and others without a voice are really suffering. (not to mention the poor zoo animals -- the guys that run the zoo are brilliant -- what a PR coup.)

That said, the Iran bill is the right thing to do for so many reasons... I am just glad that it isn't going to take too much time from the important business of the legislature and it certainly is the fiscally responsible thing to do.

What happened to Dice-K this year? Was last year really a fluke?

What the hell is with the new Taliban of Bet Shemesh? What's going on over there? This is a clear out growth of not managing the extremists in our own community. Its nice to see moderates coming together; there is no place for intimidation. I hope that they will see some serious prison time... and then the haredim will have another opportunity to put on their special riot shoes.

Do you wear a gartel to riot? Probably not.

I am told that JCRC's Israel Seminar for Christian ministers was very successful. Apparently they prayed all over the place... I would have been sick to my stomach. All that piety is a dangerous thing...

Lily is devouring a bone. It's nice to watch her enjoy herself and play. She's a special dog. I know, I know. I also want to know how to move those pictures to the bottom of the text of the blog. Another thing I haven't yet figured out.

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Looking out at the Boats and the Harbor

Due to the generosity of my wife's ex-husband John (long story, don't ask), I have the opportunity to spend some time each summer in Swans Island, ME at a beautiful house overlooking the lobster co-op and a terrific harbor. Each morning, as the sun rises, the water is electric with color as the lobster men (and women) set off to haul their daily catch, returning in the late afternoon hoping to sell the creatures to the co-op's agent who market the lobster to those on the main land who each such things (I wouldn't know...).

This is one of the most beautiful places in the world. My wife calls it her "happy place."

So what happens to the echo chamber when we are here? It fades, and wonderfully so. Until it returns in surprising and sometimes disturbing ways.

Today Elizabeth and I went to the annual "Swans Island" Independence Day festival that benefits the Swans Island school.

The festival brought the echo chamber back into focus.

Sitting at the table eating our blueberry and apple pie (delicious! -- welcome to Maine!) I spoke with a female relative of John's. Not 35, she has seen it all. Probably no more than 110 pounds wet, she is a lobster woman. She heads out on those cold mornings (I'm not sure how she gets her two young kids to school -- probably with the help of a neighbor since she split with her husband a couple of years ago) , gets in her small boat, rain or shine, and hauls lobster traps to the surface all day long. This woman has seen it all... One year she won the Maine moose license lottery and "took" a moose. Her family ate that moose for at least six months. She told me that two weeks ago she broke her tail bone. But, off to work she went that morning -- ibuprofen in hand.

She reports that this has been a tough year for the lobster industry. In a normal year, the lobster men and women earn about $6-8 per pound in the winter and $4 in the summer. This winter the lobster went for $2.50 - 3.00 per pound. In the summer about $2. Traps went uncollected and the debt rose.

Also with us at the table was Dorothy, an older woman who cleans this terrific house between renters. Surrounded by her grandchildren, she is joyful and wistful at the same time. Her husband is home, in perpetual recovery from the emphysema that has taken his ability to work and at times to even breathe. When I ask about him, I am told he is doing better - he's lost a bunch of weight, but he is holding his own.

Last winter, Dorothy broke her leg after a nasty fall on the ice near their small home. I don't recall the entire story, but on the island going to the hospital in the middle of night requires a helicopter and a long ride to Bangor. Dorothy elected not to go despite the urging of all around her. Amazingly, she got through a long night and took the ferry the following morning to the mainland.

I have to wonder how the folks who live here do it.

Swans Island has about 400 permanent residents year round. The school has about 30 kids (K-8) with three teachers.

It's a rough life for those people living in paradise.

I wish we had paid extra for our pie today.

About Me

Brookline, MA, United States
Thought provoking discussion or musings of a kid from the other side of the tracks...