December 2008

Just got this great pic forwarded from my brother.


Now of course Madoff isn’t dead, so it’s a little curious why this synagogue would be saying Kaddish for him (particularly, as suggested by Rabbi Josh Hammerman, he winds up in herem – excommunication). But the sign is pretty darn funny.

Separately, this piece was just put up on the JTA Fundermentalist blog that helpfully puts the Jewish losses re Madoff in perspective.

I’ve been waiting to write about Gaza, and in the meantime Haaretz has run two pieces that capture my sentiments. The first was an op-ed by historian Tom Segev in yesterday’s paper. The second is an editorial from today, which I’m copying in full below. Both uphold Israel’s right, and responsibility, to respond to the rocket attacks. Both also question the wisdom of carrying on a lengthy operation, and essentially ask the question: If the Israelis learned anything from the Lebanon experience, how are they showing that now?

Define the objectives in Gaza
By Haaretz Editorial
The government launched a military campaign in Gaza yesterday. In the first wave of aerial assaults, more than 200 Palestinians were killed and Hamas’ retaliatory fire killed one Israeli civilian from Netivot. Hundreds were wounded on the Palestinian side, as were dozens of Israelis. “This is the time for battle,” the defense minister said in highlighting the new reality that has taken hold in recent weeks in Sderot, Ashkelon, and the western Negev.

It is possible to understand the logic of the Israel Defense Forces response. It did not need the inflammatory rhetoric of the news media, which often acted like cheerleaders competing with one another. Nor did it need the winds of the election, which propels the sails of headline-hungry politicians. The residents of the western Negev, who have lived in fear on a daily basis, petrified elementary school children, and the constant violation of a soverign state’s territory – these are what provide legitimacy for the operation.

But understanding is no substitute for wisdom, and the inherent desire for retribution does not necessarily have to blind us to the view from the day after. The expression “time for combat” still does not elucidate the goals of the assault. Does Israel seek to “just” send Hamas a violent, horrifying message? Is the intention to destroy the organization’s military and civilian infrastructure? Perhaps the goal is far-reaching to the point of removing Hamas from power in Gaza and transferring rule to the Palestinian Authority, headed by Mahmoud Abbas? How does Israel intend to realize these goals? The aerial assault on its own, as one may recall from the Lebanon War, cannot suffice. Does the IDF plan on deploying thousands of soldiers in the streets of Gaza? And what will the number of casualties be at this stage?

A public that has learned from experience cannot assume once again that the government knows what it is doing, particularly since its leaders have struggled in formulating a consistent stance in recent weeks. That same public knows well, and not only from the Lebanon experience, that working toward long-term goals that would completely change the landscape in the region, like toppling Hamas from power in Gaza, is liable to turn out to be a wild fantasy. It would be best to make do with immediate goals and with measured, calculated accomplishments that could restore quiet, particularly the cease-fire Israel enjoyed for five months, which enabled Gaza residents to lead reasonable lives.

Israel’s violation of the lull in November expedited the deterioration that gave birth to the war of yesterday. But even if this continues for many days and even weeks, it will end in an agreement, or at least an understanding similar to that reached last June. Hamas’ terms for calm have not changed: a cessation of the attacks on Gaza and the organization’s activities in the West Bank, a reopening of the Gaza border crossings, and a release of Palestinian prisoners. Israel’s demands will also remain as they were: a halt to rocket attacks on its towns. It would behoove both sides to enlist every possible mediator – from Egypt to Qatar to the United States and Europe – to implement those terms. One may assume that the military message Israel sent was fully understood. It would be best not to turn it into a disaster that would preclude a future agreement.

Winter vacation is when I finally get around to reading stacks of magazines that have piled up over the fall. In my perusal, I discovered this terrific article from the current issue of the New Republic (yes, at the top of the stack; I haven’t gotten very far) by Jonathan Cohn. Cohn traces the history of the UAW and the Big Three, and reminds us that the project the autoworkers attempted was to guarantee a middle class lifestyle for “average Joes” who did difficult physical labor. Led by Walter Reuther, the UAW paved the way for such novel ideas as grievance procedures, health care, and pensions. 

There were two problems, according to Cohn: First, as Japanese and German competitors built cars with better fuel efficiency, they also had dramatically lower health care costs because of universal coverage systems in their countries. As we’ve heard a lot in recent years, cars produced by the Big Three cost an additional couple thousand dollars out the door compared to their foreign counterparts, and this is because there’s no universal healthcare in the U.S. 

Second, the unions made a fatal mistake that Reuther worked hard to avoid: they got greedy and asked for too much. Not only did they get health benefits while working; they got them for retirees, and even for their surviving spouses after their deaths. Grievance procedures designed to protect good workers from arbitrary action by management were used to protect mediocre workers from legitimate action. Etc., etc.

Cohn’s article, combined with this piece by Jacob Hacker in the same issue, makes a strong case for the Obama administration to make fixing the health care system a top priority in the forthcoming stimulus spending. While the focus will inevitably be on the short term (it always is), now is precisely the time that long-term fixes that require major up-front expenditures (like a national health insurance system) should be undertaken. To quote Hillel, If not now, when. And to those who would call this socialism, that’s a red herring: the government just bought the banks, bailed out the auto industry, and runs agriculture in America. It’s time to get this right.

Last week at the NU Hillel Orthodox Minyan, Rabbi Michael Balinsky led us through a wonderful teaching of the 19th century Hasidic master Rabbi Yehudah Aryeh Leib Alter, who is better known by the title of his major work, the Sefas Emes. The particular teaching that Rabbi Balinsky brought was an elaboration of the story of Joseph and Potiphar’s wife. One of the significant elements of that story is that at the moment that Mrs. Potiphar makes her attempt to seduce him, Joseph does not hesitate, but immediately runs outside. The Sefas Emes picks up on this point and says that what really happened was that God took away Joseph’s ability to choose, and left him with only one possible action. This, according to the Sefas Emes, is actually the highest level of freedom, achieved only by the very righteous. In fact, he says, the moment when God takes away the possibility of choice is precisely the moment when a human being is most free.

It’s a powerful teaching, and one that can be easily misunderstood and abused. But it comes to mind in light of my post last week about the emphasis on seeing clearly in the Joseph story (and the resonance of that theme with our own Madoff-induced haze). And it has further implications in relation to this week’s Torah reading, Miketz, in which dreams turn out to be the bearers of a deeper reality than is attainable through conscious means. First the dream of Pharaoh’s butler and baker turn out to be true; then Pharaoh’s own dreams come to fruition; and finally Joseph’s early dreams about his family bowing down before him are made manifest in the real world. 

The question pulsating beneath these narratives and the words of the Sefas Emes is this: What is real, and how do we know? While Freud did his part to redeem the notion that our dreams are bearers of truth, we generally tend to think of a dream as “only a dream.” Joseph’s story wants to tell us otherwise, at least in when it comes to the dreams of this particular individual, or, more accurately, to his ability to interpret them. Dreams, when apprehended correctly, turn out to be more true than the rational thoughts we think all day long. A paradox to ponder.

Beyond that, the Sefas Emes is gesturing at an even deeper paradox, which is that alignment between our will and God’s will is something that happens–at least according to him–through a related process of being released from the very thing which makes us human, the ability to make choices. This has some relationship to the Christian notion of grace, and sounds very foreign to those of us with modernist sensibilities. But if we listen to our own experience, we may find that it’s true to us too: Sometimes the right choice is so plainly obvious to us, so clear, that there is no choice. In those moments, we act with the faith that our will and God’s will are aligned.

Later in the week I had the additional pleasure of studying some more Hasidic texts with Rabbi Balinsky. This time we looked at writings related to Hannukah. One of them, from the Kedushas Levi of Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev, built on the idea that the miracle of Hannukah was not that the oil lasted for eight days when it should only have lasted for one, but that the Maccabees had the desire to light the menorah in the first place. Since they demonstrated their faith that this was the right thing to do, God reciprocated by making the oil last for eight days.

The important point here is that, like us, the Maccabees had no divine voice telling them that theirs was the right course of action. They relied on their own powers of discernment, their own knowledge, which came from a deeper place than rationality. When we light the Hannukah candles, we are demonstrating the same courage, and we remind ourselves that sometimes knowing the right answer is both simpler and more difficult than we thought before.

Shabbat shalom and Happy Hannukah.

It’s as if the NYT’s ears were burning.  What’s just so fascinating to me is the relationship of the Jewish community with the Times. The sensation of reading these articles is something like, “Wow, the journal of record is interested in our community.” There’s a sense of pride, and also perhaps excitement (and embarrassment) at the attention. Someone should write a dissertation on American Jews’ relationship with the NYT. 

Enough on this topic. Time for Hannukah candles.

The New York Times has been relentless in its front-page coverage of the Madoff scandal. $50 billion is a lot of money, and it’s a New York story, so I can’t blame them. But they’ve also been unstinting in pointing out, repeatedly, the fact of Madoff’s Jewishness. A couple of reactions:

1. This morning’s article about Yeshiva University’s response is actually a wonderful piece, and reflects well on the Jewish community in general and YU in particular. Madoff was on the board of YU, chaired the Sy Syms School of Business, and was in bed with another board member, Ezra Merkin. So the scandal has hit YU particularly hard, and it is heartening to see the university reacting in the classroom.

(At the same time, I have to believe that the Times’s portrayal is inaccurate: Of course we all react most strongly when events hit us in the face; but why does it have to take an event like this for people to realize that Jewish life is not just defined by ritual, but, just as importantly, but ethics and behavior? While I would have liked to see YU and the Rabbinical Council of America taking a stronger lead on, say, the Rubashkin’s scandal, there is no question that YU has publicly promoted discussion and reflection on ethics and morals beyond ritual in recent years. I particularly remember the busloads of YU students at the Darfur rally several years ago on the national mall. But I digress.)

2. This letter from David Harris of the American Jewish Committee, published Saturday, tugs at my American (and Illinoisan) heartstrings and makes an important point to the Times:

To the Editor:

In “Standing Accused: A Pillar of Finance and Charity,” your Dec. 13 Business Day article about Bernard L. Madoff, arrested in a major fraud scheme, there was a striking emphasis on his being Jewish. It was not just once, or twice, but at least three times before the article continued inside. Why?

Yes, he is Jewish. We get it. But was this relevant to his being arrested for cheating investors, or so key to his evolution as a businessman that it needed to be hammered home again and again?

I have read several accounts in The Times of the shenanigans of Gov. Rod R. Blagojevich of Illinois, yet have no clue what his religion is, nor, frankly, do I care. Why should I? Unless he was acting in the name of his faith, which I assume he was not, what difference does it make? And if a profile is warranted and the governor’s faith matters to him, mention it and move on.

But to refer to the “Jewish T-bill,” “the clubby Jewish world” and the “world of Jewish New York” within four paragraphs near the top of the article on Mr. Madoff was over the top.

David A. Harris
Executive Director
American Jewish Committee
New York, Dec. 13, 2008

3. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik is reported to have said that Jews in the New York area should not read the Times on Shabbat, since, in essence, the paper is a Jewish paper, printed for Jews. If someone has work done expressly for them on Shabbat, it is forbidden to benefit from that work on Shabbat. (I have other halakhic reasons for thinking that reading the paper on Shabbat is a bad idea, based on the principle of dober davar, that we are to talk and think about things on Shabbat that are different in style and substance from the things we dwell on during the week. For news junkies like me, the paper is a quintessentially weekday thing.)

Of course, the Times isn’t a Jewish paper. But one has to wonder, given the way it has approached this story, as well as the regular curiosity pieces it runs on Jewish life, what its Jewish nature really is. I’ve always thought that New York Jews’ obsession with the Times was a bit overblown, as when some rabbis during the second intifada called on Jews to cancel their subscriptions in protest at the Times’s coverage. But watching how it has responded to Madoff–which brings in not just the New York section, but the business and front page sections as well–I’m starting to think differently.

Jeffrey Goldberg’s blog is a must-read. I was just perusing some recent posts and came across this terrific piece, a response to the Forward 50 (to which he was named): the Philosemitic 25, the top 25 friends of the Jews. Great list.

Possible additions are a little hard to think of, actually. One comes to mind immediately, though: Steve Allen (not a Jew, often mistaken for one, and reportedly flattered at the thought). It’s not clear what he did for the Jews, but he was definitely a funny man.

It seems inevitable this week to write about deception. The country in general and the Jewish world in particular have been rocked by a massive fraud perpetrated by one of our own. The parallels with the story of Joseph and his brothers are plain: we are Joseph, and Bernard Madoff is the brother who has sold us out. 

But another aspect of the story of Joseph is worth pondering in relation to our own story. Central to the brothers’ cover-up is this: 

Then they took Joseph’s robe and slaughtered a goat and dipped the robe in the blood. And they sent the robe of many colors and brought it to their father and said, “This we have found; please identify whether it is your son’s robe or not.” And he identified it and said, “It is my son’s robe. A fierce animal has devoured him. Joseph is without doubt torn to pieces.” (Gen. 37:31-33) 

The word translated here as “identify” is the Hebrew word “H-C-R,” hakarah, which is also translated as recognition. The fraud is not complete until Jacob sees the prop created by the brothers and links it with a narrative in his mind. Joseph has not, of course, been torn to pieces, but Jacob, deceived by his sons (in an elegant echo of his own earlier deception of his father, Isaac), believes that the reality is such. As the Torah tells us in the ensuing verses, Jacob’s life is utterly destroyed by his belief in the death of his beloved son.

Part of the Madoff story is the tragic and irresponsible failure of recognition on the part of so many. Deceived by a con man and blinded by greed, otherwise smart individuals–not to mention government officials–failed to recognize what was happening. Some did recognize that Madoff’s prospectus didn’t add up, but many others did not. Those failures reflect one of the enduring questions of the Joseph story: why did Jacob not ask further questions? Why was he blind to the obvious jealousy between Joseph and his other sons? Why, for all those years, did Jacob never inquire further?

The Torah offers a poignant contrast to this failure of recognition in the story of Judah and Tamar: 

As she was being brought out, she sent word to her father-in-law, “By the man to whom these belong, I am pregnant.” And she said, “Please identify whose these are, the signet and the cord and the staff.” Then Judah identified them and said, “She is more righteous than I, since I did not give her to my son Shelah.” And he did not know her again. (Gen. 38:25-26)

Once again, we have a challenge of identification or recognition, a challenge of hakarah. But in this case, Judah, who has every reason not to recognize what is going on, does so nevertheless. Judah sees clearly, he recognizes reality, and this leads him to take responsibility for his actions. That assumption of responsibility will be articulated even more clearly later on in the story of Benjamin and Joseph, but its immediate result is stated in the story of Tamar, with the birth of Peretz, ancestor of David, founder of the messianic dynasty. 

As President Richard Joel of Yeshiva University put it in an email to his community a few days ago, we must learn all applicable lessons from these events. So what is the lesson for us in all of this? I do not want to be misunderstood as ascribing too much blame to those who invested with Bernie Madoff. Clearly he is the crook here. Yet the heroes in this story are the ones who saw clearly, who were not blind to reality. As individuals, as a community, and as a nation, we must heed the lesson of Judah and not allow ourselves to be fooled, by the schemes of others or the failure of our own powers of perception. 

Shabbat shalom.

One of the great comments of Rashi occurs on the verse in Parshat Vayishlach that relates Jacob’s response to the approach of his twin brother Esau with a small army: “And Jacob feared greatly and it troubled him.” (Gen. 32:8) Rashi picks up on the redundancy in the verse: why did the Torah need to state that Jacob both feared greatly and it troubled him? One phrase would have been sufficient. Rashi states:  “He feared that he would be killed, and it troubled him that it he might have to kill others.”

We read this is as a classic Jewish statement on the sanctity of life: we cannot allow ourselves to be killed, and we cannot allow ourselves to kill others. Judaism values life above everything else, and whenever we are forced to commit violence against other human beings it must be done in a way that demonstrates our reluctance. This ethic is embodied in the principles of Tohar HaNeshek, the ethical code of the Israel Defense Forces.

Yet this moment in Jacob’s life is also a watershed moment in the life of all human beings–the moment of paralysis that occurs when our hopes and dreams collide with reality. In Jacob’s case this takes place in a moment of acute crisis: all of his potential choices are lousy. But in less dramatic ways all of us suffer moments like this, when we feel paralyzed between options, none of which seem desirable. And what do we often do? Just what Jacob does: we divide ourselves. “And he divided the people that were with him, and the flocks and the cattle and the camels, into two camps.” (Ibid.) Like Jacob, we hedge our bets, we cast multiple lifelines into the water.

Yet Jacob cannot long maintain this division. After he has laid all his plans, Jacob is left alone to wrestle with himself, in the form of a mysterious man. Jacob’s attempts to divide himself result in a blessing and a new name, Yisrael: “For you have striven with God and man and have proved able.” (Gen. 32:29) Eventually “Jacob arrived at the city of Shechem, complete” (Gen. 33:18), which Rashi explains means complete phsyically, financially, and spiritually.

What does Jacob’s wrestling mean to us? The long dark night of the soul is a moment all of us encounter.  And in that moment we probably begin with the same sort of paralysis that Jacob did. We move on to division, and ultimately to confronting ourselves. To be successful in that encounter, however, we cannot be truly alone, just as Jacob is not truly alone. “In a time of tension, we must endure with whatever love we can muster until that very tension draws a larger love into the scene. There is a name for the endurance we must practice until a larger love arrives: it is called suffering.” These words of Parker Palmer, while probably a little more Christian in tone than I would have composed them, reflect the mystery at the heart of Jacob’s encounter and our own long dark nights of the soul.  If we do it well, we emerge on the other side of those encounters  a new, more whole person.

Shabbat shalom.

A couple of weeks ago I attend a retreat on an island in Washington State. The retreat–the fancy word was ‘consultation’–brought together a diverse group of eighteen people from various sectors of society, including religion, business, education, and community activism, for four days of pondering the story of twentysomethings in America today. I was the only Jew there. There was one Muslim, a couple of earth-religion type people, and the rest were Christians.

As part of the consultation I led a text study on the story of Jacob that we find in this week’s Torah portion, Vayetzei. When he leaves home, Jacob is a teenager. The story we read this week details the next two decades of Jacob’s life–the formative period that we in the business call young, or emerging, adulthood.

It came as a bit of a surprise to my new Christian friends to find out that, in Judaism, Jacob is associated with the virtue of emet, Truth. Jacob is of course a trickster, and in last week’s Torah portion we saw how he manipulated his father in order to cheat his brother Esau out of the blessing that was meant for him. We also see this week that Jacob tricks Laban in order to make out with the best possible livestock. So there’s no question that Jacob is tricky. Why then is he associated with Truth?

In the Jewish mystical tradition, Abraham is associated with the virtue of lovingkindess, or Hesed; Isaac is associated with strength, or Gevura. These two virtues exist in a dialectical relationship: Lovingkindess always wants to overflow, to break through boundaries, while strength involves retreating and erecting walls. Abraham’s tent is always open, and he constantly demonstrates is great love for all of humanity. Isaac, the only one of the three patriarchs who never leaves the land of Canaan, is more guarded and protective. 

Jacob is understood to be the reconciler of these two traits, alternatively associated with the word Tiferet, splendor, or Emet, truth. Like his father Isaac, Jacob is born in the land of Canaan, but like his grandfather Abraham he leaves home to sojourn in a foreign place. Jacob is capable of intense love, as in his love for his wife Rachel, but he also practices realpolitik in order to protect his family. Jacob is a creature of the night, a time we would not normally associate with truth. But the nighttime is when we are not corrupted by our sense of sight, and instead must rely on our other senses to ascertain reality. In Jacob’s case, this leads to a deep sensation of the presence of God on his initial journey, and a name-changing night-time wrestling encounter upon his return home. 

Perhaps the message here is that truth is at once more complicated and simpler than we think. In our historicized, scientized world, we often think of truth as only that which we can see, that which we can measure. But Jacob reminds us that we have other means of knowing, other avenues we must travel on the path to truth.

Shabbat shalom.