Wednesday, October 31, 2012

The New Halloween

LAST SUNDAY I WENT WITH MY FAMILY to the Bronx Zoo, and suddenly Purim broke out. In the weeks leading up to Halloween, I am used to seeing the paraphernalia all around, and children in costume for weeks on end. However, it seems to me that Halloween has changed. Halloween used to represent cartoonish gore, a mixture of carved-out pumpkins, bats and cobwebs. It used to be Casper the Friendly Ghost. Halloween is now Tim Burton. Walking around the Bronx Zoo, I was struck by how realistic the imagery was. It was replete with tombstones, lifelike corpses and skeletons, and dismembered limbs. It has gone from cute and scary to gory and morbid.

You can now find Halloween depictions like the one below across the country. What has changed? Why has Halloween become so morbid?

When we try to understand the greatness of our patriarch Avraham, we must take into account his social context. The Talmud is Avodah Zarah (19a) explains that Avraham lived during two of the most persuasive societies we have ever seen. He lived during the generation that built the Tower of Bavel, and he rejected their forced collectivity. It wasn’t only Avraham. At the end of Parshat Noach (10:11-12) we learn that Ashur went and built big cities, especially the city of Ninveh, which we know from the book of Jonah. Rashi (quoting the Midrash) says that Ashur saw that his sons were getting swept up in the culture of Nimrod and wanted to join the group building the Tower of Bavel, he decided to pick up his family, move far away and start a new town, a new society. That is why the city of Ninveh was so dear to Hashem and why Jonah was sent to tell them to repent, its origins were pure and holy.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Big Bird and Binders

LAST NIGHT I WAS on a cross country flight from LA on Virgin America, and on the entertainment system MSNBC and Fox News were on consecutive channels. I flipped between them to listen to their reaction to Tuesday night’s debate, and you might be surprised to hear that each network had a very different take on who won the debate.

After about ten minutes of blatant partisan salesmanship, in which they lauded the performance of their preferred candidate without a single mention of a misstep, I turned it off out of fear that otherwise I would attempt to poke my eyes out with a plastic fork. It was a close call.

Election season seems to have gotten more and more difficult to stomach, and social media is abuzz with friends and family offering their opinions on the election. The political debate dissolves into memes and catch phrases, “Big Bird”, “the Binder”, or “texts from Hillary Clinton”. Debate coverage focuses on body language and how “Presidential” the candidates seem.Has our political system gone out of control?

In this week’s Parsha, Parshat Noach, we see the fate of Noach’s generation was sealed because of “Chamas”. Rashi quotes the Talmud (Sanhedrin 108a) and explains this term to mean that the final straw was a generation of theft, where everyone was either openly or surreptitiously stealing from one another. While idol worship and sexual immorality had already been rampant and reached unfathomable levels, the world still had hope. However, once society was no longer safe, once lawlessness had engulfed humanity, there was no longer any hope and Hashem brought the flood.

The Talmud explains (Sanhedrin 56b) that there are seven Mitzvot non-Jews are expected to keep, and by doing so earn a place in the “World to Come”. They are referred to as the “Seven Mitzvot of the sons of Noach”:

1. Prohibition of Idolatry
2. Prohibition of Murder
3. Prohibition of Theft
4. Prohibition of Sexual immorality
5. Prohibition of Blasphemy
6. Prohibition of eating flesh taken from an animal while it is still alive
7. Establishment of courts of law

The name is very telling, it is the sons of Noach that are commanded to promote these concepts to the world. The establishment of a just legal system, even one that is not in any way based in Jewish Law, is a prerequisite for a moral society. The desire to acquire money and power at all costs makes a just legal system precarious even in our times. The stark contrast of the American elections and the Syrian massacres could not be more telling. Bashar Al-Assad’s brutal regime illuminates how far someone will go to maintain their power; the murder of tens of thousands of his own citizens is not nearly as important to him as his own power.

In America, our leaders are forced to concede that their power is limited. That no matter how successful they are, eventually they must willingly hand over the reins. It goes against the strongest of human instincts, but we have created a social contract that will not allow it any other way. It is truly the power of the people.
This creates an entirely different dynamic. The candidates end of pandering to voters, making promises they can’t keep and flip flopping on issues depending on whose votes they need. A politician’s job is to get elected, and often truth, integrity and even dignity are sacrificed in the name of that goal. It can be easy to lose sight of the glory of this process. They have to beg for our votes. They need to convince us, so ultimately the power remains in the hands of the people. We can’t lose sight of how rare this has been throughout human history.

So enjoy these next three weeks. The smear campaigns, the vicious attack ads, and even the partisan politics. Ultimately they are the sign of a healthy republic, and a nation living up to the “Seven laws of the sons of Noach”

Rabbi Joshua Strulowitz is an Orthodox rabbi who built the first eruv in San Francisco. He has also founded the "Jewish Ethics and the Internet" program. Follow him on Twitter at @RabbiStrul.

Tuesday, October 16, 2012

Gangnam Style is More Than a Horse Dance

‘GANGNAM STYLE’ HAS BEEN all the rage for quite some time now and deservedly so. It's got a great beat, a Korean singer whose nickname is short for psycho, and a ridiculous dance. It shows you how far our society has evolved since the Macarena that we all clumsily danced to some 17 years ago. But in the area where the song truly excels, it has fallen on deaf ears.

“Gangnam style” is a satire not only about this ritzy neighborhood in Korea that according to PSY is very fancy and professional during the day, but has crazy parties at night, but about every neighborhood and community in which people are wholly enveloped in the pursuit of wealth. PSY reminds us all that life is meaningless when our thoughts, aspirations, and actions are centered on money. The song also laments the fact that even when we are fortunate enough to attain financial stability and flexibility, all too often, we do not know what to do with our wealth and end up spending it frivolously, without thinking or prioritizing. The music video does a great job of capturing the emptiness of it all, along with the other quirkiness and craziness. (For a great explanation of the song, check out the blog, ‘My Dear Korea.’) Apparently, Korean's spend more money on a latte at Starbucks than on a meal. Yikes.

PSY has attracted upwards of 80,000 fans to his concerts and hundreds of millions of viewers of his YouTube video who scream the lyrics of Gangnam Style on the rooftops while doing the horse dance. I wonder, however, how many of his fans have internalized the song’s message that we need to unify around values of justice, peace, cooperation, and the pursuit of other noble causes. When our lives revolve around money, the world devolves into one that is completely self-centered, arrogant, petty, disingenuous, and fractured.

Don't take my word for it or PSY’s for that matter; King Solomon said it better than we ever could, especially because he amassed more wealth than we will ever earn. In the second chapter of Ecclesiastes, he recalls all that he has acquired. “I acted in grand style: (maybe he was the biblical version of Gangnam style, dancing the epic dance of his time.....the Hora.) I built myself houses, I planted vineyards...I amassed silver and gold for myself....thus I grew and surpassed any of my predecessors in Jerusalem....then I looked at all the things that I had done and the energy I had expended in doing them; it was clear that it was all futile.”

All the money in the world didn’t satisfy King Solomon. Spending it lavishly didn’t evoke feelings of accomplishment and achievement. The Jewish community should take note. Our Birthday parties, Bar and Bat Mitzvah’s, weddings and other celebrations have often become way too excessive and unnecessarily elaborate. Even Hollywood, home to the most frivolous of spenders, has taken note of and mocked our craziness when it released the film “Keeping up with the Stein’s” a few years back.

Here in the United States, we are still in a recession and many of our friends and neighbors are suffering economically. But regardless of our financial status, we have to ask ourselves whether our lifestyles and spending habits are consistent with Jewish values? Are they rooted in acts of charity, social justice, equality, and spirituality or are we living life predicated on the values of “Oppan Gangnam Style?” Are we ready to join PSY in the quest for meaning in life, or are we content chasing the “holy dollar?”

Please don’t misunderstand me. There's nothing wrong with people earning a ‘good’ living or even amassing a fortune. Without such people, it would be impossible to support the poor and the many worthy organizations that benefit from the contributions of the generous philanthropists among us. The problem lies in the attitude of those individuals who believe that their lives are defined by their ability to make and spend money. We can do better.

As we continue to sing along with PSY, perfect the horse dance, and scream “Oppan Gangnam Style,” for a few more weeks before the craze is finally over (apparently it ended a few days ago, according to CNN), don’t forget about his challenge to us to find real meaning in life. And as Jews, let’s consider King Solomon’s final words of Ecclesiastes as our answer: “the sum of the matter, when all has been considered: Fear God and keep his commandments, for that is man’s whole duty.”

Rabbi Joshua Hess is an Orthodox rabbi in Linden, New Jersey. He is the co-founder of the blog and is on Twitter at @RabbiHess.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Lance Armstrong - Taking the Good with the Bad

FROM ALL THE AVAILABLE evidence in front of us, there is only one logical conclusion - Lance Armstrong is a dirty cheater. Armstrong, who won cycling’s most prestigious event, the Tour de France, seven consecutive times is accused with using performance enhancing drugs in order to achieve his amazing athletic successes.

On Wednesday, the Anti-Doping Agency released an over 1,000 page document detailing the vast orchestrated cheating campaign run by Armstrong’s US Postal Service Pro Cycling Team. According to a press release the agency claims that, “the evidence also includes direct documentary evidence including financial payments, emails, scientific data and laboratory test results that further prove the use, possession and distribution of performance enhancing drugs by Lance Armstrong and confirm the disappointing truth about the deceptive activities of the USPS Team, a team that received tens of millions of American taxpayer dollars in funding.” In addition, and perhaps most damning, the report contains detailed testimony from his former teammates who paint a picture of rampant drug use within US cycling.

Unless there is some massive conspiracy Lance Armstrong’s goose is pretty well cooked. He will likely be stripped of his titles and banned from the sport that he loves. But before we condemn him to the purgatory reserved for other performance enhancing drug users, along with fellow club members Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Marion Jones, Ben Johnson, et al, I think it is only fitting to take a moment to reflect on the legacy of Lance Armstrong, for he is not your everyday drug cheat.

For millions of people Lance Armstrong was and remains an inspirational figure. After surviving a battle with testicular cancer, which spread all over his body, he became a symbol of hope when just three years later he won his first Tour de France title. Those struggling with cancer looked at what he accomplished and said to themselves, “If he can do this, why not me?” Armstrong established a foundation dedicated to fighting cancer and helping those afflicted cope with their disease. Over the years, the “LiveStrong” foundation has raised almost $500 million dollars for the fight against cancer, and his charity has seen its donations rise astronomically during the past few weeks. I encourage you to visit to see all the good this organization does and its many, many success stories. Lance Armstrong, the athlete, may have been a phony. But there is nothing fake about the hope and inspiration Lance Armstrong has provided cancer patients all over the world.

There is a midrash which tells of two types of trees which were intertwined. One of them contained life-giving medicine, while the other contained a deadly poison. The gardener said, “If I water the tree which yields life giving medicine, the tree with the deadly poison will grow along with it. But if I don’t water the tree with the deadly poison, how will the tree sprouting life-giving medicine continue to exist?

When it comes to Lance Armstrong, I suggest we have to take the good with the bad. While he cheated his sport and himself, this does not wipe out the tremendous good he has done for those battling cancer. Despite his actions, it is OK to break out your yellow “LiveStrong” bracelets, for truly, in the case of Lance Armstrong, it is not just about the bike.

Rabbi Josh Lobel is Associate Rabbi at Congregation Shir Hadash in Silicon Valley, California.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

A Rabbi Becomes a Baseball Free Agent

I BLAME MEL HALL. It was Memorial Day 1991, and my cousins, my brother and I were going to Yankee stadium to see the Yankees take on the Boston Red Sox. Given that I didn’t grow up in a big city, I had never been to a Major League baseball game. At the time, I wasn’t a baseball fan. I had rooted for the Mets during their run to the World Series in 1986, but I was really a baseball free agent. I was looking for a team but hadn’t found one. My cousins were huge Yankees fans and assured me that the game would be great and that we’d have a good time.

So we piled into my Cousin Josh’s car and headed to the Bronx. On the way, Josh was explaining to me the history of the rivalry between the Yankees and the Red Sox. When we got to the stadium I couldn’t believe it. Now I had seen Yankee stadium dozens of times on television, but it was something else to see it in person. We found our seats in the right field mezzanine a few rows behind the fa├žade and settled in for what my cousins were calling, “The greatest rivalry in sports.”

The day played out like a sports movie. This was not the same Yankees that we watch on television today. Their lineup was good, but was not the superstar lineup that this year’s Yankees trot out every game. After trailing the entire game, Mel Hall stepped to the plate in the bottom of the ninth inning with runners on first and second. On a 2-2 pitch Hall hit a home run right to right field right in front of where we were all sitting.

That was the day when I became a Yankees fan. In spite of the fact that both my father and brother were, and have always been Dodgers fans, I decided to jump on the Yankees bandwagon. All of fourteen, I found myself attracted to the glory, the history and yes, the arrogance that the New York Yankees carried with them.