Thursday, May 31, 2007

Is Live and Let Live Enough?

A debate has been raging in The Times (London, of course) between believers in God and atheists, in the wake an article by Professor Richard Dawkins, defending his book "The God Delusion" see http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/comment/columnists/guest_contributors/article1779771.ece. It was followed up by an interview of him, counter articles by other columnists and of course, reader talkback.

Much of the reader debate has not centered on proving or disproving God's existence. Both sides seem to admit that it cannot be done. Rather, much of the debate has centered on why either side feels the need to promote their views to others. Why can't we all live and let live. The believers feel the need to save others, while the atheists feel the need to reveal the folly and even danger of the believers.

I must say that I have sympathy for both arguments. On numerous occasions I have been accosted by Christian missionaries wanting me to see the light and be granted a place in the Kingdom of Heaven. Annoyingly, they have even prayed in front of me to the Nazarene, that I accept him into my heart. I don't like it when I see Jewish kiruv workers doing similar things.

And yet, I believe I have something precious in my faith, which I would like my fellow Jews to feel. While, I think "saving" a person has more to do with being moral than religious, I still cannot help to want to teach the beauty of Judaism and yet, I do not want to impose my views on others.

Can a religious Jew really accept the doctrine of live and let live?

I believe that the answer is yes and no. We must be involved in the world and we must work hard to make it a better place; but not because we are right and because others are wrong. Not because we have the truth and because the others must be saved from falsehood.

We must interact because we all have so much to learn from one another. We must interact with respect, with an openness and as equals.

Wednesday, May 30, 2007

Privacy and the generation gap

Andy Warhol said "In the future everyone will be famous for fifteen minutes. With Web 2.0, myspace, facebook, etc., it's certainly becoming true. But is it a good thing or bad - or are we even asking the right questions?

From New York magazine:

"And after all, there is another way to look at this shift. Younger people, one could point out, are the only ones for whom it seems to have sunk in that the idea of a truly private life is already an illusion. Every street in New York has a surveillance camera. Each time you swipe your debit card at Duane Reade or use your MetroCard, that transaction is tracked. Your employer owns your e-mails. The NSA owns your phone calls. Your life is being lived in public whether you choose to acknowledge it or not.

So it may be time to consider the possibility that young people who behave as if privacy doesn’t exist are actually the sane people, not the insane ones. For someone like me, who grew up sealing my diary with a literal lock, this may be tough to accept. But under current circumstances, a defiant belief in holding things close to your chest might not be high-minded. It might be an artifact—quaint and naïve, like a determined faith that virginity keeps ladies pure. Or at least that might be true for someone who has grown up “putting themselves out there” and found that the benefits of being transparent make the risks worth it." [say anything]

Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Homework - do we really need it?

As a child I hated homework and now that I'm a parent I hate it even more. It seems to rob the kids of having any opportunity to spend time running around outside after spending all those hours at schools. Even more so in Israel, where children study 6 days a week.

But now I feel like someone's proven what I've been feeling for years. According to Sara Bennett and Nancy Kalish in their book "The Case Against Homework" , there is almost no evidence that homework helps elementary school students achieve academic success and there is little evidence that it helps older students. Yet daily, children around the world are heavily burdened with homework. This is even harder for the day school child with longer school hours. Do we really need to put our children through the angst of daily homework? Are we needlessly robbing our children of the sleep and play, and exercise time they need for proper physical, emotional, and neurological development?

Five hundred million dollars

We all like to dream - If I were a rich man ... If I had a million dollars ...

Suppose someone offered you five hundred million dollars to some something transformative for American Jewry. What would you do with that money? Build day schools? Fix those that are already there? Design outreach programs for the less affiliated? Expand Birthright? Setting up learning centers on college campuses? Build a "Foreign Ministry" for the Jewish people?

OK, I don't have that kind of money to throw around. But to dream of what we would do with extraordinary resources should help guide what we do with more limited reources. So let's dream - what would you do with it?

Friday, May 25, 2007

Public Enemy #1: Your local Jewish day school

The topic of day schools comes up every so often at jpsot.org, but it is usually only in passing, while advocating public school education. This week, however, there was a passionate (and sometimes bitter) debate about whether supporting day schools undermines the values of an equal and just society. Having never thought about day schools in quite this light before, I found it to be an interesting read. I won't give away the conclusion, but I think our neighborhoods are safe. Read the debate here and here.

Sunday, May 20, 2007

A new way to deal with bullying

Bullying has become a major concern in many schools today, and Jewish schools are no exception.

In one California school, an elementary school student was suspended for bullying. Her mother did not want her "punishment" to be hanging around the house watching cartoons, so she devised a more creative way for her to spend her time off.

As a principal I wouldn't have done it, but if her mother wants to, it works for me.

Hat tip: Shira Borstein

Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Too Much Doing and Not Enough Being

A recent article in the London Times shows that commuters all over the world are walking much faster than they were ten years ago (see http://www.timesonline.co.uk/tol/news/uk/science/article1733967.ece). The gist of the article is that in the [post] modern world, people are too busy today to enjoy life in their quest to achieve.

In a recent Lookstein Center webconference on spirituality, Rabbi Aryeh Ben David asserted that people often neglect their essence, rather than being "human beings", they become "human doings".

Has Judaism has also been affected by this process? Is it possible that Orthodox Jews have become obsessed with the minutiae of halachik achievement, constantly adopting more stringencies and practices, that they have stopped thinking about and appreciating the purpose of our halachik practice? Has keeping halacha to its strictest degree overtaken its purpose of bringing us closer to God and Man?

For example, rather than becoming liberated by Pesach, many of us have become slaves to its halachik (or pseudo-halachik) stringencies and rather than creating a holy society, strict separation of the sexes on even busses and taxis, has often succeeded in desecrating God's name (See Zvi Grumet's schmoozed http://schmoozed.lookstein.org/2007/05/jewish-education-works.html).

Monday, May 14, 2007

Jewish Education Works!

People often complain about what's wrong with Jewish education. Why doesn't it work? Here's a true story about Jewish education that worked.

Outside Ben Gurion airport arrivals, I'm on a long line waiting for the Nesher shared taxi to Jerusalem. The dispatcher, walking up and down the line, spots me.

"Are you going to Jerusalem" - "Yes"
"Are you traveling alone? - "Yes"
"OK, come with me."

Delighted about avoiding a long wait, I am ushered to the front Nesher! God is good to me today. As the driver takes my luggage, I notice a young woman leaving the taxi. She identifies her luggage in the back of the taxi, which is promptly removed.

As I enter the van I survey the scene and quickly figure out what had happened. The back row was occupied by three hareidi young men, with one seat left. The woman was unwelcome to sit next to them, and had to find place on a different taxi.

Moral dilemma: do I take the seat and enjoy my good fortune, or do I refuse to reap the fruits of an injustice done to another? I sat, and the taxi took off.

Conveying my good fortune to my wife I explain that I was the beneficiary of a magnificent hillul Hashem, and that I was feeling somewhat awkward (even as we sped homeward).

The young hareidi men apparently understood English, and when I hung up the phone (yes, I plead guilty to speaking on a cell phone in public) they challenged my description of the event as a hillul Hashem.

What was to me self-evident apparently needed some explanation, which for the next twenty minutes to half-hour I gladly proferred. It was very simple: If, as a result of my actions/interactions, another human being thinks more highly of the God of the Jews, then that is a kiddush Hashem. But if as a result of my actions/interactions they think less highly of the God of the Jews, then that is a hillul Hashem. Uncomfortable as they were by my formulation, especially since it suggested that their actions were anything less than laudatory, they provided a simple response - "but that's what we were taught! You're not permitted to sit next to a woman."

Now that's what I call effective Jewish education!

I offered an alternative lesson. I told an apocryphal story of R. Hayyim of Brisk who was visiting another European Rosh Yeshiva in his home. Suddenly, they heard the Polish maid singing. Fearing the prohibition of hearing a woman sing (kol isha), the Rosh Yeshiva got up to silence her. R. Hayyim intervened. "NO!", he said. "She works hard; singing eases her burden. Besides, she is allowed to sing. It is we who are forbidden to listen. We should leave the house." And they did.

My traveling partners understood. Red faced, they admitted that they had no need to compromise on the values they had learned without impinging on her place in that taxi. They could have found themselves another taxi that would have been more religiously suited to them.

And who says that Jewish education doesn't work?

Bad things happening to good people

It's a quandry for anyone who believes in God - if God is good and even more importantly, if God is just, how can God allow bad things to happen to good people? Sorry - I don't have any answers, but this article in the NY Times had an interesting take on it.

It seems to me that maybe we shouldn't be asking "why", because it always does. Maybe the question should be - when bad things happen, what do you do with it?

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Torah, Maddah and doubt

One issue that was not raised in the recent Torah U'Madda discussion on Lookjed was whether academic study itself is a threat to religious belief. This was the topic of discussion in a recent interview that appeared in Biblical Archaeology Review, entitled "Losing Faith: How Scholarship Affects Scholars." In it, four Bible/archaeology scholars were asked whether their professional study in a field that held potential discrepancies with their beliefs affected their religious devotion.

Lawrence Schiffman was the (Orthodox) Jewish representative in this conversation, which is subtitled "2 who did and 2 who didn't." I will let you in on his conclusion (he did not find that his studies led him to lose faith), but the conversation is an interesting one.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Remembering the "Forgotten Middle"

A few months ago, I pondered what tuition may be doing to the demography of the committed Jewish family. Although there are some universal tuition reduction programs, and some capped tuition programs, the vast majority of schools rely on need-based scholarships. If those at the top of the income bracket can afford to pay tuition, and lower income families qualify for financial aid, where does that leave middle-income families?

The UJC of MetroWest NJ recently announced a campaign to help reduce tuition in three local day schools, which would help ease the load for those in the middle:

"Consider a family making $200,000 with four kids in day school," said Kushner executive director Michael Grad. "The tuition bill can be more than $60,000. Can they make it?"..."If they were making $50,000 it wouldn't be an issue," he said, because a family in that financial situation would be getting assistance…. Schechter families face similar financial challenges, combined with the fact that day school is not as inevitable an option in the Conservative movement as it is among the Orthodox, said Schechter's head of school, Joyce Raynor."We have anecdotal evidence of people who say, 'We're leaving. Please understand we love the school but our financial situation has changed' or 'We're struggling with three children in the school' or 'I've lost my job,' " Raynor said. "Where do they go? They go to public school."

Read the whole article here.

Hat tip: Peretz Rodman, Mifgashim

Thursday, May 3, 2007

Jewish Pride

As an orthodox who is often openly critical of the morals of orthodox Jews and of various other issues about Jews, Judaism and Israel, Shalom's blog below about the honesty of the winner of the Hidon HaTenakh reminded me that it was high time I wrote a piece of why I am proud to be Jewish, and why we can all take pride about the moral values of our people.

The British "Sky News" recently reported about an honesty experiment that was done in Britain (see http://news.sky.com/skynews/article/0,,30000-1260939,00.html). Essentially, valuable items such as mobile phones, PDA's and wallets, with the owners' contact details clearly available, were left on busy city streets. Without going into details, suffice it to say that the British public failed the test miserably.

I believe that the Israeli people would have passed this test with flying colors. I obviously do not have any hard evidence about this and I am aware of all the taxi driver stories and the corruption in government, and I'm not naïve, but I have much of my own anecdotal evidence. I've got my own taxi driver story (the time I was halfway down the highway on a long journey in a taxi when I realized I left my wallet at home), the time I lost a credit card on a public bus and the way little children can eat goods in a supermarket before they have been paid for.

We are certainly not perfect, and while we do not always behave as a light unto the nations, we can be very proud of the good we have given and continue to give.

Tuesday, May 1, 2007

who's fault is it anyway...

It amazes me how much thought people put into to trying to understand really horrible people? As Shmuel Boteach says in a recent Jerusalem Post article: "A particularly troubling aspect of the news coverage of the gruesome massacre at Virginia Tech is the fact that no one seems to hate the killer, Cheo Seung-Hui. Indeed, he is not even referred to as a killer or a murderer." Is it because we feel empathy for the accused?

Similarly, the Jewish community always worries about the guilty parties to the point where they abandon the victims. For instance, last month when another case of sexual abuse emerged in the Jewish educational community, it became obvious that the community had allowed this to happen. Even people who I consider sensible, think it's okay 'at times' to cover up an incident, to protect the guilty. For instance, when talking about the recent events in Baltimore, a popular Jewish blogger wrote: "the frum community tended to keep things under wraps, but genuinely take care of business. Rabbi Herman Neuberger ...could arrange that someone would never get a job in chinuch again without publicly embarrassing anyone, or so I thought." How could anyone consider any type of cover-up to be 'genuinely taking care of business'?

If someone behaves like a criminal, we shouldn't feel sorry for them, we should punish them. And we shouldn't be afraid to punish them publicly. If not, how are our children to know that they can turn to us for justice?