Monday, October 20, 2014

After scandal, a simple mikvah proposal

[Update 8:09 AM - Within a few minutes of posting this, I received a notice from a rabbinic friend, who informed me that the "Mikvah Emunah Society of Greater Washington" has already sent out a notice listing steps that they are taking. One of them is, "Male volunteers who assist MES with maintenance issues at the Wallerstein Mikvah will no longer be permitted to enter the mikvah without a woman accompanying them." Baruch shekivanti, although I believe that having a committee of women control access is a more practical method than accompanying, as outlined below.]

I am still processing the rabbinic scandal from Kesher Israel in Washington DC. (I am not hiding his name to protect him; I am refusing to type it because looking at it makes me ill.) I have many thoughts going through my head, but I'm not ready to post on it today. I'm not sure which ones are logical yet.

However, I do want to make the following proposal: No male should have unfettered access to a mikvah, even a supervising rabbi. 

Like any male, the rabbi should have neither the keys not the combination, whatever system of access is used. There should be a small committee of women who are licensed to let him in (and who will have the ability to inspect it after he leaves, should there be any concerns).

I say this as a rabbi who supervised a community mikvah for eight years, during which time we actually had two mikvaos – an old one, which needed halachic maintenance, and a new one, which needed the halachic attention that comes with a new mikvah. I had the keys and I used them, but in truth, I could have done everything I needed to do by working through a small committee of contact people.

Of course, men also use the mikvah, and the rabbi could have access like any other male during those times. But women should be in charge of making sure the mikvah is open during those times, and should be the ones to lock up, and check the facility as needed, afterward. [And where possible, the men and women should have dedicated changing areas, with the women's changing areas locked when the mikvah is in use by men. Where this is not practical, women should inspect the changing areas from time to time.]

This is not about accusing all rabbis, or all men, of impropriety and evil intent. Rather, it's like in hashgachah in the kosher food industry. Just as we recognize that a religiously observant business owner has a yetzer hara for profit, and therefore we don't allow him unfettered access to his food service establishment, so we must recognize that most males have a yetzer hara in sexual matters, and therefore we should not allow them unfettered access to a place where women are unclothed.

Does this make sense to you?

Monday, October 6, 2014

Shabbos App, lay off my Shabbos!

If you haven't heard about The Shabbos App yet, it's meant to modify the function of your smartphone to avert halachic problems involved in texting on Shabbat.

Here is the opening line of their "Who we are" paragraph:
We are a team of people including programmers, marketing professionals and Rabbis who want to make it easier to be Jewish and fully observant. Today, there are too many people leaving the fold because they find observant Judaism too cumbersome and outdated and it doesn't need to be.

It would be fun to discuss the ins-and-outs of their mechanisms, which are briefly described (sans important halachic details) on their website. Indeed, Rabbi Yisrael Rozen of Machon Tzomet has pointed out a gaping hole in their understanding of grama, here. But I am more interested in their premise: that people are leaving Judaism because halachah is cumbersome and outdated, as demonstrated by the inability to use a cell phone on Shabbos.

I can see ways in which the halachic system is lagging in dealing with new realities, but to me, turning off a cell phone for Shabbos does not demonstrate an outdated halachic system. Just the opposite, it demonstrates the need for the classic halachic system of Shabbos!

I think the Shabbos App is a terrible idea. Am I really the only Jew who was relieved to not answer a phone call or an email for three consecutive days on Rosh HaShanah and Shabbos? For me, if such a break did not exist, I would have to invent it - just as psychologists routinely recommend to their patients that they take time out from the demands of the world on a regular basis.

It's also important to walk away from the phone for a whole host of other reasons, beyond the scope of this post; take Louis CK's advice and turn off the phone!

So I find the "Shabbos App" idea most un-app-ealing. It's not what I want for myself, for my children, or for my environment. I shudder to think of spending Yom Kippur in shul, Succos lunch with friends, Simchas Torah dancing with the Torah or Shabbos afternoon at the park surrounded by texters. Please, please: lay off my Shabbos!

Thursday, October 2, 2014

Roger Bannister and Team Naive (Derashah before Neilah 5775)

The Internet can be inspiring, even when the tales it tells aren't exactly true.

Listen to the following story, reported on the website by Dr. Jill Ammon-Wexler; a key part of it is false, but I still find it inspirational. Quoting Dr. Ammon-Wexler:[1]
For many years it was universally believed to be impossible for mankind to run a mile in four minutes. The athletes of the time held this belief, and the scientific world totally agreed.
But then on May 6, 1954 -- something remarkable happened. It seems there was one man who did NOT believe it impossible to run a “four minute mile.” In fact this man firmly believed this barrier could be broken ... and that he would be the one to do so. The name of this remarkable rebel was Roger Bannister -- and on that fateful day he did indeed run the first historically-recorded “four minute mile.”
Bannister’s amazing victory illustrates the power of one man’s belief in his own capabilities. But it is even more interesting that just six weeks later, Australian runner John Landy cut one second off Bannister’s record. And in the following ten years almost two hundred people also broke this so-called “impossible” barrier. Why did this happen? Because Bannister shattered the belief that the four minute mile was impossible. And when that belief fell … the 4-minute mile suddenly became possible.

Most of the story Dr. Ammon-Wexler tells is true:
  • Many authorities did believe that the four minute mile was physiologically impossible. For example: In 1943, an American newspaper's sports editor, Elliott Metcalf, used record quarter-mile times to demonstrate that a four-minute mile could not be achieved.[2]
  • Roger Bannister did firmly believe that this barrier could be broken – and on May 6, 1954, he became the first human being in recorded history to run a mile in four minutes.
  • And just weeks later, on June 21, John Landy did cut a second off of Bannister's record. And since the time Bannister showed the world it could be done, thousands more "four-minute miles" have been run; New Zealand's John Walker has done it 135 times, and American Steve Scott has run even more. High schoolers have done it, and Eamonn Coghlan did it after turning 40.

I find this story inspirational because of Roger Bannister's remarkable ability to envision success, shut out the cynics, and drive himself to achieve his goal. He knew that many others thought him naïve, and he overrode their doubts with his resolve.

In a world which finds our Torah's expectations alien and unreasonable, we need to take pride in our purported naivete as we pursue those expectations:
  • We need to take pride in our goal of Shmiras haLashon, of speaking only positively about each other.
  • Of giving 10% of our after-tax income to tzedakah.
  • Of rising early in the morning for shacharit, and spending serious time in Torah study during our day.
  • Of dressing in a way which honours our privacy.
  • Of observing Shabbos  - We now have the absurd authors of the Shabbos-App telling us that we must alter Shabbos and accept phone use, because it's just not possible to expect our kids to observe Shabbos without it.
  • And of completing our teshuvah, setting out this year to conquer the obstacles that conquered us last year.
We need Roger Bannister's ability to imagine a goal, and pursue it, even when the world thinks it impossible.

But an important part of that Bannister story was not true: Bannister was not alone; many athletes of the 1930's, 1940's and 1950's absolutely believed that the four-minute mile was achievable. A French runner set the mile record at 4:09 in 1931. Jack Lovelock of New Zealand moved it down to 4:07.6 in 1933. American Glenn Cunningham took it to 4:06.8 in 1934, and three years later British Sydney Wooderson dropped the record to 4:06. Then two Swedes took turns breaking the record multiple times, dropping it to 4:01.4 in 1945.  And there was John Landy, who headed for Finland in May 1954 for an attempt at the four-minute mark, only to arrive and hear that Bannister had already done it in England.[3]

Roger Bannister had confidence in his vision, but he also had something else: the company of other athletes. Bannister was not on his own; he was part of a team of people who were naïve rebels, insisting that it could be done, that they could do it.
That team is crucial; left to ourselves, it's all too easy to pull up short and say, "What, am I out of my mind?" Being the brooding hero who bucks the entire world is attractive when you're a teenager or when you spin webs and have Spidersense, but as we go through our adult, real-world existences, we get hit hard by life, and coping and hitting back requires the confidence of a team on our side. When we are surrounded by others who share our dreams and our goals and our confidence, then even our most questionable visions appear closer to reality.

Look at Avraham and Sarah, who were told to leave their land, their birthplace, the home of their fathers. They didn't go alone – they brought הנפש אשר עשו בחרן, which a midrash explains refers to like-minded people they had attracted. They brought Lot, even though he was part of that family they were supposedly leaving behind.[4] They brought Eliezer. They brought a network.

Or move forward millenia, to the end of the second Beis haMikdash. When the Romans were crushing the backbone of the Jewish nation by banning the study of Torah on penalty of brutal death, a sage named Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma was invited to come live in a town where they would pay him handsomely. As Pirkei Avos[5] tells the story, Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma declined the invitation, saying, "No matter what you pay me, I will never live anywhere other than a place of Torah." Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma's reply is hard to understand, though, since passages of gemara elsewhere[6] show that he lived in Rome! Was Rome, heart of the barbaric empire, a place of Torah?!

Interesting approaches to the problem are offered,[7] but one answer is simple: The same gemara that places Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma in Rome also places Rabbi Chanina ben Tradyon, and his students, in Rome of that time. What Rabbi Yosi ben Kisma needed was not a city full of kollelim and batei medrash, but a team, a few like-minded people who shared his vision, who shared his naivete, who would inspire him and who would be inspired by him.[8]

Roger Bannister's dual message – ignoring the world's doubts and drawing on the strength of similarly confident people – is particularly important for us at Neilah.

In just a few minutes, we are going to say the most audacious words in the entire siddur. We've said them already today, but here they come one more time:
 “אלקי, עד שלא נוצרתי איני כדאי.” “My Gd, before I was created, I was not worthy.”
ועכשיו שנוצרתי כאילו לא נוצרתי.” “And now that I have been created, I am as though I had never been created.”
עפר אני בחיי, קל וחומר במיתתי.” “I am dust in my lifetime, how much moreso in my death.”
הרי אני לפניך ככלי מלא בושה וכלימה.” “I am before You as a vessel filled with shame and humiliation.”
And yet, “יהי רצון מלפניך ד' אלקי ואלקי אבותי שלא אחטא עוד!”
“But nevertheless, HaShem,
despite my degradation,
despite the fact that I know I have not lived up to my potential,
despite the fact that I know you want me to be so much greater than I am,
despite the fact that I violated pretty much every law this year that I apologized for last year, and the year before that,
despite all of those facts - May it be Your will, HaShem, MY Gd, Gd of MY ancestors, that I never sin again!”

It's remarkably, audaciously naïve – and that's just fine, because all of us will say it, all of us will commit to it, a team of runners who believe, running in parallel to break the four-minute mark that is teshuvah.

Bannister's story has one more part: As I said before, six weeks after Bannister broke the 4-minute mark, John Landy knocked a second off of the new record. And then, just a few weeks after that, the two ran head-to-head in a race in Vancouver. In what would become known as "The Miracle Mile", both men broke the four-minute mark; Bannister won with a time of 3:58.8 and Landy came in at 3:59.6.[9]

That Miracle Mile is the power of a team with a vision, and that is our power here, when we commit ourselves to the unreasonable goal of שלא אחטא עוד, that we never sin again. Let us, as a minyan, be that team with a bold vision, sharing our strength with each other and driving each other forward, to break that four-minute mile of teshuvah together, and earn a גמר חתימה טובה.

[4] See Chezi Cohen, אברהם ולוט – מפרדה לפירוד, Megadim 54 (Nisan 5773)
[5] Perek 6
[6] Sanhedrin 98a, Avodah Zarah 18a
[7] See, for example,
[8] Note the conversation between R' Chanina ben Tradyon and R' Yosi ben Kisma on Avodah Zarah 18a.

Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Unpacking naivete

In my previous post, I said:

I believe that naivete has an important place in our lives, in moving us from an ugly world to a more attractive one. Naivete regarding other people, naivete regarding Gd, naivete regarding ourselves. Let me be a cynic all year long, but not now, not in these weeks.

Let me add a few explanatory sentences here:

Normally, I believe in confronting questions, even going looking for them. I would rather read Richard Dawkins or biblical criticism, encountering their challenges and dealing with them, rather than pretend they don't exist; it fits my temperament. I tend to click on links that tout the latest scientific discovery that seems to contradict Bereishit, or that provide evidence tying traits of the soul with hormones and neural circuitry.

As Rosh HaShanah approaches, though, I prefer to turn off all of that noise. Not because its questions are any less valid, but because this isn't the time for it. Elul, Rosh HaShanah, Yom Kippur - these are like a marriage with Gd, a time when we are supposed to feel and express love. It's very hard to express love, to have a real bonding experience, while you're looking over your shoulder.

Hence my Rosh HaShanah derashah this year - naive in the extreme as it touted a relationship with Gd, while eliding the very real questions about just how much (or little) Gd wants that relationship. On Rosh HaShanah, I'm good with that.

As I explained it to a friend on Rosh HaShanah, I see the run-up through Elul like a second marriage. When a young couple, fresh out of school, go to the chuppah, they might have eyes only for each other, thinking the other is the best and the most attractive and the most ideal. But then imagine a couple entering a second marriage; they've seen the world, and they know that perfection is a myth and that their partner has warts and wrinkles in both body and personality. As they walk to the chuppah, though, they had better put the doubts and concerns out of their minds; to start off their marriage in a healthy way, they need that moment when they look at each other as though this is heaven, and there really is no one else in the world. Let the problems wait for another day.

That's my Elul. For these weeks, let me think that the people around me are wonderful. Let me believe that I can be wonderful. Let me trust, untrammeled, in a bond with my Creator, who watches and cares. Next week, I'll go back to wrestling with skepticism, but right now, I'm headed to the chuppah.

Monday, September 29, 2014

A healthy dose of naivete

What's on my mind after Rosh Hashanah and Shabbos Shuvah?

Three music videos that I like not because their music is outstandingly good, but because צמאה נפשי for a world in which the vision of unity presented in these videos was the norm:

Of course, I know that there are real reasons for the schisms among our nation, and there are substantive issues of both philosophy and practice that divide us. All the same, I believe that naivete has an important place in our lives, in moving us from an ugly world to a more attractive one. Naivete regarding other people, naivete regarding Gd, naivete regarding ourselves.

Let me be a cynic all year long, but not now, not in these weeks.

More on this theme of naivete in the days leading up to Yom Kippur, I expect.

Tuesday, September 23, 2014

Are You my mother? (Derashah for Rosh HaShanah)

Several years ago, researchers at Baylor University in the US published a study entitled, "American Piety in the 21st century".[1] They asked Americans to identify what kind of Gd they believed in. The five choices were:
  • Authoritarian (meaning that Gd is highly involved in day-to-day life, in punishing ways),
  • Benevolent (meaning that Gd is highly involved in day-to-day life, in helpful ways);
  • Critical (meaning that Gd is not involved in the world, but Gd watches and judges and will reward and punish eventually);
  • Distant (meaning that Gd started the world, but doesn't care about it or run it);
  • And atheist.
When the results were broken down by religion,[2] Evangelical Protestants largely believed that Gd is authoritarian. Mainline Protestants and Catholics were split. And among Jews, the dominant choice was D – 41.7% of respondents who identified themselves as Jewish believed that Gd is distant – not watching, not caring, what happens in our universe.

Tanach presents the story of a man who came to agree with that 41.7%, a man who lived in a place called Utz; his name was Iyov.

You might have heard of Iyov; here's a quick outline of his story:
  • Iyov enjoys a large family and magnificent wealth, and is extraordinarily devoted to Gd.
  • Off in heaven, a malicious malach charges that Iyov only serves Gd because Gd protects him. Gd permits the malach to test Iyov; the malach takes almost everything away from him.
  • Iyov is visited by various people who try to justify his suffering. He rejects their claims; he curses the day he was born, arguing that there is no justice, that Gd has outsourced the running of the universe and isn't paying attention. He demands to sue Gd for negligence.
  • Gd then addresses Iyov personally, challenging him: What do you know about running a universe? Where were you when I created the world? What are your powers?
  • At which point Iyov apologizes for his words, accepting Gd's response. Gd then gives Iyov a new start in life, with great rewards.
The book invites many questions – I intend to discuss more about it in a class during the break on Yom Kippur – but for now I want to ask just two:
  • First: How does Gd's "answer" to Iyov address his questions, and why does Iyov accept it?
  • And Second: Iyov seems to reject Gd throughout the book, proving that the malach was right. So why does Gd reward him at the end?
I would like to re-write the book of Iyov, and answer Baylor's 41.7%, with an idea that goes to the heart of Rosh haShanah and the mitzvah of shofar.

People usually believe that the sole problem of the book of Iyov is Iyov's question to Gd: "Why do good people suffer?" But as we have seen, that question is barely answered in the book! Instead, Professor Yaakov Klein of Bar Ilan University[3] suggests that a second central problem of the book of Iyov is the malach's question to Gd: "Why do people follow Gd?" Do human beings revere and serve their Creator to win fabulous prizes, or for something else? And this is answered in the book, by Iyov himself.

The book makes clear that Iyov is loyal because he believes he has a relationship with Gd. When he suffers without apparent reason, he assumes there is no relationship; like the 41.7%, he decides that the Creator is allowing proxies to run the world. Angry and hurt, he rejects this distant Gd. Then Gd responds that He is indeed watching and running the universe, that He is aware of a man named Iyov and his fortunes and misfortunes. Gd declares, "I halt the oceans where they are, I harness the mightiest beings in existence, and I still have time to pay attention to you. I won’t tell you how justice works, but I will tell you that I am watching, and I care." That's Gd's response to Iyov.

Iyov accepts Gd's declaration because that's all he ever wanted – it confirms what he believed at the start of the book, that Gd is watching. Iyov didn't need great rewards, and he didn't need to know the mechanics of Divine justice. What Iyov needed was to know that Gd was watching, listening, caring, at all. Whether Gd is Authoritarian, Benevolent or Critical is irrelevant; once Iyov knew that Gd was not Distant, he was satifisfied.

And because Iyov was satisfied with that response, because Iyov showed that what mattered to him was not fabulous prizes but the existence of a relationship, Gd rewarded Iyov – because with his actions Iyov answered the malach's question in the most positive of ways. The malach had claimed that human beings revere Gd for selfish reasons, and Iyov answered him: We do it because we believe in a relationship. We do it because we believe that Gd cares about the events of our lives. Because even if Gd is מונה מספר לכוכבים, able to number the stars, He is first הרופא לשבורי לב, the healer of broken hearts.[4]

Iyov is not the only human being in the Torah to want Gd to see us, to be near us; the biblical narrative is replete with such people:
  • Avraham serves Gd not for reward, but as אוהבי, the one who loves Gd.[5]
  • After the Golden Calf, when Gd indicates He is going to separate from the Jews, Moshe dictates to Gd, "אם אין פניך הולכים אל תעלנו מזה," "If You won't be our intimate, leave us here in the wilderness!"
  • In our haftorah this morning, Chanah warns us, אל תרבו לדבר גבוהה גבוהה. As Abarbanel explains, she insists, "Don’t say that Gd is elevated and far away from us; Gd is near at hand!"

Our need for proximity to Gd is fundamental to Judaism. To borrow a phrase from the philosopher Alfred North Whitehead,[6] this is one of the "irreducible and stubborn facts" of Judaism, a first principle which must be accepted in order for us to discuss anything Jewish: being one of the 41.7% is to be out-of-step with Jewish theology. The Jew demands Divine immediacy, that Gd pay attention.

And in parallel, it is an irreducible and stubborn fact of the Torah's conception of Gd, that Gd longs to be near us; Gd does not want to be of Baylor's 41.7%.
  • Thus HaShem commands the Jews to build a משכן, a sanctuary in their midst, in which He will dwell. And so the Kinos of Tishah b'Av describe the effect of the loss of the Beis haMikdash not only in terms of our human suffering, but in terms of Gd suffering, כביכול, as a newly homeless, rootless being, ונהיית כצפור בודד על גג, like a lone and lonely bird perched upon a roof.
  • Thus HaShem commands us not only to perform mitzvah actions, but ואהבת, to love Gd, to contemplate Gd, to draw near to Gd.
  • Thus the Talmud tells us that when a single person is studying Torah, Gd is present.[7] When just one individual grieves for the death of a good person, Gd counts and stores the tears.[8] When a single person prays in silence, Gd listens.[9] הקב"ה מתאוה לתפלתן של צדיקים, Gd longs for our prayers.[10]
If this relationship is not the reason we were created, it is, at the least, fundamentally necessary to, and inextricable from, the Divine plan.

This is the way Gd planned our existence, from the beginning – to live with Gd, in Gan Eden. When HaShem created the plants and animals and people of this world, He used the same terms to describe all of them. But He did not address the plants and animals. He only addresses humanity. As Rav Soloveitchik explained,[11] "Gd takes [this] man-animal into His confidence, addresses him and reveals to him His moral will."

Indeed, this need for human-Gd proximity is a major reason why large numbers of people, Jewish and non-Jewish, wander the earth searching for Gd, migrating from philosophy to philosophy trying to find Gd. It's like the classic children's story, "Are you my mother?" The baby bird knows he has a mother, wants his mother, and travels the world trying to find her.

It's also one of the causes for angry atheism. Like Iyov, people have sought Gd, and they have been disappointed and frustrated. They are turned off by perpetual Divine absence and perceived Divine abuse - and they are also frustrated by the gross improprieties of human beings who claim to represent Gd, and this drives them the other way, to insist that there is no Gd at all. They have been hurt and let down.

And as a tangent – this one is not only on Gd, it's also on us. Us, the rabbis, and us, the visibly observant Jews. If our behaviour isn't beyond reproach, or if we conflate the laws and lessons of Torah with superstition, or if we are self-satisfied and arrogant, if we fail to inspire the confidence and faith of those around us, then we are the reason why people are unable to find their mother, we are the reason why people become hostile, we are the reason why people choose Option D. They believe Gd is distant in part because people who visibly select Options A, B and C portray a relationship with Gd that is repugnant. But I digress.

Torah is meant to be a way for us to find that relationship with Gd. As the Talmud Yerushalmi says, the goal of Torah is to bring us into that relationship with Gd.[12] It's what Gd wants. It's what we want. And it's what Iyov wanted, all along – not to have his material needs met, but to enjoy a relationship.

To return to Rosh haShanah: This relationship with Gd is a central theme of the day; Rosh haShanah is the day that tells us that there is a relationship.
  • It's not a human-centred day of self-analysis, for us to review our pasts and make resolutions for our future. We spend our day in הכתרת מלך, crowning Gd, in human consideration of the Divine.
  • It's not a Gd-centred day of distant decrees, taking place in some throneroom up in the heavens. It is a יום הדין, a day of Divine consideration of human beings in judgment.

In the very structure of our musaf of Rosh haShanah, our liturgy sends this message:
  • We remember our King – מלכויות.
  • And our King remembers us – זכרונות.
  • And as the Talmud[13] says, ובמה? בשופר. Nowhere is this more clear than in the shofar, forever the symbol of the encounter between human being and Gd. From the ram substituted for Yitzchak on the altar, to the shofar blast when the Torah was given at Har Sinai, to the shofar blasts of Yovel every fifty years, to the shofar of mashiach, the ram's horn represents human and Gd meeting together.

When we hear the shofar blown in a few minutes, let us remember that this is the central point of Rosh haShanah: rejecting Option D. During shofar, we occupy these moments alongside Gd, because Gd is here, and listening, and thinking of us.

Last year at this time, I proposed that shofar is not about verbal exposition; rather, shofar is an experience; existimare aude, "dare to experience." For some of us, the mood of that experience will be apologetic. For some it will be grateful. For some it will be mournful. For some it will be a moment of petition. That's up to each of us to formulate; the key is that we recognize within ourselves that which our ancestors saw when they canonized the book of Iyov in Tanach: That the irreducible and stubborn fact of our Jewish existence is against the 41.7%. Our Creator connects with us, and we connect with our Creator.

May we merit to connect with our Creator, to build that relationship, today and for the rest of the year, to live lives which convince others that there is such a relationship, and so merit a כתיבה וחתימה טובה, to be inscribed and sealed for a great year, and then to live a great year.

[2] Pg. 32 of the pdf
[3] Olam haTanach, Iyov, pp. 9-10
[4] Tehillim 147:3-4
[5] Yeshayah 41:8
[6] The Influence of Western Medieval Culture Upon the Development of Modern Science, And see R' Eliezer Berkovits in Tradition 3:2 (1961) "What is a Jewish Philosophy?", who attributed the phrase to Galileo. I know no basis for attributing it to Galileo, but I am channeling R' Berkovits's use of the concept to define a " Jewish" philosophy here.
[7] Avos 3:2, 3:6
[8] Shabbos 105b
[9] Yerushalmi Berachos 9:1
[10] Chullin 60b
[11] The Emergence of Ethical Man, pg. 5
[12] Yerushalmi Chagigah 1:7, Eichah Rabbah Pesichta 2, based on Yirmiyah 16:11
[13] Rosh haShanah 16a

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Adrian Peterson's Rosh HaShanah Moment

Adrian Peterson is a top-level, record-setting, award-winning star athlete. He is also a father of six children, and this past week he was indicted by a grand jury for "reckless or negligent injury" for beating one of his children, age 4, with a switch - a leaf-stripped tree branch, apparently on bare skin, causing deep wounds.

Mr. Peterson's defense is simple: he never intended to cause harm, he was trying to help his child. "I disciplined my son the way I was disciplined as a child." Indeed, other athletes and public figures chimed in that this is a standard way to discipline children in contemporary society. The implication: I was disciplined with a switch and I grew up to be a healthy, well-adjusted, normal human being, and so in my mind, this is a good way to raise a child.

This is not the place for a discussion of Jewish tradition's complex approach to disciplining a child (but click here for a source sheet on the topic from a class of mine). Rather, I want to focus on Mr. Peterson's implication that he is healthy, well-adjusted, etc. It would be wrong for me to assume anything about him, especially when I have so many flaws and abnormalities of my own, but I would ask this about football players in general: are we sure that someone who makes his living playing a sport in which absurdly bulked-up humans crash into each other in front of millions of viewers on a weekly basis for several years (if they are lucky and good), before retiring with severely damaged backs and knees, and frequently with serious concussion damage suspected of leading to unusually high rates of depression and suicide, is... healthy?

Similarly, a while back I heard a radio pundit talk about how her parents were worried about the impact of high doses of television on the childrens of the '70s and '80s, and how "we turned out fine". Perhaps that generation - my generation - is fine, but when we read about out-of-control obesity, high rates of emotional and anxiety disorders, poor levels of social and civic engagement and so on, shouldn't we at least question whether we "turned out fine"?

Perhaps many of us naturally think of ourselves as having turned out fine, like Adrian Peterson and like the woman on the radio. But this is part of the Rosh HaShanah challenge: to look at ourselves and ask, "Are we healthy? Or do we need to change something?"

As long as we go about our lives believing that we are okay, we lack the impetus to re-evaluate and determine a more positive direction; we will go right on doing what we've always done. But consider the words of Cris Carter, a former football star: "My mom did the best job she could do, raising seven kids by herself. But there are thousands of things that I have learned since then that my mom was wrong...  She did the best she could, but she was wrong about some of that stuff she taught me." The same is quite possibly true for ourselves; we've done our best, but that doesn't mean we've been right.

As we approach Rosh HaShanah, let us ask ourselves whether we are where we ought to be, whether the way we were raised and the way we have raised ourselves has brought us where we should be, and whether we want to try something different as we move forward.

May we thoughtfully re-examine ourselves in the coming days, and enter the year 5775 wiser, more realistic, and with a path toward the people we wish to become.