Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for September, 2009|Monthly archive page

Erev Rosh Hashanah and Thoughts for the New Year

In Uncategorized on September 18, 2009 at 1:54 pm

“Woe to the wicked, and woe to their neighbors!” The Mishnah that appears in the Tractates Negaim and Avot D’Rebbe Natan explains that if righteous one shares a wall with a wicked person and the wall collapses because of the wicked ones deeds, the righteous one also loses the wall.  The Mishnah expands this concept to the point that one should avoid being in the company of someone who is morally reprehensible.

This idea would go hand in hand with the obligation to rebuke bad behavior and do ones best to not be complicit by acquiescent silence. “He said it, I didn’t.” is not an excuse if you let it be said without raising your voice, you are culpable.

Free speech can only work in a civil society if people are free to rebuke those who abuse that right.  Glenn Beck lost revenue as a result of his excesses, but Joe Wilson profited from his.

We all need to distance ourselves from people who result to personal attacks rather than argue the issue.

All that is necessary for evil to prosper is for good people to do nothing.


Haredi woman dies leaving behind over 1400 descendants

In Uncategorized on September 17, 2009 at 4:26 pm

Rachel Krishevsky died at the age of 99 leaving over 1400 direct descendants behind. It is stunning to realize that having lived a long life one could leave an auditorium full of family behind. This is the idealism of a community who consider children a joy and a mitzvah. She lived near the shuk in Machaneh Yehuda, and I am certain her loving home didn’t have much space, but her children didn’t seem to mind. They opted to continue the tradition and had large families of their own.

There were many positive responses to the Shoah. A Jewish army is one, but this too, is an answer that is worth contemplating and appreciating.

Joe Wilson the New Abbie Hoffman, Irony and the Enigmas of Derech Eretz

In Uncategorized on September 15, 2009 at 9:02 am

In the Ordeal of Civility, John Murray Cuddihy’s book on the reasons for the Jewish disproportionate intellectual impact on the twentieth century, he recalls the antics of Abbie Hoffman in Judge Julius Hoffman’s court. Abbie was repeatedly held in contempt for calling the judge “Julie”. Cuddihy noted that to be held in contempt was to be held in contempt of the civility of the court. He wryly pointed out that the Judge was a yekke, a German Jew, while Abbie came from the ostjuden, the prost (vulgar, common) Galician Jews, and that was the subtext of their conflict.

Now, the hippies of congress are the southern republicans, challenging the legitimacy of these hallowed halls by disruptive uncivil behavior that makes light of protocol and house rules. The yekkes are the democrats who decry the feisty ridicule of their President and their party. It is a bit ironic, isn’t it? Look who is challenging the foundations of this country now? Except the issue is not the war in Vietnam, but…health care, and guns.
There is no simple term for civility in the Talmud, although the one often used is Derech Eretz which literally means “The Way of the Land”. In its earliest usage the phrase meant an occupation. “The study of Torah goes well with Derech Eretz, (an occupation)” In other contexts, it is broadened to include ways to behave while one is out in the world. When God visits Abraham after his circumcision, the Torah is letting us know that visiting the sick is a nice thing to do.
Civility is not mandated, but suggested by God’s example. The Midrash Tanchuma notices that the daily Succot sacrifices decrease in number, unlike the daily Passover sacrifices that stay the same throughout the seven day festival. The Midrash explains: Ths teaches derech eretz. It’s like when you have a guest, the first day you feed him chicken, the next day fish, the next day vegetables until finally, you feed him beans.
In other words, the Torah is giving a tip on how to gently unload a freeloading guest, letting him know that he has overstayed his welcome. Derech Eretz does literally mean, “the way of the land”, the way one gets along in the world. One is required to work, to get along with others, and to either understand or provide social cues. Civility is not singled out because it is intertwined with the whole business of living. All of these components are equal partners in how to get along in a balanced way.
Derech Eretz means how your time should be occupied when engaged in society. The uncivil upset the tenuous rules, the code that allows us to not only get along, but to go along. They challenge these restrictions and upset our foundations because they hold them in contempt. They either wish to make the land go a new way, or they simply love the attention they get from being naughty. Those impervious to Derech Eretz are always upsetting to those who are happy with the status quo.
Abbie Hoffman wouldn’t have been entirely displeased with the redneck Woodstock in Washington last weekend. Sometimes this is really a whacky place!

The Parchments are Burning: A memorial service for the victims of September 11th

In Uncategorized on September 11, 2009 at 2:34 pm

On the first anniversary of the fall of the towers, I, along with my intern (now, Rabbi) Elliot Kaplowitz created a memorial service that was used by Hillels and synagogues throughout the country. The graphic design was created by the incomparable Maria Radacsi. Nowadays, our students have no memory of that chaotic, horrific day. It’s worth a look, so if you are so inclined, Parchments are Burning: A September 11th Memorial Service “>

Why Don’t We let the Banker Beware Instead of the Buyer

In Uncategorized on September 11, 2009 at 12:22 pm

Yesterday, I read an article in The New York Times that made my blood boil. It is well known that Jewish Law and American business practice do not see eye to eye on whose responsible for making sure that merchants charge a fair price for their wares. The Mishnah in Bava Metziya makes it clear that the responsibility falls on the merchant to be within one sixth of the market value of a particular item, while American business invokes caveat emptor “let the buyer beware”. This, however, is what happens when you rely on the foxes to guard the chicken coop.

When Peter Means returned to graduate school after a career as a civil servant, he turned to a debit card to help him spend his money more carefully.

So he was stunned when his bank charged him seven $34 fees to cover seven purchases when there was not enough cash in his account, notifying him only afterward. He paid $4.14 for a coffee at Starbucks — and a $34 fee. He got the $6.50 student discount at the movie theater — but no discount on the $34 fee. He paid $6.76 at Lowe’s for screws — and yet another $34 fee. All told, he owed $238 in extra charges for just a day’s worth of activity.

Mr. Means, who is 59 and lives in Colorado, figured employees at his bank, Wells Fargo, would show some mercy since each purchase was less than $12. In addition, a deposit from a few days earlier would have covered everything had it not taken days to clear. But they would not budge.

Wells Fargo Bank is sleazier than those check cashing store fronts that charge high fees for getting your own money. At least they tell the customer what their charging up front. In this case Mr. Means finds out only after the fact that his “overdraft protection” was costing him five times as much as his purchase. Also, his sin is in not realizing that a deposit had yet to clear–not that he had insufficient funds.

Worse yet, is the exploitation of those who use debit cards in favor of credit cards. These are people who are trying to be fiscally responsible by paying as they go, instead of accruing heaps of credit card debt. Their reward is to be clobbered by usurious stealth interest under the guise of penalties–or overdraft “protection”.

How do banks defend this practice?

Some experts warn that a sharp reduction in overdraft fees could put weakened financial institutions out of business.

Michael Moebs, an economist who advises banks and credit unions, said Ms. Maloney’s legislation would effectively kill overdraft services, causing an estimated 1,000 banks and 2,000 credit unions to fold within two years. That is because 45 percent of the nation’s banks and credit unions collect more from overdraft services than they make in profits, he said.

Oh, poor baby! Now, we know the truth. Your local neighborhood bank is nothing more than a check cashing storefront masquerading as a respectable institution. They now rely on fees from the more vulnerable in society in order to stay in business. Charging exorbitant fees is a no-risk proposition that allows banks to fund adventurous mortgages that also exploit the poor.

The Torah understood loaning as a means for helping people out of difficult circumstances and therefore eschewed the practice of charging interest. The world could not tolerate this level of idealism, so that the practice of charging interest is reluctantly allowed under Jewish law, but now one can see the perversity of putting a price on money, and the consequences for those who play by the rules. It seems a no brainer that charging these fees would be halachically prohibited. I don’t know if I’m more upset by the practice, or by the sneakiness of so called respectable institutions.

I once heard a lawyer joke, but it seems more appropriate for bankers these days. “What’s the difference between a banker and a rooster? A rooster clucks defiant…”

There’s a special place in hell for these people.

Lust One In Smells the Rotten Egg: Elazar Ben Dordia and the Flatulent Harlot

In Uncategorized on September 9, 2009 at 1:11 pm

There is a popular Talmudic narrative that probably owes its prominence to its lurid (at least to Western ears) content. It is the dramatic story of Elazar Ben Dordia who was governed by his lust for harlots to the point that once he traveled seven rivers to sample the favors of a prostitute who was renowned for her “skills”. During their moment of intimacy, she broke wind, and told him, “Just like this gas will not return to its original place, so too, Elazar will not be returned and atoned.” At this point Elazar, struck by the poignancy (and the pungent nature) of this statement asks the mountains, the constellations, the heavens and earth to advocate on his behalf, but he is refused by all. He realizes that it is up to him alone, and his remorse for the wasteful life he has led ends up killing him. A heavenly voice welcomes Rabbi Elazar Ben Dordaya to the world to come.

The context of the story is a discussion of whether one can return from being an idolater and live. The Talmud concludes that if one has provocatively and willfully engaged in this ultimate betrayal, the return from it would be so perilous that the process itself would be fatal. The Talmud then asks whether the same would hold true for other sins, or is it only idolatry that exacts such a price. The answer given is that one does not die from turning away from sins. The Talmud challenges this answer by relating the aforementioned story where it seems that the process of turning away from sin did in fact take Elazar Ben Dordaya’s life. The Talmud answers that because he was so profoundly addicted to this behavior, his devotion to these base desires was tantamount to idolatry. In other words, abject and fatalistic submission to any desire is as false of a god as one can have.
It is presumed in this passage that all desires have the potential to govern one’s life, but that acts of will can conquer and even transform those desires. The first step is to acknowledge, like Elazar does that it is no use appealing to others when in the end, it is we who have control.
The Maharal of Prague points out that Elazar’s last name “Dordia” means dregs in Aramaic. He says it is indicative of how out of control he was. His first name El-Azar means literally that God will help, so his name personifies the struggle of being helped out of the dregs, the misery of not being in control of your desires. Once we are so out of control that we worship that which is antithetical to our well-being then the return is so perilous that survival is not possible. The narrative witnesses that everyone is redeemable, but not everyone survives the redemption.
But since redemption, is the preferred goal over survival, even this story might be considered optimistic. When Elazar Ben Dordia is through asking for support from those things that were here before he was and will certainly outlive him, he is thwarted in his efforts. It is then he says: אין הדבר תלוי אלא בי (This process depends on me alone).
It is a sobering message to realize that we are responsible, but an empowering one as well.
There may always be french fries, and they may be engineered to be addictive and tempting, but we don’t have to eat them. That does not exonerate the complicity of the food industry, but focusing on the battle that is won more handily, the one between the fries and our bellies, may be a better use of time.

Make French Fries Treif!!! That’s What the Former FDA Chief says! (Well kind of)

In Uncategorized on September 7, 2009 at 2:47 pm

The Diane Rehm Show interviewed the former head of the FDA, David Kessler who has just written a book entitled The End of Overeating. His thesis is that eating is a salient stimulus that is hardwired into our brains. It is not something we can unlearn, but we can create “new wiring” that will mitigate the unhealthy impulse to overeat. Eating is different than other “addictions” because we actually need to eat, unlike needing to smoke or drink alcohol.

In the middle of the interview, Kessler opined that people have to adhere to absolutes regarding unhealthy foods. One cannot hardwire a brain to eat some french fries. Once that door is opened, the old wiring takes over and three fries turn into thirty-three before one can murmur “supersize me”. In other words, you have to make french fries treif!
The Rambam argues, echoing the Mishnah in Pirkei Avot that one does not eradicate desire, but one can conquer it, channel it so that it serves a higher purpose. One can and should resist the impure impulses, but he doesn’t seem to think that it is possible to eradicate them. There will always be a struggle between what we want and what we should do, but it is a struggle where we believe we can prevail–most of the time.
The Hasidic masters believed that it was possible not only to conquer these desires but to transform them so completely that the desire was no longer there. Our souls can become so much closer to the Divine source that the base “natural” desires are no longer an impediment to reaching this potential.
The Hasidic rewiring allows for a new brain every Yom Kippur, while the Rambam encourages a new resolve for the old brain to behave better, and do what it has always been capable of, and always will be. He assumes that some people will need to engage in extreme denial for a period of time, but the goal is to get to the place where one moderates behaviors that are detrimental when overdone–like overeating.
Kessler says that may not be possible when it comes to compulsive eaters. They need to create new taboos in their head that will make them turn up their nose at those salient stimulators. In other words, those foods (and you know what they are) need to become as treif as bacon and elicit the same level of disgust. For those of us who have never partaken of certain foods, it is not difficult to refrain from eating them, but I am told by those who once ate them, but now don’t, that the desire lingers. It is just that they have rewired a new “taboo” that prevents them from going down that road.
The problem with applying a kashrut mentality to unhealthy foods is that these foods are more unhealthy for some than for others. There is less of an objective standard, but there is little argument that the world would be a healthier place without the provision of large portions of fat and sugar laden foods that are engineered for everyone to eat more than they should.
Kessler argues that just as tobacco went from being socially acceptable/desirable to being uncool, the same thing has to be done to certain foods as a first step. Many of the Jewish community have taken on the mantle of extending the definition of treif to unfair labor practices, industries that are ecologically insensitive, and the like. There has not been, however, the same outcry regarding industries that stuff our stomachs and psyches with murderous doses of sugar, fat, and salt in super-sizes. Isn’t this a more direct and immediate threat to our personal well-being? I mean, it’s killing us now–isn’t it?
It’s not likely that such a movement will emerge, nor is it necessarily desirable, but if one does wish to take control over these appetites, you might want to do what Kessler suggests, and for observant Jews, that means–make them treif!

Quote of the Day…from the Talmud

In Uncategorized on September 4, 2009 at 6:17 pm

Rava said: Length of days, fertility, and income are not the products of merit, but of mazel. For look at Raba and Rav Hisda both of whom were righteous men.

When either of them prayed, the rains came.

Rav Hisda lived to be ninety-two.

Raba lived to be forty…(Moed Katan 28a)

Each day brings new possibilities, but each day is a gift.

The Good One Who Ran Away: Ode to Bongo Barry

In Uncategorized on September 3, 2009 at 11:43 pm

A childhood friend died suddenly and his untimely demise evoked speculation from which a subtle undercurrent of panic could be felt among his contemporaries. “He was overweight.” “His family had a history of heart disease.” Somehow, these reasons were supposed to immunize we, the fifty somethings, from a similar fate. Nobody wants to be cheated out of his three score and ten, so we blame the victim. Deep down inside, we know the truth–it could be any one of us at any time. After all, there are plenty of fat, old people. I, unfortunately, am not able to mollify myself with rationalizations that have little bearing on reality. When it’s your turn, it’s your turn, and it often–more often than not–feels too soon.

His was a life filled with celebration, music, and children. He was a music therapist/performer who brought a sense of celebration to the Dewey Decimal System, the anatomy of ants, and the art of drumming. He was beloved by the local community of musicians and they showed up in great numbers to celebrate all that he had achieved with children, with his persona, and with his craft.
I knew Barry from my synagogue youth group. He was younger and was always pleased to be with one of the older guys. Growing up in an almost exclusively Jewish millieu, he was a typical product of Jewish American suburban culture, but in young adulthood he became so profoundly alienated from the Judaism of his youth, that Judaism and his Jewishness played the most minor of roles during his funky, eclectic memorial service. No kaddish, no burial, only the slightest acknowledgement of those who almost exclusively nurtured him through high school.
One could ask why I went only to see the tradition I revere, snubbed in such an overt fashion. I went because his eighty year old mother is still alive and I knew she would get comfort from seeing some of his old friends come to pay their respects. She did. Barry intermarried, and he succeeded in freeing his daughters of the Jewish baggage that he wished to leave behind. More than I blame him. I blame us.
Even though there are many ways to be a Jew, membership to any part of the Jewish community comes with a hefty price tag, and too often, the materialism and pretension that comes with it. Barry made a choice to live through music, and certainly there were sacrifices that attend such a decision. We as a community let him know in many ways that these are choices that a Jew shouldn’t make. He shouldn’t help autistic children. He shouldn’t be silly at libraries creating cacophonous symphonies of percussive sound to the delight of young and old. This may be a way to work ones way through college, but this is not a path for a grown man to make a living.
His communities were those who made similar choices. Those who were fulfilled by entertaining, educating and supporting the most vulnerable in our society. Those who somehow manage to feed their families by doing what they love. Such conviction takes courage not appreciated by those who make “great” livings doing something they hate.
That Barry found little resonance in Jewish symbols, Jewish traditions, Jewish song and dance and celebration is not entirely our fault, but I can’t help but wonder what a little appreciation and acceptance might have done, not only for him, but for us as well. Certainly, he could have found company with those Jewey Jews who have maintained the spirit of the sixties throughout their lives, but why seek out that which you feel you already know and don’t much care for?
The Jewish vacuum at his memorial service meant we missed the scores of children’s performances and songs. We missed drum circles with a Jewish vibe. Songs that taught the holidays in our Hebrew schools. We missed somehow, a spirit that grew up among us and saw little of value to take with him. He bears some responsibility for this, but, then again, so do we.
Lech B’Shalom Barry. I’m sorry we missed you.