Rabbi Avi Weinstein

Archive for January, 2010|Monthly archive page

What Israel can do, when others can’t seem to.

In Uncategorized on January 19, 2010 at 12:55 pm

This is succinctly put a Kiddush Hashem.

Shirky’s Rants are Quirky, and let’s hope he’s got it wrong!

In Uncategorized on January 18, 2010 at 7:36 am

Media and technology maven, Clay Shirky rants about women in a recent blog post. What they need, he surmises, is to learn how to over promote themselves by playing fast and loose with the facts because that’s how one gets ahead. The unbridled cynicism in his portrayal is stunning, and could be true, if we really want PT Barnum in charge of the media.

If one needs to fabricate skills in order to get in the door, then what will that person do when bribed with a promotion to reveal a confidential source?  Once deceit is a given, where does it end?  I’ll tell you, it ends with everyone Going Rogue where no one can be trusted.  If women stand for higher ideals then the answer is not for women to become more like men, but men to become more like women. People who stand for principle, honesty, decency and humility–a word that is not in Shirky’s lexicon–should not be criticized for those values, they should be praised.

Moses, the reluctant leader, was chosen precisely because he was not a self-promoter.  Shirky opens his gender bender with the following:

So I get email from a good former student, applying for a job and asking for a recommendation. “Sure”, I say, “Tell me what you think I should say.” I then get a draft letter back in which the student has described their work and fitness for the job in terms so superlative it would make an Assistant Brand Manager blush.

So I write my letter, looking over the student’s self-assessment and toning it down so that it sounds like it’s coming from a person and not a PR department, and send it off. And then, as I get over my annoyance, I realize that, by overstating their abilities, the student has probably gotten the best letter out of me they could have gotten.

Now, can you guess the gender of the student involved?

Well, if it was me writing that recommendation–and I have written scores if not hundreds– that student wouldn’t have fared as well.  What is the difference between misleading an employer, and plagiarism? So what, if I didn’t have time to write the paper, I could have written an excellent one, and if called upon, I could meet the task, so, you see, it’s not really cheating, because I could do it really well! I once had a student who, in passing, let it drop that he misrepresented something on an application because he thought it would help him be accepted to the program I was running.  Even twenty years later I would find it difficult to write him a letter of recommendation because of  his dishonesty.  The fact that people lie is bad enough, but the fact that they think there is nothing wrong with it marks the beginning of the end of civilization.

It is shocking to me that probably eighty per cent of all college students plagiarize, and do so with impunity and without remorse.  It is equally shocking that people think they cannot get a job without lying, that somehow they believe that everyone takes shortcuts.

Reading the comments on Shirky’s rant was also instructive.  The gender issue was the onlyone that seemed to concern the young media folk of the future.  They all indicated  that Shirky was at least correct about how the game should be played, even if his analysis regarding women and men may have been flawed.

Marketing ones self is like a first date. You put your best face forward, but it still should be recognizable as your face. The world according to Shirky now teaches that one should lie if one can get away with it.  One can extort money temporarily, if one can pay it back before anyone notices.  It doesn’t matter that you haven’t done it, can you learn how to do it before you have to.  This is the society that Shirky is promoting and presumably this is what he teaches. He should be ashamed of himself.

We’re in deep doodoo.


Parshat Va’eyra: A Crushed Spirit, Impediments to Listening

In Uncategorized on January 15, 2010 at 12:13 pm

The reluctant Moses, that assimilated redeemer of Jews comes back to Egypt to rally his flock with promises of redemption,

But when Moses told this to the Israelites, they would not listen to Moses, their spirits crushed by cruel bondage. (Exodus 6:9)

Even listening proved to be too much an effort for the Children of Israel.  Lest we think that their faith had strayed, or that somehow Moses was inadequate, the Ramban points out that these are not the reasons that the verse offers.  It is because מקוצר רוח (literally a truncated spirit) that they are incapable of hearing. They’re depressed, too despairing to heed anything other than their own weariness.

Recently, a friend and mentor after enduring an unspeakable tragedy, paraphrased the Hebrew poet Bialik saying that when a person is hammering a nail and accidentally hits his thumb, at that moment, the whole world consists of only he and his injury.  Even though he is aware that there is much more to the world than this, his pain does not allow him to see beyond his hands.  The Ramban on this verse says it this way:

It was not because they did not believe God or believe in God’s prophet (that they didn’t listen). Rather, they didn’t pay attention to his words, because (their) spirits were crushed, like a person whose soul is crushed because of his misery and he doesn’t want to live (another) moment in his pain even though he knows it will go away later. (Ramban on Exodus 6:9)

It is during these times that we must grant understanding to those whose suffering does not allow them to see a future, even though in saner moments, they, themselves, know better.  It is important to gently introduce the worlds outside their suffering, worlds waiting to fulfill them once they are capable of receiving what those worlds have to offer.  My mentor during the peak moments of his own anguish offered the words of Bialik as a balm to those present at an impromptu memorial service and presumably as a reminder to himself.  I watched him in amazement, putting aside his own grief to receive and comfort those indirectly affected by this tragedy. Even during these times he was capable of listening, and listen he did.

These are truly the teachable moments that remain with us wherever we go and whatever we do.

Dr. King’s “I Have A Dream” Speech in Talmudic Format

In Uncategorized on January 15, 2010 at 9:57 am

I have always been a fan of this speech.  It is just a masterful piece of rhetoric. Poignant, succinct and passionately rendered, one cannot help but notice the pervasive influence of the Hebrew Bible on Dr. King’s thinking.  I thought it would be interesting to create a “dialogue” between Dr. King’s Biblical quotations and rabbinic understandings of the same verses.  The final flourish was to layout the document in the format of a Talmud page.  In this case, however, Dr. King becomes the “Gemara” and the “Gemara” becomes the commentary. I put this together years ago for Hillel, but it still seems to have a shelf life in some circles.  Call it a postmodern Talmudic document. Voila

When meaningful experiences are ultimately meaningless…

In Uncategorized on January 4, 2010 at 1:09 pm

My father, of blessed memory, used to complain how adept he was at reading prayers that he didn’t understand.  It was a critique of how meaningless he found the enterprise of “praying” in a foreign language.  Even the notion of reading along in English while responding in Hebrew seemed to be a cumbersome layer that made little sense to him.

He was not alone.  Hence, in answer to the Hebrew illiteracy of those like him, and the compelling logic that prayer should be meaningful or it is worthless, accommodations in the form of American Judaisms were made.  I don’t argue with the critique or the capitulation to the throngs, but I do take issue with the premise that praying in an incomprehensible language  is totally worthless.  It certainly is better to know what one is saying, but it could be that a momentary meaningful experience is worth less than formal participation in a liturgy that is foreign in all respects.

Never has the threshold for boredom been lower than it is today. Blame it on the ubiquitous media that fires on all cylinders all the time, or the snappy 30 second vignettes of Sesame Street or whatever, but the need to be constantly stimulated is at an all time high.  There is a conflation between being stimulated, a somewhat primitive need, and seeking meaning, an ostensibly more noble pursuit.  It mirrors the conceptual difference between form and content.  Forms, things that are formal evoke a yawn from those who yearn for the spontaneous, the immediate, the unmeasured.  Formal equals stiff, but also has an aura of permanence.  Formality informs stability, predictability and longevity. Routines may not be exciting but they are dependable, year in and year out, whereas the memory of a powerful experience will not sustain one over the long haul.

In the long run, a meaningful experience may be rendered meaning-less, while participating in a formal environment that is not particularly meaningful for the individual at the moment, may be quite meaningful upon reflection. It is all a question of attitude.  Does the experience exist to sustain me, or do I exist to help sustain it?  Ideally, it should be both, but if one has to choose which is more important for the long haul?

I don’t recommend the meaningless patter of my father as a means toward a rich Jewish life, or a life of Jewish meaning, but his rendering of words he didn’t understand had value because he, however unwittingly, was supporting the experience more than it was supporting him. The proof of that is it laid the groundwork for me to be sustained from the experience and help sustain the experience as well.  It was his gift to me and I’m just realizing it now.

Ironically, that which was meaningful one moment may prove to be meaningless at best and false at worst while that which was dull, lackluster and deadly may prove to have resonance for many generations to follow.

It did for me. Thanks, Dad.