Thursday, April 30, 2009

Yom Haatzmaut 2009

I can't deny my Zionism, which is why I feel so uneasy about Israel. I fundamentally believe that no ethnic or religious group is superior to another, and that esentially, human is human. I know that human beings are not the only intelligent, sentient beings in the universe, and not the pinnacle of creation. I also know that the universe is far greater and more mysterious than any religious tradition, including my own, could possibly hint at in their cosmologies. I know that all that exists has an origin, that the universe has a Soul, that all is ultimately one; multiplicity of things, matter and energy, time and space, are all transient in their forms, and as created things, their existence depends on God. As a human being, this awareness obligates me to an ethical life, and to a life of reverence and love.

I also have a very deep-seated sense of personal identity as a Jew, and the tradition for spiritual growth and expression that I try to better myself and the world through is Judaism. I know that ethnicity is not the essence of a person's self, but Jewishness is so deeply inculcated in me that it has come to define me, at least ba'olam hazeh. I have lived in Israel, I love the Hebrew language, I talk to my son exclusively in Hebrew, and will always feel that the State of Israel is, at some level, my country, even though I was born and lived most of my life in America.

Still, I have a hard time celebrating wholeheartedly today. I see so many things wrong with Israel, not so much in terms of how Israeli society is run, but in terms of basic aspects of its working nature that I fear will have disastrous consequences for the future.

Israel has never defined its borders or its relationship to the Palestinians. In 1967, they had two ethically sound and strategically sound choices available to them: they could have either sent the West Bankers across the river to Jordan, since they were already Jordanian citizens, and the Gazans to Egypt, since they were already Egyptian citizens, and help to establish a resettlement fund to compensate them for the loss of their property and homes. It is hard to defend evicting thousands of people from their homes, but in the immediate aftermath of the Six Day War, annexing territories newly conquered from countries that attacked them so as to have a defensible amount of land was a valid choice for a country that needed to defend itself. lthough uprooted, the Arabs living in Gaza and the West Bank could have been resettled and started new lives.

The other option would have been granting them citizenship. The disadvantage in that is that once the Arabs came to outnumber the Jews, Israel would have ceased to be a Jewish state. If that alone were the concern, then there could be no ethical justification for leaving them under military occupation and without a country for 43 years. I believe that what is behind that concern, when it is raised, is that Israel needs to be a safe haven for Jews, and that is impossible to ensure when the majority, or a great number, of the country's citizens are sworn enemies of the Jewish state and its people.

I don't see a solution to this problem. At this point, expulsion of the Palestinians is not an ethically supportable option, and granting them citizenship, for the reasons I mentioned, is not an option either. Simply withdrawing Israeli troops from the territories will open Israelis up to a flood of terror attacks, as we have seen from the Hamas rockets on the South and the Hizbullah rockets from the North. Neither, of course, is maintaining the status quo; 43 years is too long for a people to remain under military occupation. The cruelty of it, the rage it evokes, the death, humiliation, and poverty it causes, is too great to allow. It has gone on for 43 years of Israel's 61 years of existence. It has become an essential aspect of the identities of Israel as a state, and even more so, for the Palestinians as a people. While this state of affairs endures, I cannot fully celebrate, or take pride in, Israel as a state. At the same time, as a Jew, I cannot help but identify with Israel, and I cannot help but feel sorrow for the situation.

That said, I can only react with rage and sadness at the world's condemnation of Israel and the rising anti-Semitism that comes with it. Israel is in legitimate need of self-defense. I challenge all the kefiah-wearing college students here and in Europe and Asia who love to demonize my country to find a solution. Can the Berkeley activists find a way to relieve the Palestinians of the burden of occupation while still protecting the Israelis from bombings and rockets? I don't know the answer, and doubt that anyone else does. Any attempt to simplify matters by seeing this as black-and-white can only stir up hatred, and make self-righteous activists feel good about themselves.

I'm also worried about the lack of a constitution and a lack of legal separation between religion and state. Yes, it's a Jewish country, but look at the rabbinic leadership in Israel! They're a bunch of right-wing fanatics who have no regard for human happiness! Their job, as they've defined it, is to give people a hard time when they try to marry, keep agunot chained to their absent husbands, invalidate thousands of conversions, call into question people's Jewishness, and refuse to bury soldiers who've given their lives fighting Hizbullah and Hamas in Jewish cemetaries. They need to be stripped of political power. Religion cannot survive as a spiritual path as long as it is wrapped up in the political mechanisms of the state. As Hillel Hazaken said, "D'ishtamash bataga chalaf." One who uses the crown of Torah for personal gain and power shall pass away. If things keep going as they're going, the taga itself shall pass away; Torah shall, God forbid, cease to be a crown. Mixing religion and government corrupts both.

I look forward to the day when the Palestinians and the Israelis end their war and their enmity. I look forward to the day when right-wing fanatacism is not the only, or even the ascendent, version of Torah in Eretz Yisrael, and the Jewish state can endure as a democracy. I see no tangible reason for hope in either of these regards, but I try to have faith. Af al pi sheyitmahmeha, im kol zeh ani maamin.

Friday, September 5, 2008

Getting slammed at the dojo

Dude. What a mind job! Acting is all about being honest, openly expressive of your deepest passions and energies so as to portray someone else and participate in a fiction. It's being truthful in order to most effectively be artificial. Similarly, ninjutsu is about being natural, open, responsive, relaxed, and not using strength, force, or tension in order to break someone who's trying to break you. HUH???
Hatsumi Sensei, and most of his students who've been my teachers, always tell us "Don't do a technique, don't fight the guy. If you do, you'll fail. Just be natural!" Meanwhile, this is in the context of these martial artists using the most subtle and complex maneuvers to break someone's balance and structure and to control them and beat the crap out of them. All without force and all without thinking about it.
I've got pretty good technique, and I can apply it without thinking about it too much-on someone whose skills aren't as good as mine. That means I'm muscling it, at least somewhat. But I'm not aware that I'm doing that as I apply the techniques. All I know is that last night at the dojo, I got slammed. I couldn't break the structure or balance of the other black belt students.

(An aside: granted, I'm a new black belt, and black belts in ninjutsu don't mean you're an expert; "shodan", the first black belt grade, means "first level." It means you're a beginner, and everything leading up to black belt was elementary school. Now, I'm a beginning student, finally ready to learn.)

So, I was getting slammed. The teacher kept telling me to just respond naturally without thinking to a knife attack. By "naturally," he meant with the actual emotion of surprise and the adrenaline burst that comes with healthy fear. But relax and be responsive and flow unthinkingly with the situation. Well, a knife attack makes most people tense up! What the FRAK am I supposed to do? I have to be natural, but rewire my synapses somehow to be relaxed and natural under pressure and to do complex things without thinking, and not to use muscle when the fight-or-flight instict kicks in.
I got a lot to learn....

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

A Working Guide to Kavannah

My approach to davvening involves elements of meditation and acting technique. When starting out a session of davvening, the main problem is that my mind is anywhere but focused, except for a few seconds at a time. Psukei Dezimra gives me time to correct that. The shortness of Minchah and Maariv make that difficult. I simply take my time. My favorite technique for this is dwelling on each word at once, and as I say it, allow its implications and its meaning to be felt. For when davvening beyechidut, I get to take the time to really feel each word fill my body and be expressed with the full force of what I can feel of its meaning.

When I say "feel its meaning," I mean that in the sense that certain colors make us feel a certain way, or certain people's tones of voice or qualities of body language lend a kind of feeling or flavor to them. This is the kind of meaning that can't be articulated verbally, except by poetry, but only experienced on an emotional and physical, and eventually spiritual, level.

When I'm really doing this well, and I'm really open to the liturgy, and really being carried by it and really hearing/feeling it, extraneous thoughts tend not to be too much of a problem because I'm wrapped up in an experience. To really use this technique to the fullest, let each sensation of each word move your body in whatever way it's moved. The full flavor and power of each word will fill you. To best do this full, physical version of the technique, take a single pasuk, and repeat each word as many times as you need to in order to feel all the different nuances of the word before moving on to the next one.

That is an acting technique I learned from my teacher Marcia Taylor-Croft in college. She taught it to us in a studio class that focused on using archaic, heightened text (ie: Greek dramas, Marlowe, Shakespeare, De La Vega, etc); taking text that because of its dialect and its hyperbole, would be alien to our natural states of mind, and owning that language, and expressing ourselves through it.

Like I said, this technique is all well and good for when you have time, but most minyanim speed-davven, and for the shorter davvenings like Minchah, Maariv, or Musaf, you simply don't have that extra fifteen to twenty minutes to reach a meditative state through focused awareness. So I choose a brachah. The one that you halakhically must have kavannah for is Avot, so I take my sweet time with Avot.

R. Aryeh Kaplan z"l in his book "Jewish Meditation" recommends taking about seven seconds for each word in the Shma. I do it for Avot. Sometimes a simple, quietly observant meditation on the words, and sometimes a toned-down version of the acting technique that I described above.

Another thing that keeps me focused and opens me up to the spiritual power of prayer is directing the words to God. Talking to God, and using the words of the liturgy as my own words. An actor, when delivering a monologue, or acting out a phone conversation, needs to imagine the other person listening, and give his or her lines to that other person; say the lines, as your own words, to that other person. The difference for a praying Jew is the faith that the God you're directing the words of prayer to is real, not imagined. Again, experience the words, but instead of dwelling on the words' internal power and meaning, focus on who you're saying those words to. The power of the words becomes apparent in an incidental sort of way.

I've been reluctant to teach these techniques because I haven't mastered them. I often lose focus when I davven, and to be an effective and safe meditation teacher, I need to have mastered the art of meditation. Still, I feel like making the techniques known for readers to explore on their own terms is a safe enough thing to do.

Sunday, July 20, 2008

Keeping kosher while traveling

People all over the industrialized world learn English, no matter how different their own native languages might be from English. So why is it acceptable for English-speakers to go to other countries, settle there, and not learn the local languages?

This is a common problem among most expats, especially English-speaking expats, but it's a problem that's common among expat rabbis also.

One rabbi I spoke to said of kashrut in his country "It's all bishul akum anyway! Just shop at Costco!" (It's not all bishul akum [food that in order to be kosher must be cooked by a Jew]! Plenty of things like vegetables, cold-pressed oils, soy products, are not subject to the laws of bishul akum. Wine and cheese and bread are not native to that rabbi's country.) Another person said that rice is something that can't be trusted because it's not checked for bugs. If a bag of rice has a bug in it, then you know! There are strings of sticky web all through the bag, and you have to throw it out! Rice isn't like lettuce or broccoli that can be washed and checked! But unless you're used to a rice-based diet, you don't know that. Costco!? Checking rice!?! Copepods in the water! Give me a break!!

So when observant Jews go to other countries, they often need to be in contact or in dialogue with the local culture, which at least means knowing what foods can or cannot be eaten; which foods have certain kinds of significance; what the socially acceptable way to eat certain foods might be.

This has social and ethical implications also. People approach rabbis with ethical dilemmas. In order for the rabbi to effectively deal with that person's question, the rabbi must have a working knowledge of social conventions and expectations of what is considered proper and ethical behavior in that host country, and allow the halachah to take that into account. Too often, American or Israeli rabbis establish themselves in other countries without knowing the language, and pasken based on their previous knowledge, and on second or third-hand hearsay about foods and social norms of their host countries.

Being out of touch with the realities of his host country make him not only unqualified to give reliable psak halachah, but also make him less relevant to most observant Jews. People are forced to pasken for themselves because they know that the local rabbi doesn't know what's happening around him. Another possibility, equally dangerous from a religious point of view, is that observant Jews who are keeping kosher based on their own real knowledge of the local foods, that the rabbi does not share, are ostracized because their kitchens are declared unkosher, and so the more machmir Jews in the community who follow the local ignorant rabbi won't eat at other kosher Jews' homes.

Any rabbi taking a post abroad without learning that country's language to fluency, without learning the customs and values of that country's culture, is setting himself up for failure, for irrelevance, and puts himself in a position to mislead his community.

Friday, June 13, 2008

I'm raising a person. A little one. I'm raising a human being from the ground up. He started as an embryo inside my wife's uterus. Now he's showing wants and needs, squawking and cooing, having fun, crying when he needs something, laughing when he's happy, and he's crawling and grabbing stuff and putting everything in his mouth.

He's just getting to the point in his life where I need to set limits for him. He needs to be free and explore in order to be happy and develop, but sometimes (often) he reaches out to play with things that can hurt him, or that will break if he plays with it. I'm thinking that raising a child when he's older is just a more sophisticated version of that. I'll want him to explore, have a social life, date, fall in love, experiment, learn what he wants to, and be strong and independent and happy. I'll also have to sometimes set limits on his freedom in order to make sure he doesn't hurt himself or others.

When he was a newborn, all I had to do was change his diaper (diapers aren't for babies, they're for the adults who don't want poop on everything. Babies don't want their pelvic regions all bound up like that, or to get their waste all over themselves), talk to him, sing to him, carry him, and love him. That was it. No disciplining, no saying "no" to him. Just try to figure out his needs, and give him love. That newborn stage sets the foundation of the relationship. It's no accident that the stage of pure love and care comes before the educational stage of parenting.

I'm seeing that the best thing I can do for him is not to stress out over him, and just let him be himself, and when he grabs something he shouldn't be playing with, give him something as an alternative. He knows that. He cries if I just take stuff away from him. If I give him something else to explore and play with, he's fine. I just got to let him explore, play, be himself, and use my adult perspective to keep him safe. And play with him, love him, and have fun with him.

People get screwed up when they're forced to conform to a bunch of stupid rules. Kids and adults become snobbish when they feel the need to conform to other people's expectations, and their sense of identity and self-worth is tied up with what their parents, peers, and leaders tell them to do and be. People need real meaning, not socially imposed bullshitty ideals.

I originally rejected Judaism as a kid because it seemed empty. Jewish communities I knew were the epitome of snobbery and bullshit values. Adults wanted me to get the best grades and to do the conventional thing. Kids wanted me to dress, talk, and listen to music like them, and to like the same people that they did. Shuls were stuffy and formal.

But still, it was ingrained in me early on that Judaism at least symbolized something highly and deeply meaningful. Even if I didn't really know Judaism well or believe in what I did know of it, it was still the symbol of ultimate meaning.

I guess that made it inevitable that I rejected everything I was taught as a kid, went wild in my early twenties, found real spirituality and meaning and self-definition for myself, and then translated all that back into what was for me the symbol of ultimate meaning. I guess that's why I ended up being a traditionally observant Jew who's got some odd ideas of his own....

Thursday, June 12, 2008

True Jewish Diversity

Lately, I've been meeting lots of people in the non-Orthodox Jewish world who know next to no Hebrew (they can, with difficulty, pronounce the letters), don't celebrate the Jewish holidays, and of course, don't practice halachah in any way, and have no Torah education. Moreover, these people are often not halachically Jewish either. So why do they insist on claiming Jewish identity?

I'm not talking from the perspective of a right-wing yeshivish chnyuk who doesn't recognize the conversions of sincere gerim when they did it through the wrong rabbis. I'm talking about no conversion, no Jewish mother, and in the case of many adoptees, no Jewish descent or conversion of any kind. But nevertheless, these people claim their Jewish identity and get horribly offended when told that they're not Jewish. Or when Ashkenazi, but 100% secular and Jewishly uneducated parents, adopt African-American, latino, or Asian kids, but get offended at the idea that for their kids (who will be raised without a real Jewish education or Jewishly active home) need a conversion to be Jewish, I get really frustrated about the state of affairs in the Jewish people.

I've got no problem at all with sincere (key word, sincere) Reform, Reconstructionist, Renewal, Conservative, or post-denominational Jews. I've got no problem with secular cultural Jews, either. Everyone was created with their own individual soul, their own perspective that is blessed by God with total uniqueness, and everyone must be true to their natures and their consciences. And as a traditionally observant Jew who goes to an Orthodox yeshiva, I'd love to be able to celebrate the diversity of Am Yisrael, and engage in loving and respectful machlokot leshem shamayim (disagreements for the sake of Heaven). But when the bulk of the non-Orthodox Jews are Jewishly uneducated, not acculturated as Jews, and half the time not even Jewish by heritage, that becomes very difficult.

Okay, fine. You don't believe that the Torah was literally dictated to Moshe at Sinai. You don't believe that the halachah has Divine authority. I can respect that. You have ethical objections to a lot of what Torah literature says. Great. So do I. As long as you know Hebrew (or some other Jewish language) and have studied Torah and claimed it as your heritage, and Judaism doesn't just mean matzah ball soup a couple times a year (I eat homemade tofu and kimchi in my home, all kosher), I can respect your claim to a place in the Jewish people.

Laying false claim to a Jewish identity hurts the struggle for recognition among genuine converts or other non-Ashkenazi Jews. Openly proclaiming the values of some non-Orthodox Jewish philosophy without actually taking the time to learn and live Torah in any depth according to that particular philosophy undermines the claim to legitimacy of non-Orthodox movements, and turns the serious few in the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist circles into minorities who champion a cause not taken up by their supposed supporters.

When non-Orthodox Jews neglect to make day schools and yeshivot for their denominations a priority, the only ones left doing Torah education in the lay communities are the Orthodox; especially the ultra-Orthodox. When modern Jews neglect to make yeshiva learning a priority, they concede the whole of the Torah to the fundamentalists.

When English is the only spoken language among American Jews, then there is no cultural Jewish community; only a religious one that some people are more a part of than others.

When parents of adopted children do not convert them as infants, and don't raise in an actively Jewish home, but still instill in them the idea that they're Jews, they're setting those kids up for rejection, confusion, and unnecessary identity crisis.

Monday, April 7, 2008


I haven't written in very often, but it's strange that although I came to Jewish practice because I want it to be a spiritual path, I end up writing about petty Jewish politics! But lately, there's been a special aspect of spiritual training and growth that's been very much on my mind lately.

Judaism is full of teachings to nullify the ego. Chassidut is full of teachings to "mevatel" (nullify, cancel) oneself before the tzaddik (righteous leader; in Chassidish, this word usually means the rebbe) or before God. Pirke Avot is also full of similar admonitions, such as "do His will as if it were your will, so that He will do your will as if it were His will" and "Give Him of what is yours, because you and yours are His". Your own will and needs are subordinate to those of God. Of course, we are still commanded to watch our health and ensure our own personal survival, but we're here not for ourselves and our own gratification, but for the service of God. Pirke Avot says again "If you've learned a great deal of Torah, don't think you're so great. You were created for that purpose." Don't get full of yourself for doing good, for learning a lot, etc. It makes no sense to think you're king of the world simply for doing what you were created by a higher power to do.

Another form of self-nullification, or at least, a decentralization of the ego, is called for in the martial arts. I heard the grandmaster of my art say "Make yourself zero." In order to defeat your attacker, make yourself nothing. Slip away from him. Disappear from his view. Getting full of yourself makes that impossible. Being overly concerned with overpowering your opponent robs you of the broader awareness of your situation that you need in order to accomplish what is necessary. Getting caught up in your own fear of his power, or trying too hard to use your own power, leads to blind and wasteful use of muscle power. And muscle power never works in our art, if for no other reason, than that the opponent might be stronger. Use proper placement of body weight and momentum; the structurally strong parts of your posture against the weak parts of his. Never fight force with force. No strength, no power, no ego. Make yourself zero, vanish from his view, open your awareness, and do what is appropriate.

The rabbis and the martial artists were talking about two different things, but there's a common element. While the rabbis are talking from a philosophical and theological perspective, the martial arts master is talking from a pragmatic perspective. The first is about lowering your personal status, either before other people or before God. The other is not about thinking of yourself as less, but putting ego aside for the sake of objectivity and effectiveness. The Jewish version of "bitul (self-nullification)" is about humility before a power and a wisdom greater than you. The martial artist's way of making himself zero is about being in touch, and seeing oneself as a part of the natural flow of things in the universe, instead of its center.

I try to cultivate both. Jewish bitul is a concept ripe for abuse, of course; people can always be told by rabbis to put their own understanding of things, their own values, even their own sense of self-worth on the back burner, and just listen to the rabbi. But as long as I reject that version of bitul, I can still have bitul before God. Knowing that the world is bigger than my (or anyone else's) understanding; knowing that sometimes, ethical obligations might overrule what I want to do at any given moment; that it pays to put aside my own ego for the sake of compassion and sensing beauty and significance. The martial artist's kind of self-nullification accomplishes all that as well, but it is a basically pragmatic kind of freedom from ego. It keeps me aware, keeps me emotionally stable, and frees me from distraction.

I guess that when I've got enough training in both Torah and martial arts, I want to open a full-time martial arts yeshiva....