Monday, October 16, 2017

Simchat Torah 2017


As so, as it finally begins to feel like autumn out there, we come to the end of our cycle of fall festivals with a slightly mismatched couple: Shemini Atzeret (our most obscure holiday) and Simchat Torah (in many ways our most joyous one). I’ll speak in shul about the nature of Shemini Atzeret, the redoubtable “Eighth Day of Solemn Assembly,” and the specific reason we recite the Yizkor service on that day despite its proximity to Yom Kippur, when we also recite it. But since I more or less never have the chance to speak from the bimah about Simchat Torah, I’d like to write a bit about that festival here in this space.

It is, by all accounts, a relatively late addition to our festal calendar, a holiday not only unmentioned in the Bible but also unknown to the sages of the Talmud. And yet Simchat Torah has surely found its place in Jewish life, this annual celebration of the lectionary cycle that begins and ends on the same day as we wrap up our annual reading of the Torah with the last words in the scroll and immediately begin reading anew from a scroll pre-rolled to its very first lines.  I believe, in fact, that it is from that specific detail—not just that we finish reading the Torah each year and start reading again, but that we do so in contiguous aliyot on the same day so that the seam between last year’s reading and this year’s is somehow both obvious and barely perceptible—that the charm of the festival derives. That, after all, creates an interesting relationship between the way we live our lives and the way we relate to the Torah that guides those same lives forward, the former best conceptualized as a straight line that we follow forward through the years of our lives and the latter, more reasonably as an endlessly rotating circle that takes us back and back again to the same stories, the same laws, the same poems, and the same prophecies regarding a future that never seems quite to arrive.

The Torah is thus a text fixed in place, an unchanging foundation stone that rotates in place so that all of its facets and details end up on display on at least once in the course of the year but which itself, for all it endlessly revolves, does not itself undergo any sort of aging process. Perhaps the best model would be the earth itself, which rotates endlessly on its axis but which undergoes change so subtly and over such impossibly long periods of time that only in our own day have scientists become able to perceive those changes at all. The Torah works the same way. Our interpretations may develop over time, but the laws themselves are the same ones that challenged our ancestors millennia ago. The stories that we find either satisfying or troubling are also the same ones those same forebears contemplated annually as some baal koreh or another read them to them aloud. But it is precisely that combination of cyclicality and immutability, particularly when considered against the vagaries of Jewish history, that lends such romance—and also such noble grandeur—to our endless effort to keep reading, continually to confront the same texts over and over, to allow ourselves to live within the Torah in some analogous way to how the scrolls themselves live among us—physically in the Holy Arks in our sanctuaries and emotionally in our hearts and minds.

The Torah does not change, but we do. And as we grow through the years of our lives, we don’t alter slightly or inconsequentially, but meaningfully and dramatically.  That, in and of itself, is hardly an innovative thought—that we change as we grow older—nor is it a feature of life that we do not share with other people. But although all people grow from stage to stage as they become older, not everybody has a background against which to age that itself is fixed in place and unchanging in quite the way our Torah is. And so, as we hear these stories that do not change while we ourselves are in a state of ongoing metamorphosis, the Torah becomes the backdrop to our lives and the unchanging standard against which we measure our growth through the decades. When measured against the endless progression of Torah readings, the questions that present themselves as we grow older are, to say the very least, challenging ones. Have we become wiser or more foolish as the years have passed? Have we internalized the Torah’s deepest lessons by allowing the text to frame the way we see the world and to animate our understanding of our place in the world…or have we allowed familiarity to make us deaf to those lessons and unresponsive to their implications? Are we still as worthy of hearing the lessons read aloud each week as we were as younger people…or have we allowed the endless repetition of the same passages to lull us into a spiritual stupor, if not actually to put us to sleep? In other words, does the course of our lives forward through the years reflect the background that the ever-ongoing public reading of the Torah affords us…or have we come merely to pay lip service to the idea that the Torah is the foundation upon which the house of the House of Israel rests?

And that brings me to Simchat Torah, because it is that precise combination of flux and fixity, of change and changelessness, that the festival celebrates—for me personally, at least—the most meaningfully. There is a seam, obviously, between last year’s cycle of readings and this year’s, but other than enjoying hearing the people honored with the final aliyah of last year’s cycle and the first of next year’s called forward, we hardly nod to it. At a certain point, obviously, we switch scrolls—but there is no ritual that attends that switch, no benediction to recite, no prayer to offer up as we begin the cycle anew. We do it, but we make a point of hardly noticing that we are doing it. And, of course, that too matches the way we live as well: we nod vaguely to the seams between stages either as we move forward through adolescence to young adulthood, and from young adulthood to middle age, and from middle age to our older years. Yet, for all those seams obviously exist, we resist ritualizing them—there’s a reason no one manufactures “Welcome to Old Age” cards—and merely move past them on our lives’ journeys. And that is what Simchat Torah is all about: the notion that the endless cycle of Torah readings is meant to be the backdrop against which we live our lives, the seams often hard to notice…but the linear development of our lives measured against the endless cycle of Torah reading in a way somehow provocative and soothing at the same time.

I wish you all a chag sameiach. The link between Shemini Atzeret and Simchat Torah often seems obscure—Yizkor and the Prayer for Rain dominating the one, and the celebration of the Torah itself the other. But they really do go together well. Yizkor reminds us of our mortality. T’fillat Geshem reminds us of our fragility. And Simchat Torah reminds us that growing older does not have to be a misery to be avoided for as long as possible…because in the opportunity Jewish life affords us to age against the living backdrop of the weekly Torah lesson lies the possibility of conquering the fears we all harbor concerning the aging process. Yes, tradition teaches, it’s true that youth is vigor and strength. But with age comes wisdom…and particularly meaningfully for those who age in a straight line drawn against an endlessly rotating circle of Torah readings and lessons.

Las Vegas


The death toll in Las Vegas is 59 as I write these words, but it will almost definitely be higher by the time you read this as some of the most seriously wounded people succumb to their injuries in the course of the next days. My first plan was not to write to you about it at all because it felt to me as though there really is nothing to say in the wake of a disaster like this…or, at least, nothing to say that could possibly contextualize a massacre on this scale and grant it some sort of ex post facto meaning. And, indeed, at least as of now, the claim by ISIS officials that the shooter was a Muslim convert acting on as an agent of the Islamic State being widely dismissed as not credible, it feels far more likely that this was not an act of terrorism at all—not of the international variety but also not of the home-grain strain—but just an act of meaningless violence directly entirely arbitrarily against innocents who merely had the misfortune to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. So that’s comforting a little, but it somehow doesn’t feel quite right to explain—or, rather, to explain away—the incident as the just work of a deranged individual and then to leave it at that. Yes, it certainly does have that feel to it too. But just to wave a bloodbath like this away with reference to the fact that crazy people do crazy things and to consider that to be the final word on the matter…that sounds somehow too facile, too glib, too easy.

For many Americans, this horrific incident is all about gun control. And people are already lining up to express themselves in that regard, some to argue that this proves categorically how badly we need stronger and better gun control legislation in our nation and others to argue just the opposite: that incidents like Las Vegas only prove how important it is for the citizenry to be armed, and precisely so they can defend themselves against the Stephen Paddocks of this world when they lose their grip on reality, take up arms, and start shooting. But to file the whole incident away in the “gun-control, for and against” folder also seems, to say the very least, simplistic.

Of particular interest as we head into Sukkot, at least for me personally, is the way almost all commentators I heard on the radio or read in the nation’s press expressed their outrage with respect to the degree to which the shooter, aside from murdering all the people he actually killed, also succeeded in making all of us feel less safe. That is a big thing for Americans, of course: no one wants to feel unsafe or insecure. And the ability to sleep peacefully at night because we don’t expect some insane person, let alone an actual terrorist, to start shooting at ourselves or our children in some nightclub or at some concert or at work or at school…that is a key part of our American ethos. It’s what we want the government to do for us. It’s certainly what we want the police to do for us. It’s even, in a global sense, what we want our Armed Forces to do for us—not solely actually to make us safe, but to make it possible for us to feel safe as well. No one should feel the need to wear a Kevlar vest to a concert on the Vegas strip because someone might start shooting! Or anywhere.

As Jewish Americans, we hardly need to have it explained to us how intimately related the feeling of being safe is to the sense of wellbeing that we all crave. Our distant and recent history, after all, is littered with the remains of Jewish communities populated by people who felt secure in their places only to discover the hard way how little safe they actually were. So the ill ease that comes from feeling uncertain if we actually are safe or if we have only willed ourselves to feel that way is hardly a concept with which any of us is going to be unfamiliar: our whole Jewish ethos is so rooted in the yearning to be safe—and that our children and grandchildren be safe—that the notion permeates even our prayer life. Indeed, it is hardly accidental that almost all our most important prayers end with some version of a prayer for peace, by which we mean not only the cessation of strife between nations of the world in general and between the people Israel and the Gentile nations in particular, but also peace between neighbors and co-citizens in all the lands of our dispersion, and for American Jews particularly in these United States, as we make our way forward together into an uncertain future.

Oddly enough, it seems to me that the contribution Jewish Americans can make to the national discussion in the wake of Las Vegas derives directly from Sukkot because, whereas most Americans tend to think of security and safety as basic human rights that terrorists and deranged shooters aggress against, our tradition considers peace to be something reasonable to pray to God for—a blessing from God that society must either earn or else hope the Creator will choose unilaterally to bestow upon creation. In this regard, the sukkah itself is the symbol carefully to consider. A ramshackle hut with a roof made of rushes and leaves, a door that cannot be locked or even meaningfully shut (and most sukkot don’t even have doors), and walls made of burlap or canvas, the sukkah is the antithesis of the fortress. We provide our homes with complicated security systems. We all have doors with good locks on them. Our windows all lock too because, in the end, the goal is to be able to go to bed each evening feeling secure that whatever malevolent winds may blow during the night will leave us untouched, feeling as certain as possible that we will waken from our sleep in the morning free specifically not having to face violent turmoil or prejudice-inspired mayhem in the streets of our towns and cities.

The notion that for one sole week a year we abandon our sturdy homes and live—or at least dine—in huts that a particularly strong gust of wind could (and occasionally does) knock down is not meant solely to recall ancient times, however.

It is true that the Torah ordains that we build our sukkot as a way of remembering that our ancestors dwelt in similar lean-tos as they made their way through the Sinai for four decades of directionless wandering before finally being deemed ready to embark on the conquest of Canaan, the land promised by God to their ancestors as those ancestors’ descendants eternal patrimony. But the point is not merely to remember something that once happened, but to learn from it. The Israelites felt unsafe because they were living in an uncharted wilderness with neither roads nor roadmaps to guide them. But they were not without security…because the “clouds of glory” covered them by day from the harshness of the desert sun’s rays, because Miriam’s magic well simply disappeared and reappeared at every Israelite camp to provide them with clean drinking water, because the manna fell from heaven for all the years that the Israelites wandered across the desert, and because God watched over them and made peaceful their way forward towards the Promised Land. Because it was so apparent, the Israelites understood—except when they were being ornery, which was relatively often—that their sense of security, of wellbeing, and of safety derived not from the rickety shelters they slept in at night, but from faith in God…and from the reality of God’s watchful presence in the midst of the camp.

Sukkot is intended to bring home that precise message. We have an obvious obligation to do what we can to make our streets safe, and our concert venues and our schools and our nightclubs and our workplaces too. To do otherwise would be national folly: all citizens surely have the right to go out for a peaceful evening of music without having to hope that they return home at the end of the evening without having been murdered! But behind whatever steps we take to secure that kind of security, Sukkot recommends that we recall that, in the end, true security can only come to any of us as a function of faith, that people suffer from all forms of madness including some that make people violent and vicious, and that the only real way to feel secure in the world is to think of us all as God’s creatures eager to do God’s will…and to hope that a world devoted to spiritual progress will be one in which the deranged among us will get the help they need, in which neighbors will resolve disputes without needing firearms to speak for them, and in which the simplest of all prayers—the prayer for peace among neighbors—is not merely embraceable as a hope or as a dream, but as part of day-to-day reality for all Americans.

Yom Kippur 2017


The name of the day, Yom Kippur, is known to all. The yom part is simple enough: yom means “day” in Hebrew, so yom kippur simply means “the day of kippur.” But that second word is quite a bit more challenging to explain. Usually translated, just a bit opaquely for most, as “atonement,” the term is clearly at the crux of the matter. But what exactly does it mean?

When the author of our most famous holiday hymn, the Unetaneh Tokef, finally gets to the point, he has the cantor proclaim to the community in dramatic, extremely moving terms that we are not necessarily doomed to the verdicts we deserve in the heavenly court because there are, after all, three means of expiation available to us…if we choose to take them up and if we are successful at doing so. And, indeed, the air in the sanctuary could not be more alive with electric energy when the ḥazzan finally sings out that t’shuvah, t’fillah, and tz’dakah—repentance, prayer, and giving gifts of charity—have the collective power to annul the severity of the heavenly decree that we might otherwise be facing. That line is so famous—and so deeply imprinted in all who attend services on the High Holidays annually—that it is easy to forget to ask the obvious question: given the fact that we are in shul for the “Day of Kippur, shouldn’t the poet have summoned us to kapparah rather than to any of the above, or at least in addition to them? (I realize I’m using two different words for almost the same thing but without having explained myself. The word kippur in the name of the day is best understood as a kind of a gerund intended to denote not “atonement” precisely, but the act of attaining atonement, of seeking and achieving kapparah. Translating literally, Yom Kippur really means “The Day of Seeking Atonement”) But that poet—traditionally identified as Rabbi Amnon of Mainz, an otherwise unknown medieval—specifically does not go in that direction. If anything, in fact, he sounds as though he wishes to make a different point: that t’shuvah, t’fillah, and tz’dakah can serve as effective conduits to this thing called kapparah that is clearly at the heart of the matter. But he gives no clear hint in his hymn what that thing actually is. Apparently, you’re supposed just to know!

Some light can come from considering the matter from the perspective of the biblical text. In the passage from Parashat Acharei Mot that we read in shul on Yom Kippur morning, the elaborate, complicated ritual the Torah ordains for Yom Kippur leads only to kapparah: kapparah for the High Priest and his fellow priests and their families, kapparah for the whole House of Israel, and kapparah for the Temple itself and all its ritual appurtenances.  In fact, the whole point of calling the day Yom Kippur in the first place is because its ritual is the conduit that leads the nation and its holiest shrine forward to a state of kapparah. And yet, for all that, the Torah does not define the term precisely or say why exactly it is so crucial that it be attained at all.

To understand kapparah, you need to understand the concept of “reification,” a ten-dollar word that historians of religious like to use to describe the technique of taking something that does not have physical existence, something like beauty or patience or hope, and speaking of it—usually in a myth or a poem—as though it did. (The word derives from the Latin res, which means “thing.” Reification is thus talking about something that lacks physical existence as though it were a “thing” that exists in the world. The word is pronounced in five syllables, by the way, with the first two pronounced “ray-if.”) And the particular instance of reification around which Yom Kippur revolves is the notion that sin can be imagined not merely as poor behavior or as unethical wrongdoing or as disobedience to the word of God, but actually as grime, as dirt, as some physically real overlay that literally, not figurately, pollutes the world and actually renders it unclean. In other words, at the core of the holiday is the poetic notion that transgression can best be considered as the kind of dirt that can be washed away…with enough soap, enough hot water…and enough elbow-power.

And the corollary of that thought is also profound: just as no sane defendant would ever dream of showing up in court covered in filth or dressed in a slovenly or unkempt manner, so too must we make ourselves worthy of being judged in the heavenly tribunal during these High Holydays. And so are we bidden to use the tools available to us, the ones the cantor declaims from the bimah, to scrape away the grime that we ourselves have used to layer over our finer selves, thus purifying and cleansing ourselves and preparing to enter the heavenly tribunal where, as the Machzor says, the celestial court convenes on Rosh Hashanah and remains in session until Yom Kippur.

In other words, it is not quite correct—just a bit self-serving—to imagine that we can avert an evil decree through prayer, repentance, and charity.  Those elements are crucial…but they cannot guarantee a good outcome any more than wearing an expensive suit to court can really affect the eventual verdict. What those things can do, particularly if undertaken seriously and wholeheartedly, is make us worthy of entering the tribunal in the first place…and, possibly, impressing the Judge with our sincere desire to live better lives, to do better and to be better if given the chance. And so, as we cleanse ourselves of the negative, base elements in our character that have prevented us from being the fine people we wish to be, we increase the chances that we will be judged mercifully and kindly by Judge God seated not on the throne of strict judgment but on the throne of mercy. And so do we follow the ancient advice of Pirkei Avot and prepare—or attempt to prepare—ourselves in the lobby before daring step into the ballroom. The goal is to use the tools available to achieve kapparah and then, at least ideally, to face Judge God with hopeful equanimity born of emotional catharsis. Nothing more…but also nothing less.

To attain kapparah is to be deemed worthy of engaging with God, of struggling with the words in the Machzor that invite us all to judgment. And that is what I wish for all of you as we enter this holiest day and prepare to pray that we are, all of us, written up for good in the Book of Life, and that God looks upon us and our families with mercy, with compassion, and with kindness.

Rosh Hashanah 2017


In our tradition, Rosh Hashanah is revered not merely as the opening day of a new year, but as the anniversary of several different things.  First in that line, of course, would have to be the creation of the world! But Rabbi Eliezer, one of the talmudic greats, teaches that Rosh Hashanah was also the day on which Joseph was released from prison…and also the day both Sarah and Hannah, respectively the mothers of Isaac and the prophet Samuel, became pregnant after long years during which they were unable to conceive.  Together, the three of them—Joseph, Sarah, and Hannah—symbolize the struggle against forces that appear so mighty that it’s hard even to know where or how to confront them, yet all three found a way out—Joseph to freedom, and Sarah and Hannah to motherhood—through some combination of their will to find a way forward and God’s propensity to look with favor on the struggles of people bearing burdens not of their own making. 

That is a lesson we can all take to heart. Which of us doesn’t struggle against forces that appear so insurmountably arrayed against us that we can hardly imagine where, let alone how, to fight back. For some of us, these burdens appear to have to do with our innate natures, the parts of our personalities hard-wired into our DNA. For others of us, they feel related to events in the past that, absent the invention of time machines, cannot be altered at all, let alone tailored to suit some specific wish we may harbor that the past be different than it actually was. And for still others these burdens appear to be rooted in the circumstances of our lives as they have unrolled to date—details so tightly woven into the fabric of the families we have created or professions we have chosen to pursue that attempting even minor alterations, let alone massive adjustments, seems outside the realm of reasonable possibility.  We all feel that way, I think, about at least some parts of our lives, about some aspects of the men and women we have become.

The midrash teaches an alternate approach. Joseph lived in a world in which slaves were thrown into prison without the benefit of preliminary hearings, let alone actual jury trials, merely because their masters wished to see them incarcerated. Sarah and Hannah lived in a world in which there was only one way to become pregnant and therefore no alternate route forward if the traditional method didn’t seem to be working. All three put their faith in God, and particularly in God’s ability to alter the apparently unalterable and to effect change in the world where the possibility of meaningful change feels somewhere between unimaginable and impossible. And all three ended up where they needed to be: Joseph as Pharaoh’s trusted counsellor, and Sarah and Hannah as the happy mothers of children. All would have thought, at least in their darker moments, that their fates were sealed. But all would have been wrong!

And that is the thought I would like to offer to you all, and also to myself, as this new year dawns. With faith and trust in God, and with perseverance…all is possible, even travel down the least likely avenues of self-improvement. And Rabbi Eliezer teaches us that Rosh Hashanah is the specific day that the three poster children of that thought found redemption from their unhappy states and were thus made free to move forward into the new phases of their lives they so ardently desired.  May God grant us all that kind of trust in God and that kind of faith, and may God watch over us all as we move forward into a new year. May we all be freed from burdens we have grown so used bearing to that we hardly notice them…but which nonetheless hold us back and keep us from becoming the versions of ourselves we wish to become. Above all, may this be a year of peace for Israel and for our brethren of the House of Israel in all the lands of our dispersion. And may the coming year bring only success, prosperity, and contentment to us all.

Thursday, September 14, 2017

Dadbots


While perusing the website of the monthly technology magazine, Wired, the other day, I came across a video by James Vlahos, currently one of their own staff writers but formerly a contributing author at the New York Times, GQ, Popular Science, Popular Mechanics, and National Geographic Adventure. It was an interesting experience, watching that video—which is just slightly over seven and a half minutes long—but also a slightly disorienting one. Part of me was intrigued. Another part of me was envious. And still another part of me was at least slightly appalled. And so, figuring that anything that triggers such a strange set of such conflicting emotions in me will likely be worth presenting to my readers in this space, I decided to write this final time before Rosh Hashanah and to present Vlahos’ work to you.

The video is about his creation of Dadbot, which was his name for the chatbot he created while he father was dying so that he could continue to converse, sort of, with his father after the latter died. To see the video and hear its creator describe his project, click here.

To appreciate this accomplishment, you have to understand the concept of a chatbot. But even if the term will possibly be unfamiliar to most, the concept is all too well known to all of us who have telephones and endlessly receive sales calls on them. Some are just recordings. (I hang up immediately.) Some are actual people. (I wait for the speaker to catch his or her breath, then I politely ask them never, ever, to call me back. And then I hang up.)  But the most sophisticated robo-callers are chatbots—computer programs that are programmed to respond to you as though they were human beings listening to what you have to say and responding appropriately and even colloquially. Occasionally, I’ve been taken in. I suppose we all have. Just the other day, for example, I picked up the phone and a woman’s voice said that she was Jennifer and that she had an important message for me. She paused. I asked, I thought cleverly, if she was a person or a machine. And then, when I stopped speaking, she responded entirely reasonably, “Of course, I’m a person.” Something about her intonation made me suspect that she was a chatbot, however, so I asked her if she could further prove her humanness by reminding me what state Tallahassee is the capital of. She responded by repeating that her name was Jennifer and that she was calling with an important message for me, and with that our brief relationship, such as it was, ended with me hanging up the phone. I’m sure Jenn will eventually give me another try, though, possibly after reviewing her state capitals.

The earliest chatbots were developed in the 1960s, and they have become increasingly more sophisticated since then with every passing decade. But all chatbots, from the least to the most sophisticated, have at least one thing in common: they are essentially elaborate parlor tricks designed to make you feel that you are speaking to a human being, not instances of machines being endowed with the digital brainpower actually to engage in what any of us would normally call a “real” conversation, the kind in which one party speaks and the other party understands what was just said and then responds intelligently but in a non-predetermined way. Almost all chatbots use language-triggers to develop dialogue, for example by listening for the word “father” in the human speaker’s remarks and then responding, “So interesting…but please tell me more about both your parents.” But none actually thinks. Or, to use the term the way we normally use it daily discourse, speaks. Not really!

James Vlahos’ father, John James Vlahos, died just this last February. They were very close, and there are very touching moments on the video where James has to pause because he is simply too choked by emotion to continue. But whereas most of us somehow make our peace with the dead being beyond meaningful communication, Vlahos decided to respond to that thought by creating a chatbot featuring his father’s voice.

Before their father died, Vlahos and his siblings undertook an oral history project in the course of which they recorded a dozen hours of their father’s reminiscences regarding his childhood, his family, his career, his marriage, his children, and his life. They also took voluminous notes, which effort yielded about two hundred pages of extra material. Plus, of course, Vlahos and his siblings knew their father for decades and could easily imagine him responding to specific questions with specific expressions that he like to use and said all the time.  But none of that would have mattered much if Vlahos hadn’t been able to bring his technological training to bear—and specifically his ability to use an artificial intelligence computer program called PullString. (For more about PullString, click here.)  And so, using that specific program to bring together thousands of sentences his father actually uttered and to match them to appropriate word-triggers, he created Dadbot, a chatbot capable of playing the role of his father in an ongoing dialogue left unimpeded by the detail that one of the dialogists was gone from the world. Plus, Vlahos had a large store of stories and favorite songs recorded by his father over the years in various contexts, and those too he was able insert into the program where appropriate.

Is it meaningful or silly, the Dadbot? His father isn’t really there, of course. Or is he? We “are” lots of things in this world, but surely one of those things is what we say, how we speak, the words we choose to express our thoughts, our mannerisms of language and self-expression. Why is what Vlahos did any less “real” than preserving photographs of our late parents or grandparents? Those pictures aren’t our actual grandparents either! But they preserve the way they looked, not entirely unlike the way the Dadbot preserves the way James Vlahos’s father sounded. And although I suppose you could say the same thing about any recording made pre-posthumously by anyone at all—that it preserves the way that person sounded—this is really so much more than just a cleverly edited recording that it seems to bear evaluation on its own terms. I suppose I’m envious more than anything else because I wish my Dad lived on in my phone the way his father lives on in his. After all, saying that his father lives on in his phone isn’t quite as crazy as saying that his father actually lives in his phone! That, of course, really would be impossible.

I have a few recordings of my father’s voice, but I never listen to them. I’m not even sure why not. I would certainly recognize his voice anywhere. I would love to have a final (or, even better, a not final) conversation with him, and surely hearing his voice would trigger all sorts of associations that are probably lying dormant within me just waiting for the appropriate stimulus to elicit them from my memory banks. I do not have any recordings of my mother’s voice, which I regret. (The obvious paradox of me wishing I had recordings that I don’t have and not using listening to the ones I do have will for the moment have to remain unresolved.) I hear my father’s voice all the time, of course. Just I hear it inside my head, where his ghost plants them, not in my ear courtesy of a Dadbot. Is that a profound difference? It is! (Or is it?)

And so we come to our High Holiday season, which we celebrate with our families living and long gone as we all crowd into the sanctuary to participate in the services that, more than anything, awaken in us a sense that the distinction between time past and time future dissolves in the flow of associative memories that our prayers—and particularly the most ancient ones—call up easily in every Jewish breast. Maybe that’s the reason I find the whole concept of a Dadbot so resonant—not because I don’t wish I had one (which I sort of do), but because, in the end, I don’t need one, just as none of us really does…and particularly not at this time of the year when our parents are with us either in body or in spirit, when their parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents are palpably present even in their physical absence, when we pause to notice how comfortable we have grown over the years feeling the air overhead heavy with the spirits of all our ancestors as we gather in our sanctuary on these High Holidays, and particular (of course) during Yizkor. So who needs our parents to live in our phones?

We sometimes lose track of the fact that when technology mimics life, it doesn’t need also to replace it. I remember when my daughter Lucy, then a little girl, was amazed to learn that it’s possible to play solitaire without a computer. I suppose it’s possible my great-grandchildren, please God, will find it surprising that it’s possible to read a book without having to plug your book-reading-device in first. Or that it’s possible to determine if it’s raining outside without using any data at all. Or that you can achieve same-day delivery of purchases—and for free—by taking yourself physically to an actual store and buying something there in person.  Or that you can commune with your late parents without a phone, without any expertise in PullString, and without any actual digital programming skill at all simply by coming to synagogue on Rosh Hashanah, opening a Machzor, and allowing its ancient words to make fall the scales from your eyes and to allow you to see the world of the living and the dead as it truly is.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

Billy Joel and the Yellow Star


A few weeks ago, Billy Joel surprised his audience at Madison Square Garden by returning to the stage at the end of a concert wearing a yellow star specifically tailored to resemble the ones the Nazis forced Jews in occupied Europe to wear. Clearly, the point was to make a statement—a stark, wordless one, but one that would (and did) get the attention not only of his audience at the Garden but of the wide world beyond the arena’s walls as well—about the rising tide of white supremacism, neo-Nazism, and anti-Semitic and racial intolerance in our American republic.  As wordless protests go, it couldn’t have been more well-timed: the nation was still reeling from the sight of white nationalists, neo-Confederates, and undisguised neo-Nazis marching in Charlottesville while carrying semi-automatic weapons, waving Confederate and Nazi flags, and chanting overtly anti-Semitic slogans when Billy Joel donned his star at the Garden not even two weeks later.

The response to Joel’s gesture was mixed. In the non-Jewish media, it was generally lauded as a dramatic non-verbal statement about a serious national issue by a personality who found himself in the right place at the right time to make it. TMZ, the celebrity news website, referenced it as “a bold statement about the times we live in.” Billboard referred to it as “a powerful political statement.” MSN, The Microsoft Network, said Joel’s gesture was “a strong statement against the growing Neo-Nazi and White Nationalism movement.” People Magazine called it a “strong statement” against intolerance.

The response in the Jewish media was far more equivocal. 

Andrew Silow-Carroll, writing on the Jewish Telegraphic Agency website, focused almost exclusively on his fear that Joel’s gesture, no doubt heartfelt and sincere, might accidentally trigger an unfortunate trend: “I don’t think anybody wants the yellow star to become this year’s AIDS ribbon or Livestrong bracelet,” he wrote. “The wearing of the yellow star seems the kind of gesture that can be made once, or sparingly, lest you diminish its shock value or begin to insult the experiences and memory of the people who are purporting to identify with an honor.”  But that dismissive response qualifies as restrained and measured when compared to the response of Stephen Pollard in the Jewish Chronicle, the U.K.-based newspaper of which he is editor, who labelled Joel’s gesture “crass, infantile, ignorant, stupid, and offensive.” And that was just the headline. Later on in the piece, he explains his position in slightly more detail: “[You] do not express your pride in being Jewish, or your revulsion against hate, by donning the Nazi yellow star as a fashion statement of that supposed pride. All you do is insult those survivors who lived through the Shoah, and who did not wear their yellow stars to draw media attention to themselves but because they were forced to do so by the Third Reich.” Nor was Pollard at all impressed when Nev Schulman, an actor and the producer of the popular MTV television show Catfish, showed up at the MTV Movie Awards wearing his own yellow star, a gesture that prompted Pollard to label him a “half-wit” and which only seemed to confirm Silow-Carroll’s fear that the yellow star could yet become a widespread symbol of opposition to intolerance. 

Other Jewish responses varied.  A piece in the Forward earlier this week by the anonymous blogger who writes as Jewish Chick described herself as “flabbergasted, outraged, and frankly puzzled,” by Joel’s and Schulman’s gestures. “For myself,” she wrote, “and [for] many others, [the gesture of donning a yellow star] represents a slap in the face for [sic] those who perished during and [those who] survived the Holocaust, no matter what the intent.” On the other hand, Aryeh Kaltmann, a Chabad rabbi writing on the Algemeiner website, labelled Joel’s gesture as “an inspiring surprise” and explained himself as follows: “By boldly wearing the startling image of the star that the Nazis forced Jews to wear during the Holocaust, Joel was decrying anti-Semitism in particular—and, by implication, racism and other forms of hate.”

I think Rabbi Kaltmann got it right. Yes, it was shocking to see Billy Joel (who has hardly worn his Jewishness on his sleeve in the course of his many years of fame) appearing on stage willingly wearing something that symbolizes the barbarism of Nazi intolerance and anti-Semitism. But isn’t that the point of dramatic gestures in the first place, that they trigger emotions in the people who see them that might otherwise have lain dormant?

I’ve read in many places that there is no apparent historicity to the story I heard a thousand times as a child about how Denmark’s King Christian X chose to express his solidarity with his Jewish subjects after Denmark was invaded by the Germans by donning a yellow star himself. When I was a boy, that story stirred me mightily…and the reason I responded to it so viscerally, now that I think back carefully, is precisely because it was so unexpected, so dramatic, and so intense a gesture for someone outside the Jewish community to make in public on behalf of those on the inside. King Christian wasn’t a Jew, obviously, but he—in the story, at least—was expressing his solidarity with the victims of Nazi anti-Semitism personally and publicly. So why should it not be equally moving to contemplate a pop star—and particularly one whose Jewishness has been so low-key over the years that I myself was slightly surprised the learn that he even was Jewish—by such a person standing up to oppose neo-Nazi anti-Semitism…and particularly when he personally had nothing at all to gain by making such a public statement? That the story about King Christian isn’t true (click here for the details) hardly matters and, indeed, the fact that the story was apparently just a fantasy speaks volumes about how meaningful a gesture it would surely have been had he really made it.

The back history of the Jewish badge goes back a long way. In 1215, for example, the Fourth Lateran Council headed by Pope Innocent III decreed that henceforth Jews in all Christian lands under papal control would be obliged to adopt some specific article of dress that could vary from land to land but that in every place would set them apart from their Christian neighbors. In 1222, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Stephen Langton (who is otherwise remembered for inventing the chapter divisions in the Hebrew Bible that are used today in all Christian editions and most Jewish ones) decreed that English Jews were required to wear a white band across their clothing minimally “two fingers broad and four fingers long.”  In 1227, the Christian Synod of Narbonne in France decreed that Jews in France wear an oval badge; just the next year, James I ordered the Jews of Aragon to wear a similar badge. In 1294, the Jews of Erfurt in Germany were similarly required to wear the Jewish badge, the first mention of such a thing in any German city. You get the idea…one way or the other, the practice spread across Europe, constantly being cancelled and then re-introduced over the course of almost the entire medieval period. And then, of course, after centuries of disuse, the Nazis re-introduced the idea in many of the countries they conquered in the early 1940s as well as in Germany itself.

There is something particularly vicious about the use of the star. The Jews of Germany (or France or anywhere) were not physically distinct from the people among whom they lived. And the sense of fitting in, of being one of the masses, of being able to circulate easily in society without arousing the ire of whatever anti-Semites they might encounter in the course of one’s day’s affairs—that sense of being indistinguishable from the rest of the populace was a key element in the feeling many Jews developed that they were safe and secure in their host nations and in the cities they had come to think of as their hometowns. As a result, pronouncements by those medieval monarchs who considered the fact that their Jewish subjects were not easily recognizable to be a problem in need of addressing took on a particularly ominous ring. Nor did that ominousness dissipate with the passing of centuries, and least of all in Nazi-occupied Europe, where the yellow badge was not just a mark of Jewishness, but more specifically a mark of Jewishness overlaid with a deep sense of creeping ill ease, of jeopardy, of menace.

For these last weeks since Charlottesville, the challenge for us all has been to steer a clear course between over-reaction and under-reaction, between seeing neo-Nazis behind every tree and falling into the trap of not seeing them at all because we so fervently wish for them not to exist. I’ve had to negotiate those straits myself, both when speaking from the bimah and when writing my weekly letter to you all, and even now I find myself unsure about how things truly stand. Surely, there is no incipient political movement gaining ground that is anything like the rising Nazi party in the waning days of the Weimar Republic. There was almost universal bipartisan agreement that the President’s initial comments about Charlottesville were equivocal and unworthy. There were, at the end of the day, about 250 people chanting “Blood and Soil” and “Jews Will Not Replace Us” in the streets of Charlottesville, not 250,000. Our nation has always harbored extremists and haters who abuse their First Amendment rights to defame others, yet the civil rights of citizens remain the cornerstone of our democracy nonetheless. The sense of decency and fairmindedness that is the hallmark of true American patriotism remains in place.  I myself am neither worried nor scared; my sense of my place in our nation is just as it has been for decades and is, I believe, as unshakeable as it is unshaken.

But we also remember the Jews of Germany who made the cataclysmic error of underestimating the haters. They too felt secure, safe, and possessed of inalienable civil rights! Of course, the fact that they were wrong doesn’t mean that we too are! But it means that when a public figure like Billy Joel comes on stage at one of the nation’s premiere concert venues and, in front of scores of thousands of fans, says with a single gesture that he is identifying these days with the Jews of 1940’s Germany—when a man such as he makes a wordless statement such as that, in my opinion at least, we should applaud his candor, his willingness to speak out, and, yes, his bravery. His was a valiant gesture at just the right moment and Billy Joel should be lauded both in Jewish and in non-Jewish circles for having made it.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Being Who We Are and Aren't


What is Jewishness exactly? We talk about it regularly as though it were a heritable genetic trait of some sort, one that—for some reason—is solely passed down from mothers to their children. Indeed, even when people argue the point and try to make a case for patrilineality as a valid determinant of Jewishness, they are merely arguing along the same lines and insisting that “it,” whatever “it” actually is, can be passed along by men to their offspring as well. Of course, the fact that conversion is permitted seriously undermines the genetic argument: if we’re talking about something akin to DNA that you either do or don’t have, how can any behavioral or attitudinal factor override not having it? But, it turns out, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t any a genetic component to membership in the House of Israel…and therein hangs an interesting tale.

I read a remarkable story in the Washington Post last July about an Irish-American woman from Chicago, one Alice Plebuch, who took one of the various “just-for-fun” DNA tests available on the market because she wished to learn more about her father, who had died many years earlier, and about her father’s family. (You can read the article by clicking here. You can also visit the websites of three of the larger companies that offer this kind of service to the public by clicking here, here, and here.) The results, however, were not at all what she expected: about half her DNA results confirmed what she already knew about her descent from people who hailed from various regions within the British Isles, including Ireland, but the other half pointed to a combination of Eastern European Jewish and Middle Eastern ancestry. One of her parents was apparently not as Irish as she thought…but which one? That was what she now felt herself obliged to find out.

There were, of course, lots of possible explanations for the unexpected test results. One set of her grandparents could have been Jews from Eastern Europe who so totally shed their previous identity upon arriving in Ireland that just a generation later there was no trace at all of it, and no recollection on the part of anyone at all that they had ever been anything other than “just” Irish. Alternately, one of her grandmothers could possibly have had an extra-marital affair and then simply allowed her husband to presume that he was the father of the child she subsequently bore. That, however, would have led to a quarter of her DNA being labelled as Jewish, not half. Could both her grandmothers have had affairs with Jewish men? Imagining such a thing about one of her grandmothers was hard enough, but about both felt wholly impossible. There had to be other some other plausible explanation!

Plebuch talked her brother into being tested, plus one cousin on her mother’s side of the family and another on her father’s side. Her test and her brother’s yielded the expected result indicating that their mother and father had to have been the same people. But the tests involving the cousins yielded one interesting piece of data and another that was truly confounding. The interesting information came from a comparison of the two cousins’ results and made it clear that the Jewish component in Alice Plebuch’s DNA came from her father’s side of the family. That was what she suspected anyway, but a far more amazing piece of information than that came from a comparison of her own DNA with that of one of her cousins, the son of her father’s sister, which effort yielded the categorical result that they had no blood relationship at all! In other words, reading her own DNA results against her cousin’s yielded the conclusion that her father and his sister were unrelated by blood.

I won’t describe the rest of the story in detail—although I really do recommend that Washington Post article as riveting reading—but the short version is that, after a lot of very detailed sleuthing, Alice Plebuch was able to conclude categorically that her father and another baby were switched at birth, or shortly after birth, at Fordham Hospital in the Bronx where they were both born on the same day of February in 1913. And she somehow managed to identify that other baby and to find his still-living daughter too, whom she felt honor-bound to inform that her father was an Irish Catholic at birth who was simply raised as a Jew by the Jewish people he came to know as his father and mother, neither of whom had any idea that they had brought home the wrong baby.

It sounds like the plot of a made-for-television movie—and not even that believable a one at that. And there surely are a lot of obvious questions to ask about how such a thing could ever occur in real life and who, if anyone, should be held accountable after all this time. But the question that the story raises that matters to me personally has to do with the nature of identity. The Irish Catholic baby brought home by a Jewish family turned into Philip Benson and was raised as a Jewish boy in a Jewish home, then grew up to become what any of us would call a Jewish man. Was he “really” Jim Collins, as the Jewish baby brought home by Irish Catholic parents and raised in their faith was known to the world? Was Jim Collins, the man Alice Plebuch knew as her father, “really” Philip Benson? Were both their lives essentially lies lived out against backgrounds that neither recognized as false but which were, historically and genetically, wholly untrue? Were they both essentially phantoms, men who were neither who they were or who they weren’t? It’s hard even to say what those questions mean, let alone to answer them cogently. Since there’s no reason to think that, had Alice’s grandparents brought the correct baby home from the hospital, that he would eventually have become would have ended up marrying Alice’s mother, Alice Plebuch’s very existence seems predicated on a mix-up that any normal person, other than her husband and her children and all her friends, would easily label a tragedy. Does that make her existence tragic? It’s sounds vaguely right to say that, but I’m not sure I could look her in the eye while I was saying it.

We all believe, or I think we do, that there are character traits that inhere in the shared genetic heritage of any recognizable group. Such talk often veers into tastelessness bordering on prejudice when we “assign” qualities, and usually negative ones, to people based on their race or ethnicity.  But does that mean that there are no shared traits that the members of groups with a common genetic heritage all share? (And, if that is the case, then why should those shared traits be uniformly positive? Surely negative traits can also be shared!) But what is the precise boundary between identity and shared heritage, between the autonomy of the individual and the shared genetic heritage that inheres in that individual’s DNA? Surely, both concepts impinge upon each other. But in what specific way and to what precise extent—that is a far thornier riddle to solve.

From a Jewish perspective, the issue is even more complicated. The man the world knew as Jim Collins was born to a Jewish mother and so was, according to all Jewish authorities, a Jewish baby. The Talmud has a name for a child who is spirited away from his parents at birth, or shortly after birth, and raised without reference to his “actual” heritage: this is the famous tinok she-nishba of talmudic lore. Nor is this treated as a merely theoretical issue: the Talmud goes into considerable detail with respect to the specific laws that apply to such a Jewish individual raised in total ignorance of his or her Jewishness. Most of those discussions revolve around intricacies of halakhic obligation when a particular infraction is repeated over and over in the course of years or even decades by a Jewish individual who, unaware of his or her Jewishness, has no inkling that some specific deed is forbidden to him or her by the Torah. Such a person is technically a sinner, but our sages understood easily how wrong it would be seriously to attach that label to someone whose sins are completely inadvertent and who lacks even an inkling of his or her real status as a Jewish individual. The debates are interesting. But there is no debate at all about the Jewishness of the tinok she-nishba, just about the specific way the law should apply to such a person.

Was Jim Collins a tinok she-nishba? Labelling him that way would seem to oblige us to consider Philip Benson a non-Jew. When viewed dispassionately, that sounds almost reasonable, particularly since any rabbi could “solve” his predicament easily enough with a trip to the mikveh, a visit to the bet-din, and a few minutes with a mohel. But let’s imagine that the truth about Philip Benson never came out. Would we really consider it a tragedy for a man raised as a Jew from birth, circumcised on the eighth day of his life, provided throughout his childhood and adolescence with a Jewish education, the husband of a Jewish woman and the father of Jewish children—would it truly be a disaster if the truth about his “real” parentage never came out? Part of me thinks it would be. But another part can’t quite embrace that level of ex post facto harshness.

Most of the time, it’s probably wisest just to allow people to be whom they appear to be. Mostly, we already do this. When I walk into the Kotel plaza in Yerushalayim and join a minyan for Minchah, no one asks me if I am really a Jew, much less if I am really a man! I look like a man, so that’s good enough for them. I apparently look like a member of the House of Israel too…and that too is good enough even for the guys who hang out at the wall wearing their giant black hats. (I don’t push it, however, by also self-identifying as a Conservative rabbi.) Ultimately, we are all Jews by self-definition…and that, really, has to be the bottom line. Sometimes, real wisdom lies in stepping away from the fine print and being content just to read what people possessed of normal eyesight can see, and then leaving it at that.

Should I buy one of those DNA test kits and find out where my people really come from? I haven’t decided one way or the other. But if I do…I promise (maybe) to share the results with you in a subsequent letter.