Hastening the Coming

I am taking a break from Malcolm Gladwell and sharing some pre High Holiday nuggets that don’t make it to the big time, as we get closer to the days that still make rabbis very nervous no matter how many years they have been officiating.

We await the coming of the Messiah who will usher in a new era of peace and prosperity. It doesn’t seem like we mortals can get that done. But is all that we can do is wait? Absolutely not. I want to share a beautiful little tale called “The Rabbi’s Gift.” I hope it can be my gift to you and to all of us.

There was a monastery that had fallen upon such hard times there were only five monks left in the decaying monastery: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order. Now in the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. As the abbot agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot to visit the rabbi and ask if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot to his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the rabbi wept together.

The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years,” the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?” “No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that one of you is the Messiah.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well, what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving – it was something cryptic – was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks that followed, the old monks wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Maybe Brother Elred. Maybe Brother Philip. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah…

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off, off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people occasionally came to visit the monastery. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed this aura of extraordinary respect. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently. They brought their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends. Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order, thanks to the rabbi’s gift.

Where do we go from here? Let us receive the Rabbi’s gift and use it to strengthen the communities in which we live and pray, and to strengthen our own sense of worth. The effect of this kind of extraordinary respect for others and for our own selves will surely be to help bring about the Messianic Age, the betterment, the healing of this troubled world.

Ponder this for the new year and best regards. Bill Rudolph

The Pill

It’s time for some more Malcolm Gladwell. Last week we did the article “Most Likely to Succeed,” about football and education, taken from his new anthology What the Dog Saw. Today I want to talk about birth control and cancer. Not my normal subject matter, but there is a connection with religion and with health. This will be longer than my usual, read a little each day.

The piece is called “John Rock’s Error,” subtitled “What the Inventor of the Birth Control Pill Didn’t Know about Women’s Health.” It first appeared in The New Yorker ca. March 2000. John Rock was a devout Catholic, mass every day, at the same time a giant in obstetrics at Harvard Medical School. The Pill, his crowning achievement, was approved by the FDA in 1960. Pope Paul ruled against oral contraceptives in 1968. The debate ran with passion through the whole decade and beyond.

John Rock maintained that his faith and his medicine were perfectly compatible, because he saw the Pill as a natural method of birth control. It didn’t feel natural, but it worked by natural means, mimicking the hormone progestin that prevents any new ovulation so gestation can succeed. Look it up and you will understand better. The Pill basically shuts down ovulation as long as it is taken but in a “natural” way that Rock saw as theologically significant. Kind of like the “rhythm” method that Pius XII sanctioned in 1958 because he viewed it (too) as a natural method of regulating procreation. In fact, rhythm works by limiting sex to the safe period that progestin creates. Pius XII then approved the Pill too. It took ten years for the Church to reverse that.

The action that really captured my attention switches to more primitive lands. Researchers in Mali ca. 1986 found that tribal women there give birth eight or nine times on average. From the age of 20 to 34, they spend so much time either pregnant or breast feeding (which suppresses ovulation) that they average only slightly more than one menstrual period per year. After 34, it’s about four menses a year. All told, women in that Dogon tribe menstruate about 100 times in their lives. By contrast, the average modern western woman is somewhere between 350 and 400 times, because they are not pregnant very often. So what?

It gets more interesting when we study the incidence of certain cancers that women get. Researchers believe that the shift from the more primitive pattern of menstruation of 100 to the 400 pattern subjects women’s bodies to changes and stresses that their bodies weren’t necessarily designed to handle. Incessant ovulation increases the occurrence of abdominal pain, mood shifts, migraines, endometriosis, fibroids. anemia, and (most seriously) the risk of some cancers. Cancer, after all, occurs because as cells divide and reproduce they sometimes makes mistakes that cripple the cells’ defenses against runaway growth. Any change promoting cell division has the potential to increase cancer risk, and ovulation appears to be one of those changes. When a woman ovulates, an egg literally bursts through the walls of her ovaries. To heal that puncture, the cells on the ovary wall have to divide and reproduce, increasing the cancer risk. Every time a woman gets pregnant and bears a child, her life time risk of ovarian cancer drops 10 percent! Why? Her ovarian walls are saved at least a dozen bouts of cell division! So… the Pill really does have a natural effect. By blocking the release of new eggs, the rounds of ovarian cell division are reduced. As a result, a woman who takes the Pill for 10 years cuts her ovarian cancer risk by about 70 percent and her endometrial cancer risk by about 60 percent. Here ‘natural” means something very different than what Rock meant. The Pill is really only natural in so far as it’s radical – rescuing the ovaries and endometrium from modernity.

But you say, don’t women still have their periods while taking the pill? They do/ did. They don’t ovulate but they have their periods. That is because Rock thought that doing away with the monthly menses wouldn’t seem “natural,” so the Pill is only taken for three weeks each four week cycle (or there is a placebo in the fourth week) to allow for menstruation. It would be simple, and not harmful, to prevent menstrual bleeding altogether for months on end, with real benefits. And that is the direction that reproductive specialists are more and more advocating, along with work on a new Pill that would also fight breast cancer.

It is ironic that Rock sold the Pill to the Church as no more than a pharmaceutical version of the rhythm method, when it turns out that the Pill can save lives. Not as a drug to prevent life but as one that can save life. The Church might well have said yes if it understood that. Instead, Rock got to experience the attacks on the Pill from the Church that ultimately left him a broken man. But science, Gladwell reminds us, often produces progress in advance of understanding. If it had been otherwise in this case, the order of events in the discovery of what was “natural” would have been reversed, and Rock’s world, and our world too, would have been different places.

I think I got the science right, but medical people will make it so. Regardless, I think there is much to ponder here about real life and death issues. Write back if you wish. Shabbat Shalom and best regards, Bill Rudolph

Most Likely To Succeed

Malcolm Gladwell is one of my favorite writers. He is an extraordinarily perceptive student of contemporary life. His books – Outliers, Tipping Point, David and Goliath, more – are quite provocative as are his articles for The New Yorker. The latter have recently been put together into What the Dog Saw, which I highly recommend even if you don’t have a dog. If you can stand a break from election rhetoric, join me as I pick out a few pieces to talk about over the next few weeks.

“Most Likely to Succeed” first appeared in December 2008. It’s about football and education. Are those timely on a September 1 or what? The starting question: How do we know who is going to be a great NFL quarterback or a great educator? How do we hire for a job where almost nothing we can learn about a candidate before they start predicts how they’ll do once they’re hired ? Quarterback busts abound, think Heath Shuler or Ryan Leaf, great college careers notwithstanding.

What about finding top teachers? Gladwell points to “value added” analysis in contemporary education research as a way forward. This analysis is relatively simple: how much did the academic performance of students in a given teacher’s classroom change? Specifically, in what percentile do they score (in math for example) at the beginning and end of the school year? Studying a span of 3-4 years, even with variables beyond teacher control, you can still see who the good teachers are. You will also see the difference that a good teacher can make. Students of a very bad teacher will learn on average a half year’s material in one school year while students in the class of a very good teacher will learn a year and half’s worth of material. That’s a difference of one year’s learning in a single year! Class size doesn’t begin to affect learning as much as the quality of the teacher.

So, great teachers it should be! The hitch is that nobody really knows what a person with the potential to be a good teacher looks like when they are first hired. Experts are beginning to identify competencies that might be predictive, like “regard for student perspective” without losing control of the classroom, giving kids high quality feedback, “withitness” that shows the kids the teacher knows what is going on in front of his/her eyes and behind. Where it gets interesting is that when you see teachers using these competencies you realize that cognitive skills and book smarts – the usual desirables for being good at this profession – are pretty meaningless. Instead, we may need an apprentice system that allows candidates to be rigorously evaluated. We may have to to try out four candidates to find one good teacher. Salary structure may have to change – teachers who can teach a year and half’s worth of material in a year are going to have to be paid a lot. Is all of this politically, economically feasible?

Gladwell tells of a prominent financial services company that interviews a thousand people to find ten new advisers. NFL teams spend ridiculous amounts of time and money evaluating quarterbacks. What does it say about a society that it devotes much more care and patience to selecting those who handle its discretionary money or its footballs than it does to those who handle its children?

More Gladwell coming up. Always much to ponder. In the meantime, have a good day and a nice long weekend. Bill Rudolph

The Sense of Wonder

One more blogpost on the Canadian Rockies trip, then maybe a little Malcolm Gladwell. I will never forget the first Dove Bar that I ever ate. It was downtown on Connecticut Avenue when I was working for Hillel. Gail was with me. I couldn’t believe how good that ice cream treat tasted, like nothing I had experienced before. We both remember the moment vividly. A few months later, I had another Dove Bar. Great, but not unbelievable. And the third? Nice, nothing so special. That was more than thirty years ago; I haven’t had more than one or two since.

So it was on my Canadian Rockies ride. The first day I stopped the bike countless times – even though I never stop (as anyone I ride by in Bethesda will attest) – to marvel at the mountains and take dozens of photos. Each successive day, though the landscape remained spectacular, I stopped less frequently and took fewer pictures. The sense of wonder was fading. It bothered me, much more than the Dove Bar experience, because this was God’s handiwork and I was starting to take it for granted.

Why were we created with a sense of wonder that doesn’t have so much staying power? I ponder that often. I think it’s part of a larger category of human reaction = we get used to things. That is both a good and bad quality. Good for example when it comes to terrible news, which we hear so relentlessly nowadays. When there is a horrific terror attack or natural disaster, the kind that used to take away our breath, and now when we hear the news we say to ourselves, “well, fortunately only x number of people died from that,” the quality of “getting used to things” has been activated and we can avoid being paralyzed by the news. I worry that we are becoming too used to bad news and our sensitivity to human suffering is being dulled, but it’s a coping mechanism that makes life less gloomy and more bearable.

But what about the sense of wonder when it comes to nature, or human creativity, or athletic accomplishment (as we just saw in Rio)? How do we succeed in NOT getting used to that? Obviously, I haven’t solved this one for myself. We saw that in the Rockies. All I can suggest are three strategies: 1) try to keep the kid alive in each of us because kids see wonder all over the place, 2) frequent places like parks and art museums where nature and human creativity are on display, and 3) be like Moses.

Moses experienced God because when he saw a bush burning he stopped long enough to see that miraculously it wasn’t burning up. Most of us would have seen it and as long as it didn’t pose a danger we would have kept walking. There is wonder all around us if we stop long enough to see it.

Wishing you at least a few moments of wonder in the coming months. Best, Bill Rudolph

Oh Rockies

More, as promised, on the Rockies bike ride. From your responses, I am indeed the last person to see Banff and Lake Louise and environs, and grateful to have finally had the opportunity. When I am riding, I keep my eyes on the road, hoping to avoid potholes and other obstacles as well as driver irregularities. I don’t look at the scenery very much as a result. So it was awesome on the last day, not even a week ago,  when we basically retraced our route from Jasper back to Banff. It was 182 miles, though we biked more than 250 in the end. I wasn’t driving the van and had hours to observe the mountains and glaciers and snow caps.

The predominant feeling I had was of my littleness. It’s true I am not very tall, but even Manute Bol is little compared to these massive stone mountains. I felt like a spec on the landscape besides being a spec in the world population (most of who seem to be here as I noted.). It is actually a very religious feeling. Think about the great cathedrals. I have been to one of them, St. Patrick’s, with our Confirmation classes, and when you sit in the pews and look up you feel so little. I think that is purposeful, to remind us of the words of the Psalmist, “what is man that Thou (God) are mindful of him?”

So what is the value of feeling little? Isn’t religion supposed to build us up, as in “little lower than the angels,” not make us feel small? I think this feeling keeps us humble, and humility as you may know is one of my favorite values. We ARE but a spec. AND what our spec accomplishes in life is mostly a matter of luck – where we are born and to whom, where we grow up, what career path falls into place, etc. We should spend a lot of time contemplating all of this: not thinking we deserve everything we have or are ultimately important to the human endeavor, having the perspective and gratitude that we should have for what we have. Awesome mountains and great cathedrals are wonderful teachers.

So, should we tear down Beth El and build something more cathedral like? Temple Emanuel in NYC was built precisely to prove that Jews could have cathedrals too. It sleeps 2500 and is quite impressive. It would make good sense to go there occasionally for the feelings it produces, and save our $$ for other ways of building our future. Or just go to the Rockies. Not only to remember our littleness, but to see God’s handiwork in full measure.

Ponder all this, and have a good Shabbat and weekend. Where did the summer go?
Best, Bill Rudolph

Oh, Canada

Shalom. Writing from Jasper Canada, where I am completing my bike ride provided as a retirement gift from Beth El. I got to choose the ride, they/you provided the scholarship which is one of the nicest gifts I have received. There is so much to say – just chapter headings for now.

The Canadian Rockies, so indescribably beautiful, my first time seeing them. The retreating glaciers, not critical to world well being but almost certainly the “canary” in the environmental coal mine. The biking, lots of hills, I didn’t shame you. The 15 riders, including an NFL tight end now an orthopedic surgeon, an exec with the largest can manufacturer in the world (you should see his bike!), an OB-GYN, some teachers and corporate trainers, an equities analyst. The weather, 40 degrees when we start off in the morning; I am wearing three bike jackets most of the day. I understand it’s been otherwise back home. The rains, everyday but one, evenings spent drying things. The tourists, mostly from Asia, so many that I think if you called there nobody would answer. Canada, second largest country in the world from a physical standpoint but with fewer people than California, which means a lot of undeveloped space which Canadians in their RV’s seem intent on exploring. The RV’s are nice till they are passing two feet away going 90 kph.

I look forward to returning to blog production after a nice break, including more on some topics above as well as summer reading commentary. You hear enough about the election, so I will endeavor to spare you my wisdom on that.

Wishing you all a good Shabbat and nice weekend. Best to you from the very nice Jasper Park Lodge.  Bill Rudolph

Films and Creation

Enough of my retirement activity. There is plenty of news in the world, a lot of it not good, but if I waited for a week of good news to not talk about the news we might be waiting a long time. So let’s talk about films. Actually I wanted to boast about Broadway shows, since Gail and I saw but two this past year – one was Hamilton and one was The Humans – and they won the Tony’s for, respectively, best musical and best play of the year. But I do want to talk about my favorite films, which turn out to be almost always of the same genre and from which we may learn some theology.

In the last few weeks, with retirement freezing up some time, Gail and I watched two excellent films On Demand – “East Side Sushi” and “Spare Parts.” Each pictures people with very little likelihood of success in life who figure out how to succeed. Then I watched (for the nth time) “Rudy” with my grandson; it’s about a young man with minimal natural gifts who leaves the steel mill where all his relatives work to try to realize two impossible dreams, not only to be admitted to Notre Dame but to play football for the Irish. “Cool Runnings.” “Mighty Ducks.” “Hoosiers.” All are tear producing dramas about human achievement against all odds.

I am not sure why I love this movie genre but here are some thoughts that actually go in two opposite directions. One possibility is that these movies take us out of the real world for a little while. They enable us to take shelter in the world of fantasy where there is always a happy ending, where good people finish first not last, where nobody is stuck with their limitations, where impossible dreams become possible. But Jews are realists, what choice do we have, so that doesn’t work so well.

The other possibility is more Jewish, along the lines of “im tirtzu ein zo aggadah” – “if you really want it, it doesn’t have to be just a dream.” We were created in such a great way: with so much potential and with the free will that enables us to choose how much of that potential we want to realize and with role models to teach us the range of what is possible. So, when Rudy suits up and leads his team onto the field for the last game of the season we are not shocked because we know there is some Rudy in us too, and when his All American teammates basically refuse to play unless he is allowed suit up we are not shocked because we know that altruistic behavior is part of our DNA and we are most human when we let it come forth. So, for me, not being bound by what can bind us is so very possible, and seeing it on the big screen just reaffirms my sense of wonder at the creation.

Why do you love this kind of film – assuming you do? Write back if you wish. Do take note: I am about to take a few weeks of vacation so don’t sit by your Inbox waiting for the next blog anytime soon. Thanks for reading and for understanding the need for a break. I hope you are getting one too. Shabbat Shalom and best regards, Bill Rudolph