Monthly Archives: September 2016

What Not To Expect

Shalom. As many of you know, my brother Steve passed away quite suddenly two weeks ago. It’s been a whirlwind of emotions, which I will share before long as I try to sort them out and analyze why it’s been so difficult. Making it easier has been all your love and support, for which I am most appreciative.

I had started devoting this blog to High Holiday thoughts that won’t make it to the big time. That was interrupted. Now, with Rosh Hashanah coming so soon (even if it’s as late as I can remember), and the presidential candidate debate fresh in the mind, let me tell you why I am not going to speak about the election in my sermons. Many rabbis are debating whether to speak and/or what to say; this wise counsel is based on writings from my colleague Michael Gold.

I believe that a rabbi should not become embroiled in election politics.  First, it is clearly against the law for a rabbi serving a non-profit organization to appear to endorse a candidate.  Synagogues must remain neutral.  Second, I have passionate supporters in both my synagogues for both parties, each trying to convince me that their party is better for the Jewish people.  But alas, there is not one clear Jewish view on any of the major political issues from immigration to fighting poverty, from religious rights to taxes, from gun rights to abortion.  Judaism is far too subtle and complex to be a one issue religion.  And, last time I checked, God is neither a Democrat or a Republican.
Of course, I do have opinions and thoughts about the election, the issues, and the candidates.  I watched the conventions and I am watching the debates.  I want to know where the candidates stand, not just on Israel but on everything.  But having said that, there is one standard that is particularly important to me.  It comes out of the Torah reading for Shoftim, read just a few weeks back.
The Torah portion speaks about politics.  It talks about the desire of the people to appoint a king over them.  Ideally there should be no king; God is the only king who will predictably do justice.  But the people want a king; eventually they would appoint Saul and then David as kings.  David’s line would stay in power through the entire history of the southern kingdom of Judah.  Now there are rules for the appointment of this king.  Look at Deuteronomy 17:15ff to see them. And it says that the king should not multiply gold and silver, nor have too many horses, nor have too many wives.  (King Solomon ignored this and his kingdom fell apart.)

The central law regarding the king is an interesting one, that he should have a copy of the Torah with him at all times.  The Torah teaches that he should read from the Torah in order to learn to revere the Lord and to observe the commandments.  The Torah is well aware that power corrupts.  The copy of the Torah serves to limit the king’s power.  It gives him a vision to better understand his role as political leader.  And it gives him ethical laws to discipline every action.

That brings me to our election.  Obviously I do not expect our president, our senators and congress people, other elected officials, to keep a copy of the Torah with them.  But I do expect them to have those two qualities that the Torah requires.  I expect them to have a vision.  And I expect them to have ethics.
So, I want to know about a candidate’s vision for our country, our state, our municipality.   The Bible teaches, “When there no vision the people perish, but he that keeps the law, happy is he.”  (Proverbs 29:18)  A king cannot simply rule because he wants to rule, he must have a vision of the direction to which he wants to lead the nation.  As I listen to the presidential candidates, I try to sift through the personal attacks to see if they can articulate a vision.
Second, I want to know about a candidate’s ethics.  Is s/he trustworthy?  Is he or she careful about their words?  Are they truthful?  Are they kind?  Do they uphold the dignity of all people?  I look for examples of ethical and non-ethical behavior.

I will be looking at both vision and ethics as I decide how to cast my vote.  I will not endorse a candidate.  But I will ask, which candidate is most likely to have holy scripture next to their bed and exhibit a sense that they are being judged by God?

Ponder this. I wish for you all a good and sweet new year, one with hopefully at least a little more peace and calm in the world than we have been seeing of late. Bill Rudolph

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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