The Meaning of Life ca. 2017

Interesting times aren’t they? Here is a thought, generated from last week’s Torah portion, which may be relevant. The Torah portion talks about the incense that filled the Holy of Holies before – or after – the High Priest entered on Yom Kippur. In biblical times, the incense came first and the High Priest couldn’t see much. Later, the rabbis delayed the smokescreen until after the High Priest saw everything; evidently they thought that seeing reality was important.

Alexander Papaderos was a doctor of philosophy, a teacher, a politician and a resident of Athens. He had become a kind of living legend in Greece – a man of strength and intensity, energy, physical power, courage, intelligence and passion.
At the last session of a two-week seminar on Greek Culture, Papaderos rose from his chair and asked, “Are there any questions?” Silence. But finally one brave young man raised his hand timidly, “Dr. Papaderos, what is the meaning of life?” Laughter followed, but the professor was going to answer.

Taking his wallet out of his hip pocket, Papaderos brought out a very small round mirror about the size of a quarter. He explained that when he was a small child, during the Second World War, he was very poor. One day, on a road in his remote little village, he had found the broken pieces of a mirror from a German motorcycle. He said, “I tried to find all the pieces and put them together, but it wasn’t possible.” So Papaderos had kept the largest piece, and by scratching it on a stone, he had made it round. It became his favorite toy. He became fascinated by the fact that he could reflect light into dark places where the sun would never shine… in deep holes and crevices and in dark closets. It became a game – to get light into the most inaccessible place.

Papaderos kept the little mirror and as he grew up, he would take it out from time to time and continue the challenge of the game. “When I became a man,” said Papaderos, “I grew to understand that this was not just a child’s game but a metaphor for the meaning of life.” “I came to understand,” he said, “that I am not the light or the source of the light. But light – truth, understanding, knowledge and love – it’s there and will only shine in the dark places if I reflect it.”

We live now in a reality where the darkness and smokescreens – lies, fake news and alternative facts – are so thick we can hardly see. We must remember one word: knowledge. Blow away the smoke with the fresh air of truth, of empirical evidence, of a healthy skepticism and a commitment to intellect as the highest gifts we humans have ever been given. With that knowledge, we can shine some light into the dark places. Maybe that is a key job for us now.      Best, Bill Rudolph

Marriage Zone

I took off last week to do my almost annual North Carolina horse country bike ride; it was very nice when the rains finally stopped. No obvious bathroom issues. Much going on in the world, I will pick at one little piece of the action that I have been sitting on for a few weeks, what is described as Mike Pence’s marriage rule and the controversy around it.

Pence has been more “out there” than most Vice Presidents this early in a new term of office. We can guess why. He just spoke about Israel on Yom Ha’atzmaut, very supportive. Anyway, you may have read about his devotion to his wife and the measures he takes in “building a zone around his marriage.” Evidently he never eats alone with a woman other than his wife, nor attends events without her if there’s alcohol being served. Sounds nice, in a quaint, little house on the prairie kind of way.

Critics pounce on everything, so why not this? Sounds like he dropped in from another century, some say. Others ask how he could manage states of affair if he couldn’t meet alone with, for example, a female governor or Angela Merkel? More serious critics note that women have a hard enough time advancing in public service or business without being seen as objects of temptation, which Pence’s view might support. Might women not be blocked from evening events or one-on-one meetings with their bosses out of fears of creating the wrong impression? An Office of Compliance official saw this as possibly discriminatory, meaning that women could be prevented from becoming trusted advisors or rise to high positions, solely based on their gender.

Pence has his supporters, and his rule is certainly more admirable than the examples set by Donald Trump or Bill Clinton. And doesn’t it remind us of the traditional Jewish practice of yichud, barring observant men and women from being alone together unless they are married (or sibs or kids?) But those rules mostly apply to cases of seclusion, like not being alone together in an office after work hours, but a man dining with a woman in a public restaurant? That wouldn’t seem to be a problem. Clearly, though, practices that are considered perfectly reasonable among very religious people, like Pence or our own Orthodox, can seem bizarre to outsiders.

Or is the gap in viewpoint more about liberals vs. conservatives than religious vs. non religious? Liberals are optimistic about human nature and think people should be responsible for their behavior and able to resist temptation. As Alexandra Petri wrote in the Post, shouldn’t someone like Pence have “the modicum of self-control involved in eating dinner with another human being and not committing adultery?” Conservatives, on the other hand, have a thing about sin and human fallibility and think we need fences around temptation. As Damon Linker wrote in The Weekly Standard, Pence’s way of living “denies we’re able to restrain ourselves with any reliability. We need God’s help, and we need to keep ourselves away from situations in which we will be tempted to cheat.”

The journalist Andrew Silow-Carroll looks at all this and adds one more voice, that of Cynthia Ozick, who wrote a while back her view that it’s all about male temptation. It has ended up by suppressing women as scholars and communal leaders. If religion, she asks, isn’t developing its adherents’ sense of restraint and propriety, then what’s the point of religion exactly?

I tend to agree with Ozick. So, do I disagree with Pence? It’s hard for someone like me to come down hard on someone who takes religion so seriously, but I think he should be capable of better. And what do you think? 
 Best regards, Bill Rudolph

63/62 Percent

Passover is in the rear view mirror. It’s tied with Sukkot as my favorite holiday, with Yom Kippur in 29th place. I don’t love the Pesach kashering and house cleaning, but seriously when would we ever clean cabinets and under frig racks and other such places?

This year Gail and I had a first – a few days in a “Pesach hotel,” in our case the very lovely Lansdowne Resort across the Potomac which was turned over to kosher authorities who did the food and ordered up the entertainment. Some families were there for the duration, meaning they walked out of their houses and locked the door and didn’t return till after the 8th day – they didn’t have to kasher a thing. That is surely the world to come. We can’t afford the world to come, but our two days were very nice. We weren’t sure which hotel to choose, but were reassured when our first night dinner table company told us that they chose the Lansdowne because it doesn’t appear at all on the bed bug registry.

The entertainment included a mentalist, who had us scratching our heads in awe till we checked him out the next morning on the google machine. We had a very perceptive lecture on current events from Norm Ornstein, a well known political scientist and resident scholar at the American Enterprise Institute. Two of the many important pieces of data that he shared are ones I couldn’t forget:

1) 63% of Americans, if they had an emergency, could not come up with $500. That was pretty shocking. It is assumed that there are many Trump voters in that 63%, not that we liberals would say Trump cares in the least about those people. Which brings me to:

2) Ornstein point #2: Desperate these people may be, but they are not stupid. In exit polls of Trump voters, 62% had an unfavorable opinion of him, and that same percentage said he was not “qualified” to be president. Remember, these are the people who voted for him! How can a candidate win with numbers like these? Because the desire for change was so great that it overrode all of the doubts — or at least many of the doubts — people had about Trump. My personal analysis is that it was like playing the lottery – the chances of Trump succeeding were not high but if your life is so marginal that you don’t have $500 when you really need it, then it’s worth taking the chance that somehow or some way things will change. Very few voters thought Clinton would bring about much change.

We took time off from the serious to pray a lot and eat even more. Mealtime buffets were overrunning with pesadica delicacies. A “tea room” to die for, with huge containers of every kind of chocolate imaginable. Chicken wings and burgers at the pool all afternoon. I personally was able to gain 2.5 pounds in just those two days. You do the math for the full 8. But it was worth it, and we met some very nice people, and we highly recommend your checking out this kind of Pesach experience in coming years. Just check the registry first.

Best to you. Bill Rudolph

Gotcha – A Passover Thought

It’s bedikat chometz time when I write this, and I am procrastinating. So let me share a good thought from Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, the Orthodox rabbi up the road in Baltimore. You might find it useful in coming days. It’s about saying “gotcha.” It’s longer than my usual, but there is a stopping point midway.

Wohlberg is an RK, a rabbi’s kid, a dubious honor, and asks how much worse it must be to be a PK – a President’s kid. Not just Tiffany Trump, whose law school applications somehow merited 2/3 of the front page of the Post Style section. Who cares, and who would want that? But would you want to be Ivanka and Jared Kushner?  At first glance, who would NOT want to be Ivanka and Jared Kushner?  From the day they were born, they had it made.  Then, on their own, they made quite a name for themselves in real estate, publishing, fashion and design.  Who would not want to be Ivanka and Jared?  And then something happened.  Donald Trump became President … and Ivanka and Jared became part of the Washington political scene.   What’s not to like about that?

Here’s what’s not to like.  Ivanka is not just a PK – that’s bad enough!  But she’s a PKJ – Ivanka and Jared Kushner are Jewish … and that is a big problem.  NOT because of the anti-Semites in America, but because of the Jews in America.  For any other people, the Kushner/Trump marriage, or if you want, call it “merger,” is a beautiful, inspiring story.  For any other people, at a time when intermarriage so threatens our future, here is a Jewish boy who insists that his Protestant girlfriend convert; and she agrees!  She not only converts, but converts by an Orthodox rabbi and writes how beautiful she finds the Shabbos for the time it gives her family to be together.  For any other people, what pride they would take when, in the fall of one year, newspapers carried a picture of Jared and Ivanka pushing their baby carriage home from shul, showing their child with what was described as “holding flowers,” not knowing it was their lulav and etrog.  I mean, it doesn’t get better than that!

But we’re Jews, so why see something good when we can see something bad!  Listen to some of the headlines from both the Jewish and general press regarding Ivanka and Jared as Jews:

– “Jewish World Weighs In on Ivanka and Jared’s piety on inauguration day.”

– Then there is: “Ivanka and Jared’s ride to church on Shabbos sparks controversy.”

– “Jared Kushner and Ivanka Trump should cut the hypocrisy.”

– “Ivanka Trump fails the Queen Esther test.”

– CNN Panel discusses influence of Jared Kushner’s Shabbat observance on father-in-law, President Donald Trump’s, tweeting.

– And then there’s this one: Kushner and Trump arrive in West Palm Beach, Florida – Friday – 5:51 PM EST – candle lighting 5:51 PM – sunset – 6:09 PM.

So now let me ask you once again: Would you want to be Ivanka and Jared?  They are not perfect, but would you want to be judged like this? And let me ask you: Is everything our business?  Do we have to stand in judgement of what everyone else does? That, in itself, is bad enough.  Even worse is the fact that very rarely when we judge do we find something good to say!  We are always looking for the “gotcha,” pulling them down not building them up.

That’s what Reb Levi Yitzchak of Bereditchiv used to do.  Rev Levi Yitzchak is one of the most beloved  rabbis in Jewish folk lore.  What made him so well liked?  Listen to this story.  Once he was walking with one of his Chassidim and they saw another of his followers greasing the axle on his wagon when he suddenly stopped to daven Mincha.  The Chassid said to Reb Levi, “Look at his despicable behavior … while he davens Mincha he fixes his axle.”  Reb Levi said, “No, no … look at what a beautiful Chassid he is.  While fixing his axle he davens Mincha.”  Reb Levi was able to see the best in everyone.  Is it really asking too much to do the same in regard to Ivanka and Jared?  And what about how, before moving to Washington, Ivanka and Jared came down to find a day school for their children and a shul that would be within walking distance of their home?  Do we know that many Jews who do that?  Why look for the bad in others when there is so much good to be found?

Ask yourselves honestly: When you talk with others about others, do you build them up or tear them down?  At a party, restaurant, school parking lot, do you look for something good to say about others, or do you delight in pointing out their flaws?  Tell the truth!

YOU CAN STOP HERE. Or you can read on about a candle that we use tonight. Every year on the night preceding the festival of Pesach, we have the ritual of Bedikat Chometz, the search for the chometz…that last ditch effort to make sure that there is no chometz in the house before Pesach arrives.  Tradition has us go from room to room with a feather to sweep up any chometz we may find, a wooden spoon to sweep the chometz into, and a candle … a candle to provide illumination for the search.

And so now we’re left with this question: We dispose of (usually by burning) the chometz and the spoon and the feather, they are or they touched chometz. But we also dispose of the poor little candle. All it did was help us perform a mitzvah.  Why do we dispose of it as well?

Wohlberg asked this question to his father when he was a child. The answer he has never forgotten:  “That candle served only one purpose in life.  To look for chometz.  Something that was used just to look for faults, to look for imperfections, something whose sole purpose in life is to look for something wrong in every nook and cranny … THAT you have to get rid of before you can celebrate Pesach.”  I like that thought, and I hope you do, too.  That candle is only used for “gotcha!”  That shouldn’t be around when we gather at the Seder table.

So at this season of spring housecleaning, let us clean house inside us as well.  Let us burn out the evil impulse that makes us derive some kind of psychic satisfaction from pulling down people.  Let’s look for other people’s virtues and not their flaws.    Indeed, at the Pesach Seder, we’ll be sitting with family and friends — some we haven’t seen for a while.  Are we going to be positive or negative?  Are we going to use this family experience to “tell it like it is” or “to set the record straight?”  Instead of criticizing “for their own good,” how about praising “for their own good?”  Instead of “gotcha” how about “love to have you.”

Think about it.  This week, let’s work on building ourselves up, not on pulling other people down.  Then, indeed, we will be blessed with a “Chag sameach – a truly beautiful festival” – and maybe a better society as well.

Best to you and yours for a wonderful holiday.  Bill Rudolph

Jumbo the Elephant

Last week it was the Nazis and drugs. Today I want to share some calendrical notices, continuing with the theme of doing anything to avoid the news. I have one of those calendars that has an entry each day, like Bach was born last Tuesday (in 1685), the first telephone call was made on (Friday) the 10th (in 1876), etc. For the week now concluding, we get these entries:

March 26: Robert Frost born, 1874. Think “The Road Not Taken.”
March 27: Release of song Singing in the Rain, 1952.
March 28: Barnum joins Bailey, 1881. See below.
March 29: Cy Young, greatest baseball pitcher ever (?), born 1867
March 30: National Doctor’s Day. Who knew?
March 31: Eiffel Tower opens first time, dignitary tour, 1889

Let me focus on March 28. Lo and behold, the circus was in the news lately, because several factors are putting it slowly but surely out of business. The very Barnum and Bailey, a merger of two smaller circuses, was launched as the Greatest Show on Earth in 1881 and featured Jumbo, maybe the world’s largest elephant. It was then bought up by the Ringling brothers in1907, creating what we know as the Ringling Brothers and Barnum & Bailey Traveling Circus. The Feld family purchased it in 1956. It is closing down this year, after a mere 136 years! The website says it was a combination of declining interest (especially after the elephants went off the road last winter) and rising costs. May 21st at the Nassua Coliseum is it.

One of the most fascinating little events in my time at Beth El comes to mind as I read about the circus. About ten years ago, our preschool silent auction sought bids on four tickets to the very same circus. The morning of the silent auction, the school director got a call from a school parent demanding that the tickets be removed from the auction, because of the way the circus treats the elephants. The auction list had already been published, and the director couldn’t do it that same day, but invited the parent to come in during the week to discuss what might be done in the future. The parent wasn’t satisfied, went on social media to diss the school, saying it valued money more than animals, friends agreed and piled on, and it was a bad scene.

I asked the school director to do me a favor – when she meets with the parent, ask if s/he is a vegetarian. You guessed it, no! So, maybe I am seeing this wrong, but killing an animal and eating its flesh is OK, but whatever is done to circus elephants – well short of what is done to the cow – is not OK and anyone who supports the circus has lousy values and is to be shamed?

Welcome to our world. Maybe it’s not universal, but in a place like Bethesda, in our time, people have their mini issues and causes and go to the barricades over them. Last week I saw a new bumper sticker, Good People Don’t Eat Imported Fish. So there.

There are serious issues in our society that merit going to the barricades, maybe more than in a long time. I want to hear more about those. Maybe the problem is that we don’t all agree about what is “serious.” Or maybe we are taking righteous indignation too far. Something to ponder.

Next time, something about Pesach.         Best, Bill Rudolph

Blitzed

A steady dose of Trump is exhausting, and I commiserate with the writer who said “I am giving up Trump for Lent.” Trump has surely empowered the press, at least what I read, with the Times calling him a liar in a big font, and one commentator describing him as “volatile, irrational and vindictive.” These are unprecedented times. Let me do my Passover version of Lent and choose a different topic – a new book about Hitler and the Nazis that is getting a lot of press and that really captured my attention. Some see scary parallels between the Nazi era and what we have in America today, but I think and hope there is no real comparison.

The book, “Blitzed: Drugs in Nazi Germany,” by Norman Ohler, a Berlin novelist doing his first non fiction, gives shocking new focus to the extent that the Third Reich was fueled by drugs – all sorts of drugs, and in stupefying quantities. Millions of doses of what we call crystal meth, packaged as pills, were gobbled up in battles throughout the war, part of an officially sanctioned factory-to-front campaign against fatigue. Hopped-up soldiers would sprint tirelessly through the Ardennes at the onset of war, an adrenalized performance that left Winston Churchill “dumbfounded,” as he wrote in his memoirs. A German general would later gloat that his men had stayed awake for 17 straight days. Maybe an exaggeration, but surely the early phases of the war saw turbocharged campaigns in much of Europe.

The most vivid portrait of abuse and withdrawal in “Blitzed” is actually that of Hitler, who for years was regularly injected by his personal physician with powerful opiates, like Eukodal, a brand of oxycodone once praised by William S. Burroughs as “truly awful.” For a few undoubtedly euphoric months, Hitler was also getting swabs of high-grade cocaine, in a sedation and stimulation combo that Mr. Ohler likens to a “classic speedball.” Added to this was his ongoing regimen of injected vitamins, hormones and steroids, which included extracts from the hearts and livers of animals; starting in the summer of 1943 came the opiates. “There are all these stories of party leaders coming to complain about their bombed-out cities,” Mr. Ohler said, “and Hitler just says: ‘We’re going to win. These losses make us stronger.’ And the leaders would say: ‘He knows something we don’t know. He probably has a miracle weapon.’ He didn’t have a miracle weapon. He had a miracle drug, to make everyone think he had a miracle weapon.” Mr. Ohler believes that Hitler’s drug consumption prolonged the war, by enabling his delusions.

I was struck by how sad and scary this story is, a whole army and its leader on a steady diet of heavy drugs that overrode normal functioning. What caught my attention and has more general relevance was what I found or didn’t find in the reviews of the Ohler book. It seems that the Nazis were not the only ones whose armies were under the influence. The Post says that methamphetamines were used by various armies during World War II as stimulants to aid fatigued soldiers. In 2014, the outnumbered and outgunned forces of the Islamic State staged their own blitzkrieg attack across Syria and Iraq, with professional armies melting away before them in retreat. It was later discovered that many fighters had been taking a methamphetamine called Captagon. Other reviewers don’t talk at all about this more widespread reality. I suppose it doesn’t fit their narrative.

In the case of the Nazis, I don’t mind a narrative that makes their evil seem unique, because I believe it was. In other cases, and we see it all around us today, narratives are pretty rigid and there is little openness to alternative possibilities. “Alternative truths” we decry, for sure, but not much place is given to real alternative viewpoints or narratives. We read or watch the news outlets that agree with our viewpoint, and they don’t try very hard to be balanced. This polarized reality has many victims, which is a subject for another day.

In the meantime, ponder all this at a time where calling out injustice and keeping an open mind are just a few of the challenges that face good citizens. Best, Bill Rudolph

Anti-Humanism

Purim, now in the rear view mirror, is a fun holiday but “lurking” behind it is the confrontation with anti-Semitism that never seems to end. Lately, here in America, we have seen it revive with the spate of bomb threats at JCC’s and the defacing of Jewish cemeteries. I don’t usually talk about this subject but it’s time to do so, sharing two colleague’s perspectives on this issue, one 40 years old and one written last week. This will be longer than my usual blogpost but it’s important and can’t be stated briefly.

Rabbi Benjamin Blech was an Orthodox shul rabbi in Oceanside and also wrote the famous The Idiot’s Guide to Understanding Judaism. 40 years ago the Jews of Oceanside woke up on Yom Kippur to find vandalization and curses painted at the entrance of all the local synagogues. He wrote at the time that when he heard the news reports saying that “a rash of anti-Semitic incidents struck Oceanside yesterday,” he thought, “wait a moment.” Were Semites the victims of prejudice or was it every member of society who values democratic ideals and the inalienable right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness? Wasn’t the collective fabric of a free and ethical society torn by these actions, not just one group? And he said it would have been better stated that “a rash of anti-human incidents struck Oceanside yesterday.”

Fast forward to today in America. Rabbi Mitchell Wohlberg, up the road in Baltimore, wrote last week that he didn’t understand what Rabbi Blech was teaching then – why universalize the issue? curse words weren’t written on churches – but does now. We Jews are not in danger in America. It’s America that is in danger. Those who are making the bomb threats and defacing the cemeteries likely didn’t recently become anti-Semites and don’t just hate Jews. They have probably been filled with hate most of their lives, but (and here is where it gets serious) they didn’t think they could express it. Only when they heard America talking about things in public that they had only talked about in private: bad hombres and rapists coming in from Mexico … spies coming in amongst Syrian refugees … blacks and carnage … terrorism being perpetrated by illegal immigrants … Muslims imposing Sharia law … the LGBTQ community taking over our bathrooms – when this kind of talk becomes public discourse then “the rats feel comfortable coming out of the sewers.”

It’s not surprising that in this climate Jews would not be left out of the discussion. Do you really think the killer of a man from India in Kansas wouldn’t have been just as content killing a Jew?  Jews are the eternal “other.”  It was Haman who gave the Jews that title when he advocated our annihilation to the king by saying: “There is one people scattered amongst the people in all the provinces of your realm, v’datayhem shonot – and their laws are different.”  And who wants to be around people who are different? Rabbi Blech was right!  What we are experiencing is not anti-Semitic incidents but anti-human incidents.  Hatred of a Jew is irrational.  And hating a person because of the color of his skin is rational?  Or because of the country from which she comes?  Or because of the religion he practices?  Hating someone because he or she is different, is an “other” … does that make any sense?  And what about the Biblical verse: “Have we not all one Father?  Has not one God created us? “

I think we are all in this together.  If it seems that here in America it is we Jews who are most under attack right now, probably because we are the most visible amongst the “others.”  And we are not just visible, we are powerful!  We are all over the newspapers and television and Hollywood.  The other “others” are usually the less educated, the less affluent.  We are the more educated, the more affluent.  And that makes them hate us even more!  But, don’t kid yourselves: They hate us all!

We would do well to remember the immortal words spoken by the great Protestant minister, Martin Niemoller, who spent the last seven years of Nazi rule in concentration camps.  You all know the words:
First they came for the Socialists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Socialist.
Then they came for the Trade Unionists, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Trade Unionist.
Then they came for the Jews, and I did not speak out – because I was not a Jew.
Then they came for me – and there was no one left to speak for me.

Yes, all us “others” are in this together.  None of us, as humans, are safe.  This means that in the years ahead we Jews are going to have to work with the other “others” – blacks, gays, refugees and yes, Muslims.  I didn’t always see that so clearly. Now I do. Hopefully you do too.                                                         Best, Bill Rudolph