I'm a talmudic scholar and former hitchhiker, circumnavigator, and newspaper columnist, living with my wife in St. Louis, Missouri, where I teach, write, and lecture. My forthcoming book, Proverbial Beauty: Secrets for success and happiness from the wisdom of the ages, is due out in July.
Chanukah: the origin of Cancel Culture
Posted in Uncategorized on December 15, 2020
23 centuries ago, the army of Alexander the Great marched into Jerusalem. The ensuing occupation of the Jewish capital proceeded, at the outset, with unexpected smoothness and goodwill.
The Greeks had brought to the world the first secular culture aspiring to more than wealth, lust, and power. Guided by pure aestheticism, Greek art, architecture, and drama demonstrated an affinity for abstract pursuits and singular respect for cerebral engagement. The result was an asynchrony of mutual admiration and appreciation between the Jews and their new masters.
But the veneer of intellectual integrity projected by Greek culture was a sham. Socrates, the teacher of Plato and father of rational inquiry, was sentenced to death for corrupting the youth of Athens. His unpardonable sin: posing questions that made his students think by challenging the status quo of conventional wisdom.
Judaism thoroughly endorses Socrates’ famous dictum that the unexamined life is not worth living, a philosophy that infuriated the Greek establishment. The foundational principle of Jewish tradition that human beings are not perfect creations, but perpetual works-in-progress, grated against the Greek notion that man is a divine creature in no need of improvement.
Recognizing that the theology of the Jews would never bend to accommodate the worldview of their masters, the Syrian-Greek ruler Antiochus Epiphanes issued edicts forbidding three religious practices: Sabbath observance, ritual circumcision, and the sanctification of the New Month. His assault on these specific institutions illustrates how our ideological enemies often understand us better than we understand ourselves.
The Candles and the Tree
Posted in Uncategorized on December 7, 2020
A modern Chanukah story from the season of miracles and redemption
It was the December after my ninth birthday. A menorah rested on the bookshelf over the television console. Across the room, beside the fireplace, the lights of a tree twinkled red and green and blue. I was standing next to my mother as she held a candle in her hand. My father wasn’t there. He wasn’t into these things.
My mother lit the lone candle, ushering in the first night of Chanukah. She didn’t recite the blessing. She didn’t know it. I remember watching the wick catch, watching the flame grow bright, and asking myself, “Now what happens?”
“We light the candles for eight nights because the oil burned for eight days,” my mother had told me. What oil? I wondered. But something about her brief explanation convinced me not to ask. Maybe she didn’t know, either.
A year or two later, at my suggestion, the menorah had disappeared and only the tree remained. Waiting for the morning of December 25th when all the presents could be opened at once seemed far more dramatic than diluting the experience over a week, especially when those wrapped boxes mysteriously appeared under the tree day after day over the course of almost a whole month. Chanukah just couldn’t compete.
Only two decades later did I come to appreciate how much my own experience had truly been a Chanukah story.
SEEKING SPIRITUALITY FROM A TO ZEN
When I left home for college I left behind the tree with the menorah. December 25th had become as irrelevant as Santa Claus, and I preferred an envelope with a check to wrapped presents that would most likely be returned for credit. I adopted the ambivalent agnosticism of so many of my peers, celebrating dormitory weekends by emptying six-packs rather than observing commercialized annual holidays with empty rituals.
Sometime toward the end of my university career I found myself attracted to Zen. Not in the traditional style, with its practices of discipline and self-mastery, but the pop-spiritual variety learned from Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance and similar modern scriptures.
Aligning myself with the spiritual energy of the universe became my goal. I wanted to choose good over evil because ultimately that brought good karma and spiritual contentment. Surely, this was the road to Truth.
But we all know which road is paved with good intentions. As sincere as I may have been in my aspiration to travel the road to truth, I found with annoying frequency that when my desire to do good clashed with my desire to indulge evil, good threw in the towel at least two times out of three. Forced to take stock of myself, I had to concede that, for all its high-sounding ideals, a spiritual discipline that produced no moral discipline wasn’t worth its mantras.
TOO LATE FOR THE HIPPIES
I hadn’t developed much discipline in my academic life, either. Oh, my grades were good enough, but four years studying English literature and writing had left me with neither gainful employment nor vocational direction. It was 1983, a decade late to join the hippies or beatniks, but that didn’t stop me from swinging a backpack over my shoulders and hitchhiking across the country. If I hadn’t found Truth in the ivory tower, perhaps I might find it in the heart of America.
Sixth months crisscrossing the country brought me no closer to Truth, but it did whet my wanderlust, and I soon boarded a flight across the Atlantic to continue my journey through Europe, after which Africa, Asia, and Australia lay upon my horizon.
Half a year in Europe ended with a short hop across the Mediterranean to Israel, where I sought the classical Jewish experience of volunteering to pick oranges on a kibbutz. But it was December, with little agricultural work to be done; moreover, the dollar was strong, resulting in some 9 million American tourists in Europe, many of them draining south into Israel as winter weather set in. I found the kibbutz placement office blocked by a line of 20-somethings camped out like they were waiting for Rolling Stones tickets, oblivious to signs screaming, NO PLACEMENTS BEFORE JANUARY.
Desperate for a break from the stresses of travel on a shoestring, I cast about for some way of imposing routine upon my life before departing for Africa and, somehow, found myself invited to attend yeshiva.
Yeshiva? The word was unfamiliar, but the offer of a bed, hot meals, and a daily schedule of classes proved irresistible. It was two weeks before Chanukah, and I would finally learn about the secrets of the menorah and the miracle of the oil.
THE CLASH OF CULTURES
Although a period of peaceful coexistence followed Alexander the Great’s occupation of the Land of Israel, it didn’t take long after Alexander’s death before the Greeks began to feel first discomfited and later threatened by their Jewish subjects and the Judaism they practiced. Greek philosophy recognized man as the pinnacle of creation, perfect in his accomplishments, answerable to no one but himself. Greek mythology embraced a pantheon of gods characterized by caprice and selfishness, by lust and vengeance, thereby sanctioning similar behavior among men. How offended must the Greeks have been by a Jewish society devoted to self-perfection through submission to a divine code of moral conduct.
When they could no longer tolerate the Jewish threat to their ideals, the Greeks contrived to destroy Jewish ideology. Whereas their predecessors, Babylon and Persia, had employed violent oppression, the Greeks plotted with far greater subtlety: in place of physical violence or outright prohibition of Torah observance, they banned only three practices: the Sabbath, bris milah (circumcision), and Rosh Chodesh, the sanctification of the new month.
The Sabbath testifies to the divine nature of the universe; without this weekly reminder, we easily loose touch with and ultimately forget our relationship with our Creator. Bris milah is the sign of our higher calling, reminding us that we can control our physical impulses rather than allowing them to control us, that each of us is a work-in-progress striving toward self-completion and self-perfection. Rosh Chodesh is the ceremony that fixes the calendar and imbues the Jewish holidays with an intrinsic holiness. Without Rosh Chodesh, placement of the holidays would become arbitrary, leeching all meaning from them the way American Federal holidays have lost all substance in the eyes of most Americans.
The Jews refused to submit, and in the end the Greeks resorted to violence. But their plan had been sound: had they succeeded in stopping our adherence to these three precepts, they would have succeeded also in reducing Torah observance to an empty ritual, one that might have continued on for generations, but would have quickly become bereft of all meaning and spiritual significance. For this reason, the observance of Chanukah always includes one Sabbath, always passes through Rosh Chodesh, and is eight days long as a remembrance of the brit, the covenant between the Jew and his Creator.
Chanukah celebrates victory not only over our Greek oppressors, but also over the Hellenists, those Jews who promoted a new syncretism of Judaism, wherein they hoped to intermingle Jewish practice with that which they found most attractive in Greek culture. The Maccabees recognized the total incompatibility between Greek ideology and Jewish philosophy, and that ultimately one would have to prevail over the other. Without staunch defenders fighting for Jewish identity, the candles of Judaism would inevitably be extinguished and only the tree of foreign culture would remain.
ILLUMINATING THE GENERATIONS
Despite the victory of the Maccabees, the Greeks did not disappear. To this day they persist in their cultural assault against the values of Jewish tradition. The nine year old boy in America, or Britain, or even in Israel, who looks at the Chanukah candles and wonders what they mean, who sees no difference between the flames of the menorah and the twinkling lights of the tree, testifies to the victory of the Greeks.
But not every child has forgotten the lights. The rekindling of the menorah each year reminds us that the torch of Jewish tradition continues to illuminate generation after generation and dispel the darkness of apathy and assimilation. However much the ideological descendants of the Greeks strive to extinguish the lights, the eternal flame that burns within the soul of the Jewish people still shines on and on.
In my own observance of Chanukah, I rejoice that my own nine-year-old and her siblings are growing up not only with the lights of the menorah, but with a growing understanding of what they mean. I’m grateful that I can give them what my parents were unable to give me: self-knowledge, the greatest weapon against cultural extinction. They know already that a tree beside the fireplace in December is not part of their world; as they grow older they will appreciate why it is not, and why a menorah is.
Through the generations and across the world, our people have successfully adapted to living as guests among disparate societies, but only by retaining a strong sense of our history, the values of our heritage, and a familiarity with the culture that keeps our sense of identity alive and vibrant. Compromise these, and the Jew, together with his Judaism, will surely vanish. Preserve them, and we guarantee that the victory of the Hasmoneans over the Greeks will be renewed in every generation as a victory of the Jewish people over assimilation.
Originally published in the St. Louis Jewish Light in 1997.
Is life unfair?
Posted in Uncategorized on April 21, 2020
Anyone who has raised children — or been a child — should be well familiar with the plaint, “It’s not fair!”
If we’re honest, however, we’ll admit that our intolerance for unfairness is something we never outgrow.
- Another candidate got the job.
- My co-worker got the promotion.
- The professor gave me a B.
- It was the other driver’s fault.
- Why did my neighbour win the lottery and not me?
And those are the mundane questions. The far more imposing question of universal injustice is either too painful to contemplate or too devastating to ignore:
- The Pacific Rim tsunami.
- Hurricane Katrina.
- The twin towers.
- COVID -19.
- The Holocaust.
We want to believe in an all-powerful, all-merciful God. But how can we believe in a God who allows acts of injustice great and small or, even worse, seems to perpetuate them Himself?
Let’s start with a most fundamental question: why did God create the universe?
Small steps to greatness
Posted in History, Philosophy, Spirituality on January 7, 2020
Why did the least of Hillel’s students have the greatest impact? How can we learn to follow in the footsteps of greatness?
Rosh Hashanah and the conversation of sages
Posted in Uncategorized on September 25, 2019
TEDx talk: How I Became my own Worst Nightmare
Posted in Culture, Philosophy, Politics on August 4, 2019
Hitchhiking, Fundamentalism, and the Art of Ethical Communication
The Pitchfork of Prayer — Insights into Sukkah 14a
Posted in Philosophy, Spirituality on August 4, 2019
My party, right or wrong
Why Republicans shouldn’t expect to win over Jewish voters
If Moses won’t come to the mountain, bring the mountain to Moses.
This might be the tagline from conservative strategists’ latest brainstorm: according to Politico, the Republican Jewish Coalition is spearheading a multi-million dollar campaign to woo Jewish voters away from their generations-long love affair with the Democrat party.
A more accurate tagline might be: Good night and good luck.
The proposed PR blitz presumes that the party loyalty of American Jews can be weakened by a two-pronged attack. First, invoking American policy toward Israel. Second, attributing the resurgence of anti-Semitism to liberal political policy.
Both assumptions are flawed, and here’s why.
Most American Jews are deeply conflicted about the State of Israel. As I explain in my article, “Why Jews are Liberals,” the average American Jew has largely abandoned every outward vestige of his Judaism. All he has left is the echo of Jewish idealism, the mission to elevate human society by serving as a model of virtue.
That’s good as far as it goes. But untethered from the practices of traditional Jewish observance, that idealism has no discernible outlet except through the causes of social justice – which, perforce, require supporting every underdog against every establishment, any David against any Goliath.
Based on that template, the First World, along with its every manifestation, is intrinsically evil. Western Civilization, capitalism, the tech industry, and economic success – all these must be lumped together as villains and oppressors. The success of American Jews themselves is atoned for through Jewish guilt and active support for victims.
Those victims are defined, for the sake of convenience, as any person or group opposing or opposed by people or nations of privilege. And since Israel is an American ally, a military power, and an economic dynamo, by definition it automatically gets filed in the category of “oppressor.”
This is why the perverse rewriting of history that brands Israel as an aggressor and occupier garners so little objection from American Jews. It doesn’t fit the narrative; therefore, it challenges the basic assumptions of what American Jews believe. See no evil; hear no evil.
That’s why American Jews, 78% of whom supported Barack Obama in 2008, continued to support him overwhelmingly in 2012. Despite a long record of undisguised and unapologetic animus toward Israel, Mr. Obama retained 69% of the Jewish vote when he ran for reelection. There’s little cause to believe that Donald Trump could ever erode that margin significantly further.
The issue of anti-Semitism is even more of a non-starter, for much the same reasons.
Despite many generations of history proving otherwise, secular Jews have long believed that anti-Semitism is the natural consequence of drawing attention to themselves. The remedy is to blend in. And, since most American Jews associate only with liberals and progressives, they can’t even conceptualize deviating from the party line as a viable option.
With so much invested in progressive ideology, American Jews won’t let little details like Democrat Congresswoman IIhan Omar’s open anti-Semitism or Beto O’Rourke’s slur of Benyamin Netanyahu shake their party loyalty. Always, ideology trumps ethnicity.
It’s worth noting that the large majority of Orthodox Jews identify themselves as politically conservative. The failure of social justice programs, abandonment of traditional values, and militant hostility toward Israel provide more than enough reason for the religious to reject progressive liberalism in general and the Democrat party in particular.
But the religious still make up only a small minority of American Jews, and the Republicans don’t need a campaign to win them over.
What strategy should be employed to turn American Jews? The same one that should be used toward mainstream liberals. Rather than trying to shame them by challenging the political allegiance, quietly leave them agonize over their party’s abdication to the extreme left wing. They may not vote Republican, but they may stay home and note vote at all.
Published in Jewish World Review and the Jewish Press
The Ninth Night of Chanukah: Keeping the light alive after the last candle goes out
Posted in Culture, History, Holidays, Jewish Unity, Philosophy, Spirituality on January 7, 2019
Chanukah isn’t really over after the eighth night; in a sense, it’s just beginning. Watch this video to discover the disconcerting aftermath of the Maccabean victory and the enduring legacy of the Hasmoneans.
Cremation vs. Burial: Preserving Human Dignity in Life and Death
Posted in Culture, Philosophy, Spirituality on January 3, 2019
The body is more than just a garment; it is at essence a servant to the soul.
Our hands enable us to reach out to others, to perform acts of kindness, to give charity, to caress those whom we love. Our legs carry us to visit the sick and aid those in need. Our mouths allow us to articulate words of higher ideals, to study the wisdom of our people, to elevate our voices in prayer. Our minds spur us to contemplate the nobility that defines our humanity and reflect upon the magnificent design of the universe.
To merely cast off a faithful servant once his or her service is no longer required is the height of ingratitude. Such a servant deserves to be escorted with dignity, with respect, and with love.
So too the body, which has served us in life, deserves to be treated with reverence in death.
What form does that reverence take?