Sunday, December 04, 2016

Time to Put Environmental Protection at the Top of Our Personal Agendas



Even though the media seems to be giving the issue relatively short shrift – at least compared to more pressing topics, such as what the President-Elect and Mitt Romney had for dinner during their latest meeting (frogs’ legs) -- I have been thinking lately about the North Dakota oil pipeline dispute.   The reports that have emerged are very disturbing.  Allegedly, the members of Standing Rock Sioux Tribe are being told in essence to trust the powers-that-be that their native lands will be fully secure even though a burst in the oil pipeline could have catastrophic consequences to that land.  At the same time, we all are being told that the new Administration intends to make major rollbacks on regulations, including environmental regulations.

What then should be the basis for the Standing Rock Sioux’s confidence that their sacred lands will be protected?   Am I missing something?

If we pay close attention to the needs of our planet, the Standing Rock Sioux dispute is but one of many environmental controversies that we can expect to hear about in the upcoming months.  Personally, I am very fearful about how the environment will fare in the next few years – and believe me, it’s not exactly like our nation’s record over the past several years has been stellar, but I’m preparing for matters to get far worse at a time when we can least afford it. 

Given that we are precisely one week away from the Washington, D.C. Imam-Rabbi Summit, I am reminded of a passage from one of my novels when a character discusses the importance of environmental protection in the context of a Scriptural story that is sacred to Jews and Muslims alike.  The book is Moses the Heretic (published by Aegis Press), and the passage I have in mind begins at page 93.  It is told from the perspective of the book’s title character, a contemporary rabbi named Moses Levine.  I will end this blogpost by quoting the passage in its entirety.   May it remind you of the duties that we all as individuals have to our planet and the fact that these duties arise not only out of secular principles, but religious ones as well.  Here are the words of Moses Levine, talking about one of his sermons:

I told my congregation that it always bothered me to hear people interpret the Akedah as pointing out the importance of obeying God.   “Because of this story,” I told my congregation, “Abraham has gone down in history as the quintessential servant.  His master says 'Kill your son.'  And Abraham doesn't need to know why.  He heard the command, and that's all he had to hear.” 

“Frankly,” I continued, “that Abraham sounds more like a Nazi executioner than a Jew.  My Abraham is a little different.  He isn't just any Jew, nor is he just any Patriarch.  He is the very first Jew, a true pioneer.  He is the one who saw for himself that only the one eternal, limitless source of all beings, living and dead, is worthy of the term 'God.'   And Abraham had the will to commit himself to this philosophy when all around him worshiped idols. 

“Does that man sound like someone who doesn't question, but just follows orders?

“If you want the Akedah to symbolize something meaningful, you don't have to rip apart your image of a great Patriarch.  You only have to consider what finally happened, and why.  At the end of the day, Abraham didn't kill his son.  We learn, in fact, that such sacrifices are contrary to Judaism.  The Akedah demonstrates in the most graphic way possible that some conduct is simply unacceptable no matter what the circumstances.

“A great story like the Akedah has many lessons.  Perhaps the most powerful is that one generation has no right to sacrifice the next.  Most people understand that we’re not meant to be our children’s executioners, but few appreciate their proper role as trustees.  Think of the Akedah when businesses spoil the environment.  Think of the Akedah when politicians run up the national debt.  Think, too, of the Akedah when you contemplate a really good grade-school teacher you once had.  That teacher could surely have made so much more money in another occupation, yet for some reason she chose instead to educate a future generation.  She decided to enrich and nurture those who will follow her as adults.  So did Abraham.”

“Thomas Jefferson wasn't a Jew, but he often wrote like one.  In a letter to Madison, he wrote that 'The earth belongs in usufruct to the living.'  I'd never heard the term 'usufruct' before I read that letter, but it was the perfect choice.  To possess property in usufruct means to have both the right to enjoy it for the present and the obligation to preserve it intact for the future. 

'Usufruct' is a difficult word; it almost makes you grind your teeth to say it.  But that's fitting, because holding the earth in usufruct isn't an easy thing to do.  Consuming is fun, and serving as a steward can be frustrating.  But Jews have no choice.  We adults owe it to our descendants to let them inherit all the beauty we were given – every species of animal we can befriend, every rose we can smell.  This earth, God’s earth, belongs as much to our children as it does to us, just as Jewish traditions belong as much to us as to those who stood at Sinai with Moses. 

That, my friends, is what the Akedah means to me.”

Saturday, November 26, 2016

Giving Thanks in America, Giving Prayers to Israel




Empathic Rationalism begins at home, which means that we all have a God-given right to empathize with ourselves.  That in turns affords us the right to vent, at least to ourselves, if not publicly.    
Truly, no religious person should ever have a totally lousy Thanksgiving weekend.   After all, a big part of faith is feeling gratitude to our Ultimate Benefactor, and Thanksgiving weekend is set aside every year to do just that.  So yes, allow me to thank God for giving us a world that is so wonderful that, for most of us, our worst fear involves departing from the world or having loved ones depart from it.  Even on weekends like this one – where, at least for me, not too much has gone well – we still need to be thankful for what we do have.   And that is plenty.  

Here in America, a lot of people are unhappy about this month’s election.   Some loonies on the left are spending millions of dollars to see if they can undo its apparent results.   Others on that side of the political spectrum are so depressed that, even now, nearly three weeks after the election, they have trouble getting out of bed or carrying on their daily duties.   Personally, I’m experiencing no shortage of trepidation about the immediate future, but I’m going about my business – and I’m thankful about that, because doing office work has probably been the high point of my weekend so far.   Not exactly what the Pilgrims had in mind.

But on this Thanksgiving Shabbat morning, my thoughts are really not about myself and any minor struggles I might be going through.   I’m thinking about life halfway across the world in a small place called Israel.   At least I call it that.   Others feel that the name “Israel” is an anathema to their lips. 
Sheikh Mishary Alfasy Rashid is likely one such person.  As I prepare to help coordinate the Washington D.C., Imam-Rabbi Summit for the third time, Sheikh Rashid, the imam of Kuwait’s Grand Mosque was busy this week tweeting to his 11 million followers.  Suffice it to say that the vibe he brings to Muslim-Jewish affairs is a bit different than my own – or at least that’s what I’ve been gathering from reading the Jerusalem Post, one of the world’s leading English-language newspapers about Israel.

After reflecting on the fact that tens of thousands of Haifa residents have been displaced from their homes due to more than a dozen fires that have been raging in their country, Sheikh Rashid tweeted in Arabic, "Good luck to the fires. #Israel_IsBurning," and punctuated this with a smiley face icon and photos of the fires.  

One of Rashid’s countryman, a Sheikh named Nabil Ali al-Awad, was forced to content himself with tweeting to a mere six million followers – barely half the audience that Sheikh Rashid enjoys.   Sheik al-Awad’s contribution to the discourse was to say that “God burned their hearts and their homes and their money and their bodies and make their graves inflamed...because of what they did to the [Muslim] believers,” before providing the hashtag "#Israel_IsBurning."   Later, as you might expect, Sheik al-Awad apologized for his tweet.  Specifically, he apologized for using the word “Israel” in his earlier tweet,” adding that "there is no such entity. I used the word as part of a hashtag."

Sheikh’s Rashid and al-Awad reflect one side of Muslim opinion, one that obviously has quite a few adherents.  And let us interfaith advocates please not whitewash that truth.  But there is, fortunately, another side of Muslim opinion, rest assured about that as well.  It is reflected by the fact that Muslims from all over the region have been providing Israel with fire fighters to damp down the blazes.  At least two different teams of fire fighters who were deployed to help in Haifa were Palestinians who were sent by the Palestinian authority.  Thanks to them, in addition to photos indicating that “#Israel Is Burning,” we also now have photos of Israeli and Palestinian men  working together on the sacred task of saving Israel ... or Palestine ... or whatever you want to call the place known to me as the Holy Land.  Why do I call it that?   There are many reasons, not the least of which is that were it not for my trip there in 1981, I still might not believe in any “Ultimate Benefactor” to whom to give thanks.  

The biggest tragedy that is happening in Israel this week doesn’t involve the death of plants, though plants are holy.   Nor does it involve the destruction of homes, though homes are holy.  Nor – and believe me, this is especially hard to write – does it even involve the injuries, some of which are critical injuries, to dozens of suffering Israelis.  The greatest tragedy is that the nation is now ablaze with the same kind of accusations and mistrust that have been destroying the soul of this place for decade upon decade, with seemingly no end in sight, and seemingly no limit to the future destruction that those forces will bring.  Israeli officials are publicly declaring that much of the fire damage is a result of Palestinian arson.   Palestinian officials are publicly declaring that those who allege arson have engaged in an irresponsible rush to judgment.   And for any of us who don’t live in the Holy Land and who actually care about what goes on there, we’re left to our own speculation and biases when it comes to deciding what really is happening and why. 

The only thing we can really know beyond a reasonable doubt is how difficult it will be to make peace between the two peoples who are fighting over the Holy Land.  Oh, it is easy enough to envision the leaders of the Palestinians and Jews inking some sort of treaty.  But how would such a treaty – which surely would be opposed by substantial minorities -- eliminate all the hatred that exists between the two peoples?  How would the fact that many rabbis and imams attend summits together and send intrepid followers to fight fires together outweigh the fact that many other leaders in this region are so blinded by their hatred that they cheer the destruction of trees, homes, even lives, and attribute the slaughter to the will of God?  Assuming the latter continue to have millions upon millions of followers, and some of these followers have access to weapons, how could that ever-evasive but ultimately-inevitable peace treaty possibly bring real peace to the region? 

But enough with such questions.   Let me end this with something inspiring, not depressing.
I will give you a link to a song by the great Debbie Friedman, who gave the world so many beautiful Jewish melodies before she passed away five years ago at the age of 60.  The lyrics to the song are below.  To state the obvious, the land she is talking about in this song, well – it is the same land that has been burning these past few days.  But don’t worry, as filled as that land is with pain and suffering, it is equally resilient.   Nothing is more resilient than Israel. 

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8WrShnKTWY    

L'chi lach, to a land that I will show you
Leich l'cha, to a place you do not know
L'chi lach, on your journey I will bless you
And (you shall be a blessing) l'chi lach
And (you shall be a blessing) l'chi lach
And (you shall be a blessing) l'chi lach
L'chi lach, and I shall make your name great
Leich l'cha, and all shall praise your name
L'chi lach, to the place that I will show you
l'chi lach
(L'sim-chat cha-yim) l'chi lach
(L'sim-chat cha-yim) l'chi lach
 

Saturday, November 19, 2016

Coming to Grips with the Democrats' Defeat




I’m actually scared because the Republicans won this election.  But at least I can take some solace in the fact that the Democrats lost.

Lately, I’ve been realizing that I’m a man without a party.  Oh, I vote Democrat.  But I don’t have any more passion for voting Democrat than, say, the Democrats have for implementing progressive tax reform.   (Did you notice that when they had the White House, the House of Representatives, and 60 Senators, they still didn’t bother to tackle that issue with any fervor?)

From where I’m sitting, none of the parties that fielded a Presidential candidate excites enthusiasm.   The Republicans are climate-change ignoring, fundamental-rights denying, economic trickle downers who, when last in power, opened up Pandora’s Box in the Middle East.  The Libertarians are Let-Em-Eat-Cakers who are happy to use the benefits of Government like everyone else but unwilling to show any gratitude for what they take.  The Greens are opposed to Zionism and accordingly I won’t even think about supporting them; long live the Jewish State!  And the Democrats?  My party?   The party I used to associate with activism, public service, and caring about the working class?   From what I can tell, they’re now controlled by a bunch of rich folks who’ve figured out how to cash in on their past government service but still sound as sanctimonious and self-righteous as if they were toiling in the projects.

My mom and dad worked every day of my childhood for their GS-whatever salary.  They were progressive economists who cared deeply about economic equity.  He worked for the Labor Department.  She worked for a variety of federal agencies.  They have nothing whatsoever in common with the current faces of the Democratic Party, except for a few outliers, most notably Bernie Sanders, who many of my Democratic friends have often reminded me “isn’t a real Democrat anyway.”

If you want to know who the real Democrats are, just look at their standard bearers.  Hillary – the self-proclaimed “Progressive” – claimed nearly one million dollars for three speeches that she delivered to public universities.  She “earned” more money in those three speeches than my parents would have made in several years doing the nation’s business.  The University of Missouri-Kansas City refused to pay Hillary the $275K that she was asking for a single speech, so instead they paid daughter Chelsea $65,000.  To be precise, this 33-year-old woman, who was not an entrepreneur, a possessor of a graduate degree, an Olympian, or even a Kardashian, seized $65,000 of public funds to speak for ten minutes, participate in a twenty-minute Q&A session, and take thirty minutes to pose for photographs.   (If you’re incredulous about these facts – and I can hardly blame you -- go to:   https://www.washingtonpost.com/politics/a-college-balks-at-hillary-clintons-fee-so-books-chelsea-for-65000-instead/2015/06/29/b1918e42-1e78-11e5-84d5-eb37ee8eaa61_story.html.)  Precisely how is Chelsea, who like her mother purports to be an advocate for the needy, demonstrating a willingness to make personal sacrifices?

This figured to be a so-called “change” election, my friends.  A large majority of Americans have been telling pollsters that the nation was on the wrong track.   The Democrats were ripe for the plucking.  Fortunately for their chances, however, the Republicans nominated a political novice with a propensity for saying things that shock the conscience.  He had us all convinced that the election was in the bag for the Democrats.   But, like usual, the Democrats didn’t play to win – they simply played not to lose.   They never bothered to announce an exciting initiative that would cause working-class and middle-class Americans to affirmatively want to elect them.  As is their wont, they campaigned under the slogan, “The Republicans Are Evil and Scary and We are Not.”  

“Be Afraid, Be Very Afraid” is not a motto that brings too many people to the ballot boxes.    As a result, two out of three Governors next year will be Republicans.  And in 2019, after a disproportionate number of Democratic Senators are up for re-election, we could easily have 55 or more Republican Senators.  At some point, the Democrats are going to have to make a case for themselves – other than that they are really shrewd at negotiating high speaking fees from public universities.

You would think that the Democrats would take a bit of time after last week’s debacle to reflect on what went wrong with their party.  But self-reflection is painful, and besides, we have a great crutch available to help us deny that we even lost the election.  All hail the popular vote!  To quote a column in this past Monday’s Washington Post written by Democratic columnist E.J. Dionne Jr. (now that the print media has given up any pretense of objectivity, we should probably identify columnists by their Party affiliation), “Let’s be clear: The United States of America is not Donald Trump’s country. When all the returns are in, Hillary Clinton will emerge with a popular vote lead of some 1.5 million to 2 million votes....  To point out Clinton’s popular-vote advantage is not a form of liberal denial.  It’s a way of beginning to build a barricade against right-wing triumphalism – and of reminding immigrants, Muslims, African Americans, Latinos, and yes, our daughters that most Americans stood with them on Election Day.”  

It’s nice to be a Democrat, isn’t it?  You can love yourself and your fellow travelers, glibly smear your political opponents as rank bigots, and still with a clear conscience negotiate a $65,000 fee for your daughter to give a ten-minute speech.  Even in defeat, you can still be a winner!    

Personally, I strongly oppose the Electoral College.  I come from what Howard Dean once called the “Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party.”  I don’t like to see some citizens holding more power than others simply because of what state they live in.  I also hate the fact that half of the country goes to the ballot box every presidential election knowing in their hearts that their votes don’t mean a damned thing because their state is either cardinal red or navy blue.  I can live with the inequalities inherent in the idea that even the relatively unpopulated states have two Senators, but I hate having to bring those inequalities to presidential politics as well.  

So yes, Democrats, try all you want to get rid of the Electoral College. I'm with you there.  But let us not demean ourselves by suggesting that Trump didn’t really and clearly win this election.  The election was all about who could get to 270 Electoral votes – and it appears that he surpassed 300.  Gore v. Bush was one thing, because it was hardly clear who really won Florida.  But to suggest that this election wasn’t really won by Trump due to the popular vote is like whining about losing a baseball game simply because your team got more baserunners than the other team did.  You don’t play baseball to get baserunners; you play baseball to score runs.  And these candidates didn’t campaign to win the popular votes; they campaigned to run the most powerful government in the world by getting to 270.   Dionne understands that; he just can't bring himself to confront the limitations of his party head on; like most liberal columnists, he has to make every column an attack on those evil Republicans. 

Also, what is especially ironic about all this “popular vote” whining is that some of the same Democrats who now are indignant about the Electoral College are the ones that gave us Superdelegates.  Throughout the primaries, the Clinton News Network (and, if memory serves, MSNBC as well) would include the Superdelegates in their overall delegate tallies, which made it seem like Hillary had a huge lead over Bernie even though the fact is that the vote was relatively close.  Personally, I think that Hillary would have beaten Bernie fair and square because she really did have an African-American firewall in the South.  But the powers-that-be in the party weren’t going to take the chance of a fair and square nomination.  As has now been abundantly chronicled, the party elites wanted to make sure that their candidate (and not Bernie) would win, break that glass ceiling, and ensure that their party would be as nonthreatening as ever in the fall elections.   In this context -- i.e., a change election -- nonthreatening means gutless, feckless and ultimately, pointless.

And that brings me to the final irony I’d like to point out.

Truth be told, as obnoxious as the Democrats can be in playing identity politics, they are correct that this is a country with continuing racism and sexism problems.  Those problems aren't, as many Republicans would like to argue, things of the past.  They are actually quite profound.  And that's why it is so curious that neither the Democrats nor the Clintons were ever willing to take seriously the ramifications of these problems.  Whichever party wants to get a woman or non-white elected President had better take seriously the need to overcome the effects of bigotry.   Stated simply, women and minorities who hope to win the world’s most important election had better epitomize integrity, relate well to the residents of small towns, affluent suburbs, and inner cities, and above all else, bring a message of change.

Shaking down the state of Missouri for $275K – or $65 K for your daughter – is not a message of change. And if it’s a message of progressivism, my parents clearly didn’t teach me the proper meaning of that word.  (Obviously, Hillary's problems didn't start and end with the speaking fees, but I trust that you appreciate that these examples are emblematic of a greater array of issues, some of which I'm not comfortable addressing in this blog.)

The tragic truth is that Hillary Clinton as a candidate was always fools’ gold.   She herself acknowledged that, unlike her husband, she is not a natural politician.  And indeed, she faced a substantial amount of sexism that is difficult to overestimate because so much of it is subtle.   The only reason she came close to breaking that glass ceiling was because she ran against the perfect foil – and yet, despite all of the President-Elect's shortcomings, she still lost.  If that's not a warning sign, what is?

The Democratic Party needs to come to grips with the fact that it is time to move on from the Baby Boom generation and from fat-and-happy politicians and find some leaders who are young and hungry.  But first, those Generation Xers need to figure out what it is they are hungry for.  For many, the answer will be personal status, extravagant “cribs,” lots of expensive vacations, and opportunities to send their kids into tony private schools.   Those are not the ones I’m looking for.  I’m looking for someone my parents could have related to.  They grew up poor, you see.  Apparently, they were no more "real Democrats” than Bernie Sanders.

Sunday, November 13, 2016

And Now for Something Completely Different





Let me begin with an apology.  I know that to the extent I made any predictions on this blog about the Presidential Election, I could not have been more wrong.  I’ve always understood that Hillary Clinton had a chance to lose but would have laid heavy odds against that happening.  

I have resolved never again to doubt Nate Silver’s predictions about politics.   And shame on me for doubting the principle that whoever Americans would rather see serve as an analyst on a football game is likely to win the Presidential Election.  That latter principle has now been borne out literally ten times in a row.   It has been since 1976 – when Ford, after pardoning Nixon, lost to Carter – when the candidate we’d rather hear announce a football game has lost the election.  Call it the “relatability” factor.  It looms incredibly large in Presidential Elections.

Believe me when I say that I’m tempted to try to use today’s blogpost to provide some insights on the Election and where it leaves us.   At a minimum, I’d like to share some of my deeper emotions -- other than the fact that the outcome scares me in multiple ways (first and foremost of which is what it portends about the exacerbation of our climate change problem).   But I have decided to avoid saying anything more today about the topic, and here’s why: emotions are still way too raw.   Regardless of whether you are euphoric about the outcome or are neck deep in one of the stages of grief, I’d rather wait a bit before further provoking your thoughts or sharing some emotions.  

So, if this blogpost is not going to delve into the Election, is there anything else that we can possibly talk about?  Isn’t the Election all that matters in the entire universe right now?   Actually, I would propose an alternative.   Recently, I delivered a talk about a topic that has been obsessing me for several years.  The talk focused on my favorite philosopher, Baruch Spinoza, a 17th Century figure who is now either celebrated or loathed as a heretic.  Here is how I announced the topic to my philosophy society:

“My essay on ‘Spinoza and Contemporary Judaism’ was inspired by the 2012 “Spinozium” at Washington’s Theatre J, where those in attendance voted on whether to overturn the cherem (Spinoza’s excommunication from his Jewish community). I remember being surprised that so many in the audience seemed to have no qualms about the cherem.  After all, I tend to accept Leo Strauss’ thesis that ‘modern Judaism is a synthesis between rabbinical Judaism and Spinoza.’ If that is even half true, and if Bertrand Russell is even arguably correct that “Spinoza is the noblest and most loveable of the great philosophers ... ethically he is supreme,” shouldn’t Spinoza be embraced as part of the pantheon of modern-Jewish heroes? At some point, however, I had to face up to the fact that a number of Spinoza’s statements in his Theological-Political Treatise could be associated with garden-variety anti-Semitic teachings, including the notion that Christianity is a religion based on love, freedom and universal ethics, whereas Judaism is based on law, obedience, and tribalism. This essay is my attempt to grapple with such statements while at the same time expressing why they need not take away from Spinoza’s good name as someone who was not merely a Jew who philosophizes but also a truly Jewish philosopher.”

The essay – which, once again, is entitled “Spinoza and Contemporary Judaism” – can be found on the Spinoza Writings page of my website, http://www.danielspiro.com/spinoza.html      I think you will find the essay accessible regardless of your prior background in Spinoza or Judaism.  And let’s face it – we can all use a distraction from “The Topic” right now, if only a brief one.

So let me encourage you to check out the essay, continue to work through your thoughts and feelings about everyone’s obsession du jour, and expect that I will address that latter topic in the relatively near future.

All the best, from the Empathic Rationalist.