Saturday, February 06, 2016

Ushering in the Super Bowl with Some Interfaith Dialogue


On several dozen occasions over the past seven years, I’ve helped to coordinate public dialogues between Jews and Muslims.  The dialogues have involved a wide range of subjects, including both what divides these two communities and what unifies them.   We’ve talked about theology, the Israel/Palestine Conflict, what it means to be a minority group in America, the Prophets, gender roles … you name it, we have discussed it.  I’ve thoroughly enjoyed these discussions over the years, not only because they have helped me get to know a cousin faith more intimately but also because the experience has made me a more knowledgeable and committed Jew. 

Tomorrow, aka Super Bowl Sunday, my organization, the Jewish-Islamic Dialogue Society of Washington (JIDS), will hold its next dialogue.   As you can see from going to www.jids.org, which provides the precise time and venue of the event, the session is entitled “The Future of Judaism, the Future of Islam.”    While the Panthers and the Broncos will be psyching themselves up for the Big Game later in the day, we at JIDS will be awash in out-and-out speculation … and not the kind that makes anyone money.  Nobody really knows what the future will bring, and some might even question the point of asking the question, but it is precisely my Jewishness that makes me find this topic especially compelling.  To be Jewish is to be both a serious student of the past and an impassioned dreamer about the future.   We don’t dream about the “hereafter” in Heaven.  We dream about the hereafter on Earth – both when we’re old and when we’re gone.  No less than the Christians, who pine for their Messiah, we pine for ours, even if we take the Messianic concept to be purely metaphorical.  Surely, we say to ourselves, there must be a time in the future when the killing has ended, human dignity is universally affirmed, and greed has given way to generosity.  We call that the “Messianic age.”   But in my strand of Judaism, you don’t wait for supernatural support to bring it about; you commit your life to bringing it about through your own conduct and through the conduct of those who you touch.  That, perhaps more than anything else, is what it means to me to a committed, progressive, religious Jew.

At tomorrow’s JIDS meeting, we have two Muslim speakers and two Jewish speakers.  I’ve had an opportunity to talk to both Muslim speakers about the event, and before the conversations started, I had only one request: “Please don’t spend the whole time talking about ‘extremism,’ ‘radicalism,’ or whatever other term is being used for the insanity that has been spreading across large swaths of the Middle East during the past decade.” 

 As someone who has been blessed with the opportunity to learn about the rich tapestry of Islam, I get so tired of the media’s obsession with only a single dimension – the Muslim’s attitude about violence.  If I didn’t know better, I’d swear there were only two types of Muslims: violent lunatics (aka “Muslim radicals”) and normal, sane people (aka “Muslim moderates”).   To me, reducing Muslims in this way makes little more sense than dividing Jews into two categories based on whether or not we are cheap, greedy, money-grubbers.  How I wish the glib talking-heads on both sides of the political spectrum who frequently wax eloquent about the relationship between Islam and violence would shut their mouths, read the Qur’an (with commentary!), browse some Hadiths, and allow themselves to be inspired by the wealth of Islamic philosophy, liturgy, and culture.  Maybe then they will have the standing to pontificate in front of millions of people about what Islam represents today.
As for those of us in JIDS who have already gone through that exercise, it will be fun to dream about what Islam – meaning the whole tapestry, not just the stuff about war and peace -- might become in the future. 

The Jewish speakers at tomorrow’s event will be one of the area’s leading rabbis and one of my daughters (a fourth-year Rabbinical student).   These two speakers come from two different movements in what is commonly known as liberal or progressive Judaism.   I have no idea what either of them will be talking about, but I am well aware of some of the recent trends that have caused so many people to worry about the fate of non-Orthodox Judaism.  My suspicion is that both of the Jewish speakers will not ignore these trends, but that they will envision a future for liberal Judaism that gains in quality what it loses in quantity.   In other words, rather than bemoaning the likelihood that intermarriage, assimilation, and overall societal secularization is likely to thin the herd of liberal Jews, those who remain in the fold may be far more intense about their faith than their ancestors who were Baby Boomers or Millennials.  The Reform or Conservative synagogues of the future may not be as plentiful or as large, but I’m guessing that they’ll be a lot more spiritual and dynamic. 


Then again, that’s just a guess.  Just like it’s a guess that Carolina will beat Denver 27 – 20.  The great thing about NFL football is that you never know who’s going to win, and the great thing about tomorrow’s JIDS meeting is that none of us will know which of the speakers will turn out to be right.  Everyone will just have to listen with an open mind and say “Hmmm.  Maybe so.”   And that’s the attitude we need if we wish to be a true intellectual.   You may know the cliché that “mean people suck,” but I say that closed-minded people are nearly as annoying, and just as dangerous.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Questions for the Candidates: What Inquiring Minds Want to Know


I’m tired of the Presidential candidates getting softball questions.  I want to know how they’d answer the truly burning questions.  Here is a sample:

For Hillary Clinton:

            Everyone agrees that gun control, which you talk about constantly on the stump, is being stymied by the fact that the NRA throws gobs of money at members of Congress.  And everyone agrees that whenever our politicians take tons of money from a special interest group, we don’t trust them to fight that group.   You know this.  So how did you justify commonly charging at least a quarter of a million dollars per speech to various huge corporations?   How do you expect us to trust you to fight a corporation when it’s paying you that kind of money?   Do you expect us to trust other politicians who take tons of NRA money to then go on to support gun control?

            Let’s stipulate that, as one of your opponents sometimes argues, flying is an activity, not an accomplishment.  Without mentioning the act of flying, please identify your three greatest accomplishments as Secretary of State?

            During the seven years that Barack Obama has been President, the standard of living for the rich has improved substantially but the standard of living for the poor and middle class has stagnated.  Do you blame all of that on the vast right-wing conspiracy?  Does Obama bear any responsibility for that whatsoever?   What would you do differently to help the poor?

            When President Obama was agreeing to lock in the Bush tax cuts for the rich, Bernie Sanders was filibustering against this agreement and Bill Clinton was brought in to support the agreement.  Where do you stand on that issue?

For Bernie Sanders:

            You talk about helping the poor and middle class, but how are you going to do it?   Do you expect Congress to write “democratic socialist” laws?  Do you expect them to adopt a single-payer health care program given what they’re now saying about Obamacare?

Do you think you can scare Congressmen into supporting your democratic-socialist agenda?  If you won’t even take the gloves off against Hillary Clinton (see, e.g., your comment about her “damn e-mails”), why should we expect that you will scare moderate and conservative legislators into putting your platform into law? 

If you can’t implement your agenda through laws, do you really expect to do it with executive orders?  Be specific – which ones?  And how will you be able to defend these powerful executive orders against the charge that you would be abusing your powers as President?  

Why don’t you ever talk about being Jewish during debates or town hall meetings, even when people ask you about your background?  You would be the first Jewish President in US History, but you seem to have no interest in tugging at the heart strings of Jewish supporters by reminding them of your relationship to Judaism.  Why not? 

For Martin O’Malley:

            You’ve been campaigning for many months and you still get only 2 percent of the vote.  Why don’t you drop out?   How can you justify complaining so much about the small number of debates when you’re taking so much debating time away from the only two candidates who anyone thinks has a chance to win? 

            What are you fighting for that neither Hillary nor Bernie is fighting for?  What is so unique about your platform?

Realistically, are you running for President in 2016?  Vice President in 2016?  Or President in 2024?

For Donald Trump:

            Do you think Barack Obama was born overseas?  Do you think he is a Muslim?  

            You seem so obsessed with your self-image and your own greatness that you even have nice things to say about Putin after hearing that he was praising you.   You also like to talk about the inspiration you’ve received from your Christian faith.  Where in that faith do you find support and encouragement for narcissism or self-obsession?              

             How is it Constitutional to keep all non-US Muslims out of the country when the 1st Amendment says that Congress shall not make a law that abridges the free exercise of religion?

For Ted Cruz:

            If you can’t point to any of your Senate colleagues who support your campaign, how do you expect to work successfully with Congress and get things accomplished?

What views do you have that appeal to Reagan Democrats?  Moderate Republicans?

Explain your appeal to minorities.

For Marco Rubio:

            You’ve been criticized both for your failure to show up for key votes in the Senate and for your failure to develop the kind of campaign infrastructure that some of your opponents have developed.  If you’re neither voting in Washington nor developing a kick-ass campaign apparatus in Iowa or New Hampshire, what the hell are you doing?   Should Trump be calling you “low energy” instead of Jeb?

            What’s your plan to help the poor? Or the middle class?   Or to gather support from the Reagan Democrats?

            Why do you always do so well in the debates and then fizzle once the campaigning begins again?  If you are the darling of the Establishment and Trump is the devil of the media, why is he outpolling you by at least two to one pretty much everywhere, including your own home state?

For Chris Christie:

            What does it say about your judgment in selecting top advisors that your administration intentionally created major gridlock on a bridge?   If the people who you tasked with running the State of New Jersey would engage in that behavior, why should we trust you to select the officials to run the executive branch of the US Government?  In other words, if you can’t escape scandal as Governor, how can you possibly avoid a scandal-plagued run as US President?

Discuss your foreign policy experience, or at least your involvement with foreign policy causes over the decades other than simply as a politician who makes speeches.

For Jeb Bush:

            What went so wrong with this campaign?  Was it your unwillingness to separate yourself from your brother’s legacy or his former advisors?  Was it Trump’s “low-energy” charge that seemed to stick to you like glue?  Or was it something else? 

            Do you have a date in mind when, if you haven’t yet either caught fire or at least caught Rubio, you’ll drop out and throw your support to your old mentee?

For John Kasich:

            You are every Democrat’s favorite Republican candidate.  When will you admit that in this election cycle, that is a kiss of death?

            Have your staffers not mentioned that your constant gesticulations during the debates are terribly distracting?  There are enough distractions out there when you don’t have the spotlight on you. During the one percent of the time when you do own the stage, how can you afford to create even more distractions?

For Carly Fiorina:

            How dare you pander to the people of Iowa that you were rooting for the U of Iowa in the Rose Bowl against Stanford, your own alma mater?  Do you think they want the support of someone that disloyal?

For the rest of the candidates on the GOP side:


Isn’t it time to say goodbye?  

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Snowmaggedon on Shabbat


I’ll never forget the time when I was a kid and I asked my dad what the most important day was in the Jewish year.   “Shabbat,” he said quickly, as if the question was an obvious one.  But I couldn’t believe my ears.  “What about Yom Kippur?” I asked.  “I thought that was the holiest of the High Holy Days.”  He just shook his head.  Yom Kippur, he told me, is the most awe-inspiring and spiritual day of the Jewish year. But the most important of the holy days -- and it happens 52 times a year – is Shabbat. 

Yesterday, on the I-95 corridor, we had a Shabbat for the ages.  Whether you’re talking about DC, Baltimore, Philly or New York, you were pretty much looking at two feet of snow.  Here in Bethesda, Maryland, the white stuff started coming down in earnest two or three hours before Shabbat began and it never stopped until two or three hours after Shabbat finished.  In total, roughly 27 inches came to the ground.  But because it was soft snow and our area had already lost so many shaky trees during the previous “Snowmaggedon,” practically everyone kept their power.  Essentially, we were trapped inside our own homes with no ability to drive away, no access to public transportation, and nothing to look at other than snow piled on top of snow.  Just the same, I loved it.

The central feature of these Snowmageddons, which seem to come to DC once every five or ten years, is that when they do happen, they dominate your life for as long as the snow is coming down … and possibly for another few days, depending on when the snowplows reach your neighborhood.  If you’re fortunate enough to keep your power, you can watch TV, you can do your office work, you can read a book, you can do many of the things you normally do.  But honestly, none of those activities seem to matter when you’re doing them.  What you’re really thinking about is the weather, and the opportunity to get together with the people you love and contemplate the power and unpredictability of Mother Nature.    These Snowmageddon events provide a perfect break from your normal routine -- and by “normal,” I’m referring to the way we live during the previous 1500 days of our lives.  When you’ve got heat in the vents, functioning lights on the ceilings, and multiple feet of snow on the lawn, Mother Nature has given you a choice: you can either whine about Cabin Fever or you can embrace the idea that the less you care about your typical concerns the better your life can be.  And that, my friends, is also the key principle behind the beauty of Shabbat.

Shabbat is the crown jewel of traditional Judaism.  To be considered an Orthodox Jew, you at least have to be “Shomer Shabbos,” meaning that you have to observe all of the ritual “commandments” associated with the Sabbath.  No driving.  No cooking.  No money transactions.  No operating TVs or other electrical appliances.  For that matter, you can’t even write.   The idea is that for one day a week for your entire life, you give yourself a total break from the activities you engage in the rest of the week.   And that idea, together with the rituals associated with it, has formed the cornerstone of the Jewish religion over the centuries.

Candidly, with the one exception of a brief stay in Israel when I was 20, I have never lived a Shomer Shabbos lifestyle.  I try to attend synagogue on Friday nights and am mindful of the need to take a break from my normal routine even on Saturdays.  Yet I have never crossed the Rubicon to the point where I’m truly Ortho-kosher.   For one thing, my avocational life is too important to me to take one of the two days a week that I spend outside of the office and completely avoid writing and electronic devices.   


But after spending this past Shabbat watching the snow fall and accumulate with my wife, my dog, and a family of dear friends who have taken us in during both of the last two Snowmaggedons, I have to pay my respects to the concept of a Shabbat.   It helps us breathe.   It helps us love.  And it helps us focus on what is truly most important.  Whether you want to contemplate God or Mother Nature, either one sounds far more compelling to me than the junk on TV or the papers in my briefcase. 

Sunday, January 17, 2016

Double Standards in American Politics


Here in Washington, D.C., it is de rigueur to insult Donald Trump.  The only question is whether you compare him to Hitler (whose ability to stoke the emotions of racists was his calling card as a political candidate) or think of him as a less-dangerous, but still highly distasteful flim-flam evangelist, like an Elmer Gantry or Marjoe Gortner.  The key, according to conventional D.C. wisdom, is that Trump will say anything he has to say to inflame the prejudices of the least educated among us.   In other words, the meaner he is, the better he does with the stupid losers who support him.  In the words of one of our quintessential insiders, Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner, Eugene Robinson, Trump’s “in-your-face bullying strikes a chord with the large segment of the Republican electorate that is tired of being polite – lower-middle-class, non-college-educated white voters who have not prospered over the past two decades and see demographic change as a threat.”  (Wash. Post – 1/12/16)   In talking about the Trump voter, Robinson was channeling the 2008 statement of then-candidate Obama, who in reference to those residents of industrial towns who were struggling economically, said that:  "They get bitter, they cling to guns or religion or antipathy to people who aren't like them or anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment, as a way to explain their frustrations."

The truth is that I don’t know a single person in my hometown who supports Trump.  Even my Republican friends mock his brand of populism.   So recently, when I went on what is becoming an annual pilgrimage to Pasadena, California to watch Stanford University play in the Rose Bowl, I made sure to find out why it is that folks outside the Beltway were pulling for The Donald. 

How, you may ask, would I find such people at the Rose Bowl?  Aren’t Rose Bowl fans college educated, and aren’t Trump fans all illiterate?  Apparently, that’s not the case.  Two of my friends -- both of whom are affluent Stanford alumni -- are in his corner.  One told me that he supports Trump because he would be a disruptive force in a city that is, to be blunt, “full of shit.”  The other told me that he supports Trump because it would be “funny” to have him as President.   Clearly, neither of these guys is struggling economically, notwithstanding the stereotype of the Trump voter peddled by Robinson.  What they are struggling with is the ability to take politics-as-usual seriously.  They’re not looking for a reformist tinkerer.  They’re looking for a radical reformer.  They’re looking for someone who is willing to say what he thinks, whether or not it’s politically correct.  They’re looking for someone who, far from thinking that Washington, D.C. is the center of the universe, actually feels that it could use some shaking up.  And most importantly, they’re looking for someone whose name is neither Bush nor Clinton.   Clearly, they wouldn’t fit in where I live – a place that is extremely comfortable with the status quo in virtually every respect.

Here in D.C., we trust the spouses and children of former Presidents.  When they talk intelligently, they make us feel intelligent.  When they pander – in other words, when they peddle bullcrap – oh, you know, that just means they are “playing the game.”   As long as they’re in the Club, they can make whatever deceptive claim they want to make, and we’ll write it off to the exigencies of a rough-and-tumble campaign.  And when they engage in such tactics, our media moguls will do their best to downplay the topic, much like a Victorian does her best to downplay the importance of sex.  Here in Washington, the Clintons are royalty, and Donald Trump is dirt, and it’s really that simple.  You can call out a royal for a mistake, but you don’t dwell on it.  After all, they are our heroes, and when you mock them, you’re mocking us.

Take, for example, the recent controversy about the Clintons’ statements about Bernie Sanders’ health care plan.  Wait a minute, I misspoke.  There was no such controversy.  But there should have been.  According to Chelsea Clinton – the relatively un-credentialed young woman who was paid tens of thousands of dollars just to give a single speech – Bernie Sanders “wants to dismantle Obamacare, dismantle the CHIP program, dismantle Medicare, dismantle private insurance. … I worry that if we give Republicans Democratic permission to do that, we’ll go back to an era — before we had the Affordable Care Act — that will strip millions and millions and millions of people of their health insurance.”   Not to be outdone, Hillary Clinton joined in the chorus by saying that "if you look at Sen. Sanders' proposals going back nine times in Congress, that's exactly what he's proposed [i.e., eliminating government healthcare programs]."   The impression from these statements is clear: under Sanders’ plan, working-class Americans could be right back where they were before Obamacare when they lacked health insurance. 

Yesterday, I confronted my mother about these statements, which even the Clintons must know are misleading.  If the unemployed, uneducated rural white male is the stereotypical Trump voter, my mom is the stereotypical Clinton supporter.  She’s female.  She’s college educated.  She’s a native New Yorker.  She’s a died-in-the-wool liberal.  And she’s 94.  She knows full well that Bernie Sanders won’t take away anyone’s health insurance – except to the extent he replaces it with another type of health insurance.  In fact, unlike Hillary, she supports Sanders’ single-payer health care plan.  But that doesn’t mean she would support Sanders over Hillary.  In fact, my mom quickly came to the defense of the Clintons’ statements, saying that they “were just being politicians.”  In other words, when the Clintons insult our intelligence in order to garner our support, it’s OK, because that’s the way the political game is played, whereas when Trump does the same thing, it’s shameless demagoguery.   

Eugene Robinson knows that the Clintons’ comments about Sanders’s health care plan are misleading and, to his credit, he has said as much in a recent column.  But he would never insult the Clinton voter – God-forbid – quite like he’d insult the Sanders’ voter.  In the above-referenced article about Trump, Robinson described Sanders as “[t]he other candidate [aside from Trump] touching a nerve with the cultural and economic left-behinds – minus the racism.”   Let's leave aside the fact that Robinson's statement is likely baseless (Sanders' base is composed largely of white progressives, who are no more left-behind than anyone else, and he is viewed as unlikely to compete with Hillary among those minorities who are poor),  Imagine a Washington insider writing that about a Bush or a Clinton.  We would never treat our monarchical families, or their core supporters, with such disrespect.

Washington, D.C. is supposed to be a place for publicly-spirited people.  In theory, they flock here to serve, meaning that they wish to honor the citizens of all 50 states by devising ways to help them live prosperous lives, all the while respecting the values of justice and liberty.   In practice, however, the manner in which we campaign for the support of these citizens has gone completely haywire.  We look down our noses at the very citizens we claim to serve, we insult their intelligence and their values, we mislead them with bogus campaign rhetoric, and we essentially tell them which phony politicians to vote for and which ones to mock.  Under the circumstances, when people out in the “field” (as we Washingtonians call the outside-the-Beltway residents) support rebel candidates, should we blame them, or blame ourselves?


In closing, I’m reminded about a moment this past week when candidate Trump really did have a moment in the sun.  As the ever-giving Rick Perry once said, “even a broken clock is right once a day,” and this was that time for Trump.   Ted Cruz had accused him of representing “New York values,” and Trump responded by pointing out that New York was part of the United States of America, the scene of 9/11, and the place where countless public servants gave up their lives to save others … and Cruz could stick his divisiveness where the sun doesn’t shine.   In that one instant, ironically, Donald Trump spoke for every citizen of this country who has felt insulted by others who would question their patriotism simply because of their race, color, sexual preference, political ideology, or hometown.   Democrats seem to appreciate Trump’s point, which is why they would never say something as stupid as Cruz said about “Texas values.”  We Dems don’t discriminate on the basis of race, color, creed or geographical origin.  Sadly, though, we do appear to discriminate on the basis of educational level or economic status.  And whenever we do, we sound every bit as ugly as Cruz did – and a hell of a lot more elitist.  

Sunday, January 10, 2016

Empathic Rationalism Begins at Home

I was ready to type up a post on the appeal of Donald Trump and then ... wouldn't you know it, my back went into spasms, and my willingness to sit at the computer for an extended period of time went away.   Besides, you don't want to read the scribbles of a man who is living on muscle relaxants.

I hope to get back in blogging action next weekend.  For now, let me simply wish you all a healthy, happy and productive 2016.