Sunday, April 29, 2007


I’m one of those football fanatics who never misses the first round of the NFL draft. But yesterday was the exception. Though I kept up on it a bit via a friend’s laptop, I wasn’t glued to my TV this year. In fact, I didn’t watch a minute of draft coverage until more than 25 guys were already picked. Something else came up that was more important.

Before I explain what happened, let me tell you that one steal of draft day, in my opinion, was Joe Staley, a tackle for Central Michigan (and converted tight end), who the 49ers selected at #28. I like athletic offensive linemen and can’t understand why so many NFL GMs are enamored of big fat slow linemen. Staley is one of closest things we have in this draft to a “can’t miss” outside of the first dozen or so players selected. I'm not a 49er fan, but I've got to give them credit where it's due.

But Staley was not the real steal of draft day. That took place far away from all the major draft day festivities in New York. It happened instead in Baltimore.

Veteran readers of this blog might remember my 14 year old daughter Rebecca’s unsuccessful experience in trying out for the state band (see the November post entitled “Excellence and Empathy”). Well, yesterday Rebecca saved a little face. And the more I think about it, the more I’m realizing that she “stole” one, as we draft fans might say. As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago, Rebecca and her friend Gina wrote a play that they entered in our county’s History Day competition. The theme this year was “Triumph and Tragedy in History” and they had a unique presentation that I knew gave them a chance to win at the county level, which they did. Yesterday, that play became one of the two middle school “performances” to make it to Nationals. And yes, I’m very proud of both my daughter and her friend.

Why, you ask, was it a steal? It’s because their presentation less involved history than a discipline that has become one of its neglected stepchildren. I’m speaking of none other than “the love of the search for wisdom” – otherwise known as philosophy. Their topic – Spinoza Remembered – was one part history and two parts philosophy, and it is precisely that mix that surely made it unique among its competition.

Why is it that we teach our children history year after year after year after year after year after year after -- can I stop now, because I really could have continued for grades 1-12 – while almost totally neglecting philosophy? Is it because we’re convinced that children are too shallow to grapple with philosophy? If so, it’s only true because we make them shallow, because lots of kids enjoy thinking deeply … or at least cutting through the B.S. that so often falls under the name of orthodoxy or tradition.

Yes, the kids “stole” one because they found a way to fit a square peg (the philosophy of Spinoza) into a round hole (the events of history). But if they hope to get recognized at a the national level, they will have to work a bit more to ascertain Spinoza’s influence not merely on the history of philosophy but on human history generally. That will be a worthy goal for them between now and June 11th, when they will be presenting their ideas at the National competition.

Of course, all this has made me think a bit more about Spinoza as well. I can’t write their play for them, but I have to write my own script, as it were, for the Workshop that I’m teaching this summer on Spinoza at the Southeastern Unitarian-Universalist Summer Institute (it’s based in, of all places, Virginia Tech). I’ve been asking myself such questions as: Why should the U-U’s care about Spinoza? Why might the U-U’s find Spinoza inspiring? Why might they find Spinoza liberating?

And then it dawned on me. Think about liberty in terms of “freedom to” and not just “freedom from [interference].” Then answer this non-rhetorical question: who, in the history of our species has done more for religious freedom in the modern world than Spinoza?

I can’t think of anyone. But if you can, let me know.

Saturday, April 21, 2007


What a week it’s been, huh? The VA Tech massacre packed a powerful punch, and just as we were beginning to get over it, the TV networks provided another present in the form of the images from Cho’s film. Did the networks really have to play them over and over and over and over …? Seriously, what were they thinking? It was almost like Kubrick was controlling them from the grave, having finally been given the chance to improve on A Clockwork Orange. I’ve seen some pretty violent, disgusting movies in my life, but I’ve never seen anything sicker and more obscene than the flick that MSNBC and CNN replayed countless times this past week.

To me, the most memorable scene from Cho’s film was the portion when he indicted our culture of narcissism. “Your Mercedes wasn’t enough, you brats. Your golden necklaces weren’t enough, you snobs. Your trust fund wasn’t enough. Your vodka and cognac wasn’t enough. All your debaucheries weren’t enough. Those weren’t enough to fulfill your hedonistic needs. You had everything. … You had a hundred billion chances and ways to have avoided today.”

Don’t you get why that’s so creepy? It’s because those same words almost sound like prophesy. I can well imagine an insightful, well-meaning social critic invoking the same language following some dreadful day of reckoning – like after a team of scientists announces that we have passed the point of return on global warming.

Heck, who among us haven’t looked with disdain on the complacency of the well-to-do in this slowing dying empire of ours? But after we’ve shaken our heads at the decadence of the “rich and famous,” we’ve then shrugged our shoulders, and moved on with our lives – tending to our work, our families, or our hobbies. Not Cho. He just got further and further mired in psychosis. And that’s why he gave us those other unforgettable images – the totally hateful faces, the brandishing of weapons, the looks of complete despondency. I’m telling you, Kubrick is up there – or is it down there – marveling at the cinematographic brilliance of it all.

Just as Cho’s film reminded me of A Clockwork Orange (without the humor), his plays reminded me of Beavis and Butthead. Have you ever seen any piece of “literature” more stupid than Richard McBeef or Mr. Brownstone? But that only added to the amazement of the experience, didn’t it? Cho was a guy who figured out a way to kill 32 people and fire over 200 shots at close range before he finally turned the gun on himself. From the way he locked in his fellow Hokies and deliberately mowed them down, keeping himself alive while removing any potential foil to his plans, you’d have to acknowledge that he was exceptionally crafty. And yet … here he was, a 23 year old English major at a well-known university, writing plays that looked like the products of a deranged pre-teen.

It’s just a further reminder of another point that ol’ Kubrick used to make. Do you remember his other dramatic masterpiece, 2001: A Space Odyssey? When Haywood Floyd was leading us on a voyage to the moon, Kubrick displayed human beings at their most refined, repressed and, well, adult. Yet, just a few minutes earlier, he spotlighted “The Dawn of Man”: a group of apes who, with the help of some infernal (or was it divine?) monolith, figured out how to kill with not the least semblance of compassion.

To me, that movie illustrates the complexity of the human soul. Cho isn’t the only one of us who’s a bizarre hodgepodge of abilities, interests and dispositions. Think of yourself at your best and your worst – it’s like you’re thinking of two totally different species! As for Cho, one minute he’s excelling on an SAT Test (he must have done well, or VA Tech wouldn’t have taken him), and the next minute he’s writing that Mr. Brownstone’s “shit is so thick and so oddly shaped that he can’t go and all his shit are piled up in his intestines all the way up to his chest. He probably rips his sphincter to relieve a single gram of turd after two hours of pushing, sweating, teeth clenching, screaming in frustration and holding breath for a half gram of green mold shit.”

I could picture Beavis saying those same words, except that MTV would have censored some of them. Surely, Sarah Silverman, looking cute as a button, could have uttered them too, all the while smiling, and thereby pointing out the irony of how a beautiful, intelligent Jewish woman could get filthy rich by sounding like such a horse’s ass.

Well, we’re used to laughing at such idiocy. But somehow, this week, the laughter has given ground to a different emotion, now hasn’t it?

Obviously, I find the psychological components of this disaster to be the most gripping. But the public policy implications are even more difficult to ignore. For starters, what in blazes are we doing making guns so darned available in our society? Here’s a guy who (a) isn’t a U.S. citizen, (b) is still too young to rent a car, (c) is mentally ill, and (d) has been adjudicated as a threat to himself and to others … and we’re allowing him to walk into a store and quickly leave with a pistol that fires 17 bullets. Talk about ridiculous.

In The Creed Room, I pointed out the impossibility of denying Americans – or is it pronounced Amuricans? -- their right to bear arms. But c’mon, my bloodthirsty friends, do we need to take our lust for weapons quite this far? I’m not asking that y’all join me in embracing veganism. Let’s just take a look-see at exactly how easy it has become to blow away large quantities of human beings no matter who or what we are? I’ll give you your six bullet handguns. I’ll give you your hunting rifles that can shoot one beautiful, defenseless animal at a time. Just please take a second look at whether you need the fancy stuff. And while you’re at it, think also about whether you want to limit possession of any weapons to people who have negotiated their way through the tumultuous years of their teens and twenties. Just a thought.

And while we’re on the subject of public policy, shouldn’t this episode make us think a bit about how we’re handling mental illness? If anything, Cho’s depravity might cause us to attach an ever greater stigma to those forms of sickness. But as far as I’m concerned, as soon as we stop stigmatizing the mentally ill and start dealing with their demons as we deal with illnesses to the heart, lungs and liver, we might actually begin to make some progress.

Right wingers love to look at Cho as “e-vil.” But to me, he was just sick, sick, SICK. We need to help these people – keep them isolated if necessary, but whatever we do, we must get them the help they need. Let’s start with finding a way to stop allowing insurance companies to discriminate against the mentally ill by making it a whole lot more expensive to receive treatment for your “mind” than for your “body.” And please, can we stop talking about people like they’re either “good,” “F-d up,” or “downright evil”? Methinks it’s not quite that simple, now is it?

Well, that’s about all the Cho-talk I can handle for one morning. Before signing off, I wanted to share with you the part of this week that was WONDERFUL. This Wednesday, my dear friend, Steve Novick, threw his hat in the ring. He is now, to my knowledge, the first Democrat to declare himself a candidate for Oregon’s U.S. Senate seat in 2008. It had been rumored that Congressman DeFazio from Eugene would be the Democrat who would take Smith on; DeFazio even led Smith in the polls. But wouldn’t you know it? Only two days after Novick opted in, DeFazio opted out. And that means that as of now, Novick is still The Man on the Democratic side.

Loyal readers to this blog might remember something about Novick. But please, don’t just take my word for what an amazing man and candidate he is. Find out for yourself. Google such words as “Steve Novick,” “Senate,” “Gordon Smith,” “Announces” … or some combination of the above. I promise you that the more you know about this remarkable person, the more you’ll see that he is an absolute antidote to so much of what is wrong with the American political system.

Go ahead. I challenge you: Google the guy, and then tell me that his story and his approach to politics isn’t every bit as fascinating as all the depraved michegas with which I began this blog post. The fact that there exist people like Steve Novick who might have the opportunity to come to Washington and shake things up … well, it’s the stuff that movies are made of. And this time, we’re talking about movies that you can watch with your kids.

Friday, April 13, 2007


If I were the type who believed in divine intervention, I’d swear that Hashem was responsible not only for outing Don Imus, but also for doing so during Passover. Passover is a celebration of freedom. It’s the time when all Jews get together with family and friends to celebrate our ancestors’ release from Egyptian slavery. But as you know, Egypt is hardly the only nation whose legacy has been associated with slavery. We’ve had a bit of that here in the good ol’ US of A. And this Passover, a certain celebrity has been kind enough to remind us of our own history of slavery and how its effects seem to linger on and on and on.

Given the holiday season, it seemed altogether appropriate to spend last Friday taking my family to Monticello. In a profound sense, Monticello is a glowing tribute to freedom. There, visitors can bask in the glow of a majestic home designed by a man with the freedom to read and write voraciously, maintain a working farm, collect art, play music, pursue various sciences, and entertain like the gregarious aristocrat he was. It’s difficult to imagine a man freer than Thomas Jefferson. But TJ had a bit of help – just a bit -- and to visit Monticello is to be constantly reminded of that assistance.

Jefferson fully recognized the evils of slavery. He once wrote to Benjamin Banneker, the African-American scientist, that “nobody wishes more than I do to see … that nature has given to our black brethren talents equal to those of the other colors of men.” Then again, Jefferson also wrote, in his Notes on the State of Virginia:

The first difference [among the races] which strikes us is that of colour. … Is it not the foundation of a greater or less share of beauty in the two races? Are not the fine mixtures of red and white … preferable to that eternal monotony, which reigns in the countenances, that immovable veil of black which covers all the emotions of the other race? Add to these, flowing hair, a more elegant symmetry of form, their own judgment in favour of the whites, declared by their preference of them, as uniformly as is the preference of the Orangutan for the black women over those of his own species. The circumstance of Superior beauty, is thought worthy attention in the propagation of our horses, dogs, and other domestic animals; why not in that of man?

In Jefferson’s day, to be a white Southerner was to question not merely whether blacks should have the same rights as whites but whether blacks were fully human. Lincoln changed some of that when he freed the slaves, but can we who wish to take Passover seriously truly celebrate the “freedom” of the blacks who lived under Jim Crow? Different schools, different toilets, different water fountains, different restrooms, different jobs …. That was freedom in name only. The descendents of slavery continued to be treated as sub-human.

A century after the slaves were “freed,” a new day supposedly dawned. Thanks to MLK, Rosa Parks, Thurgood Marshall – and even some Jews, like Heschel – Jim Crow was gone. But what exactly should we call the era that has taken its place? American blacks remain disproportionately poorer than whites, disproportionately less educated, disproportionately more prone to dying younger … and disproportionately blamed for their lot in life. You see, white America has now decided that black Americans are fully “free,” and if they wish to locate the cause for why they have not reached the pinnacle of our “meritocratic,” “open” society, they need only look in the mirror.

Well, at least that was the attitude before the I-Man, my rabbi, decided to teach us all a lesson. You’ve surely heard the story by now. In reference to the women’s basketball team from Rutgers that grittily parlayed a three seed into a birth in the national championship game, Imus called the team a bunch of “nappy-headed ho’s.” Obviously, the women at issue were black – hence the “nappy headed – and some of them had tattoos – hence, I kid you not, the “ho’s.”

Imus tried to pass off the comment as a “joke.” But most of us are still struggling to find the humor. There was nothing clever about his word choice. Nor did he make an attempt to capture irony. In fact, Imus’s remark wasn’t funny on any level. It was, from all appearances, a visceral utterance by a garden-variety racist who sees all black women who don’t stroll around in business attire as an inferior species. Imus, may or may not prefer black women to white ones, but at least he shares with Jefferson’s orangutan a common interest in their sexuality. How touching.

Before I continue, allow me to acknowledge my bias. While I truly do love Jefferson, I’ve never been able to tolerate Imus. As a political junky, I’ve listened to him from time to time over the years because he’s always seemed to find top-drawer guests. So I’ve listened, but I haven’t liked what I’ve heard. Mostly, I recall him being a political moderate whose stock-in-trade was to suck up to some people and lambaste others. He wouldn’t simply criticize people’s conduct. He’d glibly characterize public figures as “morons” and “idiots” as if he had somehow brilliantly captured their essence in a single word. Believe me; that crap gets old really fast. And I could only take a little bit of it before I turned the guy off, not to return for weeks or even months at a time, until I somehow forgot how obnoxious he was and tuned in once again.

When I learned about his “nappy-headed ho’s” comment, I was immediately sickened both by the comment and by the man who made it. It would have been a pleasure to boycott his show as well as those of his enablers in a gesture of solidarity with the women he victimized. Surprisingly, as it turned out, no such boycott is necessary. Imus has been fired from his radio show and his television simulcast. The marketplace has worked remarkably! Say what you want about Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, and I’ve had my own bones to pick with them over the years, but they came up huge on this occasion. They organized a concerted campaign to get the I-Man off the air where he can no longer peddle the trash that he calls entertainment.

So what are we to make of Imus’ little gaffe? Just a stupid mistake by a shock jock whose fifteen minutes are up? I sure hope not. To me, Imus isn’t merely the “moron” he likes to call others. He is a wonderful teacher – a rabbi, as it were -- because he does his teaching during Passover and he selects topics suitable for the season.

What Imus has taught is that a new day has not dawned. African-American slavery may be history, Jim Crow may be over, but black America hardly remains free. For the men and women who stroll the streets of Newark, Jersey City, Camden and Trenton – the largest cities in the state where Rutgers is located – they have to battle the Don Imuses of the world every day. Oh, they’re free to try to assimilate alright, but if they want to wear their hair in a way that feels comfortable to them, even if (like the Rutgers basketball team) they’re dressed in something as innocuous as gym shorts, they are eyed with disdain by many members of the white establishment. And if they need jobs from white businessmen – good jobs, the kind that can get you out of the towns mentioned above – they are free to try to find them. But they will be competing with white candidates who are thought of as human while they, sadly, are not.

Whores, pimps, crooks, drug dealers, lazy good-for-nothings, or to use Don Rumsfeld’s little term, “dead-enders.” That’s how working class blacks are so often viewed in their own country regardless of how they behave. Michael Richards reminded us a bit of this fact, but Don Imus really drummed it home.

So, fine, we have our Passover lesson. The real question is what are my fellow Jews going to do with it? Are we going to simply note that white-against-black racism continues to exist in our “land of the free.” Or are we going to take an active role in fighting it and the poverty that it has spawned?

I’d like to start by proposing that we consider whether there are any qualified candidates from black America who we might want to see lead our national government in two years. Do we know of any candidates who handle themselves with the class shown by the Rutgers basketball team during their Tuesday press conference? Do we know of any candidates who have demonstrated themselves to be every bit as intelligent as any of the whites who are seeking the top job? Do we know of any candidates who don’t simply have black skin, but share the same relatively progressive agenda that most black Americans have adopted as their own? Do we know of any candidates who, because of their skin color, are well suited not only to speak passionately on behalf of the black community, but also to lecture those members of that community who need lecturing?

You know exactly who I’m talking about.

The truth is that Mr. Obama is so brilliant that it is difficult if not impossible to relate to the man. But we can sure as heck relate to the women of the Rutgers team. And whether it’s because I’m a father of two girls, or whether it’s because I try to take seriously Jewish values, I felt that Imus was smearing myself and my daughters when he humiliated those women. So let’s start by relating to those ladies, one and all. This Passover, the lesson isn’t simply that we were slaves in Egypt. We were slaves. But now, we are simply “nappy headed ho’s.” As such, we have the ability to watch out for others who would treat “our kind” as less than human. And when that happens, we have the ability to join together with our brothers and sisters and fight anyone and everyone who would deny “us” our dignity.

For reminding my fellow Jewish Americans of that lesson, Rabbi Imus, I say “Amen.”

Saturday, April 07, 2007


Despite what the title of this post suggests, I’m not writing today about Nietzsche. Rather, my subject is a much more modern thinker, one who is considerably younger than the great German existentialist was in his prime – and also much more sane.

Our subject is Rebecca Spiro, my 14 year-old daughter. Those of you who read this blog religiously may last recall her from the Maryland State Band competition. That’s where she was left in the dust by two smirking, smug competitors, who expertly negotiated their way through their saxophone parts, laughing condescendingly at Rebecca after she screwed up her own.

Later this month, Rebecca gets her second chance at state-level competition. She and a friend will perform a play that they wrote as part of National History Day. Their play won the county competition, and that entitles them to battle at the State level, which no doubt will bring them back to another set of smirking, smug competitors from Baltimore, Frederick, Columbia and the Eastern Shore. There must be something about a good, clean fight that turns even a farm boy into a rat-racer.

I suppose I would be pleased about Rebecca’s second-chance at the “big prize” regardless of what her play was about. The event requires each competitor to talk about a historical matter in terms of “Triumph and Tragedy,” and that surely is a useful exercise, no matter the topic. But there is something especially enjoyable for me about the topic Rebecca chose. I can’t put my finger on it. Maybe you all can, though. The name of her play is: “Spinoza Remembered.”

What is it about “Spinoza Remembered” that would make me so thrilled to see Rebecca write such a play? Is it the irony in the title? After all, a couple of weeks ago I met a Harvard grad who had no idea who Spinoza was. But I think there’s something that pleases me here even more than my daughter’s opportunity to explore irony. There are indeed plenty of ironic titles – she could have spoken about the “Iraq War: Mission Accomplished” in terms of triumph and tragedy, for example – and yet I doubt many of them would have given me the same joy as the topic she chose.

Perhaps, instead, I’m joyous about the chance Rebecca has been given to think about the philosopher who has meant more to my life than any other. Spinoza is, indeed, the man who has freed me to adopt a belief in God, and who has provided me with an exemplar of what it means to devote your life as much as possible to reason. And Rebecca has spent time learning all sorts of facts about his life, his thought, and his historical influence. Could that be why I’m so excited that Rebecca has written a play about him?

Possibly. Then again, it’s not like Rebecca spends every waking hour studying Spinoza’s every teaching. While a few of her smirking, smug peers are no doubt boning up night after night on the historical topic they’ve chosen, Rebecca has gone back to being a – what is the word? -- oh yeah. She’s gone back to being a kid. So when all is said and done, I’m not sure how much Rebecca will remember about “nature naturans versus nature naturata,” “modes and modifications,” the two known divine “attributes,” or the other various and sundry Spinozistic terms to which she has been exposed in writing her play.

No, I think my joy at Rebecca’s chosen theme goes beyond the mere opportunity to study Spinoza. Let’s return to the title of this post.

When I think of giving middle-schoolers the opportunity to study “triumph and tragedy” in history, I assume that this is but one more vehicle to expose kids to the good and evil of the human condition. Most kids would choose some figure or figures from the past – a Jim Thorpe, say, a Joan of Arc, or perhaps a group like the Amazing Mets of 1969 – that have lived through trials and tribulations but also can boast great accomplishments, and then provide a narrative about their life stories. Nobody could possibly be confused about what part of their life constitutes the “triumph” and what part the “tragedy.” Nobody could be confused that the forces that hindered them are “evil,” whereas those that provided support are “good.” We’ve all read this story 1000 times. Heck, an entire TV show – VH1’s “Behind the Music” – essentially repeats this same story in every episode. (Boy meets guitar. Guitar sounds great. Boy becomes famous. Boy meets drug. Drug feels great. Boy meets either rehab or his maker – and therein lays the only variety in the series.)

None of this applies to the story of Spinoza. Who are the villains here? The Jewish community that excommunicated him? Ah, think again. Say you’re a Jew living in 17th century Amsterdam. Your people have been booted first out of Spain, then out of Portugal, and now you think you’ve finally found a safe haven, only to learn that one of your own is teaching that (a) free will doesn’t exist, (b) even God doesn’t act in accordance with a will, (c) the Creation and the Creator are one and the same, (d) the Biblical Prophets excel in their imaginations, but not necessarily their knowledge of truth, (e) the Bible, when studied scientifically, doesn’t hold up as literal truth, and (f) for a human to conceive of God in human-like terms makes no more sense than for a triangle to assume that God is triangular. You get the idea. For the 17th century Dutch Jews, separating a teacher of those dangerous doctrines from your community made as much as sense, if not more, than ridding yourself of an arsonist or even a killer.

And what exactly is the “triumph” in the Spinoza story? That 108 years after Spinoza’s death, a group of German intellectuals decided he wasn’t a wicked “atheist” after all – despite what theologians and many philosophers had been saying about him for a century – and was, in fact, “the most Christian” or “God intoxicated” man imaginable? That is truly a triumph, but how much of one can surely be debated. Remember that today, 330 years after his death, one can sensibly argue that Spinoza’s greatest influence upon the world was simply to pave the trail for the ascendancy of a secular, liberal mindset that seems to be destroying God and religion, much as Nietzsche (a Spinoza-disciple) predicted. In other words, this same man who claimed to have been devoted above all to the “intellectual love of God,” may have effectively killed the relevance of the deity to the modern world. A triumph?

The truth is that the story of Spinoza is bathed in ambiguity. It’s as difficult to grasp as some of the more obscure passages of his Ethics. Spinoza himself teaches that what is good and bad (let alone “evil”) is all dependent on the perspective of the moral actor involved. So indeed, the “triumph” and “tragedy” of Spinoza’s story is surely dependent on who is doing the evaluating. For me, a man who has come to embrace religion largely because of Spinoza, the triumph in his story is very different than what my atheist friends would identify. And yet we both recognize Spinoza as a hero. So did Einstein, Freud, Santayana, Hegel, Heine, Goethe, Lessing, Schelling, Hess, Deleuze … (the list goes on and on).

Yes, Nietzsche wasn’t the only great thinker who loved Spinoza. What that group of minds tend to have in common is that they are passionately devoted to the freedom of thought, and enjoy playing with multiple sides of an issue, making subtle distinctions, and never satisfying themselves with black-and-white solutions to complex problems. If, by studying Spinoza in middle school, Rebecca comes to develop such a perspective, this would make me so much happier than if she were to able to win some stupid competition and wipe the smirks off the rat-racers’ faces.