Saturday, December 22, 2007


It’s time for the second annual Empathic Rationalist Awards. These go out to the people who made 2007 what it was – for better or worse.

Man of the Year: Steve Jobs

In a non-election year, it is probably appropriate to give this award to a non-politician and, indeed, I’m not sure there’s a politician out there who deserves it anyway. I considered giving it to some foreign statesmen, but most of the usual suspects are, well, suspect, and I would like this to reward excellence, rather than infamy. Accordingly, my attention turned to the world of business and once it did, the decision became a clear one. This year’s Man of the Year goes to the CEO of Apple, Inc., Steve Jobs. This man can legitimately be called the inventor of the Macintosh, the iPod, the iTunes Store, and the iPhone. Truly, he has the Midas touch.

So far, I haven’t broken down and purchased any of the products for which Mr. Jobs is associated. But that’s just me – my wife and daughters each have iPods and my daughters use iTunes as often as I use toilet paper. Even as a Luddite, I have to appreciate what this guy has done and look forward to seeing what he comes up with next. Besides, in a time when America seems to be going to hell in a hand basket, it’s critical to remember that much of what has kept this nation great over recent decades is the entrepreneurial, pragmatic and creative spirit of people like Steve Jobs. I may tilt well to the left, but I still have to recognize their contribution.

Hollywood Man of the Year: Al Gore

One of the things that distinguished our Man of the Year in 2007 was his passionate battle to encourage a certain ex-VP to run for our nation’s highest office. Mr. Jobs obviously recognizes that for all the good one can do as a businessman -- or for that matter as freelance advocate of social change -- there’s no platform on the planet from which you can have more impact than the one given to the President of the United States. Say what you want about Bush, but who can deny that he’s been a difference maker? If you don’t believe me, just ask 4,000 or so families of Iraq servicemen and women – they’ll tell you.

Al Gore is not only the choice of Steve Jobs for the nation’s highest office. He’s also the choice of more Democrats I know than any other politician, hands down. Gore was the last Democrat to win the popular vote for President, he served as VP under the last two Democratic administrations, he leads the charge for perhaps the world’s most important and pressing social cause and, as of a couple of months ago, he’s a Nobel Peace Prize winner. He has been called “sexy” by Uma Thurman (perhaps the foremost expert on the subject, ahem) and, indeed, is the darling of virtually everyone who’s ever set foot in Hollywood. He clearly should be the next President of the United States, right?

Apparently, every Democrat thinks so but Gore himself. I’ve heard some noises from the Gore camp that he doesn’t want the job partly because he could do more to fight global warming as a free lancer than as President. Excuse me? As President, you can essentially direct a bazillion dollars in favor of just about any cause you want to (even blowing up a country halfway across the world for seemingly no reason). As a free lancer, you can make movies, collect expressions of lust from Hollywood starlets, and eat like Chris Farley. Believe me, the latter sounds more fun, but the former is where the action is. Mr. Jobs, who’s all about having an impact and not just being a celebrity, would choose the POTUS gig in a heartbeat. It’s really a shame that Al did not.

By the way, is it just me, or does Gore’s decision to stay semi-retired make you wonder a bit about his commitment. Seriously, if Gore is right that the fate of the planet is in the balance, how can he not answer the call? James Bond always does, and he’s a Hollywood figure. Why doesn’t Al? I have no answer.

Stick-it-to-The Man of the Year: Steve Novick

If you don’t know this man’s name, where the hell have you been? He’s the darling of this quadrant of cyberspace. Do a search, and you’ll read my explanation for why he is the second coming of Paul Wellstone at a time when we desperately need 100 Paul Wellstones in the not-so-august body known as the United States Senate.

Currently, there are six Senators who come from states on our Pacific seaboard. One (Gordon Smith of Oregon) is a Republican. Novick is running as a Democrat to unseat him. Novick’s plain spoken, feisty, candid style, combined with his razor sharp mind (did you matriculate at Harvard Law School at 18?), natural comedic gifts and impeccable integrity make one whale of a political talent. You think Jim Webb sounds like he actually has balls? He’ll come across as mealy-mouthed compared to Novick. If elected, the 4’ 9” tall, one-armed Novick would get on the Sunday talk shows and explain why, believe it or not, there might actually exist a meaningful alternative to the Republican Party. He’ll tell America that there still are Americans who appreciate all the things that a Government can do when it is not corrupted by special interests but is instead devoted to average Americans. Novick, you see, is no limousine liberal. He comes from a working class background and never bothered to sell out for a life of luxury. He’s truly of the people and for the people.

I could have selected Novick as Politician of the Year. But as you’ll note, he’s getting a different award. It is inspired by the fact that, so far, the Democratic apparatchiks in D.C. have done everything in their power to keep him safely across the country. From the polls I’ve seen, he remains in a dead heat with his primary opponent, Oregon Speaker of the House Jeff Merkley. That’s truly amazing – and quite a testament to Novick’s popularity in his home state -- when you consider all that is being done back east to thwart him. I’m thinking in particular about New York Senator Charles Schumer, chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, who is raising more money for Merkley than for any other candidate in a contested primary. Methinks Mr. Schumer views Merkley as someone he could more easily control as a Senator than an independent spirit like Novick. Methinks Schumer is right – which is precisely why we all need to support Novick. He can win and he can give ‘em hell. And believe me, once he wins the nomination, Schumer will have no choice but to cave in and throw the DSCC’s support Novick’s way. After all, he would then be the only Democrat in the race, and while Schumer might have no trouble abandoning Democratic Party ideals, he doesn’t want to be seen as abandoning the Democratic Party.

Eunuchs of the Year: The Democrats Who Run the Congress

This is an easy one to give out. Was there really any competition?

In 2006, we had an election. The Democrats complained over and over again about this thing called the Iraq War. They framed the central difference between the parties in that the GOP supports the war, and the Dems don’t. The nation responded resoundingly by voting in the Dems. So what do they do? Cave in, by continuing to pour billions of dollars, not to mention hundreds of American lives, into this delightful venture.

Do the Dems really support continuing the war? Or have they decided to fund it simply because they are afraid of being blamed for the loss if they intervene and stop it? I suspect the answer is the latter. Today’s Democrats in Congress, by and large, are motivated strictly by fear … and politics. They are afraid of losing votes if the actions they (and their supporters) believe in should backfire politically. Hence, most of the Dems in the Senate voted for the war in 2003, and these same wimps are now unwilling to turn off the spigot. Show me a Democrat with balls … and I’ll show you a guy who is being actively thwarted by the Democratic leadership.

So, my eunuch friends, when you walk up to claim your award, tip your hat to the Stick-it-to-The Man award winner, the one you are actively trying to thwart That, my friends, is a real Democrat.

Woman of the Year: Elizabeth Edwards

I happen to be a big Obama fan. But I’m going to ignore for a moment all the male candidates for the White House and just talk about the women. Elizabeth Edwards is the kind of woman I’d want on Pennsylvania Avenue. She responds to her cancer like it’s a paper cut and immediately goes back to the campaign trail. Almost as importantly, the word on the street is that she consistently advocates progressive positions, even when it’s not always expedient to do so. In other words, from the perspective of my philosophy, she’s often one step ahead of her husband.

Now I know what you’re thinking: Elizabeth can afford to speak her conscience. She’s not running for anything. Well, this is what made Ronald Reagan great (at least if you’re a Republican). The dude spoke his conscience even though he was running for something, and what do you know? We elected him anyway. I somehow suspect that if John Edwards’ better half had been in the Senate in 2003, she wouldn’t have supported the war like her husband.

A lot of women show up on the scene as potential first ladies, but few come across with the class and vision of Elizabeth Edwards. Hillary loves to link herself to Eleanor Roosevelt, but to me, she doesn’t belong in Roosevelt’s league. Edwards, however, may indeed be worthy of comparisons to Abigail Adams. And to me, there aren’t too many higher compliments I can pay a person – man or woman.

Athlete of the Year: Randy Moss

This is a difficult award to give out because there are many deserving candidates. Tiger Woods, for example, would be a defensible choice. In fact, he’d be a defensible choice every year, as would Roger Federer. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning would be nice selections too. Both of those guys will go down in history as being in the very top echelon of QBs. But there’s something missing about their candidacy for this award, just as there is something missing from the resume of Tiger or Federer. They don’t capture what it means to be the modern professional athlete.

All those guys play hard and consistently show class. Talk about being out of step! The athlete of 2007 should be a guy who excels at his sport when all the stars are in sync, and who whines and slacks off when they’re not. Nobody fits that description better than Randy Moss of the New England Patriots.

First of all, let me clarify that to my knowledge, Moss has never been caught taken steroids. So we don’t have give this guy an award with an asterisk. In fact, Moss has been injured for so much of his career that I’d be shocked if he cheated with chemicals. This guy’s athletic skills – his combo of speed, jumping ability and hands – are freakish. He doesn’t need drugs to give him a leg up on his competition. But what he does need is a hell of a supporting cast. After all, nobody can dominate a football game all by himself, not even a quarterback, and you certainly can’t dominate as a wide receiver. So when Moss found himself traded a couple of years ago from the Vikings to the lowly Raiders, what did he do? He flat out dogged it. When he had the slightest injury, he didn’t play. And when he did play, he didn’t concentrate. If you wanted him to catch the ball, you’d have to practically glue it to his hands. That’s how badly he wanted out of Oakland.

Moss played so badly that all the Raiders could get for him was a 4th round pick in the draft. Apparently, the league thought that Randy was all washed up – too old, too banged up, too uninterested. What a laugh. As Moss once said back in his Viking days, “I play when I want to play.” And as soon as I heard that Randy was traded to Tom Brady’s Patriots, I knew for a fact that he’d play at about as high a level as his anyone has ever played his position.

Well, OK. You can argue that Jerry Rice in his prime was better. Rice once had a record 22 TD receptions in a 12 game season. Still, Moss has already caught 19 TDs with two games left to play, and even though his team has already played 14 games, they’ve done something Rice never did – WON ALL FRIGGEN 14 OF THEM! Much of the time, Moss is used simply as a decoy. He can occupy two players at will simply by sprinting down the field, which means that his team is effectively playing 10 against 9. And the strangest thing is that in those situations, whenever his QB throws him the ball, he’s as likely as not to catch the damn thing. And why not: when he jumps to make a catch, the two defenders look like mere Lilliputians by comparison.

Randy Moss is a punk. He once intentionally drove his car into the body of a traffic officer and gave her a bit of a ride. And, as discussed above, he accepted millions of dollars a year from a team and didn’t even try to help them win. Then again, he’s one of the most brilliant physical specimens I’ve ever had the pleasure of watching compete. In short, he is the Platonic Form of the modern professional athlete – gifted as hell, physically, but kind of a jackass when it comes to his character.

To many of my friends, the lack of character among athletes is what makes professional sports so hard to watch. But I still enjoy it. I love the action. And I love to see my teams’ uniforms, even if they’re just hanging in my closet. In fact, as much as I think of Moss as a punk, I would be rooting for him in a heartbeat if I had happened to be a Patriots fan … just as I once passionately rooted for him when he played for Minnesota.

Werewolf of the Year: Michael Vick

Again, is any explanation needed? One minute he looks like a happy man – sipping Coca Cola in a TV ad or accepting congratulations for being the first player selected in the NFL draft. Then the next minute, he’s leading a pack of vicious canines as they prepare to get in a little ring and rip into the throats of their own kind.

People don’t understand how Vick can behave this way. People want to throw him in jail for his so-called crime. But how can he be committing a crime? The dude’s a werewolf. Have some compassion. If you were a werewolf, how would you behave?

THAT CONCLUDES THIS YEAR’S AWARDS. Congratulations to the winners, regardless of whether they are “winners” or “losers.” This may be the last post around here until the weekend after the New Year, so I hope you enjoyed it.

Thank you to all my loyal readers. Have a great holiday season!

Saturday, December 15, 2007


Anybody who dares to philosophize about moral issues surely recognizes a distinct occupational hazard: you feel like a hypocrite whenever your values and your conduct fail to coincide, which is bound to happen with some frequency. In my case, I have always been struck by my professing to be “rationalistic” – note the name of this blog – when, in fact, I’m an extremely emotional creature. I like to see myself as “passionate;” it’s a positive-sounding word. But when your passions cause you to be resentful, angry, or disgusted by the behavior of others, it’s pretty darned hard to listen to that Voice of Reason. She gets drowned out rather easily.

For we who are both passionate and philosophical, perhaps the best we can do is to detect and unveil our own biases. So I’d like to devote this post to one of my own. Specifically, I’m referring to my intense allergy to Ms. Hillary Rodham Clinton.

If there’s someone among us who were to chronicle all my comments about the Democratic front-runner during the past several months, s/he would surely find many good “reasons” for opposing her candidacy. I’ve surely suggested that she is polarizing, calculating, cold, often insincere, unwilling to apologize, and downright mean at times; she represents dynastic rule, rather than a return to democracy; her ambition clouds her judgment; she’s never successfully run anything bigger than a Senate office; she plays the gender card at a time when we need to unite and not divide. I could go on, but why bother? I’m not exactly revealing anything that hasn’t already been aired by the media.

So yes, there are plenty of good reasons not to care for Ms. Clinton as a candidate, but there are plenty of good reasons to fault the claim of any mere mortal to serve in the world’s most powerful position. Few have even come close to measuring up to its demands. My question is why do I find this particular person so distasteful, compared to the other candidates? You could point to sexism, but I tend to like many public figures who are women. It’s not her gender. Then what is it?

The answer didn’t dawn on me until I watched a funny little black comedy called Election. Released in 1999, this movie was widely acclaimed by critics. It starred Matthew Broderick and Reese Witherspoon, but it was Witherspoon’s performance as Tracy Flick that stole the show. Premiere Magazine, in its list of the 100 greatest acting performances in Hollywood history ranked Witherspoon’s performance #45, and #13 among actresses -- pretty high praise for a comedic role about a high school student.

Election focused on the least important political campaign imaginable – a race for student government president. Tracy Flick was a little miss perfect high school junior who felt that the presidency was nothing less than her destiny. Tracy was the girl who always gets a 100 on every test. She tries to answer every question asked in class, joins more school organizations than any other student, and invariably takes a “can do” attitude for every task that comes up. In short, she views herself as objectively more deserving of whatever accolades are available, and that certainly includes the title of Student Government President.

When the movie first introduced the election, Flick was running unopposed. She’d set up her little booth and gave out gum to anyone who signed her petition. Clearly, this was a girl who knew what she wanted, knew how to get there, and couldn’t imagine that anyone could stand in her way. Her campaign even had a cute little motto: “Pick Flick.” With the passage of time, her giveaways became increasingly elaborate, culminating in customized cupcakes for all voters. In her mind, she couldn’t imagine why any student would pick anyone else.

Then, one day, Flick got some competition. Paul Metzler, who was played by American Pie’s Chris Klein, was a prototypical boy next door. Tall, handsome, athletic, genuinely kind, and neither intelligent nor stupid, Metzler was extremely popular among his peers. As he began to gain more support, Flick became more and more angry. She must have been incredulous that anyone could vote for this boy, whom she must have seen as a moron, as compared to herself, a natural aristocrat. Here’s the way Witherspoon described what it felt like to play Flick: “She clenched her teeth and jutted her jaw forward, particularly when she was angry, which was ninety-five percent of the film. I just remember after the movie was done, my jaw hurt so bad. I had TMJ from holding my jaw so tight!”

Eventually, Flick’s anger got the better of her. She ripped up a Metzler poster when nobody else was around to see her. And then, to cover up the deed, she ripped up her own posters. Would she get away with it? Would she become SGA president? Would Broderick, the teacher who presided over the election, somehow find a way to bring her down to size? I’ll leave these questions unanswered, as I don’t want to spoil the film too much for those of you who haven’t seen it, which I’d urge you to do. Premiere Magazine may have gone a tad overboard in its raves, but that Flick character will stay with you. In fact, it stays with me whenever I see Hillary Clinton’s face on the screen.

The parallels between these women are endless, and they seem to grow more profound with each month Hillary spends campaigning. Like Tracy, Hillary is really smart, really ambitious, and really diligent. Like Tracy, Hillary thinks that her brains, ambition and diligence morally entitle her to win whatever campaign she tackles – political or otherwise. Like Tracy, Hillary likes to smile a lot – how else does one act professional? – but those smiles belie a smoldering anger underneath. Both women want to be in control; in fact, both women want to rule. Heaven help anyone who takes them on, for they will do whatever it takes – within the rules or otherwise – in order to win.

We saw that in Election when Flick ripped up Metzler’s poster in a fit of rage and then coolly covered up the deed. But until recently, we didn’t see that “win at all costs” mentality from the Clinton camp. Then again, we didn’t need to. The media was allowing her to run virtually unopposed. Oh sure, there was that momentary dalliance with Obama back in the spring, but it wasn’t serious. All Hillary had to do was point out that her rival – gasp! – was willing to talk to bad guys and to go into Pakistan if needed to capture Bin Laden and the media pounced on him like a cat. That drove Hillary’s numbers back through the roof and allowed her to play the role of the above-the-fray politician who simply wants what’s best for her party.

Yeah right.

Perhaps six weeks ago, the tide turned. Obama and Edwards realized that it was time to take Hillary on – especially by pointing out that she is waffling on the issues. When that happened, and her rivals got a little bounce in the polls, Hillary lost it. No, she didn’t rip down any Obama posters (at least none that I’m aware of), but she did everything but. She directly questioned her rival’s character. She challenged him for being overly ambitious because of a statement he made when he was five. And one of her lieutenants even questioned Obama’s drug use – raising the specter that years ago, he wasn’t merely a user but also a dealer.

I think even most house cats don’t have claws that sharp. But Tracy does. She could relate. When she fights for what is rightfully hers, there are no means that aren’t justifiable to reach the noble end of victory. That’s the way life is like for the Tracy Flicks of the world. And increasingly, it appears, that’s the way life is like for Hillary Clinton.

To get back to the point I made at the beginning of this post, I have to make a concession here. Tracy Flick is a fictional character and a stereotypical one at that. We can’t possibly exaggerate her features because those features, taken to the nth degree, make her what she is. But maybe, just maybe, I have turned Hillary Clinton into a stereotype when, in fact, she’s a complex human being who surely has a limit to her cravenness, and a quantum of compassion that Flick could only dream of having. Maybe, in other words, my biases have allowed my mind to under-appreciate what semblance of class Hillary truly possesses.

Moreover, I will also admit that the stereotype that Flick represents is laden with gender issues, and my disgust for Hillary might accordingly have something to do with her being a woman. So the fact that I don’t feel the same way about most other women politicians doesn’t mean that I’m not somehow holding Hillary’s gender against her, albeit subconsciously.

I’ll concede those points to Hillary’s defenders. And yet I don’t think they take away much from a point of my own. Many human stereotypes are gender-linked – such as the oily used-car salesman (Romney?) or the curmudgeon (Gravel?). But that doesn’t mean that these stereotypes don’t elicit emotion, or that they shouldn’t elicit emotion. The reason why the Tracy Flicks of the world are so distasteful is that they’re mean, unscrupulous, phony, arrogant, and are no more entitled to what they seek than the genuinely nice, but less ambitious, people they walk over throughout their lives.

Hillary Clinton may not be as extreme as Tracy Flick, I’ll grant you that. But she is reminiscent of Flick, pretty damned reminiscent, if you ask me. Democrats who might personally prefer people like Obama or Edwards but who back Hillary because she is more “electable” might consider Clinton’s celluloid twin. If I’m right, Clinton’s “Flick issue” will follow her more and more with the passage of time. Come November, she’s going to have to bribe voters with a whole lot of customized cupcakes if she hopes to win a popularity contest. Either that, or her campaign had better produce evidence that her opponents really were drug dealers. I don’t see it happening, but then again, I’m not one to bet against the Tracy Flicks of the world. I’ve seen too much blind ambition get rewarded to count such people out before the cat fight is officially over.

Saturday, December 08, 2007


It has been said before in this quadrant of cyberspace that I have but one ultimate goal in life. On days like today, I have trouble believing that I could reach that goal, but quite a few people do, and my parents came close. They were married for 58 years when, on October 1, 2002, my father died. My goal is to beat them by two years. Kathy and I would nearly have to reach 90 in order to get there, and we have 39 years to go, but we’re going to give it our best shot. My sole concern is life expectancy. That other killer of marriages – divorce – is something I’ve rarely thought about happening to me.

Until this week.

Piqued your interest? Well don’t worry. If Kathy and I were having marital problems, I sure wouldn’t be talking about it here. No, the divorce I have in mind has nothing to do with my wife. We’re both getting divorced, to be sure, but not from each other. We’re getting divorced from our religious community. This past Sunday, our community filed for divorce with us … and dozens if not scores of others.

I’m not sure if this horrible situation is suitable for a blog post. Normally, I try to write about topics of broad philosophical or political interest and yet, on the surface, this topic seems to be both mundane and limited in interest. In fact, I could trivialize it very easily, as follows:

“My Reform Temple has two rabbis and a cantor. The Senior Rabbi doesn’t work well with the other rabbi or the cantor, and the Board of Trustees is sick and tired of the lack of harmony. So the Board decided that it had to choose between the Senior Rabbi, on the one hand, and the Cantor and Associate Rabbi, on the other. It chose the Senior Rabbi and told the membership last Sunday that the other two will have to leave when their contracts expire in June.”

Big whoop, right?

In my house, it is. You’ve seen me compare the situation to a divorce. My wife has compared it to a “death in the family.” My younger daughter is palpably depressed about it. And all of us recognize that the closest thing we had to a community is never again going to be a part of our life.

Well, not quite.

The question that has been plaguing me all week is not which community to join going forward, but whether I have any more obligations to take action in response to the divorce filing. I’ve already ripped up my dues check. I’ve already advised my older daughter to quit her job as the temple’s Saturday services song leader. But should I do more? Should I organize a petition? Should I organize a picket? That’s right, you heard me. Should I organize a picket? Or is there a way to annul the Board's action -- something that would allow the congregation as a whole to oust the Board after a vote of no confidence. That last alternative would be my preference, if it's an available option.

It is almost axiomatic that one of the more primitive forms of religiosity involves treating clergymen as if they are gods. I look at certain Hasidic communities, and I see the way they treat their rebbes, and it seems absurd to me. These people are only human, right? So why expect that they have supernatural wisdom? Why let them decide for us the meaning of right and wrong?

I’d like to think that my attachment to that cantor and that rabbi is altogether different. I didn’t look to them for supernatural anything – wisdom or otherwise. But they were the closest thing my family and I had to spiritual leaders in our midst. And we were hardly alone. Two years ago, the same Board tried to can the same cantor (the rabbi was spared the agony, temporarily), claiming that the issue was one of “money.” Well over 100 members responded with a petition, and the Board reconsidered and decided on a solution reminiscent of the Wizard of Oz. Instead of “Bring back the broomstick of the Wicked Witch of the West,’ it was “Raise $40,000 in permanent annual voluntary dues increases.” Well, we did. And they agreed to re-hire the cantor – for two more years.

Personally, my family upped our dues by $1,400 a year, and I have no doubt that some others were even more generous. That cantor was the heart of prayer at that synagogue. His voice, more than anything else, opened up the soul to the sublime. After he was re-hired, we heard from Board officials that they had recognized their failure to appreciate the views of the membership, and they would do a better job of listening to what we think. Their idea was to hold Parlor Meetings where temple members would share ideas. And so those meetings were held. In each case, the Senior Rabbi was present; the cantor and Associate Rabbi were not. Nevertheless, the results of the meetings – released in October of this year, or nine months after they were held -- were the Platonic Form of an inconclusive mishmash. It’s no wonder that the report on the meetings was prepared in April, but it took them half a year more to release it. The Board could have spent 60 months working on that report and it wouldn’t have made a difference. There was no way to utilize the results as a mandate to let ago of the Temple’s clergy.

Then again, there was no need to consider the Parlor Meetings in terms of such a mandate, because at the same time those meeting results were released, the Board had another meeting. Unlike the Parlor Meetings – which collectively were attended by only about 65 people – this one was attended by well over 100. For nearly two hours, congregants walked up to the front of the sanctuary and spoke about whether or not to retain the existing clergy. Overwhelmingly, the members voiced their support. In fact, other than past presidents or spouses of current vice presidents, there was scarcely a dissenting word heard. Slam dunk, right? Of course the Board would retain our cantor and Associate Rabbi. After all, at the June annual meeting, we were told that one of the purposes of this October meeting would be to listen to the membership about whether to retain these clergymen. And boy did the membership speak their mind. We want our cantor! We want our rabbi! Instead, we just got screwed.

I could go on to list even more facts, but you get the drift. The two clergy who were canned were brilliant, spiritual people who have huge legions of fans. But the Senior Rabbi wasn’t among those fans. Nor were many of the people on the Board. The Board's Kafkaesque letter to the membership reporting on its decision quoted from a Biblical Prophet and justified the decision on the need for “harmony.” That letter presumably meant that since the temple will be controlled by one man and one man only (the Senior Rabbi), we can now have unity ... and a choice – his way or the highway.

The more that I think about the situation, the more I realize how many issues of broad import really are at play. First and foremost, this tells you a lot about the level of apathy in modern Reform temples. The previous temple president explained that one of the reasons the Board was prepared to let the cantor go back in 2005 is that they figured most members were essentially two day a year Jews who really couldn’t care much about who was leading Friday night services in prayer. In other words, these temples exist like country clubs – they give people a sense of identity and a social network, but they don’t especially ground their spirituality or their values. We’ll see over the next several weeks whether that vision of the Temple’s membership is accurate, but I for one wouldn't be surprised if the ex-president spoke the truth.

Second, the situation points out the ethical “flexibility” of religious institutions. This temple, you see, promotes itself as a very progressive place – and progressive values presumably start with a commitment to democratic principles. But in fact, the Board’s conduct was governed by a corporatist, authoritarian model. They owed us the “procedural rights” of meetings where they physically sat quietly and listened to us. Yet they clearly didn’t give a damn about what we said. This sort of dynamic may well be played out in churches and synagogues all over the country. It’s easy to tell stories about religious ideals – generosity, justice, etc. – but that doesn’t for a second mean that our religious leaders feel obliged to follow these ideals. I guess the point is to know about them and proclaim their truth. Actually living according to them is above and beyond the call of duty.

Third, the situation points out how our society has become, to use a phrase coined by Abby Hoffman, a “hotbed of rest.” The Board learned back in 2005 that while hundreds of temple members are mired in some degree of apathy about fundamental synagogue issues, dozens of others are extremely passionate and will surely be enraged about the injustice of this situation. But the Board is counting on our ultimately deciding that there is nothing we can do to change things.

Forty years ago, people demonstrated publicly with respect to a variety of causes. They felt that if you didn’t demonstrate against injustice, you would ensure that it recurs over and over again, tormenting the lives of innocent people. Today, however, we pretty much tend to our own gardens – our kids, our jobs, etc. Somehow, we have adopted an Adam Smithian approach to justice – justice will be best furthered by feathering our own families’ nests 24/7.

Have we lost our religious soul? Have we truly forgotten why we admire the Prophets so much – or their modern descendents, like Martin Luther King or Abraham Joshua Heschel? To me, the temple Board has issued a challenge to my community. Are you serious about Jewish values, or have you simply joined a country club? I can’t wait to find out. I can’t wait to see how many people – how many families – are willing to fight for justice. I can’t wait to see how many are willing to decide, for example, that while a “religious education” is extremely important, children will learn more about religious values by picking up a picket sign than by hearing about the Prophets in a classroom.

Some things are best learned outside of books. Then again, sometimes, books will capture a point perfectly. As it is written in Ecclesiastes, “There is a season for everything, a time for every occupation under heaven. … A time for keeping silent. A time for speaking. … A time for war. A time for peace.”

The Board is calling this a time for peace (i.e., harmony). I, respectively, must beg to disagree.

At the October meeting, we practically begged the Board to take this opportunity to make a statement that peace isn’t something you’re just handed but something you have to work for. I personally made the appeal that if we can’t peacefully come together at this temple, how can we possibly pray for peace in the Middle East? I also said that if, under the circumstances, there is any member of the clergy who wasn’t willing to work with the others, that was the person who should leave.

Well, the Board decided that it wanted peace – but on the cheap. It wanted peace by taking an action against the will of the majority and making a clear statement to anyone who dissents: don't let the door hit your ass on the way out. But it didn’t want to return the tens of thousands of dollars that it solicited in voluntary dues increases for the purported purpose of keeping our community intact.

To that, I have but one response: NO JUSTICE, NO SHALOM.

Saturday, December 01, 2007


A few weeks ago, an old college friend suggested that I take on a topic other than philosophy or politics – namely, myself. Other bloggers had come up with an idea that as many bloggers as possible should do a post entitled “Ten Random Things about Myself,” and my friend Betty suggested that I do the same. So what follows is my lame attempt to talk about someone near and dear to my heart, despite what I often think of him.

And by the way, PLEASE check out Betty’s own blog “La France Profonde” by Googling that phrase. She actually has multiple blogs that are accessible at that site, and whoever you are, I suspect you will find something there worthy of your time.

1. Counting only blood relatives, if you add up all my living (a) parents, (b) children, (c) first cousins, (d) nephews, (e) nieces, (f) uncles, (g) aunts, and (h) grandparents, you’ll get twice the number of known attributes of Spinoza’s God … or the same number of Presidents named either Bush or Adams. I’m referring to my mother, two daughters, and a first cousin in New York City.

2. I’ve been out of law school for 23 years – and have practiced for 21 of them -- and the closest I’ve ever come to working for a law firm is a single interview that I had as a second year law student. I thought it was a public interest law firm. It turned out not to be. It was clear that neither I nor the firm was interested. And that is the sum total of my private sector legal experience.

3. I’ve been called many things in my life that were less than flattering. The name “Spiro” lends itself to that – there’s “Spiro T. Agnew,” “Spirochete” (a bacterial organism, one type of which is the cause of syphilis), “Spirograph,” and “Spirotot,” just to name a few. But the only name that ever bothered me was when I was repeatedly called “Abner” when I was about eight or nine. The kids on the block discovered that my middle name was Albert – named after that great Spinozist, Mr. Einstein, whose political views coincided with that of my parents and whose love for physics was shared by my dad. Somehow, my neighborhood buddies preferred to name me instead for Abner Kravitz, the Stevens’ next door neighbor on Bewitched. I hated that damned name. Perhaps that’s because I would hate above all else to be hen-pecked like Mr. Kravitz.

4. I’ve always liked to think of myself not as a person who lives in the here-and-now but as one of a series of person-stages, including the past as well as the future. For that reason, I try to stay in touch with old friends and rarely miss reunions (except for law-school reunions, for I feel too alienated from the experience of law school to choose to hang out with random classmates … and talk about the law). As I’ve indicated in an earlier post, I suspect that someone who met me at 10, 15 or 20 would recognize pretty much the same person at 40, 45, or should I be so lucky to get there, 80.

5. I’m hopeless at remembering languages. I’m talking about foreign languages, computer languages … it really doesn’t matter what. I know English and the language of mathematics (that was one of my greatest passions as a child), but the other ones just don’t stay in my mind. Oh, and while I’m on the topic of shortcomings, my mechanical aptitude is off-the-charts bad.

6. I have had three dogs in my life, all small and all white. The first one, my childhood dog, was never fixed. My dad thought it would be “cruel” to his manhood to do that. Consequently, this wild little mutt would try to escape from our house whenever possible and make mischief in my suburban neighborhood. Once, he jumped out our second story window, and we received a call from someone blocks away that he was messing with their bitch, which was in heat. We finally had to give him away to a farm. I think the combo of having balls and being part-terrier meant that he was unsuitable for Bethesda.

Today, I have two bichons – Kirby Puckett and Carly Simon. Carly yaps at practically everyone who comes in, begs constantly for food during dinner, and always tries to steal food from Kirby. But it serves us right, because we never trained her (and were it not for my wife, Kirby wouldn’t have been trained either). Some bad habits run in the family, I guess.

7. My favorite musical group is the Rolling Stones. And my favorite Stones album is Sticky Fingers. That one album has so many of my favorite songs – Brown Sugar, Sway, Wild Horses (my favorite slow song), Can’t You Hear Me Knocking, Bitch, Dead Flowers and Moonlight Mile. In addition to the Stones, I also really love Bob Dylan, Van Morrison, Pink Floyd, and Fleetwood Mac. In terms of groups who aren’t yet on the “Senior’s Tour,” I really like the Dave Matthews Band and Radiohead.

8. My favorite word is God – but only when I get to define it, or when the person using the word is intending for it to be meant in a broad way so that each of us can define it for ourselves. I enjoy hearing religious ideas chanted in languages I can’t understand. That way, I can enjoy the spiritual sound of the chant, without having to think about what the clerics are saying, which I probably don’t agree with.

9. I don’t consider myself a cheapskate. I’m generous enough with my friends, and I spend freely on books and on travel (when I have the time to travel). But one thing I hate spending money on is cars. I drive a 1990 Honda Accord wagon – a car that my wife bought back when I was driving a Ford Taurus, which lasted me until the carburetor died. My Honda has three functioning doors (the door on the front passenger’s seat is jammed) and a radio that works perhaps 50% of the time. I think nothing of throwing empty water bottles on the ground in front of the passenger’s seat, figuring that every few weeks I’ll have the motivation to at least remove the bottles, if not the newspapers and other junk that accumulates in the car. That vehicle is a superego-free zone. I miss not having a functioning radio, but the car otherwise suits me just fine.

10. I saved for last my pet peeves and pet loves. Notwithstanding my comments about hypocrisy in The Creed Room, I really can’t stand to see it, especially when it’s manifested in the context of religion. I also have a problem with hierarchy. Yes, I know some amount of it is appropriate, but I like to see people downplay it and attempt to democratize institutions as much as is practicable … and perhaps a tiny bit more. I also really get annoyed when I go into restaurants and don’t find any vegetable protein on the menu. (Don’t we vegans have rights too?)

As for loves, I really love people who are candid, loyal, trustworthy, unpretentious, humble (but not self-effacing), and intellectual. I like people who are either silly or can appreciate raunchy humor. I also enjoy being around spiritual people, but that assumes that their spirituality hasn’t bled into sanctimony, in which case it becomes intolerable.

Anyway, if you’re still reading, thanks for indulging me these random, self-centered thoughts.