Saturday, September 26, 2015

A True Role Model Comes to America

Here in America, this last week has been a big deal for all sorts of groups.  For my people, there was Yom Kippur, the holiest day of the Jewish year.   For my Muslim cousins, there was Eid-al-Adha, one of that faith’s two supreme annual festivals.   For the political junkies, there was John Boehner’s resignation as Speaker of the House, which could result in chaos in that chamber of Congress.   But let’s face it – none of those was the story of the week.   Just as this summer was the Summer of Trump, this fall is promising to be the Autumn of the Pope.  His visit to DC, New York and Philadelphia is mesmerizing us all and may well leave an indelible impact on our national consciousness.   At a minimum, Francis is pointing out much of what’s wrong with America.   The question is, will he inspire us to do anything about our problems?  

While campaigning in the wake of a Presidential impeachment, George W. Bush pledged to be a “uniter, not a divider.”  Eight years later, Barack Obama successfully ran on that same platform, demonstrating that Americans are clearly looking for such a figure.  But just as clearly, both of our last two Presidents have failed miserably in that regard.   Apparently, if we hope to reduce the amount of polarization in our society, the antidote must come from a realm other than politics. 

On the surface, the realm of religion might be the last place to look for that antidote.  For years, it has been the exclusive province of the hard right.   Whether you’re talking about Christians, Jews, or Muslims, religion has come to be associated with social conservatism.   By contrast, the progressives who advance a more libertine social agenda rarely discuss religion, and some even mock those who bring their faith into public policy discussions.   What’s more, the two teams that line up to fight each other on social issues tend for the most part to be the same two teams that go to battle on economic and foreign policy issues.   As a result, if a person is devoutly religious, they are highly likely to be found on the “right” of all these societal debates, and if a person is unabashedly secular, they are likely to be found on the “left” – with both sides treating the other dismissively, if not disdainfully. 

Enter Pope Francis.  He’s religiously devout, but hardly a conservative.   He’s critical, but always respectful.  He has a fighting spirit, but his weapon is love. 

Francis is a man with a vision – and it’s not the vision held by either of our polarized camps.   If you’re looking for him to support abortion rights, think again.  If you view the right of gays to marry as a no-brainer, here’s a great brain who wants all marriages to be “traditional.”   Then again, if you believe that a fetus has a right to life but a convicted murderer does not, don’t expect agreement from Francis.   Nor should you expect him to look the other way about climate change, poverty, or xenophobia.  Francis cares most about those who are the most helpless – the poor, the prisoner, the fetus, the endangered species, the ice cap.  

Do I agree with Francis on every issue of public policy?   No.  But then again, who does?   For progressives, he’s too traditional.  For traditionalists, he’s too heretical.   Personally, I don’t see Francis as a philosopher with a compellingly coherent system of ideas.   I see him instead as an almost prophetic figure – a man who sees a great evil and is passionate about confronting it.

Is the evil unbridled capitalism?   Environmental degradation?    Abortion?   Xenophobia?   Gay marriage?   One or more of those things may indeed be evil, but that’s not the main point of Francis’ mission.   He has come to our shore to preach about polarization and all the crap that comes with it.  All the ridicule, the sarcasm, the incivility, the disrespect, the unwillingness to listen to the “other.”   He has come to unify us so that we can return to a time when we were taking on great causes – like fighting the Nazis or putting a man on the Moon.   He is a reminder that this is a land where men like Jefferson and Adams could become loving correspondents whose letters dripped with mutual admiration, even though they were once political enemies of the first order.  

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”   There is little if anything in my Torah or in Francis’s Gospels that is more uplifting than that sentence.  And yet it was written by a slave owner who had an affair with one of his slaves.    Such is the human condition, my friends – we are capable of great beauty and great ugliness.  All of us.  Even this Pope. 

You see, I can behold him and see a remarkable example of a man who is nearly perfect for his time.  I can admire his heart, his courage and his wisdom and thank God for the fact that he is now the leader of one of our great faiths.  But I can also infer from the fact that he is a member of our species that he is also a “sinner” – capable of hurting the poor, degrading the environment, disrespecting marriage, demeaning the immigrant, taking human life ….   As Pope Francis recognizes, he needs our prayers, just like we need his.

On Yom Kippur, every Jew is required to recite a litany of sins that “we” have committed, and they include some pretty nasty things.  We take pride in the fact that our greatest Prophet, Moses, “sinned” and thus was not allowed to enter the Promised Land.   We constantly remind ourselves that to be human is to be flawed, despite how much promise and potential beauty we all have. 

But it is precisely because we are flawed that we must have compassion for one another and especially for the neediest among us – which is one of Pope Francis’s central principles.  And it is precisely because we are flawed that we must resist the temptation to demonize our political opponents or to envision in our mind some sort of cosmic battle between those who agree with our politics and those who don’t.   And once we do deal with the “other” compassionately and they show the same courtesy to us, we will find that we do indeed have plenty of common ground.  For it is in nobody’s interest to degrade the environment, strip the poor or the foreigner of dignity, undermine the institution of marriage, or destroy human life.

Personally, I don’t intend to adopt the Pope’s views on gay marriage.  Nor will I oppose a woman’s right to choose.   But I will take his visit as an opportunity to remind myself that marriage is an institution to be venerated above virtually all other institutions on earth.  And that whether or not a fetus is a “person” it is quite literally a “human life,” and that anyone who is preparing to have sex has obligations not to toy with the prospect that they may create such a life if they are not careful.   

As for my more conservative brothers and sisters, I certainly hope they will take the Pope’s visit as an opportunity to remind themselves that we are not doing well by our nation’s poor or our world’s environment, and that if the private sector can’t or won’t solve those problems, the government may be needed to lend a hand.  Most importantly, though, let’s all try, just a little bit, to emulate the spirit of this Pope – the warmth, the gentleness, the civility, the compassion.   It is that spirit that has the potential to bring us all together.  And it is that togetherness that has the potential to lift us to great heights  – as a nation, as a species, and as a planet.  

Saturday, September 19, 2015

So Far, the Republicans are Winning the Effort Battle

On April 3rd, 2011, the Number 1 seeded Stanford Cardinal played Texas A&M for the opportunity to go to the National Championship Game in women’s college basketball.  As an alum who bleeds Cardinal Red, I had plenty of reason to be optimistic.  Stanford was both bigger and more skilled than the upstart Aggies – plus, we had the experience advantage, for Stanford was making its fourth Final Four appearance in as many years.   Everything was going true to form with six minutes to go in the game, as Stanford had pulled away to a ten-point lead.  But then the Aggies started chipping away with one hustle play after another.  Texas A&M was beating Stanford to every loose ball, reflecting not only tenacity but impressive quickness.  By the game’s final minute, it was a see-saw affair, with the lead changing hands over and over again.  The Aggies seized a one-point advantage with 19 seconds left, only to have Stanford answer with what appeared to be a game winning layup with nine ticks remaining on the clock.   But that turned out to be plenty of time for the underdogs, who sprinted their way up the court to hit the game winning shot with three seconds to go – sealing a 63-62 victory and catapulting the Aggies into the Championship Game, which they ultimately would win. 

From the opening tip to the final buzzer, I was pulling for the Cardinal.  Yet I have to be candid: by the time that game ended, I knew that we didn’t deserve it.  A&M played like they wanted it more.  We were the Clydesdales, but they were the Little Engine That Could.  We were cocky, they were scrappy; we were confident, they were desperate.  Obviously, when you’ve going to your fourth Final Four in four years and you enter a game as the higher ranked team, you feel ENTITLED to win the game.  And let’s face it, when you’re Stanford University -- one of the most elite academic institutions this side of the Andromeda Galaxy, it doesn’t take much to grow that sense of entitlement.   A&M didn’t bring any of that baggage to the table.  They just brought hustle, and hustle was enough.

I’ve allowed myself to relive that debacle to point out to you that we appear to be witnessing déjà vu all over again.  This time, the role of Texas A&M is being played by the Republican Party, whereas Stanford’s part is being played by the Democrats.  Going into this election cycle, the Democrats had won two Presidential Elections in a row – and when you think about it, they’ve won the popular vote five out of six elections.  What’s more, demographic trends indicate that the Democrats figure to have an even greater advantage now than before, since the Hispanic population is growing so rapidly and Hispanics (like every other “minority”) vote disproportionately Democratic.  Further, if all that wasn’t enough, going into this election season, the Democrats had by far the most well-known and experienced candidate.  Indeed, during the first Republican debate, Marco Rubio said that "If this election is a resume competition than Hillary Clinton is going to be the next President.”  The fact that she would also be the FIRST woman President, and that women represent 50% of the electorate, only made Hillary seem that much more inevitable.   Just like Stanford.

But have you noticed what’s been happening?  The GOP has held two debates and each one is garnering record audiences.   The first debate had 24 million viewers.  This past week’s debate had 23 million.   The Republicans are planning on a total of eleven debates this season, five more than Democrats, who won’t even begin until mid-October. 

The “coach” responsible for the Democrats’ reluctance to go to battle is Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Congresswoman from South Florida and the head of the Democratic National Committee.  She is also known to be a big partisan of Hillary Clinton.  For some reason, she has decided that it is in her candidate’s interests to have her Party sit out the summer and early fall and let the Republicans take all the political oxygen.  Unfortunately for Schultz, her candidate, Madame Inevitable, isn’t looking nearly so grand these days.

Because this blog is a law-free zone, I won’t comment on Hillary Clinton’s e-mail issues.  But as they say in sports, all you have to do is look at the scoreboard.  Even among women, her popularity is plummeting.  In the words of master-pundit, Nate Silver, “Clinton is stuck in a poll deflating feedback loop.”  And yet, at least when it comes to winning the nomination, she’s still Madame Inevitable.   Her closest competitor is Bernie Sanders, who looks like an absent-minded professor, calls himself a socialist, and refuses to say anything the least bit critical about Hillary.   Some would argue that Joe Biden is also potential competition, but our avuncular Veep has spent his summer auditioning for the role of Hamlet, not building a campaign organization.   Honestly, if he isn’t sure he is able to handle running for President at the age of 72, why should anyone think he can handle actually doing the job at the age of 78 (which is how old he’d be at the end of his first term)?

I suspect that the Dems are in denial.  They look at the Comedy Act that is Donald Trump, see how much he has been dominating the Republican stage, and figure that they’ve got nothing to worry about.  To quote Schultz, "I am actually thrilled at the voters across America being able to see the 16 Republican candidates in the food-fight that they'll engage in tonight in the doubling down on extremism, alienating immigrants to the country who simply came to make a better way of life for themselves, alienating women by suggesting that we're providing too much health care funding for them, and wanting to take away the access to quality affordable healthcare for all Americans." 
There you have today’s Democratic Party mantra in one paragraph.  But I can simplify it into one sentence: “We barely even have to show up to win because our opponents are a bunch of wackos.”  I somehow doubt that Stanford’s Hall of Fame Coach Tara VanDerveer took Texas A&M so lightly. 

For those of my fellow Dems who are still in denial, let me point out what should be obvious: Donald Trump wasn’t the only candidate on stage this past Wednesday. In fact, for a full 37 minute stretch, the Donald didn’t even open his pie hole.  What I saw included, in addition to some lesser candidates, an impressive political moderate (John Kasich) and a brilliant orator (Carly Fiorina).  In addition, I watched as the most likely nominee, Marco Rubio, seemed to mature and blossom before our eyes.  Believe me, the Republicans are going to fight for this prize, and while they might not have any stars, Texas A&M proved that you don’t need stars; you just need fighters.  By the summer of 2016, whoever emerges from this Republican primary season will be battle tested and battle ready.

And who will s/he face?  Why Hillary, of course.  Hillary has been allowed to play this hand with a rigged deck.  That’s clearly what Schultz has been attempting to do – minimize the opportunities for the Democratic Party electorate to make an educated decision that might potentially result in a different candidate winning.   Hillary has the money.  Hillary has the organization.  Hillary has the endorsements.  Hillary has the name recognition.  And without many debates to stop the momentum, the Democratic race is over before it starts.

But there will be a competition next summer.   And will Hillary be ready for that?   Or will she feel like all she needs to do is strut onto the stage, throw out the same old “Republicans Suck” lines, and the Fates will hand her the victory.  That sure seems to be her Party’s game plan.   At this rate, they’ll be lucky to compare themselves to the Stanford Women’s Basketball Team.  After all, at least Stanford kept it close.

Sunday, September 13, 2015

A Community at Risk

So here we are, once again, about to enter the so-called “Days of Awe.”  This is the period beginning with Rosh Hashanah, the Jewish New Year, and ending with Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, in which Jews are supposed to be searching our souls for ways to become more ethical, compassionate, socially productive and reverent human beings.  During the so-called “High Holiday Services,” we pray in the first person plural.  But don’t kid yourself – many if not most of us take this time as an opportunity to reflect in the first person singular.   We often feel guilty about how we as individuals have behaved in the past year, and we always feel guilty about what we’ve been feeling in our hearts and thinking in our heads.   The Days of Awe is a time to ask for forgiveness (or to forgive ourselves, depending on your theology) and to commit ourselves to becoming better human beings during the upcoming year.

But this year is a bit different, at least for me.  As fascinated as I am by my own personal flaws and as interested as I am in improving as an individual, those topics don’t seem to mean much compared to what is happening right now to the Jewish people as a community.   It is, perhaps, an exaggeration to say that the people are in crisis, but there is no question that contemporary Judaism is reaching a dangerous fork in the road, or at least that can be said about contemporary non-Orthodox Judaism. 
The Orthodox community is thriving, both in Israel and in America.  You can take exception to its impact on the world, and especially its role in Israeli politics, but nobody can deny that its numbers are increasing.   If it were a species, the Orthodox would be categorized as “not at risk.”  The non-Orthodox, on the other hand, are probably best labeled as “threatened.”  You couldn’t exactly call them “endangered,” especially given that millions of non-Orthodox Jews live in Israel with a tremendous amount of ethnic/cultural pride, despite a relative lack of interest in religion.  But here in America, the warning signs are getting more and more pronounced.  

According to the 2013 Pew Research Poll, we’ve already reached the point where 58% of American Jews are marrying gentiles.  Among non-Orthodox Jews, however, the intermarriage rate is 71% … and growing.     If the past is any guide, the vast majority of their grandchildren will not identify with Judaism.   And these past demographic trends are likely to be furthered by the fact that more and more contemporary American non-Orthodox Jews (a) gain little sustenance from the Jewish faith, and (b) are becoming fed up with the state of Israel and its occupation of the Palestinians.  You can see the latter trend manifest itself in polls of Jewish reactions to the Iran peace deal.  Israel’s leader has made an impassioned plea that this deal existentially threatens the Jewish State, and indeed, most Israeli Jews are against it.  But American Jews tend to support the deal, and do so at a far greater rate than their gentile countrymen.  For the first time in ages, AIPAC, the most powerful pro-Israeli lobby in Washington, seems to have little sway.   It couldn’t even persuade half of the Jews in Congress to vote against the deal.   Increasingly, the Jewish State is finding its American allies in the ranks of gentile conservatives rather than the more liberal non-Orthodox Jewish population.

So what will sustain non-Orthodox Judaism in America?  Or will that community – my community – go the way of the dodo bird and the brontosaurus?    Those are the key questions that folks like me will be asking ourselves as we sit at shul this holiday season.   Hopefully, every rabbi in the country will address these questions, rather than ducking them with a sermon about something more trivial and safe.  There is nothing safe about addressing this topic, for this isn’t a topic where Jews can blame others.  It can only be addressed by honestly facing our inadequacies in the past, in the present, and in the likely future (unless we do something radical to shake things up).

That’s precisely the sort of exercise we’ve been engaging in for years, though as individuals rather than as a community.  We can no longer afford to be so self-centered.  There’s too much at stake in ignoring the realities. 

So, let’s get busy and figure this thing out.   Tawk amongst yourselves.   It’s time to stop thinking of non-Orthodox Judaism simply as a country club in which you are a member.  We don’t need “congregants” and “tribesmen,” we need muckrakers.  We need people who are willing to fight for the soul of non-Orthodox Judaism, including rabbis who are willing to risk their salaries to tell their congregants some very unpopular things.   

That’s all I have for now.  I look forward to the opportunity to pray for inspiration in a communal setting.  It’s still one of the most blessed of human activities.

As for you, my reader, whether you’re a Jew or an “Ally,” have a blessed Rosh Hashanah.  

Saturday, September 05, 2015

Treating Labor Day Weekend with Respect

This is Labor Day Weekend, so let’s take stock in the status of labor in America today.
In the last half century, unionization has dropped from nearly a third of the population to barely more than a tenth.  In the private sector, only about one twentieth of the labor force is unionized.

In November 2014, the CIA published a report surveying the level of income equality in 141 nations.  The United States lagged behind 70% of the nations surveyed, including all of Europe and the vast majority of Asia.    

Average hourly earnings adjusted for inflation have been completely stagnant over the past half century.  Since 1974, when I was entering high school, such earnings have dropped substantially (well over 10%) and the minimum wage has failed to keep up with inflation.   According to a 2014 Pew poll, 73% of Americans – including a majority of Republicans as well as Democrats -- support an increase in the minimum wage from $7.25 to 10.10 per hour, but there is no consensus among our national leaders as to whether the minimum wage should increase and, if so, by how much.

It’s sobering data, if you ask me.  But what is even more sobering is that here we are in the middle of a Presidential election campaign and none of these issues has captivated the interest of the media or the American public.   I must have received 30 e-mails in the past week regarding the Iran peace deal, but I don’t recall receiving a single e-mail in the past month regarding the plight of the American worker. 

On Memorial Day, we think about the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.  This being Labor Day, perhaps we should build a Tomb of the Unknown Worker.  And in that symbolic tomb, we can place the names and faces of the tens of millions of American workers who are either out of a job altogether or whose work could aptly be called a “dead end” opportunity – while a tiny percentage of the labor force gets richer and richer every year.

So here’s to all the hardworking men and women who flip hamburgers, bag groceries, haul garbage, paint houses, operate machines, or bind books.  This weekend more than any other, we are duty bound to reflect upon and celebrate their efforts.  But when the weekend is over, after those of us in white collar jobs have had our “day off” to luxuriate in their names, what do you say we dedicate some time to addressing some of the issues raised at the top of this post?  Personally, I’ve had just about enough with living in a bottom-dwelling society when it comes to income equality.   Trickle down hasn’t worked.  Now is the time to start talking about the alternatives.