Saturday, March 30, 2019

On Dignity

Nearly every year at this time, I write and deliver and essay inspired by the Jewish holiday of Purim.  This year’s essay focuses on the concept of dignity and why it is both central to authentic religion and incredibly misunderstood by the society at large.  I think you’ll find it interesting.

Here’s the essay:

Other Purim essays can be found on the Other Writings/Purim Essays page of my website, 

Saturday, March 23, 2019

Six Days

It took the New Zealand Prime Minister all of six days after a mass shooting incident to announce a ban on certain weapons of mass destruction.  We’re talking about semi-automatic rifles, bump stocks, even  high-capacity magazines.  The Cabinet has already agreed to rid the country of those scourges.  As soon as the Kiwi Parliament reconvenes in April, their absolute prohibition will be the law of the land.  

New Zealand has endured only a single mass shooting in the last 20 years, but that one was enough to bring lawmakers together on behalf of common sense and the sanctity of human life.  By contrast, in the past 20 years, we in America have seen 18 shooting sprees resulting in ten or more deaths and eight such sprees in the past four years.  Yet here, except for the soon-to-be-implemented ban on bump stocks, the federal government doesn’t dare touch our guns.  Semi-automatic weapons flood the landscape.   High-capacity magazines rack up corpses in droves. Meanwhile, mentally-fragile residents can buy these insane killing tools without even needing to submit to a background check.  And the leaders of our government?  They duck and cover – much like the children at our schools during one of our increasingly common active shooter situations.

In the United States, whenever there is a mass shooting, the face of the event quickly becomes the head of the National Rifle Association – tough, macho, uncompromising, callous ... and victorious on Capitol Hill.  In New Zealand, we are greeted instead by the face of a woman – equally tough, but also open-minded, empathetic, and transparent.  Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern is a mere 38 years old. Had she sought to be head of state in America, we surely would have heard a million reasons why she is unqualified.  Too young.  Weak.  Wimpy.  Unpresidential.  Just imagine her grieving in public as she has done so often in the week after the recent massacre.  The opposition party would mock her relentlessly for being someone foreign adversaries would never fully respect or take seriously.   Instead, Americans would pine for the days of George W Bush, who after 9/11, expressed the desire to “find out who did this and kick their ass.”  Ardern isn’t talking about kicking anyone’s ass.  She’s simply mourning.  And changing laws for the better.

What is it about America and its obsession with machismo?  Is that why we love guns so much?  Is that  why we insist on permitting every Tom, Dick and Harry to own weapons that can take out scores of innocent people in a single spree?  Why can’t we appreciate the strength behind feminine figures like Jacinda Ardern?  Why can’t we appreciate that a lady who is publicly mourning is far more dignified than a cowboy bent on revenge?  

I know I sound jealous of people from places like New Zealand or Scandinavia, where the values of femininity seem to be given more respect.  The truth is, though, that I’m a loyal American, one who takes tremendous pride in so many aspects of American history and culture.  And yet I’m also not deluded.  Sometimes, you have to recognize your own flaws, or those of your country.  And when you contemplate what it means to live in a place that has never elected a woman as head of state, has become the murder capital of the developed world, inures itself to hateful rhetoric from the highest levels of Government, and is so fundamentally partisan that it has trouble coming together even on common sense legislation, you find yourself saying that Houston, we have a problem.

It understates the point to say that we haven’t been electing women as President.  Lately, we haven’t even been electing short men.  Jimmy Carter was the last President who was 5’11” or shorter.  He was elected 43 years ago, before Ronald Reagan touted the cowboy ethos and set the country on an economic path of haves and have nots.  Four years after Reagan was first elected, he ran again – and this time, for the first time in history, there was a woman on the ticket (albeit in the #2 slot).  That ticket came to be known, unaffectionately, as “Fritz and Tits.”  They won only a single state.     

In some respects, we’ve clearly made progress since 1984.  In 2016, a woman ran for President and won the popular vote.  Then again, when it came to the all-important Electoral College, she lost to a political novice who ran largely on a platform of tribalism and machismo, and who was caught on tape boasting that as a celebrity, he can grab women “by the pussy.”  In some respects, he was perceived as the lout at the end of the bar.  But his opponent was perceived as an intense, uppity woman – and in much of America, that’s the greater deal breaker. 

Today in America, we have more women in political office than ever before.  Many are in Congress.  Some are even given a chance to win the Presidency.  It’s true that none who seek the Democratic nomination is polling in the double digits (unlike two men who would become octogenarians by the end of their first term), yet I suspect that most of us believe that with the right personality, intelligence, experience, and policy chops, a woman might actually win the prize.  But I also suspect that most of us believe that the lane to victory is far, far wider for a man.  Stated differently, many a male American political candidate has been made of Teflon when it comes to surviving scandals, mistakes and limitations, whereas with a woman, it almost goes without saying that they’re made of Velcro. 

That’s the situation here.  Perhaps it is different in New Zealand.  Perhaps the experience of seeing Jacinda Ardern unify her country with sympathy, rather than hatred, may remind her fellow citizens of what a wonderful choice they have made in a Prime Minister.  Fortunately, the world is becoming a small place.  Ardern’s compassion and courage are nearly as visible here as they are there.   We might want to take note of what real leadership looks like.  Now is not the time to get jealous.  But it might be the time to emulate greatness when we see it.

Saturday, March 16, 2019

The College-Admissions Fetish

For many people, the story about college admissions that came to light this week centered on a legal scandal.  The Empathic Rationalist, however, is a law-free zone, so I will have nothing to say about the scandal du jour.  What I would like to talk about instead is the rat race that gave rise to this particular scandal.  Specifically, I’d like to draw an analogy between the way our society approaches getting children into college and the world of sports. 

Imagine for a moment that a sports league declared performance-enhancing drugs (PEDs) legal.  Not just some PEDs, but all PEDs.  Hell, imagine that the league encouraged PED use -- for professional athletes, for college athletes, for high school athletes, you name it.  You’d expect many people to refuse to partake in them, thinking that these drugs are dangerous to body and mind.  But those athletes presumably would have trouble competing, because if there is one thing we sports fans have learned over the years, it’s that PEDs work.  

In our hypothetical, that fact is hardly lost on the athletic community.  So one by one, in town after town, athletes would go to their local pharmacies and get themselves on the juice.  Quickly, they’d find themselves running faster, hitting harder, and remaining injury free (at least in the short run).  It wouldn’t take long before these PED users came to dominate their sport.  They’d fill the rolls of the All-Mets in high school, the All-Americans in college, and the All-Stars in the pros.   By contrast, those who were drug free would end up sitting on the bench, or if they were really talented, perhaps they’d attain the status of “role player” – you know, the utility infielder, long snapper, or winger on the fourth line of a hockey team.  But the Hall of Famers, they’d all be shooting up or drinking up ... at least until the point where their bodies fell apart or they started contemplating suicide.  You see, in this hypo, just like in the real world, PEDs will eventually destroy the ones who use them. 

Now let’s get back to the context of getting little boys and girls into college in the real world.  When I look at our society, I see that process as very similar to the hypothetical I just described.  In well-to-do towns like mine (Bethesda, MD), it may be the rule, rather than the exception, for parents to obsess about getting their children into the very “best” of colleges.  And so they essentially give their kids a childhood on steroids, one that is encouraged by the admissions departments of the colleges themselves.  Some of these kids start studying for their so-called “Aptitude” tests when they are 11 or 12, perhaps with the help of SAT tutors or prep classes.  Other kids are pushed, relentlessly, into the most advanced math classes possible by parents who are practically doing their homework with them, much like Willie Shoemaker used to whip his race horse down the home stretch.  These parents also become obsessed with finding “extra-curricular activities” at which their progeny can excel and which are valued by colleges.  So, for example, instead of encouraging little Junior to play the guitar, an instrument he might possibly enjoy playing in rock bands, on campouts, or pretty much anywhere, they buy him a bassoon in the hope that he can become one of the best damned bassoon players of his cohort and thereby fill an elite college’s need for that rarest of musical breeds, the virtuoso orchestral bassoonist.

For the PED families, this approach to starting out in life essentially means that their kids will not have a childhood.  Instead, they will become soulless rat-racers.  On paper, they’ll look pristine with their 4.0s, 1600s, and demonstrated excellence at some sport, musical instrument, or other avocational vehicle.  But when you talk to them, you’ll quickly realize that they’re neither interested nor interesting.  They’re just unappealing machines. 

And then there are the families who aren’t buying into the whole rat race and who, for one reason or another, are allowing their children to grow up ... as children.   You know, normal kids.  The ones who often have time on their hands to day dream, play computer games, run around the backyard with other “underachieving” friends, etc.   These days, such kids might find themselves at college too.   But it won’t be the “top” colleges.  And they won’t come to see themselves as “top” students.  They’ll be the butt of the joke when they go on the road trip to watch their college team play at one of the PED colleges, whose crowd chants “That’s alright, that’s OK, you’re gonna pump our gas someday.” 

This approach to childhood is insane.  It isn’t fair to the kids who tried to enjoy their childhood, only to find themselves being pushed aside as mediocrities.  And it isn’t fair to the PED abusers who gain admittance to Harvard, Yale or Princeton, only to later realize that they’ve lost their humanity in the process.  Is there any question that this epitomizes a negative sum game?  But what in God’s name do we do about it?  How do we stop the rats from running around in their mazes for one generation after another with no end in sight?

To me, the most obvious suggestion is to get rid of the standardized tests – those phony symbols of meritocracy that eat up so much of our children’s psyches.  Instead, I would suggest that the college emphasize the interview process and hire interviewers who can spot genuine warmth, curiosity and courage.  Secondly, colleges admissions departments need to stop rewarding over-programmed kids, who clearly are so busy building their resumes that they haven’t had the time to build their souls.  Thirdly, colleges need to stop providing information about their schools to those organizations who attempt to rank colleges, like that God-forsaken U.S. News and World Report.   If not for those rankings, the elitism that has fueled all this insanity wouldn’t be nearly as intense.  But perhaps the most important thing is for all of us – from college admissions departments, to high school administrators, to parents, to students – to encourage kids to be just that: kids.   

The truth is that you can lead a remarkably productive life with an education from a non-elite state college and a tragically unproductive life with an education from an Ivy League school.  Given that fact, it makes no sense for us to destroy what ought to be some of the best years of our lives worrying about whether we’re heading to one college as opposed to another.  And it’s clearly not fair to those who lack either the opportunity or the inclination to jump into this rat race to make them feel like mediocrities or losers in the so-called “meritocratic” society we claim to be creating.  Anyone who thinks that merit can truly be measured by an SAT score or a child’s willingness to devote at least hours a day to practicing a musical instrument is definitely on drugs.  And they’re not wisdom-enhancing drugs, I can tell you that.

Folks, this shouldn’t be difficult.  The fixes to this mess are right in front of our eyes.  All we have to do is wake up, smell the roses, and let our kids do the same.

Saturday, March 09, 2019

Fighting for the Right to be a Religious Progressive

Something very disturbing happened yesterday.   It should have been a big news item.  Yet since it didn’t have anything to do with Donald Trump, it was ignored on these shores.  The print version of the New York Times didn’t mention it once.  Nor did the Washington Post.  I only know about it because it was the topic of my rabbi’s sermon last evening at synagogue.  The rabbi had announced prior to the service that we would be celebrating International Women’s Day by saluting the Women of the Wall, a group that for the past three decades has struggled for the right of women to pray aloud at the Western Wall in Jerusalem holding Torah scrolls and adorned in traditional prayer attire.   True to form, hundreds of these women showed up at the Wall yesterday expecting to do their thing, when they were met by mobs of literally thousands of Ultra-Orthodox teenagers and young adults who had come from all over the country to stop the outrage.  Violence ensued, a couple people were injured, and the police watched with disturbing passivity. Ultimately, after the Women of the Wall left the scene in order to protect themselves, the police blamed them for the confrontation.  It was the praying women’s use of loudspeakers, rather than the ultra-Orthodox’s use of violence, that was deemed especially offensive by the authorities. 

Like so many things that happen in the world these days, yesterday’s skirmish in Judaism’s holiest site was shocking but not surprising.  Any Israeli observer has long ago realized that Orthodox Judaism has been given a virtual monopoly over religious life, and the ultra-Orthodox in particular enjoy special privileges.   To be sure, most Israelis aren’t especially religious.  A 2015 Gallop Poll found that nearly two-thirds of Israelis claimed either to be “not religious” or “convinced atheists.”  But to the extent Israeli Jews do partake in religion, what they’re imbibing comes almost exclusively from Orthodox rabbis.   Conservative, Reform, Reconstructionist, and Renewal Judaism are moribund in the Holy Land.  So it only stood to reason that when it came time for the Women of the Wall to stake their claim to gender equality, they were met by a far greater number of Ultra-Orthodox zealots.  Yeshiva rabbis could simply tell their teenage students to get on the bus, go to the Kotel (the Wall), and make sure that feminists aren’t able to violate the faith’s traditional prohibitions.  These include women wearing prayer shawls, praying loudly enough to be heard by men, reading collectively from a Torah scroll and praying together with men without a physical barrier to separate them.  Apparently, it isn’t enough for the Ultra-Orthodox community in Israel to keep their own synagogues pure.  They feel the need to ensure that nobody else practices Judaism unless they, too, follow the “rules.”

Why do fundamentalist Jews have such power in Israel?  One reason is because secular leaders need support from multiple political parties to form a leading coalition in Parliament, so they make a deal with the ultra-Orthodox parties: “you join our political coalition and we’ll give you control over religious life.”   But there is another, even more important reason: we live in a world where, increasingly, people are dividing into two attitudes when it comes to religion:  (a) fundamentalist and (b) thoroughly apathetic.  Since the apathetic people could care less what happens inside a church or a holy site, when it comes to religion these days, the energy is increasingly on the side of the fundamentalists.

Don’t believe me?  Just look at another recent, underreported story.  I’m referring to the decision on February 26th of the General Conference of the United Methodist Church to pass the so-called “Traditional Plan,” which reaffirmed the prohibition of gay marriage and the ordination of LGBTQ clergy and asserted that “the practice of homosexuality is incompatible with Christian teaching.”  Methodism is America’s second largest Protestant denomination, with over seven million Americans, most of whom I suspect opposed the Traditional Plan.  But the fateful vote of February 26th involved representatives from all over the world.  And while the American delegations may have been pretty evenly split, that wouldn’t appear to be the case for the delegations from places like Africa and the Philippines.  Moreover, the victory of the Traditional Plan was made possible by the fact that the membership of the United Methodist Church in America has been shrinking substantially over time.  So even if I’m right that most American Methodists voted with the minority, the overall size of the delegation was too small to defeat the more fundamentalist elements of the church in a worldwide vote of the movement. 

It’s not hard to figure out what is going on.  Fundamentalism offers a simple, comforting answer to all our deepest questions. Trust in the Great Supernatural Law-Maker in the Sky and the handbook of right and wrong that He graciously has bestowed upon us.   Follow that handbook and you will enjoy eternal bliss.  Otherwise, you will undergo a painful second-guessing process throughout your life on earth and perhaps an even worse experience in the hereafter.  As for Non-Religious Secularism, it offers an alternative that is nearly as comforting.  Play hard.  Work hard.  Do both. Or simply relax.  But whatever you choose to do, you can do so guilt-free and armed with the knowledge that the entire domain of religion is just a bunch of ca-ca.  So enjoy your absolute freedom! 

Superficially, those paths are polar opposites.  But truly, they’re quite similar.  Both rest on an appeal to simplicity and a life without cognitive dissonance.  Both profess to be the path to maximizing one’s own happiness and minimizing one’s own pain.  And finally, both offer a path with literally billions of fellow-travelers along the way. 

By contrast, the path of liberal religion -- the one preferred by those Women of the Wall or the LGBTQ rights advocates in the Methodist Church – offers none of those blessings.   Liberal religious leaders can’t pretend that their path is the easy one here on earth.  Nor can they pretend to be offering eternal bliss in the afterlife.  For that matter, many of them refuse to preach about a God who is created in the image of the human ideal.   What they can offer is a life of struggle, of meaning, and of service -- a life modelled by such figures as Martin Luther King, Jr. and Abraham Joshua Heschel, neither of whom spent his days in the lap of luxury or lived to see his 70th birthday.

I have no crystal ball.  I can’t tell you whether recent trends will change and liberal religion will catch a second wind in the popularity department.  What I can tell you, however, is that there will always remain a number of us who are devoted to it -- whether in the trappings of Judaism, Christianity or any other faith.  It is not for me to proselytize my devotion to liberal religion and “convert” others to that frame of mind.  But it is for me to assert the right of people to live a progressively religious life if they so choose.  So here’s to those Women of the Wall who keep on fighting for gender equality in Judaism.  And here’s to those gay Methodists who keep on fighting to get married and join the clergy, notwithstanding the existence of some pretty homophobic verses in Scripture.   May you realize that you will never be alone.  For liberal religious people may not currently number in the billions, but we still number in the millions.  And I for one have no intention to get off of this path, no matter how lonely or frustrating it can be at times.    

Saturday, March 02, 2019

Reflections on Democracy

For many people throughout the world, the idea of “Israeli Democracy” is an oxymoron.  But this past week, Israel did something suggestive of a very healthy democracy – its Attorney General, Avichai Mandelblit, who is ideologically compatible with its Prime Minister, publicly recommended only weeks before the upcoming elections that Prime Minister Netanyahu be indicted.  No indictment will be filed until after Netanyahu is given an opportunity to state his case before Mandelblit.  But ultimately, Mandelblit will be the one to make the decision, and we know where he stands at present.

This is not the first time a sitting Israeli Prime Minister has been the subject of a legal scandal.  It was just such a scandal that brought down the Administration of Ehud Olmert, who served as Prime Minister in 2008.  Notably, Olmert ended up serving 16 months in prison for his criminal activity.  Clearly, Israel is a country that takes very seriously the principle that every individual, even the heads of state, are accountable to the public and to the rule of law.

Mandelblit’s announcement this week made me think about the essence of democracy and how it can be evaluated in so many different ways.   In some respects, Israel looms large as a democracy; in others, it falls far short.  This past July, for example, Israel enacted its “Nation-State” law, which cemented some very profound ways in which Israel extends preferences to Jews over gentiles.  The United States, my own country, has a very proud and comparatively ancient tradition of democracy, and yet this tradition is not without gaping holes.  On the very same day that Mandelblit was recommending the indictment of his nation’s leader, I was touring the Smithsonian Museum of African-American History and Culture.  Needless to say, I got more than a whiff of the way the leaders of my own country, while waxing eloquent about their devotion to democracy, hypocritically treated one race of people as truly sub-human – an affront that makes the worst of Israel’s abuses look benign by comparison.

As an American, when I think about the moments in which I was proudest of our own democracy, my attention inevitably turns back to the summer of 1974.  I was a rising 10th grader and deeply riveted by the hearings of the House Judiciary Committee and its consideration of whether to recommend the impeachment of President Nixon.  When I look back on Elizabeth Holtzman, Peter Rodino, Father Robert Drinan, Paul Sarbanes, John Conyers and Charlie Rangel – they were truly heroes to me.  That’s because they were all Democrats, that was my party, and they were leading the prosecution of a corrupt President.  But now that I’ve aged a bit, I realize that the true heroes weren’t so much the Committee’s 21 Democrats but its 17 Republicans, who opened their hearts and minds to the facts of the case and ultimately voted – unanimously – to submit three articles of impeachment to the full house against their party’s leader and the nation’s President.  Those Republicans put country before party -- just like Mandelblit did this past Thursday in his own country. 

At some point in my life, I came to conclude that you can largely judge the health of a democracy by how willing its citizens are to buck their party’s leaders when the circumstances so warrant.   To me, that is just another way of asking whether we view ourselves as Democrats and Republicans first and foremost, or whether we see ourselves as Americans.  Sometimes it is critically important to be loyal to your party; I get that.  If one party is playing rough, then perhaps the other needs to do the same just to maintain some semblance of equity.  But that principle is hardly relevant to the situation that the House Judiciary Committee faced in 1974, or to the situation Mandelblit faced this past week.  They saw abuses being perpetrated by their party’s leaders, and they could either bury their heads in the sand or honor their oaths of office.  Thankfully, they chose the latter path.

Near the end of the Clinton Administration, I remember another scandal consuming my country, and this time it was associated with the leader of my own party, President Clinton.  Looking back at the so-called “Monica Lewinsky Scandal,” the facts about the President’s behavior were hardly in dispute.  The only question was what to make of them.  On the Democratic side, everyone acknowledged that the President’s conduct was inappropriate.  Yet with few exceptions, they seemed willing to condone it – or at least they appeared that way to me.  For the first (and last) time in my life, I found myself watching Fox News more often than the other Cable News networks because I agreed more with what the Republicans were saying about the scandal than the Democrats.  No, I didn’t support impeachment, but I had hoped the President would resign and was rather appalled by the way Democrats trivialized the significance of his misconduct.   I felt, in short, like the Democrats had failed the test passed in 1974 by the Republicans on the House Judiciary Committee or last week by Attorney General Mandelblit. 

In early-March 1999, I gave a speech to a few dozen people that discussed precisely why I felt that the President’s behavior was so profoundly disturbing under the circumstances.  You can find a transcript of the relevant comments at the following link, beginning on page 9:

Was I right in being so tough on President Clinton?  Should I have taken a more laissez-faire attitude about his sex life?  In hindsight, I would agree that reasonable people can be found on both sides of this issue.  But what’s important is not so much that Mandelblit interpreted the law correctly in recommending indictment, or that the Republicans who favored the impeachment of Nixon were right in their legal analysis, or that I was right in hoping Clinton would resign in 1999 -- what’s important is that when it comes to evaluating the conduct of our own leaders, we put party aside and country first, or at least we try to do so.

A lot had changed from 1974 to 1999 in America.  This country became far more polarized during that quarter century.  In the twenty years since, its polarization has become even worse.   So, I ask you: how strong is our democracy?  Are we an exemplar of a mature republic, with a sufficiently free and healthy public sphere as to give rise to human passions and the political factions that inevitably result from them?  Or are have we instead morphed into two ideologically incompatible peoples sharing the same land and fighting our wars in the ballot box every two years, with the spoils going to whoever happens to win the most recent election?  Maybe that is the situation at present, but it doesn’t have to describe our future.  I look forward to the day where both parties will have plenty of free-thinking mavericks who follow the truth wherever it leads and aren’t afraid of taking on the leaders of their party, whether they are in the White House, the People’s House, or on the God-damned radio.