Giving: Not Just for Tuesday

First there was Thanksgiving, a national holiday established by FDR in 1939. (Yes, yes, there was a feast at Plimoth Plantation in 1621, but it wasn’t an annual feast, much less a national holiday until 1939.)

Then there was Black Friday, a day with complicated roots that sometime in the 1980’s came to mean the day consumers began the American frenzy of holiday shopping.

Cyber Monday came into being in 2005, when a marketing team at the National Retail Foundation decided that online retailers needed an advertising hook to kick off the shopping season.

Finally in 2012 the 92nd Street Y in New York City conceived #Giving Tuesday. They wanted to yoke the power of social media to the energy of the “charitable season,”and it seems to be catching on. (“Charitable season” appears to refer to the combination of the approach of the Dec 31 deadline for charitable donation deductions on U.S. income tax and the “spirit of the season.”)

I am not a fan of the annual consumer madness, but “Giving Tuesday” stands my rabbinical hair on end. It is good to remind people to help others, of course, but the message “Giving Tuesday” sends are the antithesis of Jewish teaching on the subject: it’s not Torah.

Jewish concepts of giving have a complex history, but they are rooted in some straightforward mitzvot. The fundamental idea is that giving is not merely charity (the root of which is the Latin caritas, or love) but tzedakah, a form of justice.

Communal Responsibility – The support of the poor is the responsibility of the community. In ancient times through the middle ages, Jews contributed to the kupah, a local fund for the needy. Maimonides wrote in Laws of Gifts to the Poor: “Any fast where the community eats [at the end after sundown], goes to sleep, and did not distribute tzedakah to the poor is like [a community] that sheds blood.”

Give First, not Last – One of the models for Jewish giving is the terumah, the consecration of a portion of the harvest to the upkeep of communal institutions (the Temple priesthood) in ancient Israel. Trumah came “off the top” – it was separated before anything was sold or consumed. Waiting to give until the shopping is done is a mistaken priority and a bad message.

Serving All Comers – Jewish law specifies that communal resources must serve Jews and non-Jews, locals and foreigners. There is no concept of the “deserving poor” – the only qualifier is poverty.

Everyone Contributes – “Communal responsibility” means that everyone contributes something.  The poor give a little bit and the wealthy are expected to give much more. Maimonides teaches: “Even a poor person who lives on tzedakah is obligated to give tzedakah to another.”

Giving Year Round – Giving is not restricted to a single season. Ideally a Jew makes many charitable contributions throughout the year: before the Sabbath, before holy days, in memory of the deceased, in celebration of life cycle events, and in honor of good people.

For Justice, not for Benefit – The Hebrew term for this sort of giving is tzedakah, related to the word for “Justice.” It is a mitzvah, a sacred duty, to relieve suffering. 

Here’s what I’d prefer:

  • I’d like to see tzedakah come before the feast, not after, and certainly before the orgy of gift-shopping and bargains.
  • I’d like to see more teaching about tzedakah as a spiritual discipline, a holy activity, a way of sanctifying our time and treasure.
  • I’d like to see spirited debates about the ethics of tzedakah among adults in our community. Is Maimonides’ ruling that one must give to any person who says he is hungry out of date in a modern urban environment? What do we owe, if anything, to beggars on the street who ask for pocket change?
  • I’d like to see tzedakah taught and observed not as a fundraising ploy, but as part of the structure of mitzvot that sanctify our community, and beyond it, our world.


/end rant



My Twitter Policy

I’m well and truly fed up.

I try to cultivate a broad range of contacts, especially via Twitter. I follow a lot of accounts there, including a lot of folks that have ideas I find difficult – it’s one of the ways I learn and expand my horizons.  To that end, I follow a lot of accounts there from many points of view and I try to cultivate a habit of listening more than reacting.

Lately the name-calling on Twitter has gotten worse. It’s happening from all sides of the political compass. It’s as if it’s become too much trouble to explain what is wrong with an idea, it’s just easier to call the person expressing that idea a nasty name.

So here’s the deal: post or RT something with name-calling in it, and I will unfollow that account. I don’t care if I love or hate the politics, I’m going to unfollow that account. Continuing to follow is rewarding the behavior, and I’m not doing it anymore.

Life’s too short. The world is full of important things to discuss, and we should discuss them, not waste our breath screaming epithets at one another.


How I Deal With Antisemitic Comments

Visibility is a mixed bag for Jews. This weekend in all the excitement of being Freshly Pressed this blog saw a burst of traffic, “follows,” and “likes,” – thank you very much to those who contributed to that and welcome to new readers! It also got some really ugly antisemitic comments. I’ve been sitting quietly for while, thinking about how I want to handle the mixed blessings.

My comment policy has been pretty simple. Simple is good. I decided though to reiterate my old policy and give it its own page, so that I can point to the comment policy without having to look it up.

I will continue to delete antisemitic comments as soon as I see them. My experience in raising children and training dogs is that the less attention paid to bad behavior, the better. That doesn’t mean “ignore it” – it means don’t reward it by lavishing attention on it. Therefore I shall zap antisemitic comments and then look around and say to myself with deepest satisfaction: “What antisemitic comment? Heh.”

Questions are different. A question is at least on the surface a request for information. “Is it true that Jews are [fill in antisemitic stereotype here]?” will get a straight up serious reply from me, with historical background on its origins. Even if I suspect a question is cover for a nasty comment, I’ll entertain it because it’s an opportunity to teach.

In life, that’s how I try to deal with antisemitism also. If I am pretty sure a comment was made simply to get a rise out of me, I say, “That comment’s beneath my attention,” and move right on. If I think the comment was made out of ignorance, that’s a different matter: I’ll counter it with facts in as calm and kind a manner as I can muster. If people are listening who may be misled by the antisemitic statement, then it’s even more important for me to pursue the teaching moment, even if the ignorance is willful.

To anyone visiting this blog who wants attention (and goodness knows, most of us don’t get enough of it, unless we’re tabloid fodder) – ask a question. I love questions. I crave them. They give me topics for posts, and they give me a chance to have a conversation with the questioner, and get to know you a bit.

Thank you for reading, and bless you for asking questions!

No Stupid Questions!

One of the routine challenges I face as an educator is that people are afraid to look stupid. They don’t ask questions, or if they manage to get the courage together to ask questions, they apologize for asking. I don’t think anyone should be afraid to ask an honest question, ever, as long as they are doing it to become informed. The fact is that the best questions, the questions that must be asked, are the questions that come out of ignorance. 

Asking a pure question, an explain-this-to-me question, is in Jewish tradition the foundation of study. Look at our sacred texts: the Talmud is full of questions: “Why is this?” “What is that?” The great commentator Rashi anticipates our questions and answers them generously. A good question requires humility and courage, because it admits ignorance.

Asking a pure question, an I-don’t-know-please-fill-me-in question is also the foundation of education. Asking questions is how we learn.

image from the website
image from the website

I’ve been thinking about questions ever since seeing a piece on the The Rachel Maddow Show on Feb. 23. Ms. Maddow, whom I usually admire, is setting up a story about another matter entirely. She plays video of Idaho State Rep Vito Barbieri asking a question about human anatomy. I can’t get a link to the video to work, but here’s the quote from the website:

An Idaho lawmaker received a brief lesson on female anatomy after asking if a woman can swallow a small camera for doctors to conduct a remote gynecological exam.
The question Monday from Republican state Rep. Vito Barbieri came as the House State Affairs Committee heard nearly three hours of testimony on a bill that would ban doctors from prescribing abortion-inducing medication through telemedicine.
Dr. Julie Madsen was testifying in opposition to the bill when Barbieri asked the question. Madsen replied that would be impossible because swallowed pills do not end up in the vagina.

Yep, I get it. The man doesn’t know basic female anatomy and he’s a state legislator, about to vote on a bill that affects women’s agency over their own bodies. That’s not good. What troubles me is that the man asked a question and then Ms. Maddow and now a large number of my fellow liberal Americans laugh at him for it. Social media were immediately awash with people making fun of him; #VitoBarbieri became a popular hashtag on Twitter.

I wish more conservative lawmakers had the humility to ask questions of scientists and listen to their answers. We’ve got people making laws who don’t know basic anatomy: that’s terrifying. The immediate fix is for them to ask questions and learn. Come the next election, I hope the voters will do a better job of electing someone qualified. But to shame the man, to make him and his wife and his mother the butt of jokes is dead wrong.

I am not going to repeat any of it, but if you search Twitter for #VitoBarbieri you’ll see it. If I were on the receiving end of that, it would be a long time before I asked another curious question when someone might catch me doing it.

Rep Barbieri’s question seems to have come from genuine curiosity. That is profoundly different than the sort of pompous, ignorant pronouncement that often comes from politicians about scientific matters. Too often our lawmakers make up their minds on the basis of what they think will get them elected next time and then spout ignorant statements about women’s anatomy. They don’t ask – they just presume and vote. Rep. Barbieri asked.

Rep. Barbieri and I disagree about most things, as far as I can tell. But I applaud him for the curiosity and humility to ask a question. I am sorry and sad that people are laughing at him, because asking questions is a noble thing to do.


For more about Jewish tradition and shaming: Thou Shalt Not Embarrass.

Thou Shalt Not Embarrass

.תני תנא קמיה דרב נחמן בר יצחק: כל המלבין פני חבירו ברבים כאילו שופך דמים

One who embarrasses another in public, it is as if that person shed blood.

— Babylonian Talmud, Bava Mezia 58b

Imagine for a moment that you are in a synagogue, somewhere that every Jew should feel at home. The service is ending, and for the past several minutes your body has been sending increasingly urgent messages that you need to find a bathroom. You spot the restroom and as you place your hand on the door, three people behind you shriek “NO!!!” and everyone in earshot turns to look at you.

Just sit with that thought, with those feelings, for a moment.

A number of people I care about live with the possibility that this could happen to them at any moment, anywhere. Some are transgender, some are butch lesbians, some are straight but they don’t look stereotypically masculine or feminine.

Let me give you a clue: they are all human beings, made in the Divine Image.

A dear woman-friend of mine looks great in a suit. She dresses much better than do I. But there’s a look she gets on her face when someone has humiliated her at the door of the “ladies room” that I recognize in a heartbeat. I recognize it because I’ve seen it too many times.

I know a nice transman who dreads public bathrooms. He does everything in his power to avoid needing to use one, because no matter which one he goes to, someone may decide loudly that it’s the wrong one. He’s been lucky, no one has beaten him up. But the pain in his voice when he told me why he was visibly upset made me want to weep.

They aren’t the only ones, just two who are close enough to me that I am aware of their hurt. It doesn’t really matter what their gender is. Someone decides that they “don’t look right” and suddenly it’s open season. They look different, so it’s OK to humiliate them.

Jewish tradition tells us that we are forbidden to embarrass another person. It tells us that embarrassing another is the equivalent of shedding their blood. That commandment does not go away simply because the other person’s appearance makes us uncomfortable. I am not permitted to humiliate a human being because something about them is outside my experience.

“But what about danger?” some may ask, “What about men pretending to be trans so they can hang out in the ladies room and attack women?”

People who want to use the privacy of a bathroom to hurt other people go in there and lurk. They hide. They linger. They do not go in, pee, wash their hands, and leave. If you go into a restroom (either one) and see someone lurking, do the smart thing and LEAVE. Go tell someone with authority if you are worried. Don’t stand there and shriek. After all, if you are right and they are dangerous, they might hurt you!

Please, especially in places that should be safe for every Jew, don’t humiliate people in or out of the restroom. Embarrassing them does not make any of us safer.

If I were queen, I would put this sign up outside every restroom. Kudos to the University of Bristol’s (UB) LGBT + Society for this image:


Don’t Feed the Terrorist


Reuters reports that the so-called Islamic State has released a video that claims to show Moaz al-Kasasbeh, a Jordanian pilot, being burned alive.

The so-called Islamic State (which is neither Islamic nor a State) employs this tactic regularly: they stage a gruesome death for a hostage on video. They know that this is “clickbait” for both their supporters and their enemies. They know we will be curious about that video. It is human nature to be curious.

So take action against ISIS: don’t look for that video. Don’t Google it. Don’t click on multiple stories about it. Learn what you absolutely need to know (if you’re like me, you’re already past that limit by reading the Reuters article or similar) and then leave it strictly alone.

Don’t feed the terrorists. Every click rewards the murder. Clicking the video or stories about the video is the equivalent of cheering for the murderers. Put even more simply: Want your dog to learn a trick? Give it a treat for doing the trick. Want your dog to unlearn the trick? Stop rewarding the trick with treats and attention.

Each of us individually may seem to be too small to matter. But ask any creator of YouTube videos: they watch the counters. Ask any blogger: we’re obsessed with our stats. Every click we withhold from these murderers is a small victory for decency.

Keep calm and don’t click.

“Bar Mitzvah” is Not a Verb

“Oh, I love Rabbi Cohen! He bar-mitzvah’ed my son!”

< insert screech of fingernails across a blackboard here >

This is a line you may occasionally hear. Don’t be fooled: “bar mitzvah” is not a verb. A bar mitzvah is a person. Specifically, a bar mitzvah is a Jewish male over the age of 13.

Let me repeat that: A bar mitzvah is a Jewish male age 13 or older. The exact translation is “son of a commandment.” It means “old enough to count for a minyan [quorum for prayer] and as a witness.” In all cases, a noun.

“Bar Mitzvah” may also – as a noun! – refer to the celebrations connected with that coming-of-age event. These may include a service, a Torah reading, a kiddush lunch, or a grossly ostentatious party, but whatever the referent, the word is always used as a noun. And none of the above: service, Torah, lunch, or party are required for a boy to become a bar mitzvah. It’s automatic: he turns 13, he’s a bar mitzvah.

Same for “bat mitzvah.” That’s the feminine, again a noun. The girl may be 12½ or 13, depending on the custom in her community. What responsibilities she may take on at that age will also depend on the custom in her community. Again, it’s automatic.

A adult convert who stepped out of the mikveh 15 minutes ago is a bar or bat mitzvah, simply by virtue of being (1) Jewish and (2) past their 13th birthday.

In case you are wondering, the plural of bar mitzvah is b’nei mitzvah and the feminine plural is b’not mitzvah.

And yes, there is something called an “Adult Bar or Bat Mitzvah” which is usually a celebration and/or service marking the end of a period of intense study. In the US, some adult Jews who did not have a celebration at age 13 choose to have the study and celebration later in life. It’s a wonderful thing, but it’s still a noun.

There are a few things that make me really crazy. This is one. Thanks for reading.