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 msnbc.com website
image from the msnbc.com 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 msnbc.com 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:

transUB

Don’t Feed the Terrorist

keep-calm-and-don-t-click-31

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.

 

 

 

 

Jews and American Politics

Vote!One of the major stereotypes about American Jews is that we’re all political liberals. There are in fact many prominent conservatives who are Jewish: Paul Wolfowitz, William Kristol, Eric Cantor, Ken Mehlman, Michael Savage, and more.

What is true is that American Jews tend to be politically engaged. We vote, and we get involved in political campaigns. Our engagement goes way back; I have written before about the letters of congratulations four congregations sent to President Washington and his reply. In 1790, American Jews were acutely aware that this new form of government offered a new hope for minorities like ourselves to live in peace.

In 1862, General Ulysses S. Grant’s office issued General Order #11, a decree which summarily expelled all Jews from Mississippi, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Cesar J. Kaskel of Paducah, KY immediately set out on a Paul Revere-like ride for Washington DC with a copy of the order, and persuaded a congressman from Ohio to take him to the White House so that he could show it to President Lincoln. The President immediately wrote to Grant, ordering that General Order #11 be revoked.

When General Grant ran for president in 1868, he was faced with a Jewish community who wanted answers about General Order #11, and assurances that no such thing would happen were he elected. He, too, repudiated the order, and later called it “his greatest regret.” (For a readable and complete account of G.O. #11 and its aftermath, I recommend Jonathan D. Sarna’s book, When General Grant Expelled the Jews.)

Ever since then, American Jews have understood that it is important to our survival to be engaged in the political process. We don’t agree on the right candidate, we don’t always agree on the right policy, but we understand that without engagement in the process, we lose our voice in the public arena.  Many Jews understand voting as a way to do tikkun olam, to make the world a better place. Again, there’s no consensus: how any one Jew defines “better” is individual!

We’re coming up on an election in the United States. In many places, the polls have already opened for “early voting” and many absentee voters have their ballots in hand. Voting is not required by Jewish tradition, but it is a great Jewish American tradition. Whatever your politics, I hope that my American readers will honor this tradition and vote!

Suffering is Not a Show

Puna district, Lava Flow
Map Showing Lava Flow and Population in Lower Puna District (Dr. Mark Kimura)

Dr. Mark Kimura of the University of Hawaii is on a mission. He wants (1) to empower the people of the Puna District of Hawaii by giving them information, and he wants (2) people “on the mainland” – that is, not living in Hawaii – to understand what is happening in the rural communities of the southeast corner of the Big Island. Kilauea volcano is erupting, creating new land and destroying everything in its path, and human beings are already suffering uncertainty and loss.

The trouble is that usually we folks on the mainland are not interested in such things until they become a show. In 1990, I remember watching the network news and seeing the homes of Kalapana burning up as lava from Kilauea volcano oozed through the town. The human beings who had only hours or days before evacuated those homes were not in the picture. They were not as photogenic as molten lava flow, glowing in the dark, setting houses on fire.

Twenty years after, I and a group of other tourists picked our way across the lava, on our way to see the steam and fire where the burning rock was now entering the sea. Someone casually asked our guide where he grew up, and he pointed across the lava field. “In Kalapana, about there,” he said. “But we had to leave in 1990.” Suddenly I realized that what I had seen on TV was someone’s home. I was ashamed that I had not understood that before.

This past June 27, the volcano began erupting in a new direction, towards the subdivisions around the town of Pahoa. The area around Pahoa is dotted with small farms and homes in subdivisions. It is a world away from the big resorts on the Kona Coast. Right now, the lava is flowing, and no one is sure exactly where it will go, only that sooner or later it could destroy homes and businesses, and sooner or later it could cut the highway that provides land access to the world outside. “Sooner” could be next week. “Later” could be anytime after that.

Sooner or later the photographs of burning houses and flowing lava could be on the news here on the mainland. Sooner or later those photos or photos of another spectacular disaster will be part of the flow of info into our TV’s, our computers, our smartphones. I ask that we all take a moment, when we see those photos, to remember that real people live there, that real people are losing their homes, that someday someone will point across a lava field and say, “My home was about there. It’s under the rock now.”

I will finish with Dr. Kimura’s words from the Facebook page he set up to inform others about the situation:

I wanted two things when I started this FB page: (1) people in lower Puna feel empowered (at least a little) by understanding the possible ramifications of the lava flow reaching the ocean; and (2) the rest of the world learns how serious the situation is and responds accordingly. This one is for the latter.

I don’t want people outside of Hawaii to just come here right before the lava hits a residential area (if it does) and simply enjoy the “show”. I want them to care. They need to know real people exist, not just the hot lava burning down the trees.

At the moment, the only place I can suggest to send funds to help is the Hawaii Chapter of the Red Cross. If I learn of other options, I will post them here.

We Measure Our Days in Various Ways

Yahrzeit candle
Yahrtzeit candle for Jewish mourning.

Oy. I just stumbled onto a new measure of how difficult this summer has been.

I get statistics from WordPress, the nice people who make my blog work, and discovered that one of my old posts has been getting a lot of traffic this summer: Baruch Dayan Emet – Why Do We Bless God when Someone Dies? 

It didn’t get much interest when I first posted it on December 7, 2013, only 7 views. Then it was mostly ignored until June 30 of this year, when suddenly it got 187 on-site views. It seems that when you Google “Baruch Dayan Emet” one of sites on the first page of Google is my post. Suddenly everyone needs to know what that phrase means and why we use it.

Death is persistent in the news this summer. It is with us in the news from Israel and Gaza. It is with us in the news from Missouri and Los Angeles and the Ukraine. It is with us in news about earthquakes and hurricanes. It is with us in news about murders and suicides. So Jews are saying “Baruch Dayan emet” more often, and hearers are going to the Net to find out what that means.

I think I need to post about some phrases for rejoicing, just so that those explanations are waiting for their moments, too.