A Mensch in Election Season

Image: “2016 Election,” flag background. Art by MIH83 on pixabay.com.

In a place where there are no menschen, strive to be a mensch. – Pirkei Avot 2:5

A mensch is a decent human being, someone with integrity and a heart. The Hebrew in this ancient saying translates as “man,” but I find that mensch is a better translation. The general idea is, when everyone else is misbehaving, be a decent person.

I’ve written little about the current U.S. election on this blog. My topic here is “Basic Judaism” and I mostly try to stick to it. I certainly have opinions about the election, which I look forward to expressing on the mail-in ballot resting on my table as I type this. However, there are things that I feel I must say:

Hateful language is wrong, no matter how correct we believe our opinion to be. Hateful language takes many forms. Any time we choose to see another human being as less human than ourselves, we stray into the territory of hate. If we vocalize that belief, it’s hate speech.

It’s fine to disagree; Jewish tradition has long supported the idea that it is in disagreement that we often can find our way toward the truth. The sages spoke of “an argument for the sake of heaven” – one like that of Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai, who argued in the academy but who respected one another in the street and in their homes. Remember, the ultimate goal is not to “crush” the other but to find a way towards a future that will serve all of us.

“They started it” is not a good excuse on a playground. It doesn’t wash for adults. “They are just as bad” isn’t an argument, it’s a cop out.

How can we be menschen?  Here are some ideas:

  1. We can listen more than we speak.
  2. When the discussion falls below our standards, we can raise it up by asking questions that focus on values: “Why is this so important to you?”
  3. We can seek common ground: what do we share?
  4. We can vote for candidates who have behaved like menschen, in our opinion.
  5. We can refrain from spiteful language and behavior.
  6. We can be very careful about the stories we pass along via speech and social media: what’s the source? Does this really need to be passed along?
  7. We can be supportive of others who are trying to be constructive, even if we don’t agree with them about everything.
  8. If we hear someone else indulging in hate speech, we can challenge it effectively.

This has been a strange, horrible election cycle. As individuals, it is tempting to despair.

At times like these I look to the wisdom of the rabbis, and this quote from Shammai comes to mind:

Shammai says, “Make your Torah fixed, say little and do much, and receive every person with a pleasant face.” – Pirkei Avot 1:15

  • Make your Torah fixed – Don’t lose your grip on Torah!
  • say little and do much – Listen more, speak less. Do good deeds. VOTE!
  • Receive every person with a pleasant face – Give everyone a chance to be a mensch, too.

May we survive this season, and move into better times as soon as possible!

6 ways to become an informed voter

If you haven’t discovered Rabbi Rosove’s blog yet, I recommend it highly. I also recommend passing this particular column around to friends who may or may not know how to get ready for an election.

Rabbi John Rosove's Blog

My son, Daniel, has written a blog on behalf of “MAZON – A Jewish Response to Hunger” that he calls “6 ways to become an informed voter.”

Though the election campaign has not focused on the issue of hunger insecurity in America, it is a significant issue affecting millions of Americans, nevertheless.

Daniel (who handles all grants and grantees for MAZON) has written an important piece that I recommend you read. You can find it here:


In his blog, among other things, he notes:

The freedom to vote is a fundamental political right. Elections and voting matter. The American Jewish community has always been civically involved. In the 2012 U.S. election, Jewish voter registration rates topped roughly 90%, compared to 74% in the general public. Our community also has unique power based on where we live. While the American Jewish population only makes up 2% of the general…

View original post 33 more words

Is There One Right Way?

Image: A confused child. Photo by Sergey Nemo, via pixabay.com

There is a story about a woman who was teaching her daughter-in-law how to make brisket. She said, “Always have the butcher cut off the narrow end of the brisket. Otherwise it won’t be kosher.” Now, the daughter-in-law had taken an Introduction to Judaism class before her conversion, and she thought that sounded odd. She called her rabbi and asked about it.

“That IS interesting,” the rabbi said. “Ask your mother-in-law who taught her to do that.” And the mother-in-law said that her mother had taught her just exactly that (and what is wrong with that rabbi, anyway, that she doesn’t know the rules of kashrut?)

“Ahh,” said the rabbi, who was going to be visiting the Home for Jewish Parents the next day. “I’ll get back to you.” And the rabbi made sure to visit the grandma-in-law while she was at the Home the next day.

“I always made brisket that way because I had a short pan!” said the grandma-in-law. “We didn’t have money to buy either a whole brisket or a new pan, so I always just had the butcher cut me off a piece!”

Every Jewish family has its own way of doing things. Some cut the challah; others tear it. Some put a mezuzah only on the front door; others put one on every door but the bathroom door. Some have roasted chicken for Passover; others have roast lamb.

Be a little skeptical any time that someone tells you there’s only one correct way to do something Jewish. It is true that there are some things that are so firmly part of the tradition that you don’t want to mess with them: don’t bring bread to a Passover seder, for instance. But there are other things that may be a firm tradition for only part of the Jewish people (e.g. some Sephardic Jews eat lamb on Passover, Ashkenazi Jews regard lamb as forbidden for the seder.)

There are also some things that are only “Jewish law” for a very limited community or even a single family. We refer to those things as minhag hamakom [custom of the place.] Inside that limited community, those practices carry a great deal of weight, but outside they are not required. Often, those practices begin as something practical (as in the brisket story) or as someone’s private piety. Others copy, and then it becomes “Jewish Law” for that community.

If you are curious about a practice, you can always ask, “Where did you learn that?” You can also ask a rabbi about it. It is always good to know why you are doing something – otherwise practice devolves into superstition.

Some family customs are beautiful and worth keeping. Others may be due for a little update. A little curiosity and a little study can reveal all sorts of interesting things about that “one right way” to do something Jewish!

Social Media Inventory, Part 2

Image: A to-do list, and a partially peeled orange. Photo by jedidja via pixabay.com.

How does my behavior online stack up against the values of Torah? This is an environment of words and images, and our tradition has a lot to say about the use of words and images. Part 1 of the Social Media Inventory is available here.

One who says something in the name of the one who said it brings redemption to the world, as it says (Esther 2:22): “Esther told the king in Mordechai’s name.” – Pirkei Avot 6:6

Do I credit my sources online, including sources for images? “Cut-and-paste” functions on our computers make it very easy to lift information from one page to use it in our own writing. Crediting the words of others is a Jewish value; failing to do so is stealing. 

We use images on the Internet to convey information in much the same way we do words. Every image has a person behind it: someone took the photo, drew the picture, made the graphic. While images for worship have a different set of rules in Jewish tradition, images that we use to convey information should get the same treatment as words: credit your sources.

The ancient rabbis balanced the need to pass along good information and the need to credit sources by using the format, “So-and-so said…” We can and should do the same.

“You shall not go up and down as a tale-bearer among your people.” – Leviticus 19:16

Do I gossip online? Torah forbids tale-bearing: any talking about others, true or false, beyond that which is absolutely necessary. The principle in Jewish tradition is that all things are assumed to be secret unless those involved specifically say otherwise. So all “celebrity gossip” is out the window. The same is true for unnecessary discussion of our neighbors on Facebook or NextDoor.com. It is as wrong to listen to or read loose talk as it is to spread it around. The standard I apply for myself is: Do I need this information? Or do I simply want it?

Can online reviews be a form of improper speech? Rabbi Meir Tamari teaches that the rules of speech also apply to talking about businesses, because saying something negative about a business can endanger the livelihood of the owner and everyone who works there.

It is improper speech to post, “Ploni dry-cleaners are thieves.” However, a review about our own experience with specific details could be appropriate, for instance, “I used to take my dry-cleaning to Ploni, but after they twice lost things of mine, I switched to another cleaners.” Posting reviews to Yelp or similar services when angry is not a good practice, because it is easy to step over the line when we are angry. (Rabbi Tamari’s examples are from pre-Internet times before review services were prevalent. I cite his teaching but the examples are mine.) Saying, “I’ve heard that Ploni Cleaners is no good” is irresponsible speech forbidden by Torah.

News is a tricky area, especially since many news services have blurred the line between news and entertainment.  A good citizen should be well-informed. However, some “news” is more “gossip” than “news.” Again, did I need that information to be a good citizen? Or was I just titillated by the headline and could not resist clicking?

He who embarrasses his fellow is as if he has shed blood (killed him). – Bava Metzia 58b

Do I behave online in a way that might cause embarrassment to another? This is related to the issue of gossip. Our tradition equates embarrassing someone with murdering them. All forms of online bullying are therefore completely out of the question. Talk about others frequently has the potential to embarrass. The important thing is to stop and think before we hit send; if there is the possibility for embarrassment, it is better to be silent.

Photography and graphics have potential for embarrassment. Ask before posting a photo of another person. Posting a photo of another person without their knowledge may also carry criminal or civil penalties. When in doubt, don’t.

The month of Elul is a time to take stock of our behavior, to hold it up against our highest ideals. There are areas in these two posts where most of us has some room for improvement; the important thing is to do better in the future.

What have I failed to include in these two posts? What would you add?


Social Media Inventory, Part 1

Image: A checklist and tools. Photo by stevepb via pixabay.com.

How does my behavior online stack up against the values of Torah? This is an environment of words and images, and our tradition has a lot to say about the use of words and images. Take this inventory to do a personal review:

Nitai of Arbel says: “Distance [yourself] from a bad neighbor, do not befriend an evildoer and do not despair of punishment.” – Pirkei Avot 1:7

How do I spend my time online? Do I use this resource to learn and to converse with people who are a good influence on me? Or do I waste valuable time on worthless activities? Is there anything I do online that I feel I must keep secret? Is there anything I would be embarrassed to have come to light?

Every argument that is for [the sake of] heaven’s name, it is destined to endure. But if it is not for [the sake of] heaven’s name — it is not destined to endure. What is [an example of an argument] for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Hillel and Shammai. What is [an example of an argument] not for [the sake of] heaven’s name? The argument of Korach and all of his congregation. – Pirkei Avot 5:15

What has my goal been in arguments online? According to Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, a 13th century Catalan rabbi named Menachem Meiri taught that Hillel and Shammai argued in order to uncover the truth. They argued with great energy, but it was essentially a joint venture. The argument of Korach was based in ill-will: Korach wished to prevail over Moses, and humiliate him. Korach wanted to win the argument. So the first question: when I get into an argument with someone, am I like Hillel or like Korach?

When R. Eliezer was about to depart, his disciples paid him a visit and requested him to teach them only one more thing. And he said unto them: Go, and be careful, each of you, in honoring your neighbor; and when you are praying, remember before whom you stand and pray, and for the observation of these you will have a share in the world to come. – Minor Tractate Derech Eretz Rabbah, Chapter 3

How do I treat other people online? Am I a mensch?  Am I careful in honoring my neighbor? Do I treat other people with the respect due other human beings? Or do I count some as beneath any need for polite speech? Do I sometimes forget that every human being contains the divine spark, some element of the Holy One, perhaps very well hidden?

… continued at Social Media Inventory Part 2

The Stealth Rabbi Strikes Again

Image: Nine Jews demonstrating against Trump’s racism. Three people in this photo are rabbis – can you tell which ones? Photo courtesy of Bend the Arc, a great social justice organization.

If you say “rabbi” to most people, the image that comes up is a bearded man. I don’t look like that rabbi.

Actually, I look like my grandmother: Irish-American, round, soft, motherly, maybe grandmotherly. My haircut (a buzz cut) disrupts the effect a bit, but it doesn’t make me look more like that mental image of a rabbi. I usually wear a hat, which might be a kippah (looks like a rabbi) or an A’s baseball cap (not so much.)

As a result, I often surprise people; I’m a stealth rabbi. “What do you do?” someone will say to me, as Americans do, and I will reply, “I’m a rabbi.” If they identify as Jewish, this may produce a panicked response:

“Oh! I’m Jewish. Well, I’m a bagels and cream cheese Jew, you know, not religious. Seinfeld. …” And then they will tell me why they haven’t been to synagogue, or what’s wrong with synagogue, or who drove them from synagogue… I listen. Usually it’s a long speech.

They think I’m going to pass judgment upon them, and I’m not. Depending on the story, I’m sad that Jewish community didn’t work out for them, or appalled at what drove them away. Mostly, I’m sad that they have no idea what Judaism is for; their Jewish identity is a ball and chain they drag along through life.

What I’d like to say to them, if we had longer for a real conversation, is this:

I’m not here to judge you. As a rabbi, it’s true, I sometimes function as a judge, but only in very limited situations. Mostly I’m a teacher, because learning is at the heart of Jewish life. So relax: I’m harmless!

Would you like to take that ball and chain, and turn it into something a little easier to carry around? Maybe into a walking stick, something to support you when you are tired and afraid? Or maybe into a beautiful box of treasures, an inheritance of marvels?

All you need to do is open your mind and heart to learn. You pick the topic: what’s bugging you about life? There’s are several Jewish approaches to it, I promise you. Or, if you are really adventurous, what about Judaism bothers you? Let’s look critically at the tradition, and find new bits of it. Let’s debate! Let’s play with it, have a good time!

There’s the wide world of social justice work that Jews have been doing forever. There are great organizations just waiting for you. Whatever is your passion, you can pursue it as a Jew, with other Jews, amplified far beyond your social media or letter to the editor. You can tap into the riches of the tradition to support you in that work, too.

If food really is at the heart of Jewish identity for you, let’s look at that. There’s more than bagels out there for you to enjoy. There’s the myriad of Ashkenazi and Sephardic cuisines, and Middle Eastern food. There are chef/scholars like Michael Twitty, who explores the places where African and Southern and Jewish foods intersect. There’s Tami Weiser, who will give you beautiful recipes and invite you to think about them.

My role as a rabbi is to be a resource. I have spent years cramming my head and heart full of Torah, and learning the sources so that I can make them available to you. Some rabbis, congregational rabbis, create and maintain environments where Jews can be Jews – where you can be Jewish. Not all those environments are like the synagogue you remember. Some rabbis are chaplains, committed to hanging in there with people who are suffering. I’m a teaching rabbi: I am here to help you learn.

And yes, we’ll have bagels.

Jewish Plans: What’s Next?

Image: Fred Isaac, my first study partner, and I look over a Torah scroll. Photo by Linda Burnett.

Tonight I had my last meeting for the year with my Wednesday night Intro class. Every class has its own personality, and I always hate to see them go.

Besides talking about Jewish American food customs (a fun topic, which is why I use it for the last night of class) we talked a bit about “What next?”

Some of them are moving on to conversion programs, or weddings, or some other preset project under the wing of a rabbi or congregation. I want to be sure that the others get the support they need to take whatever is the next step for them. Next steps could take many forms, including:

  • Another formal class (Hebrew perhaps? Maybe via an online class?)
  • A commitment to attend services weekly for several months to learn the service?
  • Develop and commit to a no-matter-what Shabbat routine?
  • Join a Torah Study group?
  • Chevruta study [study with a partner] on a course of reading or maybe films?
  • A Jewish book club?
  • Learn how to blow the shofar?
  • A bagel making class or other Jewish cooking program?
  • Search for and join a synagogue?

And you, dear reader: do you have any Jewish plans for the summer? Feel free to share them in the comments where they can inspire others, and where I can cheer for you!