Detour Around the Riot

I was in Berkeley to teach my regular Wednesday night Intro class. We had a nice class, then I had to figure out how to get home. A riot had erupted at a protest on the campus. The protest began because a controversial speaker had come to campus. The riot happened because some people are stupid.

The big mess blocked most of my usual routes. I had plenty of time to think about demonstrations as I made a wide detour around the violence.

I get it: Milo Yiannopoulos is a sleazy purveyor of hate speech. The student Republicans had to know he was an incendiary choice of a speaker. Other students protested his presence. That much is fine by me: hear what he has to say, then if his ideas are foul and unworthy of a great university, say so. As the kindergarten teachers say, use your words.

Whoever chose to “protest” with violence did no favors to free speech.

I hate to see us going down this path. Milo Yiannopoulos got exactly what he wanted from UC Berkeley last night: great visuals of a riot to splash across TV screens from Bangor to Santa Barbara.

What has this to do with Torah? I pondered that as I took the long way home at 9pm. My students and I had spent the evening learning Torah. I hope that in doing so, we were equipping ourselves to make better decisions, to meet challenges with wisdom and courage.


Action on the ACA You Can Take TODAY

I received this from the co-chair of the Social Action Committee at my synagogue. I’m passing it along to each of you, my regular readers, and I hope you will join me. – Rabbi Adar

Diana Chapman Walsh was president of Wellesley College 8 years ago. She recently emailed her former colleagues the following idea:

Received this today. Creative idea … easy and worth a try.

Listen Up! The Republicans need to get the message from the majority of Americans that we value and need the benefits of Obamacare. Here’s how we do that.
On January 23rd, everyone who feels that way (our numbers are legion) sends a note to Donald Trump with a simple message:

“Don’t make America sick again. Improve Obamacare. Don’t repeal it.”

One envelope for every ACA supporter in your household…even if they are under 18 years old. Just that simple message. Put it in an envelope, and put a stamp on it.

Mail it to:
Pres. Donald Trump
1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW,
Washington, DC 20500
Can you imagine the picture of 53 MILLION letters arriving at the White House by January 26th? It will be a mountain.
Do it today! Drop it into a mailbox near you on Monday, January 23rd.
Please send this email to 20 (or more) of your friends, neighbors ann fellow Americans. Ask them to do the same.
This also helps out the US Postal Service, with about $20 Million of stamp sales.
Don’t send emails to Trump…they don’t photograph well.
This is about images, since words and ideas are falling on deaf ears.

And if you can’t mail it until the 24th, don’t let that stop you! Mail it on the 25th!

Are you IN?


Enough With the Diagnoses!

Image: A braying donkey. Paid photo by Shutterstock. All rights reserved.

“Donald Trump is a sociopath / has narcissistic personality disorder / has ADHD / has Alzheimers / has XYZ.” I see it over and over on social media from people with medical credentials (who should know better) and people with no medical credentials (who need to learn better.)

It does not serve any useful purpose to diagnose another person from afar, and for professionals, it is a serious breach of ethics.

Don’t believe me? Here’s what the American Psychiatric Association has to say on the subject.

Now you may say, oh, that only applies to medical professionals!

Judaism also has something to say about this kind of talk, for all Jews. For this we have to use a couple of texts. First:

When a man has in the skin of his flesh a rising, or a scab, or a bright spot, and it becomes in the skin of his flesh the plague of tzara’at, then he shall be brought to Aaron the priest, or to one of his sons the priests. – Leviticus 13:2

The Torah is very cautious about illness. On the rare occasion it speaks of it, it demands that an expert make a diagnosis. We in the 21st century don’t regard kohanim (priests) to be experts on disease, but in Biblical Israel they were trained to recognize tzara’at (the skin disease often mistranslated as “leprosy”) and to recognize many internal problems in animals. In this case, people are actually forbidden to diagnose themselves or others; they are commanded to go to the expert.

You shall not go up and down as a talebearer among your people; neither shall you stand idly upon the blood of your neighbor: I am Adonai. – Leviticus 19:16

This is the famous prohibition against rechilut [gossip]: Even when our words are true, we are not permitted to talk idly about other people. How much the moreso when we talk about a judgment we are not qualified to make? How much the moreso when it is about a judgment that a qualified expert would not make because it would be unethical for them to do so?

Now you may be saying, “But rabbi! It’s obvious that Mr. Trump has XYZ! Here is the evidence in his tweet or his behavior!” That which is obvious is not necessarily true. An example: An elderly woman becomes forgetful. She gets lost on a walk. Her children are distressed and say, “Oh, it is obvious that Mom is getting Alzheimers!” But when mom falls at home and is taken to the hospital, the diagnosis she receives isn’t Alzheimer’s. It turns out that her medications have been the culprit all along. After her meds are adjusted, she returns to her old self. It may have obvious to her children that she had Alzheimer’s, but their amateur diagnosis was false.

A second problem: Most people who talk about Mr. Trump having “XYZ” disagree with his politics and/or his behavior. We have a habit in our society of using words like “crazy” or “insane” when people behave in ways we don’t like. Sometimes it is an attempt at a benign explanation or excuse (“The shooter must have been mentally disturbed!”) The trouble with these words is that they also reinforce the inverse: they suggest that someone who is mentally ill is likely to be a criminal. In fact, most people with mental illnesses are highly unlikely to be dangerous to others. The meme of the “dangerous psycho” perpetuates discrimination against these largely harmless people.

So when I call someone I don’t like, or whose behavior I don’t like, a “mental case,” I am not doing anything about that person’s behavior, I’m just perpetuating a damaging stereotype. That’s not OK.

In the case of a public figure whose words and actions are certainly our business, it’s better to focus on the words or actions themselves.  For instance, it’s perfectly fine – in fact, a civic good! – to point out a lie by citing evidence. It’s constructive to condemn a hurtful or criminal behavior.

Amateur diagnoses of any public official are a waste of time and a waste of valuable public energy. Only a qualified professional who has actually examined a person can make a real diagnosis. A bunch of people on Twitter can go on about how “crazy” someone is or how “he is obviously an example of RPD” but they are just running their keyboards and wasting our time. They are also slandering the vast number of people with illnesses and disorders who mind their own business and hurt no one.

If we are genuinely worried about the incoming administration, we will do better to stick to ethical behavior and actions that will produce results. Some former congressional staffers have put together a very impressive guide to effective action and they have made it available online. That way we can accomplish good and avoid the sin of rechilut.

הִגִּיד לְךָ אָדָם, מַה-טּוֹב; וּמָה-יְהוָה דּוֹרֵשׁ מִמְּךָ, כִּי אִם-עֲשׂוֹת מִשְׁפָּט וְאַהֲבַת חֶסֶד, וְהַצְנֵעַ לֶכֶת, עִם-אֱלֹהֶיךָ

It has been told to you, O human, what is good, and what Adonai requires of you: only to do justly, and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God. – Micah 6:8

This Chanukah: New Dedication

Image: Eight candles, and the light that serves them. Photo by Saildancer/Pixabay.


Chanukah is a holiday with a complex history. For Jews today it’s usually celebrated as another of the “they persecuted us, we won, let’s eat” holidays, a simple story about Greek outsiders and Jewish patriots.

If you know the history, though, you know it’s more complicated than that. It was a civil war as much as a war against outsiders. The Books of Maccabees tell us that there was terrible bloodshed. At first, it was celebrated as a great military victory; a few hundred years later the triumphalist slant on the holiday was rejected for the miracle story in the Talmud. And much later, in the 20th century, the story was complicated again by the establishment of a Jewish State and the necessity of military power to defend that state.

I am left with the name of the holiday: Chanukah. It means “dedication.”

I ponder this holiday, and the present situation in U.S. politics. It seems to me that this is a time that calls for clarity in how we dedicate ourselves.

Amalek, those raiders who became the embodiment of evil in the Bible, made their first attack on the stragglers: the old, the disabled, and the sick at the rear of the caravans of Israel. So I take my cue from our scripture that one way to recognize evil is to watch for those who prey on the weak.

So I dedicate myself to quit the usual labels. I’m not going to use the old labels for “us” and “them.” I’m going to see who picks on the weak: the sick, the disabled, the poor, the disenfranchised, the “strangers” that Leviticus tells me to love.

I’m going to see who picks on the weak and I’m going to fight them.

  • I’m going to fight them by writing letters (old fashioned letters!) and making phone calls to my elected officials.
  • I’m going to fight them by showing up at rallies.
  • I’m going to fight them by helping to spread verified information via social media.
  • I’m going to fight them by giving financial support to organizations that fight them.
  • I’m going to fight them in the voting booth, the next chance I get, probably some local election.

I’m going to pay close attention to local politics. That’s where everything starts, and it’s where my efforts are going to pay off the most. And again, I’m going to apply the Amalek rule to see whom I will support. If a local politician speaks up for the weak, I’m going to support them. If they prey on the weak, I’m going to fight them.

The old labels do not serve us. We have settled into our camps, and it looks to me like outsiders, people like Vladimir Putin, are profiting off our automatic enmities. So if a politician calls herself a conservative, but she looks to me like a person who fights for the underdog, I’m going to support her. If a politician calls himself a liberal, but he serves the powerful, I’m going to fight him. I am done with party names, too. I will not automatically support anyone.

For those who serve only themselves, I ask Hillel’s question: What ARE you?



Common Ground on Gun Safety

Image: Gun trigger lock, available for sale on Amazon for $12.89. Yes, I’m giving them a free ad.

Today is an anniversary for the United States, but particularly for families in Sandy Hook, Connecticut. Four years ago today, a deeply disturbed young man used his legally-acquired guns to murder 20 small children and six educators in what should have been one of the safest places on earth: their elementary school.

The agony of their families is beyond my imagination, because I haven’t lost a dear one to a murderer, and I was fortunate to see both of my sons grow up to adulthood. The agony of our nation continues; we are divided on the issue of guns and their place in American life.

Some gun owners worry that legislation on guns will set us off on a slippery slope that will make it impossible for their families to be safe.

Others worry, with equal fervor, that without some serious gun control, we will continue to see unacceptable numbers of deaths from murders, accidents, and terrorist activity.

Both sides tend to discount the concerns of the other, which makes for short, angry conversations that go nowhere.

Some creative people are taking a third path: looking for ways to be more safe that does not require legislation. Emergency room personnel at Mercy Hospital in Kansas City give out free gun locks, no questions asked, to families who ask for them. I heard on the radio last night (but failed to hear details) about an emergency room in another city that gives a gun lock to families who come in with any sort of injury related to guns.

Seems to me that programs like these should be “mom and apple pie” to both gun owners and gun opponents. All the gun owners I know insist that a person can own a gun, keep it at home, and handle it safely. Perhaps the low hanging fruit of this issue is gun safety: making it easy and cheap for people to lock their guns away from people who shouldn’t be touching them.

That will not prevent another Newtown. What it might do, though, is to get us talking with one another again. How could it hurt?

לֹא תַעֲמֹד עַל-דַּם רֵעֶךָ:  אֲנִי, יְהוָה

You shall not stand upon the blood of your neighbor: I am God. – Lev. 19:16

The Ghost Ship Fire

Image: A woman grieving, black and white. Photo by unsplash/pixabay.

The first I knew about it was when my phone rang by my bed. It was my ex-father-in-law and still dear family, Jim Scott, asking if I’d heard from “the boys.” My sons are in their 30’s, but to some folks they’ll always be “the boys.” No, I hadn’t… why?

Friday night there was a terrible fire in Oakland’s Fruitvale district. I had heard about it on the radio before I went to sleep, described as a “warehouse fire.” I hadn’t thought much about it. By morning the building was being described as an artist collective, and there had been a party there, then a fire with many, many casualties.

“I am sure they weren’t there,” I said, on automatic pilot. “I’ll get back to you.” I phoned the elder son, the artist, and he was slow to answer (not a morning person – but neither am I.) He works in an artist collective, but in another part of town, and my mama-instinct told me he hadn’t been there, but we needed to hear his voice. He answered, thank God.  I ascertained that he was alive, and told him to call his granddad immediately.

I texted his brother the musician, and yes, he was fine. I told him to get in touch with Granddad. Then I began thinking about all the mothers and grandfathers and friends everywhere hearing about that fire. I looked on Twitter for news.

People, when something like this happens, remember that survivors and friends are combing social media and the news, hoping for information. Out of human decency, please DON’T:

ANALYZE the situation based on little information, and PLACE BLAME.

BLAME the victims for being foolish. (The things I saw used ruder words.)

MAKE JOKES. (I can’t believe I need to say that.)

SPEAK HATEFULLY about groups to whom the victims might (or might not) belong (in this case, African Americans, Californians, liberals, Oaklanders.)

MAKE GHOULISH SPECULATIONS (Again, can’t believe I have to say that.)

As I write, on Sunday afternoon, they are still searching for bodies in the ashes. So far, all my sons’ friends are accounted for, but as Aaron said to me, friends of friends died in that fire. This was close to home.

Think carefully before posting anything but sympathy in the wake of a tragedy. Please. It is a mitzvah to comfort mourners, but surely it is one of the worst of sins to torture them.


This is a photo of my sons that I took about a year ago. Good guys, both of them.

Update, 12/4/16, 7:34pm, PST: At this writing 33 bodies have been recovered from the scene, and 7 of them identified. I know of two people whose families and friends await news; I hope I don’t learn of more. 

Update 12/6/16, 3:46 pm, PST: 36 bodies have been recovered, and 90% of the building has been searched. The Oakland Fire Dept does not expect to find more bodies. I know of one family who expects bad news; they are still waiting for identification of the remains. I know that this is no longer fresh news, but keep in mind that families are still waiting for identifications, no funerals have yet taken place, and the criminal investigations are just beginning. California Governor Jerry Brown set an example for all of us when he declined to speculate on causes this morning.

Hack On, Hack Off

Image: A Broken Lock. Photo by Rohit Sharma, via pixabay.

Back when the world was young and I was a college student, the slang that young men used for angry was “hacked off.” Girls didn’t use it, but I remember guys saying, “I’m so hacked off about….” whatever it was annoying them. The phrase always comes back to me when someone says, “I’ve been hacked.” Now I’m the hackee.

‘Way back in 2012, someone who didn’t like my comments on You Don’t Mess with the Zohan deciphered my password and used it to mess up one of my blogs.  I wrote about it in You Don’t Mess With the Laughter.

Well, it happened again. This time someone didn’t like a post about the term “Old Testament.” They logged onto my account and got rid of that post.

I’ve repaired the damage, reposted the article, and gotten password generation software, so that I can have strong passwords without having to remember them. If you readers care about your data, I encourage you to do the same.

But I am still worried about the person who felt so strongly about that post that they went to all the trouble of prying open my account to get rid of it. That person was hurting, I assume, or they wouldn’t have done that.

To anyone unhappy with a post on this blog:

Please leave me a question in the comments, or tell me that I have offended you. Leave something like this and I promise you will receive a civil answer from me. It may not be the answer you want but it will take into account your feelings.

Rabbi Adar, your post The Jewish Bible ≠ The Old Testament was offensive to me. It was disrespectful of Christianity in the following ways: (1) (2) and (3). Please reconsider your offensive words.

Keep in mind that if you write something with name-calling I will delete that; company policy. So this will not be allowed to stay on the board:

Rabbi Adar, you idiot, you commie pinko lesbo socialist…. blah blah blah….

Write that, and I will delete your message. However, you can rest assured that if anyone calls you an idiot, or any of those other names, or a fascist, or a toadcushion, I will delete their message with equal speed and enthusiasm.