Monday, April 20, 2015

April 20th: The Moral Pulpit

I was reading an interesting article the other day about what many in the religious community refer to as the “moral pulpit.” This references the obligation of members of the clergy to use their position at the helm of their communities to give guidance and suggestions regarding issues of character, and to attempt to lead their flock in the right direction ethically. In short, it is the need for religious leaders to ask for the best from their congregants, especially when they come up short.

The problem is that the moral pulpit is disappearing. More and more often, rabbis are shying away from giving their thoughts on issues of value, because they fear that their congregations will not want to hear what they have to say.

It is difficult to give moral judgements. Even harder than giving them, it is uncomfortable to be told that you aren’t doing enough, that you aren’t good enough. Rabbis are saddled with the difficult obligation to ask their congregation for the best of humanity, when so often the people know that more is possible and struggle to get there.

This comes directly in conflict with the notion that religion is a form of sales. Temples are competing for time, attention, and money not only with other congregations, but also with other forms of entertainment and communal engagement. There is immense pressure on these communities to find ways to remain relevant, to remain a central part of the day-to-day Jewish lifestyles of Americans.

One of the most significant ways that this is done is by making congregations comfortable for all members. Comfort comes in the form of welcoming anyone and everyone who wants to join. Comfort comes in catering the experience for members by delivering a wide variety of programming and services. Comfort comes in the form of accepting who people are and where they come from. This is a balancing act, though, and all too often, comfort comes at the expense of the moral compass that has been so important in organized religion throughout history.

When the rabbi stands in front of the community and says that we are not doing enough to help out our community, it is uncomfortable. When the rabbi demands patience, humility, and kindness, even in the face of adversity, it is uncomfortable. When the rabbi reminds us that we are not perfect, that we have places where we can learn and grow, it is uncomfortable. And rabbis are choosing to avoid the issue, rather than risk losing a congregant to this discomfort.

We need to do better than that, though. There are constant ways we can improve as people. We can be more patient. We can be more thoughtful. We can do more in our communities, both for those we know and those we don’t. If we aren’t told how to improve our lives, how will we ever be able to pursue the holiness that we are forever striving for?

One of my favorite lines from the Mishkan T’filah, the Reform Movement’s prayerbook, is “Disturb us, Adonai, ruffle us from our complacency; make us dissatisfied.” Someone needs to wake us up, to inspire us to be better. Someone needs to point out our flaws, and, with kindness and love, demand that we do more to improve the world and make it better. Rabbis are the moral compass of their congregations, and should be allowed to steer their congregants in the right direction.

We cannot let our goals of comfort and welcome be a barrier for the morals and ethics that are so important to our Jewish identity. If we are not held accountable, we will get lost in our complacency. As I begin my journey to becoming a rabbi, I  want to start a career of working toward making the world a better place. I have high expectations of myself, and I hope that the communities I serve will allow me to help point us all in the right direction. We need to elevate the level of debate in our synagogues. It doesn’t mean we will always be right, but it means we always need to try.

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Tuesday, April 14, 2015

April 13th: The People's Candidate

After months (ok, maybe years) of speculation and preparation, Hillary Clinton has finally announced her candidacy for President of the United States. In a video shared on social media on Sunday, Clinton featured many Americans of every age, gender, race, and sexual orientation, discussing the challenges and opportunities in their lives. Some face economic difficulties, some run small businesses, others are excited to finally get married. When Clinton finally takes to the camera, she acknowledges that she too has goals. She’s running for President.


The most pivotal quote from her speech was: “Everyday Americans need a champion. And I want to be that champion.” And she’s absolutely right. The American people need a champion who will look out for their best interests. A candidate who will tell them how it really is, rather than putting spin on every little statement. A candidate who will run on values and purpose, rather than a cutthroat campaign, with winning as the only goal.


A calculated launch of her campaign wasn’t necessarily the best foot to get started on. We all knew she was running. Why did she need to delay, to play games with the public until the timing was absolutely perfect? It is understandable to want to have control over the release of that information, but this presents a huge opportunity for Hillary to stop her political spin right out of the gate and to run a campaign that has the correct focus and dedication to what is truly important.


The last thing we need in America right now is an election wrought with politicking and manipulation. There are so many issues that divide us, and we need to know exactly who we are about to elect, so that we can choose a candidate that best serves our needs. The Democratic Party has frequently referenced that they do not want a “coronation,” an easy, single horse race for the Democratic nomination. My question is: why not? Why not pick a candidate, one good candidate, who can accurately reflect the views, opinions, and direction of her party, and allow her to stay true and honest to her platform, rather than struggling through the in-fighting of a tough primary season?


The Republicans sure won’t have that luxury. Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, and Marco Rubio are the first to throw their hat in the ring, and it doesn’t appear as though that will be the end of it. By the time we are ready to have a Republican primary debate, we might need to hire a carpenter to construct enough podiums. The Republicans will be beating the snot out of each other for months, trying to gain an advantage and to knock their opponent down a peg. Wouldn’t it be nice if the Democrats could have a civil, thoughtful primary campaign that focuses on the issues at hand?


Clinton has already set herself up to be the anti-Republican, especially against the religious right. Her opening video showed a pair of gay couples, and she referenced that “when families are strong, America is strong.” She is setting herself up to be the candidate of the people. Against a Republican party where half of the members have bigotry as their main platform, Hillary can rest easy, knowing that she is going to be the candidate of tolerance and compassion.

In fact, she isn’t speaking like a woman being crowned supreme leader at all. In her video, she specifically says “I hope to earn your vote.” Is that a political move on her part? Sure. That doesn’t mean it isn’t the case. Americans need a candidate who is willing to work hard to earn their votes on their own merit, rather than by bending over backward to say whatever it is that we need to hear to put herself in the Oval Office. This may be America’s opportunity for an election that avoids the political mudslinging and rather focuses on the issues at hand. We can only hope.

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Monday, March 30, 2015

March 30th: Change the Way We Change The World

Congratulations, you’ve reached the ten thousandth blog, column, or article written about Indiana’s new Religious Freedom Restoration Act. It is, after all, the issue most in vogue this week.


The Hoosier State’s governor, Mike Pence, just signed into law a bill that allows business owners the right to, among other things, refuse service to anyone on personal religious grounds. Religion, of course, being used in this case as a shield to protect homophobes.


Many are understandably horrified and outraged. Many universities, including Indiana University and Butler University, issued statements condemning the law. The owners of many restaurants and shops issued statements about their willingness to serve anyone and everyone. Even the NCAA has promised that Indiana will not host another national tournament game until this law is repealed. Certain LGBT rights groups are compiling lists of business that are friendly or hostile to their rights or, as I prefer to think of it, rights in general.


If the attention has been a little overwhelming, don’t worry. By June, we will have moved on to another issue to stand up for. We will be dumping cold water on our heads for some illness, using a hashtag about the value of some cause, pitching tents in some public space. Whatever it is, we’ll go back to eating our chicken sandwiches, cooking whatever pasta is cheapest, and buying our craft supply at the closest opportunity.


Or…


We could make a conscious choice. We can change the way we live on a day to day basis. We can use our wallets to speak as loud as any law that the state congress can pass.


We could go to any restaurant, order whatever we want, and leave, hoping that nobody notices our sexual orientation in either direction, and hiding behind our ability to go about our lives while taking advantage of our privilege. We can eat at Chik-fil-A, despite our issues with it morally, because, c’mon, it’s just a Chicken Sandwich. Ok, a really good chicken sandwich, but still.


Or…


We could start every business transaction with a question, asking for management to clarify whether or not they share our values. We can demand that, to take my hard-earned money, you have to prove that you are a decent human being.


We can let a radically Christian right continue to use the defense of “religious freedom” to defend their bigoted and narrow-minded ideals, all the while hijacking religion and spirituality along the way.


Or…


We can stand up as people of faith and acknowledge that no God we believe in requires discrimination. We can demand that the biblical interpretation be done correctly, and that we hold people accountable to reading one sentence out of context while ignoring the rest of the passage (anyone who has ever had an affair should be turned away just as brutally as a gay person, according to Leviticus). Religion should be a tool of compassion, caring, and striving for goodness. But that only works if we make it happen that way.


A few weeks will go by, and we will be tested. We will have to determine just how much we care about this issue, or any issue, how much we want to make our voices heard. As the ink dries from the bill, and we begin to look forward to the many other issues that face our nation, we will have the opportunity to decide what this really means to us.


If you believe in the law and what it stands for, that’s fine. I’m not going to fault you for supporting something you believe in. But, if you find this law abhorrent and damaging to the success of our country and choose not to do anything about it, well, goodness, I don’t even want your support.


We can allow the RFRA to fade into bored reality as times goes by. We can let our attention continue on to the next issue, the next cause, the next fight.

Or...We can change the way we change the world.

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Tuesday, March 10, 2015

March 10th: What is Legal, What is Right, and What is Fair

A fraternity at the University of Oklahoma was thrown off campus this week after brothers from Sigma Alpha Epsilon were video recorded driving around campus in a bus, chanting racial slurs and viciously inappropriate remarks. The heinous chant is below. I include in this post only because it is necessary to hear these vile words so we are better able to prevent them:


“There will never be a n—– SAE/There will never be a n—– SAE/You can hang ‘em from a tree, but it will never start with me/There will never be a n—– SAE.”


After the video was put on social media and an uproar was heard from the community, University President David Boren responded on Twitter, saying “If the video is indeed of OU students, this behavior will not be tolerated and is contrary to all of our values. We are investigating.”


Well, the results of that investigation have come out in the last several days. The fraternity was thrown off of campus, and members were told to clear out of the house by the end of the day today. Student rallies were held to promote the values of the university community. And today, two of the students who were responsible for the chant were expelled from school. The students were thrown out for what was reported as having violated the zero tolerance policy for “threatening racist behavior.”


When I heard that the students were expelled from school, the telecommunications major in me ran for my textbook. I had that sick feeling in my gut when there is a battle between what is legal, what is fair, and what is morally right.


As much as we don’t like it, the frat boys were demonstrating their first amendment rights for free speech. Some are attempting to claim that it was hate speech. That argument is, from a legal perspective, unlikely. The easiest distinction for a hate speech claim is the presence of what the American Bar Association calls “fighting words,” which are “those words without social value, directed to a specific individual, that would provoke a reasonable member of the group about whom the words are spoken.” We can all acknowledge that this chant fits the first part (without social value), but there is not necessarily the real provocation for a reasonable person to respond violently, which is the stipulation. There is also no specific individual in question, which only furthers the argument that hate speech isn’t present. While it creates anger, it is not the type of thing that would lead to retaliatory behavior by any individual.


We also have to acknowledge that there was no “clear and present danger,” a standard that, while no longer a standard in law, was used as legal precedent to try similar cases in the past. The speech, while horribly offensive, does not create a clear and present danger for African Americans, as there is not the reasonable assumption that these college students would actually hang anyone or hurt them physically in any way, although the part about refusing entry to a black student is a different problem. There was never any evidence that the students were threatening anyone in particular. The singing quality of the chant doesn’t really spell foreboding, and doesn’t translate into a real threat to anyone’s safety, only to their ethical gag reflex.


Along the lines of discrimination, it is possible that there was discriminatory practices going on at SAE. It is more than possible. It is LIKELY. If that was the case, it is all the more reason to throw the frat off of campus, and to force the students living there to find new places to live. Unfortunately, that doesn’t give the school grounds to expel the students, as they were not directly responsible for a culture of discrimination, but rather participated in an institution that encouraged it.


On the whole, we can realistically say that, while terrible, these students were exercising their right to free speech. The next argument that we can make is that the students were speaking values contrary to the university, and thus should have been expelled. Schools have often served as a vehicle for change, and some would like to argue that the school was doing society a service by removing these students, thereby enforcing the values of the community as a whole.


This, though, is flawed too. While institutions at a public university (i.e. fraternities) are to be held to the moral, ethical, and ideological standard of the school, there isn’t the assumed requirement of shared values by the students. I know Jewish students who attend Catholic schools, and while that is a private school example, it is the similar notion that one does not have to be in sync with the values of the university that they attend.


Therefore, while it is reasonable to remove the fraternity from campus, there isn’t really grounds to expel the students for their speech, regardless of what the school believes. This same conclusion can be drawn when we analyze whether or not there was discrimination at play. The students themselves were not behaving in a discriminatory fashion (to clarify, YES racist, not necessarily discriminatory). They were reflecting the (flawed) values of their organization, and thus, it is the organization that should be removed, not necessarily the students.


It would be easy, thus far, to read my argument and claim that I am arguing in favor of this terrible behavior. That is, of course, not the case. I think this was a terrible act of stupidity and racism, and the punishments for the fraternity need to (and were) swift, immediate, and ruthless. I also think that the students responsible should have their names put in the school paper, and that they should be publicly labeled as racists, as members of their community who should be identified and shamed as the terrible people they are, and should be forced to own that as long as they attend school. What I don’t believe is that it is legally correct or even morally just to throw them out of school.


This comes down to another example of free speech that we wish weren’t. We wish we could pick and choose what was free and what others couldn’t say, but in doing so, we would compromise our ability to say what we wanted later on. While racism is (thankfully) no longer acceptable in a public forum, it is not illegal to believe in racist ideas. And it shouldn’t be legally wrong to speak those racist ideas, regardless of how uncomfortable they may be to hear. At one time, we used this same freedom of speech to fight for civil rights, and we should be incredibly thankful for that freedom, that has allowed this kind of ignorance to become the exception, rather than the norm. Yet, if we impede on the ability to say things like what the Oklahoma students were saying, we lose our ability to say what we find truly important. We can take away the microphone, but we can’t stop the words that they were saying.


One of the worst parts of all of this is that the students could potentially have legal grounds to sue the school, and, even more frighteningly, have the opportunity to win. These people could commit this horrible act of racism and ALSO see a payday in court. By throwing them out of school, the University of Oklahoma has compromised their ability to actually set the values from this event. While they most certainly had morality and ethics on their side, they might not have the law.


Sometimes, what is legal, what is right, and what is fair don’t always coincide. It is one of the hardest parts about living in this country, and one of the toughest debates we have to face. I have been rolling around my thoughts on the matter all day, and am by no means finished thinking. Yet, we cannot get so swept up in the moral righteousness that we ignore the legal foundations upon which this country is founded. I hope that this conversation is used not as an excuse for more prejudice and racism, but as an opportunity for learning and change.

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Monday, March 9, 2015

March 9th: Leaning In Together

Yesterday, we celebrated “International Women’s Day,” meant to shed light on the continued fight for female equality and appreciation. Throughout my blogging time, I have often discussed the feminist movement, which I find to be particularly challenging because of the presence of a vicious branch of ultra-feminism, which demonizes men and leaves very little space for the true balance and equality that is the goal of true, honest feminism. This is not an attempt to quantify women by their relationship with men, but rather a struggle to find a way to be helpful in spreading the feminist agenda, which I find to be incredible positive and meaningful.

In addition to yesterday’s celebration of women, the National Basketball Association has recently launched a campaign where basketball’s biggest stars join the “Lean In” phenomenon to help create an environment of gender equality and understanding.


The “Lean In” concept originated with a book, written by Sheryl Sandberg, that encourages women to change the focus away from what women CAN’T do, and instead focus on all of the incredible things women CAN do. The theory uses three focal points: community, education, and “circles,” which are small support groups meant to encourage collaborative growth. Overall, the basis is that the more educated people are about the need for women’s equality, the more likely we are to be successful in creating a fair and equal world.

What makes this so compelling for me is the involvement of men in the campaign, especially within the NBA. What “Lean In” is creating is a true partnership between men and women, all working together for the greatest collaboration, so that all people can reach their full potential. Nowhere in the campaign are men told to sit down, to be quiet, to get out of the way. While men can so often be overbearing and dominant, the end goal is not to push men to the side, but rather the lift up women, to empower them to feel as if they are able to contribute in equally meaningful ways.

This is an incredibly hard thing to discuss as a man, because of the popularity of “man-splaining.” I have found it difficult to find my place in the feminist movement, because of the overwhelming feeling that any part I play is counter-productive, because my identity as a man precludes me from being helpful. I have often felt like I am part of the problem, rather than the solution, regardless of how I feel or behave, simply because of my gender. The “Lean In” movement has afforded men the chance to become advocates for women both at home and in the workplace.

In a USA Today article from last week, “Lean In” author Sandberg said “Men should support their wives and daughters at home and their female colleagues in the workplace, not just because it’s the right thing to do, but because it’s great for them. From stronger marriages and healthier, happier children to better outcomes at work, the benefits of men leaning in for equality are huge.”

The most significant benefit of this attitude is that it is a separation from the idea that the success of one gender needs to be quantified by the presence or absence of the other. There is not a pre-set amount of power in the world that must be divided equally, but rather a limitless amount of strength that should be cultivated and encouraged, so that all people, regardless of gender identity, can be raised to meet their full potential.

For the first time in a long time, I feel comfortable identifying with a kind of feminism that sees me as an advocate, rather than an enemy.

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Monday, March 2, 2015

March 2nd: Blowing the House Down

If all of your coworkers looked particularly exhausted on Friday, they were probably binge-watching the new season of House of Cards. The Netflix political drama dropped it’s 13 episode third season at midnight on Friday morning, causing fans everywhere to insist on just one more episode before bed. Ok, maybe two more.

It took me three tries to get through the first two seasons. My first attempt, I didn’t make it past the pilot. My second attempt, I got to episode 4. Finally, I decided to buck-up and get through the 26 episode series that had so thoroughly captivated my friends.

My first reaction to the show was that it was a poor-man’s West Wing. Any time I would say that, I would get in trouble, because the shows are “so different.” Well, for the well-trained West Wing eye, you can tell that there are several instances throughout HoC that attempt to mimic, reference, or downright rip from the great Sorkin masterpiece. Long monologues in a church, a sequence with an egg standing on end, and a government stoppage are just a few instances where Frank Underwood attempts to stand next to Josiah Bartlett, and comes up looking small.

Now, I will admit: it has only been a long weekend, and I’m already halfway through the third season. I get it: the concept of watching a show marathon-style is incredibly engaging, and Netflix has itself a very interesting business model built around a weekend launch. The characters are interesting, the plot is definitely intricate, and any show like this is a boon for a political junkie. Yet the show, as a whole, demonstrates that just because there is huge hype does not mean that the show is particularly well done.

The third season comes with challenges that one would not expect of a show of House of Card’s caliber. The first episode focused far too much on a secondary character, rather than on Frank and Claire. The strength and determination that was so characteristic of Frank early on in the show seems to be replaced by a sense of his constantly feeling overwhelmed. His usual attitude of political savvy has been replaced by a man who is constantly reacting, rather than plotting. While I was never in love with the Frank of the first two seasons, I much prefer him to the Frank of the third, who appears to be a drastic departure from what so many cherished about the show to begin with.

I will, of course, admit that I have not finished the season. For those who have, you may be chuckling to yourself, knowing that I will soon eat my words. If, somewhere in all of this, there is a giant “GOTCHA” twist that I didn’t see coming, I will have to return to the blogging world to give my mea culpa for jumping the gun on writing a review. But, at this point, the show’s writers appear to have taken too long a hiatus.

This is one of the biggest risks of taking a full year between releases. Because of the nature of Netflix’s full-season drop model, there is a lot of time between when a binge viewer sees the characters from the end of one season to the start of the next. The challenge that comes with this is the continuity of character development and driving certain story lines. In that regard, the show has done it’s viewers a great disservice, as the characters have seemingly changed in the “six months” of TV time between the last episode of season 2 and the first of season 3.

House of Cards has always been in the business of creating drama, rather than telling a compelling story. In the coming episodes, there is plenty of drama left to unfold. Let’s hope the story can keep up. So far, it hasn’t.

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Monday, February 23, 2015

February 23rd: Heart and Soul

This past weekend, I watched the James Brown movie, Get On Up, a biopic that details the life of the Godfather of Soul, who revolutionized the way we think about African American music.


As the credits rolled at the end, I was fascinated by the concept of a biopic. A man lived his life, and someone else found it so meaningful, so transcendently significant, that he wrote the story down and got another person to pretend to be that character. I also got to thinking about whether or not James Brown knew what was happening as it was going down. At what age did he know he was going to be a household name? At what point did the idea cross his mind that maybe, just maybe, a movie would be made about his accomplishments?


By the depiction presented in the movie, it doesn’t sound like it would come as much of a shock to Brown that he was the subject of a film. His ego lent itself well to the kind of superstardom that he enjoyed, and he probably would have loved the idea of his story being told to a new generation, many of whom may not remember the world before Funk. In the moments that they were happening, though, those around him probably had no idea that they were bearing witness to a paradigm shift, that they would one day get their own depictions, not as the stars of their movie, but as bystanders in his.


When looking around the world we live in, what are the moments that are going to find their way into the stories we tell twenty, thirty, forty years down the road? There are some stories that we can fairly assume will find their way into the history books and even onto the silver screen. Major world events, like September 11th and the Arab Spring are easy examples. It is only a matter of time after a significant historical moment that someone begins to tell the narrative, the backstory that accompanies these turning points in human existence.


It is, though, the subtler stories that are the most fascinating. We go through life every day, and we are so often underwhelmed by how ordinary it might be. Nobody wants to write a book or shoot a movie about waking up, going to work, making dinner, and going back to bed. But everyone has a story to tell, and you can never really understand someone’s story unless you’ve asked them to share it.


You never know when the child you grew up with will turn into a superstar. You never know when the simple interaction you have at the grocery store might turn into a life-changing moment. You never know when the door will open and the beginning of your story might begin.

As I went about my day after watching the movie about a young boy from Georgia who changed an entire genre of music, I was drawn to the idea: what will my story be? And who will be listening? Even more so than that, what are the stories that I could be telling, if only I was paying attention enough to listen?