Archive for the 'Article' Category

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Rabbi Sacks:1, Atheist Proselytizers: 0

Chief Rabbi of the U.K., Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks, does it again.
In this week’s edition of the London Jewish Chronicle, he wrote an amazingly eloquent response to the various recent proponents of atheism / critics of religion, managing to neither deliver an ad hominem attack nor retreat under apologetics. In his typical fashion, he simply stands up and says the truth about Judaism, speaking simply but not simplistically about complex issues. I have nothing at all to add, as he said everything I would’ve said on the topic, and then some, and said it better. Here are a few choice excerpts, but please, read the whole thing:

…Christopher Hitchens, whose God Is Not Great is an angry and, at times, eloquent polemic on the evil men and women do in the name of God. It has only one drawback. It does not prove that God is not great. What it shows is that those who claim to be acting for the sake of God are not always great. But then, we knew that already.

Nor is it religion alone that is subverted by violence. So, too, is every institution through which human beings have regulated their conduct with one another. People have done evil in the name of politics. That does not mean that we should, or could, abolish politics. They have committed injustices in the pursuit of wealth. That does not mean we should eliminate property. They have committed crimes in the name of love. That does not mean we should ban love.

But Hitchens is not a prophet, and that is not merely because he does not believe in God. He does not believe in humanity either.

Human beings are complex, their interactions even more so. Yet we long for simplicity. Hence the perennial tendency to say, “if only”. If only we could abolish property, or class, or codes of self-restraint. If only, say the crusaders, people believed in God. If only, say the counter-crusaders, people stopped believing in God.

That is the eternal appeal of “final solutions”. They begin, every one of them, in a dream of utopia and end in a nightmare of hell-on-earth. That is why the Jewish answer to the question, “Has the Messiah come?” is always, “Not yet”. The mainstream of our tradition has always rejected the attempt to bring the end of history in the middle of history. If only people stopped saying “if only”.

The virtue of books like God Is Not Great is that they force us back to first principles — in this case to a truth about Judaism that has been far too little written about. It is, we know, a code of action and a set of beliefs. But it is also — and this gives Judaism its extraordinary internal complexity — a field of tensions: between particularism and universalism, exile and homecoming, acceptance and protest, halachah and aggadah, revelation and reason, mysticism and philosophy, sages and saints. Even religious leadership in the Torah is dual: the prophet and the priest. Judaism is not so much a creed as a conversation. It is complex because the human condition is complex. We are, says Genesis, a handful of dust, but within us is the breath of God.

….

Somehow, somewhere, people are going to have to step back from the simple-mindedness that has seized religions and secularisms alike, and re-engage in civil conversation about how best to secure a world safe for our grandchildren to live in. In the words of the Unetnah tokef prayer we say at this time: the great shofar of warning has sounded. Will we hear the ‘still, small voice’ – the voice you can only hear by listening? On that, the human future will depend.

[read it all]

(hat tip: Cross-Currents)

Matthew Lukwiya, Passion, and Competence

There’s a tragedy I see often: well-meaning people who lack of competence to get their ideas off the ground, to be able to help the world in the ways that they think it needs help. And they are amazing ideas, to be sure. (I think this is the part where I’m going to upset people….Please understand that I’m not saying that I know any better than these people, only that I wish I could help them.) I see this most tragically in chinuch. Teaching, since it is not the highest paying job in the world (and that’s a gross understatement here in Israel) is done by a group of people self-selected – not necessarily for ability, but desire. People who want to teach children are the ones who do. And a job that delicate requires a certain kind of intuition, a certain kind of competence that can’t always be taught.

But I digress. What I wanted to get at is that there are people who are really good at things, and there are people who truly have their hearts in the right place, but to find both present in abundance is rare. This is why I was really, really impressed by Doctor Matthew Lukwiya, fom Uganda. Lukwiya isn’t a household name or anything, but he should be. In the fall of 2000, Ebola broke out in Uganda. The fact that it “only” took 173 lives can largely be attributed to Dr. Lukwiya. You see, containing a disease as incurable, deadly, and contagious as Ebola is requires a very special mix – a fierce determination to help, even in the face of possible infection, and the professional rigor required to properly isolate existing victims and diagnose new ones. These qualities are precisely what Dr. Lukwiya had, and why he was so effective. A less dedicated man would have run away in fear, and a less competent man would have gotten infected himself before he even started containing the threat. I’ll stop talking about the story. Read it for yourself. Here’s a bit I copied from the Wikipedia article on him:

On the morning of 8 October, Lukwiya informed staff of his suspicion that the illness was a viral hemorrhagic fever. That afternoon, a group of local community leaders came to the hospital reporting that entire families were dying in their villages. He ignored the usual bureaucratic protocols and placed a direct call to Dr. Sam Okware, Uganda’s commissioner of community health services, who dispatched a team from the Uganda Virus Research Institute to take blood samples. By the time the team arrived, Lukwiya had already set up an isolation ward for suspected Ebola cases, in line with the WHO guidelines. The special ward was staffed by three doctors, five nurses and five nursing assistants, all volunteers.[1] When a South African lab confirmed the Ebola outbreak in October 15 , and a WHO delegation arrived in Gulu, they were astonished at the efficiency of the operation.

The crisis continued to worsen. By the third week of October, the number of Ebola patients had increased to almost 60, overwhelming the volunteers in the isolation ward. Lukwiya ordered other nurses to assist the patients and tried to lead by example, working with Ebola patients from 7 am to 8 pm. However, despite instituting risk minimization procedures, including wearing of robes, multiple gloves, surgical masks and goggles, hospital workers continued to fall ill. Twelve more died. At the funeral of an Italian nun on 7 November, he attempted to rally the morale of his workers: “It is our vocation to save life. It involves risk, but when we serve with love, that is when the risk does not matter so much. When we believe our mission is to save lives, we have got to do our work.”

Matters reached a breaking point in late November. While the national epidemic had already peaked, St. Mary’s endured a terrible day. In the 24-hour period ending at the dawn of 24 November, seven patients died, three of which were health workers. Two of these were nurses who did not work in the isolation ward. The thought of infections being passed to health workers who did not directly care for Ebola patients panicked many and the nurses mutinied. The day-shift did not go to work; instead 400 health workers, nearly the entire staff of St. Mary’s, gathered in the assembly hall of the nursing school. When Lukwiya rushed down to ask what they wanted, at least one nurse yelled that the hospital should be closed. Lukwiya silenced the nurses, most of whom he had trained himself, by stating that if the hospital closed he would leave Gulu and never return. He then spoke on how he had let himself be abducted by the rebels rather than risk St. Mary’s and that they would be responsible for the deaths that would result if the hospital closed. After hours of contentious discussion that extended into the afternoon, Lukwiya switched back to a conciliatory approach, stating that he would remain no matter if everyone left. The meeting ended with him and the nurses singing a song together; he had prevailed.

I simply read the article and was floored by it. He was a truly impressive man. Unfortunately, though, he died in the process of ending the epidemic. Dr. Lukwiya was a hero whose example we ought to emulate – both in his passion and his competence. May he rest in peace.

Serendipity

With the new site finally up, I decided to get around to writing all sorts of backlogged posts I had planned. Here goes.

I came across this article a while ago, and it struck a chord. William McKeen, a professor, the chairman of the University of Florida department of journalism, writes about serendipity, and how we may be losing it in the modern era of efficient searching and information at our fingertips:

There’s an art to finding something when you’re not looking for it.

In my freshman class at the University of Florida, I require the 240 students to subscribe to the New York Times Monday through Friday. I haven’t even finished announcing this in class the first day, when the hands shoot up. “Can’t we just read it online?” they ask, the duh? implicit.

“No,” I say and the eyes roll. They think I’m some mossback who hasn’t embraced new media.

“Why not?” Challenging, surly, chips on the shoulders.

“Because then you would only find what you’re looking for.”

Serendipity is a historian’s best friend and the biggest part of the rush that is the daily magic of discovery. It’s one of those small things that make life worth living, despite all the torment, pain, tragedy and stifling Interstate traffic.

Serendipity is defined as the ability to make fortunate discoveries accidentally. There’s so much of modern life that makes it preferable to the vaunted good old days – better hygiene products and power steering leap to mind – but in these disposable days of now and the future, the concept of serendipity is endangered.

Think about the library. Do people browse anymore? We have become such a directed people. We can target what we want, thanks to the Internet. Put a couple of key words into a search engine and you find – with an irritating hit or miss here and there – exactly what you’re looking for. It’s efficient, but dull. You miss the time-consuming but enriching act of looking through shelves, of pulling down a book because the title interests you, or the binding….

Keep reading…

This stuff interests me on several levels. First of all, I like thinking about the computer revolution and what it has done (and is doing) to our society. I’m not sure if we realize just how radically some things are changing. This is a great example. McKeen isn’t just talking about how we manage one area of our lives; this is pervasive. It’s about how we approach information, be it informative (e.g. a research paper, a newspaper article), entertaining (movies, music, books) or somewhere in-between. And as he points out, it extends even past there, to a sense of shared ideas. If we all listen to the radio, there’s commonality. But if I listen to my music and you listen to yours, and no other, then we lose that. I think McKeen is right – that’s a problem. Question is, what do we do about it?

Funny thing is, the other reason I found this article so interesting was that I tend to rely on serendipity quite a bit, especially when surfing the web. McKeen didn’t note that while we tend to browse less in the Internet Age, when we do, it’s a lot more productive (not efficient; I don’t know if you can talk of efficiency in an activity like browsing.) And I don’t think I’m alone. How many people look one thing up in Wikipedia, then get sidetracked on a fascinating exploration of some topic they’ve never read about? And how many are doing that simply because it’s just so easy to navigate from one to the other with a single click? I read a lot on the web, and it isn’t usually what I’m looking for. Often, I’m not even looking for anything specific. Isn’t that serendipity too?

Apart At The Seams

I moved here to Israel two weeks after the Second Lebanon War ended, when the bitter taste of it still lingered. As the nation now prepares (or braces itself) for Lebanon War #3, people are looking back to last year and what happened then. I recently stumbled across this article (via Good Neighbors) and it threw me for a loop:

Together, Helen and I had tried to create a tidy little universe with a population of two. In this universe, it didn’t matter that I was a Jew and Helen was an Arab. We were beyond the politics….

Politics slumbered alongside us. Sometimes it spoke in its sleep, sometimes it rolled over, but it did not wake up.

And then, the war.

When the morning newscast announced that two Israeli soldiers had been kidnapped along the border of Lebanon, I felt the dream world that Helen and I had constructed around ourselves begin to evaporate….

As the war raged on, our morning ritual of listening to the news on NPR became agonizing. Helen still hadn’t heard from her aunts and uncles and cousins, and she feared the worst. I switched my alarm clock from “radio” to “buzzer.”

One morning, about a week after the conflict had begun, the tension was especially palpable. All of a sudden, Helen threw down her boots in frustration. Her fingers balled into fists.
“We have to talk,” she said.
“I know,” I replied.
“You are so distant,” she said. Helpless and angry, she stared out the window.
I picked up Helen’s boots and brought them to her.
“I don’t even know what to say,” was the best I could do. I was afraid that if we talked, we would discover that we just could not be together. I was afraid of discovering that love had failed to elevate us to a place beyond politics. “Please,” I begged, “give me some time.”

….I was terrified. Terrified that someone from Helen’s family could get killed by an Israeli bomb. Terrified that every time I saw her Caller ID, I thought it would be our last conversation. I kept imagining her carefully chosen words, her contrite tone as she whispered through the tears, “I’m sorry, I just can’t do this anymore.”

My friends were supportive, and a few admitted to being inspired by us, framing our relationship in hopeful, hyperbolic terms, a microcosm of the peace process itself. When I expressed my own doubts, one overzealous friend scolded me, “You can’t give up! You owe it to humanity to make this work.”

As if I didn’t have enough on my mind. Now world peace hinged on my ability to find common ground with my girlfriend.

And so on. They go through some really rocky times, and the emotion is real and needs no hyperbole to validate itself. (Read the article itself to see how it turns out.) My issues with intermarriage and interreligious couples aside, it was touching.

In any case, after reading it, a memory bubbled up from the depths of my head – something I’ve hardly thought about in 3 years, even though at the time, it seemed like one of those moments, the ones you remember in a very real way. Back when I was in college, during my sophomore year, I was hanging out in my room in the CJL, the Jewish living house on campus. My door was open, and I heard (or maybe saw) a girl about my age wandering around cautiously. She clearly was looking for something and was not familiar with or particularly comfortable in our house. Being the friendly guy I was (am?), I walked out of my room to help her out. She her name was Tori (I think) and she was looking for the Hillel and I explained (as we often did) that we were not the Hillel, but I could show her where to find it. She dismissed my offer wearily, too emotionally drained to go wandering around another unfamiliar building. I invited her to sit down, she collapsed on the couch and started breaking down in tears.

The story came out: she was Jewish and going out with an Arab guy, I think a Palestinian. At some point, The Conflict came up. One of his friends said something negative about Jews, and she protested. Her boyfriend said “your people are f-ing unpleasant.” She was floored. She hadn’t expected this at all. From what she said, it seemed like that, and the brief fallout afterwards, were the last words they’d exchanged. He and his friend called several times during our conversation, but she hung up on them each and every time. There was no bridge-building here. It wasn’t even a consideration.

Back to her sitting on the couch, crying. Here I have a girl crying because politics and bigotry reared their ugly heads in this place she thought was safe. Tori felt so helpless, she told me, since she didn’t know much about The Conflict and couldn’t argue with them. I started to explain the issues and complexities of the whole messy situation in Israel, but it was clear (or at least, it’s clear to me now) that she didn’t need a history lesson. She needed a friend. She didn’t need someone to solve this; there was no solution. She needed someone to listen. And I did somewhat, and I hope it was sufficient. She left, with nothing resolved, nothing accomplished, and I couldn’t help but wonder if I had just missed an opportunity. But for what, exactly?

This story has a postscript. I emailed her shortly after her visit, offerring to help if I could. She didn’t reply in any meaningful way, and I didn’t hear from her again. Months later, I was leading a seder (among many others) at school, and who should show up at my table, but Tori. But not weeping, uncertain Tori. This was dressed-up, confident, sorority-girl Tori. And since I hadn’t met this version of her, she acted the part. There was a flicker of recognition, a brief nod, when I started pointing out that we’d met before, but then it was gone. We went through the whole seder and throughout, no one but us could’ve guessed that here was a girl who’d broken down crying and poured her heart out to me. I was like her psychologist; I had seen her at her most emotionally vulnerable. We’d been strangers from the moment she’d walked out of my room that day.