Billboard Judaism, Life, Philosophy

Then what?

Once you’ve become really good at doing something, then what? I mean really good.

For the purposes of this musing, I’ll define “really good” as ‘when the thing you are doing becomes so natural, so effortless that you stop thinking about the thing that you’re doing.’

When that happens, then what?

Do you keep doing it ad infinitum?
Do you keep doing it until it behooves you not to?
Do you stop, and look for something new to do that might accomplish the same goal?
Do you stop, and move on to something entirely new?
Do you not even ask yourself this question?

I’m wondering about this both in a general sense, but also with specific reference to Jewish life.

When we can identify Jewish things we do that become rote, effortless, mindless, and entirely on the keva side of things, what should we make of this?

Advertisements
Judaism - Reform, Philosophy

Capitalized for Emphasis: What IS “Reform Judaism” ?

I have been wondering lately – to myself, in person to others, and in writing online – whether or not Reform Judaism is ultimately undefinable. Friend and fellow ‘Reform Intellectual‘ David Wilensky has been attempting of late to come to a conclusive definition of RJ and its various incarnations on his blog. It was while commenting there a few months ago that I really starting thinking it may be inherently impossible to define Reform Judaism.

I should note that I mean “define” in the existential, phenomenological sense. We can all certainly accept that Reform Jews and Reform Judaism exist and exhibit attributes that are (in most cases) distinct from other forms of Judaism and other Jews. But that’s not a definitive definition. It’s just descriptive. What I’d really like to know is what is the essence of Reform Judaism? (italicized for emphasis). In this case, I would argue, Essence should precede Existence.

We’re quite good at describing Reform Judaism, but we’re not so good at defining it. If you check out the “What is Reform Judaism” page at http://www.reformjudaism.org, as good a place as any to start, you’ll ultimately find a nice set of descriptions, but no definitive statement.

This evening, David asks in a blog post, “What does it mean for something to be a ‘Reform principle’?”

But where he asks this, I want to counter and first ask “What is ‘Reform’?”

Before getting into the implications of what it means to be Reform, or what it means to be a “Reform principle,” I just want to define the verb itself. Again – what is Reform?

If at the end of the day the religious validity of autonomy reigns supreme for Reform Judaism, then ultimately the only entity that can define Reform Judaism is each Reform Jew by him or herself, for him or herself. Perhaps, then, we should ultimately start speaking of Reform Judaisms (plural intended).

And now we’re back at existence preceding essence.

The question is open: are there any essential, definitive things we can say about Reform Judaism outside of the theological authority of autonomy?

Canada, Life, Philosophy, Politics

My resolution

A slightly delayed goodbye (and good riddance!) to 2009 and hello (and how are you?) to 2010 post:

I’ve already made two big changes in my life this year. And I’m not one to normally use the secular new year as a way of marking personal resolutions.

So consider this just a quick attempt at improving myself and others at an opportune time.

In 2010, on this blog and in my daily life, I will do my best to kvetch a little bit less about my political opinions. (I may kvetch less, but you can be sure I’ll still be writing…)

I will try to put my dismay to more effective use, and not simply write about the injustices and issues I see. Truly, change only comes when people love something enough or get angry enough. And I’ve been pretty angry lately.

I will find ways to reach out and encourage other like minded people to effect meaningful change. I will maintain a sense of the supremacy of dialogue coupled with action.

And I will do so from a perspective that – while disagreeing with – maintains a respect for those who are politically conservative. The crux of my arguments of late against the Tories has not been one against conservative substance, rather it has been one against the Conservative’s abuse of power, their hypocrisy, their apparent disregard for ethics and law, and their role in diminishing Canada’s place on the world stage and the subsequent tarnishing of our international image.

Some food for thought as I close my commenting on the great political drek-show that was Canada in 2009, courtesy of John Ivison at the National Post of all places:

Stephen Harper is a despot. The decision to “padlock” Parliament is a cover up designed to avoid scrutiny over the Afghan detainee issue. The Conservatives have a very thin legislative agenda and no new ideas to put forward.

And that was that.

Food, Judaism - Pluralism, Judaism - Prayer, Judaism - Reform, Philosophy

Coming out of the Closet: Classical Reform Jews

Oh boy! Just in time for Channukah, JTA has published an article that is sure to stoke some fires. Which is good, cause it’s freezing in New York today. There’s a lot in here that I’ll want to comment on, more than I can do right now. Stay tuned. This will definitely be something I need to reflect on over Shabbas. For now, an excerpt:

“There is a place for reason in religion, and sometimes in Reform Judaism today we don’t give that enough attention…”

That’s by Michael Meyer, of HUC-JIR fame. I agree with him on some levels. A quick example – the URJ’s recent ethical eating initiative is a perfect intersection of reason and religion that’s been lacking attention for far too long. I also think, as I’ve argued a few times before, that there’s a place for irrationality in religion, and more often than not in Reform Judaism today, we don’t give that enough attention.

I would say that if you really want to delve into the intersection between reason and religion, a good start would be Soren Kierkegaard’s “Fear and Trembling.” Some nice, light reading.

More on this tomorrow. Chag Urim Sameach!

Israel, Philosophy, Politics

On Jewish Activism. Part I: Backburner Zionism

This was originally going to be one long post, but I’ve decided to split it in two for sake of ease. Today, in part one, I’ll identify a specific issue of great importance to Jewish activism, parse it out, and propose a few solutions. Tomorrow, in part two, I’ll take a look at the theoretical underpinnings of this issue and propose a new (though not that new) paradigm for Jewish activism of all kinds.

12.05.2009 UPDATE:I’ve changed the title of this post to reflect the direction my thoughts are moving in. It now looks like this will be a three-part series. You can read part two here.

* * *

About a year ago, in a series of posts, I commented on the trend for pro-Israel (what does that mean, anyways?) rallies to go around masquerading as a form political/social activism, while ultimately being nothing more than glorified (and in some cases, undignified) cheer-leading.

The gist of my argument was that while 10,000 people at a rally or boycott makes a nice, loud statement for the press, the trade-off is that you lose the ability to ensure that those 10,000 people stay intimately invested and active with the cause; most of them will go home with a false sense of accomplishment. The flip-side is that a small, grassroots political or social movement may maintain more personal involvement, but it can lack the punch of a 10,000 strong rally.

Case in point: recent attempts by anti-Israel folks to boycott Canadian companies that deal directly with Israel (specifically Mountain Equipment Co-Op and the Liquor Control Board of Ontario) have prompted the Canada-Israel-Committee and UJA Federation of Greater Toronto to launch www.buycottisrael.ca – a campaign to get people to purchase the Israeli goods in question. A nice idea. Israel’s economy could certainly use help.

But if the overarching issue at hand as viewed by the CIC is that Israel’s economy does not deserve to be boycotted and that it should be supported by those in the international community, then why is there not a continually active “Buy Israel” movement sponsored by the CIC and Federation? (During the height of the intifada when tourism waned and Israel’s economy took a serious hit, there was such a movement in cities with large Jewish populations, though that has fizzled out as the intifada ended and there’s been less for people to react to). Why be reactive when you can be proactive?

I’m led to believe that the issue is less about an ingrained belief in the importance of economic support for Israel and more that the CIC and Federation don’t like it when other people speak out or organize against Israel. It’s easier to react to others than it is to stand up and maintain a proactive stance for something you believe in. Which is not to say that the boycott shouldn’t be responded to. It should. I don’t believe that Israel’s economy deserves to be singled out in this way, but that’s a separate topic of discussion. Do I believe that the CIC, Federation, and those who went out to buy underwear from Mountain Equipment Co-Op truly care about Israel and it’s financial stability? Absolutely. But do they care enough to make these actions a part of their ethos? Aye, there’s the rub.

If the goal of the counter-boycott was just to raise money for Israel and Israeli companies, then it was a success. But if there’s a greater goal, as one might assume from reading the Canada Israel Committee’s mission statement, then it is not entirely a success. The CIC’s mission seeks “the promotion of increased understanding between the peoples of Canada and Israel,” and seeks to “enhance Canada-Israel friendship.” Noble goals. Does the BUYcott lead to the achievement of these goals? Not so much.

This counter-boycott just balances the equation set in motion by the boycott, it doesn’t rise above it. It’s reactionary, and worst of all – like rallies – promotes a false sense of activism. Unless buying Israeli products is part of a larger movement by the purchaser to be actively and intimately involved in strengthening the Israeli economy, or in carrying on substantial discussions with the anti-Israel group, it remains a passive project wearing the mask of activism.

Yes, a tangible result is attained from the counter-boycott: Israel’s economy is supported (good) and the boycott is counteracted (which it turns out didn’t enjoy that much public support to begin with). And none of this is bad on its own. But it’s a closed project, it ends when people bring their clothes home from Mountain Equipment Co-Op. It’s just a step above chequebook Zionism.

To meet the stated goals of the CIC and Federation, and to take this BUYcott from a passive display to a proactive, sustainable, educational, and meaningful initiative, I propose the CIC and Federation use these questions as a guide:

– Where are the educational materials on Israel’s economy?

– Where is the list of Canadian vendors that carry Israel products?

– Where are the talking points for productive discussions with the boycotters?

– Where are the resources on Canadian economic and business partnerships with Israeli companies and organizations?

– Where are the resources on ethical sourcing?

– Where are the calls for further and sustained action?

– And most importantly, where are the communication tools and resources to form a peer-to-peer network? That would truly promote understanding between people and increase friendship. (To be fair, there are facebook and twitter links on the buycottisrael.ca website, but they are in the footer, and aren’t framed as an integral part of the campaign).

If organizations – both Jewish and non-Jewish – want to enjoy popular support that is sustainable, lasting, and intimate, they need to foster that attachment. It must be a central part of the framing of all messaging. It won’t come from just reacting every time a person or group says something they don’t like.

Rallies (or group shopping trips) are exciting and they create noise and attention, but at the end of the day, the day ends. What comes afterwards? Keep a pot of water on the back-burner, and it will just simmer there until the water boils off. Want that pot to be a smorgasbord of activism? You’ve got to keep it in the front and stir it up, and keep feeding it ingredients.

Tomorrow, in Part 2, I’ll look at moving the pot from the backburner to the front.

Life, Music, Philosophy

The backbeat

I love listening to songs I’ve heard thousands of times, songs I’ve listened to for over a decade, and having that moment when I hear a tiny new part in the music that I hadn’t caught before. I’m fortunate that this happens startlingly often for me.

Isn’t that kind of what life should really be like? Slightly cheesy, but totally profound and moving?

Life, Philosophy, Politics

And as things fell apart, nobody paid much attention

A pondering:

In the history of the world’s civilizations, when did the act of murder switch from being just a bad thing that was a nuisance, to something that is wholly agreed on by (sane) people to be both bad and immoral; something that merits the force of government and society at large to prevent, protect against, and punish offenders when necessary?

A corollary:

In the history of the world’s civilizations, when will abuse of the planet’s resources, wanton destruction of natural habitats to satisfy our constant need for stuff, cruelty to animals for the sake of human pleasure, and corporate control of destructive energy production switch from being seen as things that might be bad but are “necessary” to maintain the standard of living most (western) people are accustomed to, to things that merit the force of government and society at large to prevent, protect against, and (truly) punish offenders when necessary?

Put another way: we don’t have world conferences on murder. We may disagree about how to deal with those who commit murder, and the best ways to prevent it, but we’re long past debating whether or not murder is a problem, whether or not it is immoral. When will the plethora of human activities that are destroying of our planet switch from being agenda items that are paid lip service to at world summits to things that we all agree are horrible, wrong, and immoral?

We talk about a greening revolution and the resurgence of environmentalism, but there hasn’t really been a true paradigm shift. Until we look back on our history and find it impossible to believe that we used disposable, toxic, plastic bags to carry our groceries home, we’re still in trouble. Until using plastic bags is viewed as an immoral, unethical act, we’re in deep trouble. And that’s just one example.

Until we look back on our perversion of the Earth as part of our uncivilized, unenlightened past, immoral past, we’re just as bad as the Romans were when they killed humans for sport.