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?

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.

Life, Philosophy

I stopped

Eating meat.
Five months ago, today.
And I feel great.

At first it was entirely a personal decision. But now the ethical judgements are starting. And I truly don’t want to judge people based on their own choices.

But I’m finding that Kant is haunting me and as much as I think a lot more about what I’m eating, I’m also thinking a lot more about what other people are eating.

My body feels great. Now I need my mind to feel the same.

Judaism - General, Life, Philosophy, Politics

Dr. Maimonides would be proud

Judaism + Health Care + Politics = an equation you NEVER have to think about in Canada. Down here in Jesusland, it’s an entirely different story. If you haven’t been engrossed in the raging, virulent debate that’s been taking place the past few weeks, consider yourself lucky.

I’m not really going to weigh in, aside from stating that I generally support Obama’s plan. My only hesitation is that I don’t think it goes far enough. But that’s another post.

On the Judaism front, I’m trying to formulate a cogent argument as to why almost all of Jewish thought lines up in support of a socialized health care. For now, I’ll defer to Rabbi David Saperstein who has made the argument that the Talmud itself calls for universal health care:

“by the time of the Talmud 2,000 years ago, [the moral norms of the Torah] had developed into health care systems and rules and requirements to provide adequate health care for all people. Any community that wanted to be considered a moral community had to provide health care, had to provide health care providers. These are not new ideas.”

Canada, Journalism, Judaism - General, Philosophy, Politics

Old White Jewish Men

Last Friday afternoon, B’nai Brith Canada sent out a news release. They do this often. Stuff happens in the Jewish community, and they send out a news release. Stuff happens in the Christian community, and they send out a news release. Someone farts at York University, and they send out a news release. While the many emails from “JEWISH CANADA” can become annoying at times, I ultimately commend them for remaining diligent in their communication efforts – they do a much better job than many other Jewish organizations.

But. Last Friday’s email was different. The title was:

United Church of Canada Resolutions Insult to Grassroots Canadian Jews

Hmm. Something jumped out at me. Angered me a little. Can you spot it? Moving on, the first sentence in the email read as follows:

B’nai Brith Canada, the voice of the grassroots Canadian Jewish community, was disappointed to learn that resolutions that enable United Church Conferences, Presbyteries, congregations, and community ministries to boycott the Jewish State of Israel, if they so choose, were unanimously passed at the United Church of Canada’s (UCC) 40th General Council.

How about now?

B’nai Brith is many things. They’re a Jewish advocacy organization. They’re an Israel advocacy organization. They’re a human rights advocacy organization. Their newspaper in Canada claims to provide “the real story – and the story behind the story – from a Jewish perspective,” though more often than not, that appears to be code for the Right Wing perspective. I should also say that they run a number of summer camps, and Jewish camping is more than important to me. They are indeed many things, but they are certainly not grassroots.

What is grassroots? For starters, labeling an organization as grassroots implies that there is a movement behind the organization. It implies that a collection of people – the roots – have come together independently to identify as a group with a shared philosophy. What is the B’nai Brith movement? Visit the “About Us” section of the website, and you’ll learn that:

B’nai Brith Canada is the action arm of the Jewish community. We believe in:

1. Reaching out to those in need
2. Fighting antisemitism, racism and bigotry;
3. Promoting human rights and peace throughout the world.

What is B’nai Brith’s philosophy? Their ideology? Their social perspective? These are things we would expect to know about a movement. How many people today will claim that they are part of the B’nai Brith movement?

The term also implies that the movement and its related organizations evolved spontaneously and naturally as a response to some stimulus. B’nai Brith – at least in the USA – certainly had a grassroots origin, with German-Jewish immigrants gathering to do something about the squalor in which Jews were living at the time. But now they have evolved into something beyond this grassroots origin. They do wonderful work, representing their constituents and advocating on behalf of certain Jewish views, but they are far past the days of being a small, grassroots movement. To be sure, they are part and parcel of the Jewish establishment. Meet your friends Federation, the World Zionist Organization, the Jewish Agency, and the State of Israel.

Labeling a group grassroots is also a way to highlight the differences between that group and its accompanying movement, and other organizations governed by more traditional power structures. A quick glance at B’nai Brith and B’nai Brith Canada’s websites is more than enough to show you that they are intimately familiar with “traditional power structures,” as the names and pictures of their leadership look like they came from a Facebook group called “old white Jewish men.”

The labeling of B’nai Brith Canada as grassroots is a curious move by the organization. For one, it is an abrupt change – they’ve never called themselves this before. Last Friday’s email was the first appearance of this adjective. Why, all of a sudden the need to add this term in August 2009? (8.28.09 Update: Turns out they have called their constituency grassroots a few times before. Mostly in press releases.)

I take great issue with this. It’s an attempt to make it look like they aren’t facing declining relevance like the rest of the organizational Jewish world. It’s an attempt to make it look like they don’t have a member base that’s almost entirely made up of people who were born before 1950 (not that there’s anything wrong with people born before the invention of the VW minibus). It’s an attempt to make it look like they attract the same type of people that Obama attracts.

There’s a term for what B’nai Brith is doing. It’s called Astroturfing. And in the political, advertising, and PR world, this is a BIG no-no. By calling themselves grassroots, B’nai Brith Canada is trying to project an image of something it isn’t.

Let me re-iterate: B’nai Brith does many wonderful things, many vital things for the Jewish and broader communities in Canada and the US. But they are not grassroots. To try and present this image is dishonest and unfair.

I’m also left with a few final questions from B’nai Brith’s email of last Friday…

Is there a difference between “grassroots” Canadian Jews and “regular” Canadian Jews? And if so, is the Canadian Jewish community insulted and disappointed en masse, or is just the “grassroots” Jews? And if so, is B’nai Brith really the voice of the entire “grassroots” Canadian community?

This is where B’nai Brith shows their true colours. You can’t just blanket label a group of people as grassroots. At the end of the day, I’m left wondering what B’nai Brith Canada’s “grassroots” movement is all about…