My problem with Maoz Tzur

by Brian on December 9, 2018

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

I have a problem with Maoz Tzur, the song that’s traditionally sung at Hanukah time after lighting the hanukkiah. One of the poem’s uncomfortable recurring themes is vengeance.

In the opening stanza, we pray to God to “prepare a slaughter of the ‘barking foe.’” It gets even more extreme by the song’s closing verses: “Wreak vengeance upon the wicked nation … thrust the enemy into the shadows of death.”

I get why the author of this poem was pissed. A lot of bad things have happened to the Jewish people and they keep happening, even today. So, the thinking must have gone, the only way to stop more pogroms, expulsions, desecrations or modern missile attacks is to utterly annihilate our enemies.

That’s certainly a message that resonates in the Bible.

In Deuteronomy, you can read the following: “But you shall utterly destroy them, the Hittite and the Amorite, the Canaanite and the Perizzite, the Hivite and the Jebusite.”

During the war against the Midianites, after the Israelites kill every male among their adversaries, Moses ups the ante and demands the Israelites eliminate all male children and any women who are not virgins.

Can we dismiss these commands as simply reflecting the way things were back then? Or are these sacred rules of conduct that are supposed to endure forever?

A few weeks ago, my daughter and son-in-law were, for the second time this year, forced to flee their home in Sderot in order to get out of range from the rocket barrage coming from Gaza.

When a ceasefire was eventually negotiated, many residents of the communities bordering the Gaza Strip were livid. The IDF must go into Gaza and wipe out Hamas entirely, they rallied. What if innocent people are killed? “We’ve got to teach them a lesson” was one of the most striking lines I heard.

Really? Pull out the ruler and slap their hands indiscriminately, because that’s the only way kids learn? It sounds so childish.

Now, I’m not someone who opposes war at all costs and would rather retire the army, open any borders and hope for the best.

Rather, it’s the language of vengeance that arises in times of crisis that troubles me. Is this something that we carry from Jewish tradition? Do those who live their lives according to a strict reading of the biblical narrative have a greater propensity to seek revenge? Or do our sacred texts simply echo human nature, much as Shakespeare wrote in The Merchant of Venice, “if you wrong us, shall we not revenge?”

Colgate College Prof. Kevin Carlsmith created a group investment game. Participants were to put a dollar into a group pot and the researchers would add a 40 percent bonus. The pot would be distributed equally.

The best thing for the group would be for everyone to cooperate. But a player could also refuse, in which case he or she would keep the dollar and get a share of the pot – a better deal for the individual.

Carlsmith secretly inserted a “free rider” into each group who convinced the others to invest equally, but then chose not to play along. The rest of the group was understandably annoyed.

When Carlsmith then presented a way for group members to take revenge, everyone took up the offer. More than that, they predicted that they would feel better after they got their revenge.

Dan Ariely has uncovered a biological basis. The best-selling author and professor of behavioral economics scanned participants in a PET CT machine and found that just the thought of revenge stimulates the reward center of the brain to give us pleasure.

Vengeance goes hand-in-hand with a desire to make yourself look good at the expense of your opponent. That too has found its way into Jewish tradition.

Our morning prayers beseech men to thank God for not making them a woman.

The Aleinu prayer states that non-Jews “bow to nothingness and vanity and pray to a God that does not save.”

Hebrew Union College Professor Rabbi Dalia Marx is overseeing a revision to the Israeli Reform prayer book. She and her team have decided to replace that line in Aleinu. “We don’t feel that we need to bring down others in order to cite our uniqueness,” Marx explains.

Similarly, the popular A Night to Remember Haggadah suggests that instead of (or in addition to) the furious “pour out your wrath” closing to the Passover Seder, we proclaim “pour out your love on the nations who have known you.”

Vengeance and belittling may have their roots in biology, but avengers rarely receive the pleasure they’re expecting. In Carlsmith’s experiment, he asked students to report how they felt after getting their revenge. The results showed that, despite their predictions, they actually felt worse compared to others who weren’t given the same opportunity.

Our avenging brains evolved over millions of years, making it tough – but not impossible – to affect a change. Perhaps the best place to start is with language.

So, with Hanukah here, I’m going to take a tiny step in excising vengeance from our vocabulary. Dalia Marx suggests replacing two words in the first stanza of Maoz Tzur.

Instead of “l’et tachin matbe’ach” – when you prepare a slaughter – let’s sing “l’et tashbit matbe’ach” – “when you put an end to slaughter.” And instead of “mitzar ha’menabe’ach” – for the ‘barking foe’ – we’ll say “u’mitzar terave’ach” – “and spare us from the foe.”

Give it a try as you light the sixth candle tonight. Happy Hanukah!

I first shared my frustration with Maoz Tzur in The Jerusalem Post.

Aharon Varady, who runs the Open Siddur Project, points out that former British Chief Rabbi Dr. Joseph Hertz first proposed swapping “tachin” for “tashbit.” 

Picture from Eva Rinaldi [CC BY-SA 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0)]

{ 0 comments }

Surprise me, Moshe Lion

by Brian on November 26, 2018

in Politics

I love voting. Even if the candidates I support tend to be underdogs who wind up in the opposition, I’m positively giddy walking into my local balloting station, placing the colored slip into the voting envelope and dropping it in the flimsy cardboard box (that hopefully will be replaced someday by iPads and the cloud).

The flip side of my plebiscital joy is the depression that descends when my guy or gal inevitably loses. That’s how I woke up last Wednesday morning to the news that Moshe Lion had beaten Ofer Berkovitch in Jerusalem’s runoff race for mayor.

The stakes were high: Lion was portrayed across my social media echo chamber as the devil incarnate (an ironic appellation, given that’s what Lion backer MK Arye Deri name-called his opponent). When it was clear Lion would become mayor, my online friends were despondent.

All the pluralistic gains of the Barkat years will be lost, they wailed. The First Station will be shut down on Shabbat. The Pride Parade, too. Lion will only work for the thin majority that voted for him. Some even wondered if it was finally time to consider moving to Tel Aviv.

Some in the Berkovitch camp chastised the non-ultra-Orthodox public for its apparent apathy. That’s not what I saw in my admittedly small familial sample – everyone in the Blum household voted, including our soldier son who spends his days in Tel Aviv and our daughter and son-in-law who dodged missiles to drive home from Hamas-targeted Sderot in time to cast their ballots. But the 31 percent citywide turn-out was certainly not as high as it could have been.

Even before the votes were tallied, I was not entirely comfortable with all the alarmism. Will it really be so awful with Lion? I found myself asking anyone who would listen. Was it possible that the doomsayers were mostly playing politics, emphasizing the worst to bring out the vote?

I desperately want to see the good in Jerusalem’s new mayor. I want to believe that he will deliver on his campaign slogan of being a mayor for all the city’s residents. That his years of managerial experience in both the private and public sectors will allow him to effectively head Israel’s largest city with its NIS 9 billion annual budget. That he will know how to work with the national government to avoid the kind of financial showdowns that have plagued Jerusalem in the past.

Most of all, I want to believe that, just because Lion has the backing of some of the more crooked politicians in the Knesset, it doesn’t mean he will obey their every word once he’s installed as mayor; that he can still be an independent thinker with the best interests of the city’s citizens at heart. I want to give him the benefit of the doubt.

That won’t be so simple.

Our brains are wired for suspicion. Psychologists have a name for it: the “negativity bias.”The part of our brain that governs this negativity, the amygdala, “uses about two-thirds of its neurons to look for bad news,” explains Rick Hanson, founder of the Wellspring Institute for Neuroscience and Contemplative Wisdom.

We were built this way over millions of years of evolution.

“Our ancestors had to make a critical decision many times a day: approach a reward or avoid a hazard,” Hanson says. Or in more colorful language: “Pursue a carrot or duck a stick.

If you miss out on a carrot today, Hanson continues, “you’ll have a chance at more carrots tomorrow. But if you fail to avoid a stick today – WHAP! – no more carrots forever.”

That’s why animals in the wild interpret any rustle in the woods as a potential predator. Failure to take into account the worst case scenario too often results in a tiger’s tasty lunch – at your expense.

Trying to see the best in someone, especially someone in public office, takes work. We have to fight our natural negative inclinations. The current legislative climate – both in Israel and the U.S. – where politicians have enthusiastically been confirming many of our greatest fears, doesn’t make that any easier.

Yet, I feel cautiously optimistic about Lion. Have I somehow magically transcended humanity’s default negativity bias?

Hardly.

But wallowing apoplectic isn’t good for anyone. That’s a lesson I’ve internalized over this past year as I’ve had to cope with chronic cancer; a teachable moment that originated far from politics. (I only wish I didn’t have to get sick to learn it.)

There’s another reason to remain positive. Democracy in Israel still works. Yes, there were alleged improprieties in the months leading up to election day, far too many “fake news” texts and the awkward bedfellows that always accompany politicians (especially those who win). But no one “stole” the election. To the best of our knowledge, Russians didn’t hack the Jerusalem mayor’s race.

Ofer Berkovitch ran a strong campaign that was well-executed and generally clean. That led to his Hitorerut party winning an unprecedented seven seats – the largest on the new city council.

Moreover, Berkovitch isn’t going anywhere. He’ll get another shot at the top slot and, if Lion does take the city to a dark place, that will provide all the more impetus to vote the incumbent out of office in 2023.

But I hope that’s not the case. I’m actually rooting for Lion to be the “mayor of everyone.” So surprise me – surprise us all – Moshe Lion and upend the human propensity for negativity.

We’ll talk again in five years.

I first wrote about the 2018 Jerusalem elections in The Jerusalem Post.

Photo credit: קובי קנטור [CC BY-SA 3.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)]

{ 0 comments }

The best-laid plans

by Brian on November 11, 2018

in Cancer,Health

“Let’s plan a party,” my wife Jody said as we left the hospital following my sixth and final round of chemotherapy. “To celebrate. And to thank all the people who helped along the way.”

I nodded tentatively. I was still weary from a long day with an IV in my arm and the thousand or so milliliters of chemicals which were now conducting a protracted argument with the white cells in my bloodstream. But I was buoyed by thinking about the day-after-tomorrow.

“And then how about planning some trips away?” Jody continued. “Where would you like to go?”

I didn’t want to be the proverbial party pooper but I felt compelled to remind Jody that I’m not out of the woods yet; that this is a chronic cancer and, even though I’m thankfully now in remission, to ensure the best outcome, I still have a full two years of every-other-month immunotherapy treatments.

Besides which, where could we go? Are exotic destinations off limits while I’m still immuno-compromised? What about the cost of travel insurance – will it be prohibitive?

“We don’t have to go overseas,” Jody persisted, keeping up the festive mood. “Didn’t you always want to go to that boutique hotel near Safed? Or the one in Mitzpe Ramon, with the private pools and the unobstructed view over the crater?”

My eyes brightened as I felt myself starting to get into this planning thing.

“And maybe by next year you’ll be ready for a trip abroad. We could do one with the whole family, like we used to,” Jody continued. “Didn’t you want to go trekking in Slovenia?”

As I prepared for sleep that night, my head overflowed with adventures; visions of hiking up waterfalls, overlooking majestic peaks – a well-deserved reward for trudging through this grueling year with as much grace as I have mustered.

Over the course of the following weeks, I had the usual post-chemo blues; the standard aches and pains and brain fog. But as with the previous rounds, it started to abate as I passed week three.

And then, bam, midway through week four, it all came crashing down.

A deep fatigue descended around me, one unlike any I’d experienced during the chemo itself. Climbing the stairs to our third-floor apartment, I found myself out of breath, grasping for air. My bones burned like I’d plugged my L-5 lumbar vertebrae into an electrical outlet.

I WhatsApp’d my doctor immediately.

“Is this normal?” I typed, hoping my fingers wouldn’t tire out before I was done.

My doctor responded that she’s had other patients who, like me, got hit by stronger symptoms a month after chemo was done. It’s unusual, but will most probably resolve on its own, she said confidently.

But the subsequent days got worse, not better. Not bottom-of-the-barrel awful, but enough to make a mockery of all that planning.

We had gotten overly optimistic when I needed to be more go-with-the-flow.

“Chemo is cumulative,” one of my follicular lymphoma buddies on Facebook comforted me. “Your body has taken a beating. It needs time to heal.”

But I wasn’t doing a very good job of accepting the situation. My post-chemo eyes coveted all the cake, not just a piece of fleeting chocolate normalcy.

“Oof, I just want this to be over,” I complained to my therapist in our weekly session. “I’m ready to be better already.”

“Let’s review the last six months,” my therapist said. “Has it been so bad?”

“What are you getting at?” I snapped, my defenses cackling.

“I mean, did your cancer keep you from spending time with your family?”

“Well…no.”

“Did you blow off any social events? Not see friends? Have to skip a lecture or class?”

“Just a few.”

“Did you miss any deadlines at work?”

“Nope.”

“Were you able to continue exercising?”

“Mostly.”

“Did you get to Tel Aviv to see your son in that Big Band concert over the summer?”

“Uh-huh.”

“The point is that, yes, cancer sucks. You don’t feel good a lot of the time – that’s natural. There are unexpected ups and downs – also par for the course. But listening to what you’ve just told me, I’d say that your experience has pretty much been a net positive. Not everyone with cancer can keep up such a busy schedule!”

Indeed, if I take the 10,000-foot perspective, my forest is looking healthy overall – even if some of the trees need extra care. It was more the excitement around planning, the presumption that I’d feel better immediately, that had been clouding my view.

“Maybe don’t think about what you’ll be doing a year in advance,” my therapist suggested. “Take it more day-by-day.”

Which is what Jody and I did when we were invited to a wedding. It was for the daughter of good friends and we really wanted to attend. We initially RSVP’d yes.

But the week before the celebration, I was still in my down phase. “I don’t think I have the energy,” I said and Jody called to inform our friends that we regretfully wouldn’t be able to make it.

The day of the wedding, though, I was feeling a little better. We monitored my health to make sure this was no morning fluke until finally, at 5 pm – the very last possible moment – we decided to go.

We arrived just in time for the chupah, to the delight of the bride and her parents.

Spontaneity, it seems, can sometimes be the best plan of all.

I first made spontaneous plans in The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

“You look good”

by Brian on October 28, 2018

in Cancer,Just For Fun

“You look good,” our friend Ronit said when the three of us – my wife Jody included – went out to dinner the week before last.

I shrugged my shoulders before mouthing a mostly unconvincing “thank you.”

I should be more appreciative, I know. It’s just that I’ve heard this line so many times in the months since I’ve been coping with the realities of having chronic cancer.

Yes, I may look good on the surface level – my skin tone is decent, my hair hasn’t fallen out and I’ve gained back the weight I lost at the beginning of the process – but inside, I don’t always feel so fabulous.

Every day I still have pain and discomfort. It’s not from the cancer itself – that’s gone for now. It’s more likely a byproduct of months of intensive chemo that’s resulted in fatigue, joint pains, bone aches and lightheadedness.

But you don’t see any of that. From the outside, I look like my old healthy self and for the most part, I keep quiet. It’s a fine line when you suffer from chronic cancer.

To tell you how I really feel risks turning me into one of those eternal kvetchers, the kind you listen to empathetically at first but then take conscious steps to avoid the next time you meet at a party or event. But if I smile and say “It’s all good, man,” and I feel like I’m not being real.

“You have such a great attitude,” Ronit continues as we’re served our first course.

I do? Why? I wonder. Is it because I’ve confounded her expectations of what someone with cancer looks and acts like? Did she have a perception – taken from personal experience or from the media – of what “sick” means and so anything less than that is perceived as a triumph?

“How are you doing?” a friend asks on the phone when I’m out with the dog the next day.

“I’m walking,” I say, simply.

“Kol Hakavod,” comes the enthusiastic response – “good job” in Hebrew – as if the very act of being able to self-ambulate post-cancer is remarkable.

The thing is, I really want to believe Ronit that I do in fact look good. Maybe if my self-perception were more positive, I think to myself, my body would feel better too.

I’m not saying having a constructive attitude will cure my cancer. Follicular lymphoma never really goes away – it slips into remission for a while, comes back, gets treated and stays quiet for another period. But it might make it easier to get through each day.

“There is this very dangerous mindset running through our society that people with a visible condition or disability are the only ones who actually have a ‘real’ disability and anyone else can be shoved to the side,” writes Catherine Pugsley, who suffers from osteomyelitis, fibromyalgia, and Ehlers-Danos syndrome.

Pugsley doesn’t have cancer but her experience of the visible vs. the invisible when it comes to persistent pain is something people with chronic cancer know all too well.

“Oh, but you don’t look sick,” Pugsley says she hears all the time.

“Are you sure, because you look normal to me.”

It can’t be true, because “you’re too young to have anything like that!”

When you look fine on the outside, it can be hard to ask for or accept help when needed.

I have a disabled parking card, for example, but I hardly ever use it. What if someone saw me get out of my car and head down the street seemingly fully abled? But if I had to park a half dozen blocks away, that might be hard for me, too, even if you couldn’t tell from the way I look.

“We can’t be strong and stay invisible forever,” writes Pugsley. “Sometimes we have to drop the mask and be human.”

She’s right but I’m not sure I’m ready just yet. Too much of my identity is tied up in being stoic: the cancer guy with the terrific temperament.

The visible/invisible debate is not a new one in my life. My father had polio when he was a teenager. He was in the hospital for a year but survived and for many decades later looked entirely normal except for a slight limp. It wasn’t easy for him, but he was so proud of (mostly) being able to ignore his limitations.

I never imagined I’d be like him in that way. But here I am.

“You will get better,” Ronit reassures me over dinner, “I’m sure of it.”

I’m less sure but I just nod, determined to play my role.

Then Ronit says something surprising.

“You look handsome too.”

I turn to Jody to gauge her reaction. I’m pretty sure Ronit’s not coming on to me – not in front of her good friend, my wife. But she’s playing to my vanity and the compliment works.

For the first time, I’m left speechless with no curmudgeonly comeback arising in my internal monologue. Maybe I just needed someone to ramp up the acclamation before I could truly internalize it.

I blush but when I utter a meek “thank you,” this time I mean it.

We say our goodnights and Jody and I walk home together. I feel a surprising spring in my step. I look good, I have a great attitude, I’m going to get better and I’m handsome.

For a moment, I actually believe it all.

I first felt handsome at The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

I’ve been looking at religion all wrong.

I’ve often been critical in this column of the role religion plays in our lives. No surprise there. My tendency is to analyze religious beliefs and practices by whether they stand up to the test of rationality.

Can a religion’s backstory be proved or is it more a collection of powerful myths? Does religious law make logical sense? Is there tangible evidence for a supernatural presence in the universe?

All that misses the point, says Columbia College philosophy professor Stephen Asma. He lays out his argument in a recent New York Times article and in a new book, “Why We Need Religion.”

Religion will always fail the proof test, Asma says, because fact-based evidence simply doesn’t exist for religion, at least not in ways that science can measure.

But that’s not what religion’s all about, argues Asma, a once Catholic altar boy who grew up to become a devout atheist and religion-skewering writer for publications such as Skeptic magazine.

Asma still scoffs at the absolutism of religion. “I do not intend to try to rescue religion as reasonable. It isn’t terribly reasonable,” he writes in his Times piece. “But I do want to argue that its irrationality does not render it unacceptable, valueless or cowardly. Its irrationality may even be the source of its power.

The human brain, he explains, is a “kluge of different operating systems.” There’s the ancient reptilian brain, which governs our motor functions and our fight-or-flight instincts; the mammalian brain, which is where we find our emotions; and the more recently-evolved neocortex, which is where we derive our rationality.

“Religion irritates the rational brain,” Asma writes, “because it trades in magical thinking.” Religion’s sweet spot, rather, is the emotional brain. That’s where it “calms fears, answers to yearnings and strengthens feelings of loyalty.”

Our emotions – be they fear, rage, lust, love or grief – if managed properly, are part of how we survive. They helped early mammals flourish and for humans are every bit as evolutionarily imperative as our ability to walk upright or use language. “In many cases, emotions offer quicker ways to solve problems than deliberative cognition,” Asma says.

Moreover, religion – especially in times of crisis or bereavement, with its time-honored rituals and an emphasis on community – serves as a kind of palliative pain management. Just think about the healing role played by the Jewish custom of shiva, the seven days of mourning.

“What’s so bad about pain relief, anyway?” Asma the atheist asks. Indeed, who among us would take away a proven therapeutic tool like religion, only to leave the bereaved with – what – OxyContin, aspirin and alcohol?

“We need a more clear-eyed appreciation of the role of [such] cultural analgesics,” Asma states.

Karl Marx famously derided religion as “the opium of the people.” Asma’s counter: “Bill Nye the Science Guy and Neil deGrasse Tyson will not be much help, should they decide to drop over and explain the physiology of suffering and the sociology of crime” following a terrorist attack.

Asma hasn’t become a believer and his book is not a treatise on return to religion. He steadfastly agrees with fellow atheists like Richard Dawkins and Sam Harris that religion fails miserably at the bar of rational validity. “But we’re at the wrong bar,” he says.

Nor is Asma blind to religion’s darker side. Its pervasive black-and-white, good-vs-evil narratives still lead to far too much narrow mindedness, hatred and violence. But is that enough to support American sociobiologist E.O. Wilson’s claim that “the best thing we could possibly do” for the sake of human progress “would be to diminish, to the point of eliminating, religious faiths?”

I’ve never taken my own response to religious fundamentalism all the way to proposing we toss the baby out with the baptismal bathwater. Asma offers a new – and for me, refreshingly novel – way out: a bifurcation of the basis for religious belief into a requirement for definitive proof on one hand (not going to happen) and a non-toxic tool for releasing curative endorphins especially (although not only) in times of trouble.

Religion in this sense acts as a form of complementary medicine – a great big cultural placebo, if you will.

Compare religion with homeopathy, for example. There’s no scientific validation that homeopathy works. A 2016 British meta-study covering 176 trials looking at 68 different health conditions found “no evidence homeopathy was more effective than placebo.” And yet, many people steadfastly take their ultra-highly diluted little white pills and rub their arnica cream on zealously.

How is this any different than the emotional support religion provides?

My take: it’s not, and maybe that’s fine (as long as it’s not harmful). Same goes for other types of healing that have eluded science so far.

Does that mean I’m ready to re-embrace religious observance? Probably not. Nor will I let up on my criticism when I encounter religious hypocrisy or political overreaching. (Sorry, Rabbinate, you’re not off the hook here.) But perhaps I can accept that strict scientific scrutiny is not the only way to understand the persistence of religious faith and action.

In his Times article, Asma brings an example of a mother grieving after her son was murdered. Religion saved her from a mental breakdown, Asma says. It was only her belief that she would “see her slain son again, to be reunited with him in the afterlife, where she was certain his body would be made whole [that] gave her the strength to continue raising her other two children.”

How could I not say “amen” to that?

I first compared religion and placebos in The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

Rules for rumination

September 30, 2018

Finally some good news: my cancer is in remission. But the treatment is just beginning. Did I do the right thing? How to stop ruminating.

Read the full article →

Turning empty hotel rooms into “healing holidays”

September 17, 2018

“You look like you need a l’chaim,” the yeshiva bocher said to me, extending a plastic cup. “I can’t,” I responded. “But it’s Shabbos!”

Read the full article →

Under fire: a student in Sderot

September 3, 2018

My daughter Merav is a proud Zionist. But even Zionists get scared sometimes. And living in Sderot, there’s been a lot to be frightened of.

Read the full article →

Cancer as a chronic illness

August 19, 2018

Cancer isn’t what it used to be. Increasingly, researchers are no longer searching for a cure but for ways to manage it over a lifetime.

Read the full article →

Can Startup Nation save Israel from itself?

August 5, 2018

The Nation-State Bill. The Surrogacy Law. The detention of Rabbi Dubi Haiyun. Where did the words of Israel’s Declaration of Independence go?

Read the full article →