My January 9, 2015 column in The Jerusalem Post generated a higher than usual number of comments, many of which were not particularly complimentary. In the piece, which addressed the United Synagogue Youth (USY) teen leadership’s decision on relaxing the group’s policy on “interdating,” I posited that since assimilation is natural – indeed inevitable – in the Diaspora, the Jewish people would be better served by lowering obstacles for those who wish to join the Jewish people.

There are many ways to do that within halacha (Jewish Law), but I’d like to propose another alternative, one that I’ll say at the outset is clearly unworkable in the mainstream Jewish world today. But bear with me, because this “thought experiment” may shed some insight on the process of change in rabbinic reasoning, ancient political in-fighting, and the surprising influence of Greco-Roman Law on what many tend to believe is outside the realm of history.

Here’s the crux of my argument: According to halacha, you’re Jewish if your mother is, regardless of the background of the father. Why not expand that definition to include patrilineal descent as well? It would address pressing issues in Israel – the many Russian Jews who have a Jewish father but not a Jewish mother, for example – and instantly make kosher the many marriages between Jews and non-Jews in the Diaspora.

Before you throw the shulchan aruch at me and point out with righteous indignation that this is exactly what the Reform movement decided back in 1983 and look how well that went in keeping Jews within the fold, just consider for a moment Jewish history. After all, for the first part of the Jewish story, Judaism was passed on by the father, not the mother.

A quick glance at Biblical genealogies makes this clear – see the many examples of Jewish kings who took non-Jewish spouses – and in inter-tribal marriage during the Biblical era, paternal descent was likewise decisive. A non-Jewish woman marrying a Jewish man didn’t even have to convert. She was now part of the tribe and her children would naturally be Jewish. Jewish family status continues to go by the father’s side to this day when determining whether one is a cohen (priest) or a levite.

Now, the rabbis in the years following the fall of Jerusalem to Rome may have had very good reasons for switching to matrilineal descent. Harvard professor and historian Shaye J.D. Cohen summarizes these in his comprehensive 1984 paper “The Matrilineal Principle in Historical Perspective.” These include the fact that you always know who the mother is but not necessarily who’s the father, and that there may have been a social problem to be solved following the mass rape of Jewish women by Roman soldiers during the wars of the first and second centuries of the common era. (There’s much more and the full paper is worth reading – it’s at http://bit.ly/1ugw3J2.)

Christine HayesYale Professor Christine Hayes also thinks Rome was involved, but from a legalistic perspective. Hayes is the author of the forthcoming book What’s so Divine about Divine Law? She spoke earlier this month at Jerusalem’s Kehillat Yedidya synagogue about the differences and similarities in how the Roman and Jewish traditions relate to the concept of “divine” when it comes to the law.

In the Roman legal tradition (actually “Greco-Roman” to be entirely accurate), Hayes explained in her talk, laws would be considered “divine” if they were grounded in reason and the “natural” world. Such laws would be rational, universal, eternal, unwritten and unchanging.

The concept of divine law in Judaism, on the other hand, was very different: It was “revealed” from a single source (rather than emanating from the natural world), written down, only meant for a specific people (rather than universal), and open to interpretation and change by those human leaders in positions of authority. We see that already in the Torah, where God delights in being contradicted and forced to change his mind. Abraham did it with Sodom; Moses beseeched God not to destroy the Israelites in the desert.

This openness to change found its way into the Talmud, often with good effects. The “eye for an eye” of the bible was transformed into monetary compensation, in perhaps the most famous example. Hayes described another that was new to me: When a man comes home from a journey, the Talmud states that “their wives are presumed to be ritually pure for them” in order that they may be together sexually. There may be questions about whether the wife is technically in niddah (with sex therefore being forbidden), but the rabbis were willing to bend this stringency, Hayes says, because “there are other values which they want to uphold.”

This concept of divine law being malleable contrasted with the Roman eternal approach. It drove the first century CE Jewish philosopher Philo of Alexandria crazy. Philo was a big fan of the Greco-Roman tradition and he did his best to try to reconcile Jewish and “natural” law, going so far as to write that “whoever will carefully examine the nature of the particular enactments [of the Mosaic Law] will find that they…are in agreement with the principles of eternal nature.”

The rabbis generally did not follow Philo. To wit, while Philo said that the laws dictating which animals are kosher and which are treife of course make logical sense, the rabbis considered them arbitrary and more a test of faith. The third century sage Rav commented that, “The commandments were given only to purify people…what difference does it make to Him whether one eats unclean or clean substances?”

Were the rabbis perhaps deliberately making a distinction in this case between Jewish and Roman law? If so, what about the example that started this discussion? Were the rabbis similarly comparing or contrasting the different legal systems when they made the switch from patrilineal to matrilineal descent?

To imagine the era in which the Talmud was codified as divorced from the world around it strains credibility. Nor would it make sense to assume that the kind of intra-Jewish (and Israeli national) politics that so defines the modern Jewish experience didn’t exist 2,000 years ago.

When it came to the question of descent, who benefited the most from the patrilineal argument? That would be the Sadducees, or priests, who were locked in a fierce battle for supremacy with the Pharisees, or rabbis. It wouldn’t have been the first change initiated by the rabbis meant to place a wedge between them and the priests who presided in Jerusalem.

Rachel EliorHebrew University Professor Rachel Elior speaks frequently on the importance of the calendar in the fight between these two groups. The priests held by a solar calendar; the rabbis promoted a lunar one. The two were completely out of sync. Yom Kippur on one calendar would never fall on the same date as the Day of Atonement on the other. How could you get along if you couldn’t celebrate the holidays together?

The reason for the dueling datebooks was as much political as it was religious, Elior says. In an article in The Jerusalem Post from a few years back, Elior explains that the rabbis “were unhappy about the exclusiveness of the priests and the power they had accrued.” Winning people over to the rabbis’ lunar cycle ultimately proved effective.

Could the same motivation be behind the change from patrilineal to matrilineal descent? After all, what could split the people more completely than the basic definition of who is a Jew? It certainly has that effect today.

I prefaced this piece as a thought experiment and even Shaye Cohen agrees. “Does my analysis have halachic implications?” he asks. “The answer is no. Jewish law is based on precedent, and what the historian can contribute to halacha is the collection of precedents and the analysis of legal history.” History and halacha, he concludes, “are autonomous disciplines.”

The late British Rabbi Louis Jacobs goes further in an analysis he published on Cohen’s treatise in 1985. Regarding matrilineal descent, he writes, “It is recorded as the law in all the Codes without dissenting voice and has been the universal norm in all Jewish communities. For such a law to be changed, only the weightiest religious and ethical advantages will suffice.”

But maybe it’s time. Ironically, the positive flexibility and openness to change that was the hallmark of so many Talmudic rulings has now been eclipsed by the very system the rabbis tried to discount, concludes historian Hayes. The modern Western world is the direct beneficiary of the Greco-Roman tradition, she explained in her talk, with its fundamental vision that divine law must be unchangeable. Jewish Law, in the centuries that have passed, has become similarly rigid,

I’m not holding my breath for a change in the laws on descent to put patrilineal on equal footing with matrilineal. But is it, as Jacobs suggested, weighty enough to warrant further discussion? I’ll leave that for the next round of talkbacks.

The fireworks first started when this article was published on The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

The headlines screaming across Jewish newspapers worldwide were an Orthodox kiruv professional’s wet dream. For a Jew whose job it is to bring other Jews closer to Orthodox observance, the dopamine rush of delight must have been overwhelming. Because if it’s your business to convince wandering Jews to become frum (religious) and one of the key tools in your arsenal is denigrating anything other than Orthodox practice as leading to demographic yiddishkeitasprophe, what could be better than a headline like “USY drops ban on interdating,” as Uri Heilman’s piece in JTA read.

JTA headline USY

Or as The Times of Israel put it more plainly: “Conservative youth movement lifts ban on board members dating non-Jews.”

TOI headline USY

The op-eds were fast to come, too – from the strident “Another nail in the coffin of Conservative Judaism” to the more poignant “Why I’m now a former Conservative Jew.

Here’s the thing: The headlines, the reactions and the analysis got it all wrong. What those leaders of the Conservative Movement’s United Synagogue Youth were doing was bravely acknowledging reality and then taking steps (in this case, through a change of language in the leadership group’s bylaws) to address what’s really going on, rather than enforcing a fantasy of how some would like the Jewish world to be.

The reality in this case: that in the culture of the open West, assimilation is entirely natural and dating outside one’s own religion wholly unstoppable.

I can already hear the push back: accepting the “reality” of assimilation is what’s driven up the intermarriage rates among the non-Orthodox in America to unprecedented levels. What we need to do is fight harder, resist the temptations of secular society, and build higher fences around our self-imposed ghettos.

That will work for a few, and maybe that few will grow in numbers to replace the rest who fall away. But that’s not a Jewish world in which I want to live.

Here’s the back story: At the annual convention for the Conservative movement’s United Synagogue Youth group, which took place in Atlanta last month, USY’s leadership body voted to update a number of clauses. The updates applied to just that group, which is comprised of only around 100 or so USY leaders, and addressed one in particular that read, “It is expected that leaders of the organization will refrain from relationships which can be construed as interdating.”

That rule was deemed problematic for a movement where members include children from mixed marriages. “We wanted to be sensitive to where members come from and reflect a welcoming environment in [the revised] language,” said Aaron Pleumer, USY’s international president.

“The Officers will strive to model healthy Jewish dating choices,” the updated section now reads. “These include recognizing the importance of dating within the Jewish community and treating each person with the recognition that they were created Betzelem Elohim (in the image of God).”

Which is brilliant if you think about it, both because of what it says (that dating within the community is still the best way to ensure Jewish continuity) and because of what is implied (that not everyone will do that, and the partners of those who date non-Jews should be recognized as being equally created in the divine image).

It’s not like this is the first time this has happened. Indeed, assimilation has been the norm in just about every society, whether the minority culture was conquered or welcomed in, from the Babylonians on down to today. Yuval Harari, in his book A Brief History of Humankind, for example, asks what happened to all of the “barbarians” who were captured and brought into Rome when the Empire finally collapsed? Did they return to their former tribal and national identities? Most didn’t – by that time they’d already assimilated into the greater Roman collective and thought of themselves as Romans.

How much more so in the U.S. where the “melting pot” is the single most unifying feature of a sometimes fractured nation. And despite the increasing acceptance of the value of diversity in recent years, America is at its core all about assimilation; it’s why immigrants came there in the first place. To deny it is to set oneself apart from cultural currents that run deeper than blood.

At the same time, if you care about Jewish continuity, dating within one’s own community remains “the most successful path toward creating committed Jewish homes.” That’s from Rabbi Steven Wernick, the CEO of the United Synagogue of Conservative Judaism. And yet, he goes on, “We can’t put our heads in the sand about the fact that we live in an incredibly free society, where even committed Jews will marry outside the faith. If they do, we must welcome them wholeheartedly and encourage them to embrace Judaism.”

Now, I’m not a member of the Conservative movement. But what Wernick says makes too much sense to dismiss just because he’s not in the same camp. His point: accepting reality is the first step towards addressing what to do next.

Think about that carefully, because it’s not just about this week’s USY brouhaha. You can find examples throughout politics, relationships and business. In my wife’s work as a financial coach, she finds over and over that only once a client accepts the reality of their overdraft can they take action to change their personal economic position. In business, it took Apple ages to acknowledge that consumers wanted bigger phones. When they finally came out with the iPhone 6, it was the company’s fastest selling device ever. What breakthroughs could we see in the Middle East if the players stopped trying to impose solutions that don’t fit and worked with what’s really happening? (I’m not taking sides; you can – and should – read that from every political perspective and not for any particular conflict.)

So, if Jews are going to date and eventually marry non-Jews, then let’s take the melting pot metaphor and make it our own. Moreover, let’s expand the pot and make it easier for people to join the Jewish people. Why aren’t we more welcoming? It’s not like we have such enormous numbers already that we need to exclude interested outsiders.

This is not just an issue for the U.S. – Israel has much work to do here too. We have to “provide more entry points into the community than we have in the past,” says Rabbi Seth Farber, director of ITIM – The Jewish-Life Information Center, which assists Israelis with the legal intricacies of personal status. “Conversion must be realistic in its demands, and it ought to be made straightforward and uncomplicated, rather than burdensome and taxing.”

But we’re so afraid of change these days in the Jewish world. Where will it lead, we wonder? But that’s the point: we don’t know. History is actually not always the best predictor of the future. To take a trivial but still relevant example: my daughter hated avocado for her first 20 years. Now she loves it. People change. Situations can surprise – in both directions. But like sharks that have to keep swimming to survive, clinging to the status quo is not a long-term strategy. (Again, read that one any way you want.)

Following the USY storm, The Times of Israel and Kveller blogger Sarah Tuttle-Singer described her own upbringing with a Jewish mother and a non-Jewish father, one that eventually led to a remarkable and demographically surprising outcome: she made aliyah and is raising Zionist children in Israel. “Don’t tell me ‘intermarriage’ is always a bad thing,” she writes. “Instead, let’s recognize that our numbers are low and that we could change that demographic if we switch our way of thinking, ease the conversion process when relevant, and realize that intermarriage doesn’t have to be ‘marrying out.’ It can be ‘marrying in.’”

The new USY wording on dating reflected that flip, and it’s one more thing that we as a Jewish people could learn from. Once the USY’ers accepted reality, they turned the language from a negative to a positive, from a prohibition to an open door that nevertheless emphasizes the “healthy choices” that have kept us strong.

That shift from forbidden to permitted, from fearful to inclusive in our expression of Jewish Law and practice, and in the essential Jewish content that we teach newcomers and veterans alike, might make for a less provocative headline than “Jewish universe erupts.” But the future of Judaism has got to be about more than clickbait. Let a realistic conversation begin!

{ 0 comments }

Crowdsourcing the Real Israel

by Brian on December 28, 2014

in In the News,Technology

Jon Medved and Nir Barkat (sm)If you were just to read the international press these days, you might think Israel was on the verge of catastrophe, with sanctions from Europe just around the corner, boycotts being adopted from academia and beyond, terrorism back in vogue on the streets of Jerusalem and tourism in a tailspin. You wouldn’t be faulted for assuming that businesses around the world would certainly soon be pulling out of the Startup Nation – after all, who wants to fly into a war zone or consort with an international pariah.

That assumption would be very wrong, judging from the turn out at the first conference put on earlier in December by OurCrowd, the Jerusalem-based crowd-investing platform. OurCrowd makes it possible for individuals to jump into the once exclusive venture capital game as long as they have a minimum of $10,000 to invest. OurCrowd identifies promising startups; its investor members decide where to spread their money. 

OurCrowd has generated plenty of buzz since it launched in early 2013, in no small part due to its energetic founder, Jon Medved, who has been either leading or backing Israeli hi-tech companies for close to 30 years. (Among his better-known ventures: the VC firm Israel Seed Partners and mobile social applications maker Vringo.) OurCrowd, though, may be his biggest success yet. In less than two years, OurCrowd has made it possible for 6,000 individuals to invest more than $80 million in 55 companies, with more on the way.

Make that $84 million: At the conference itself, some of the nearly 1,000 participants must have been doing some serious tapping on their mobile phones: another $4 million was invested before the day was over.

Some of the receiving companies were on hand at the conference, which I attended. Here are some of the most exciting, up and coming Israeli startups:

VocalZoom has built a technology that filters out background noise so that when you talk on your mobile phone in a loud public place, the call will sound crystal clear. They’re already working with Apple as well as Toyota. VocalZoom works by picking out the vibrations coming from your face when you talk in order to isolate just the voice. The company’s been around since 2010 but recently received an additional $700,000 from OurCrowd.

Cimagine allows shoppers to place a 3D picture of a piece of furniture from any website into an “augmented reality” version of your living room. Cimagine adds a new button called “Visualize” next to that sofa you’re interested in. Click it, then aim your phone’s camera at the spot where you imagine the sofa should go. Cimagine shows you on your phone screen how that sofa will look in the space. You can move to another part of the house, click Visualize again, and the furniture now appears there. You can swap out different pieces of furniture, change colors and more. 

You might have heard about “beacons,” which are little plastic devices that can broadcast where they are so you can track your luggage, phone, keys or kids. Pixie one-ups that by adding “distance” and “direction” – so you’ll not just know that your car is nearby, but by using the accompanying mobile phone software, you’ll be directed right to it. Pixie is a physical device about the size of your thumb, it will cost $10-15, has a battery that lasts 18 months and, most important, works indoors which GPS can’t do. The beta is coming next month.

Up-n-Ride is a new take on the wheelchair. The trick: it can rise up into a vertical position, so the person in it can essentially be standing. That’s not only healthier than sitting all day, it allows access to kitchen or bathroom counters, for example, where the disabled person can participate more normally in everyday activities. Up-n-Ride is a friendly spin off from another Israeli innovation, the ReWalk wearable “exoskeleton” (also backed by OurCrowd; it went public at the end of September this year). But while ReWalk can only be used by about 10 percent of wheelchair bound people, Up-n-Ride is appropriate for anyone who can use a regular wheelchair. First prototype will be out in February 2015, with full production starting in 2016.

Zula calls itself WhatsApp for small business, but it’s more than that. The pitch is that business teams routinely use ten or more different digital tools – email, chat, WhatsApp, file sharing, Skype, conference calling, and more. Zulu brings that all into one application. It’s not meant for “regular” users (unlike Whatsapp, it costs real money) but it has one thing that’s been on my WhatsApp wish list for ages: a desktop version. I’m going to try it out with my own small team (i.e., my family).

eVigilo started as a warning system for rockets fired from the Gaza Strip. eVigilo manages the alerts, primarily text messages to your phone. Now they’ve started selling it to civilian customers – for example, to alert people of a potential tsunami after an earthquake. In 2010, exactly such a tsunami killed 600 people in Chile. In 2014, an earthquake and tsunami in the same location killed only 5 people because the eVigilo alert system was in place. Other potential clients include gas and chemical plants where residents living nearby need fast alerts. The system uses the location of cell towers, not your phone number, so if you’re out of town, you won’t get an emergency alert about something happening hundreds of miles away.

Consumer Physics is the closest thing to science fiction I’ve seen in many years of technology reporting – it’s SCiO device is a molecular scanner that fits in the palm of your hand. This little black dongle, the smallest spectrometer ever built, the company says, uses light waves to analyze the chemical property of physical things. Aim it at the pesto pasta on your plate, and it can tell you the ingredients and the number of calories. It can be used to sense what’s in pharmaceutical packages (great for drug stores and law enforcement); really anything other than metals. Connected to a mobile phone, the device sends what it scans to the cloud where it’s matched to Consumer Physics’ massive and growing database. You’ll be able to pick one up as early as next year for around $50.

And those are just companies OurCrowd is backing – the startup ecosystem in Israel is a hundredfold larger. Now, some of these companies may make it to the big time; others will fail – that’s the nature of venture capital. But they represent the continuing vitality of Israel’s hi-tech sector; a mass of brute brainpower that international business cannot – and does not – avoid.

Gonzalo Martinez de Azagra may have said it best. De Azagra heads Samsung Ventures in Israel. In the closing panel at the conference, he was asked why Samsung had opened an office in Israel only five months ago. De Azagra looked sheepish. 

“We were already late in the end game,” he told the audience, which was still packed after nine hours of pitches, panels and ever replenishing snacks. But after arch-rival Apple acquired Israeli flash memory design firm Anobit for $500 million in 2011 and then 3D sensor maker PrimeSense in 2013, Samsung had to follow. In the last two years, first from Korea and now from Tel Aviv, Samsung has invested $30 million in seven startups. There is just too much talent to not be here, de Azagra said, “and today we are coming in strong.”

That ought to be the real headline when reporting on Israel.

This look at Israeli startup success originally appeared on The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

Yuval HarariIt’s already hard to remember, with election fever raging all around us, what triggered this expensive, unnecessary mess we’re now in. I’m talking about the “Jewish State” bill, of course. It wasn’t the only culprit, but it was a big one.

What’s most interesting about the Jewish State law is not whether it was a deliberate provocation intended to force a change in government or whether it will return after the next Knesset is formed. Rather it’s that, from an evolutionary point of view, how unsurprising and in some ways even inevitable this bill is.

My thinking comes from Yuval Noah Harari, author of a huge Israeli bestseller called Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind. Harari is a senior lecturer in the department of history at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem. His book came out in Hebrew in 2011 and stayed at the top of the charts for two years. (It will be published in the U.S. in early 2015.) He also teaches a free online class on the subject which is available on the website Coursera.

Sapiens traces the history of humanity from our various homo-ancestors, through the cognitive, agricultural, scientific and industrial revolutions, and on to where we may be going as a species in the near future. I’ve been taking the Sapiens course online and it’s spellbinding – no mean trick given that it’s almost exclusively a series of videos with Harari sitting in an armchair and lecturing to the camera.

In the second part of the course, Harari examines how human beings were able to organize into the large complex societies we see today. Written language and the ability to create “imagined realities” (stories we tell ourselves about how the world works) are two critical factors. It’s a third that relates to the Jewish State bill and that has been particularly eye opening for me.

In order for human beings to live in groups of more than a few dozen, Harari posits, we have no choice but to divide people up into categories: men and women; different religions, races and tribes; royalty and peasants; “us” and “them.” We don’t do this because we are inherently power-hungry or racist (although there are certainly people like that). Nor is this just some condescension to the weaknesses of early civilizations, something that we will ultimately transcend on the way to an egalitarian future where everyone is equal.

No, these hierarches, explains Harari, are essential to our ability to function when you can’t know every single one of your neighbors. For example, if you meet someone new, you can’t spend the time to get to know that person intimately; you need to make some snap judgments, to put that person in a box, so to speak, however limited that may be, so you can move on to interact with the next person.

This becomes all the more critical if you want to be able to live together in a village or city with hundreds, thousands or millions of people. Who can you trust? Who can you count on in a pinch? Who’s lazy and interested only in their own advancement? Who’s skilled in mediating arguments? Who would make a good mate? Who’s better at fighting and who’s better at writing poetry?

You need to quickly gather these broad if crude data points if the group is going to work together. But no one mind can keep track of so much information. So we create categories. We codify laws and write everything down. It’s a key advantage and one of the cognitive tricks that made humans so dominant, Harari says.

This isn’t a necessarily evil activity. When you say “I’m a lawyer” “he’s a journalist,” or “she’s a rabbi,” you’re defining yourself with the expansive strokes necessary for others to grasp your “essential nature” in a word or two, confident that your true friends and family will have the time and interest to get to know the “real” you.

Jewish law and practice, in its earliest biblical motivations, was all about creating categories that would allow a tightly defined, culturally distinct society to function. If a stranger wanted to insinuate himself into the Jewish tribe, there were (and still are) a lot of touch points he had to get right. Does he eat like a Jew (and know the rules and minutia)? Does he dress as you’d expect? And most important, is he circumcised? Kind of hard to fake that one.

The thing is: a lot of these categories about who’s in and who’s out are “accidents of history,” claims Harari. He brings the example of the caste system in India. According to many historians, raiders from Central Asia entered the Indian subcontinent around 3,000 years ago. They had more sophisticated technology (two-wheel chariots, for example), but they were far fewer in number than the local population which they subjugated.

The invaders needed a way to differentiate between those in power and the soon to be subservient masses. So they created “a stratified society in which they occupied the leading positions – the priests, warriors and kings – and the natives were left to work as peasants and slaves,” Harari says in his course. The invaders, then, “fearing they might lose their unique identity and privileged status, divided the population into castes which had different legal status and duties.”

Castes determined who you could associate with, who you could marry, what jobs you could hold and where you could live. Over time, these rules and prohibitions became an integral part of Hindu religion and mythology. “In order to convince everyone that the caste system was not a human invention,” the ruling elite presented it as reflecting “a kind of cosmic order whose purpose was to protect society from impurity,” Harari continues.

The concept of “impurity” has long been a popular way of oppressing certain segments of society, Harari continues, and we see it in many different religions and cultures (including Judaism). That’s because it’s rooted in a biological reality, where “through a long evolutionary process, people developed a fear of polluting themselves by coming in contact with things that might give them diseases, like rotting corpses or bad food,” Harari explains. But eventually social systems “hijacked these biological mechanisms and turned it against certain groups of people rather than dead bodies.”

Eventually, people forgot the historical reasons thousands of years ago for the creation of castes, but the system lives on as the “natural” way of things. Harari’s point: human society can’t function without categorization but most of the hierarchies it creates are almost entirely these accidents of history.

I was sharing this idea with a friend recently. “But surely the Jewish people is not an accident,” she countered. “Look how long we’ve survived! Where are the Romans today? Where are the ancient Greeks or Egyptian or Babylonians?”

It’s tempting to paint our survival over the millennia as unique, but that’s only because we survived. Had certain Caesars made different political and religious choices, Rome might still be here, and we’d be talking pig Latin about how gladiator culture not Judaism is the historical outlier.

Harari’s analysis is both illuminating…and profoundly depressing. Growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, I took John Lennon’s words as my own religious doctrine (even if he was arguing for the opposite). Imagine a world with no countries, no possessions, nothing to kill or die for, he sang. It was the ultimate flat world, where egalitarianism and equality would reign supreme. This, surely, was where humankind was heading.

As we wind up 2014, though, Lennon’s vision seems farther away than ever. The need to define who’s in and who’s out has led to countless wars over borders and belief. ISIS is ascendant. Hamas and Hezbollah are unrepentant. And at home, our former government relentlessly pushed a law to further shrink the boundaries of Jewish national identity that inflamed our neighbors, wrecked a coalition and made us question the wisdom of our leaders. And yet, sadly, it is entirely in keeping with this deep human requirement to build walls between people and strengthen divisions.

What Harari taught me is that there’s no other way. And as long as we have no desire (or ability) to return to the days of the hunter-gatherer, we will continue to do so. Maybe that’s OK, though. If we accept this as our human reality and we understand why we do what we must do, we can also try our best to mitigate the most harmful hierarchies. And there has been improvement. After all, slavery was abolished in the U.S. Gender distinctions are diminishing. Fascism, despite some very high profile pockets of dubious distinction, is clearly on the global decline.

If we still have to create categories, then I want to be in the one that works towards that better future John Lennon was singing about. It may be pushing against tens of thousands of years of evolution, but we can still imagine.

I first wrote about the evolutionary inevitability of hierarchies and categorization at The Jerusalem Post.

Sapiens will be published by Harper in the U.S. in February 2015.

{ 0 comments }

Carolyn TalWhen we made aliyah 20 years ago, did we come expecting that there would be war in our future? On a certain level, I suppose we knew that we were moving to a dangerous neighborhood and that conflict was probable. But we repressed that kind of thinking. You had to – why would we willingly uproot our family to put them in harm’s way? So we told ourselves stories: Peace is just around the corner. Wars are yesterday’s news. Soon we’ll be able to drive to Damascus for an exotic weekend and authentic baklava.

So when the inevitable fighting came – and in my years here, I’ve lived through a brutal Intifada (and maybe another one starting up right before our eyes), a war in Lebanon and three “operations” in Gaza – each time it hit me like a punch to closed eyes, a smack that rather than knocking you out, wakes you up to the cruel reality of the modern Middle East.

That’s a good thing, says Dr. Carolyn Tal, who heads up Tal Consulting. Cultivating a sense of realism is the first step towards developing resilience in the face of ongoing uncertainty.

Tal has spent the last few weeks giving lectures on “Developing Resilience” to English speaking immigrants at offices of the Association for Americans and Canadians in Israel (AACI) around the country. Her series is meant to address the continuing fear many have experienced post-Operation Protective Edge (and for Jerusalemites, the ongoing effects of the riots and attacks that have rocked the city).

Tal, who made aliyah herself from Chicago in 1991, says that in order to effectively respond to the challenges of the next war or attack – or, for that matter, to “smaller” scale dramas like a nasty boss or a difficult relationship – you have to develop “realistic optimism.” That is, she told an AACI group in Jerusalem, “to realistically recognize that the road of life has bumps, and to optimistically believe that we have or can develop the abilities needed to manage those bumps well.”

It all comes down to expectations. She gives the example of a traffic signal while you’re driving down a street. You know you’ll get a red light from time to time. You expect it, so it doesn’t throw you for a loop. That’s being realistic. In the same way, if you expect there will be another war or that violence in this region will never entirely abate, you’re not being fatalistic; rather you’re being realistic and it’s easier to deal with bumps when you expect them. She even suggests using a trigger word when a challenge presents itself. “Yell out BUMP when that setback appears,” she says. Labeling can remind you to be more mindful and not get lost in a destructive story.

Problem solving is another important tool Tal recommends. But you have to know which problem you’re trying to solve. During Operation Protective Edge, our soldiers were on the front lines risking their lives. Some of us had children in those tanks. But is that our problem? Is there anything we can realistically do to increase the soldiers’ safety? Not really.

Similarly, other than endlessly fuming around the Shabbat table, can we as individuals do anything to convince the Palestinian media to cut the incitement? Unlikely. So what problems can we solve? Maybe knowing where the nearest bomb shelter is, not driving through certain parts of East Jerusalem at night, or posting a guard at the entrance to your synagogue.

Solving the right problem gives a feeling of greater control, which in turn reduces stress. Steve Maier at the University of Boulder in Colorado says in the book “Your Brain at Work” that, “the degree of control that organisms can exert over something that creates stress determines whether the stressor alters the organism’s functioning.” His research shows that “inescapable or uncontrollable stress” can be destructive, whereas a similar stressor that’s under one’s control is much less harmful.

Here’s an example from the popular “Barking up the Wrong Tree” blog by Eric Barker. Why do people start their own businesses, even though they have undoubtedly been told beforehand (and quickly learn themselves) that small business owners work more hours for less pay than if they had a job in a larger company? Because there is a greater sense of control; you can make your own decisions about what you want to do and when.

This understanding of the relationship between control and stress didn’t jive 100% with what I’ve learned through my personal mindfulness and meditation practice, where a key teaching is that we have no control over our lives and trying to exert it – whether that’s getting too attached to a desired outcome or resisting something unpleasant – is a big part of what creates stress and unhappiness in the first place. I asked my teacher, Or HaLev founder Rabbi James Jacobson-Maisels, about the contradiction.

“It totally makes sense that when we feel more in control we feel less stressed,” he told me. “That’s why we want to feel in control all the time!” Moreover, “there’s nothing wrong with trying to have as much effect on a situation as we can,” as long as we remember that we are still never in complete control. So “if our happiness depends on our having control, then we’re going to get in trouble. We can’t force things to be a certain way.

So, unless you’re the IDF Chief of Staff or the head of the police, spending hours agonizing over what should be done to restore calm on the streets of Jerusalem or the alleyways of Gaza is probably not going to reduce your anxiety, because you really don’t have any control in this situation.

After the talk at the AACI, I got to chatting with the woman sitting next to me. She had made aliyah in mid-August, right in the middle of this summer’s war. Her son was already in the IDF, deployed in Gaza in fact. Was she crazy to come? Should she have at least delayed her plans until the heat was turned off a bit?

That was Tal’s last point: to keep our way on the bumpy road, to re-energize our disheartened spirits, “we need to remind ourselves of our deep purpose and values.” What drew us to Israel in the first place? And what keeps us here even when adversity seems to be everywhere?

The answer to that question will be different for every immigrant, and it will morph over time. But we can’t lose track of the bigger picture when the red lights are coming more frequently than we expected and the solution to the problem (other than maybe running the red) is not in our hands.

There’s an old martial arts saying that proper posture and training is not about maintaining one’s balance at all times, but repeatedly regaining it, over and over, so fast, that no one ever knows that you’ve fallen.

With the situation in Jerusalem looking ever bleaker, knowing how to realistically tumble and get back up again is a lesson we all could do well to learn.

Carolyn Tal’s tips first appeared in the This Normal Life column on the Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

Hillel vs. Shamai or When is it OK to Tell Your Wife’s Friend She Looks Fabulous?

November 17, 2014

The sign on my front door read, “Men, please announce yourself.” It was a Friday around 1:00 PM and my arms were filled with pre-Shabbat shopping: challah from Pe’er, still moist chocolate rugalach from Marzipan, eggplant dip in Thailandi sauce from Tzidkiyahu. The Jerusalem Post, of course. I walked right in.“Don’t come up!” my wife Jody called down immediately from the living […]

Read the full article →

Tragedy in Nepal Brings Back Trekking Memories

October 31, 2014

The tragedy in Nepal two weeks ago, where 40 trekkers, including four Israelis, lost their lives in a sudden freak snowstorm along the well-traveled Annapurna route brought back a flood of memories from my own trip to the Nepalese Himalayas. In 2011, my family and I went hiking in the same Annapurna region, and, although […]

Read the full article →

Members of the Tribe

October 17, 2014

Birds do the nuttiest things. In a flock, some of the birds will voluntarily serve as sentries, scanning the horizon for predators and calling out warnings. Having a sentry is good for the group but bad for the sentry, which has less time to search for food and, by issuing a warning call, is more […]

Read the full article →

Ireland, Identity and Avoiding Anti-Semitism

September 24, 2014

“If anyone asks where we’re from, say America, not Israel.” Those were the instructions I gave to my wife and children for how to minimize friction while traveling outside of Israel after a summer where protests bordering on (and sometimes overtly embracing) anti-Semitism raged across Europe. Our vacation – ten days in Ireland, hiking, drinking […]

Read the full article →

Wartime Unity at Hutzot HaYotzer

September 17, 2014

In a summer where nearly every large-scale outdoor event was canceled on instruction by Israel’s Home Front Command, the annual Hutzot HaYotzer International Arts and Crafts Festival in Jerusalem represented a desperately needed welcome breather. Now in its 39th year, Hutzot HaYotzer is the country’s preeminent place to meet talented local artists – nearly 200 in […]

Read the full article →