Dishwasher soap opera

by Brian on August 5, 2017

in Jewish Holidays and Culture

It all started with the dishwasher.

Twenty years ago, as my wife Jody and I were buying appliances for our new apartment in Jerusalem, we bought our first dishwasher. We’d never owned one while we lived in the U.S., so we had to choose not only a brand but the appropriate approach per halacha (Jewish Law) for how we were going use the dishwasher within the confines of keeping kosher.

This was at a point in our lives when we were unequivocally Orthodox, so keeping to the letter of the law was important to us. The problem was: when it came to dishwashers, there’s a whole alphabet of competing approaches.

We started by asking our friends who owned dishwashers what they did. Everyone seemed to have a different story.

Some used the dishwasher for either milk or meat but not for both.

Some bought two sets of dish racks and swapped them in and out depending on whether the dishes were fleishik or milchik.

Some used just one rack, but ran an empty load of hot water in-between the milk and meat dishes. Some used just one rack but ran an empty load of cold water in-between.

And some just used the same rack for both milk and meat (but never together) without any empty loads separating them.

There seemed to be rabbinic authorities for every approach: Rav Ovadia Yosef said this, the followers of Rav Elazar Shach did it that way.

It was more than confusing – it prompted our first true religious crisis.

Jody and I both came to Orthodoxy as ba’alei teshuva – returnees to observant Judaism from secular upbringings. My own introduction to Judaism was through the Ohr Somayach yeshiva in Jerusalem, where I learned that there were clear, unambiguous answers to every halachic question.

Yes, different Jewish groups might have slightly varying customs, but the religious ideal I absorbed in those years was to pick a community and then do what they do.

One of my teachers at Ohr Somayach was Rabbi Dr. Nathan Lopes Cardozo. He taught a daily, class in Jewish philosophy in which he would mix halachic, secular and even non-Jewish concepts, with a healthy dose of Freud, Kant and Woody Allen. Cardozo’s class was challenging to the worldview I was eager to adopt, but also terribly exciting.

Cardozo, who is now the founder and dean of the David Cardozo Academy (and a Jerusalem Post contributor), has always been a maverick. These days, he pushes the Jewish envelope even further with thought pieces entitled “Let us violate Shabbat so as to sanctify it” and “The joy of religious doubt.”

Cardozo and I couldn’t be more different in our approaches to observance today – he’s still firmly committed, albeit fiercely combative, while I now identify as secular yet searching. But when it comes to our thinking about halacha, we find ourselves surprisingly on the same page.

Indeed, if I’d consulted Cardozo 20 years ago, perhaps buying that dishwasher wouldn’t have precipitated such an existential Jewish dilemma.

In a recent column, “The problem and future of true halacha,” Cardozo lays his cards on the table from the get-go.

“Most religious Jews are not aware that halacha has nearly become passé,” Cardozo writes. “They believe it is thriving. After all, halacha is very ‘in’ and there are more books on this subject than ever before. Despite this, it lacks courage.”

Cardozo believes that halacha has become fossilized; that “we have grown scared” of innovation. Provocative ideas “are condemned as heresy.” As a result, “trivial, simplistic, and often incorrect information replaces significant ideas [which are] reduced to a catch line … yet still presented as ‘the answer.’”

Cardozo takes aim at yeshivas for ba’alei teshuva like his old employer. “Outreach programs, although well intentioned, have become institutions that, like factories, focus on mass production and believe that the more people they can draw into Jewish observance, the more successful they are,” he emphasizes. “The goal is to fit them into the existing system.”

This was not the way it always was, Cardozo stresses. The rabbis in the Talmud “were not interested in teaching their students final halachic decisions, but instead asked them to take those decisions apart, to deconstruct them so as to rediscover the questions. The greatness of the Talmudic sages was that they shared with their students their own struggles and doubts and their attempts at solving them.”

The dishwasher was our Talmud. After extensive research with friends, community members and even a few rabbis, we came to the conclusion that there is no one conclusion. All of the answers were right and we wouldn’t be sinning if we chose one over the other.

At the time, we were disheartened – what did that say about the immutability of the halacha? Today it feels liberating. More important, it started a personal process that is still in progress, and is about much more than just dishwashers.

I don’t remember anymore whose opinion we opted for when we made our dishwasher kosher, but it has stayed that way all these years and no one has ever poked his or her nose into the sudsy water to question whether our rinse was cold, hot or none of the above.

In that way, I like to think we are practicing what Cardozo calls “the art of audacity” – the only way to be authentically Jewish.

I hope Rabbi Cardozo would agree.

{ 0 comments }

Is Judaism more like an operating system or an app? The podcast “Judaism Unbound” has been exploring that question over the last year. The answer could go a long way to helping us understand how to solve seemingly intractable problems such as the recent Kotel and conversion crises in Israel.

Judaism Unbound’s hosts, Daniel Libenson, the founder and president of the Institute for the Next Jewish Future, and rabbinical student Lex Rofes, describe the operating system vs. app metaphor like this: Consider your smart phone – the operating system is the software that runs in the background. Apps are the individual programs you use – Facebook, Twitter, iTunes your browser and your calendar.

Your phone comes with an operating system – you can’t get rid of it or the device won’t run. Usually it comes with a few key apps installed. The rest you download, depending on your personal preferences.

Judaism has for most of its existence functioned as an operating system – a legal system undergirding everything Jews do. In the last 200 years, though, as new ways of being Jewish have emerged, the operating system began to break down. It got bloated and bogged down by “feature creep” – too many rules, too many prayers, too many expectations. It became outdated – like running DOS in a Windows world – losing relevance with the majority of its users.

Some “patches” to the operating system have been attempted, such as more participation by women and greater integration into modern life. And a few Jewish streams have done the equivalent of “upgrading” the operating system as a whole.

But the real change is that Judaism has gone from being perceived as an all-encompassing operating system with required functionality to a set of optional apps which one “opens” –regularly, once in a while…or not at all.

If in the past, the Jewish operating system implied keeping Shabbat, kashrut and family purity, now those are individual apps that must compete for our attention in a marketplace of other apps.

Apps don’t have to be standalone; the best way to think of Jewish apps is like the Jewish version of Google’s G Suite, which includes Gmail, Google Docs, Google Calendar and more. So while you can use just the mikve app or the High Holidays apps, as an interconnected collection, Jewish apps have more power and meaning. They share features, interfaces and data more effectively.

Now, to be sure, Judaism as an operating system is alive and well in the ultra-Orthodox world, where the very idea that elements of Jewish Law could be conceived of as optional is laughable. But for most Jews around the world, Judaism has long since stopped functioning as an operating system – the apps have taken over.

Libenson and Rofes ask on the Judaism Unbound podcast: is this good or bad for the Jews? Does an app-oriented Judaism dilute Jewish tradition so much that users will eventually delete their apps? Or is this the only way for Judaism to survive in the 21st century?

I’d like to ask a parallel question: How is the app analogy impacted when the operating system is not Judaism but the Jewish State? Let’s call it IOS – the Israel Operating System.

Much of the intra-Jewish conflict in Israel today is really about whether our operating system here is religion or the state. If the operating system is run by halacha, there’s no need to think in terms of individual apps: everything’s included and mandatory.

But if the operating system is the state, there’s opportunity for different apps to compete. Will you download the Reform, Conservative, Reconstructionist, Jewish Renewal, Secular Humanist or Orthodox version of the chuppah app? Can all the Jewish conversion apps exchange “files” seamlessly?

Are there benefits to downloading more than one version of an app, the way that I sometimes use Gmail and sometimes Microsoft Outlook? Is Zionism its own app or an integral part of IOS? Are cultural activities – Israeli theater, music, museums – apps, too?

In a Jewish app world, the Western Wall egalitarian plaza dispute would vanish because there would be no single app for how to pray in Jerusalem. There would be separate apps for kosher supervision from the Israeli Rabbinate, the Hashgahat Pratit organization and others. Users would choose the ones they prefer and trust.

Jewish apps would be cross platform, able to run on multiple operating systems, but I would argue that apps running on the Israeli Operating System would be the most efficient, able to take advantage of a common set of tools, APIs, and ready-made code.

Apps are democratic. If no one uses a particular app, you write a new one. The development environment for Jewish apps must be more “open source” than proprietary. Jewish apps of the future should be crowdsourced as well as crowdfunded.

The goal then shifts from legislating Judaism to making our Jewish apps attractive enough that people will want to keep them open all the time, on the front page of their virtual Jewish community smartphones.

Unbundling Jewish apps from the operating system won’t be easy – particularly in Israel, where religion and state have become hopelessly intertwined. We may need the release of a substantially “new version” of the Israel Operating System, one that can run both old and new apps smoothly. Crashes will be inevitable although rebooting regularly should optimize performance.

But it can be done. We have no choice. We live in an app, app, app, app world.

I first compared apps and operating systems at The Jerusalem Post.

Blurred iPhone image from Daniel Zanetti via Wikimedia Commons

{ 0 comments }

Former Google engineer Chade-Meng Tan had one of the most unusual titles in Silicon Valley. His business card read simply “Jolly Good Fellow” followed by the tag line “which nobody can deny.”

Tan earned his title in part by developing a course at the search engine giant in meditation and “mindfulness” – what Dr. Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of the Center for Mindfulness in Medicine, Health Care, and Society at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, describes as “paying attention in a particular way: on purpose, in the present moment, and non-judgmentally.” Tan’s seven-week class became so popular that there was a half-year long waiting list to get in.

Tan went on to write the best-selling Search Inside Yourself: The Unexpected Path to Achieving Success, Happiness (and World Peace), before leaving Google to found a company of his own. His goal: to take the Google mindfulness-for-the-corporate-world approach on the road.

That approach – which Tan’s Search Inside Yourself organization describes as “a highly interactive course that blends evidence-based mindfulness, emotional intelligence and neuroscience” – came to Israel recently, courtesy of Yaakov Lehman, who has his own creative title – Chief Executive Integrator – at Wisdom Tribe, a local group that seeks “to build a bridge between ancient Jewish wisdom and the global mindfulness movement.”

On two warm spring days in the Wix Business Hub at the picturesque Tel Aviv Port, 70 people paid upwards of $1,000 each to learn how adopting the principles of mindfulness can turn them into more productive and better engaged managers at work.

As someone who has participated in half a dozen more traditional meditation retreats, I wanted to see whether Tan’s system could teach in two days what it usually takes a week (or a lifetime, really) to achieve.

The answer is mixed.

Search Inside Yourself (SIY) Tel Aviv was led by two enthusiastic facilitators who presented a kind of “Mindfulness Greatest Hits,” backed up by lots of scientific research and studies, all wrapped in the language of business.

The latter is deliberate. As Tan writes in his book, “Being very skeptical and scientifically minded, I would be deeply embarrassed to teach anything without a strong scientific basis.” But that worked to his advantage. “My engineering-oriented brain helped me translate teachings from the language of contemplative traditions into language that compulsively pragmatic people like me can process.”

Everything you’d learn in a week-long retreat is there – sitting meditation, focusing on your breath, guided body scan, gratitude, mindful eating. But with time so limited and with most of the participants new to mindfulness, everything was compacted into short-attention span bites.

So instead of a half hour silent sit, the instructors would give a 30-minute lecture, complete with PowerPoint slides, followed by a mere five-minute practice session.

There were also activities that seemed more like something you’d learn in a self-help workshop – or maybe in a marriage counseling session. Like “mindful listening” (where one side talks for two minutes while the other says nothing). Or “mindful conversations” (where your partner adds a few key phrases at the end, like “What I heard you say was…” then the two sides switch).

The traditional “loving kindness” practice, where you silently envision people to whom you want to beam good wishes, was transformed into a kind of couple’s exercise where you gaze into your partner’s eyes while channeling blessings. It’s effective but also unnervingly intimate, especially with someone you just met. I’m used to the custom practiced by many on meditation retreats where people avoid any eye contact whatsoever.

All this points to perhaps the biggest distinction between SIY and a silent retreat – it’s not silent. Participants are encouraged to share their reactions with the group after each exercise. Lunch was burgers and networking. Phones are discouraged but not banned.

At a silent retreat, you’re exhorted not to read or write – even privately in your own room at night. At SIY, however, there was a “journaling” exercise where we were told to write down our answers to several prompts, like “my biggest challenge is…” or “things that give me pleasure are…”

None of this is right or wrong, better or worse – just different. As one of the two facilitators, Lori Schwenbeck, who flew in from California, said, “we are operationalizing mindfulness for business.”

It seems to be working.

Nathalie Garson, a Jerusalem-based strategist and business coach, debated whether to attend Search Inside Yourself. “I practice meditation and I’ve been to India, but I found that it was disconnected from my professional practice. Google and mindfulness are two words not usually connected.”

Since attending the seminar, Garson says she has started integrating mindfulness into her consulting work. “It’s really helped empower some of my clients with business decisions they had to make,” she says.

SIY is full of useful tips for business.

If you’re triggered by someone at work and tempted to respond quickly, practice “SBNRR.” Stop. Breathe. Notice where you’re at. Reflect on what you really want to say. Then finally you can Respond. It works in person and for email, too.

Want to develop compassion for a difficult business colleague? Here’s another acronym: “JLM” for “Just Like Me.” Think to yourself: “This person has a body and a mind, feelings, emotions and thoughts, just like me. This person wants to be free from pain and suffering, just like me.”

When you arrive at a business meeting, encourage everyone to do a one-minute “check-in” before jumping into the agenda. One doesn’t automatically shed the lingering effects of a difficult commute, a contentious previous meeting or a tricky project just because the door has closed and the room has been called to order.

SIY has the potential to reach many more people than a traditional mindfulness program for another reason – and it’s a biggie: it’s the kind of seminar you can get your work to pay for – or bring in-house.

“I’d recommend that companies offer Search Inside Yourself internally, more than as something offered for the public” as it was in Tel Aviv, Garson says. “It would be more productive if you do it with people from your own team.”

SIY founder Chade-Meng Tan says the potential goes beyond just work.

“I believe the skills offered here will help create greater peace and happiness in your life and the lives of those around you, and that peace and happiness can ultimately spread around the world,” he writes in his latest book, one of several self-help Search Inside Yourself titles.

Thich Nhat Hanh, the Vietnamese Buddhist leader once said, “The most precious gift we can offer anyone is our attention.”

Two days of “searching inside yourself” in a business setting is an excellent way to start the process of honing that quality.

I first compared mindfulness and meditation retreats at The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

It was Friday night, and as I was preparing to say the Shabbat kiddush – the traditional sanctification of the wine – one of our guests made a surprising request: “Could I, um, make my own kiddush?”

The question seemed innocent enough, but I knew what he was getting at. It was not that he had the minhag (custom) of reciting the kiddush for himself, as some people do. Rather, he was not comfortable with me taking on the obligation of doing the kiddush for him – I wasn’t an observant enough Jew by his halachic standards.

I sat in silence for a moment, saddened and stung at being spiritually dissed yet still wanting to be respectful and wondering what (if anything) I should say in return.

“Of course,” my wife, Jody, jumped in, reaching over and handing him a kiddush cup and bottle of grape juice.

After dinner, Jody and I discussed what happened.

“Why do you care so much?” she asked. “You don’t believe the words in the kiddush. You don’t even like saying them that much. Why get so upset if someone else wants to take that on for the night?”

Jody was right: Since my observance has waned, I’ve tiptoed along a spiritual tightrope, in some cases scrupulously adhering to the traditions I followed for so many years, in others, blazing a personal path toward unorthodox authenticity. In this delicate dance, my choices and public displays of Judaism are not always logical.

My kiddush crisis triggered another, deeper question: What do you do when the words you’re saying don’t match your internal belief system?

It’s not just the kiddush – it’s all of Jewish prayer, with its supernatural implications, that no longer speak to me. Even the sing-along chants of Kabbalat Shabbat at Jerusalem’s Nava Tehila, that most non-judgmental of minyanim, are written in language that reflects an “immanent” conception of the divine that I used to find seductive but, as I hinted at in my most recent column, now seems archaic and out of touch.

I’ve come up with three responses to this liturgical dissonance.

One is simply not to say words I don’t relate to. Let Jody or a guest say the kiddush for everyone. Hum along when I go to shul. Meditate if I find myself at Ma’ariv (the evening prayer).

A second response: change the words. I have a friend who’s written his own version of the kiddush in Hebrew and English. He sings it with great passion, yet while I admire his creativity and lack of self-consciousness, it’s always sounded strange to me.

A third option: still say the traditional words but think something else. There is precedent for such an approach: “You yourselves saw that I spoke to you from the very heavens,” God says to the Israelites in the Book of Exodus, mixing two senses at once.

How might this work? Here are a few examples from the Shabbat service.

On Friday night, when we say the “Mi Kamocha” – who is like you among the heavenly powers? – just a single word reinterpreted makes all the difference. Not who is mighty, but what is mighty becomes an opportunity to reflect on power and its proper use in the world.

In the next paragraph, the concluding line, ga’al Yisrael – a reminder of past (and a prayer for future) supernatural redemptions of the Jewish people – has always rubbed me the wrong way. Poet and liturgist Marcia Falk has a beautiful alternative rendering in her Book of Blessings, where we save the world through our own “positive actions that correct and undo human wrongs [specifically] from the forces of narrow self-interest that have led to wide-spread injustice, social and economic inequities, violence, waste of resources and destruction of the environment.”

You can pick out a line or two from within a longer section to focus your reinterpretation.

At the end of Kabbalat Shabbat, in the psalm “Mizmor Shir L’yom Hashabbat,” there are two powerful phrases:

1) Tov l’hodot – it is good to thank the Lord – can be seen as a broader connection to thankfulness and the power of gratitude; we continue that theme at home with a Friday night “gratitude circle,” replacing the traditional “Eshet Hayil,” the Shabbat song of praise for a wife.

2) Tzadik k’tamar yifrah, which refers to the righteous who will “flourish like a palm tree,” to me emphasizes the value of being grounded rather than having one’s head “up in the clouds” – a reminder that Jewish Law (however you connect to it) must be practical, not just theoretical.

As for the kiddush itself, which starts with a passage from the Book of Genesis, recounting how God created the world in six days, my best response has been to relate to it as pure poetry, a metaphoric lead-in to the humanistic value of unplugging from work once a week and spending time with family.

There are some cases where I embrace changing words. For example, I replace baruch ata Adonai – blessed are thou, Lord – with nodeh b’ta’almot ha’haim, which can be translated as “let us acknowledge the mysteries of life,” a true statement no matter what you believe, as long as human knowledge remains necessarily limited. But I always say it to myself silently (washing before bread, for instance), never as part of a public blessing.

Maybe I should – say it out loud when I recite kiddush, and at the same time encourage guests to say their own version if they wish. This would be both authentic and respectful.

I first wrote about words and belief in The Jerusalem Post.

Kiddush cup image by Shalom Gurewicz (Flickr: 293 JUDAICA LECHAIM) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

{ 0 comments }

“It’s just an accident that we happen to be on earth, enjoying our silly little moments, distracting ourselves as often as possible so we don’t have to really face up to the fact that, you know, we’re just temporary people with a very short time in a universe that will eventually be completely gone. And everything you value, whether it’s Shakespeare, Beethoven, da Vinci or whatever, will be gone” – Woody Allen.

“Well it may be the devil or it may be the Lord, but you’re gonna have to serve somebody” – Bob Dylan.

Those two quotes helped frame what was for me an eye-opening Shavuot night lecture. Delivered by Dr. Elliot Malamet, co-founder of the Torah in Motion organization, the talk had the provocative title, “What We Talk About When We Talk About God.”

Malamet presented two competing concepts of the divine – a binary distinction that comes with a real-world twist. The first is the “transcendent” consideration of God, represented by the Woody Allen quote, where there is no connection whatsoever between God and humanity.

The transcendent God, says Malamet, does not interact with our world, does not listen to or answer prayers, does not create or destroy. As a result, a transcendent God cannot want anything of us, nor can we claim to know what God desires. It may not be an accident that we’re here, as Allen says, but if there is a meaning to our everyday earthly activities, it’s not coming from God.

The second concept is a God of “immanence,” one where human beings do have a personal relationship with a God who is involved in our daily affairs, rewarding good and punishing evil. An immanent God enables religious life to happen, with all of the rituals that come with it. To paraphrase Dylan, it’s a lot harder to “serve” a transcendent God who can’t tell you why (or even if) you should keep kosher.

Both conceptions have support in Jewish philosophy, but I was surprised by some of the big-name support for a transcendent God.

No less a scholar than Maimonides wrote in the 12th century, “There is no relation in any respect between Him and any of His creatures.” It’s like comparing “distance” and “smell.” There is no overlap “between 100 cubits and the heat which is in pepper,” Maimonides continues in his Guide for the Perplexed. Any statement attributed to God by a human being “has merely been invented by his imagination.”

Professor Yeshayahu Leibowitz picks up on Maimonides and intensifies it.

“Our source of information is science,” Leibowitz, the biochemist and iconoclastic religious thinker, wrote in Judaism, Human Values and the Jewish State in 1992. “To the extent that we possess any real knowledge, it is by way of scientific cognition…God did not reveal Himself, neither in nature, nor in history. [Faith] is an evaluative decision [that] does not result from any information one has acquired.”

Even Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, the first chief rabbi of mandatory Palestine, has written in support of transcendence. “In relation to the highest truth, there is no difference between formulated religion and heresy. Both do not yield the truth.”

To be sure, the sources Malamet picked were not exhaustive of every direction expressed through thousands of years of Jewish thought. (The Bible exudes a very hands-on perception of God, he pointed out.) But I found myself – like Malamet – trending towards the transcendent.

The next day, at Shavuot lunch, I asked our guests which conception of God they most related to. There was silence at first, but then tentatively, one after another responded “transcendent.”

And that’s the twist – this way of thinking creates a paradox for those observant Jews who believe in their hearts in a transcendent God but still want an immanent kind of relationship. They want to believe that the reason they keep Shabbat is because God said so; that when they take three steps forward in prayer, there’s someone on the other side. Why should they follow religious rules if they’re simply “invented by the imagination,” as Maimonides says?

Leibowitz has an answer: “Performance of the mitzvot is man’s path to God,” he writes, even though it’s “an infinite path, the end of which is never attained and is, in effect, unattainable.”

Maimonides argues similarly – that you can move closer to a transcendent God, even if you can never quite get there. But it’s brains over halacha for the Rambam. “Providence is proportional to the endowment of the intellect,” he writes in The Guide.

I asked Malamet, who is observant, how he squares his own circle.

“Although enormous swaths of Judaism are humanly constructed,” he told me, “I do believe in a minimal metaphysical encounter between God and humans, with human beings then given great leeway to define and redefine the divine will.”

When confronted with the question of meaning, Woody Allen quipped that “the best you can do to get through life is distraction.”

Faith is another response, Malamet says. “Just because it is not empirical or material, does not make it invalid.”

Ultimately, he adds, “one makes one’s way through life with far less than full information. I think religion can be a very good force in the world, but because I do not think God is provable, I am a fierce proponent of freedom for all. All modern acts are voluntary. We need to reconstruct the conversation we have about religion keeping that in mind.”

I first wrote about transcendent and immanent conceptions of God at The Jerusalem Post.

{ 0 comments }

The women of Jacob’s Ladder: indie artists rock the Sea of Galilee

June 4, 2017

The 41st annual Jacob’s Ladder music festival was characterized by two surprises: the event’s first-ever thunderstorm and a standout preponderance of indie folk acts fronted by women.

Read the full article →

Why live in Israel?

April 30, 2017

Why do Jews live in Israel? That was the question Jerusalem Post editor Yaakov Katz asked in his Friday column two weeks ago. With Yom Ha’atzmaut just around the corner, it’s a question we should all be asking ourselves. Katz sets up – and then deconstructs – two answers popular in recent years with Israeli […]

Read the full article →

Finding your place: New Haggadah makes Passover personal

April 16, 2017

I’m a Haggadah hoarder. Over the years, our family has collected dozens of different Haggadot for the Passover holiday. They range from the highly traditional to the decidedly modern. We have classic Haggadot with commentaries from the Me’am Lo’ez (originally written in Ladino by Rabbi Yaakov Culi in 1730), Rabbi Marcus Lehman of Mainz (late […]

Read the full article →

Transforming FOMO to JOMO on the road

April 7, 2017

FOMO is the “Fear of Missing Out.” The antidote: JOMO – “Joy of Missing Out.” But what’s ROMO? And how do you move from one to the other?

Read the full article →

Is “Foreign Language Learning Disability” real?

April 6, 2017

Fluent in English but can’t seem to master a second language? You may have Foreign Language Learning Disability. That’s my experience with Hebrew

Read the full article →