Friday, December 28, 2012

Exodus through the Looking Glass: Parshat Sh'mot

I wrote last week about an interpretation of Exodus that compares slavery in Egypt to living under a totalitarian regime:
...Zornberg shows me a) that it is well grounded in traditional rabbinic texts,  b) that it lets us honor Jewish women as agents of redemption and c) that we can appreciate sensuality as a realm of freedom even--perhaps especially--in times that try our souls.
How is it grounded in rabbinic texts?  Intricately, and with too much care, attention, and detail for me to summarize here.  The idea that Zornberg returns to again and again is that there is a real question whether the Jews are worthy to be redeemed, and whether they can see themselves as worthy--a play on the double meaning of the Hebrew word ra'uy.  

How are women agents of redemption in Exodus?  By making men see themselves as worthy: that is, desirable!  She cites a midrash to the effect that after Pharoah decreed that the Israelite men should work in the fields, and not sleep at home with their wives:
Said Rabbi Shimeon bar Chalafta, What did the daughters of Israel do?  They would [buy wine] and go to the fields and feed their husbands....And when they had eaten and drunk, the women would take the mirrors and look into them with their husbands, and she would say "I am more comely than you," and he would say "I am more comely than you."  And as a result, they would accustom themselves to desire, and they were fruitful and multiplied.... (p. 57)
Mirrors are not mere vanity: they make us look at ourselves and find each other delightful.  Sensuality is not a sin: it is an affirmation of me and you, life, and the possibility of a future.  How can we imagine that God desires us if we do not desire each other?  And if we can see what is "comely" in ourselves despite toil, separation, subjugation, and contempt, we can hold out hope that the oppressors have it wrong, and that we will yet be free.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

Reading Exodus in a New Way

The Exodus is about to begin again.  On January 5, to be precise.

Jews read the five books of Moses, or Torah, every week, in a yearly cycle.  It so happens that on the first Saturday of 2013, we read the very first portion of the book of Exodus.

It takes a mental leap to put ourselves in a place no one is yet calling Egypt, with an enslaved group of people, no one is yet calling Jews, over three thousand years ago.  Often, people in the U.S. try to imagine it by using as a guide the experience of the enslaved people closest to us, whose history we know the best: Africans captured and brought to the United States.  We know the songs,"Go Down Moses" and all the songs that say "Look Over Jordan," that explicitly connect the Negro slaves with the Israelites.  We know the speeches of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr. in which he refers to the Exodus and the Promised Land (too many to count).

But Avivah Zornberg, in The Particulars of Rapture, takes us to a different time and place: Eastern Europe under Communist Party rule.  Instead of King and gospel, she invokes Vaclav Havel, and Milan Kundera's The Unbearable Lightness of Being.  Putting ourselves in the place of the enslaved Africans let us feel the pain of the lash and the load on our shoulders.  Putting ourselves in the place of the citizens of a totalitarian state, we focus instead on what it takes to maintain inner freedom: to know that we are not just slaves, not simply parts of a whole.

For me, this is a new approach.   I welcome it all the more because Zornberg shows me a) that it is well grounded in traditional rabbinic texts,  b) that it lets us honor Jewish women as agents of redemption and c) that we can appreciate sensuality as a realm of freedom even--perhaps especially--in times that try our souls.  More on this to come: stay tuned.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Social Cohesion: It's a Gift

Marcel Mauss' classic The Gift is a time capsule left to us from another era, and yet it is still widely quoted today. I think there are two types of people who cite its authority. 

The cynics take Mauss to be saying that there are no disinterested gifts: that all presents and sacrifices are intended to show off the giver's power and put the recipient in the  giver's  debt.  You can find traces of this argument in the book, certainly.  But Mauss would say that this is missing the point, and missing it in a way that's peculiar to modern society.

His larger argument is that gift-giving is not at base a personal but a social act.  In what he calls "archaic societies," that is self-evident.  People in those societies are engaged in a constant circulation of gifts.  Sometimes it is cooperative and friendly.  Sometimes it is competitive and even aggressive.  Often, it is both.  But the expectation that gifts will be given, accepted, and reciprocated binds people together.  Mauss insinuates that we still act like that in our supposedly individualistic societies much more than we let on...and to the extent that we have abandoned the ways of earlier social systems, he thinks we ought to see about bringing them back.

Socialists have liked Mauss' book for its insistence that the self-interested, calculating actor in the dramas written by economists is a recent invention.  That implies to some (including Mauss) that we could easily reinvent ourselves.  To me, that is far too optimistic.  Social change does not happen just because people like old ways better.  The ways we live, we are forced to live by the institutions we have to live under.  But at least it gives the lie to the ideology that people just have to be motivated by economic self-interest now and forever.  "Cast thy bread upon the waters and it shall return to thee in many days" is not a business plan.  It is a hopeful moral statement about how we should live.

Saturday, October 27, 2012

The Particulars of Rapture

I'm only fifty pages in, but already I can tell that The Particulars of Rapture: Reflections on Exodus is going to be one of those books that stays with me for life.  Let's just start with the title.
Two things of opposite natures seem to depend

On one another, as a man depends

On a woman, day on night, the imagined

On the real.  This is the origin of change.

Winter and spring, cold copulars, embrace

And forth the particulars of rapture come. 

(Wallace Stevens)
So Avivah Zornberg calls our attention to the ways the Exodus text works deeply in our minds. It has hidden elements on which the meaning of the whole depends: for instance, the deeply important role of women in a narrative that on its surface is about Moses, Aaron, Pharaoh, and a masculine God.  Our job as readers (and as Jews) is to pay attention to both, the revealed and the hidden, to make meaning come forth like new life in the growing season.

I could quibble about the metaphysics of this.  Instead, let me appreciate the poetics.  "Embrace" is just what I have done with Torah over the year, and "rapture" (which is always particular) is just what I have felt when I have felt that, for the moment, I understood.  The passion of these words is true to life.  As Arthur Waskow has written, reading Torah is wrestling with the text, and with God's own self, and "wrestling feels a lot like making love."

For my friends who ask why I would spend so much time with an ancient text, here's an answer.  It's erotic.  It's the life force of the universe breaking out in words.  Why wouldn't I embrace it?

Saturday, October 13, 2012

And When It Is Too Hard, Cry Out!

Suffering in silence is not a Jewish virtue.

When our ancestors were slaves in Egypt, according to the book of Exodus:

The Israelites were groaning under the bondage and cried: their shriek for help from the bondage rose up to God.  God heard their moaning, and God remembered His covenant with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  God looked upon the Israelites, and God knew. (2:23-25)
Avivah Zornberg, in The Particulars of Rapture, points out that there are four synonyms for crying out here, in the short space of two sentences.  And God responds in four ways.  God hears, remembers, sees, and knows.    Our silence is what had allowed God to "hide God's face"--a terrifying expression the Rabbis use for "the human experience of being abandoned by God"--up to that moment.  Our crying out is what evokes God's response: a response of empathy and compassion. 

"And God knew."  What did God know that God, in God's omniscience, had supposedly not known before? At the Burning Bush, God tells Moses this: "For I knew their pain" (Exodus 3:7).  In Christian  thought, it takes divinity being incarnated in human form for God to know human pain.  For Jews, all it takes is an anguished cry by us, frail human beings.

All it takes?  What am I saying?  How easy is it to speak of our deepest pain, to recognize how far we are from freedom?  Far easier to dull one's pain, but far more dangerous as well.  Zornberg writes (paraphrasing the commentary Sefath Emeth):

The basic requirement of freedom ("redemption") is the awareness of "exile," the groan of conscious alienation.  To be in exile and not feel it--this needs a "great salvation."
Some biblical commentators trust that God will give us the capacity to feel our oppression and to cry out against it.  I grew up with the saying that God helps those who help themselves.  Suffering in silence is not a Jewish virtue.  Crying out against injustice is, and always has been, since the days of Pharaoh.  There is plenty of injustice today.  Let us not be silent!

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

What "Means Testing" Means for Average Americans

Usually, giving more to people who have less already is considered a progressive idea.  But according to today's Boston Globe:
  1. Romney wants to give fewer Social Security and Medicare dollars to higher-income people.
  2. Obama wants to keep  the benefits the same but make higher-income people pay more for them up front, in taxes.
  3. Many progressives don't want to see either!  How can this be?
 "Means testing"--basing our eligibility for benefits on our income or wealth--is a great idea in the abstract.  Why give either millionaire who's running for President any benefits that they don't really need, for instance?  We could certainly find other uses for the money.

Historically, though, Social Security and Medicare were popular precisely because everyone paid in and everyone took out.  These "social insurance" programs look more like cooperative saving for the future than like handouts, and that's made them politically strong.  When Tea Party types hold signs that say, "Keep your government hands off my Social Security," they are terribly confused (since Social Security IS a government program)--but at the same time, they are showing how powerful the appeal of universal programs can be.

Means testing Social Security and Medicare would make them look more like programs for the poor, including food stamps, Medicaid, and TANF.  Now, I am all in favor of these programs, but many Americans are not.  So, means testing the programs would deprive them of political support.  That's why many progressives will fight to keep them universal--even if that means an older Mitt Romney and Barack Obama will be entitled to Medicare.

Thursday, October 4, 2012

Can't Eat? Probably Won't Learn

Stop blaming the teachers.  The biggest education reform this country could undertake would be to make sure all students have a place to live, enough food to eat, and the other necessities of a dignified life in the U.S.

Saturday, September 15, 2012

It Is Not Too Hard for Us: A High Holy Day Message

It was the Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah, but at Temple B'nai Brith, my friend Rick Silberman was already looking toward Yom Kippur--and in particular, the Kol Nidre prayer that forms the heart of the service on Yom Kippur eve.

All vows. bonds, promises, obligations, and oaths [to God] wherewith we have vowed, sworn, and bound ourselves from this Day of Atonement unto the next Day of Atonement, may it come to us for good; lo, of all of these, we repent us in them.  They shall be absolved, released, annulled, made void, and of none effect. they shall not be binding nor shall they have any power.  Our vows [to God} shall not be vows; our bonds shall not be bonds; and our oaths shall not be oaths.

According to Rick, it seems as if the rationalists of the Jewish tradition have always had a problem with Kol Nidre.  We are encouraged not to make vows at all--wouldn't that be better than annulling them in advance?  Some, like Mordechai Kaplan, wanted to remove Kol Nidre altogether, and only agreed to leave it in with the proviso that the vows we were breaking were harmful ones, like "I swear I'll never talk to that mamzer again!"  Others, like Rick's father Charles Silberman, recommended keeping it because the emotional meaning of the prayer was more important than the words themselves.  Rick did a fine job of explaining that even the words have meaning.  We are finite beings who strive toward transcendence, he said, and inevitably, we fall short.  We need to recognize our limits and forgive ourselves in order to keep on striving.

Please forgive me, Rick and other rationalist philosophers, but I think the anxiety about the language of Kol Nidre is completely unnecessary.  Of course, we are not using the prayer to let ourselves off the hook easily.  We're Jews, famously ridden with guilt about the ways that we fall short!    And we are not concerned with our metaphysical finitude.  Our personal shortcomings are very real to us.  We are tempted to despair, to give up on ourselves as agents of change in this sadly imperfect world.  We need to know that just as we are, we are still important, and our actions still matter. 

In today's Torah portion, Nitzavim, one of my favorites in the Five Books, there is a beautiful passage (Deuteronomy 30:11-14) that gives me heart.

For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off.  It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?' But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.
This passage has many meanings, all of them important.  At this time, I would point out just one: that we do not have to be perfect--we do not even have to live up to all of our own aspirations--to be God's partners in perfecting the world.  It is not too hard for us.  We just have to do it...and fail, and fail, and keep on doing it.  That is how we succeed.

As for the sins?  The same Kol Nidre service quotes God:  "I have forgiven according to thy word."  Or, as I would translate the same passage, "You had me at 'Please forgive me.'"

Let's all celebrate our human strengths and imperfections and bring them to bear on doing good work in the new year.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Best Use of Authority is to Share It

The best use of authority is to share it.

In previous posts, I've shown how the story of Korach contains a lot more than a challenge to authority and the way the challengers are punished.  When we read it with enough attention, Korach gives us encouragement to pay attention to rebels and dissenters.  They can "speak with authority"--meaning two things: they can speak to the recognized leaders as peers, and they can speak like someone who knows what they're talking about, someone to whom we should pay attention.

How do we make sure that challenging voices are heard?  Partly, of course, by our own commitment as individuals to listen to what bothers us most.  Partly, as Jews, by an understanding of what I have called our "heckling tradition", in which it's possible to be reverent in a most irreverent way...and in which minority opinions (like those of Shammai in his famous disputes with Hillel) can also be "the words of the living God."

It takes more than a moral commitment to include dissenters, however.  To be sure we won't do what's convenient instead of what's right--shut people out instead of listening to them--we need institutions that force us to do the right thing.

In the history of the Zionist movement, people knew this.  They also understood that they could not afford permanently to alienate other factions, no matter how bitterly they disputed.  They wrote rules for making decisions that gave a voice to groups from all over the world and all over the political spectrum.  We can see the influence of these rules in the Israeli Knesset today.  True, a small faction can hold up proceedings, or exercise power disproportionate to its size.  That is the price you pay for making sure they are not shut out altogether.

Groups can also operate either by consensus, by near-consensus, or by voting rules that recognize the outsized interest a group can have in an issue that touches its members more closely than anyone else.  Think what a difference it would make if legislation about women's health, including reproductive rights, had to get a majority of the women in Congress in order to pass!

We can (and should!) debate the exact nature of the institutions.  What we can learn from Parshat Korach, in the end, is that when a large part of the population feels excluded from the political process, things will end in violence.  It is not up to God to prevent or to punish these outbreaks.  It is the responsibility of those in power to make them unnecessary.

Saturday, August 11, 2012

Review of The Networked Nonprofit:Connecting with Social Media to Drive Change

Beth Kanter and Allison Fine have a warning and a promise for nonprofits.  The warning: with the rise of social media (and a generation that's used to quick and transient support for the cause of the moment), your old models are not going to work much longer.  Don't count on gaining new supporters who will be loyal for life.  If you don't adapt, you're toast.

The promise: if you narrow your work, open your books, and collaborate with other agencies and key individual actors, using social media, you may be able to get more done than ever before.

The book is full of real-life examples and checklists to help you put its lessons into practice.  Some of the examples are negative, like the organization that didn't want to let its young professionals group create a Facebook page that the organization didn't control.  (We should be happy if people want to spend time talking about our organizations!) Others are positive, like Planned Parenthood's use of its website and pages on Facebook and MySpace to let "individuals share their personal stories in their own words, images, and videos."  On the website, they keep readers up to date with current thinking and provide more tools.

The Networked Nonprofit also includes helpful chapters on how (and how not to) use crowdsourcing, learning loops, online fundraising, and online tools for governance of your organization.

I do have some reservations about the book.  One assumption behind it is that the Millennial generation, or Generation Y, will keep on surfing from cause to cause and not form abiding loyalties to particular organizations as Baby Boomers like me have done.  I distinctly remember acting the same way when I was in my twenties and thirties--even without the aid of the World Wide Web.  As my dear wife Rona Fischman says, people create their own grooves and fall into them.  I am not sure that's going to change.  But that means it's even more important to meet young supporters in their chosen media, on their terms, now, so they will stick with us in the future.

The other reservation is about "Sticking to what they do best."  This is Kanter and Fine's idea of how you become more effective AND become a good citizen of the "ecosystem" of groups working on your issue.  They say:

A common refrain within nonprofit organization and by nonprofit staffers is, "How can I make my life simpler when I have so much to do?"  The answer is, well, simple: You have too much to do because you do too much.  (p.89)
I have a lot of respect for the wisdom of this observation.  At the same time, social problems are complicated.  If each group sticks to what it does best, who's looking out for the whole?  The authors would probably say that if you're not trying to DO it all, you have time to engage in those strategic conversations.  They are refreshingly frank that "It's too soon to tell whether and how the outcomes of Networked Nonprofits differ from their predecessors...."  Anyone who is interested in finding out, however, should read this book.

Saturday, August 4, 2012

Challenges to Authority: How Do We Respond?

I said I would return to Korach “soon,” and that’s true—on a historical scale!  Yes, it’s a month later, and I am still thinking about what we can learn from Parshat Korach about the questions “When and how should we challenge authority, and how should authority respond?”

We live in a time in the history of the United States when it’s hard to be on the side of authority, or sometimes, even to take authority seriously.  After Vietnam and Watergate, after the lies that produced the Iraq War and the electoral frauds that may have produced two terms of the Bush presidency, when Congress and the media carry less prestige than lawyers and used-car salesmen, the claims of our elected officials are automatically suspect.  

For many of us, religious authorities can be just as hard to believe in.  You don’t have to be a “new atheist” like the late Alexander Cockburn.  Devout Catholics have been rocked by the sex abuse scandals and the institutional response to them.  Protestants have been dismayed by the Religious Right selling its soul to its corporate sponsors.  Jews, still after decades, denounce other Jews because we disagree with the Israeli government’s policies in Palestine (which to my mind are no better and probably worse than the U.S. occupation of Afghanistan).

Some would read Parshat Korach as a classic text of repression by religious authorities.  Challenge Moses & Aaron, and God will kill you:  end of story.  But we have already seen that that’s too simple a way of reading the story.  It leaves out Aaron’s nonviolent response (which David Matthews’ reading of Korach highlighted).  It leaves out the way the firepans of the rebellion become component parts of the altar (as Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook pointed out to champion healthy skepticism and challenges to tradition).  The vindictive reading of the story also leaves out the fact that many of the Psalms are attributed to the sons of Korach—who then clearly survived and continued to serve in the sanctuary.

What’s more, the vindictive reading leaves out the way that rabbinic Judaism has developed for two thousand years after the canon of the Torah was closed.  The rabbis found ways to justify harsh principles and ameliorate them in practice.  For instance, they found capital punishment in the Torah and explained why certain crimes deserved the harshest penalty of which we could conceive.  Yet when a case came up before the Sanhedrin in its capacity as high court, they would demand such extremely strong evidence as to make it impossible to carry out that penalty.  The Talmud tells us that if an execution happened once in seventy years, that court would be known as “the bloody Sanhedrin.”

How can we use authority to sustain the values that sustain us?  How can we incorporate challenges without simply repressing them or simply co-opting them?  More thoughts to follow in the conclusion of this series.

Sunday, July 1, 2012

Planning for the Impossible

 Could thinking about the impossible be useful for nonprofit organizations?

I'm enjoying reading Physics of the Impossible by Michio Kaku.  Will we ever have Star Wars-style light swords?  What about a Harry Potter-style invisibility cloak?  Discussing these questions, he manages to teach me a lot about electromagnetism and optics and the state of technology that I didn't know, and make it fun.

Kaku says there are three orders of impossibility.  Class I impossibilities are impossible today but "might be possible in this century, or perhaps the next, in modified form."   Class II impossibilities "sit at the very edge of our understanding of the physical world" and might be possible in "millennia to millions of years in the future."  Class III impossibilities are "technologies that violate the known laws of physics...If they do turn out to be possible, they would represent a fundamental shift in our understanding...."

What if we applied this framework to the challenges we face in running our organizations and achieving our missions?  (Of course the time scales wold have to be very different!)

Ask yourself: if what we want to do seems impossible now, what would it take to make it real?  If it's just funding, or a change in regulations, that might be a Class I impossibility--meaning not impossible at all for people as hopeful as people who work in nonprofits tend to be.  Figuring out the steps to get there and setting ourselves an attainable deadline might  embolden us to change what's possible, financially or politically.

If it's a change in society, it's a Class II impossibility: it might take the rest of our lives and then some.  But historically speaking, that's a very small time.  Ask yourself: Is the mission worth that kind of concentrated, persistent effort?  What will make that kind of effort possible?  What will sustain it for the time it takes?

And as for Class III impossibilities, it's good to be reminded that even things Einstein once thought impossible have been proven to be true.  Don't bet the organization on changes that violate the way you believe things are at a fundamental level.  But be hopeful, and be prepared.

A Questioning Tradition

On the walls of his classroom, one of my high school teachers displayed the following saying, which he attributed to the Koran: “Questions asked only to cause confusion do not need to be answered.” 

 If you read Parshat Korach the way my friend Larry Lennhoff does, then Korach’s questioning of authority was just that kind of confusion-sowing.  Larry wrote in response to my blog post of June 25:

Do you think Korach was sincere? I don't, and neither do most traditional rabbis. I think Korach and the others wanted to keep the idea of [hierarchy], but just place themselves at the top in the place of Moses, Aaron, and their close relatives.

I am willing to believe Korach was sincere.  Partly, I have seen too many sincere challenges to authority dismissed—and partly, I think taking Korach at his word lets us explore more interesting questions.  How and when should Jews challenge authority, including the authority of our own tradition?  How can the tradition adapt and learn from rebels and innovators?  Because that kind of adaptation and innovation is the only thing that keeps a tradition alive.

The Jewish tradition has adapted and changed a great deal over the centuries.   Rabbinic Judaism greatly modified the religious civilization described in Torah.  It had to.  With the Temple destroyed, a religion based on sacrifices conducted by a centralized caste-based priesthood could not have survived.  Prayer and Torah study replaced sacrifice, and in place of the Temple in Jerusalem, the rabbis gave us way of seeking holiness that we could carry out at home, from resting on Shabbat to keeping kosher throughout the year (and in different ways on Passover).

As I have studied it, rabbinic Judaism is a paradox: a bold and respectful tradition of hecklers.  
·         It’s bold because of the authority it claims for its adherents.  “All that a serious student will yet expound before his teacher has already been told to Moses at Sinai” (and has the force of revelation), says the Jerusalem Talmud, Peah 17:1. 

·         It’s respectful because to say something new, you have to study the old and come up with a connection to it, be that connection logical or highly creative, or both. 

·         It’s full of hecklers.  You can find one rabbi saying in the Talmud, “Any dayan (judge, interpreter) who judges that way is no judge!”, and find another responding, “Any dayan who judges that way is no judge!”
And yet it remains a tradition, not a set of schisms.  The 1st-century teachers Hillel and Shammai disagreed on every major ruling, down to whether you should light more candles as Chanukah goes on or fewer.  Both were highly influential teachers with many followers.  The followers could have grown apart, as Catholics and Protestants did in Christianity and Sunnis and Shi’ites did in Islam.  Instead, the next generation of rabbis found a way to keep them together.  “These AND these are the words of the living God,” they said.  In practice, we light candles the way Hillel told us to do.  To become wiser, we study Shammai as well as Hillel, seeing what we can learn from each.

This is one of the reasons the uncompromising attitude the text of Parshat Korach takes with the rebels poses such a problem for us today.  I will return to Korach soon, asking the question a different way:  when and how should we challenge authority, and how should authority respond?

Monday, June 25, 2012

"Elevator Speech" for People Talking about You

Many thanks to Joel Nitzberg for thoughtful advice on networking for a new job.  Many of us know that whether we are promoting our organizations or ourselves, we need an "elevator speech": a quick summary of who we are and how we can make a difference to the person whose attention we have for only as long as it would take for a short elevator ride. 

Joel said that if I ask him to help spread the word about me, I need to give him an elevator speech about me.  It should take the form of "You should talk to Dennis because here's what he can do for you."  What problem can I solve for the person he's speaking to?  Would hiring me help their agency grow--or even, survive?

Have you ever crafted an elevator speech for someone else to give on your behalf?  How did you do it, and how did it work out?

Building Rebellion In

I really enjoyed David Matthews’ reading of Korach that I told you about on Saturday.  David pointed out that when Korach and company challenged the authority of Moses and Aaron, and a jealous God struck out at the rebels, Aaron’s reaction was to bring healing and peace.  

It would be way too simple to stop there, however.  Aaron’s response still leaves Moses and Aaron’s authority intact, not dispersed or devolved to any of their followers.  And Korach’s folk have a good point when they say (in the Etz Hayim translation):

You have gone too far!  For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst.  Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?  (Numbers 16:3)

This is a point that Moses should recognize.  Only a few chapters earlier, when Moses appoints seventy elders, two of them refuse to be called, but then they are touched by the divine spirit despite themselves and start prophesying from their own tents, Moses’ aide, Joshua, says, “My lord Moses, restrain them!” But Moses wisely answers, “Are you wrought up on my account?  Would that all the Lord’s people were prophets!” (Numbers 11:28-29).  Furthermore, back at Sinai, Moses, Aaron, and all I Israel heard God say, “And you will be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”  (Exodus 19:6)  

It seems on the face of it that Korach and company are reminding Moses and Aaron of a basic principle.  Their contribution should be accepted, not dismissed and punished.  Rabbi Abraham Isaac Hacohen Kook, the 19th-century teacher who was the first Chief Rabbi of Palestine, goes even further: their contribution should be celebrated.  As the notes to Numbers 17:2-3 in Etz Hayim point out:

The firepans used by the rebels to offer incense have become sacred and are to be used as plating for the altar…Kook taught that the holiness of the firepans symbolizes the necessary roled played by skeptics and agnostics in keeping religion honest and healthy.  Challenges to tradition, he taught, are necessary because they stand as perpetual reminders of the danger that religion can sink into corruption and complacency…. 

David’s interpretation celebrated nonviolent resistance but quickly brushed by the fact that the rebels were really rebelling.  Rav Kook looks rebellion squarely in the eye and welcomes it.  His interpretation is part of the Judaism I love, which sees challenges to authority as part of our tradition, and a sacred duty.

And yet, and still: the firepans that the rebels used survive.  The rebels themselves do not.  Is this as far as we can go in questioning authority (not to mention sharing it?)  I think not.  There’s more to think about here.

Saturday, June 23, 2012

Back to the World of Work

A new week begins!  I'm looking forward to picking up Switch, by Chip and Dan Heath, again, and to starting The Networked Nonprofit by Beth Kanter and Allison Fine.  Beth is an old acquaintance from the Board of the Organizers' Collaborative who has gone on to share her savvy about social media in ways that help us all.  Since a student gave me a gift card for Porter Square Books, I went out and bought both books--but they are also in the libraries.  Have you read either book?  What did you learn from them?

Rebel, Rebel: a lesson from a bar mitzvah

Modern-day people have a hard time with Parshat Korach, the section of the Torah we read in synagogue today (Leviticus 16-18).  Korach is one of three tribal leaders who stand up to Moses and Aaron and accuse them of taking all the power and the glory for themselves.    The response?  God causes the ground to open up and swallow them and their supporters.  Impressive, but hardly an answer to the charge.

The next thing you know, the “whole Israelite community” blames Moses and Aaron: “You two have brought death upon the Lord’s people!”  The response?  More death.  Plague spreads through the camp and kills something like 2% of the entire population.  Only when Aaron stands “between the dead and the living” and burns incense as an atonement offering does the plague go away.

I want to think a lot more about this story and what we can learn from it about how to lead, how to rebel, and what makes a claim to exercise just and rightful authority valid from a Jewish perspective.  Expect a series of blog posts about that.  But first, let me share what David Matthews said at this bar mitzvah today at Temple B’nai Brith.  

David pointed out that even though Aaron was personally singled out for attack, he was the first to rush in and stop the violence of the plague from spreading.  This is consistent with what we hear about Aaron in other stories, where he is consistently pictured as a peacemaker.  David traced a line from Aaron to modern-day practitioners of nonviolence, including Mohandas Gandhi, the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and the vast majority of the Occupy movement.  In his view, they are all followers of Aaron.

What an ingenious interpretation!  David makes us look at Aaron (and to a lesser extent, Moses) as not just calling down divine wrath on people who oppose their authority.   He makes us see Aaron as the inspiration for generations of people who oppose authority, as well.  Yes, one person can be both.  Reality can be that complex. The Jewish tradition can contain resources for both authoritarian rule and rebellion.  And, a thirteen-year-old can be that acute.

Look for more in future posts.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Courage to Change, a lesson from a bat mitzvah

I have to paraphrase something I wrote at this time last year:  I have tutored a lot of bar and bat mitzvah students on Parshat Sh'lach Lecha, the portion of the Torah before the wandering in the wilderness when Moses sends twelve spies to scout out the promised land--but no one has ever talked about it the way Anna Carton-Smith did today at Temple B'nai Brith.  What is it about this parshah that gets such interesting readings out of thirteen-year-olds?

Anna gave me a completely new way to read the spies' majority report.  They told Moses:
All the people that we saw [there] are men of great size...and we looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them.  (Numbers 13: 32-33)
Anna hypothesized that it wasn't the physical stature of the Anakite residents of Canaan that made the Israelite spies feel small.  It was their freedom.  Unlike the former slaves who had just come out of Egypt, the people of Canaan were used to making decisions for themselves, and to dealing with the changes and challenges that life throws at all of us with the resources they had.

The Israelites were used to being told what to do.  They found every new and unfamiliar aspect of life in the wilderness disturbing--even when it was literally manna from heaven.  Looking at people who lived without masters, they trembled.  How small their own lives looked to them, and how gigantic the Canaanites' lives!

Perhaps Anna read the portion this way because adolescents face the grown-up world with some of the same trepidation that the spies brought with them to Canaan.  But I haven't yet met an adult who has completely grown out of that fear.  The courage to speak up (like Joshua and Caleb), to confront change, and to imagine that things can be different--and better--is something we can all seek, no matter what our age.

Friday, June 1, 2012

"Transparency is the New Black"

Review of Share This!

Deanna Zandt has written a wonderful guide to social networks for people who don't feel at home there.  She explains what's new about building relationships through Facebook, LinkedIn, Twitter and the like, and she encourages us all to participate. 

"Sharing is daring," she says.  By putting more of yourself out there, within limits that you consciously set, you increase your credibility with people who are just getting to know you.  As you become more well known, you win people's trust.  At the same time, she argues, sharing personal and professional information helps build a better world.  If someone reads and enjoys a tweet I send out about good communications AND they go to my blog and find my Jewish musings, then it registers that a person they respect can be serious about being Jewish (or gay, or a feminist, or...whatever you are.  Fill in the blank.)  It may be overstating things to say that this will change the world, as she does in her subtitle, but at least it will show what the world is already.

In any case, sharing more about ourselves is the direction we are all heading.  "Transparency is the new black."  So, better try it on and find a style of social networking that compliments you.  In the Resources section of the book, you'll find tips for individuals and tactics for organizations that she recommends.  Try a couple and see how they work for you.

Reading this book, I felt as if I were a traveler in a new and foreign country, with a helpful guide pointing out the landmarks and explaining local customs.  At the same time, paradoxically, I felt as if I'd come home.  Really being interested in other people, helping them with what they're doing, and offering them ways to help me too (or promote a cause we both care about): this is what I've always done.

Back in 1986, when Rona answered a personal ad I'd placed in a newspaper, I realized that we already had met through the local chapter of a progressive Jewish organization.  It would have been very awkward if I had kept that to myself and didn't tell her that right away when I wrote her back.  By letting her know, not only did I show that I cared about honesty in relationships right from the start.  I also (not realizing it at the time) let her see that she knew people who knew me and shared some of the same values that moved me.  That was the basis for beginning to trust me.  Reader, she married me. 

Organizations are also looking to woo people, and they will have to open up more to build lasting relationships with volunteers, supporters, donors, customers, or investors.  I would like to focus on helping them do it, online and off.

Monday, May 28, 2012

The First Step

I'm 55 pages into Deanna Zandt's Share This!  I've had two big surprises so far.  One is that the book has said very little about techniques or tactics for using social media: it's mainly about the attitude you bring to it.  I tried to summarize that attitude in my very first tweet:
Recipe for good conversation: Listen. Ask questions. Pay attention to answers. Contribute when you can keep the conversation going.
(And, I might add, be yourself.  Not necessarily your whole self, everywhere, all the time...but nothing but yourself.  People will trust you partly because you show you consider them trustworthy.)

Surprise #2: most of this is what I do already, face to face.  I would never dream of walking into a room and telling everybody, "Listen to me because what I have to say is the most important thing"--so why would I walk online and do that?  And on the positive side: I try to share information and ideas and make introductions that I thing people would benefit from.  Does it really matter whether I do that face to face, on the phone, by email, or on Facebook or LinkedIn?

What We Have Here is Tailored to Communicate

"Tell me a story."

Beginning in childhood, we all ask to hear stories.  They entertain us.  They delight us.  They help us make sense of a world that's been there before us and that's going on all around us, which we spend our lives trying to understand.  As adults, we discover new techniques for making sense of the world: measurements, statistics, correlations, theory.  Graphs and charts help us make discoveries.  Photos and artwork call our attention in ways words can't, and music touches us in places that words don't.  Still and all, when people mobilize to get things done, it's usually because we have seen ourselves as characters in a story.  The pictures, the numbers, and the words all come together and we see the present moment as part of an ongoing drama.  When the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., said, "The arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice," that was one of the shortest stories ever told...and one of the most compelling.

I've come to realize that in my work life, what I do best and what I like to do the most is to tell the story of an organization, to make its case, so that people want to devote their time, their money, their energy, their ideas to helping it succeed.  In my years at CAAS and in the nonprofit world, I've enjoyed many ways of communicating, from in-person and on-air interviews to written proposals, from helping Reflection Films produce a video about CAAS to helping Andy Metzger write articles about poverty for the Somerville Journal--and of course, writing this blog.

I'm starting a journey toward making Communications a bigger part of what I do every day.  Come along with me.  I'll share some of the sights and sounds and reflect on what I meet along the way.  Some of you may be experienced travelers who can give me tips for the journey and point out milestones as they pass.  All of you are welcome.