Thursday, March 20, 1997

The End of Modernity
Is It Good for the Jews?

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed
Erie, Pennsylvania

Item: In Muslim countries throughout the world, and in much of sub-Saharan Africa, the grisly ancient practice of female circumcision continues almost unabated despite laws banning it in many countries, with its practitioners solidly certain that destroying all women's ability to enjoy sexual intimacy is the key to reining in the wanton, libidinous passion of the flesh, and preserving fidelity in the home. Modern protests against this practice are branded as interference and cultural imperialism, and the sense of outsiders dictating morality from afar is used to unify a community, and belittle the questions that native women are starting to ask.

Item: In Oakland, California, a school board grapples with using Ebonics as a tool to teach English, and sets off a firestorm of protest in which unified standard education is subsumed under the hidden agendas of competing group interests.

Item: In the universities across our nation, individual departments decline in a rush towards the new Holy Grail of Interdisciplinary Studies. Multiculturalism is the word of the day, bringing diverse perspectives to all subjects. Physicists cite poetry; Literary Critics formulate methods in the light of Quantum Mechanics. Everyone is talking to everyone else, but is anyone saying anything?

What do these three items have to do with one another? What do any of these developments have to say about our lives as Jews towards the very end of what Christians call the twentieth century?

The answer is... they have everything to do with each other. They are all linked. And the stakes in seeing how they are different plants flowering from the same soil are high indeed.

On February 7th and 8th, Jews around the world read from Parashat Mishpatim, the detailed and diverse laws which come after the Ten Commandments. The word "mishpatim" means "judgements." Later rabbinic interpretation distinguished between "mishpatim" and "chukim," the former being those laws in the Torah which could be derived by human reason, the latter those laws, such as not combining wool and linen in a single garment, which are beyond the ken of human understanding, and had to be obeyed solely because they were given by God. This is an important distinction, used later by Jewish philosophers to defend the need for the Revelation at Sinai. It is a distinction sometimes oversimplified as a contrast between the ethical laws and the ritual regulations.

But my interest in the distinction between mishpatim and chukim has to do with the fact that the ancient rabbis believed that the mishpatim, given enough time and thought, the laws which were derivable by human reason, are derivable by reasoning people everywhere. That mishpatim are, in other words, the Jewish version of what would later come to be called Universal Law.

Universal Law. The idea is that there are some ethical standards that hold sway everywhere, in all times and all places, through all centuries, in all cultures and on all continents. But it is the very idea of the universal, the assumption of any shared vantage point for all human beings, that is being called into question in these waning years of the twentieth century. In some places it is examined. In other circles it is attacked. But the trends are the same. And the stakes are high. Our lives will change as a result of this debate. In some ways, I believe, they will change for the better.

We are poised at a monumental turning point in the history of ideas. We are at the end of an era. It is an era that began with Descartes and Kant, with Voltaire and Locke and Hobbes, with rationalism and reason, forged in revolutions in America and France, with the scientific method applied in all fields seeking to produce universal truth, and a sweeping sense of human history as moving inexorably forward in progress towards an inevitable climax of common good. Few notice its passing. Academicians write of its end in onerous tomes that are hard to follow. But the era called Modernity is over. The next stage in human intellectual thought is in full bloom. It is, paradoxically, called Postmodernism. And, whether we know it or not, it effects every one of us.

If we understand something about Postmodernism, we will understand much of what is going on around us, the surge of fundamentalism, the search for easy answers, the rise of the religious right, the perseverance of nationalism, the return to tradition, even the OJ Simpson trials, to mention just a few things.

What is "Postmodernism?" It began in the art world as an eclectic trend, a mixing of styles, a revolt against any single style. But it has spread from art to the academy, from science to sociology to sexuality. It is hard to define, but I will share with you one person's definition, that of Steven Kepnes, editor of the new book Interpreting Judaism in a Postmodern Age. Kepnes writes: "By the term ‘postmodern' I mean to designate a number of philosophical, social and cultural transformations that have come together in the contemporary period, and that include a movement away from the modern ideal of a universal rational culture and toward a multicultural reality that celebrates the value of the local and particular and attempts a new openness to premodern forms and motifs."

Kepnes puts his definition another way several pages later. "The specifically postmodern step involves a movement beyond the ontological gap established in the modern world between science and humanities and between ‘objective' and ‘subjective' forms of knowing. From the dawn of the modern age in seventeenth-century social science through Enlightenment philosophy to nineteenth-century social science, the dream of modernity has been to use technical and calculating reason to subsume all reality under objective universal laws..." Law was the goal. That, and "truth." Marx saw himself discovering economic laws, Freud psychological ones, Newton physical ones. If we could just reduce anything to its basic, common ingredients, we could understand. And what we could understand, we hoped, we could control.

But what, indeed, has this reductionist quest for control wrought in our time? For Modernity has failed us. It has failed us philosophically. And it has failed on a social and political level as well. Philosophically, because of the failure of our attempts to develop objective methods to reveal single meanings and undisputed truths, whether of a sacred text or of a single particle. Socially and politically, because our hope in the shining light of progress has been shattered by the events of this century.

Rabbi Eugene Borowitz writes of this failure of modernity, and its consequences, that "suddenly our society's accepted, unbounded faith in human accomplishment began to seem ludicrous... The disillusionment touches us in ways as local as the threat of drugs, violence or the loss of meaning, and as global as pollution, terrorism or nuclear destruction.... People, institutions and ideologies have so regularly disappointed us," he continues, "that hope, the driving force of a prior generation, has become rather a luxury, and cynicism and depression far more common."

To Borowitz, the term "postmodern" arose to "describe the diverse movements that stemmed from our disillusionment with the modernists' messianic humanism." We attempted to figure out everything, to understand everything, to control everything, and we failed. Figuratively and literally, we made a mess of the world. So now, we are trying a different approach. Not everything all at once. But each thing, in its own terms. Each group, it its own reality. My story -- and your story. It is the search... for partial truth.

To put the matter starkly, universalism did not work. We are witness, in our age, to a giant swing of the pendulum, from universalism... to particularism.

This new particularism puts us on new ground in so many areas of our lives, in the study of science and scripture, of sociology and identity, of society and history. But there are lessons for us here. In this new emphasis on the particular, we Jews are presented with new tasks. And new opportunities.

I will try to address some of these implications in my column in the weeks to come. For now, however, I return to the question at the beginning of this column. What do the question of female circumcision, Ebonics and university curriculum have in common? It is this: all are the result of the triumph of the moment, the return to particularism. For without universal law, what grounds do we have to express our group's utter revulsion at the practice of another? If your truth is as good as my truth, your morals as good as mine, then how can we Westerners tell another society, another culture that what they are doing is wrong? If every group is as authentic in what it does as any other, how can we claim that one expression of the English language is superior to another? Finally, if all approaches to all subjects are equally valid, then why can't there be a class about how Moses was really black, and calculus is really a form of colonial imperialism?

Postmodernism has much to offer. It opens up new possibilities of meaning, and has led to an invigorated, revived spirituality amongst American Jews. But there are limits as well.

There is a reading in the Gates of Prayer that gives a good summary of the potential -- and the pitfalls -- of Postmodernism. "Once we learned one truth," the reading says, "and it was cherished or discarded, but it was one. Now we are told that the world can be perceived by many truths; now, in the reality all of us encounter, some find lessons that others deny. Once we learned one kind of life, and one reality; it, too, we either adopted or scorned. But right was always right, and wrong was always wrong. Now we are told that there are many rights, that what is wrong may well be wrong for you, but right for me. Yet we sense that some acts must be wrong for everyone, and that behind the many half-truths is a single truth all of us may one day grasp. That clear way... is what we seek in coming here, to join our people who saw the eternal One, when others saw only the temporal Now."

A pendulum swings. A world turns. Philosophies come. Philosophies go. The universal yesterday. The particular today. May we remember that there is truth to be found... at both ends of the spectrum.

Wednesday, March 19, 1997

When Will the Worry Stop?

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed
Erie, PA
I have always been a little bit of a worrier. Not to a neurotic degree, perhaps, but enough. There have been occasions when I wasn't worrying. Once or twice, on those occasions, I would worry about why I wasn't worrying. I can't say it's an innate Jewish trait, since I know many much more mellow Jews. But it doesn't seem as excessive in a Jewish community as it might amongst of group of, to take a random example, Hawaiians. So, I worry. (You know the story about the typical Jewish telegram, right? It says: "Start worrying. Details to follow.")
Sometimes, there are real things to worry about. It took us a long time to have our first child. I needed surgery (twice). My wife had two miscarriages, and surgery herself in between the two. We spent the better part of four years wondering whether we would ever be able to have children on our own. Now that Benjamin Samuel has been born everything is right with the world. Right? Well...
But I have learned the lesson of all parents: we have graduated, it seems, into a whole new realm of worries. Objects tossed on the floor absent mindedly become potentially serious hazards. Violent scenes on television automatically tuned out by adults have totally unknown effects on small children. Turning around for a moment is a gamble and a risk. All this... and he hasn't yet even started to crawl. ("Just wait," some of you have told me in mock reassurance. "It only gets worse.")

All these worries is why I very much like one particular commerical airing now, about a father and a son learning to drive, with the son careening off the road in crazy manuevers. Then the next scene shows the father waking up from a dream, hurrying into the other room, and checking out his son... who is still an infant, sleeping soundly in his crib.

So I recognize a new level of worry, and am able to laugh at myself about it just a bit. But. There is something worse than worry. And, for me, it is new. It is sheer terror.

I can't read the newspaper the same way anymore. Or listen to the radio. A few weeks ago, NPR had, on its radio reader program, a book about a child named Benjamin who was kidnapped, who came back and his name was Samuel. I couldn't stand it. And that was just fiction! The real thing is worse.

Yesterday, as I write these words, seven junior high school girls were massacred in Israel. There is never a time when I would not have been stunned, and saddened, and moved. But now, I cannot stop thinking about them. Their parents. Their families. Their friends. The smiles swept from the world. The first loves that will never be. The scientists and scholars and soccer moms of a future that will never happen.

King Hussein was gracious (this time) in saying that the bullets were aimed at him and his children. But I feel the same way. I know the genesis of overprotection. It is in my own heart.

When will the worry stop? Only when the flowers have bloomed, and the stories of ourselves are fully told. Only when the threads of our lives are woven into the tapestry of time. Or, perhaps, not even then.

And when is the occasion to take stock of our blessings, to review our lives, and try to do better? Judaism teaches that we are to do repentence on the day before we die. What day is that? we may ask. To which, in the echo of our heart, we receive an answer. The answer is: aha!

Saturday, March 01, 1997

Pride Without Prejudice

Pride Without Prejudice

Rabbi Michael Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed, Erie    Pennsylvania

It’s a common misconception that "different” is necessarily a qualitative statement. A judgment. An evaluation .But it isn’t. “Different " is, to be sure, comparative. It is a description .It is not a prescription.
Or a proscription. “Different " means "different. “Not necessarily "better. “Not necessarily "worse.”

I was speaking with an interfaith couple the other day who said that they wanted to raise their children in 'both " religions. They said that if they made a choice between their faiths, they would not want their children to grow up thinking that one religion was "better” than another. Never mind that children are entitled to clear messages and a unified spiritual identity .If their children were one religion , that implied a negative evaluation about the other one .

Here we go again. This misconception -- that ''different " means either better or worse , that one path chosen means another path scorned , that we choose something good and true and that what we do not choose is therefore neither good nor true -- this misconception goes deeper than this one issue of religious identity .I believe it is a deeply held notion, and I believe it is a dangerous one. Dangerous for democracy .Dangerous for our society.

For if we truly believe that different is an evaluation, is a judgment, if we embrace the notion that all choices are either good or bad, and then what does that say about people who make different choices? Or who lead different kinds of lives? And. If you think that my "acceptance” of you depends on agreeing with everything you do, than the only person who is going to accept you in the end will be yourself.

Building identity for our children, or declaring who we are to ourselves, is a difficult thing to do.               It is so much easier if we use comparisons -- and evaluations. The short cut to building ourselves up comes from putting others down .Then it is clear who we are .We aren’t "them. "It’s easy to do it this way .And common .It just isn’t healthy. Or right.

Black pride doesn’t mean that all whites are wicked, that it’s "better” to be black. Gay pride shouldn’t mean that a gay man or woman wishes there were no heterosexuals in the world. And being proud of being Jewish doesn’t mean that being Christian or Muslim or Hindu is bad. Or even wrong. (Especially since Judaism teaches that there are many paths to the One God.)

A healthy identity depends on building ourselves up without putting others down. On a narrow ridge of pride -- without prejudice .On knowing who we are in our own terms, without needing to contrast ourselves with others.

Knowing who we are -- without comparing ourselves to others. This is not always that easy. I know it has been said that the only thing all Jews agree on is that Jesus is not the Messiah. But we can do better than that, as a self-definition. If we can’t, it is time we try.

 So let’s try an experiment .Think of three things about being Jewish that are powerful, positive ... and not predicated on our "not' being someone else. We may not come up with things about which all Jews would agree. But we will define ourselves -- for ourselves -- in a healthy and important way.

Here are my three.

1.       Judaism teaches that God is One, that there is wholeness, a Unity at the heart of the universe.

2.   If there is a Unity at the heart of the Universe, then all areas of life are potential paths to God. The wholeness of the world means there is holiness in the world .All of life is a blessing.

3.       Our tradition teaches that all human beings -- black and white, rich and poor, gay and straight, man and woman, Jew and gentile -- all human beings are made in the image of the Most High. There is a spark of divinity in the midst of diversity, infinite dignity in the soul of every human being.

Ink has been spilled, volumes written about each of the above. For today all I wanted to do was state them out loud .Three statements about my faith that I can hang my kippah on. That I believe in. And which do not depend on not being someone else.

And even if "different " is defined in contrast to others, one does not need to reject, to shunt, to degrade ... in order to accept , to choose, to embrace

Pride without prejudice. Defining ourselves without demeaning others. Our democracy depends on this. As does our own health.
Don't Sweat the Small Stuff
(Lessons Learned on a Winter Trip)

Rabbi Michael L. Feshbach
Temple Anshe Hesed
Erie, Pennsylvania

It has been said that the basic goal, the primary task of religion is to bring a sense of purpose and perspective into our lives. If that is true, it is just one more reason why having a baby is a profoundly religious experience.
Last month we went on our first long trip with our (then) three month old. He was already a veteran airplane traveler, having flown from Erie to New York for Thanksgiving at the ripe old age of six weeks, and then to Washington to visit my parents over New Year's Weekend. But those were hops and jumps, short flights for quick stays.
Last month we went to Florida. It was a longer flight. It was for a longer stay. And we were staying with friends, not family. We were pretty nervous about the trip. Benjamin, of course, was oblivious. We packed, we went. And, for awhile, it seemed, everything went wrong.
Well, not everything. Just three things, any of which would once have consumed my attention and ruined my day in that hazy time of yesteryear called b.b. (before baby).
After all our careful plans about a car seat, we realized after the taxi ride to our friend's house at 1 AM that a part of our car seat was missing. No problem, we thought. We would order a new part next day air from the company. And we had originally requested a car seat with the rental car we were picking up the next day.

But the next day the rental people had no record of our request. And next day air decided to pick our delivery for their really-only-very-occasional and we're-sorry-there-must-be-some mistake inefficiency. Faced with the prospect of being all undressed (well, compared to the climate up north) with no place to go, we improvised. With more ingenuity than I once thought I had. And then friends lent us the part that was missing. And we coped.
And then my wife lost her wallet. So we called the police, and all our credit cards, and were reduced to trying to manage with the small amount of cash we had (except for my American Express card, which was a different number than my wife's). The airline said we really would need photo id to get back on the plane. We requested one of our cards to be sent emergency delivery by -- that's right -- next day air. The delivery time came... and went. So we put those commercials to the test, you know, the ones that say come to this wonderful place, but leave your anxieties behind, because they don't serve crabby people, and they don't take American Express. And we managed. And, after cancelling all our cards, my wife found her wallet.
Then the power went out. Just in ten houses. It'll be on in a couple of hours, the company said. Well, maybe five. Well, we're working on it. Okay, we no longer have an estimate as to when the power would go back on. Now, when the power goes off for that long up north, you leave the house. Especially with an infant. But it was Florida. So we lit candles. We improvised. The monitor wasn't working? We brought the baby closer, to where we could hear every cry. And I never thought that much of electric hair dryers to begin with. Sure enough, in no time at all, really (23 hours!), the lights went back on.
The seat. The wallet. The power. Any one of them would have been enough to have fouled my mood or ruined my day. But we had a constant reminder of Something More Important, just inches away most of the time. Perspective is everything.
And so we made lemonade out of the proverbial lemons. We coped. We adjusted. We managed. I wondered if I had become a new person.
Did I mention that it was in the '40's for much of the trip? And that the airline totally broke two of our bags on the way home?
We had a great time. I'd do it all over again.

Barukh Attah HaShem, Hanotein L'sechvi Vina L'havchin Bein Yom u'vein Laila. Holy One of Blessing, You Give the Rooster the Wisdom to Distinguish Between Day and Night. Holy One of Blessing, You Give Us the Power to Remember What is Important in Life.