Sunday, January 24, 2016

Marshmallows, Trees, and learning how to wait: Thoughts for Tu Bishvat

One of the most famous experiments in child psychology was conducted by Walter Mischel.  He would give preschool-age children a marshmallow, and then a tantalizing dilemma:  the child could eat the marshmallow now -- or, if the child succeeded in waiting for several minutes, the child would receive two marshmallows.

This “marshmallow experiment,” as it came to be known, examines one of the most essential life skills:  delay of gratification.  Mischel and his team found that most of the young children were unable to delay their gratification; some ate the marshmallow immediately, and others made an effort but could not wait for more than a couple of minutes.  However, approximately 30% of the children were able to develop strategies that helped them to delay their gratification for the entire fifteen minutes.  Some children even blocked the marshmallow from their view so they could more easily focus on other things. 
This experiment was first conducted in the 1960’s, and Mischel and his team followed up on the children, discovering that those who had developed the skill of waiting, and delaying gratification, were more likely to have high academic achievement and professional achievement, and less likely to have issues with substance abuse, than students who were unable to wait.
Delaying gratification is a central skill for living a productive and fulfilling life.  But it is remarkable to me that we encourage young children to develop their skills of delay of gratification, while on a societal level, adults are not necessarily as adept at this skill.  There is hardly a single political issue today which is not in some way related to the delay of gratification.  For example, we face the choice whether or not to increase the national debt, knowing that when we do, it’s the next generation that will pay the interest.  Or we face the choice to invest now in renewable energy sources, knowing that if we don’t, our current energy sources may prove to be insufficient.
One of the very first stories in the Torah is interpreted in Jewish mystical literature as a story about delay of gratification.  I’m speaking of the story of Adam and Eve, and that famous tree of Knowledge of Good and Evil.  The 16th century mystic writer Mordechai ha-Kohen of Tzefat wrote that we have been mis-interpreting this story for so many centuries.  He wrote that Adam and Eve’s sin was not so much in EATING from the Tree of Knowledge, but in doing so TOO EARLY. 
According to the Torah, Adam and Eve were created on a Friday - the sixth day of creation - immediately before Shabbat.  According to the Midrash, it was at about 3pm on that Friday afternoon that God issued the commandment not to eat from the Tree of Knowledge.
This is where Rabbi Mordechai ha-Kohen adds his own theory:  God was saving that fruit to be a special treat for Adam and Eve for Shabbat.  If they had merely waited three more hours, God would have given them the fruit, and told them to enjoy!  But they were unable to wait.  As a result, God enacted a law in the Torah, found in the book of Leviticus (19:3):  “When you enter the land and plant any tree for food, you shall regard its fruit as forbidden.  Three years it shall be forbidden to you, not to be eaten."  Three years of mandatory waiting, corresponding to the three hours that Adam and Eve couldn’t wait -- to give us all adequate practice in waiting.
Rabbi Mordechai ha-Kohen asserts that one of the most important things that the Torah can teach us is the importance of waiting, of thoughtfully delaying gratification so we can enjoy a better world later on.
This month, we celebrate the holiday of Tu Bishvat, the Jewish New Year of the Trees.  Certainly, from the mere fact that the Jewish calendar includes a Jewish holiday that’s all about trees, we get a sense of the importance of environmental concern in our tradition.  But when we look closely at the original meaning and purpose of Tu Bishvat, we see that it is connected to the value of delay of gratification.  The Mishnah tells us that the 15th day of the month of Shevat is “Rosh HaShanah La-Ilanot,”  “the new year for trees,” meaning that all trees are considered to be a day older on Tu Bishvat.  In Israel, this holiday approximately marks the time when the sap is beginning to flow through the trees again after the winter, and when first flowers of spring can be seen on some early-blooming trees like the almond tree.  In the same way that all race horses are considered to be a year older on January 1 every year, all trees are considered to be a year older on Tu Bishvat.

But why is it so important to know how old a tree is?  It’s because of that law from the book of Leviticus (19:3), mentioned above, that specifies that for the first three years of a tree’s life, its fruit cannot be eaten.  This law is God’s effort to teach us how to wait, and to remind us that the most important yields of our efforts are not the yields that come immediately, but those that come later. 

Tu Bishvat serves as our reminder that it’s a mistake to make our decisions based only on their short-term impact.  In fact, we ought to have such a long time-horizon that we routinely consider the impact of our actions upon future generations, in addition to our own generation.

The most famous Tu Bishvat story of all is the Talmud’s story of Honi Ha-Me’agel, Honi the Circle-drawer, who was a miracle-worker in the Land of Israel in the 1st-century.  According to the story, once Honi was walking along the road and saw an old man planting a tree.  This would have been surprising enough:  Why is an old man planting a tree, rather than having one of his relatives do it for him?  As Honi got closer, he saw something even more surprising:  this man was planting a carob tree.  And a carob tree, as every ancient Israelite would have known,
doesn’t yield edible fruit until at least 70 years after it has been planted.  Could this man truly believe that he would survive to see the fruits of his labors?
Honi called out to him:  “At your age, why are you planting a carob tree?” 
The old man responded:  “When I was born, I found a world that was full of carob trees, which my ancestors had planted for me.  Even though I know I will not survive to see the fruit of this tree, I plant this tree for the sake of my descendants, so that they will be able to know the blessings that I have known in my life.”
When we have decisions to make, which could affect future generations, may we keep the lessons of Tu Bishvat in mind and plant not for our own sake, but for the sake of our descendants.

Thursday, January 14, 2016

Who kisses the Torah: Kids? Adults? And who studies Torah? -- Parashat Bo, 5776 / 2016

Perhaps you have noticed that ours is a relatively child-friendly Jewish community!   You may have seen evidence of this when, every Shabbat morning, as we put the Torah scrolls away, we invite young children up to the bimah to kiss the Torah scrolls as they are put in the ark. (or rather, to kiss them by proxy, by touching them and then kissing one's hand.)

Every so often, I am reminded that this is something distinctive about our congregation, when visitors comment that their experience here is different from some other synagogue communities where children are not made to feel as comfortable.  A few times, I have had people come up to me and say, "I have never seen that before, where you have all the kids come up and kiss the Torah scrolls."  Sometimes they add, "It was so moving for me to see," and I know that they liked it. Sometimes they say, "It was so…interesting," and I know they were a little less fond of it.

I have been asked, “is that really a traditional Jewish thing to do, to invite children up to the bimah to kiss the Torah?” The answer is that this is actually a time-honored custom, described in the 13th Century Viennese compendium of Jewish law and custom called Or Zarua.  The author writes, “After the Torah is read, the leader goes and sits on the bimah, and all the young children go and kiss the Torah scroll while it is being rolled.  This is a nice custom, to teach and instruct the children about the mitzvot.”  (Or Zarua, Shabbat, 2:48). Apparently, the only innovation in our community is having this ceremony take place when the Torah is safely in the ark, rather than at the precarious moment when the Torah is being rolled.)   So the next time you see our kids coming up to the bimah to kiss the Torahs, you can know that they are taking part in a tradition that is at least 700 years old!

The central role of young children in a Jewish community is also affirmed in the Torah reading that we read this Shabbat, from Parashat Bo, towards the beginning of the Book of Exodus.

We may sometimes forget that, according to the Torah, whenever Moses was approaching Pharaoh, Moses was not simply saying "Let my people go free!"  Rather, Moses was saying, "Thus says the Lord of Israel:  Let my people go free to serve me in the wilderness." Moses was asking for a one-week furlough from their servitude.  He was asking for permission for the Israelites to journey for three days into the desert and make their offerings, and then – ostensibly – to return to Egypt. But Pharaoh says no.  Perhaps he just doesn't want to grant them this vacation. Or perhaps he realizes what is obvious throughout the story: that once the Israelites taste freedom, they're not going to want to return, and that letting them go into the wilderness is tantamount to releasing them.

After the seventh plague, Pharaoh finally relents and gives the Israelites permission to go into the desert, but he says that the Jews are conducting a religious ceremony, so the women and children don’t need to go -- just the men. Moses and Aaron respond, “Bin’areinu u-vizkeineinu nelekh” – "We will all go, young and old: we will go with our sons and daughters, our flocks and herds; for we must observe the Lord's festival." (Exodus 10:9)

This phrase – bin’areinu u-vizkeineinu nelekh, “we will all go, young and old,” – became a rallying cry for the involvement of all people across the age spectrum in the Jewish community.  A community that does not provide for its young, or its elders, is not fulfilling Jewish values. This quotation is often used to justify prioritizing Jewish involvement of the youngest people in a community, because without the younger generation, a Jewish community has no future.

However: surprisingly enough, the Talmud addresses the question of what a family should do if the family does not have enough resources to enable both the parents and the children to study Torah. The Talmud indicates that the parent should take precedence over the child in the event that there are not enough resources for both to learn.

Rabbi Howard Gorin, who was a high school teacher of mine, is today one of the most important American rabbinic liaisons with the Abayudaya Jewish community in Uganda. Years ago, the Abayudaya community posed this very question to him:  if we have only enough resources to arrange for Jewish education for adults, or for children, which should we prioritize?

Rabbi Gorin’s wise advice is at odds with the conventional wisdom in the American Jewish community.  He writes:  “The Talmud tells us that, while it is an obligation of the parents to educate their children, when there are only enough resources for either the education of the children or the education of the adults, the adults take precedence. I saw the wisdom of this when I visited Russia in the late 1980’s. Most of the resources – funds, books, and teachers – were dedicated to the education of the adults. Children’s education took second place.  The theory was that, if the adults learned about Judaism and practiced what they learned, the children would learn from their example – while if the children learned about Judaism but saw that their parents and other adults were neither learning about Judaism nor practicing it, these children would conclude that Judaism is for children only, that it is a phase that one grows out of, and that once a person becomes an adult, the practice of Judaism can be relegated to a position of secondary importance. Regrettably, this latter is what plays out in Jewish communities throughout my country.  For example, Bar Mitzvah, instead of being the entrance into a rich, adult Jewish life, is often the exit point from Judaism.  Our community suffers because of this.”

We are fortunate to have created programs for children’s Jewish education here at USH that are welcoming and inviting, but we must ensure that we don’t fall into the trap of creating “pediatric Judaism,” giving the impression that Judaism is fundamentally for kids and is something that adults outgrow.   We are fortunate that excellent adult Jewish educational opportunities are available to us – whether here at USH, or throughout the New York metropolitan area, or through web sites, podcasts, and distance learning (contact Rabbi Scheinberg if you don’t know where to begin!) The Jewish future cannot thrive without the involvement of young children – but it also cannot thrive without adults of all ages demonstrating an adult-level engagement with Jewish learning and tradition.

Friday, January 1, 2016

Who defies authority: the shocking truth (Parashat Shmot 5776/2016)

If you took an introductory psychology class, you probably encountered the research of Professor Stanley Milgram at Yale.  It was one of the most famous psychology experiments of the 1960's.   (And you may have seen the recent movie about Milgram, called "The Experimenter"; here's the trailer. )

This experiment purported to be an experiment in memory, examining the effects of negative reinforcement on memory.  There would be two subjects, one of whom would be designated as the  'learner,' and the other as the 'teacher.'  The ‘learner’ would be attached to a machine that would administer electric shocks, of varying amounts of voltage, while the ‘teacher’ would be in another room, communicating with the learner through a microphone.  The ‘learner’ would then have to memorize pairs of words, and if the ‘learner’ got one wrong, the 'teacher' would press a button that would administer an electric shock.  The shocks would get progressively stronger and stronger.

Except that, as you probably know already (and certainly know if you watched the movie trailer), this experiment wasn't really about memory.  The 'learner' wasn't really a subject -- he was an actor -- and there weren't really any electric shocks.  The real question was the following:  How easy would it be to get the REAL subject, the ‘teacher,’ to administer electric shocks to a total stranger, merely because there was a Yale professor in a white lab coat who was telling him to?

Stanley Milgram came up with the idea for the experiment shortly after the trial of Adolf Eichmann for genocidal crimes during the Holocaust.  Milgram became interested in the question of how such an apparently normal person could become a mass murderer merely because his superiors told him to.

The results were startling.  About two-thirds of the people would keep on administering the shocks to the highest level, enough to make the learner call out in pain and then eventually become completely unresponsive and presumably unconscious or dead.  (Here is a documentary with some of the actual footage from Milgram's study. Note, though, that some have questioned Milgram's conclusions.) Such is the power of authority.  Many of us have a hesitancy to challenge orders we have been given by someone in position of authority, even when it's someone who has no real power over us.

A few years ago, this experiment was recreated by ABC News (with some minor modifications to comply with current laws about experiments with human subjects), because there had speculation that things would be different today.  The world, and the United States, have changed  a lot in the last 40 years.  Many people who hear about this experiment today respond, “Well, I would have resisted. I wouldn't have given electric shocks to a total stranger.”

And yet, the results of the recent experiment are comparable to those of the original experiment.  About 60% of the subjects are willing to administer electric shocks, up to the highest level.  

In this contemporary recreation of the experiment, who are the 40% who don't administer the shocks?  They don't necessarily fall into any particular group.  They are not, for example, more likely to be religious than the others – and they are not LESS likely to be religious than the others.  They are not more likely to be educated, or less likely to be educated.  However, there IS something special about them:  they are people who describe themselves as "non-conformist” and comfortable with speaking out, bucking trends, and defying authority.  Not surprisingly, sometimes this was a quality that got these people into some trouble – but during this experiment- this trait served to their benefit.   And we might imagine that if these same people were in another circumstance where they were asked to inflict harm on another or otherwise perpetrate an injustice, they would be the ones likely to resist and disobey.

Every year, the Torah portion of Shemot at the beginning of the book of Exodus (read this year on January 2) gives us three outstanding examples of people who would have done well in Milgram’s experiment, as they were people with a  strong enough moral compass to refuse to carry out orders that they felt were unethical.  The first two are Shifra and Puah, the midwives who are instructed by Pharaoh to slaughter all Israelite baby boys.  They refuse, and then when Pharaoh confronts them, they lie -- and in so doing, they keep the Israelites alive.  Similarly heroic is Pharaoh's daughter, who sees a baby boy in a basket in the Nile River, figures out that this must be an Israelite child, saved by his mother from the fate of death that was meted out to every Israelite baby boy, and she adopts him as her own son.  She raises him in the palace, in clear defiance of the ruling of her father, the King of Egypt.  Imagine, for example, if one of Adolf Eichmann's children had hidden Jews and saved them during the Holocaust.  That’s the depth of defiance of authority under discussion here, made all the more severe when the person is also defying a parent.

It is a beautiful confluence every year that we read about Shifra, Puah, and Pharaoh’s daughter in the mid-winter, not far from Martin Luther King Day.  These three women may be regarded as the original practitioners of civil disobedience.  These heroic, authority-challenging women in our holy Torah are an embodiment of King’s famous words:  “The hope of a secure and livable world lies with disciplined nonconformists who are dedicated to justice, peace and brotherhood.”

Friday, October 9, 2015

Jerusalem's holy place: No, NY Times, Certainty is not 'elusive'

I have never written to the Public Editor of the New York Times, but I am starting now because of this article, " Historical Certainty Proves Elusive at Jerusalem’s Holiest Place," which is irresponsible in some easily demonstrable ways.
(a) It buries the lead. The beginning of the article states that the Jewish claim that the Temples stood on the site of what is known today as the ‘Haram al Sharif / Temple Mount’ is cloudy and disputed by serious scholars, so that ‘historical certainty proves elusive.’ But the only evidence of such cloudiness or dispute in the piece concerns the First Temple, not the Second Temple. As the piece states later on, there is overwhelming evidence that the Second Temple was located on that site (though one scholar quoted in the piece questions whether it was exactly where the Dome of the Rock now stands, or in another location on the Mount.) In other words, the piece gets around to saying that Palestinian claims that there was never a Jewish Temple on that site are pretty well established as false -- though there is some scholarly debate about the location of the First Temple (unresolved in part because the Waqf will not permit archaeological excavations on the Mount).
(b) The final quotation is sensationalistic and irrelevant. “Ms. Cahill, who is also a practicing lawyer, said the answer depends partly on what constitutes proof. “The answer might be ‘yes,’ if the standard of proof is merely a preponderance of the evidence, but ‘no’ if the standard of proof is beyond a reasonable doubt,” she said.” Maybe so…. but which of these standards (beyond a reasonable doubt, or preponderance of the evidence) do historians typically use in making historical judgments? My understanding is that we have the ‘beyond a reasonable doubt’ standard in criminal cases because someone is innocent until proven guilty, and we don’t want to subject someone to punishment unless that person’s guilt is conclusively proven. This is entirely different from the enterprise of historical investigation. It makes me wonder how our understanding of history were to be revised if we were to reject any claim about the ancient world that could not be proven beyond a reasonable doubt. (The same investigator, Ms. Cahill, is earlier quoted as saying that “nobody knows exactly” where the temples once stood, although “pretty powerful circumstantial evidence” suggests they were on the site. “Because there have been no organized excavations there, and not likely to be, circumstantial evidence is probably all we’re going to have,” she said.)

The effect of this piece is to have the ‘newspaper of record’ indicate that scholarly doubt exists about whether or not there was a historical Jewish connection to the ‘Haram al Sharif / Temple Mount,' and thereby to give credence to those who claim that there was no such connection.
But historical certainty on this question does not prove elusive. Rather, as the piece itself indicates, this historical question is settled, and -- at the very very least -- one Jewish Temple stood there for hundreds of years.

NOTE:  The NY Times printed a correction and made some modifications to the article - see )

Friday, September 25, 2015

Yizkor: Mourning Inside Out

(adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg's comments on Yom Kippur morning 2015/5776. Please note that this is being posted now without final edits and additions of hyperlinks; hopefully that will happen soon.)  

Each year as I contemplate my remarks for before Yizkor,
among my preparation tasks is to think about the people who have died since last Yom Kippur - people from this community, and people of special significance to the Jewish community and to the world.
In this community I think especially of the loss of our dear friend and member Tuvia Rosenberg, a gentle soul whose life intersected with just about every major movement and significant event in the 20th century,
and we’ll have more to say about Tuvia’s remarkable life later in our service.

And I think of the many many others on our list who are dear relatives and friends of our community - men and women, some who died in the fullness of years, some agonizingly cut down much too young.   Some endured war and persecution early in  their lives; some struggled valiantly with illness for many years.  Many were passionate about their work achievements; many were deeply committed to their families;  many were passionate in their connection to Jewish tradition and the Jewish community.  Most were able to find enduring sources of deep joy in their lives.  The people on our list are different in every way except that they are remembered and deeply missed by our community.  May their memory be for a blessing.

And we’re also connected to the larger Jewish community and the larger world community.  
And I think of some people on our list who were especially known for their heroism and dedication to others -
like Sir Nicholas Winton, the British financier who while in his 20’s came up with the idea for, and then implemented, the Kindertransport - a project to save more than 600 Jewish children from the Holocaust and bring them to England.  He lived past age 100 and was blessed to meet hundreds of the descendants of those whose lives he saved.
Rabbi Harold Schulweis,  one of the most outstanding American pulpit rabbis, and the founder of organizations like the Jewish Foundation for the Righteous, to provide for the material needs of non-Jews who risked their lives to save the lives of Jews during the Holocaust.
And Rochelle Shoretz, a  heroic young woman who founded the organization called Sharsheret to give support to Jewish women dealing with breast cancer and ovarian cancer - an organization that has directly helped a number of people from our own community at very difficult moments.

And also on my mind is a particular writer and teacher who died just last month - this is someone that I first heard about when I was in college,
and a woman I was interested in was taking a class in Jewish literature,
and one of the books on the reading list was a book called “The Man Who Mistook his Wife for a Hat,” by Oliver Sacks -
It was one of his books of case studies of his patients, that helped

Resumes and Eulogies, and Race in America in 5776

(adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg's comments on Yom Kippur evening 2015/5776. Please note that this is being posted now without final edits and additions of hyperlinks; hopefully that will happen soon.)

Every year there’s the competition for which new book by which author will get quoted in more high holiday sermons than any other.
Of course, we won’t know who the winner REALLY is until after Yom Kippur is over.  (and of course there is no authoritative national registry of High hOliday sermons so we wont’ truly know at all.)  and of course it’s not really a competition.
But if it WERE a competition, my sense is that this year’s winner, probably quoted in more high holiday services than any other contemporary writer, would be New York Times columnist David Brooks.
Why would David Brooks be the most quoted person these high holidays?  First of all, because of where he falls on the political spectrum - as a political conservative who is moderate enough for liberals to at least pay attention to.

But second, that he is an observant and knowledgeable and committed Jew who this year wrote a book called “The Road to Character,” which includes one phrase which is just tailor made for High Holiday sermons.
And that idea is:  there are various kinds of virtues that people can express in their lives - and they fall into two main categories:  there are the ‘resume virtues’ and there are the ‘eulogy virtues.’

Monday, September 21, 2015

Being small, being blessed (Rosh haShanah 2015 / 5776)

Adapted from Rabbi Scheinberg's Rosh haShanah comments, 5776 / 2015
When you’re walking around Manhattan, how can you tell the real New Yorkers from the tourists, the people who live anywhere other than the New York area?
One way, of course, is that the New Yorkers are looking down or straight ahead -
it doesn’t matter if they’re passing one of the tallest or most historic skyscrapers in the world; they just keep on walking and they don’t look up.  While the tourists can’t stop looking up, because in most cases, this is something amazing and so wildly different about Manhattan - the quantity of immense buildings in such tight proximity.  And it’s not surprising that the people for whom this is a novelty can’t stop looking up, while the people who live nearby are a little jaded by it and have long stopped looking up.

And what’s the opposite?  When you’re out in a rural area, how can you tell the New Yorkers from everyone else?  At least to judge from my own experience, there’s a reciprocal phenomenon which has to do with stars at night. For the last almost 30 years I have lived in places where you can't see stars.  And when I get the opportunity to be in a place where I can see stars, I start to be like a tourist in Manhattan. Looking up; tripping over things, bumping into people, getting frustrated glances from people, who seem to be saying to me: “Yeah, those stars sure are interesting, in a very stable kind of way.  You know, they have looked much the same for several hundred thousand years, but I’m glad you’ve discovered them now!”

I had the pleasure of spending some time at Camp Ramah in the Berkshires this summer, in upstate New York.  It was a pleasure in part because - unlike in Hoboken - they have stars there.  Unfortunately, they also have something called ‘shmirah,’ which is the Hebrew word for ‘watch’ or ‘protection’ - which includes a  special role assigned especially to the quote-unquote responsible older staff, to be available on a rotation until 2 in the morning and sometimes later, in case there are any emergencies with the kids that require an adult who is older than college age.
It happened that on August 12, I landed a shmirah slot of 1.30-3am.

But this was actually a highlight of my summer because it happened to coincide with the Perseid Meteor Shower, which under other circumstances I wouldn't have even noticed.  And that is how I got to be outside in a clear field in the middle of the night in rural upstate New York and got to see a view I had previously seen only in a planetarium.

And while I was sitting there I got a song running through my head. It’s the song I sang just a moment ago.  It’s a relatively new melody, but the words come from the book of Genesis, from an episode in the life of Jacob, in which he says in the middle of a starry night:  קטנתי מכל החסדים ומכל האמת אשר עשית את עבדך
“I am so small - so small in the face of all the kindness and all the truth that you have shown to your servant.”  (for a musical rendition of this verse, see