Friday, September 25, 2015

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.’

Or in other words, when you want to give a brief summary of who you are, and what is most important in your life and what makes you distinctive, what makes you YOU, some of the things you might say are the kinds of things that you would put on a resume.
Where you went to school; what you studied; what kind of grades you got; what kind of work you do; maybe what kinds of honors or awards you have gotten,  these are all the ‘resume virtues.’
but then there are the ‘eulogy virtues’ which are the things that get said about you when people remember you.  And they’re not the kind of thing that you could possibly put on a resume even if you wanted to.  “He was a person who demonstrated great courage in everything he did.’  He spoke with his childhood friend on the phone every single day, especially when his friend became ill later in life - he knew the value of maintaining old friendships.’   “She was the person you would want holding your hand when you went through a difficult time.”   Or how the poet Yehuda Amichai described his father:  ‘
כקוסם המוציא מכובעו ארנבות ומגדלים, הוציא מתוך גופו הקטן - אהבה,
נהרות ידיו נשפכו לתוך מעשיו הטובים.
Just as a magician takes towers and rabbits out of his hat,
he drew love from his small body,
and the rivers of his hands
overflowed with his good deeds.
These are the two kinds of virtues- the resume virtues, and the eulogy virtues.
And another reason why David Brooks is likely to be quoted in many high holy day sermons - is that he derives this idea from the writings of the Jewish theologian and philosopher, and orthodox rabbi, Joseph Soloveitchik, in his classic book ‘Lonely man of faith.’  
In that book, Soloveitchik looks closely at the first two chapters of the book of Genesis, which each describe the creation of human beings - but the descriptions are quite different from each other.  
Genesis chapter 1 pictures an idealized form of the human being, the pinnacle of creation, and appointed by God as the undisputed master of all creation.
And Genesis chapter 2 appears to start the chronology of creation in reverse order; and the human being is involved in relationships; in conflicts; and seems to have an active inner life as well.
And Solovetchik wrote: Genesis chapter 1 and Genesis chapter 2 are both partially true.  Human beings are both -- Adam I, the version of Adam in Genesis chapter 1, and Adam II, the version of Adam in genesis chapter 2.
As Brooks tells us:  “Adam I is the career-oriented, ambitious side of our nature. Adam I is the external, résumé Adam. Adam I wants to build, create, produce, and discover things. He wants to have high status and win victories….. Adam II is the internal Adam.[the ‘Eulogy Adam.] Adam II wants to embody certain moral qualities. Adam II wants to have a serene inner character, a quiet but solid sense of right and wrong— not only to do good, but to be good.”
And he goes on:  ‘While Adam I wants to conquer the world, Adam II wants to obey a calling to serve the world….  While Adam I asks how things work, Adam II asks why things exist, and what ultimately we are here for. …. While Adam I’s motto is “Success,”Adam II’s motto is “Charity, love, and redemption.” To nurture your Adam I career, it makes sense to cultivate your strengths. To nurture your Adam II moral core, it is necessary to confront your weaknesses.”
And of course this leads to the question:  which is more important:  the resume virtues or the eulogy virtues?
Obviously you need both. We are driven by our nature to seek the balance between  Adam I and Adam II, or as David Brooks could have called them, ‘Resume man’ and ‘Eulogy man.’
But what should we prioritize? Which of these sets of virtues deserves more of our time and our energy?  And what about the inevitable conflicts between the two - where I have the opportunity to do something extra to burnish my resume, either literally, or figuratively, to strengthen by resume virtues -
but it will come at the inevitable expense of my eulogy virtues?
Either because I may be compromising on my core principles,
or because there are just so many hours in the day,
so it might not be possible for an hour or a day when I am focusing on my own achievement
to also be an hour or a day when I am focused on reaching out to others.

And here, Judaism has a clear answer, together with most other religious traditions in the world.
When it comes down to it, the eulogy virtues deserve the priority.
that’s how we build a better world, and that’s how we build a better self.
On these high holy days, we read over and over again about תשובה תפילה צדקה - repentance, prayer, and good deeds - which are all on the eulogy side of the equation rather than the resume side.
In those Jewish texts that picture the kinds of questions that people would be asked at the ends of our lives,
most of them are, not surprisingly, eulogy questions rather than resume questions.
In the Bablylonian Talmud, tractate Shabbat, Rava says:  when one is being brought for judgment after death, one is asked:  נשאת ונתת באמונה? קבעת עתים לתורה [were you honest in your business dealings?  Did you build time into your life for regular study of Torah? הבנת דבר מתוך דבר [32]? Did you learn how the world works so that you could help to make the world better?
The Midrashic collection Shochar Tov says that people would be asked:  What did you do on earth?  But it’s not a question to be answered with resume virtues but with eulogy virtues. If you say מאכיל רעבים הייתי, then the celestial angels would sing to you - זה השער לה’ מאכילי רעבים יבואו בו - this is God’s gate - those who feed the hungry will enter therein.  Or those who perform acts of lovingkindess will enter therein.
Not that the authors of these texts had any idea what ACTUALLY would happen in the afterlife, but they could not conceive of an afterlife that wouldn’t be focused on the kind of people we are, rather than our accomplishments.
And there’s no coincidence that these texts focus on what happens after life is over-
just as David Brooks’ label for these virtues is ‘eulogy’ virtues.
because often, we are motivated to achieve these life goals
especially when we recognize our own mortality.  

And if you are wondering why do people found synagogues, and what happens in synagogues day after day after day when it’s not the high holidays -
one answer is that synagogues are places, like other houses of worship (and like many other organizations; I don’t want to claim that synagogues and houses of worship are the only places you can find this),
but - synagogues are places where we focus on our eulogy virtues.

So not just in Judaism  but in every every religious tradition as it is authentically taught:  there is no question;  the eulogy virtues are simply more important in the long run.
But does such a perspective govern the decision-making of anyone?  Does it even govern the decision-making of the people who make this claim that the eulogy virtues are more important?  
And David Brooks admits: throughout his life, he had been told by people that the eulogy virtues were ultimately to be prioritized. And yet the people who were telling him this sometimes seemed through their behavior to demonstrate that they REALLY thought that the resume virtues were actually more important.

And he wrote his book in part because of a concern that the eulogy virtues are in crisis in the contemporary world.
And whereas I don’t completely buy his argument that there was once a time when the eulogy virtues came more easily to people,
One can certainly find studies that present the eulogy virtues as being in crisis today.
For example, researchers last year at the Harvard School of Education did a survey of American teens to find out - how would they rank the following three items in terms of importance in their life goals?
Academic achievement; personal happiness; or caring for others?  What do they rank first, second, and third?
And what do they think their parents prioritize most among the items on that list - academic achievement; personal happiness; or caring for others?
You may want to pause for a moment to see how you would answer that question;
and if you have children - of whatever age - how you think they would think you would WANT them to answer the question.
Well, the results showed: achievement is ranked highest;  personal happiness was second; and caring for others was a far distant 3rd choice.
80% of the young people picked high achievement or happiness as their top choice, with about 20% selecting caring for others.  
“Kids do care, but this caring is subordinate to achievement and personal happiness,” [Harvard’s Rick] Weissbourd [the lead researcher]said. “It gets buried by the overwhelming pressure kids feel to succeed.”
This study was written up in the Boston Globe last year, and the journalist was so surprised enough by the results that she decided to ask her own 16-year-old son this question:  
what message have you gotten from me and from your father?  What’s more important to us; your academic and professional success., or your personal happiness, or your helping others?
she writes: ‘I asked my 16-year-old son whether he thought I emphasized his academic accomplishments more than his caring deeds, like helping his grandmother get up the stairs. “Is this a trick question?” he responded….
becuase to him it seemed completely obvious ….
…. before saying that obviously I cared more about how he did in school, though he knew I also wanted him to be kind to others.’
and she was floored.  She was SURE she was sending the message that the eulogy virtues - rather than the resume virtues - are the most important!
But it is harder than it appears to inculcate the eulogy virtues.
And it may be that we focus on the resume virtues more than the eulogy virtues in part because they are easier to measure, and in fact they are simply easier to accomplish.
Once a resume virtue is on your resume, it stays there.  We acquire qualifications, accomplishments, awards, positions -
whether or not we deserve to be considered an ‘accomplished’ person has a lot to do with what we have already done.
Whereas whether or not we deserve to be considered a kind or caring  / giving person - THAT gets determined every day  - and that could change in an instant.
And this is why I am so fond of  the formulation in the Talmud for recommending that we keep in front of ourselves our consciousness of the value of the very next deed we will do.-
קדושין (מ ע"ב) אמרו: "לעולם יראה אדם את עצמו ואת העולם כולו כאילו חציו חייב וחציו זכאי. עשה מצווה אחת, אשריו שהכריע את עצמו ואת העולם כולו לכף זכות. עבר עברה אחת, אוי לו שהכריע את עצמו ואת העולם כולו לכף חובה".
One should always regard oneself as if one’s deeds are perfectly balanced between meriotorius deeds and destructive deeds.  And even more so - one should regard the world the same way - that it is exactly balanced between good deeds and misdeeds.  And if you do one more mitzvah, you will cause the scale to tip towards the side of merit. And if you do one more averah, you will cause the scale to tip towards the side of demerit.
Now please note - this is not saying that you truly ARE perfectly balanced between good and bad deeds.  Most of us, truly, aren’t.  And I truly believe - even though this is different from the message you might get in the Machzor - that human beings tend to be fundamentally decent - though there are of course notable exceptions  - and we all know that the people in the Hoboken Jewish community are especially fundamentally decent.  So this is not about REALITY  this is about how it is recommended that we REGARD ourselves.
There are advantages to regarding ourselves as equally positioned between good deeds and misdeeds.
If we assumed that our misdeeds dramatically outweighed our good deeds,
we would be likely to conclude that the next decision we make won’t actually change anything; we are irredeemable already.
While if we assumed that our good deeds dramatically outweighed our misdeeds,
we would be likely to conclude that - basically - we’re doing all right; or at least we’re doing well enough; when you look at the entire picture, certainly there are enough good deeds in my profile to offset whatever unfortunate thing I am going to do next.
Or in other words - you are only as good, or as bad, as the last thing you did.
We become the people we are and develop the character we have based on numerous little things we do or don’t do each and every day.  
......One of my colleagues and friends, Rabbi Fred Sherlinder Dobb, recently directed me to a very helpful formulation of this idea.
Which is:  “We are not good despite our imperfections; it is the connection we maintain with our imperfections that allows us to be good.
Upon first hearing this I thought it was from the writings of Moses Maimonides, or Yisrael Salanter, or another master of the Jewish ethical tradition.
But actually this is a quote by a journalist, hip hop dj, and social commentator Jay Smooth.
And he made this comment about goodness in general, but with special focus on one of the arenas in American life today in which there is a special opportunity to make our world better - and that is with regard to race in America today.

one of the fundamental principles of Jewish jurisprudence is משפט אחד יהיה לכם  - you shall have one standard of justice.  everyone in your society deserves equal treatment under the law.
And it’s appropriate to ask the question, to what extent do we live in a country now in which this principle is consistently upheld.
Race has been at the forefront of conversation in the United States during this past Jewish year.
The United States is confronting, in a way we have not seen in decades, that racial disparity remains, and that the legacy of segregation is not as deep in the past as we had thought, and even the legacy of slavery is not as deep in the past as we had thought.
Especially following the tragic shooting in Charleston, but also as a reaction to other events this year, there has been a remarkable demonstration of teshuvah - repentance - on a regional and national scope -  with the removal of the confederate flag from the Capital grounds in South Carolina, to the removal of statues to confederate figures in Texas and Louisiana, to the relocation of the remains of the founder of the Ku Klux Klan in Memphis.
And at the same time we have been confronted this year by the disparities that remain. And one reason is video.  For decades, many African-Americans have claimed that the United States appears to have two different law enforcement systems, one for white people and one for black people -  
that there are tremendous numbers of African-Americans, by some polls, even the majority, who report that at some point in their lives they feel they have received treatment by law enforcement that they feel it’s reasonable to conclude was a result of race.
and increasingly this year, there is a body of video evidence that supports this claim in case people doubted it before.
Tragic cases of killings of unarmed black men and boys by police, in several American cities,
in cases where video shows no good reason why lethal force should have been used.
And some cases of police apparently misrepresenting the circumstances of such incidents.
And while the high-profile incidents of the killings are thankfully very rare,
and there are thousands upon thousands of interactions between law enforcement and citizens of all backgrounds that take place every day that are positive, or that take place entirely without incident,
These cases definitely are consistent with the reports we have heard for decades about unequal treatment.
And this is coupled with the statistics that according to many scholars indicate a sad disparity in legal outcomes for whites and African-Americans accused of committing the same crimes.

Obviously law enforcement officers have a remarkably difficult and dangerous job- far more difficult and dangerous than almost ANY of our jobs.  And most are outstanding at what they do.  In fact, they are assuring our safety at this moment.  
And I have to hold that fact in my head at the same time that I realize that it is a near-universal phenomenon in families that include African-Americans -- and that includes, of course, families that are part of the United Synagogue of Hoboken, students in our Kaplan Cooperative Preschool and our Jewish Learning Center - to prepare their children for the potentially dangerous possibility that they will be racially profiled, whether by the general society or by law enforcement officers.

Not a single ancestor of mine had yet arrived to the United States at the time that slavery was going on,
and not a single ancestor or relative of mine ever lived in the segregated south. (Actually I only know of one of my ancestors who ever even VISITED the segregated south.)
And I confess that for a long time I thought that meant that race in America wasn’t really my problem.   After all, Jews in America weren’t even really considered ‘white’ until World War II, and most of the hard core racists in American history have hated Jews too.

But events of this year have reminded me of the ways I have been blind
in thinking that I am truly colorblind or that this society is truly colorblind.
As just one example: When I’m driving and I hear a siren and I realize I’m being pulled over,
it’s sure to be unpleasant, but I don’t think for a moment that I might not be treated with respect, or that there is even the most minute chance that the situation could spiral out of control if I’m not extremely careful.
My pursuit of eulogy virtues in the United States means that race in the United States really IS my problem.

I actually heard two stories within the last month, separately, from white Jewish men in their 40s
about brushes with the law that they had had as teenagers.
Both of these cases are terribly embarrassing but they were told publicly by people who are now accomplished public figures and Jewish communal leaders, and actually you can access both of their stories on the internet.
In each case, each of these men did something terribly stupid, actually criminally stupid, as a teenager,
and in each case, they were relieved to be able to get some assistance from some adult in their lives and get out of the full brunt of the consequences of their actions, and avoid any further entanglement with the American legal system.
In one case, it was a father who was a lawyer who was able to intercede,
and in another case it was a rich uncle who was able to reimburse money that had been misappropriated.
And in both cases, both of these men say that they had the strong feeling then,
and have the even stronger feeling now -
that if some element in their story had been changed -
for example, had they been from an inner city rather than from the circumstances in which they grew up,
the story quite likely would have been different.

The Book of Deuteronomy teaches us: לא יהיה בכיסך אבן ואבן גדולה וקטנה - אבן שלמה וצדק יהיה לך  -
Don’t have two different sets of weights and measures - that’s dishonest, and the Torah even uses the word תועבה - abomination - to refer to someone who would engage in such unfair measurement in business.  And the same principle should apply to people.
The amount of meaningful information about someone that I can glean simply from seeing the shade of someone’s skin, or someone’s name, or someone’s accent, or someone’s ethnic origin, should be assumed to be zero.
And as aJew, I look at this situation with the knowledge that I am from a group that has also been profiled.
It’s hard to believe now, but in 1908, the police commissioner of New York, Theodore Bingham, commented that there was an ethnic group in New York City that seemed to have a propensity towards crime - and how half the violent crime in New York City was being committed by one particular ethnic group - eastern european Jews.
Was there more crime among that group than some other groups? Absolutely.
but would that be a reason to be more wary of someone because they were of Jewish eastern european origin?

There’s another comment about race in America by Jay Smooth that I found to be very helpful - and quite similar to the talmud’s teaching about how we should think of ourselves as balanced perfectly between good deeds and misdeeds.
He suggests: it’s not helpful to think of prejudice as something that is like a switch to be turned on or off.
Like some people - like Bull Connor and George Wallace - are racist, and other people aren’t.
And this leads to people treating being prejudiced as being like - well, his example is - like having your tonsils. Some people have their tonsils, and some people have had their tonsils removed.
And if someone should say, “I think what you just said or did might reflect some unconscious racial prejudice,’ people are likely to respond defensively, ‘no, that’s impossible - because I had my prejudice removed in 2005.’

Jay Smooth suggests that it’s better to think of prejudice as being like dental hygiene. No one would say, ‘I have excellent dental hygiene and therefore I don’t need to brush my teeth every day.’ Rather, everyone realizes that having excellent dental hygiene INVOLVES brushing your teeth every day, and flossing, and seeking regular dental care, and generally being focused on dental hygiene as an ongoing project.
A very first step to thinking about prejudice as Jay Smooth would recommend
is simply to recognize that race has played such an insidious role in American society for so long that no one is going to ‘bat 1000’ when it comes to race, or making assumptions - conscious or otherwise - about people based on race.
But at least a first step is to recognize it when it happens.  And to have genuine conversations with people who deal with its implications every day.
Because overcoming centuries of racism in North America is an ongoing project.

And by the way, what’s true about race, and dental hygiene, is true about goodness in general.
We become the people we are and develop the character we have
based on numerous little things we do or don’t do each and every day.  
Building our resume virtues happens gradually over a lifetime.
Building our eulogy virtues -- happens anew each day.
As the Hasidic Rabbi Wolf of Strikov taught: “Remember that you are not as good as you think you are, and the world is not as bad as you think it is.”     (Cited in Telushkin, A Code of Jewish Ethics, v. 1, p. 83)

May we retain enough of a connection with our imperfections
that we can truly strive for goodness.

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