Monday, November 20, 2017

Franken's Apology: A Jewish Perspective

By now the whole world has heard about Leeann Tweeden's accusation that, in 2006, not-yet-Senator Al Franken kissed her too aggressively during a skit rehearsal and later posed for an embarrassing "joke" photo where it appears he is groping her. There is plenty of discussion about these events all over the Internet, so I'm not going to go into more details here.

Rather, I want to look at the ethics of his apology from a Jewish perspective. Why Jewish per se?  Because Franken himself is Jewish and has said that his Jewish roots are part of his approach to public service. (Read more on that...)    Although I am not his rabbi, I did know Rabbi Shapiro of Temple Israel in Minneapolis (who was), and can attest that Al Franken grew up in a positive Jewish environment. So I think it is fair to look at the issue from the standpoint of Jewish law & ethics.

But first, three disclaimers:

(1)  I do not speak for Senator Franken, and I have not discussed religion with him.  Therefore,  all opinions in this post are my own.

(2)  I am not in any way, shape, or form trying to claim that what Franken did to Ms. Tweeden was OK.  If I thought that, there would be no need to discuss apologies.

(3) I have been a Franken supporter since his first campaign in 2008 and I still am.  However, this does not mean I am blind to his faults, or that I enjoy raunchy sexual humor (Not!)  No leader is perfect.  Even Moses made mistakes.

Forgiveness and apologies in Judaism

Judaism teaches that for sins between human beings and God, it is enough to simply pray to God for forgiveness.  So, for example, if I eat a ham sandwich, all I need to do is acknowledge the sin, ask God for forgiveness, and hopefully not do it again.  However, if I harm another person - whether physically, monetarily, or through embarrassment --  I cannot be forgiven by God until I have made amends directly to that person.  In this, Judaism recognizes the right of victims to have their pain and suffering directly acknowledged.

This is exactly how Franken has handled the Tweeden accusation against him. Within 24 hours of Tweeden stating her case on CNN, Franken issued a full public apology to reporters, as well as sending an apology directly to Ms. Tweeden, which she read and discussed on The View.  During that interview she said she accepted his apology and stated, "I sincerely think he took it in and realized that -- man, he looks at it now and says 'I'm disgusted by my actions'..." She also stated that it is not her intent to get him to resign, that the people of Minnesota should decide this.  All in all, she accepted his apology and change of heart as genuine. (Watch the full interview on YouTube)

Unlike Weinstein, Moore, Trump and others, Franken did not retreat into denial.  There was no degrading of Tweeden, no calling her derogatory nicknames, no threats of defamation lawsuits,  no Twitter storm attempting to divert attention from himself, no coverup.  Franken fully owned his guilt and manned up to apologize. Twice.  I respect that.

Publicly humiliating someone is a sin

Let me point out that Jewish law takes a very dim view of embarrassing someone in public; it is, in fact, a serious sin that the Talmud compares to shedding blood (Bava Metzia 58b).   So even if Franken did intend the now-infamous photo to be a practical joke, the fact that it humiliated her made it a sin that he must atone for.  The same goes for the kiss, about which he says, "I certainly don't remember the rehearsal for the skit in the same way, but I send my sincerest apologies to Leeann." Some people have nitpicked this statement, claiming that he is denying her story.  I don't see it that way.  It is perfectly possible for two people to remember the same event in different ways.  What seems trivial in one person's mind can loom large in the mind of another.  For him it was probably just a rehearsal.  To her, it was devastating and made her angry for years.

So why didn't he apologize back in 2006?  Because apparently he did not realize the seriousness of its impact on her until she told her story last week.  Some people have implied that he only apologized because he got caught, but this contradicts her own story on CNN, where she says she saw the photo after they got back from the USO trip.  For whatever reason, she did not confront him about it back then.  What matters now is that as soon as he became aware of the impact on her, he owned it.

However, we should note that pillorying Franken  in a social media feeding frenzy is also wrong.  Ms. Tweeden has stated that it was not her intention to get him fired, she simply wanted to tell her story and get an apology.  She got that and has accepted it.  If the victim does not want to press it further, shouldn't we respect that?  Must we continue to drag both of them through the media?

Loshon hara (evil gossip) is also a serious sin: "You shall not go back and forth as a talebearer among your people." (Leviticus 19:16) Reporting the news is one thing. Vicious gossip is quite another.

Is "joking around" an excuse?

This brings us to the question of whether "it was clearly a joke" could be an excuse. The Jewish answer is no, not if it causes harm to the brunt of the joke.  In a discussion about embarrassment and nicknames, the Talmud (Baba Metzia 58b) says that one who calls someone a derogatory nickname -- even if he or she is used to it -- will spend eternity in Gehenna.  This may be hyperbole, but it does indicate the seriousness of humiliating somebody in public. (President Trump should listen to this.  Although he is not Jewish, one would hope that his Jewish daughter and son-in-law would point out it him.  Maybe they have but he doesn't listen?)

Humor is always tricky.  What is funny to one generation can be downright disgusting to another.  Even from group to group or person to person, what is acceptable can vary widely.  To be sure, much of Franken's humor back in his Saturday Night Live (SNL) days was very raunchy and misogynist.  (Read more...)  SNL today remains a venue where comedy often crosses the line into offensiveness.  This is not to make excuses, it just is what it is.  Perhaps we should all take a long hard look at ourselves and how we feed into this national obsession with raunchy sexist humor.

Again drawing on Jewish thought, Psalm 1:1 tells us not to "sit in the seat of the scorners," i.e., those who mock others. Good humor does not put others down.

Franken's humor and the 2008 Senate race

Here in Minnesota, when Franken ran for the Senate in 2008, his humor became an issue during the campaign.  The Republicans jumped on various articles and skits he had written or participated in (or sometimes just pitched but never produced) as "proof" that he was morally unfit to lead.  Even among Democrats, there was concern about his public image . Focus groups said loud and clear that they did not want Minnesota represented by a clown, especially a raunchy one.

Here again, Franken looked at his behavior and sincerely apologized: “For 35 years I was a writer," he said at his nomination speech. "I wrote a lot of jokes. Some of them weren’t funny. Some of them weren’t appropriate. Some of them were downright offensive. I understand that. And I understand that the people of Minnesota deserve a senator who won’t say things that will make you feel uncomfortable."

So a lot of the bad comedy material from the past that his enemies are now dredging up is old news to us Minnesotans, who elected him in 2008.  In 2014 he won the Democratic primary with 94.5% of the vote and the general election with 53.2% of the vote.  Obviously, Minnesota feels he has grown beyond his past off-color humor and is now doing a good job representing us.

Unfortunately, the rest of the country apparently hasn't followed Minnesota politics that closely.  A whole new generation, who weren't even born in 1975 when SNL began, are discovering anew that Al Franken the comedian wrote offensive jokes before he became a senator.  What they are missing is that during the campaign he promised to turn over a new leaf --and he did.  He went so far as to not tell jokes -- even acceptable ones -- suppressing his inner clown to take on the seriousness of governing in the Senate.  (Read more...)

Is Franken unfit to lead?

Now that the Tweeden story is out, certain people are calling for Franken's resignation.  Abby Honold, the Minnesota rape victim who helped Franken craft a bill that would help train First Responders to better help victims of sexual assault, called Franken to say he was no longer fit to sponsor it.  For the good of the cause, Franken turned it over to Senator Amy Klobuchar.

But I find myself wondering if Honold is really right.  Is Franken really unfit to lead on women's issues or anything else?

Recall again that the Tweeden case, as well as his sexist humor in general, occurred before he was elected to the Senate. According to the Minneapolis Star Tribune, 14 women staffers who worked for Franken signed a statement saying that he never acted inappropriately towards them:

“Many of us spent years working for Senator Franken in Minnesota and Washington,” their statement read. “In our time working for the senator, he treated us with the utmost respect. He valued our work and our opinions and was a champion for women both in the legislation he supported and in promoting women to leadership roles in our office."

(UPDATE 11/21/2017:   Three dozen women who worked with Franken on SNL also signed a letter defending him: "Saturday Night Live" Women Defend Franken after Groping Allegations, stating "not one of us experienced any inappropriate behavior.")

So it would seem that he really has turned over a new leaf.  I find myself thinking about how, in many recovery programs, the best outreach counselors are those who have been there.  Ex-alcoholics, ex-addicts, ex-gang members, ex-convicts -- the list goes on of people who can speak convincingly to offenders precisely because they once were offenders themselves.

In a follow-up interview on CNN, Tweeden herself blames our culture, and said that change is going to come "not from the victims coming out, and talking about it, I think its gonna come from the people who may be doing the abusing that don't even realize they are abusing because it is so a part of the culture..." . (Watch the  video)

Take Alan Alda, for instance.  If  you watch the early seasons of M.A.S.H., there's a great deal of material that comes across as sexual harassment.  Then, partway through the series,  Alda became a feminist. And if you watch the episodes in order, you can see the show evolve into a more respectful treatment of female characters.  Having followed Franken's career here in Minnesota, I have seen a similar evolution in Franken's attitude.

So why can't Franken be an advocate for women's rights?  It would seem that a man who himself once degraded women on the stage and in his writing -- but who has since repented and reformed -- would be the ideal person to convince other men to do the same.  In other areas we support --even praise! -- ex-offenders who do such education and outreach.  Why should  this be any different?

As I write this, the news just broke that Senator Franken does not intend to resign.  Frankly (pun intended), I'm glad.  So far, he is the only one of the many powerful men recently accused of sexual misconduct who has had the guts to take full responsibility and admit his mistakes.  That shows  courage and strength of character. We need more of that kind of leadership.

*  *  *

UPDATE: Listen to Al Franken's Full 18-minute interview with Cathy Wurzer on NPR, Sunday, November 26, 2017

Tuesday, October 31, 2017

Kabbalistic Musings on "Life of Pi"

On the first page of the novel, Life of Pi, the main character, Pi Patel, states that one of his two academic majors was in religious studies, with his thesis focused on "certain aspects of the cosmogony theory of Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth-century Kabbalist from Safed."  Luria, also known as the "holy Ari" (Lion), is still revered as one of the greatest of all Jewish mystics.

In the movie, Pi does not mention Luria by name, but he does say that he lectures on Kabbalah at the university. Given this reference (and a few others I will explain below), I feel justified in assuming that there are Jewish mystical themes encoded in the story, even though they are presented mostly in terms of Hinduism.  As I am a visual-oriented person (one of my autistic gifts), I will focus primarily on the movie, while using the book for more background references as needed.

(Warning: If you read beyond this point, you will encounter spoilers, so if you have not read the book and/or seen the movie, stop here or proceed at your own risk!)

In both the book and the movie versions, Pi Patel's father owns a zoo, so he grows up with a lot of practical knowledge about animals.  He is also very interested in religions. In addition to his mother's Hinduism, he  explores Christianity and Islam, finding truth in all three paths and combining their practices in his daily life. His brother ridicules him for this, while his father tries to convince him that "religion is darkness" and that rational thinking -- science -- is the way of "the new India."  Pi replies with the words of Mahatma Gandhi: "All religions are true."

The book goes into considerable detail about the three theologies and the differences among them, while the movie relies more on visual scenes of worship to get this point across. The book has a poignant -- if hostile -- marketplace encounter, with Pi's three religious teachers each claiming him for their own faith.  The movie leaves this scene out, perhaps because it might offend viewers, or else be over the heads of children in a PG audience.  It is well worth reading if you haven't already.

Pi is especially puzzled by Christianity, because he cannot understand why God would allow his innocent son to suffer for the sins of the guilty.  To him this makes no sense at all. The question of suffering recurs throughout the story.  How can a God who loves us still allow us to suffer?

The shipwreck

Because of political changes in India (during the administration of Indira Gandhi), Pi's father decides to close the zoo, sell the animals, and move the family to Canada. They will travel with those animals headed for North America on a Japanese-owned freighter named the Tsimtsum.  Which brings us to the second Kabbalistic reference in the story.  Although Tsimtsum might look like a Japanese name, it is in fact Hebrew, and means "contraction" or "withdrawal."  It refers to the teaching of Isaac Luria which says that, before the Creation, everything was infinite God-essence.  In order for God to create the universe as we know it, God first had to create a vacant space -- a void -- for it to exist in.  God did this by withdrawing -- contracting  -- Him/Herself.  Within this void, God is hidden, allowing for free will and for independent creatures like us to exist. 

That's all very interesting, but why did author Jann Martel name the ship Tsimtsum?  

In a blog article on this topic, David Sanders quotes Martel on this question: “I wanted a representative scoop of religions in the book – Hindu, Christian, Islam. I would have loved to have Pi be a Jew, too, but there are no synagogues in Pondicherry [where the family was from in India]. So I chose Tsimtsum as the name of the Japanese cargo boat because, although it sounds Japanese, it is a Hebrew word.”

 So my intuition was correct: Martel wanted to include Jewish mysticism in the mix, but like God in the cosmic tsimtsum, it is hidden. However, I think the symbolism goes deeper than that.  Genesis says that the world was "void and formless," with the spirit of God moving upon "the deep," often visualized as a vast ocean. The Zohar describes Creation as beginning with a primal point (singularity?) within the void, which then expanded.  When the ship sinks, Pi's world is contracted into a single point -- the lifeboat -- on a vast formless ocean, reversing Creation to chaos, so to speak. The imagery in the movie shows this in several scenes, with Pi's boat a mere speck upon the ocean. Director Ang Lee has stated that he specifically researched the philosophy of Isaac Luria to understand the concept of tsimtsum and incorporate it into the film. (source)

"As above so below" -- the clouds reflecting in the water
make it appear  as if the boat is in the sky
The movie also uses another common Kabbalistic theme: "As above, so below." This is the idea that the physical world "below" is a reflection of the higher spiritual world "above."  In numerous scenes we see the sky reflected in the water to the point that there is no horizon, no differentiation between the two. In the contraction of Pi's world, everything blends into one.

In one scene, Pi looks into the ocean and sees the whole universe reflected -- reminiscent of a childhood story told earlier by his mother, about how the Hindu god Krishna opened his mouth and the universe was seen within it.  (The CGI graphics of the two scenes are very similar.)   Once again, we are reminded of the spirit of God moving upon the waters in Genesis. 

The voyage

Pi makes it to the lifeboat, along with four animals: a wounded zebra, a hyena, an orangutan and a tiger named Richard Parker, a name he got through a mix-up of paperwork.  There is a lot of focus on name changes in this story.  Pi's first name is Piscine, from the French. But the bullies in his school take to mispronouncing it as "Pissing," so he re-names himself Pi. (In the movie he impresses everyone by writing out the number Pi to hundreds of digits.)  The Tiger was supposed to be called "Thirsty," but ended up as Richard Parker instead. In both cases, a less dignified name was replaced by a better one.  In the Bible, a number of characters are given new names to reflect a new status.

The zebra and orangutan are killed by the hyena, which in turn is killed by the tiger.  This leaves Pi alone with a vicious, hungry predator.  At first Pi is terrified, but he soon realizes that he and the tiger must co-exist.  He therefore works to establish his dominance and define their territories, using the methods of a circus trainer.  Various interpretations for this relationship have been put forth, most centering on some form of the tiger being his animal self.  This also fits with Jewish thought, where we have both a good side (yetzer tov) and a bad side (yetzer ha-ra.)  One cannot destroy the bad side, but one can learn to control it, as Pi does with the tiger.  In the book he considers various ways to destroy the tiger, but comes to realize that they need each other to survive.  "My fear of him keeps me alert, tending to his needs gives my life purpose," he explains. Jewish mysticism would say the same thing about the yetzer ha-ra.  Properly controlled, it motivates us to keep going in this world.

The carnivorous Island

One of the strangest episodes in Pi's voyage is the floating island full of meerkats.  Safe by day, the island becomes carnivorous at night.  This is so weird that many readers see it as pure fantasy.  I would like to suggest it is a combination of reality and imagination.  No, there are no ecosystems like the one Pi describes. However, there are many small islands in the Pacific, and floating islands of volcanic pumice -- some with trees -- have been reported. (Read more...) Carnivorous plants also exist in some places. So these elements do have a ring of truth.

By the time Pi gets to this island, he and Richard Parker are so close to death as to be delirious. In the movie they have just gone through a terrible storm where Pi cries out to God, "I lost my family, I lost everything. I surrender. What more do you want?" He has reached the depths of despair, the deepest dark night of the soul.  He fully expects to die.  So why couldn't there be a real island with some sort of animals on it, that Pi mis-remembers in this state of confusion?  If you compare the images of the island trees with the banyans he walked among back in India, they are very similar. And the meerkats do look more ratlike as they run up into the trees.

Screen shot of The Island, enhance by me to make the
reclining Vishnu shape stand out more clearly. 
Another aspect of the island is mystical. In the beginning of the movie, we are told that the Hindu god Vishnu "sleeps on the boundless ocean of consciousness" and the universe is his dream.  After Pi learns about Christianity, he thanks Vishnu for leading him to find Christ, and touches a small statue of Vishnu reclining.  When we see the island from afar, it has this same shape, formed by the outline of the trees. This suggests the possibility that the island may be some form of miracle, that God is watching over Pi and Richard Parker even if hidden. 

But although the island suggests sweet repose, it is a false peace.  All that the island gives in the daytime, it takes away at night.  And it is lonely.  Pi could have stayed there forever, eating plants by day and sleeping with the meerkats in the trees by night, but it was an empty existence. When he finds a human tooth embedded in a fruit (which opens like a lotus in the movie) and realizes that some previous castaway had died there, he decides to leave and takes the tiger with him.

The two stories
Richard Parker walks off into the jungle

After 227 days of survival on the high seas, Pi is washed ashore in Mexico.  As he lies exhausted on the beach, Richard Parker walks off into jungle without even looking back  The tiger is never seen again. This deeply saddens Pi, who even years later wishes there had been some sort of final look or growl in parting.  

In the book, during the first part about life in a zoo, Pi told the story of a black panther that escaped the Zurich zoo in winter and survived on its own for several months.  Now we know this was to lay the groundwork for the possibility that Richard Parker also survives in the South American jungle. Still, Pi misses him deeply.

Once back in civilization, parts of the voyage sound too strange to be true. The two Japanese insurance investigators don't believe him, and ask for an ordinary story to put in their report, one that their company will believe. So he obliges them and tells a more common type of lifeboat survival tale, one of treachery, murder and cannibalism, in which only he survives. In this second story, the zebra is a wounded sailor, the hyena is a barbarous cook, the orangutan is his mother, and he is the tiger.  In its own way, this tale is also hard to believe, because his mother and father can't swim, his brother refused to get up to investigate the loud noise or explosion, and all three were down below when the ship sank. Only Pi was on deck because he went up to see the storm.

So which story is true?  In both stories the ship sinks, Pi loses his family, suffers for 227 days at sea and is the sole survivor.  In the end, neither story explains why the ship sank. Neither explains Pi's suffering. Neither can be proven true or false.  The only witness other than Pi is Richard Parker, who disappeared into the jungle, so Pi cannot prove he ever existed. On a pragmatic level, does it really matter?

Pi then asks, "Which is the better story?" The writer who is interviewing him says that the one with the tiger is better.  The Japanese insurance men apparently agree, because in the end, they include the tiger story in their report. I myself also agree: the first story is the best one. 

As Rebbe Nachman of Breslov once said, "Not all the stories are true, but when the people tell them, they are holy." One cannot prove religion one way or another.  Is rationalism really better than mysticism?  What if life really is a random jumble of meaningless events?  Can we live with that?  It is the nature of human beings to seek meaning in life, to bring order out of chaos.  Whether or not Richard Parker was real, without the tiger, Pi would not have survived.

"Above all things, don't lose hope," read the survival manual in the lifeboat. 

"Never despair!" taught Rebbe Nachman. 

The better story is the one with hope.

(This post was updated by the author on 11/1/2017)

Monday, September 25, 2017

Guest Column: "To Save a Life" by Rocky Schwartz

Editor's Intro: Each year I write a column about why I oppose using chickens for Kapporos, the pre-Yom Kippur ceremony practiced by some Orthodox and Hasidic Jews. I have written about it from the standpoints of history, of Jewish mysticism, of public opinion, of culture wars and politics.  In all of those stories, the chickens themselves were anonymous, suffering en masse in the background. This year, I received this story about one individual chicken whose life was spared at a Kapporos site, and the compassionate way that came about.  I was deeply touched by this true tale, and so I offer it to here, my readers. Perhaps seeing one chicken as an individual life will help you to see all of them as God's creatures, each with his or her own story to live. (Rabbi Gershom) 

*  *  *  *  *

To Save a Life

by Rocky Schwartz

On a Monday night in October, we walked into hell. We had come to protest an Orthodox Jewish ceremony called Kapporos, in which chickens are slaughtered before Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement.  Although I myself am Jewish, I am not Hasidic and did not grow up practicing Kapporos.

Kapporos chickens in a crate
On a busy street corner, men were grabbing six-week-old baby birds, flipping them upside down and slicing their throats. Behind them, a truck sat on the sidewalk, filled with crates stacked upon crates of more babies.

When I immediately began sobbing at the horror of the sight, a dozen little boys gathered around me, mocking and laughing. Someone shouted, "Kill it right in front of her!" He swung a young peeping chicken by her wings.

I was horrified that such young people could be so callous toward baby animals suffering before them. The adults present either did not see what was happening, or they did not care.

After I composed myself (read: put up all the mental walls so as to not truly see the reality in front of me), I joined about 50 activists who stood protesting the slaughter. Tensions ran high on both sides, but I tried to remain calm. I walked among those who were swinging the birds, telling them:

They feel.

They feel pain.

They want to live.

They are fighting for their lives.

*You* have a choice.

Some people responded, "Yes, I have made my choice," meaning that they had decided to have their bird slaughtered. I told them the birds didn't have a choice in having their lives taken from them. Most ignored or mocked me, but one young girl, maybe 12 years old, spoke with me. She told me her name was Rose, and said a lot of people were listening to us and and having their minds changed, even if they did not say so in public.  She herself was torn. Should she follow the lead of her parents or not?

I asked her if she would do it if the animals being used were cats or dogs.

"Definitely not," she answered.

I told her the birds are no different, that they, too, feel pain and fear. I showed her the background on my phone, in which I'm hugging my late love, a rooster named Tabitha. I told her he was my best friend, but he died in January.

"And tonight," I told her, you have the choice not to take someone else's life."

"But what do I do?" she asked. "I already have a ticket!"

A fellow protester named David instructed me to ask her to still use her ticket to get a bird, but give the bird to me after the ceremony, instead of having her killed.

"I'll give her a safe home," I assured her.

"Okay," she said, "I'll find you."

I returned to the group of protesters, hopeful but not optimistic that the child would actually return and give me the chicken.

To my surprise, only five minutes later a young figure ran toward me through the crowd and shouted, "Here!"

Rose the hen at about six weeks old,
soon after she was rescued
It was the same girl. She quickly pushed a live hen into my hands. Then we ran in opposite directions, she back into the crowd and I toward the safety of my fellow protesters Vanessa and Steven's car. As I ran, I called out a stunned "thank you," clasping the trembling, feathered body in my arms.

On the way back to the car, I hid the small survivor behind my protest sign, shielding her from the crowd filling the street, who were killing her kin. I was also afraid someone might grab her from me. Once in the car, the chicken continued to tremble in my lap, but slowly accepted gentle petting and some water. I decided to name her Rose, after the little girl who had spared her life.

While I was sitting in the car, my partner Jay spoke with the girl. He told her how brave she was and asked if she wanted to be an animal rights activist. She told him her parents are extremely protective, that she doesn't even have a cell phone or email address. She wasn't able to protest publicly, but she did care about animals. I wondered how many others in the crowd didn't want to kill their chicken, but were not as brave as this child.

Vanessa and Steve returned to the protest, managed to convince one more man to spare a baby rooster, and then drove us home.

*  *  *  *  *

Rose today, as full-grown adult
Safe at home, Rose the rescue hen sits contented in my lap, preening herself and my arm. Out in the expanse of our backyard, she chooses to stand beside me. When I go to put her to bed at night, she cries out in panic and runs after me toward my bed, until I sit with her as she falls asleep.

She still bears the marks of the life she escaped. Badly infected feet from days spent in filth and crammed into a crate. A too-big body for a six-week-old, still-peeping chick, the result of over-breeding for the meat industry.  Anxiety from her history of trauma.

But she is one of the lucky ones. Though she was specifically destined to be part of a religious ritual, her fate was to be no different from the 263 baby chickens killed for food in the United States each second, an incomprehensible 52 billion globally each year. The only difference for her? She was seen as an individual. And a child had the power to save her life.

The author, Rocky, and her new friend Rose

*  *  *  *  *
Editor's postscript:  Rocky refers to the birds being slaughtered as "babies."  These are not fluffy baby chicks, but six-week-old broiler chickens who have been artificially over-bred to grow and gain weight as fast as possible.  It is not that the Hasidim purposely choose to use babies as such; rather, it is that these are the type of chickens available from the meat industry.  The days of mother hens raising their chicks to maturity are long gone.  If you eat chicken, the likelihood is that the bird on your plate was also a juvenile bird hatched in an incubator and killed when only a couple months old.  They go to their deaths peeping in panic, never living long enough to cluck or crow. 

For more on this issue read my previous 2013 post, Kapporos Chicken's Don't Sing!  about the peeping chickens, and why Hasidim do not understand that they are crying. 

See also The Baal Shem Tov did it with a chicken, so why do you tell me not to? which explains this question from the standpoint of Hasidic mysticism.  

Friday, June 16, 2017

Reincarnation and multicultural Awareness

As many of my readers know, I took down my old website a while back. Several people have asked where to find this essay from 20 years ago.  I suppose it is archived somewhere online (nothing ever really vanishes from the Internet) but here it is again.

Multi-cultural Aspects of Reincarnation Studies

A presentation by Rabbi Yonassan Gershom

at the Institute for Discovery Science, Las Vegas, May 1997

If you would converse with me,
define your terms." (Voltaire)


When Rabbi Isaac Luria, the great sixteenth century Jewish mystic, was asked to write down his teachings for future generations, he replied, "How can I know where to begin? Everything is connected to everything else." And so, he wrote almost nothing at all about his personal spiritual experiences -- not because such experiences did not exist, but because he was at a loss as to how to put them on paper without limiting them to a narrow, linear format.

I have often thought that Rabbi Luria would have been right at home on the World Wide Web, which would have allowed him to structure his writings more closely to his actual inner experiences. The Web resembles the common format of Jewish theological discussions, in that it does not have a defined starting place, nor does it have any specified end. You simply jump in wherever you are at in the moment, and every page is the "right" page for beginning the discussion.

In the Talmud, for example, everything is indeed connected to everything else. The usual lines between religion, science, history, culture, folklore, philosophy and spirituality are not so clearly drawn in Judaism as in Euro-American thought. To interact with traditional Jewish thought is to enter a spiritual ecosystem which does not have clear boundaries between "science and religion" or "secular and sacred." To an observing Jew, eating kosher food (a seemingly mundane physical act) is just as "spiritual" as sitting in contemplative prayer all day. Why? Because, from the standpoint of Jewish theology, everything in the universe is related to Jewish practice. Judaism is about the totality of life itself, not "religion" as a separate category. This is why the Bible itself begins with the story of the Creation of the entire Cosmos, not the story of Moses and the Jewish people alone.

Over the years, when speaking to non-Jewish audiences, I have learned that it is better for me to explain this "spiritual ecosystem" approach of Judaism right from the start, lest the audience begin to wonder, halfway through my presentation, whether or not I have lost the thread of logic altogether. So today I ask your indulgence for this twenty-minute period, and ask you to trust that it will all come together in the end.

Some background on my work...

Some possible questions...

A few watershed anecdotes...

The topic assigned to me is to discuss experiences in the field of reincarnation studies. As you probably already know, I am the author of two books (Beyond the Ashes and From Ashes to Healing) describing anecdotal cases histories of individuals who believe that they are reincarnated souls who died in the Holocaust. I do not limit my own interest in reincarnation to the Holocaust period alone, but, because I am a rabbi who write on this subject, I have become a focal point for this type of case.

I came to reincarnation studies from the standpoint of two very traditional schools of Jewish thought -- hasidism and kabbalah -- which have believed in reincarnation for many centuries. I, too, believe in reincarnation. Therefore, the existence of reincarnation was never in question, and the idea of people reincarnating from the Holocaust was not shocking or surprising. I was not concerned with whether or not these experiences are "real" in the objective sense. Rather, I was interested in healing the deep emotional pain which these people carried in their souls. The people who come to me do not come for purposes of scientific research, but to find some type of religious and/or spiritual context on their own personal journeys.

When I first began collecting reincarnation anecdotes over 15 years ago, I was very naive about things like scientific method and statistical analysis. I had never even heard of "false memory syndrome" or cryptonesia. After all, I'm a rabbi, not a clinical psychologist! In my first book I described myself as a lone inventor who, while puttering around in his basement, accidentally stumbled upon something that works. I still affirm that description of myself today. I know that what I have found does work as a form of healing therapy, but at times I have not got the faintest idea -- from a scientific standpoint at least -- as to how or why it works.

Over the years, as I have listened to hundreds of narratives and also learned more about parapsychology, there have been a number of questions which have arisen in my mind, regarding the nature of these memories. For example:

1) How does one determine which past-life stories are true, and which are fantasies?

2) Do we accept only those for which physical evidence or other documentation can be found?

3) Do we also give credit to stories for which no "proof" is available, but which nevertheless seem historically accurate?

4) Are there cultural biases which determine our decision to accept or reject certain anecdotal evidence as plausible?

5) Does the choice of therapist or regression technique affect the experiences of the subjects?

6) Are we sometimes unconsciously skewing our study samples because we fail to take cultural differences into consideration?

To explore this question, I will now share some watershed experiences from the past two decades that I have been involved in this field. In essence, I am going to take you on a quick hyper-tour through some of my personal "brain-sites" -- places in my mind where key experiences sent my thinking in a new direction.

Brainpage #1: 
When I was growing up in America, I heard a nursery rhyme about "four-and-twenty blackbirds baked in a pie" and "when the pie was opened, the birds began to sing -- wasn't that a dandy dish to set before the king!" This ditty never made any sense to me, because American blackbirds -- be they grackles, crows, cowbirds or whatever -- do not sing. They make a raucous squawking sound that would hardly be a suitable gift for a king! So the imagery in this poem always puzzled me -- until I went to Europe on a speaking tour, and heard the European blackbird, which does indeed sing! Although it looks black like our blackbirds, it is, in fact, from a totally different genus -- the thrushes -- and is more closely related to the American Robin. Suddenly, I understood the nursery rhyme.

For the rest of that European tour, this story was my a paradigm for me to explain the pitfalls of inter-cultural dialogue in relation to reincarnation and afterlife studies. It is perfectly possible for two people from two different cultures to be using the exact same words and/or imagery to describe and experience, but hear them in very different ways. That insight became my theme for the rest of that speaking tour, and becomes the connecting thread for the rest of the seemingly unrelated -- but closely interwoven -- narratives I will share here.

Brainpage #2:
 Right from the start, I inadvertently skewed the sample in my first book by failing to take into account a vast cultural difference between Jews and non-Jews. I am not talking about religion per se, nor am I talking about what Jews and Christians believe about going to heaven. No, it's much more subtle than that. I'm talking about a basic behavioral difference that manifests itself among even the most secularized Jews and gentiles.

That important difference is this: Gentiles frequently tell their personal stories in public, but Jews usually do not. In the traditional Jewish world, it is not the usual practice for people to share their private dreams, visions, and other spiritual experiences in a book. This is not about shame or embarrassment -- it is about modesty and humility. How so? Because the Talmud says that the Biblical prophets only wrote down those dreams and prophecies which were intended for the entire Jewish people as a whole, for generations to come. Certainly they also has personal dreams and visions, but these were kept private, to be discussed only one-to-one with a teacher or fellow prophet.

Thus, from a very early point in Jewish history, a social pattern was established, whereby one does not publicly reveal a personal dream or vision from the pulpit, because that would be tantamount to declaring oneself to be a prophet. This attitude has carried down through the centuries so that today, even in modern secular situations such as AA groups or other 12-step recovery programs, Jews are often very uncomfortable with the testimonial format -- so much so, that many Jewish-sponsored recovery and support groups do not use this format at all.

On the other hand, the non-Jewish world in America has a long history of telling one's story in public. Many Christian sects testify in front of the congregation, while the above-mentioned 12-step programs also use this method of processing personal problems. In the New Age community, too, we find a plethora of holistic therapies which are based upon telling your dreams and visions. And, of course, in the world of psychology, the group therapy format is common.

Given this vast difference in cultures, is it any wonder that, when I put out a call for Holocaust reincarnation stories, I got twice as submissions from gentiles as from Jews? Unfortunately, based upon this totally unscientific sample, I naively reported that "two thirds of the cases came back as non-Jews," and this blooper has come back to haunt me ever since. But I learned a great lesson as well; we are indeed products of our cultures, every one of us, and hidden biases do sometimes lead us to make serious mistakes in research.

Brainpage #3: 
A past-life therapist is working on a book about people who believe that they were the opposite sex in their previous incarnation. Her editor thought the book was not well-balanced because all of here case histories were about women who believe they were men in a previous life. When she told me about this, I was puzzled, because it is a statistical fact that transexuality (a prime possibility for transgendered reincarnation) occurs more often from male-to-female (where a man has a sex change to a woman), and it would seem logical that transsexuals might be possible subjects for a study on the transgender soul experience. Why, then, was she unable to find any men who thought they were women in another life?

Several possibilities came to my mind:

1) Western society feels less threatened by masculine women than by effeminate men, so it would probably be more difficult for a man to say he believed he was once a woman in another life, because he would fear being called effeminate in this life;

2) Politically-correct gay and lesbian theory often discredits the idea of "women trapped in men's bodies," so cases from that quarter might not come forward;

3) Transexuals often distrust psychologists, so they may not open up about their inner beliefs in a clinical setting;

4) In general, more women than men seem to be interested in psychical topics (judging by the audiences that I see), so it might be that more women than men are willing to participate in the study;

5) The researcher herself is a woman, so maybe women are more willing to open up to her than men would be.

All of these possible factors might contribute toward skewing the sample. The obvious solution, of course, would be to look for volunteers from other areas of society besides the therapy community. It will be interesting to see if publishing her research attracts a more balanced sample in the future. In my case that is certainly what happened. After my first book came out in 1992, many Jews apparently felt that, because the book was written by a rabbi, it gave them "permission" to talk about their own Holocaust reincarnation experiences in public. Suddenly I was inundated with calls and letters from Jews who also had past-life memories of dying in the Holocaust -- so much so, that I now believe the majority of Jewish victims probably came back as Jews again in the post-war generations.

Brainpage #4: 
A recent study by Sukie Miller on what different religions and cultures believe about the afterlife made the totally inaccurate statement that "formal Judaism has no teachings about life after death." When I asked the researcher (who is herself Jewish) what she meant by "formal Judaism," it turned out that she was speaking primarily of modern American Judaism as experienced by the (in her words) "man-on-the-street." This is hardly formal Jewish theology! As every clergyman knows, the "man on the street" can be woefully ignorant of what his or her religion actually teaches.

I then asked Miller if she had interviewed any Hasidic Jews (who not only believe in an afterlife, but in heaven, purgatory, and reincarnation as well!) No, she replied. The questionnaires had gone out mostly to Jewish students and colleagues in her university circle. Unfortuately, such "cultural Jews" tend to be assimilated, very secularized, and not actively practicing or studying Judaism. In many cases, their understanding of Judaism does not come from actual exposure to the religious texts and commentaries, but from folklore that has filtered down (often very inaccurately) from family members who are descendants of Jews who used to be religious. Even worse, secular ideas about Judaism often reflect the dominant culture's attitudes about the "Old testament" which are not really Jewish at all.

In other words, Miller's much-touted research did not really get a cross-section of what formal Judaism teaches about the afterlife -- only a sample of what secularized Jewish academians think it teaches -- which, in many cases, turns out to be "when you are dead, you're dead." By failing to include the more mystical branches of Judaism, such as the Hasidic Jews (who do not, as a rule, attend secular universities), the researcher inadvertently mis-informed the public that "formal Judaism" has no teachings about life after death.

Brainpage #5: 
In my second book, From Ashes to Healing, there is a detailed description of the afterlife by a woman named Abbye Silverstein. Silverstein is Jewish in this life, and grew up in a home where the Sabbath and holiday observances were a part of family life. She also believes that she was Jewish in her previous life, again from a traditionally-observant family. So naturally, she understands her past-life memories within a totally Jewish context.

Under hypnosis, Silverstein described how she had died in a car accident around the time that Hitler came to power. She does not, therefore, have memories of the Holocaust itself, but she does claim to remember working in the spirit world as a healer for Jewish souls who died in the camps. She described their astral bodies as being "crippled" and "mangled" because of the pain and torture they had experienced. In order for them to be able to heal spiritually, the angels created an area in heaven which was a duplication of the villages that the Nazis had destroyed. There they were re-united with their families and friends. After spending some healing time in this nurturing Jewish environment, the souls were ready to reincarnate on earth again -- as Jews born in the post-war "baby boom" generation.

The public reaction to Silverstein's story has been very informative from the standpoint of multi-cultural awareness. By and large, Jews relate to it very well. So do people who have been abused in this life. Both groups understand the need to have a safe place where abuse victims can heal without fear of further abuse. Just as a rape survivor might need to spend time in an all-woman therapy group in order to be able to open up about her feelings from this experience, so, too, might Jewish souls feel more comfortable healing among other Jews who can understand the deep levels of their pain and suffering.

On the other end of the spectrum, many New Agers do not relate to Silverstein's story at all. New Age teaches that we must experience a smorgasbord of cultures in different lifetimes in order to grow spiritually. So the idea of a soul coming back repeatedly into the same culture is rejected outright -- well, almost. Because although New Age Thought resists the idea of Jews coming back as Jews, it apparently has no problem with Tibetans coming back as Tibetans. In numerous instances where somebody in the audience has told me that coming back as a Jew over and over again would be spiritually limiting, I have asked if they felt the same way about the Dalai Lama coming back for fourteen incarnations as the Dalai Lama. Not once has anybody told me that the Dalai Lama was spiritually limited because of this!

When the same experience -- being reborn into the same culture for many lifetimes -- is interpreted as "spiritual" for Tibetans but "limited" for Jews, we have to ask ourselves: are we seeing a subtle form of antisemitism at work? If so, is it possible that similar prejudices color our perceptions of other reincarnation stories? And does this prejudice, in turn, affect the sample of people who are willing to be included in these studies?

As I travel from place to place, speaking in front of numerous audiences, I cannot help but notice that the vast majority of New Agers in America are middle-class, dominant culture people of European background. Which raises yet another question: Are New Age perceptions of the afterlife really universal, or are they, too, culturally limited?

Brainpage #6:
 I was in Berlin, speaking at a conference on "Reincarnation and Karma," sponsored by the Anthroposophical Society. Anthroposophy is a European esoteric philosophy that was founded at the turn of the twentieth century by the German philosopher and psychic, Rudolf Steiner. (Best known to the American public as the founder of the Waldorf method of education.) Anthroposophists believe in reincarnation.

So far, so good. However, when we began to dialogue in more depth, it became apparent that there are some very big differences in theory between what Anthroposophists believe about the levels of the soul, and what I as a hasid believe. These differences, in turn, tended to affect how we interpreted the value of reincarnation anecdotes. I was told [by several Anthroposophists] that descriptions of the afterlife which include detailed physical imagery -- such as Abbye Silverstein's past-life memories referred to above -- could not be very deep spiritual experiences, precisely because they are so detailed!

Among American researchers of esoteric subjects, the more detailed the descriptions, the more credible they seem to us. But from the standpoint of Rudolf Steiner's philosophy, such clearly-formed visions would belong to the lower astral planes, while the higher planes are like unformed swirls of undifferentiated energy.

My mind raced back to my first impression of the children's art work at the Waldorf school in Minneapolis. Nobody was drawing houses, horses cars and trucks -- the usual things children make in primary school art class. Instead, the walls were covered with artwork that was literally fuzzy around the edges, without clearly-defined forms and boundaries. To me, all the childrens' painting looked alike. I saw no individuality in them at all -- even though Anthroposophy places a strong emphasis on the development of individuality. So what was going on here?

I later spoke at the Goetheanum -- the Anthroposophist headquarters in Dornach, Switzerland -- where I saw that the artwork on the walls was also done in the same abstract swirls of pastel colors. This, I was told, is because the paintings represented the creative energy of higher spiritual worlds. Clearly, the Anthroposophists have been conditioned from childhood to "see" these swirling colors as representing something spiritual. But are they "higher levels" than the more concrete details that others experience in visions? Or are they just one more way that a specific culture expresses a generic experience?

Brainpage #7:
I thought about the concrete, detailed vision-drawings of Black Elk, the Lakota Indian medicine man whose well-known story is told in the book, Black Elk Speaks. In his view of the afterlife, Black Elk saw horses and buffalo, trees and prairies. He saw the Tree of Life in full flower, and his tribe living on the prairie as free people more. I see a closer parallel with Silverstein's heavenly villages rather than the Anthroposophist swirls of energy. In fact, if Black Elk had seen the vague swirling forms painted by the Anthroposophists in Brainpage #4 above, he might have thought that he failed to have any vision at all!

I investigate further and find that many Native Americans, like the Jews, believe that one normally reincarnates in one's own tribal culture. I also learn that the Druse, a middle-eastern tribal culture, believe that a Druse always reincarnates as a Druse again. And many Druse children do describe memories of a past life which are quite accurate, to the point of recognizing family members from the previous life. Yet tribal peoples (and I include Jews here as tribal) are vastly under-represented in reincarnation studies. Are we missing something here?

Brainpage #8: 
A psychic from an esoteric Christian background visited the site of one of the Nazi concentration camps, and sensed the presence of earthbound Jewish spirits there. The psychic tried to convince then to "go into the light," but the earthbound souls were totally terrified to do so. The Christian psychic concluded, based on her own theology, that this was because Jews do not accept Jesus, who is called "The Light of the World." She saw the earthbound souls as stubborn Jews who refuse to accept "releasement" and be free.

When I heard this story, I immediately saw another possible interpretation: In the concentration camps, to go into a bright light meant being caught in the searchlights, which, in turn, could mean being shot by the guards. To hide in darkness was safety; light was danger. Over and over, Holocaust survivors have told how they huddled together in darkness, fearing at any moment that somebody would shine a flashlight into their hiding place. For such souls, "go into the light" has a totally different meaning! The souls refused to go, not because they were Jews against Jesus, but because they were terrified of being captured and tortured.

Unfortunately, this type of misunderstanding is very common -- even in scientific circles -- when it comes to Jews and Judaism. Many academians from Christian backgrounds, who believe themselves to be totally objective, nevertheless are so conditioned to see Judaism in a negative light, that they unconsciously make negative assumptions about Jewish reincarnation cases which they probably would not make if the same details appeared in non-Jewish cases. Nor do they appreciate me pointing out this unconscious bias.

I recently had a scientist tell me that he would prefer for me to speak as a "generic theologian" rather than as a Jew per se. From his viewpoint, it was possible to discuss "God" and "afterlife" without bringing in any specific religion. But from my viewpoint, this is an impossibility. Why? Because so much of Western theology simply assumes the Christian viewpoint in such subtle ways, that I, as a Jewish theologian, must begin by defining his terms and explaining how words like "Heaven," "soul," "salvation," "prophecy," etc. have very different meanings. Say "Heaven," and a Christian automatically pictures angels on clouds, while a religious Jew pictures scholars learning Torah in the Garden of Eden. Both cultures use the word "Heaven," but the word itself means very different things. Which brings us full circle to where we started -- with the story of the European and American blackbirds.

An ongoing conclusion

These are just a few of the "brainpages" which I try to keep in mind as I travel and speak in multi-cultural situations. Is it possible to completely set aside one's own cultural background when evaluating the reincarnation stories? Probably not. But if we can remain consciously aware that these differences exist, then perhaps we can begin to broaden our understanding of reincarnation through contact with cultures which, up to this point, have been inadvertently excluded from this area of study in Western circles. It is my hope that as we enter the 21st century, we will begin to see how, as Rabbi Luria saw five centuries ago, everything is, indeed, interconnected with everything else.

Tuesday, May 2, 2017

Parable of the Rooster Prince

A tale of Rebbe Nachman of Breslov

(As told by Yonassan Gershom)

Once there was a prince who went mad and insisted he was a rooster. He sat under the table naked, clucking and eating his food off the floor. The king had tried everything to cure him, but nothing worked, and he was in despair. How could this mad son of his ever grow up to inherit the kingdom?

Then a Hasidic Rebbe arrived and said he could cure the prince. The king was desperate, so he said, "OK, fine, go ahead, I'll try anything..."

So the Rebbe took off his clothes and sat under the table, pretending to be a chicken, too. The king was totally shocked. No doubt he had expected the Rebbe to argue with the prince or try to verbally beat it out of him. But the Rebbe knew what he was doing. And so, sitting there under the table, he got to know the Rooster Prince.

Then one day, the Rebbe called for a pair of pants and began putting them on. The Rooster Prince objected, saying, "What do you mean, wearing those pants? You're a rooster -- a rooster can't wear pants!"

"Who says a rooster can't wear pants?" the Rebbe replied. ":Why shouldn't I be warm and comfortable, too? Why should the humans have all the good things?"

The Rooster Prince thought about this for a while. The floor under the table was very cold and uncomfortable.. So he asked for pants, too, and put them on.

The next day, the Rebbe asked for a warm shirt, and began to put it on. Again the Rooster Prince objected: "How can you do that? You are a rooster -- a rooster doesn't wear a shirt!"

":Who says so?" said the Rebbe. "Why shouldn't I have a fine shirt, too? Why should I have to shiver in the cold, just because I'm a rooster?"

Again the Rooster Prince thought about it for a while, and realized that he was cold, too -- so he put on a shirt. And so it went with socks, shoes, a belt, a hat.... Soon the Rooster Prince was talking normally, eating with a knife and fork from a plate, sitting properly at the table -- in short, he was acting human once more. Not long after that, he was pronounced completely cured.

Moral of the Story?

Instead of condemning the prince for being mad and acting like a rooster, the Rebbe was willing to meet him where he was and then go forward from there. Of course the prince was not really a rooster -- but the Rebbe did not try to argue him out of his madness. That would have been useless. Instead, the Rebbe began with positive reinforcement of things that the prince was willing to do, knowing that he would eventually drop the crazy "rooster business" on his own.

Sure, there were in-between stages where the prince still thought he was a rooster but was already beginning to act like a human. Similarly, there are stages in tshuvah (repentance) where a person may be only halfway there, keeping some of the mitzvot (Torah commandments) but not others. So maybe the guy keeps kosher already, but is not yet observing the Sabbath completely. He's on his way, but not there yet. But does the non-observance of some mitzvot invalidate the mitzvot he is doing? Not as far as I know, because each mitzvah has a value in itself.

Repentance is an ongoing process, not a static state of perfect observance. Nobody is totally observant, and nobody is totally sinful. We all fall someplace in the middle. As the Midrash says: Even the biggest sinners in (the people) Israel are as full of mitzvot as a pomegranate is full of seeds. We are all still traveling on that continuum somewhere.

The important thing is not whether we are doing everything perfectly, because nobody but God can do it perfectly, and none of us are God. The important thing is for our Jewish experience to be continuously growing toward an ever greater level of observance.

So, when a Jew says to me, " Look, I'm Reform, we don't do such-and-such like the Orthodox...": then I reply, "Why not? Who says a Reform Jew can't do such-and-such, too? The Torah was given to all of the Jews, and all of the mitzvot belong to all of the Jews -- so a Reform Jew can do anything that a Hasid can do."

Or, if a New Age Jew says to me that he believes in angels and reincarnation and spiritual healing, then I say, "OK, fine -- so did the Baal Shem Tov, founder of Hasidism, and so do most Hasidim today! So Let's look at some of the Jewish sources for these things..."

For each Rooster Prince that I meet in the world, I try to find that point of commonality. At sci-fi conventions, I have led discussions about Jewish Themes in Star Trek. In New Age groups, I will focus more on the esoteric ideas in Hasidic thought, etc. With gardeners and farmers, I can talk about the wonders of God's Creation and how all things are singing His praises... and so forth. In this way, I seek to meet each person where they are at, and bring them closer to the Torah, which ultimately contains all of these things -- and so much more!!!

The Torah -- in its broadest sense as the totality of all Jewish teachings -- encompasses everything on earth. M'lo kol ha-aretz k'vodo -- "The whole world is filled with God's glory." So in everything and in every place -- even the darkest, remotest corner of the universe -- one can still find a bit of God's light, even if that light is obscured by layers and layers of seemingly crazy ideas. I look for those points of holy light, the points of agreement where we can understand each other, and then go forward from there. This is the Hasidic way.

(© copyright 1997 by Yonassan Gershom. From my old now-defunct website 20 years ago -- and still relevant!)