Ways of Walking to Work


Yesterday morning, on my way to school, I ran down into the grass to take the photo above. You can see the swans right in the middle. I haven’t seen the cygnets since early November; they have probably gone off on their own.

I have been thinking (again) about solitude, the subject of my first book. People speak in terms of needing a lot of solitude or not needing much at all, but it doesn’t come in quantities. It does not translate into “time spent alone.” Everyone has a form of it; it’s these forms that differ.

On the surface, Judaism does not  emphasize solitude; most practices and life cycle events are communal. Yet the texts could not exist without solitude; their authors, situations, and stories have to do, again and again, with standing apart from the crowd, thinking alone, going through things alone, relating alone to God, saying things that others would rather not hear. From Noah to Rebecca  to Hannah to Jeremiah to Solomon, from the Psalms to the Prophets to Koheleth to Genesis to Deuteronomy, solitude fills the words and sounds–solitude in its fullness and with all its contradictions.

How do you find your way in a tradition that is so profoundly solitary on the one hand and so strongly communal on the other? You do just that: find your way. It won’t be the same as another person’s, but it will be founded on the texts and practices. There is solitude (and commonality) in that search and study. Some have devoted themselves to the study of solitude in Judaism (see, for instance, the blog Jewish Contemplatives); others learn about it in passing and repassing.

Solitude may involve long retreats, but it often takes the form of a brief cocoon of thought. Sometimes, no matter where I am, I need to step aside in my mind to reconsider things; this can happen within seconds, but it’s still solitude. Those few seconds can make the difference between understanding something well or poorly, handling something gracefully or ungracefully, or acting wisely or unwisely. Solitude allows us to exist in full dimension.

Some will object that this is just reflection, not solitude, but no, it’s solitude too. You can’t reflect in this way without standing and thinking apart. Solitude affirms that there’s something beyond the first appearance of things, something that calls for introspection, analysis, feeling, creation, and relinquishment, or some combination of these. Solitude wraps and unwraps itself; it retreats and returns.

That’s why it makes little sense to describe someone as “solitary” or “social.” We are all complex combinations of both. Some may seem aloof but have strong daily relationships. Some may seem gregarious but keep most of their thoughts to themselves. For some it depends on context, time of day, and stage of life. But whatever shape our associations and detachments take, they influence each other. It is our ability to step back that allows us to shape our actions, to listen to others, and to protect ourselves from sheer impulse and reactivity.

Some see “thinking” and “doing” as mutually exclusive; in their view, the “doers” are the real people, the ones getting the work done, while the “thinkers” are just inconvenient clods of contemplation. To those people I would say: if that were so, you would not have a house to live in, for there can be no architecture without thought. You may not particularly enjoy thinking (any more than some others enjoy making things with their hands), but that does not mean you can do without it. Someone has to do the heavy lifting, someone the light; sometimes it’s a lifting of planks, sometimes of ideas. Give respect to both, and life will have meaning and housing.


A Cedar Rule of Friendship


Friendship has become like plastic wrap: stretchable over everything, yet easily poked and ripped. The word has become thin in meaning; in a Facebook context, a “friend” may be someone we’ve never met, have met but may never get to know, or have known for years. With a few clicks, you can “unfriend” someone; friendship is not a commitment but a “status.”

All of this has been said before, by many people. I am about to propose a cedar rule that can make friendship more meaningful, no matter what its depth or context. It’s difficult to follow, but it seems good as an aspiration. (I call it a “cedar rule” rather than a “golden rule” because cedar suggests durability and majesty. It’s one of the most vivid symbols in the Hebrew Bible. (See Psalm 92 and Ezekiel 31, for instance.)

The cedar rule is this: Never say anything about your friend that you are unwilling to tell him or her directly. Moreover, avoid speaking disparagingly about anyone, friend or not.

This goes for a stranger, a best friend, and anyone in between. A friend of any kind or level deserves this dignity.

I am using the pronoun “you”  not to be preachy but rather to avoid the awkwardness of “one,” the insularity of “I,” and the groupiness of “we.” Pronouns can be a pain (and I would say this to their face).

Now, some would object: What’s the harm in talking about my friend to someone removed from the situation? There’s no harm, if this conversation prepares you to speak directly with the friend. But if it replaces such conversation, it’s a way of keeping the friend in the dark about your thoughts and needs (specifically regarding the friendship).

If you are annoyed with a friend’s habits (of being late, of texting too much, of showing off, of not replying to an email, of putting people down), then the question becomes: How important is this person to me? If important, there are two choices: put up with the habits, or address them directly. Talking about them to someone else is not fair; it does not give the friend a chance to respond. The friend may think you’re fine with it all.

In addition, disparaging talk (even with the person’s knowledge) does damage and should be avoided in general. This idea is a bit harder to take; my own response would be, “so, am I supposed to pretend I just love everyone, that everyone is great, that there are no human flaws in the world? Must I avoid saying anything about Trump, then?”

No–there is a difference between criticism and disparagement. It’s possible to object to a person’s actions–frankly and fully, laying your cards on the table–without putting the person down or claiming superiority. Public figures are automatically subject to criticism because of their responsibility to the public; but even there, the criticism can hold to standards.

Jewish law forbids “lashon hara“–the evil tongue–defined as speech that says something negative about a person, is not intended to correct the situation, and is true. It’s the second quality here–speech not intended to correct the situation–that sets “lashon hara” apart from helpful criticism.

So when criticizing, be specific, do away with the sneer, acknowledge your own limitations, and allow the person to respond to your complaint. In all cases seek the good. Aristotle saw the best friendship as the kind based in good will (eunoia). While he considered it rare (and while he was probably right), its underlying principle can serve as a general guide.

The two parts of this rule depend on each other. To treat a friend justly, you must have a foundation of just speech in general–that is, speech that provides an opening for the good. With people in general, it is sufficient to avoid putdowns and hurtful gossip. With friends, you go one step further by saying directly to them whatever you would say about them, including the most thoughtful and helpful criticism in the world.

Of course there are qualifications to this, particularly when it comes to praise. Sometimes direct praise can become too much for the recipient; indirection may be kinder (and will rarely cause harm). But even there, it’s worth asking: Am I willing to say this directly to the person, and if not, why not? Sometimes people have little idea how much they are respected and appreciated; it would help them to know. Or sometimes the excessive gush has other, less honorable, causes; in that case it may be worth holding back a little, even from the wide world with its vast indifferent ears.

If the cedar rule were applied to all friendships–light or serious, distant or close, online or offline–how much the discourse would improve! Not only would people speak more kindly, but when they had an issue with someone, they would approach the person directly. What trust and good work this would engender. This doesn’t require intimacy or stiff formality; all it requires is care with humans and words. “All” it requires! This may be the greatest human challenge: to treat words and humans with care.


I took the photo in Central Park a few weeks ago.

I edited and added to this piece after posting it.

To Have a Home

Last night, at the B’nai Jeshurun Annual Meeting, our rabbis announced their decision regarding interfaith marriage, a decision that emerged from long deliberation and contemplation, including a full year of discussions, lectures, and other events, as well as prayer, thought, and conversation. I quote from their written announcement, which appears on the BJ website:

Beginning in 2018, we plan to celebrate and officiate at the weddings of interfaith couples who are committed to creating Jewish homes and raising any children as Jews. Drawing from traditional Jewish sources, rituals and symbols, we will create a new Jewish wedding ceremony for these couples.

We will continue to hold to the traditional matrilineal definition of Jewishness. We are not prepared to depart from k’lal Yisrael (the total Jewish community) by independently adopting a different approach in defining Jewish identity. In other words, we are not changing the halahic definition of who is a Jew. As rabbis, we have the space to decide whom we officiate for, and there is no concern about the validity of such marriages in the larger Jewish world. However, we don’t want to put BJ members in the situation of having their Jewish identity questioned or contested beyond the BJ community.

We take these steps with deep loyalty to the Jewish past and with unwavering commitment to the Jewish future. We will embrace a renewed sense of inclusiveness toward those who seek to be part of our community.

103 kosice synagogueI listened in wonder. This was not an easy decision; people at BJ and beyond have a range of views on the issue. The decision affects the rabbis’ relationship with the congregation, with other congregations, with Jewish organizations, with Israel, and with Judaism overall. It is not only about marriage ceremonies but about spiritual and practical focus: where to place the emphases and efforts.

What about those who wish to marry but do not wish to build Jewish homes? They have other possibilities, outside BJ. What matters here is that an interfaith couple committed to Jewish life will not be turned away, nor will the non-Jewish partner be required to convert to Judaism for the union to be recognized. Yet traditional definitions of Jewish identity will remain intact. The implications are great but also subtle; they will reveal themselves over time.

Readers of this blog have probably noticed that I am Jewish. I come from an interfaith (or rather, non-religious) parentage and many backgrounds: Eastern European Jewish on my mother’s side (with ancestors from Ukraine, Hungary/Slovakia, and Lithuania) and French, Norwegian (probably Sami), Irish, German, and more on my father’s. All of this is part of who I am. I just visited the town of one of my great-grandfathers (my maternal grandmother’s father); one day I hope to visit other ancestral places, including the northern reaches of Norway. Nor is ancestry the whole point for me, or even close; I know myself through the things I do and think, the music and literature I love, the friends I make, the things I learn, the changes I undergo, the things I lose, and the truths that stay with me over time.

I have been preparing for teaching at the Dallas Institute’s Summer Institute in July; my first lecture will be on Aeschylus’s Eumenides, in which Athena initiates the first Athenian murder trial by jury, bringing an end to a cycle of bloodshed and revenge. Her genius lies not only in the innovation, but in its respect for the hidden layers of society and life. The Furies, who seemed threatening and repulsive to Apollo, become a revered and essential part of the new order–far below the surface, in the depths of the home. In this way, the civic imagination makes room for the seen and unseen, the public and private, the new and the ancient; moreover, it finds beauty in what some would have dismissed as hideous. This is perhaps the foundation of what Edmund Burke and others (including David Bromwich in his magnificent book by the title) would call “moral imagination,” which has to do with seeing things in their depth, beyond their surface appearance or immediate utility. (There is more to it than that.)

I was in the presence of moral imagination last night. How great it is to have such a home.

Image credit: I took this photo on May 29 in the gallery of the Košice synagogue. It appears in my slideshow as well.

I  made a few minor edits to this piece after posting it.

A Cry for Coherence

bikerideTwo Jewish cemeteries in the U.S. have been vandalized over the past week: one in University City, Missouri (just west of St. Louis), and one in Philadelphia. Donations for repairs have been pouring in; much more needs to be done.

I don’t need to explain why people across cultures bury, honor, and remember the dead–and what this means in Jewish history and faith. I imagine that the criminals know some of this already; that may be why they toppled the headstones. They may have thought that they could hurt the dignity of the living and the dead at once.

If so, they are wrong. They caused damage and anguish, but the dignity they hurt was their own.

Yet I doubt that they fully understand what they did. They may not have considered the grief they were causing, and the depth of that grief–how many families of the deceased have relatives who died in mass graves or were burned alive. They may not have known what it means to have a burial and a stone with a name–a sacred place–and what this has meant over the centuries. If they did know, then they must have broken with those they were hurting; they may have thought, “This has nothing to do with me” or “These people deserve no better.” They probably did not know that when you break a grave, you break yourself, not only the self of the moment, with its immediate wants and needs, but the self that goes back in time, that is not only self but also ancestors, neighbors, strangers met in passing.

That doesn’t make the situation better or more comprehensible. The hate crimes over the past few months–against people of a range of backgrounds–have been far-flung and confusing. Some of these acts seem to be provoked and incited by Trump; some may have been long in the planning. Some may come from individuals, some from organizations. Some may have sources and motives that we don’t yet know. The responses, too, have been scattered–many responses have come over Twitter and have consisted of broken expressions.

Coherent speech resists the fragmentation. Sometimes the words don’t come; sometimes they come slowly or don’t come out quite right. (I started this post last night but had trouble putting words together, so I waited until morning.)  Sometimes words are not even needed or appropriate. But a full sentence is not to be taken for granted; it can be built up and broken down.

Many people are responding with donations, volunteer work, and more. The mayor of Philadelphia has said that authorities are doing all they can to find the perpetrators. There will be more information on specific actions that people can take. But the response is internal, too; there is nothing trivial in the gathering of thoughts, feelings, and words.

My thoughts are with those who those who lie buried in these cemeteries, those who have loved ones there, and everyone in pain over what has happened. I will speak up as I can, as well as I can, and will watch for more ways to help.

Image credit: I took the photo when biking along the Hudson the other day.

Note: I made a few edits to this piece after posting it.