Posts in Susan’s Musings

The Atheist and the Rebbetzin Should Be Friends

April 20th, 2018 Posted by Susan's Musings 10 comments

The Rodgers and Hammerstein musical, Oklahoma, features a song that allows for a rollicking dance sequence even if it doesn’t do much for the plot. The Farmer and the Cowman Should Be Friends  is a social commentary on the tension between ranchers and farmers in the early 1900s in Oklahoma Territory. The closing lines (after Aunt Eller stops the fighting by brandishing her gun), are:

“I don’t say I’m no better than anybody else,
But I’ll be danged if I ain’t just as good!”

I think it safe to say that well-known atheist Sam Harris and I (Rebbetzin means Rabbi’s wife) disagree on whether traditional Judeo-Christian morals and values are good for society or not. I think we agree, however, on allowing those with whom we disagree to present their case and the need to recognize that holding an opposing opinion does not automatically make one evil. In fact, having rational and respectful conversation is a wonderful way to refine one’s arguments, recognize flaws in one’s logic and potentially sway opinions. If you believe that your ideas have merit, there is no reason to fear such an exchange.

I know that Mr. Harris holds these views because my husband and I were in the car for an extended time this week giving us the opportunity to listen to a fascinating podcast. As a guest on the podcast Harris expresses serious concern about a society that is quick to marginalize and demonize ideas that don’t match the reigning ideology even when those ideas are based in science and fact. For that matter, in the desperate desire to shut them down, opposing ideas aren’t even necessarily presented accurately. He is one in a growing line of thoughtful liberals, including Professor Alan Dershowitz, who are waking up to discover that the ‘new and improved’ world they participated in creating, is dangerously retrogressive.

I hesitate to recommend listening to the interview which was episode #1107 on the Joe Rogan Experience podcast only because the host seems to have a limited vocabulary that repetitively features one vulgarity. The good news is that he allows his guests, Sam Harris and  Maajid Nawaz to do most of the talking. They are articulate men with fascinating experiences and while I know there are many areas where we disagree, we share a deep concern for the dogmatic silencing of dialogue taking place in the Western world today. An alliance between conservatives and the increasingly rare traditionally open-minded and thoughtful liberal is a friendship worth cultivating.

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Yet We Live

April 12th, 2018 Posted by Susan's Musings 9 comments

As human beings, we struggle to know ourselves; no matter how close we are to someone it is impossible to completely know another person. This is particularly true for our parents.

When my friend, Naomi*, was sitting shiva (the Jewish week of mourning) for her mother, she discovered some flabbergasting news. Naomi’s father was her mother’s second husband. Not only had she been previously married, but she and her first husband had two children. That husband and those children were murdered by the Nazis.

Naomi had known that her mother was in a concentration camp, though her mother never spoke of those years. She knew that her parents met in a DP camp; she knew that she and her older siblings, named for slaughtered grandparents, were born after her parents reached America’s blessed shores. But she never imagined that her mother’s life had included a previous young family. This information explained so much. She now could see her mother’s hyper-vigilance combined with a certain emotional gruffness not as personality quirks but as the tortured expression of inestimable pain.

I was unusual among my classmates in having four living grandparents. In addition,  all four of my grandparents were in America from before World War I. My parents were born and grew up in New York City. My father even had grandparents and great-grandparents of his own living nearby. Since my grandparents never spoke of their murdered parents, siblings, nieces and nephews, I had infinitely less personal exposure to the Holocaust than my schoolmates who sometimes listened to their parents’ midnight screams as nightmares took them back to unbearable days.

Why am I telling you this? Because I want to share an uplifting, optimistic and soul-affecting video with you. Before I do, here is an introduction.

Last week, at the Passover Seder, many Jewish families like ours said the following words in Hebrew, “For in every generation they stand over us to annihilate us and the Holy One Blessed Be He, saves us from their hands.” This is often sung to an upbeat tune, which is rather odd when you think of the first part of the sentence. My friends’ parents also sang this, yet each one mourned way too many loved ones who weren’t saved. Why didn’t they reject this statement as untrue?

The verse refers to the Jewish people as a complete organism. As long as there is one Jew left to sing these words, it is a true testimony. And yes, as a people with a long history, there are many horrific examples of slaughter, yet by God’s grace we are still here.

This post-Passover time of year is associated with Rabbi Akiva, whose famous statement, “What is hateful to you do not do to others,” has become a universal credo. Rabbi Akiva was the premier teacher of his generation at the time of the destruction of the Second Temple. He watched 24,000 of his students die in a plague. What did he do after such a devastating event? He chose five men and began teaching them so that the future would be assured.

As a child, I didn’t understand the greatness of those who suffered and saw their lives trampled and yet who picked themselves up and chose to have new children and new lives. Only a few survive today from that generation. Yet as this video (with English translation) shows, religious or not, learned or not, the overwhelming majority of the survivors followed in Rabbi Akiba’s footsteps. What an inspiring lesson this is for us.

*Naomi is not her real name. She is a composite of a number of my friends.

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Each Generation We Must See Ourselves

April 4th, 2018 Posted by Susan's Musings 25 comments

We are in the midst of Passover and I am delighted to be sharing the festival with so many children and grandchildren.  At the same time, that means that my computer and I haven’t seen a great deal of each other this week. My head is full of menus and cooking timetables, leaving little room for pondering current world affairs. One main focus of Passover, however, is realizing that without continually keeping an eye on the past, present and future, humans are prone to mess up. With this in mind, I’d like to share a Musing from April, 2012 that is no less relevant today.

 

“In each generation every person must view themselves as if they left Egypt.” A few nights ago, Jews around the world recited a sentence expressing this thought at the Passover Seder. Shortly before the holiday started, my son, Ari, saw one aspect of this idea come to life.

I think most of us picture ourselves on the right side of history. Had we lived in different times and places surely we would have stood with the abolitionists rather than the slave-owners; would have joined the Resistance rather than the Nazi Party; and would have opposed Stalin rather than embracing him. We more easily picture ourselves following Moses through the sea rather than ignoring him and the God he represented.  But the majority of Jews did not leave Egypt. Eighty percent chose loyalty to Pharaoh and the status quo.  Bad choice.

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Problem or Progress?

March 29th, 2018 Posted by Susan's Musings 26 comments

Do you wear a watch? The answer to that question may depend on your age. You could say that watches are the new handkerchiefs.

I rarely iron. Nonetheless, when I was a young girl my mother taught me to do so and the first items entrusted to my care were my father’s handkerchiefs. I remember taking great satisfaction in watching a wrinkled piece of fabric turn into a tidy, pressed and folded square. Yet, the box of handkerchiefs my grandmother gave me when I was a young teen lay  unopened in my closet for decades.

While disposable facial tissues are described in an account of 17th century Japan, in the United States Kleenex were introduced after World War I, slowly replacing handkerchiefs over the course of decades. While some very environmentally conscious individuals are urging a return to the cotton square, most Americans never think twice at the idea of grabbing a tissue from a readily available box.

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Can you do it?

March 22nd, 2018 Posted by Susan's Musings 21 comments

On March 3, 2018, Sir Roger Bannister died. As news of his death at the age of 88 hit the airwaves some might remember that this was the second time his death was publicly announced. 64 years earlier the young medical student became the first person to run a mile in under four minutes. As he crossed the finish line in three minutes and 59.4 seconds on that momentous occasion on May 6, 1954, he fell exhausted to the ground. One Pathé newsreel report declared that he had died in his attempt to break the four-minutes-mile just as doctors had warned would happen to anyone who tried to do the impossible. The reporter quickly reversed himself when Roger Bannister triumphantly stood up.

One particularly amazing fact about the aspiring neurologist’s accomplishment was that his record was broken only 46 days later. In the following year, six more people broke the world record and today many college athletes run the mile in less than four minutes. Clearly, the human body is capable of doing so which begs the question as to why young Bannister was the first. He didn’t even have any particularly special training! Yet, his name is famous while the names of those who surpassed his record within only a few weeks and months have faded into oblivion.

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Don’t Like Your DNA? Change It!

March 15th, 2018 Posted by Susan's Musings 33 comments

If you, like me, have been learning from my husband for any length of time, you will be familiar with the idea that the physical world reflects the spiritual world. The fact that our eyes project an upside-down image of whatever we see unto our retinas isn’t a failure of evolution, it is a Divine message. Our eyes can easily lead us astray whether it is when we see a decadent piece of chocolate cake, a beautiful person or a ‘must-have’ gadget.

In contrast, our balance mechanism is located in our ears. Evolutionarily speaking, this makes little sense.  Our heads are in constant motion. The only reason we don’t lose our balance when we tilt our head is the equivalent of thousands of lines of software compensating for our head’s motion.  Evolution should have ensured that our balance mechanism would be in a more stable part of our bodies like the shoulders or hips. This isn’t a failure of evolution, it is a Divine message. We process information more rationally and unemotionally when we hear or read it rather than when we see a picture.

The media is agog with the news from NASA that, after spending a prolonged amount of time in the zero-gravity environment of space, astronaut Scott Kelly’s DNA differs from his earthbound twin brother Mark’s DNA. While scientists will discuss how strongly controlled the experiment was and whether the DNA changed permanently or it is only expressing itself differently, we should be asking what spiritual message we can draw from this.

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My Country is Greater than Your Country

March 7th, 2018 Posted by Susan's Musings 16 comments

When I wrote a Musing about comfort reading, I received a number of gifts from readers in the form of book suggestions. One of these was from my friend, Judy (who happens to be the author of the highly recommended book, The Skeptic and the Rabbi). She suggested the 44 Scotland Street series by Alexander McCall Smith. While I haven’t started that series yet, her suggestion prodded me to read the first book in the writer’s  The No. 1 Ladies’ Detective Agency series. 

I am hooked. Along with enjoying these charmingly written, evocative and delightful books—I am currently reading the eleventh in the series—I am intrigued by something I have noticed. The protagonist of the books is Mma Precious Ramotswe, founder and owner of the only detective agency in Botswana. I admit to knowing little of Botswana before starting these books, but Mr. McCall Smith is clearly in love with the country in which he lived for many years.

Mma Ramotswe is warm and wise. She is also highly patriotic and convinced of the superiority of her country as well as proud that she is a Motswana (member of the Tswana tribe). On occasion, she compares her country to others on the continent of Africa and her tribe to other tribes. There is no cultural equivalency here; her heritage is clearly superior. At the same time, she is a loving foster mother to two children of Bushman background and helps people from all countries and tribes, often at no charge.

I began to wonder what the response might be if a similar series was written extolling, shall we say, the United States among other North American countries. Or perhaps, claiming that Oklahoma was more praiseworthy than New York? Is it all right to compare one’s ethnic heritage with someone else’s to the detriment of the second? Mma Ramotswe’s pride is endearing. Why don’t I find it xenophobic and racist?

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See Something; Say Nothing

March 1st, 2018 Posted by Susan's Musings 33 comments

Today is Purim. Among other things this means that, this week, many people with an agenda are trying to validate their ideas by quoting verses from the Scroll of Esther. Are you a staunch 2nd Amendment advocate? You can find Scriptural support. Do you think that gun ownership should be outlawed? You can find Scriptural support. This doesn’t mean that Scripture has nothing to say on the topic. It means that the ancient Jewish wisdom that emanates from Scripture can’t be easily absorbed or transmitted in one quick column lacking context, subtlety and serious arguments and debate.

On the other hand, it is Purim, so I am going to join the crowd and link to the holiday, not directly on the gun issue, but on two news media items I saw in the press this week. The first was an article by the editor-in-chief of the Jewish Telegraphic Agency claiming that the speech given at CPAC by the NRA’s executive-vice-president could exacerbate anti-Semitism. Since Wayne LaPierre mentioned Saul Alinsky, Michael Bloomberg and George Soros, his speech could be seen as a dog whistle to anti-Semites. To the author’s credit, he acknowledges that it is hard to discuss the gun-control movement without mentioning Soros and Bloomberg as leaders in it, but he thinks that it, somehow, well, kind of, shouldn’t be said because even if Wayne LaPierre isn’t anti-Semitic himself, he might be seen as encouraging others to be so.

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Failing Our Children – Again

February 22nd, 2018 Posted by Susan's Musings 46 comments

We, as a society, have failed our children when they cannot safely go to school, concerts or about their daily lives. We have also failed them when we promote policies that increase their chances of  growing up in unstable households and being illiterate, unpracticed in logical thinking, unnecessarily drugged, addicted to violent video games, in a culture that devalues life, and without a moral compass. Compounding our failures is not a good idea.

My heart, like yours, goes out to those children who faced gunfire in Parkland, Florida and whose lives were lost or forever changed by that event. A massacre like that, just as previous mass shootings, should call us to re-evaluate and assess our nation. However, while emotions should prod us to action, just what those actions should be must be dictated only by facts and reality. Emotions, by their very definition are unstable and volatile. Justice and policy should not be.

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Granite Men; Marshmallow Boys

February 15th, 2018 Posted by Susan's Musings 19 comments

Imagine a woman in the mid 1800s crossing North America by wagon train. Now imagine her amazement if she was to travel a  similar distance today by jet. Multiple blessings of gratitude would spill from her lips. I tried to keep this in mind recently when I was cramped into a small seat, grazing shoulders with my neighbor, not quite sure where to place my legs and basically confined to that place for six hours.

Still, the trip was long. I was not disciplined enough to focus on work or even to concentrate on the current book I am enjoying reading. American Airlines, aware that a benumbed clientele makes for a successful flight, provided each passenger with a personal entertainment device that had more movies available than I have ever seen on an international flight  let alone a domestic one.

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