Sunday, September 16, 2012

Rosh Hashanah 5773 -- Who Are You?

We confront G-d as individuals on Rosh Hashanah, and not as members of a group. His first question will be the same as that of the assistant: Who are you?

And as I found out , answering that question is not so easy. Nor is it a question that many of us have spent much time thinking about. Sure most of us could provide a resume of some sort. We might describe our profession, or name our spouse and children, perhaps add a brief biography, or tout a few awards. But none of these matters really go to the heart of the question. We are left describing various attributes of ourselves, but nothing of our essence, our unique individuality.

THE REAL QUESTION which Rosh Hashanah beckons us to face is: What is my mission in life? What do I have to contribute that no one else in the world does? That is hinted to in the Musaf of Rosh Hashanah, in which each person is described as being judged according to his "ma'asav v'p'kudotav – his deeds and his mission." The first refers to his or her mitzvah observance. But the second is no less important, for it refers to a person's unique mission (tafkid) in life.

We might think that from the point of view of a mitzvah observant Jew, care in the observance of mitzvot is by far the most powerful determinant of the judgment of Rosh Hashanah. But that is not the case. Rabbi Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz, used to bring a Midrash to make the point. The Midrash discusses Navat the Carmelite, who refused to sell his vineyard to the wicked queen Jezebel. Jezebel caused false witnesses to be brought against him, and he was put to death.

The Midrash asks: What could such a righteous man have done to deserve such a horrible fate? It answers that Navat had a beautiful voice. Every pilgrimage festival those who had gone up to Jerusalem looked forward to being spiritually aroused by his davening. One year, Navat failed to come to Jerusalem for the festival. That was the year that Jezebel had him killed. The lesson that Reb Shraga Feivel derived is that the suppression of some special gift that G-d gives a person is also the basis for judgment.

Rosh Hashanah is the day that G-d first breathed into Adam's nostrils, and thereby established the connection between Man and the Upper Worlds. Like G-d Himself, Man is a creator, G-d's partner in bringing the world to its ultimate purpose. The judgment on Rosh Hashanah, the anniversary of the birth of Man as a spiritual being, focuses on the question: Does this person deserve to be created again? Does he have a role to play in bringing the world to its purpose? And if the answer is affirmative, what tools does he need to fulfill that mission?

HOW DOES A PERSON begin to think about his or her particular mission? Reb Shraga Feivel Mendlowitz believed that just as every animal instinctively does that which is needed to ensure its survival so each person has some instinctive sense of his or her purpose in life. Some have a strong sense of calling from an early age – e.g., musical or mathematical prodigies who are passionately drawn to particular endeavors.

Others notice something that requires repair in their society or even in the smaller circle of family or friends. And instead of telling themselves that everyone else must have noticed the same thing, and that someone more talented or powerful or influential than they will surely address the problem, they take responsibility upon themselves. They reason that if G-d revealed a certain problem to them, then that is a sign that the problem is related to them in some way. Like Yosef, they not only interpret Pharoah's dream to ascertain the approaching danger, but offer a plan for alleviating the threat.

And for still others, their mission is thrust upon them by the circumstances into which they are thrust, and the way they respond to challenges they could have done little to anticipate.

All this requires preparation. Ideally, the entire month of Elul is devoted to an analysis of where one is holding in life, what is still to be achieved, and what resources – both internal and external – are required to achieve that goal. The process starts with the recognition that each of us was only brought into being because we have something unique to contribute to the world – each of us has a task given to no one who preceded us and no one who will follow.

TRAGICALLY, the requisite self-knowledge has never been farther from us. That is why the question, "Who are you?" is almost certain to trigger something akin to panic. The title of Nicolas Carr's popular book on the impact of constant connectivity on our neurological hardwiring, including our capacity for contemplation, captures our situation: The Shallows. We have become shallow, distracted people, who live our lives in public on Facebook because we are so utterly lacking any sense of self and so dependent on the reactions of others as a means of affirming our own existence.

May we all be inscribed in the Book of Life for a year filled with all manner of material and spiritual blessing.


Agudath Israel & A Deadly Ritual - Both Must Be Abolished!

If you want to understand just how religious authoritarianism harms children, look no further than the actions of a powerful group of rabbis in New York known as Agudath Israel. AI is a Jewish communal organization that represents the most conservative Jewish believers, the haredi or ultra-Orthodox Jews.

These rabbis are seeking to sue the City of New York after the health department announced it would adopt a measure that requires parents to sign a written consent form warning them of the dangers of a circumcision ritual called metzitzah b’peh. (The policy was just passed.) If you have not heard of metzitzah b’peh, brace yourself: It involves the sucking of the bleeding penis by the circumcising rabbi or mohel.

The practice of metzitzah b’peh is thousands of years old. Originally, it was believed to clean the wound. Fast forward to today and not only do we find that this segment of the Jewish population is allowing rabbis to do what would normally be considered to be sexual abuse, the ritual has led to babies dying or suffering brain damage after contracting the herpes simplex I virus.

Neonatal herpes infections of all kinds are nearly always fatal in infants. An investigation by the New York City Board of Health found that, in the last decade, an average of one baby per year who underwent metzitzah b’peh contracted the virus. Two of the infants died, and two suffered brain damage.

“This is a ritual. . . that’s come down through the ages, and now it has met modern science,” the chair of preventive medicine at Vanderbilt University told ABC News. . “It’s certainly not something any of us recommend in the modern infection-control era,” he said.

Not surprisingly, AI proclaimed that, in passing the parental consent policy, New York health officials are impeding on religious freedom, indicating that the religious leaders know more about infectious diseases than doctors. In a statement signed by 200 haredi rabbis, the group accused the health department of “spreading lies” and that participating in the “evil plans” of the department is forbidden by the Torah.

Most people would be shocked that religious leaders would support such a disgusting—and potentially deadly—practice. In a letter he wrote to Mayor Michael Bloomberg, Johns Hopkins Bayview Medical Center infectious disease specialist Dr. Jonathan Zenilman wrote that the AI is “doing a terrible disservice to the Jewish Community and the public at large.”

But as I have repeatedly pointed out, such disregard for children’s rights is part and parcel of religious authoritarian cultures like the haredi. Members of this segment of the Jewish population consider their belief system to be the one, true faith, and they are convinced that all other believers, including other Jews, are spiritually inferior. In addition, the haredi manifest the three perfect-storm characteristics of a religious authoritarian culture: They have a strict, social hierarchy; they are unusually fearful; and they are socially separatist.

As I continue to reiterate, the way religious authoritarianism harms children is through the parents—or, rather, through parental impotence. In religious authoritarian cultures, parents lack autonomy in how to raise their children. Instead, they rely on—or are forced to adopt—child-rearing practices that fail to attend to children’s physical and emotional needs. In fact, the New York health department has received numerous complaints from parents whose mohels went so far as to perform metzitzhah b’peh on their babies without their consent.

It stands to reason that the powerful rabbis of Agudath Israel don’t want parents to be informed about the dangers of metzitzah b’peh, even though it puts children at risk for death or being left permanently disabled. Instead, these men prefer to leave mothers and fathers in the dark, where they will remain powerless to make critical decisions in their children’s lives.