Wisdom wherever you find it
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DAVKA, DO THE RIGHT THING
We care for people not because they are Catholics, but because we are. James Cardinal Hickey
My professional life has been in the interfaith world for a number of years, and if this short essay doesn’t prove it, nothing will.
The word “davka” is Hebrew and defies explanation. It was the first word I struggled to understand in seminary, where my teacher translated it in the Talmudic text as “specifically” and the dictionary offered “exactly.” In usage, however, it is best spoken while holding your index and middle fingers together on one hand and making a circle in the air, ending with an emphatic point in front of you.
The most misunderstood faith community in America, in my opinion, is the Sikh community. First of all, we pronounce their religion to rhyme with “peek” because the actual pronunciation – rhymes with “stick” – confuses us. Their ritual devotion includes unshorn hair, turbans, and the presence of a symbolic sword (kirpan) always on their person, which the uninitiated and TSA consider to be threatening. And because of stereotyping, uneducated Americans frequently mistake them for Muslims, with sometimes fatal results, putting all of us in a double-bind explaining they are not Muslims, but so what if they were.
To me, the most admirable aspect of Sikh religion is radical hospitality. Anyone who is hungry will find a meal and welcome at a gurdwara, a Sikh temple. Millions of people are fed regularly by Sikhs around the world. They do not do so because the hungry are Sikhs, but because they are. Davka.
Speaking of Muslims, in a Virginia community not so far from where I live is a guy named Qasim Rashid. He has run for office unsuccessfully couple of times at least as much because he is a member of the minority party in his jurisdiction as anything else. But as a “public Muslim,” he was prepared for the kinds of attacks on his identity that are some voters’ idea of appropriate political discourse. One such correspondent’s condemnation was among the grotesque (Rashid’s word) messages he received. Rashid looked into his antagonist’s public declarations and discovered that among the objectionable messages was a GoFundMe campaign to pay off more than $20,000 in medical debt. Rashid made a contribution and encouraged his followers to do the same. The debt was retired.
Did he win the guy’s vote? The answer is irrelevant. A faithful Muslim’s response to suffering is to offer mercy and support. He provided comfort not because his offender was a Muslim, but because he is. Davka.
Among the groups in our various coalitions are those that represent avowed secularists. For some of them it is a matter of principle and for others the equivalent of faith. That is to say, some of them believe our American statutes and practices should be entirely neutral toward any and all religion, and others are atheists. They are among the staunchest defenders of the First Amendment rights to conscience and separation of government and religion in the interfaith community. And they do so even for religious folks who would disqualify them from certain kinds of discourse and service to the country. They do so not because their critics are accurately reading the Constitution, but because they are. Davka.
All of these examples are admirable to me, and I hope to you as well. They are more admirable to me still because none of the folks whom I describe has anything to gain for themselves by their conduct. In fact, just the opposite is true. Sikhs could retreat into their quiet life of making a living and cultivating a calm sense of place in the universe. Muslims, not only Qasim Rashid, could more than occupy themselves with prayer five times a day and less outward-facing upholding of the five pillars. Secular activists could devote themselves to securing their own rights and take the weekends off. The vast networks of Catholic charities that tend to the impoverished, marginalized, disenfranchised and lonely could use those resources to rehab crumbling churches and hire more teachers in parochial schools.
Rabbi Lawrence Kushner described love as the willingness to act for another’s benefit against your own interests. When I look at the adherents of the 75 or more communities of faith and no faith on whose behalf my professional life is devoted, it is what I see wherever I look. They offer their time, talent, and treasure on behalf of others because that’s what their belief system demands of them – their God, their Scripture, their philosophy, their mentor. Not always, of course. Not only, of course. Not to the unmitigated satisfaction of others or even themselves, of course. But also, not because there is something in it for them.
They care for people not because those people are just like them. But because without that caring, they themselves would not be authentically who they are. Davka.
WHY I AM A COWARD
I only killed one human being in Vietnam, and that was the first man I ever killed. I was sick with guilt about killing that guy and thinking, “I’m gonna do this for the next 13 months, I’m gonna go crazy.” Then I saw a Marine step on a “bouncing betty” mine. And that’s when I made my deal with the devil, in that I said, “I will never kill another human being as long as I am in Vietnam. However, I will waste as many gooks as I can find. I will waste as many dinks as I can find. I will smoke as many zips as I can find. But I ain’t gonna kill anybody.” Turn a subject into an object. It’s Racism 101. And it turns out to be a very necessary tool when you have children fighting your wars for them to stay sane doing their work.
I spend some time each week tending to people in public service. It’s the least I can do. I am a devoted patriot, and I subscribe to the notion that the blessings and freedoms we enjoy as Americans are secure only as long as they are defended. So I pay my taxes without complaint. I vote in every election, no matter how seemingly inconsequential. I join with others to seek redress of grievances. I defend the rights that are ours as citizens.
But I would not serve in the military, and I recognize that, all my life, that meant sending someone else to do my job.
I have known a lot of people who served honorably – my dad, an uncle, many friends and colleagues, and now, even some of my friends’ kids. But I am a coward, and cowards have no place in a circumstance that makes people dependent on each other to survive.
I am not bragging, by the way. I am just being honest. I have enough courage to speak truth to power, to say aloud uncomfortable facts and to hold to unpopular opinions even when surrounded by those who disagree. I have handled firearms. I have been in fights, though few and far between. But I would be no good in combat.
Part of it, most certainly, is self-preservation. I do not wish to be shot or blown up. I do not think that people in the military disagree with me, but I know that I actively imagine myself in harm’s way whenever I think about service, and it is paralyzing.
But part of it, too, is a conscious decision not to become the person John Musgrave describes in discussing his Vietnam experience in the Ken Burns documentary about that war. More than a fear of injury, I think I was afraid to lose my moral compass.
When I was a kid, my father would not discuss his service in World War II. He acknowledged that he shot and killed enemy soldiers, but only in a brief answer to a direct question. When I was a college student, I asked him if he ever thought he was shooting some other mother’s son during the war. He replied, without irony, “I wasn’t shooting anybody’s son. I was shooting Nazis.”
Turn a subject into an object. It is a necessary tool when you have children fighting your wars.
As I said, I have known a lot of people who served honorably. One was a high-ranking officer in Vietnam. He was one of the kindest people I ever met. Another was a combat-proven officer who eventually served as Chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He holds every casualty in his heart. It is not necessarily the case that you lose your moral compass in battle. On the contrary – sometimes, it is the only place you can be sure you have it.
And I am not a pacifist. War may be obscene, but there are times it is a necessary obscenity.
Call it my moral shortcoming or my self-indulgent privilege or my character flaw, but I know myself well enough that I could not carry heavy arms and do my duty. My fear – rational or not – was that I would lose myself on the back end of a weapon. And that makes me a coward.
It makes me more grateful for those who serve. And more concerned.
THE TWO RULES OF CHILD-REARING
He didn’t tell me how to live; he lived and let me watch him do it. Clarence Budington Kelland
Advice on raising a child is easy to come by, but not when you need it. Any wisdom I might have on the subject comes from the results, not the practice, and children themselves are maddeningly unique, frustrating the kind of mathematical precision that formulae for parenting seem to recommend.
But now that my kids are launched, I am in that position of evaluating how my wife and I did in imparting the values and practices we were intentional about. The answer is mixed. Lest you misunderstand, we are enormously satisfied with the kinds of adults our children have become. I could not ask for better offspring. In fact, I admire them each, starting with the choices they made about life partners.
But I have come to terms with the disappointment I felt that they did not follow the program I laid out in my imagination. However, here’s the fact: I was wrong to imagine them as anything other than they are. And I should have known better. After all, I did not follow the path my parents laid out in their imaginations. On some level, I know they were disappointed (they certainly wanted me to be living near them in Chicago). On another level, they were pleasantly surprised (I had early declared my refusal to consider studying to be a rabbi). On every level, their love for me was greater than their intentions for me.
I would like to think that if I had turned out to be a reprobate, their love would have persisted, but I have known a lot of people who have dealt with awful behavior in their families (themselves, their parents, and/or their kids) whose devotion to each other has remained intact. I have also known a few who have never managed to rise above their expectations for others. That’s tragic, in my opinion.
Our children turned out great. And by observing them, I can see which of our values they embraced, which they modified, and which they rejected. In turn, I can see which of my values I represented well enough and positively enough. They were not always the ones I tried to articulate.
Not so many years ago, I received a Father’s Day card from the three of them that had this quotation from Clarence Budington Kelland on the front. It landed in my collection of cards I have saved for a long time. It may be my favorite (from them) because it liberated me from being a pedagogue and affirmed me as a parent. Long after my day-to-day responsibilities as responsible party had ended, I learned this as the first rule of child-rearing.
The other rule came to me earlier, but not early enough. We were determined to provide our kids with a Jewish day school education and did so for each of them through sixth grade. But when it came time to choose a middle school and high school, it was clear that the talents and needs of one of our kids would be better addressed in the public school system. Doing what was right for our child was more important than doing what we had decided was in our child’s best interests. It is a fine distinction, but an important one. The better answer begins with the talents and needs of the child. The other answer begins with the values and presumptions of the parents.
My wife and I each had loving and devoted parents. When they raised us, they had the examples of their own parents and no practical experience on which to base their parenting styles. We were in the same boat, and I am sure we made plenty of decisions in imitation of our parents and plenty in reaction to our parents. It is no different for anyone who first beholds that hungry, bawling, loving bundle of effluence and delight and, if so blessed, the subsequent versions who always manage to be totally different than the one before. Given all of the possible variables, and my complete lack of background in medicine or psychology, I am reluctant to offer anything more specific than two things I wish I knew when I needed them more.
The first: live your best life in full view of your kids.
The second: do what is right for your child.
The rest is commentary. Also, carpools.
THE FRIENDLY CONFINES
It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame. Let’s play two. Ernest Banks
Ernie Banks was a pioneer and maybe the best ballplayer the Chicago Cubs ever had on their roster. He was the whole package for the team – he could hit, field, play different positions (but none better than shortstop), teach and motivate, and, in the end, sum up in a few words a love of the game and the team known ruefully as the doormat of the National League. There are different versions of his most famous motto, but this one seems most attested. Ernie claims he said it off the cuff on a day that Wrigley Field was 105 degrees at game time, and a sportswriter who overheard him immortalized it.
This isn’t going to be another one of those baseball-as-metaphor-for-life columns. Nor will it be a defense of baseball as a better sport than any other. Both of those things did not make it into the self-evident truths of the Declaration of Independence only because baseball was not invented at the time.
No, this is about loving who you are and what you do. Read up on Ernie a little bit and you will discover many surprising things about him. His Texas childhood was hardscrabble, and his athletic ability developed in spite of the fact that he was a second-class citizen of society. He was a lifelong Republican. He declined to be associated publicly with civil rights causes, despite the modest urgings of people like Jackie Robinson. He was married many times and did not treat his ex-wives particularly generously until he was forced to do so by the courts. His popularity was such in Chicago that he almost never picked up a check for a meal – and I know that close to firsthand because my father used to play handball with him at the YMCA and told me.
Ernie was a creature of the baseball park. In early February, when pitchers and catchers reported for spring training, Ernie Banks would come alive as the source of optimism and promise that preceded even the crocus blossoms that peek through the snow. He became known as “Mr. Sunshine” at a time when White people could call Black people that without acknowledging how patronizing it was. But he was also known (and still is) as “Mr. Cub,” a title that even some White Sox fans consider a very high compliment.
Ernie claimed he never had a job; he spent his life doing what he loved to do. Some people – including us North Side Liberals – might have wished for him to use his fame to rock the boat a little, but he loved baseball more than the fame it brought him. He may have been one of the few people to have had a celebratory attitude toward Phil Wrigley, then owner of the Cubs, because he disliked change as much as Ernie did. Ernie Banks found the sweet spot in his life and never let you forget that you could, too.
Please don’t conclude from his approach to life that he was uninterested in improving it when he could. He was a generous mentor to others, someone who understood that a team could only succeed if every member of the team could succeed. He was not apolitical (he even ran for office once, but he was a Black Republican in Mayor Daley’s Chicago; Daley was a White Sox fan). Ernie simply believed the world could be made better when a person put his talents to joyful service of a sacred cause. In his case, it was baseball.
I met Ernie Banks late in his career with the Cubs – he was an “ambassador” by then, representing the team at events like the annual Emil Verban Memorial Society lunch for expatriate Cub fans in Washington, DC. I had been invited to deliver the benediction, and in it, I advocated for Ron Santo, my childhood favorite, to be admitted to the Hall of Fame. “Though I am a nice Jewish boy and a rabbi to boot,” I said, “I do believe in the Santo Cause.” Ernie fell off his chair, then leapt up and grabbed my hand with both of his. (First Lady Hilary Clinton just smiled politely.)
It wasn’t unusual to find Ernie standing outside of Wrigley Field on game day signing autographs for fans and greeting them with “Welcome to the friendly confines of Wrigley Field.” It was the happy place for him, and he wanted you to benefit as well. That’s a great way to live life, even if life doesn’t always go the way you want it to. Love isn’t easy. Families dissolve. Haters gonna hate. The Cubs will break your heart.
Let’s play two.
LOOK ME IN THE EYE
Can you look in the eyes of someone you love and think that’s all synapse and no soul? David Wolpe
In the debate between those who believe in an afterlife and those who do not, there are so many unresolvable variables that any conversation more resembles a Middle Eastern market than a courtroom drama. For those who affirm, the questions range from the very practical (e.g., how old will I be?) to the philosophical (e.g., will I answer for my misdeeds?). For those who deny, the questions still demand tremendous gradations (e.g., why be moral in this life?) and complicated definitions (e.g., when exactly does life begin and end?). As you read this, you are already thinking of many other questions and deciding what is false about other people’s answers.
In the European Jewish tradition, memorial services for, as they say, “beloved departed” are held four times a year in synagogue. It is usual in most synagogues for the rabbi to deliver some kind of message, sermonic or otherwise, on the value of remembering and the disposition of the force that animated the dead in their lifetime. The very long history of Judaism has always affirmed life after death. It begins with the very first death recorded in the Bible (see Cain and Abel: the blood of your brother cries out to me from the ground) and diversifies into metaphor and literalness as human speculation considered an increasing number of possibilities. Those rabbinic messages vary along the continuum of scholarly to speculative, but most of them, in my humble opinion, address the wrong question.
I think that what we wonder is not about life after death. Of course there is life after death. Nothing in our physical universe evaporates into non-existence. The stardust from which we were formed came from somewhere, whether the Big Bang or what was gathered from the four corners of the earth. And though no longer combined and energized into human form, every quark of us will remain unfrustrated by its time in our bodies. I cannot represent with such certainty the entity of life-force that I and others call the soul, but I cannot imagine the universe had made a solitary exception for it. And how much the more so if I am willing to attribute all of this to God.
So stop wondering about life after death. In tiny pieces, you are immortal. What we wonder about is consciousness after death. Will I know I am me? Will others, by whatever means, recognize me, and I them? Will the feelings and inspirations, be they love or disdain, positive or cautionary, we who walk the earth insist survive death continue to be perceptible once we have succumbed to our end?
Ah, that’s where speculation, be it theological or scientific, is nothing more than opinion. If the thoughts and emotions we generate have the same permanence as our atomic particles, then we do not get to choose which survive. It is ego that insists that self-awareness generated in my lifetime has the power to override the universe(s).
Rabbi David Wolpe is a friend and a teacher, and he is smarter than I am in almost every way. If I am going to be honest, then I have to accept his challenge and give an answer to his question, posed to his congregation at the sacred moment of that memorial service on the holiest day of the year for Jews. My answer is no, I cannot look in the eyes of someone I love – or even someone about whom I am essentially indifferent – and think it is all synapse and no soul. While there is no part of anyone that is unique, there are no two people who combine those common elements in the same way. I will call that uniqueness the soul, and it is more than the sum of electrical sparks in a human machine.
That’s why atheists prefer a favorite flavor of ice cream, root for different teams and fall in love.
But I am not an atheist. And all of my life I have desired to return to the source of my life. The collective wisdom of our tradition is summed up in this claim: God is one. “One” in every sense. “One” as in only. “One” as in primary. “One” as in everything. Every thing, every place, every atom, every song, every word, every life. It is all one. And, really, that’s all I want -- to be one with…the One. That’s the promise of eternal life. We will no longer be separate from the One. We will be one with the One.
In the end, we relinquish what separates us from God, and we are whole with the Everything of the universe. Consciousness, self-awareness, makes me separate. Death removes that barrier.
My conclusion might have made me profoundly sad at one time, but now it inspires me. With the limited time I enjoy my unique consciousness in the world, I can experience something that was and will be unavailable to me. It is my contribution to others; it is my contribution to the One. That’s more than synapses.
Rabbi Jack Moline spent 40 years in the pulpit, another 7 at an interfaith non-profit, and all of them gleaning wisdom where he found it.