Thursday, September 27, 2012

God's Script

I read a piece by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks in his book 'Celebrating Life' that really resonated with me. It's called 'God's Script.' I've written it up below.


It was one of those moments that make you feel part of something so much larger than yourself. It was the summer of 1999. I had been invited to open an international sports competition. The participants were Jewish, part of a global network of youth clubs called Maccabi. For the first time their European gathering was taking place in Scotland. There were well over 1,000 young people from 27 different countries. We began, not with the games themselves, but by celebrating the Sabbath together. It was thrilling to pray, make the blessings and sing the traditional songs in the company of so many- especially given all that has happened to European Jewry this century. For the first time we were joined by participants from East Europe, places like Lithuania, Latvia, Georgia and the Ukraine, where Jewish life was being rekindled after 70 years of suppression under communist rule. This was the Jewish phoenix, communities long dormant coming to life again.

We were in the old town of Stirling with its ancient castle, the place where 'bravehearts' William Wallace and Robert the Bruce fought their famous battles against the English. Along with most of the participants of the sports competition, Elaine and I were staying at the university, one of the loveliest campuses in Britain. I had been there once before, under different circumstances. As the Sabbath began, I told the story.

'Almost exactly 30 years ago, I had just finished university and was applying for my first job. There was a vacancy in the Philosophy Department of Stirling University, and I applied. It was my first job application. I was invited for interview and I came to this building where we are now. I didn't get the job. I was disappointed, but I went elsewhere and did other things.

'What would have happened if I'd been successful? I wouldn't have become a rabbi. I wouldn't have become Chief Rabbi. And I wouldn't be here now, because the university is on holiday. I would have missed one of the largest gatherings of Jews ever to have come together in Scotland and the privilege of being here with you now. What made it possible for me to be here in Stirling today? the fact that 30 years ago I came to Stirling and was turned down for a job. Until now, that rejection hurt. Now I understand that I was part of a different story. Once in a while God lets us see the script.' It was a moment of closure and disclosure.

There are times when the veil that covers the surface of events lifts,a nd we catch a glimpses of the larger pattern of which, unknowingly, we have been a part. Tradition calls this Divine providence, and I believe in it. Later events make sense of earlier ones. Bad things turn out to have been necessary steps in an important journey. It may take a long time before we see why and how. In some cases we may never understand, but we do so often enough to have the feeling that we are only co-authors of our story. Another hand is at work, and a larger narrative is taking shape. As Isaac Bashevis Singer put it, 'God is a writer and we are both the heroes and the readers.'

Is this fanciful thinking? It has happened too often for me to doubt. I once wanted to become a Fellow of my college in Cambridge. I had dreams of becoming a university professor. Both these things happened. The strange thing is that they happened years after I had given up academic life, while I was travelling in the opposite direction. I have discovered that God often chooses circuitous routes, but it helps to know that where we are, here, now is where we need to be.

~pages 40-43

Sunday, September 23, 2012

Support Team Jaimin!

In these few days before Yom Kippur, do you want to give some tzedaka?

Donate to the Childhood Brain Tumor Foundation and support my student, Jaimin! 

You can donate at this link:

Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Market Values: Are We Today's Fausts?

Over Rosh Hashana, I read, in addition to other things, the book What Money Can't Buy: The Moral Limits of Markets by Michael J. Sandel. Aside from being amused by how much of the book reads like a religious Jew's argument against encroaching consumerism as a lifestyle and value system, I found it to be eminently readable and I liked the interesting points it raised. The main cons were that he didn't define what he meant by 'moral' or what philosophical or religious system he was using when he talked about actions being 'moral' or not, and also that he was extremely redundant. Some pros were that his examples were diverse and very interesting- ranging from nuclear reactors to prisons to baseball teams to educational institutions to viaticals (which I had never heard of before, and found fascinating).

An excerpt follows below:


Two Objections to Markets 

These two kinds of arguments reverberate through debates about what money should and should not buy. The fairness objection asks about the inequality that market choices may reflect; the corruption objection asks about the attitudes and norms that market relations may damage or dissolve.

Consider kidneys. It's true that money can buy one without ruining its value. But should kidneys be bought and sold? Those who say no typically object on one of two grounds: They argue that such markets prey upon the poor, whose choice to sell their kidneys may not be truly voluntary (the fairness argument). Or they argue that such markets promote a degrading, objectifying view of the human person, as a collection of spare parts (the corruption argument).

Or consider children. It would be possible to create a market in babies up for adoption. But should we? Those who object offer two reasons: One is that putting children up for sale would price less affluent parents out of the market, or leave them with the cheapest, least desirable children (the fairness argument). The other is that putting a price tag on children would corrupt the norm of unconditional parental love; the inevitable price differences would reinforce the notion that the value of a child depends on his or her race, sex, intellectual promise, physical abilities or disabilities, and other traits (the corruption argument).

It's worth taking a moment to clarify these two arguments for the moral limits of markets. The fairness objection points to the injustice that can arise when people buy and sell things under conditions of inequality or dire economic necessity. According to this objection, market exchanges are not always as voluntary as market enthusiasts suggest. A peasant may agree to sell his kidney or cornea to feed his starving family, but his agreement may not really be voluntary. He may be unfairly coerced, in effect, by the necessities of his situation.

The corruption objection is different. It points to the degrading effect of market valuation and exchange on certain goods and practices. According to this objection, certain moral and civic goods are diminished or corrupted if bought and sold. The argument from corruption cannot be met by establishing fair bargaining conditions. It applies under conditions of equality and inequality alike.

The long-standing debate about prostitution illustrates the difference. Some people oppose prostitution on the grounds that it is rarely, if ever, truly voluntary. They argue that those who sell their bodies for sex are typically coerced, whether by poverty, drug addiction, or the threat of violence. This is a version of the fairness objection. But others object to prostitution on the grounds that it is degrading to women, whether or not they are forced into it. According to this argument, prostitution is a form of corruption that demeans women and promotes bad attitudes towards sex. The degradation objection doesn't depend on tainted consent; it would condemn prostitution even in a society without poverty, even in cases of upscale prostitutes who liked the work and freely chose it.

Each objection draws on a different moral ideal. The fairness argument draws on the ideal of consent, or, more precisely, the ideal of consent carried out under fair background conditions. One of the main arguments for using markets to allocate goods is that markets respect freedom of choice. They allow people eto choose for themselves whether to sell this or that good at  a given price.

But the fairness objection points out that some such choices are not truly voluntary. Market choices are not free choices if some people are desperately poor or lack the ability to bargain on fair terms. So in order to know whether a market choice is a free choice, we have to ask what inequalities in the background conditions of society undermine meaningful consent. At what point do inequalities of bargaining power coerce the disadvantaged and undermine the fairness of the deals they make?

The corruption argument points to a different set of moral ideals. It appeals not to consent but to the moral importance of the goods at stake, the ones said to be degraded by market valuation and exchange. So to decide whether college admission should be bought and sold, we have to debate the moral and civic goods that colleges should pursue, and ask whether selling admission would damage those goods. To decide whether to establish a market in babies up for adoption, we need to ask what norms should govern the parent-child relationship, and ask whether buying and selling children would undermine those norms.

The fairness and corruption objections differ in their implications for markets: The fairness argument does not object to marketizing certain goods on the grounds that they are precious or sacred or priceless; it objects to buying and selling goods against a background of inequality severe enough to create unfair bargaining conditions. It offers no basis for objecting to the commodification of goods (whether sex or kidneys or college admission) in a society whose background conditions are fair.

The corruption argument, by contrast, focuses on the character of the goods themselves and the norms that should govern them. So it cannot be met simply by establishing fair bargaining conditions. Even in a society without unjust differences of power and wealth, there would still be things that money should not buy. This is because markets are not mere mechanisms; they embody certain values. And sometimes, market values crowd out nonmarket norms worth caring about.

(Pages 110-113)

Sunday, September 09, 2012

Cruelty On The Bus

I was riding the bus in Maryland along with a friend of mine today. He was wearing a colorful knit kippah, swan earrings, a t-shirt and Arabian-style flowing pants with crystal beading. I was wearing a cowboy hat studded with white flowers, a Batman t-shirt and a black skirt.

A man at the back of the bus looked at us and said, "Why are you dressed like that?"

I looked down at my clothes, confused about what was upsetting the man. Did he dislike Batman? Or was my cowboy hat putting him off?

"Why are you dressed like that?" he repeated. "You look disgusting. A man should dress like a man. I don't want to see that."

"Close your eyes, then" my friend sang out, unfazed. I was still processing what was happening, trying to figure out why this person was being so hateful.

The man then got up and actually moved so as not to look at us. Many thoughts ran through my mind. Mostly, I wanted to tell the man off. I wanted to say that the way he was behaving was vulgar, crude and offensive. Also, that it's a crime to verbally harass others. But I knew that doing that would mean the man would just continue to insult us, so I felt it was best to let it go. Instead, I turned to my friend.

"Does this happen a lot?" I asked.

He said that yeah, it happened reasonably often. I was shocked.

I've heard of harassment before. I've had people whistle or shout at me and once someone even propositioned me. But it's never felt like an attack against me as a person, against my very personhood. It's never been specific to me as a person- just me as a woman, and for some reason, that feels different.

It really bothered me that the bus, which for me is a fun place where bus drivers are kind and sweet to me and random men are usually chivalrous, has the potential to be scary for my friend. I don't think that should happen. And I'm an Orthodox Jew who believes that God is displeased when people act on their homosexuality or when men dress in women's clothes. But in the end of the day, that isn't a visceral emotional response for me. It's not about me hating someone else. Instead, it's about me feeling that God would desire something else. But in the end of the day, I love the person, whether or not they're doing what I believe God wants them to do. I believe that God loves all His creations, too, and even if they veer from the path that He wants them on, he doesn't want them to be hated.

It reminded me of the Gemara where R' Meir says to Beruriah that he wishes all sinners would die. Beruria replies that instead, he ought to pray that they repent. It's the difference between believing that people have irrevocably stained souls and believing that they are more than just one part of themselves. My friend's a good person and he should be able to ride the bus in peace.

I'm still not sure about what I should have done differently. I don't know if I should have gotten up and  told off the man who was saying these cruel things. But I just feel like something really bad happened, that I was a witness to it, and that it shouldn't happen. And that we should make sure to do what we can so it doesn't continue to happen.