Thursday, December 30, 2010

The Davener's Mantra

As my clever and creative spouse noted recently, I've got some pretty hardcore davening skills. (Davening, for the uninitiated, is the word for participation in a Jewish liturgical service; in other words, "prayer".) I developed these skills the old fashioned way: through practice. Every school day of every year through 7th grade, I spent an hour or so each morning davening. Say what you will about my elementary school—and take my word for it, one day in these pages I will—you cannot say we didn't learn to daven.

Over the years, though, I've become less and less comfortable davening.  I'm like an artist who loves to draw but develops an allergy to paint, or in this case, the text. The liturgical text, directed at the Almighty, has some pretty basic themes: thank you God for this, God grant me that, hey God you are really terrific, and so forth. All this focus on God gets pretty uncomfortable for somebody who believes that there is no God, somebody who could never accept that, even if God existed, He would ever be motivated, mollified, or moved in any way by human prayer.

OK, then: if I have such a God problem, why not give up davening altogether?

Well, for one thing, like the artist to whom I alluded earlier, I simply like doing it.  I find it comforting and comfortable, in spite of the fact that when I daven, nobody is listening. In spite of the fact that the text praises an imaginary deity for "miracles" that never occurred. In spite of the fact that millions of my people have been slaughtered over the centuries because our imaginary God had a conflict with somebody else's imaginary God.

So now I face a dilemma: I can stop davening, because the words make no sense, or I can continue davening, and immerse myself in the calming and introspective experience that I know it to be. How can I find the experience so valuable when I am so uncomfortable with the text?

Part of my answer came from the late Rabbi Alan Lew, ז"ל. Rabbi Lew was a fascinating man who spent years practicing meditation as a Zen Buddhist, one of a group he referred to as "Bu-Jews", Jews seeking spirituality through Buddhism. Eventually, Rabbi Lew felt that Buddhism was denying him access to his own traditions, and he returned to Judaism, became a rabbi, and assumed the pulpit at Temple Beth Sholom in San Francisco.

But Rabbi Lew brought some of his own traditions with him, including meditation.  He opened a first-of-its-kind meditation center affiliated with his synagogue, and published books on combining meditation with davening. When I met him years ago at a retreat, he told the story of inviting some other Bu-Jews to join him in davening. As they finished, one remarked to him, "If it weren't for meditation, I would have no idea what davening is all about."

That comment resonated strongly for me. A certain amount of the service is devoted to communal prayer; however, the majority of davening is conducted quietly, even silently, to oneself. In other words, it is focused inward, providing the davener with the opportunity to find peace in the rhythm and familiarity of the words. This quiet recitation becomes a sort of mantra, focusing the davener on the sounds of his own breath, the interior of his own feelings. Over the years the mantra becomes familiar—I had fully memorized long passages by the time I was in middle school. Repeating the phrases, over and over, year after year, forms the basis for an intellectual meditation that is both cathartic, in that it helps me leave unnecessary things behind, and revelatory, in that it helps me find both new insights and new questions.

The davening framework is over a millennium old, with sections that are much older. In all that time, Jews have always doubted—but Jews have always davened anyway. Perhaps, like me, they have been able to find a way to continue davening by taking a step back from the plain meaning of the words. The rhythm, the familiarity, the choreography, and the sometimes bleak, sometimes hopeful motifs enable us to concentrate, not on praising a non-existent God who, if He did exist, would hardly need our admiration, but rather on more tangible, Earthly concerns: our communities, our families, and ourselves.

Sunday, December 26, 2010

You're Welcome

On September 5, 2007, beneath a waning quarter moon, ten Israeli F-15I fighter jets departed the Ramat David IAF base near Haifa. Favored with a 15-knot wind and 6-mile visibility, weather was not a factor.  The pilots headed west, over the Mediterranean, but before long three of the pilots were called back, as the remaining seven pivoted north, skirting Lebanese airspace. Just a few hundred kilometers from the Turkish border, the aircraft, American F-15 Eagles customized to Israeli requirements, banked to the right, taking out a Syrian radar installation before heading deep into the country. Their target lay a short flight ahead of them, on the banks of the Euphrates: the al-Kibar nuclear weapons facility.

It would have been news to most of the world, that fall evening, that Syria had any kind of nuclear program at all. Unlike its supporters and suppliers in Iran and North Korea, Syria had little reason to broadcast its intentions, and every reason to keep them quiet. Neither Iran nor North Korea could afford to be seen publicly as arming the terrorist haven; for its part, Syria could not build such a facility without North Korean technology and Iranian funding.

F-15 Eagle
But the Americans knew, and the Israelis knew. If such a development was unwelcome in Iran, it was even more threatening in Syria, which is at once less stable and less distant than its patron. Fortunately, unlike the Iranians, the Syrians had not had the time, money, or perhaps even the capability for developing their facility in bunkers deep underground. And so, in the wee hours of September 6th, 2007, Israel destroyed the al-Kibar facility, dealing a fatal blow to Syria's fledgling covert nuclear program.

Neither Israel nor Syria wanted the event publicized, and though rumors abounded, it would take some time before the world knew for certain what had occurred.  About a year ago, a well-researched piece in Spiegel Online put many of the facts into place, and though the article is marred by a number of absurd, unsupported, and, in places, contradictory attacks on Israel, it is well worth reading.

Only today, however, is there any official confirmation that Syria was, indeed, building a nuclear facility at al-Kibar, that it was doing so with North Korean assistance, and that the United States, as well as Israel, were aware of the project. A JTA story reveals that the most recent set of Wikileaks disclosures includes a cable from then-Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice confirming the details.

Whatever else you think about Wikileaks, you can thank them for this particular morsel, which demonstrates, once again, the lengths to which Israel is willing to go to protect itself, and by extension, the world, from nuclear blackmail.  Of course, the whole affair has also demonstrated, once again, that where Israel is concerned, no good deed goes unpunished.

Consider Israel's attack on Iraq's Osirak nuclear reactor in 1981. At the time, virtually every nation on Earth, including the United States, condemned Israel's action. Ronald Reagan condemned the operation, and the British called it a "violation of international law" (an indefensible position shared, incidentally, by the co-authors of the Speigel Online piece).

It took time, but eventually, as New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof pointed out in 2002, anybody paying attention could see that "the condemnations were completely wrong." Without the Osirak strike, Kristof continued,
Iraq would have gained nuclear weapons in the 1980s, it might now have a province called Kuwait and a chunk of Iran, and the region might have suffered nuclear devastation.
al-Kibar: Before and After
Thanks to Wikileaks, today we all know the truth about al-Kibar, just as we knew the truth in 1981 about Osirak. And yet, even as the world calls (publicly, at least) for Iran to step away from its nuclear ambitions, it gives no quarter to those who would actually do something about it.

The undeniable fact is that Israel is the only reason Iraq, and then Syria, were denied the ability to arm Islamic terrorists with nuclear weapons. If Iran's facilities were not so well protected, they, too, would have long ago been stripped of their power to hold the world hostage. But the end of that particular story has not yet been written.

And so, self-righteous nations of the world, living comfortably under the safety net created by Israel's actions, the very actions you have repeatedly condemned, the very actions that have saved each and every one of you from the tyranny of an Islamist nuclear reign of terror, allow me to say to you, on behalf of the State of Israel: you're welcome.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Sharing the Love

Hello there! If this is your first visit to Writer of Wrongs, thank you for stopping by. If you're a regular reader, thank you even more!

I'm up late (a pharmaceutical failure, I'm afraid, one that won't be addressed through health care reform), so I thought I'd take the opportunity to address a couple of administrative items. Don't worry, right after this I'm sure I'll get back on my soapbox and write another 800 words on the Senate or some other equally compelling topic. (I know, I know: I myself cannot believe I spent so much time on that one.)

So, on to the needs of the moment: If you are enjoying Writer of Wrongs, you can make sure you never miss a single post by clicking the "Follow" button to the right, the one that looks like this:
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Saturday, December 18, 2010

Democracy, Interrupted

Prior to the adoption of the Constitution, the United States was governed by the Articles of Confederation, which had no provision for popular representation. Each state, regardless of population, enjoyed equal representation under the Articles, just as they had in the pre-Revolutionary Continental Congress. In that sense, the Articles were more like a treaty between friendly states than a compact forming a new nation.

But then, on July 16, 1787, the delegates to the Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia adopted the Connecticut Compromise. Under this plan, the legislature was to be divided into two houses, based on two entirely different forms of representation. Each member of the House of Representatives would be elected on the basis of population, whereas each state, regardless of population, was to be represented by exactly two senators. The Compromise was ultimately enshrined in the new Constitution.

Surely the endurance of those institutions, and the greatness of the nation they serve, attest to the wisdom of the delegates and evince the power of their Compromise. Right?

Well, sorry to come to the party 223 years late, and with a negative attitude at that, but as has been amply demonstrated just this week, the system created over two centuries ago is utterly broken, neither establishing justice nor ensuring domestic tranquility.

There are a variety of quick fixes proposed by pundits. The most obvious is the elimination of the filibuster, a parliamentary quirk arming the Senate minority with the power to prevent a vote on any bill or nomination. The filibuster is not democracy, but rather, an obstruction to democracy.

Certainly the filibuster must go, but perhaps the roots of the issue reach beyond Robert's Rules of Order. Perhaps, in fact, the problem is the Senate itself, an undemocratic body created by those flawed and brilliant Philadelphia Founders for the purpose of getting the Constitution out the door. It is cameral designed by committee, a consensus expedient meeting the needs of the moment but ultimately failing to perform as desired.

In a representational democracy, it should be anathema for each resident of Rhode Island to wield 30 times the Senate voting power of each resident of California. Furthermore, in 21st century America the idea of per-state representation is quaint at best. Few if any issues today are drawn along state borders; our dialog is national, not geographic. The Senate's agenda, largely focused on the executive branch and the management of international affairs, is particularly unsuited to narrow geographic constituencies.

Disproportionate representation is just one of the many, many Senate defects covered at length in an incredible (and lengthy) New Yorker piece by George Packer. For example, Packer points out that "in the current Senate, it has become normal for a handful of senators, sometimes representing just ten or twenty per cent of the country’s population, to hold everything up."

So what's needed is not a parliamentary tune-up, but rather a complete overhaul. I propose that the Senate become a truly national representational body. Candidates would be chosen by the nation as a whole, just as the President and Vice-President are (but without the absurdity of the Electoral College).

The result would be democratic, yet different enough from the local-constituency-based House of Representatives to provide the desired checks and balances that form the basis of the bicameral system. A national Senate favors neither large state nor small, except in matters that truly break along state lines, which, as already observed, are few and far between (and can perhaps be accommodated through some procedural innovations).

Even more important, though, would be the uniting effect such a body could have on the country. Our representatives in this new house would be accountable to all of us. To get elected, he or she would have to support measures popular across a broad swath of the nation. Gone would be the days when a Senator could—or would even want to—put a hold on an uncontroversial measure in order to extort funds for his state. The constituency, in short, would be the entire population.

Perhaps in some future post I'll speculate on the technical details of how such a goal could be accomplished, or on some of the other benefits this model would yield for the country. For now, though, it's enough to give voice to the dream of truly representational democracy, even as I acknowledge that this idea will never, ever come to pass. There are limits to the ability of a broken system to heal itself. The Constitutional Convention itself had to bypass the Articles, appealing directly to the citizenry through the state legislatures. The result was revolutionary, but that was well before the American system had hardened into the atherosclerotic plaque that today threatens the heart of our democracy.

Friday, December 17, 2010


As some of you already know, my short story, Dolphinarium, has been selected as the 2010 SCWC-LA Hummingbird Review writing contest winner. The Hummingbird Review will publish the story in February. I'm really excited about this, although not quite as excited as my mom, who I believe may have scheduled a press conference.

Dolphinarium was inspired by a particularly horrendous terrorist attack in Israel in 2001. Although it involves an incident that may be unfamiliar to many Americans,  I hope the story will resonate with a general readership;  I hope that our collective experience of terror on September 11th has sensitized us to the suffering of the victims of other such crimes.

Dolphinarium Memorial, Tel Aviv
Unfortunately, some in this country remain immune to empathy. Time recently ran a piece on the psychological effects of Israel's separation barrier on young Palestinians. The article could have—even should have—become an important part of the discussion in Israel concerning its relationship to its neighbors. Unfortunately, though, there are so many false, misleading, or simply outrageous assertions to be found in the article that one is forced, in the end, to dismiss it.

In one example, the author visits a Palestinian classroom in which only a small minority of students favor a peaceful settlement with Israel. According to the article:
The rest of the 10th-grade computer-science class insists upon getting all of Palestine back—every acre, from the Jordan River to the sea, the way it was before 1948.
Excuse me? Perhaps Time is referring to 1948 BCE. In the more recent 1948, there were over half a million Jews between the river and the Mediterranean, with major Jewish population centers in Tel Aviv, Haifa, Jerusalem, and throughout the country. In fact, Jews comprised a significant majority in the land identified by the UN partition plan as the future state of Israel.

No surprises so far—just the media presenting Palestinian propaganda as unchallenged truth. Business as usual.

The most galling declaration, however, is found closer to the beginning of the article:
But the Wall has done more than keep out suicide bombers. No less important, it has created a separation of the mind.
GOP to 9/11 First Responders:
"Drop Dead"
Don't misunderstand me: the reduction in routine daily contact between Palestinian Arabs and Israeli Jews is indeed a negative consequence of the barrier, one that should concern us. But to cast that consideration as "no less important" than the elimination of murderous attacks on civilians—men, women, and, as was overwhelmingly the case in the Dolphinarium atrocity, children—is as reprehensible as it is irresponsible.

It is simply stunning, only 9 years after September 11th, that Time can create, and expect its readers to accept, such a callous equivalence. Perhaps I'm giving too much credit to our fellow citizens, the same folks whose elected representatives can't be bothered to allocate funds for health care for September 11th first responders. If so, shame on us for our short memories, for our lack of empathy, for our abandonment of those who were sacrificed and those who sacrificed to save them.

And shame on Time for its careless historical revisionism and its casual devaluation of Jewish lives.