Over the Rabbi’s Disk
Rabbi Howard S. Herman, D.D.
That’s the Fact, Jack
Judaism has always valued and lauded knowledge and wisdom. I once read the difference between knowledge and wisdom is that “knowledge is knowing that a tomato is a fruit; wisdom is knowing not to put it in a fruit salad.” We live our days, these days in a virtual avalanche of media. There is nowhere we can go, perhaps excluding a synagogue or church sanctuary, where we are not bombarded by 360-degree media.
Radios, televisions, billboards, social media, newspapers, magazines, computer screens, fitness equipment, smartphones--all have become media outlets whether by design or by chance. Have you been to a ballpark recently, or a concert, or a movie, or a show in a mega-theater? From up-to-the-second stock market quotes, to advertisements on the sides of trailer trucks we are submerged in a sea of media. You cannot look left or right, up or down, forward or backward, without being confronted with some kind of media message. We find these messages coming to us subliminally or having them confront us head on. Even in men’s rooms, above the urinals, you will now find messages both social and political. Talk about sensory overload!
So why do I bring this up? I do so because I was always taught to question why things happen or why they take place when they seem like an anomaly. I also question messages because I am never certain how many of these messages speak the truth. If I don’t know the truth, how can I possibly make any objective decisions or plans for my future? In confronting so many falsehoods, I become weary and disheartened and sometimes even disengaged by such blatant patently made-up ideas.
Facts matter, in every regard. Just because something is written somewhere, that doesn’t make it so. Just because something is forcefully expressed doesn’t validate it as truth. Just because we hear talking heads on our cable networks haranguing us about this or that doesn’t make it factual. One statement I hear constantly from multitudes of people is, “I read it on the internet” or “I found it on Facebook,” the inference being that if it is there, “of course” it must be true. In my days as a philosophy professor, I would teach that there were three different main theories of truth: the correspondence theory, the coherence theory, and the pragmatist theory. Each one explained truth in a different way. It was not that the truth was different in each explanation, the truth was the same. But even though the explanations were different, the commonality and link between all three of these diverse theories were “facts.” Once again I say, “facts matter”. From our days at Mount Sinai onward, we as Jews have universally attested to truth. We are told in the Ten Commandments; “You will not bear false witness against your neighbor;” in simple terms,“don’t lie!”
Later, from our Jewish tradition we are taught; “Bear the truth, even if it is bitter.” And Maimonides, whom you may know as the Rambam, taught us, “The only purpose of truth is that one knows the truth.” We learn two maxims from the Talmud, “The truth stands up, a lie does not,” and “We don’t see things the way they are. We see them the way we are.” A Yiddish proverb teaches us; “A half truth is a whole lie.”
Our entire Jewish consciousness is consistently pushing us to pay attention to facts. Verifiable, corroborated, irrefutable facts are the only things that do not lead us astray in our quest for truth. How can we possibly see the world, or our leaders, or our communities or our friends, or our faith in clear-sighted truth without the relevant facts? How can we possibly make critical, decisions and choices that matter to us for our existence unless we begin our thought process from actual, real, definite facts? If we begin anywhere else, it would be like building a house on sand and fog. There will be no real foundation for our decisions to last and matter.
And so, as we move through the summer toward the fall , toward our important high holidays, and a bit later our electoral season, I would urge you--no matter what your political affiliation--to follow the wisdom of our long heralded Jewish tradition: seek the truth and pursue the facts in all you hear and see. The truth will never steer you wrong. It will always abide you a resource and a foundation to rely on.
Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD
Naples Jewish Congregation
The Rabbi's Summer Reading List
If you were to ask, I would unabashedly tell you that there is very little activity more relaxing than reading. There are other things you can do to relax -- play golf, go fishing, take a walk or hike, knit, play bridge, gamble -- the list is endless. But as much as I enjoy other activities such as fishing and cooking, nothing relaxes me as much as reading. Each year in June, I put forward for my congregants a list of ten titles that I believe they would enjoy reading during the summer.
When I first started organizing this list, I would suggest books with only Jewish content or themes. But over the past 25 years or so, I have had so many individuals look to me for book suggestions in all genres, that now I mix my list of books of Jewish interest and content with everything else. So, no matter what you are doing this summer, whether it is going to the beach, going on vacation or participating in a staycation, I offer these 10 selections. They are not listed in any order, nor are they all new publications. If read any of them over the summer, please let me know what you thought. I would love to hear your comments on my selections. And so, without further ado, here it is, the Rabbi’s Reading List 2020:
The World That We Knew by Alice Hoffman
Mosaic: A Chronicle Of Five Generations by Diane Armstrong
The Art Of Leaving by Ayelet Tsabari
Kaddish.com by Nathan Englander
Spies Of No Country: Secret Lives At The Birth Of Israel by Matti Friedman
The Plot Against America by Phillip Roth
The Last Train to London by Meg Waite Clayton
An Unothodox Match by Naomi Ragen
Apeirogon by Colum McCann
A Bookshop in Berlin by Francoise Frankel
There you have it. Please go, enjoy, and make sure you are safe in whatever you do.
Have a wonderful summer!
Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD
“A Time To Embrace
And a Time To Refrain From Embracing’’
By the time you read this, we should have been well into the Major League baseball season. March Madness would normally be a distant memory and I should have been out fishing eight or ten times already this Spring. But, of course, none of this has taken place, nor are we sure that it will take place this year as we are so engaged with the fight against Covid-19,
There seems to be no room for anything else. As I write this, there are well over four million confirmed coronavirus cases worldwide and almost 300,000 deaths. No one knows, at this point, how many more cases or deaths there will be. All we are certain about is that others will continue to be infected and some will die. This insidious foe does not discriminate by age, gender, marital status, or sexual orientation.
We have discovered ways to adapt our behavior while attempting to shelter in place and practice social distancing. The use of Zoom and other Web communication applications has allowed us to stay at home and work, to have virtual shabbat services and seders, as well as adult education sessions. The use of technology has been a great boon to our psychological, spiritual, and mental health. In other words, we have not permitted this virus co-opt our lives. Is it an intrusion? Sure! Does it scare us? Absolutely! Have we had to modify our lifestyle in many ways in order to function with a sense of normalcy about us? No question!
But as Jews, being a part of the Jewish people and the continuum of history, isn’t this what we have always had to do? While it is romantic to think of our past in terms of tradition, in terms of celebration, in terms of ritual and in terms of family, as a Jewish community and a Jewish People we have had to make difficult sacrifices and choices all along the way. This is not the first time in our long history that we have isolated ourselves. We have lived in isolation before, and it insulated us against whatever attack or hazard was out there waiting to harm us. The social isolation or “social distancing” or “mitigation,” as we call it today, enabled us to survive as a religion, a people and a faith. Was it pleasant? No! Was it what we wanted? No!
But in hindsight, it proved that we could not only do it and survive, but also to thrive. I hear individuals complaining about social distancing and having to stay home and how boring it is. I encounter these thoughts and feelings all the time now on social media and in phone calls. I call it the “Ecclesiastes Moment” of our time. You remember Ecclesiastes don’t you? “To everything there is a season and a time for every experience under heaven. A time to be born and a time to die. A time to plant and a time to uproot what is planted….” This is a time of opportunity, an Ecclesiastes moment. It is a time to explore creativity and a time to be a true friend and listen to the outpourings of your neighbor’s heart.
It is a time to search one’s soul and a time to reflect on one’s past. It is a time to create a bucket list of things you hope to achieve and accomplish, and a time to catch up on all the reading you never had time for. It is a time to clean out that closet, a time for “FaceTiming” with your children and grandchildren. It is a time to rethink your finances and a time to celebrate staying healthy. It is a time to reach out via phone or Zoom or other device to family and rekindle those relationships you have let slide away, and a time celebrate Shabbat as a family, since you are at home anyway.
All these opportunities, these Ecclesiastes moments, are yours for the taking. I am positive that if given a bit of time, you could come up with a multitude of examples. I hear so often from people, “But Rabbi, I don’t have the time”, or “Rabbi I would do it if I only had the time.” Now with this gift of time imposed on us it, comes down to our choices of how to use it. I hope you will choose wisely and beneficially. I hope you will use all this free time to make your lives better, richer and more Jewishly engaged.
Stay safe and be healthy
Rabbi Howard S. Herman DD
May God Bless You with a Year of Health
We have been through epidemics and pandemics before. There were the Flu, AIDS, SARS, MERSA, and Ebola battles, to name but a few. Yet this pandemic, Corona virus (or the more formal name Covid-19) seems somehow different. It seems more incendiary. It seems have more gravitas than the others. There is a greater immediate urgency to this one, this time.
While this is no time for panic or hand wringing, this is a time for being smart, being careful and being pro-active. This is a time for being certain and confident that we do everything in our power to do the right things, the smart things that protect ourselves, our families, our neighbors and our friends.
The great Jewish sage Hillel once uttered these fateful words, which ring in my ears daily: “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? If I am only for myself what am I? If not now, when?” This philosophical statement is as current today as the day he uttered it. I need to take care of myself, because no one can do it like I do it. I need to take all the precautions for myself that experts offer, because no one can take care of me like I do. I must not compromise myself, my values or my goal of having a strong, healthy body and spirit. I need to do whatever I can do to see that this is paramount for me in my maintaining health and vigor.
If I am ill in any way, I stay to stay out of circulation until I am well, not only for my well-being but also for the well-being of others. I must think not only of myself, but also for the health, risk and well-being of others around me. No one needs to have his or her resistance lowered, or their lives put at risk because you refuse to stay home and take care of yourself. And finally, you must begin taking precautions for yourself and others now. It can’t wait until tomorrow. Immediacy is paramount. If we do this together as individuals and as communities, we can really make a difference and help to slow or even stop the spread of this plague.
So please be smart and be careful. Take extremely good care of yourself and your family. May God bless you with a year of good health, peace of mind, and the joy of living a good, full, rich, enduring life.
Rabbi Howard S Herman DD