Posts Tagged ‘personal responsibility’

I read this morning that nearly half of the American people believe it is acceptable to use torture if it yields actionable information. I find this utterly abhorrent.

For you 50% I pray that you don't know the definition of torture.

Many or you who fall into this category call yourselves "Christian" and I ask you this: Would Jesus – "Mr. turn the other cheek" – ever condone imposing excruciating, unspeakably horrible, unending pain on another human being? Would Jesus ever say there is a proper time to connect a woman's labia to electric current or to deny sleep to a prisoner between sessions of waterboarding? If you answer "yes" then I suggest you find a way to unbaptize yourself because your view of Jesus is clearly different from Jesus' view of Jesus.

Some of you may not call yourself Christian – or even religious – and I want to speak to you also.

Can you not at least consider a moral code that respects the right to exist of every member of our species? Can you not acknowledge each human as worthy of being left without unspeakable pain? Can you not imagine yourself drowning, being slammed against walls repeatedly, having your genitals mutilated, being kept awake for days on end, being stoned to death, having your fingernails pulled out, and realize that such unspeakable acts inflict pain of which you cannot even conceive – and that a worldview that condones such acts in not even human?!?!

I hate terrorists as much as any American. I love America at least as much as most of you. I even waver in my support – and lack thereof – of the death penalty when I hear of the horrors that we humans can inflict in others. I want those who harm others to be punished. But there is a line beyond which nothing can pass – no moral system, no twisted ethics, no religion, no belief system – and that line is the purposeful infliction of excruciating pain – physical, mental, or emotional.

When half of our country is willing to cross that line then we are perhaps a state no better than the Islamic one called ISIL This can't possibly be the case. The greatest experiment in a society of liberty can't possibly have degraded to the level of one that accepts torture and denies the sacredness of the Geneva Conventions.

If you really believe that torture is acceptable then I beg you to reconsider. We have taken steps backward but surely not so far back as barbarism!!!


Every year, as Tisha B’Av arrives, I write about all the Jewish tragedies that supposedly occurred in this very day,

Tisha B’Av used to be a time to mourn the destruction of the first, and then second, temple. But, a big problem arose with Reform Judaism because, in our faith, we have no wish to return to the days of ritual sacrifice. We also don’t necessarily believe that there is an actual dude called “the Messiah” so we don’t have a reason to want the temple back.

We believe that, through our actions, we can improve the world to the extent that one day a Messianic age will arrive through our efforts. We need no savior, like Christians do; no singular prophet; and no special guy from the lineage of David. What we DO need it to TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. Each individual is tasked with doing their own little part until one day the sum of those parts is great enough to affect a global culture of holiness, respect, and love.

What we also need is the courage to press on no matter the obstacles. THAT is why I care so much about Tisha B’Av. Irrespective of mourning the Temple, we can use this day to realize that our people have survived countless instances of cruelty and hatred and yet we have remained.

Think about it. In this week’s Torah portion, the first of the book of Deuteronomy, Moses begins the first of his three great “sermons”.  He reminds us, through a perspective that is much more mature in its deutero-retelling than in the original tellings earlier in Torah, of all the things we have been through. He also reminds us of our failures and our lack of courage and persistence. In a rather timely sort of annual occurrence, it is said that one of the things that happened on Tisha B’Av was the failure of the “spies” to come back from reconnoitering the promise land with confidence in our success. Moses not only reminds the people of their lack of faith and their unwillingness to persevere and enter the land but he takes personal responsibility for it by reminding them that G-d is angry with him as well.

What I’m saying here is that, in his well seasoned maturity, Moses takes responsibility even for the things that he himself did not do. The buck stops with Moses. From this we learn that we, as a society, must have the forbearance to take action AND that we, as individuals, must have the integrity to accept responsibility for making those actions work or not work.

So, on this Tisha B’Av I am not suggesting we neglect the temple. Nor am I suggesting that we ignore the crusades, the inquisition, the expulsion from Spain, the expulsion from Portugal, the weak will of 10 out of 12 biblical spies, the mass transport of the Jews of the Warsaw Ghetto to Auschwitz, or anything else that has tragically befallen the Jews throughout history. Rather, I suggest that, as we mourn the myriad terrors, we use that memory to notice that we yet remain a people.

Remember that much of the reason we persist is that we never give up, never give in, never allow humiliation to trump fortitude, and never act with complacency in the hope that all will be fine with a new temple, a Davidic Messiah, a second-coming of Christ, or anything else.

Don’t wait for the end of days to take responsibility for doing your part to bring about the world you hope to someday have.


On this day in Jewish history, this day in 586 BCE,  the Holy Temple (Beit Hamikdash) of the ancient Jews was destroyed. Our Orthodox and many Conservative coreligionists believe that, on this day, the Jewish world was draped in darkness. On this day, they believe, it became impossible to comprehend our daily opportunity to rise above the physical realm and to make all life a spiritual experience. The Orthodox tell me that after the destruction of the Beit Hamikdash, it became far more difficult to experience God in our everyday lives. We Reform Jews don’t believe that. We believe that we carry on the tradition of the Pharisees in adapting our spiritual practice to the the times. We don’t mourn the Temple. But that does not mean we have a shortage of things over which to weep!

In the 21st century we do not long for the daily sacrifices of the temple cult. Much as Spinoza adapted to the Enlightenment, we have replaced our longing with a Religious experience that borrows from the Zeitgeist of Post-modernity. This is not necessarily good in my view, because the Postmodern embodies much I dislike. In fact, I refuse to be called “a postmodern” because it associates one with the irrationality of the likes of Derrida and the post-structuralists. Yet, if you think about it, our method of Torah study now has much in common with Gademer’s notions as described in “Truth and Method”; so, it’s fair to say we are Postmodernly influenced. But, my point is simply that we don’t blindly hold on to the past. We grow. We believe that revelation is a daily occurrence if you just look deeply for it.

Still, the result of Jerusalem’s destruction can be seen throughout history and into modern times. Not only do we often feel distant from the divine but we are still regularly attacked by fanatics who have an obscene conception of a God who they think likes death. Violence against us, not just by fanatic Muslims and neo-Nazis, but even among crazed irrational crowds who would storm a French Synagogue or hold banners depicting us drinking blood in a place like Seattle, is still viewed as a viable tactic.

Amid this, now increasing, antisemitism we Jews can not abandon our people and our culture. The first and second Temples are long gone; but what we call pintele yid (the Jewish spark within our people) must live on. My Orthodox friends may tell me that our Covenant insures that it will never die. I think differently. Anything can die – and will die – if not maintained and cultivated. I believe that only through our action can that Jewish spark remain. We must look at the Crusades, the centuries of ghettoization and marginalization,  the ashes of the Shoah, the persecution of the Russian Jews, and even the past month’s dead Israeli soldiers and, within them,  find the fragments of our culture upon which to build. We must never give up. Yet, I must add my view that the life of the spark is not just maintained because of some Brit with God; it is we humans and our commitment to responsible action, that is the only way to keep the”pintele” afire.

As we mourn the destruction of Tisha B’Av, my wish is that every Jew will stand with pride against those who hate us. My bigger wish is that each one of us will commit ourselves to taking personal responsibility for building a brighter spark from the ashes of the ever existing, ever unwarranted, hatred we see perpetrated against us.

A couple posts back, in my discussion of self-efficacy, I made a trend-bucking comment that “there IS an I in team“. I’d like to add some additional thoughts to help explain why I say that.

The “baby boom” generation, of which I am among the youngest members, passed through the 1950s and 1960s with an amazing sense of optimism. We tend to think we can do anything – and that’s good. We also tend to think we can BE anything and HAVE anything – that’s also (potentially) good. The oldest members of our generation inherited their “Greatest Generation” parents’ work ethic and blended it nicely with their new found optimism – that’s really good. By the time my piece of the boomer generation was coming of age, though, we sometimes seemed to have allowed that honorable zeitgeist to degenerate.

We younger boomers have held onto our belief that we can be, and have, anything; but, we sometimes fall into the trap of thinking the world owes it to us. This does not mean we don’t work our asses off – we do. But, when we don’t get everything we want from life, even when we are working our asses off, we simply can’t accept it. We want to blame politicians (who deserve plenty of blame), corporations (over-blamed, IMHO), and our culture (the biggest contributor). We seem unable to simply TAKE RESPONSIBILITY. Other factors certainly play into our success or failure, and we can’t control everything; but, these days, we rarely hold ourselves accountable for the job of improving the subset of things over which we DO have control. Taking responsibility is something that a lot of us and our children, and now grandchildren, simply seem to avoid.

This brings me to why I say “there IS an I in team”.

We know all the buzzwords. We say it takes a village. We crowd-source our decisions. We takecommunity responsibility. We strive to be team players. We understand thewisdom of networks. And then, when something good happens – when we win a big deal with a customer, say – we all congratulate “the team” – that’s really good too!

But it’s interesting to see what happens when something good doesn’t happen. All the crowd-sourced, networked, team-playing, village people, seem to either take only “team responsibility” or to switch over to that old outdated “individual” model and start playing blame games.

So…….. why is that?

Teams are important. Critical, in fact. Synergy is an incontestable value derived from networks. We can do more, and we can do it faster, with a well crafted team than we can alone. The problem is that a “well crafted team” relies on personal achievement (as I said a couple posts ago) as well as on integrity, commitment-keeping, and accountability. All of those traits are PERSONAL traits. Without them team members have no basis for trust. If we ignore the required individual attributes of each team member, then we can crowd-source all the decisions we want among the villagers but we will never perform OPTIMALLY.

I propose that one should not strive simply to build acceptable teams but, rather, should aim to build optimal ones. Doing that requires each team member to take personal responsibility and to hold himself personally  accountable. In other words, personal responsibility and personal accountability are requirements of optimal team performance.

And…. why do I say that “there IS an I in team”?

As a member of a team it is necessary to say “I will take responsibility for that task”, “I hold myself accountable to finish that project”, “I have an idea to share”, and perhaps most important of all:

“I take responsibility for that decision: I expect the credit for it when we succeed and I will take the blame for it if we fail”.

I don’t see much of that these days. But, to be honest, I don’t always practice what I just preached, either. Then again, acknowledging the importance of personal responsibility, personal accountability, and personal integrity is the first step to improving my ability to accept them. So, I place myself further along the path than many of my “co-boomers” and I encourage everyone to join in on the journey.


This morning I heard about a really beautiful new spin on a very old Passover tradition and I want to share it. I also want to talk about why it’s something that I find immensely profound. I need to make sure that credit is given where due so, to be very clear, this is not my idea. It came from my Rabbi, Michael Cahana, at Congregation Beth Israel in Portland, Oregon. Rabbi Cahana and his family get’s 100% of the credit. When it comes to the practice, I am but the messenger. When it comes to my comments on its profundity and the rationale for my love of the idea, these words are mine and represent no opinion save for my own.

First, you need to understand that last night was the first night of Passover and that, throughout the world, Jews held an annual ceremonial dinner called a “Seder”. Basically, this is a ritual that re-tells the story of Moses’s confrontation with the Pharaoh of Egypt over freeing (or not) the Jewish people from slavery; and, or course, the Exodus itself. I won’t describe the whole event because most of you probably already know about it and because the ritual itself is not my topic. What is important is this:

Toward the end of a Passover Seder, a portion of the ritual consists of opening the door to your home and placing a glass of wine there, for the prophet Elijah.  This is (to my understanding) for 2 reasons. First, tradition says that Elijah visits the home of every Jew on Passover and who better to share your joy with than the great prophet Eliahu ha’navi. Second, it is Elijah who will usher in the messianic age. The idea is that we treat Elijah as part of  the family in the hope that he’ll stick around and the messianic age will be upon us. In the meantime, we are just waiting for the big day!

Interestingly, while this ritual of giving wine to Elijah is one of hope, is also one of waiting. It is this latter aspect where Rabbi Cahana’s new “spin” is so inspiring. You see, instead of filling a wineglass from a bottle and waiting around for better days, he started with an empty glass. Before setting a glass out for Elijah, the Cahana’s had each attendee at the Seder pour some of their own wine into the glass and then say what they would do this year to help improve the world. I find this utterly profound because it makes a statement that I agree with 1000%. It says “don’t sit around waiting for a better life, a better society, a cleaner planet, a perfectly loving species of human; take responsibility for the necessary change; ACT to fix the world yourself!

If you have been reading my posts, it should not surprise you that I wrestle with God on a regular basis. I don’t believe in a God to whom you make personal requests and who grants your wishes like a fairy godmother or a genie. I don’t believe that everything is just fine no matter how bad things get because it’s “God’s plan”. I don’t believe that when, for example, a child dies she’s “in a better place”.  I don’t believe in sitting around and waiting for the Messiah to come in “God’s time” while the world remains in turmoil. Most importantly, I don’t believe that it’s the responsibility of a “higher power” to bring about a world of love, compassion, acceptance, health, and peace. This does not mean that I don’t believe in a “higher power”; I just don’t think we are well served by dumping responsibility for all of our problems on him/her/it. I don’t believe that “good things come to those who wait”. To me, the only thing that can improve human well-being is human action. My mother told me, time and again, that “God helps those who help themselves”. I live by that creed. If you want things to improve, improve things! Taking responsibility and acting rationally are the prime movers of betterment.

In the context of what I just said, you should easily see how Rabbi Cahana’s new take on the ritual of sharing wine with Elijah has such synchronicity with my way of thinking. Instead of leaving a glass of wine out for Elijah and then waiting, we make a committed offer to assist Elijah. In committing to do our personal part we are making a conscious acknowledgement that we must be responsible and that we must act to improve the world. Waiting doesn’t seem to have worked. It is time to rededicate ourselves, this Passover, to a commitment to personal responsibility, individual action, and a personal ethic of working to improve out societies and our cute little blue planet.

Hag Pesach Someach!

In response to my posts expressing intellectual issues with the Post-Structuralist philosophers, one of my followers made a comment to which I will now respond. Essentially she said that, if the 20th century turned out to be what I consider a “nightmare” then I should not “shoot the messenger”. In  other words, if Foucault correctly describes the 20th century, then I should not blame Foucault just because he was correct. I would like to explain why I feel that it is not only acceptable, but imperative, that we do, indeed, take sharp aim at the messengers. My rationale is that they are not simply messengers.

I will offer one example, from a writer I’ve not discussed before, to frame my contention.

Jean Baudrillard is an eminent French post-modern intellectual who passed away in 2007. Like Barthes, he is someone with whom I disagree but who’s writing I find quite beautiful. Unlike Barthes, who I simply find beautiful, in Baudrillard I find the linguistic beauty to conceal something quite dangerous. As one example, let us consider his brief essay “”Transaesthetics”.

This essay is really a lovely little piece of writing. It correctly frames much of the art after Duchamp, specifically much of the “pop art” of the 60s and 70’s, within his notion of “Simulation”. By this he means that little new is created and much of what already exists is simply regurgitated. He goes on to use Warhol and his “soup cans” as an example.  Some of the concepts which he states accurately are these: (1) that there is no longer a “gold standard of aesthetic judgement”, (2) that 20th century art measures itself against nothing but itself, and (3) that everything coexists amid “general indifference”. Accurate enough, and well enough stated. Here is my problem. The full clause which uses the phrase “general indifference” reads: “all coexist with a marvelous facility amid general indifference“. The word “marvelous” does not simply state a fact, it editorializes it; and it does so in a way as to condone indifference.

Soon after extolling the acceptability of indifference, Baudrillard discusses the Warhol soup cans and states that they release us from “the need to decide between beautiful and ugly…” I understand what he is saying and, without the context of the full sentence, I get it. But, again, let’s look at the full context. What Baudrillard says is this: “The only benefit of a Campbell’s soup can by Andy Warhol (and it is an immense benefit) is that it releases us from the need to decide between beautiful and ugly…“. Again, he editorializes and states that he considers the result of Warhol to be “an immense benefit“. My interpretation of this is that Baudrillard is saying that it is beneficial to have no need to consider the difference between the beautiful and the ugly.

Now, contemplating distinctions is an aspect of cognition and using distinctions is an aspect of communication. So, to say that indifference to the distinctions between beauty and ugliness is beneficial is to downplay the role of cognition in human existence. This is where I find the danger in Baudrillard’s thinking. He advocates indifference and complacency versus thinking and action.

Having set some context, let me tell you why I’m perfectly comfortable criticizing Baudrillard. I believe that Baudrillard clearly states some fundamental dilemmas in 20th and early 21st century art. But, Baudrillard  is not a mere messenger. that is my point in criticizing Foucault, Derrida, and Lyotard; and it’s my point in using Baudrillard (just by way of adding to the list) as yet another example. You see, these philosophers do not bury themselves in the ivory towers of Harvard, or Yale, or the Sorbonne or the College du France; They speak out publicly. They aren’t just “philosophers“; they are “public intellectuals“. The public treats them like rock stars. People listen to them. This means that each of these men has a moral responsibility to be a positive influence. If the general population takes their lead from you, then it is you who bears the responsibility to lead. So, these people are not simply the messengers of the tragedies of the 20th and 21st century, they are complicit in them. For that reason, I hold them accountable and, when I criticize them, I’m not shooting the messenger I’m shooting the culprit. A public intellectual has responsibilities and should be held to account for properly carrying out those responsibilities. Baudrillard, for example, is not saying: “hey, everybody’s indifferent and no one thinks anymore. Bummer.” He is implying (my interpretation of his words, not his words per se): “we, as a world are beyond thinking, beyond caring, beyond being glorified by beauty – and that’s just fine. It’s the way of the new world – so live it! It’s what I personally endorse.

I’m not trying to shoot messengers. I’m just trying to do my little part to stop the further demise of human mind. No big deal, really.