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Color my sunset sky

Mistaking Identity

08.18.15-IntersexDennis Prager is at it again, this time with the simultaneously radical and reactionary, bigoted, sociopathic, and really-not-very-nice assertion that transgender people should take names and employ pronouns appropriate to their chosen identity.

Quick!  Inside the nearest shelter… the sky is falling.  Civil society may never recover.

Okay, yes, I am being sarcastic.  Guilty as charged.  But sometimes the logical and moral convolutions the politically-correct allow for no outlet other than simple mockery.

But I apologize if I hurt anyone’s feelings.  I know it’s terribly bad form these days to speak the truth.

However, it should come as no surprise that the moral boundaries of civil society grow ever blurrier, in this case by design.  These winds were already blowing with gale force when I published the following essay back in 2011:

When their third child, Storm, was born, Kathy Witterick and David Stocker announced the birth of their new baby with the following email:

“We’ve decided not to share Storm’s sex for now — a tribute to freedom and choice in place of limitation, a stand up to what the world could become in Storm’s lifetime (a more progressive place? …).”

Needless to say, friends and family alike have trouble understanding Witterick and Stocker’s unconventional approach to child-raising. With stereotyping, bullying, and social stigma inevitable parts of growing up, it’s easy to argue that manufacturing an additional obstacle to healthy social development is hardly in the child’s own best interest.

“Everyone keeps asking us, ‘When will this end?'” says Witterick. “And we always turn the question back. Yeah, when will this end? When will we live in a world where people can make choices to be whoever they are?”

FREEDOM WITHOUT LIMITS

A single family hardly constitutes a trend. But consider the Egalia preschool in Stockholm, Sweden, where staff avoid such culturally loaded words as “him” and “her,” addressing the children as “friends” rather than “boys and girls.” According to the AP, “breaking down gender roles is a core mission in [Sweden’s] national curriculum,” and many preschools have hired “gender pedagogues” to devisestrategies for eliminating “stereotypes.”

germanyCould they be right? Is sexual identity nothing more than arbitrary social programming? By eliminating every vestige of guidance from a child’s environment might parents actually help him learn to make better choices? Will indoctrinating a child with the conviction that every imaginable alternative is equally viable produce a canny, confident, and even-keeled adult?

Well, would it make travel easier if we uprooted every street sign and tore down every traffic signal? Would it make navigation easier if we burned every map and disabled every GPS?

The hazards of unrestricted freedom often go overlooked in a society that values personal autonomy above all else. But the formula for resolving the tension between individual expression and social boundaries was articulated by King Solomon, the wisest of all men, nearly three thousand years ago.

Hear, my son, the moral guidance of your father,
and do not forsake the teaching of your mother
(Proverbs 1:8).

Giving voice to the self-evident truth that men are men and women are women, Solomon alludes to the distinct manner in which a father and a mother each makes a unique contribution to the psychological and ethical development of their child. From the father comes instruction— formal guidance in the ways of moral values and discipline. How to know right from wrong, and how to choose good over evil — this is the kind of wisdom most effectively communicated through fatherly counsel and direction.

Complementing the father’s instruction are the lessons absorbed from the mother, who plays the primary role in creating the atmosphere of personal responsibility and spiritual commitment that should permeate a home. It is mainly through the intangible, unquantifiable influence of the mother that a child develops moral sensitivity. Neither father nor mother can successfully assume the role of the other, for our distinct psycho-spiritual complexions are part of the design according to which the universe was formed.

Parents who refuse to assert moral principles, albeit in the name of tolerance and progressivism, succeed only in making their home an environment of intellectual anarchy that will inevitably lead to confusion and dysfunction later in life.

CHILD-RAISING, TAILOR-MADE

Train a youth according to his way;
even when he grows old he will not depart from it
(Ibid. 22:6).

Often cited, correctly, as the source for individualizing education based upon the singular needs of every child, this proverb contains another element often overlooked: the word “youth” — na’ar, in Hebrew — implies immaturity. Truth be told, the majority of us suffer from a sophomoric certitude in the infallibility of our own wisdom. And children are the most susceptible of all to such delusions.

Wanting desperately to believe in their own independence, children seize hold of any excuse, no matter how irrational, to invalidate the wisdom of their parents. Left to his own devices, a youth will steer confidently into the heart of the nearest storm, delighted to be free from the steady guidance of the parent who could have saved him from catastrophe.

Like old wine and fine cuisine, genuine wisdom is an acquired taste, and the immature mind will reject its lessons as surely as the untrained palate will disdain the delicacies of a Cordon Bleu in favor of peasant’s fare smothered in salt and ketchup. But we do our children no favor by making it easier for them to marching confidently over the edge of the nearest precipice. Gentle instruction administered with care and consistency will lay the foundations of moral discernment as a child grows into adulthood.

A WORLD WITHOUT BORDERS

In his famous legal discourse regarding character development, Maimonides writes that “people are influenced by the society in which they live” (Hilchos Dayos 6:1). Among the many dangers of the modern world, none may be as insidious as the attack upon all natural and moral boundaries. Electric lighting pushes away the darkness of night, central air conditioning and heating insulate us from the changing of the seasons, cars and planes shrink the distance between faraway places, and electronic communication eliminates all delay in correspondence and information.

No one is suggesting that we live like the Amish and eschew modern technology. But these inventions are not as innocuous as we wish to believe: in the same way that physical boundaries have been breached, so too have moral boundaries become increasingly blurred and the path of moral conduct ever more difficult to find.

Maze-2-1024x717Respect for traditional family structure continues to erode. The personal conduct of political leaders raises less concern than the carelessness that leads to getting caught. Violent criminals are cast as victims while defenders of life and limb are vilified as exploiters and oppressors. And the role of human sexuality in mental health and social stability is ever more profoundly misunderstood. Political correctness and moral equivalence have so muddied conventional wisdom that young and old alike often fear censure from their peers for daring to judge even the most abhorrent behaviors.

Yes, children need to learn to make their own choices, and today’s helicopter parents who micromanage every aspect of their children’s lives are more likely to produce crippled than capable adults. Nevertheless, we dare not overcompensate by throwing our children into the stormy waters of amorality and expecting them to swim. As Solomon has said, it is only through the guidance and teaching of moral values that we will keep our children afloat, as well as enabling them to navigate their way to safe harbor.

Originally published by Jewish World Review

The Other Butterfly Effect

butterfly_effectEarlier this month,  Daniel Cohen joined the ranks of Israeli victims of unprovoked Arab knife attacks.  The only difference in his story is that it was the best thing the could have happened to him.

As doctors worked to stop the bleeding and stabilize his condition, they discovered that the 31-year-old father of five was suffering from an undiagnosed case of intestinal cancer.  Now receiving treatment, his prospects are good.  Had he not been stabbed, who knows how long it might have been before the cancer was discovered.

How many things that look really bad eventually turn out to be really good?  How many little things that go unnoticed may end up changing our lives in ways we can’t imagine?

It’s a topic worth revisiting, so I offer these thoughts from 2010:

On August 29, 1776, General George Washington’s first field command was about to end in disaster. Having divided his forces, Washington now found half his Continental army trapped between a superior redcoat contingent advancing on his position on one side and a fleet of British warships sailing up the East River to bombard his men from the other.

Instead, the rising winds of a nor’easter turned back the British ships, allowing the American force of over 9000 to escape across the river by night without losing a single man. As dawn broke, an impenetrable fog concealed the final stages of the withdrawal so that, when the air cleared around 7 AM, the British discovered an empty landscape where there had been an army only hours before.

On account of a timely wind and a providential fog, the American army survived to fight another day and the failure of the American Revolution was averted.

battles-takes-placeTwo centuries earlier, it was the British who found salvation from a change in the wind. In 1588, King Philip II of Spain dispatched his fearsome Armada to depose the Protestant Queen Elizabeth and make Europe safe for Catholicism. On the night of August 7, however, a powerful north wind sped a plucky fleet of English fireships from its southern harbor up into the English Channel. By engaging the enemy flotilla, the British ships delayed the Spanish from their rendezvous with an invasion force of 27,000 soldiers that would almost certainly have captured London and executed Elizabeth. The wind then drove the Spanish on into the North Sea where they posed no further threat to England.

If not for the strong north breeze, Spain, not Britain, would have prevailed as the dominant power in Europe, the counter-Reformation might well have purged Protestantism from Europe, and Spanish would today be the preeminent language of world commerce and politics.

ALL THINGS GREAT AND SMALL

Even before the popular movie of the same name, virtually everyone had heard of the “butterfly effect,” the theoretical phenomenon whereby a tiny breeze begins with the flapping of a butterfly’s wings in Africa and gathers strength until it becomes a typhoon in the Pacific Ocean. A seemingly insignificant event on one side of the world may produce events of titanic proportions on the other.

And although it took winds stronger than the humble breeze of a butterfly’s wings to carry British ships to within reach of the Spanish Armada in the 16th century and hold them back from trapping Washington’s army 200 years later, in comparison with the rise and fall of nations we would generally consider weather conditions on any given day to be equally inconsequential.

In the grand scheme of creation, however, nothing is without consequence. The kabbalists tell us that nothing occurs on earth unless it is first decreed On High, and that nothing is decreed above unless it is first determined below. This is not a contradiction. Every event in this world is a reflection of the Divine Will, which changes each and every moment according to the behavior of man, the same way a mother and father may alter their parenting style to match every action of their child. The blessings and the retributions that come to the world, therefore, are a heavenly response to the conduct of human beings.

In the final moments before the destruction of the Second Temple, not satisfied to have razed Jerusalem to the ground and set fire to the House of G-d, the Roman general Titus showed his contempt for the sanctity of the Jewish nation by taking the Torah scroll, unrolling it upon the floor of the Holy of Holies, and laying with a prostitute upon it. In the place where the High Priest once performed the most intensely spiritual act of divine service, Titus committed the most despicable act of defilement.

Why did the Almighty allow Titus to so desecrate His innermost sanctuary? Rabbi Chaim of Volozhin, founder of the great Talmudic academy of 18th century Europe, explains that Titus gained divine sanction for his act because the Jews had, in a manner of speaking, already done the same thing themselves.

Just as the Temple once served as the focal point of Jewish society, similarly should every Jew see himself as a microcosm of the Temple. And just as the focal point of the Temple was the Holy of Holies, wherein resided the Ark of the Covenant, similarly is the mind the holiest sanctuary of the human being, for therein resides the soul. By allowing the philosophies of Greece and Rome to infiltrate their thinking and shape their values, the Jews had yielded to the carnal seduction of their souls and defiled the inner sanctuary of their own minds. For that reason alone was Titus allowed to perpetrate his abomination.

Despite the Temple serving as a constant reminder of their spiritual purpose, the Jews in ever increasing numbers had compromised their cultural integrity by adopting Greek and Roman styles of dress, by eagerly attending the spectacles of the Greek gymnasia and the Roman coliseums, by passionately studying sophistry from the philosophers of Greece and courting the aristocracy of Rome – all the while convinced that their dabbling in foreign culture was as innocent as the flitting of a butterfly on the breeze. But the moral corruption that lay at the core of these societies released a hurricane of spiritual confusion, eroding the foundations of Jewish values until the Jews forfeited the merit to serve their Creator in the great Temple of Jerusalem.

FROM ANY SOURCE, AT ANY MOMENT

eyjafjallajokullThough the guidance of Divine Providence, however, the flutter of the butterfly’s wings need not always result in devastation. In November 1991, a long and painful drought in Israel ended dramatically with rain and snow falling at record levels to fill the dangerously low Sea of Galilee beyond capacity and replenish underground aquifers. Climatologists attributed the precipitous weather to the eruption of Mount Pinatubo, on the Philippine island of Luzon, five months earlier. Coming after nearly 500 years of inactivity, Pinatubo’s eruption was the second largest of the 20th century.

After months of special prayers and fasting, the religious community had a different explanation. When the Almighty wants it to rain in Israel, He causes a volcano to erupt on the Pacific rim of Asia. Indeed, a more recent volcano eruption revealed the hand of Providence less globally but no less dramatically.

Earlier this year, an 18 year old seminary student in Israel was diagnosed with fulminate hepatic failure. Following the advice of his doctors and rabbi, the young man traveled to Brussels, the world center for liver transplants, which offered his only hope of recovery. But with five patients on the list ahead of him and his health deteriorating rapidly, the young man’s prospects were bleak. And so he waited and prayed for a miracle.

In mid-April, a liver became available. The medical center contacted the patient whose name topped the list, but he was unable to get to Brussels within the lifespan of the liver. Patients numbers two, three, four, and five could not arrive in time, either. The young student waiting for a miracle in Brussels received word that a liver was available. The transplant surgery was successful.

Why were none of the other candidates able to get to Brussels to benefit from the liver? Because only days earlier, the eruption of Iceland’s Eyjafjallajokull volcano had shut down all air traffic in Europe. What should have been a journey of only a few hours now became an unbridgeable gap for all except the prayerful seminary student who waited seemingly without hope.

After seeing his diseased liver, doctors agreed that if not for the transplant the young man would have died within a week.

Nothing occurs on earth unless it is first decreed On High, and nothing is decreed above unless it is first determined below. As we mourn the loss of the Temple in Jerusalem today, Tisha B’Av, let us consider that the flapping of butterfly wings begins in our hearts, in our conduct toward our Creator and toward our fellow men. The breeze produced by every act of kindness and devotion works its way up to the highest reaches of the heavens, then wafts back down to earth as the wind of change that visits upon us the consequences of our misdeeds or, if we are worthy, the blessings of our virtue.

Originally published in Jewish World Review

The Grass is Always Greener After the Apocalypse

imgresWell, there goes the neighborhood.

That’s what I thought when I came home to find my next-door neighbor cutting his grass – for the first time since autumn. This was bad news. With the front yard of my other neighbor already short-cropped and neatly clipped, my own bedraggled lawn now stood out in sharp, unpretty relief.

For some mysterious reason, the zoysia grass that dominates my front lawn is the last in the neighborhood to awaken each year from dormancy. Even worse, a variety of other grasses shoot up energetically with the outbreak of spring, speckling my lawn in malignant clumps that make the zoysia appear all the more anemic. In contrast to the golf course-like greens on either side of me, my patch of stringy yellow turf seemed to beckon for a rough-cut, whitewashed sign proclaiming CONDEMNED!

My yard guys had yet to appear after the winter hiatus and hadn’t returned my phone calls. Were they out of town? Had they given up yard work for house painting or auto repair? It didn’t matter. Only one course of action remained: I would have to cut the grass myself.

My sensibilities cried out against the wrongness of it all. The Creator did not plant grass upon His earth that it should be cut. He intended that it should grow, that it should go to seed, that it should produce new grass, and that the cycle should continue, uninterrupted by the meddling hands of Man. Cutting the lawn was a symbol of the same intrusive practices responsible for the destruction of the ozone layer and global warming, for deforestation and the extinction of new species every day, for Japanese kudzu smothering the southwest and Venezuelan hyacinths choking the Everglades. It all starts here, hacking down new growth sown by the Divine Hand to conform to some arbitrary aesthetic mean, branding every bayou a quagmire to justify turning it into a landfill or a parking lot. Was I now to become a part of this?

“How about doing mine when you finish yours?” I called to my neighbor. Let him be the one to destroy the planet.

“You’re welcome to borrow my mower when I finish,” he said.

Terrific. Out of the frying pan, into the quagmire.

Should I leave my lawn uncut to protest the destruction of the world’s ecosystem? No, my neighbors wouldn’t understand that I was making a political statement. Even worse, I would likely be cited by the city for crimes against civilization.

And, worst of all, a small inner voice insisted that as an upstanding community member, as a father and a teacher, I had an obligation to uphold standards and preserve the status quo for the general welfare of the collective.

Bah. Humbug.

My neighbor finished. “You want to use it now?” he asked.

Of course not, you infidel. But I didn’t say that: he would only have thought me rude. Instead I just smiled and nodded.

He showed me how to operate the mower then went inside, mercifully, so not to behold me in my degradation.

You know what? It wasn’t so bad. I even felt a kind of thrill as I assumed mastery over nature, subduing the power of the untamed wilderness, imposing order upon chaos. In fifteen minutes, the lawn looked great. I felt great. Maybe I should buy shares in John Deere. My only worry was that my wife might now expect me to mow the grass every two weeks. Well, maybe she wouldn’t notice.

Half an hour later, as I was throwing the baseball with my son on our newly manicured front yard, my wife pulled into the driveway.

“Honey,” she cried. “The lawn looks great. You cut it yourself?”

Rats. She noticed.

Previously published by the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and Jewish World Review

The War on Women Continues

From the Huffington Post:

imagesBritish chess grandmaster Nigel Short is responding to criticism after recently arguing that inherent differences in men’s and women’s brains may explain why there are fewer female chess champions than males ones.

“Men and women’s brains are hard-wired very differently, so why should they function in the same way? I don’t have the slightest problem in acknowledging that my wife possesses a much higher degree of emotional intelligence than I do,” he wrote in the February issue of New In Chess magazine. “One is not better than the other, we just have different skills.”

“It would be wonderful to see more girls playing chess, and at a higher level, but rather than fretting about inequality, perhaps we should just gracefully accept it as a fact,” he added.

So why would Huff Post run such a blatantly chauvinistic report?  Well, obviously, for the counter-offensive that makes up the last 60% of the article.  Then, of course, you have the comments, which fluctuate wildly between the apoplectic, the apologetic, the politically correct, and the well-reasoned.

Anyone who has raised children or taught school knows that males and females are more different than some species.  We have different strengths and weaknesses, which is why it makes sense that we form partnerships called “the family.”

It’s both fascinating and disturbing that so many people are offended by those who say so.

 

It’s not always wise to look to the skies

geese-in-flight_custom-408d5c16d3bcce1c3e58b4a95e5d436b345f5e5c-s800-c85Just ask the bar-headed goose, famous for traversing the Himalayan Mountains on its annual migration from the Indian subcontinent to central Asia.  According to NPR, researchers have now determined that the migrant birds, although once believed to soar at heights near the peak of Everest,  keep much lower to the ground, rising over obstacles and then settling back into a tighter, more earth-bound trajectory.

It’s worth considering the lesson for those of us who aspire to lives of spiritual elevation.  Man is a creature of contradictions, a divinely inspired being whose ethereal soul is nevertheless trapped in a body of flesh and blood and sentenced to live his life amidst the material attractions of the physical world.  We long for the heavens but, like Icarus, we risk losing our bearings and plummeting into the abyss if we neglect the needs of our earthly selves.

And so, like the goose, we rise up, we drop down, we endure the peaks and valleys of personal challenge as we try to chart our course through the uncertain terrain that is life in this world.

The Aroma of Ideology

images1A NYT op-ed cites a study by social scientists at Brown, Harvard, and Penn State that people we agree with smell better to us.

For a theological critique, see my article, The Scent of Spirit.