Sunday, July 27, 2008

Pluralism At It's Best--A Jew has a Buddhist Epiphany

One of the many outstanding things about leaving Arizona to spend the summer in Aspen is the opportunity to meet, talk to, and learn from the amazing people who come to speak and teach at the Aspen Institute.

Last week was Aspen at its best. On Monday we got to hear King Abdullah of Jordan and a few days later I participated in a three-day symposium that featured His Holiness the Dalai Lama and several of the most highly regarded masters of Tibetan Buddhism in the world.

What better place for me--a self described student and proponent of Jewish wisdom--to put the notion of pluralism to the test. As my readers know, I have identified pluralism as the key to addressing virtually every religious, political, and personal problem in the world.

I came into this group knowing absolutely nothing about Buddhism other than the fact that I have come to resemble Buddha physically to a distressing extent in recent years.

But that changed very quickly. During the first day and a half before the arrival of His Holiness I had the opportunity to study with two amazing Buddhist masters.

The first was Dzogchen Ponlop Rinpoche--one of the foremost scholars and meditation masters in the world who has written books including "Mind Beyond Death--Penetrating Wisdom." Rinpcche (pronounced "rin-po-SHAY")is a Tibetan term that literally means "precious jewel" and is a title of honor given to only the greatest spiritual teachers.

He explained that Buddhism is the science of the mind and its goal is to help us to free our minds of the external influences that cause us stress and confusion. He explained that our Perceptual Mind enables us to see what is actually going on around us. It is our Conceptual Mind which brings our preconceived notions and prejudices into the equation that causes a lot of the problems. The rest of the problems he said are the result of the influence of the Emotional Mind which keeps us from thinking clearly.

He said the road to happiness can only be traveled by those who can control their prejudices and emotions and find inner peace. While that sounds easy, he said it requires many years of hard work and mediation to clear the mind.

That set the stage for my sessions and conversations with Sogyal Rinpoche. a world-renowned teacher and author of the widely-acclaimed "Tibetan Book of Living and Dying." Sogyal studied comparative religion at Cambridge University and has studied with and taught masters of all schools of Tibetan Buddhism. He is considered by many to be the reincarnation of the teacher and master of the previous Dalai Lama.

He taught that most of us make the mistake of over-thinking situations. He had a mantra which he repeated frequently:

Water, if you don't stir it, becomes clear.

He taught that what "stirs" the water for most of us is our thoughts. Meditation is designed to remove those thoughts from our minds. As we get better at it, it takes longer and longer before another thought pops in. In other words, the less we think, the closer we get to nirvana and complete happiness. Multi-tasking is our worst enemy, he said, as I checked my BlackBerry to see if I had any emails and what the stock market was doing.

Eventually I raised my hand.

"Rinpoche," I said. "As a Jew I am taught that I am commanded to think all the time and to try to solve the problems and relieve the suffering of the world. If everyone in the world was Buddhist, then millions of people would still be dying of polio and small pox. None of the great political problems--including those of your own people would be addressed."

His face broke into an enormous smile. "Buddhism is not a religion," he beamed. "It's a way of life. If you are Jewish and have a different world view, there are still ways in which you can benefit greatly by gaining control over your mind. Water, if you don't stir it, becomes clear--even for a Christian or a Jew."

"That's amazing," I said. "Because I believe that Judaism is also a way of life. Let me make a sports analogy. If a person is a swimmer or a runner, he will perform better at his chosen sport if he doesn't just swim or run. He or she would do better if they also lift weights, stretch, and do yoga or Pilates. So it is with life. The more wisdom traditions we can learn from and incorporate into our game plan, the better person we will be."

After the class, Sogyal came over and gave me a big hug "Thank you." he said. "No," I responded. "Thank you."

Over the next two days I spent five hours listening to the teaching of His Holiness the Dalai Lama. It's always wonderful and exciting to see and learn from extraordinary people. Getting to see and hear His Holiness in person was very special. But the personal contact and Buddhist wisdom I was able to learn from the Rinpoches is what I will always remember about this conference.

As a committed Jew, I came away from three days of study and conversation with Tibetan Buddhist masters in possession of new tools from a wisdom tradition that can only help to make me a better person and a better Jew.

There are many of my Jewish friends who would say that my attitude and the fact that thousands of American Jews are studying Buddhism shows how Judaism is being watered down and how Jews are assimilating. Nothing could be further from the truth.

What is happening, in fact, is that many Jews are looking for wisdom wherever they can find it. My guess is that only a handful of Jews who study Buddhist wisdom end up referring to themselves as Buddhists.

They just end up as better, smarter people and more effective Jews.

Who is truly wise? He who learns from all people.

Shimon Ben Zoma

Water, if you don't stir it, becomes clear.

Sogyal Rinpoche

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Pluralism--Our Last and Best Hope

Last month I gave my posthumous endorsement (he's dead--I'm not) to Shimon Ben Zoma (June 16--Shimon Ben Zoma For President! Vote the Pluralism Party!). Ben Zoma was the young rabbinic student who lived almost 2,000 years ago and, according to Jewish tradition, is attributed with saying:

Who is truly wise? He who learns from all people.

At this critical time in the history of our nation, the world, and the institutions we hold most dear, these ten words hold the key to success in virtually all of our endeavors.

Ben Zoma's question and answer provide the framework for pluralism--a word you really don't hear often enough.

The first person I ever heard use the word "pluralism" was my friend and teacher Rabbi Irving "Yitz" Greenberg, a founder and the long time president of CLAL--the National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership. Yitz is an orthodox rabbi who was distressed by the tension and bad feelings that existed between many reform, conservative, and orthodox Jews. He believed that Judaism was actually made stronger by the diversity of interpretations of our central rituals and traditions. He used the word pluralism often to describe the joy and energy that we should derive from the opportunity to learn from one another.

For this great insight and others, Yitz has earned enormous respect in many circles. He has also suffered and been ostracized by certain orthodox groups who believe that his pluralistic approach represents an abandonment of "true" Judaism.

Please do not make the mistake of confusing pluralism with the two words that are often used in its place--tolerance and diversity.

Being tolerant means that we should not say bad things in public about people whose beliefs and practices are different from our own. It is suffused with the implication that we are dealing with inferior people and ideas. But because we want to be nice and keep peace in the community, we will agree to co-exist alongside these unworthy neighbors and not complain about it.

Showing an appreciation for diversity for its own sake is a bigger problem because it implies that we should be appreciative of people and ideologies simply because they are different without regard to their merit. It is an appreciation of diversity that causes some to refrain from criticizing barbaric practices that exist in other cultures on the grounds that it is not our place to criticize.

Pluralism seems to get it just right. It implies that we have a responsibility to establish our own moral standards and work hard to define our own "truth" regarding a variety of issues. But it doesn't stop there. We are also obligated to try to find the partial truth in the beliefs of others with whom we disagree. In some cases there might not be a lot of truth there, but it is our obligation and in our selfish best interest to approach each person or differing point of view with the assumption that there might be something of value there.

In the business world pluralism is now all the rage but they don't call it by that name. It is called seeking "best practices." Instead of assuming that we have all the right answers, business and education leaders are constantly trying to find the best practices of others (including their competition) and incorporate those systems into their own business plan.

There's another term for this. It's called "being smart." Because at the end of the day in a free market of ideas and capitalism, only the most excellent and best run businesses or schools will survive.

Unfortunately, most of our governmental, political and religious institutions have apparently not figured this out yet. But they'd better get with the program pretty fast because in most of these situations time is not our friend.

Instead of trying to learn from all people, most of our political and business leaders seem more interested in self-promotion while ridiculing and demonizing those who see things differently.

The most dramatic recent example of this self-defeating approach in the political world has been the Bush administration. In the weeks and months following the attacks of 9/11, Bush could have tried to gather all the best and brightest people around him to determine the best course of action on a broad range of issues including retaliation, how to protect the country going forward, what to do about energy, and how to take best advantage of the enormous outpouring of world support and outrage against our attackers.

Instead, according to dozens of Republicans and Democrats who have since spoken out, Bush surrounded himself with people who agreed with the decisions he had already made--to attack Iraq, develop an energy policy that would encourage Americans not to view conservation and keeping oil prices down as a priority, and to exploit the fears of most Americans as an opportunity to rewrite the Constitution and expand executive powers in unprecedented ways.

He packed the Justice Department with Right wing ideologues and graduates of Jerry Falwell's law school, he packed FEMA with college buddies and horse show judges, and he made it clear that the regulatory agencies designed to protect Americans from abuses in industries ranging from mining to banking to mortgage lending were going to let big corporations have their way on just about everything.

Instead of trying to learn from the many bright patriotic people around him with differing views, he sealed himself off from those people and branded them as naive, unpatriotic, and not aware that there are evil people in the world who want to destroy us. Valuable resources like Colin Powell, Paul O'Neill, General Eric Shinseki and Christie Todd Whitman were thrown in the trash heap because they weren't 100 percent on message all of the time.

We are all painfully aware of the catastrophic results of his approach. We have known about the failures in Iraq and the follow-up to Hurricane Katrina for years. Recently we became aware of the crisis in our financial services industry that was caused in part by the failure of regulatory agencies to regulate.

Another major area where we desperately need a pluralistic approach is in the development of an energy policy that will serve us well into the future.

Shortly after 9/11, columnist and author Thomas Friedman and others pointed out that our top national security priority should be taxing gasoline to drive the prices that customers pay much higher. His theory was that this would cut demand and drive the price of crude oil lower. It would damage all the evil nations that hate us and are trying to destroy us since they all get most if not all their revenue from oil. If we didn't take action to bring down the price of crude oil, we would be paying for both sides of the war.

As a result of ignoring this type of advice, Bush enriched himself, Vice-President Cheney, all of the oil company execs who met in secret with Cheney to set energy policy, AND every country in the world that is plotting our demise.

Even now, with gas here in Aspen over $5 a gallon and all of our most heinous enemies wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, there seems to be no place for pluralism or best practices in the energy discussion. McCain has come out for increased domestic drilling and a gas tax holiday and Obama has said that it is critical that we bring gas prices down.

But let's take a look at the warped logic here. According to even Bush, we are "addicted to oil" and need to curb our usage. It seems that $5 gasoline is finally cutting demand for oil and causing a serious look at alternative forms of energy. This is what everyone agrees we need to do for the future.

There's only one thing that could get in the way of this new momentum--a sudden and significant drop in the price of energy. If gas goes back to $3 a gallon, everyone will breathe a sigh of relief and start driving their SUVs again. All the alternative energy projects will be scrapped. It will derail the progress we are making at finally getting serious about what we need to do.

And yet the political leaders of both parties are calling for just that--cheaper gas and lower energy costs. As Will Rogers once said, "when you find yourself in a hole, you should stop digging." We are in a hole of energy dependence that has strengthened our most fearsome enemies. Now our political leaders are saying we have to keep digging faster than ever so we can stay in the hole.

Instead of having a nuanced discussion with all the best and brightest people at the table, we get slogans and demonization of the other. Those on each side believe they have absolutely nothing to learn from people with different points of view.

My friend and teacher Dennis Prager taught me a great deal about Jewish wisdom and many other things. He now is very political and a water carrier for the Right. He has stated publicly and often on his radio show that "there is zero wisdom Left of center." Dennis is a legitimate Jewish scholar but in his zeal to demonize the Left he has abandoned some critical Jewish teachings that, in a different time and place he probably imparted to others.

It was Dennis who taught me many years ago the warning that Yitz Greenberg gave to him--"Don't compare the best things about your religion (ideology) to the worst things about someone else's." Now Dennis along with the true believers of the far Left and Right violate this wise precept on a daily basis. It too is the opposite of pluralism.

As I write this, yet another of my friends and teachers Rabbi Brad Hirschfield (current co-president of CLAL) is in Madrid at the invitation of the King of Saudi Arabia who called a meeting 150 religious leaders from around the world to begin a conversation that will hopefully lead to increased dialogue and mutual respect.

Brad and the 20 other Jewish leaders at the meeting had been strongly criticized by a number of people who believe that their participation validates or lends credibility to those in the Muslim world who have perpetrated horrible acts of terror against Israel and other countries. There are many who believe that no good Jew should participate in such a conversation or attend such a meeting.

Brad is a unique individual. He is an American Jew who moved to Israel in his late teens to fight in the Israeli settler movement in the West Bank. In his two years living in Hebron, he fought the Palestinians and was a true believer in the need to preserve every inch of Israel for the Jewish people.

After a couple of years, he became concerned about the tactics being used by the settlers and what he was personally becoming. He returned to the U.S. where he was ordained as an orthodox rabbi. He now is in his third season of hosting a TV show called "Building Bridges"--the most popular weekly show on Muslin cable television. He has also written a wonderful book called "You Don't Have to Be Wrong For Me to Be Right." The title speaks for itself. This is pluralism at its best.

I believe it is valid to label people such as Saddam Hussein, Osama bin Laden, and Adolf Hitler as evil and deserving of the most severe punishment imaginable for their actions. At the same time, I believe in the wisdom of the Hebrew Bible which goes out of its way to point out that all people are created b'tzelem elohim--in the image of God.

It would be convenient if my tradition taught that the good guys were created in God's image and the really bad guys were the creation of the Devil or at least had succumbed to his evil influence. In many ways, it would make life less complicated.

But if you believe that the most wonderful hero and the greatest villain are all not just created by the same God but are created in that God's image, then I believe the text is telling us that we need to take a more nuanced approach. By the way, that same text has no problem calling for the death penalty for certain crimes. But we are first commanded to try to find the partial truth or learn what we can from all people--the one's we like and the one's we don't.

To deal effectively in a complex and nuanced world, we need to take advantage of best practices and get the smartest, most ethical people in the room as we try to sort things out.

My prayer for the coming election is that one or both of our presidential candidates gets that message and starts acting on it. My sense is that the one who does will win in a landslide.

If Shimon Ben Zoma were only alive today I'd feel a lot more confident.

Saturday, July 12, 2008

Why Jewish Wisdom Rocks!

I have always been Jewish, but for most of my life I never took Judaism seriously. I thought it was a wonderful but irrelevant religion whose main focus was on the details of ritual observance and making sure that we stayed Jewish so we wouldn't grant Hitler a posthumous victory. I respected people who were obsessed with those goals (sort of) but it certainly had very little to do with me.

Then in the mid-80s my wife and I made our first trip to Israel and decided to send our older child to the new Milwaukee Jewish Day School for first grade. I had heard good things about the school and, after all, how much damage can you do to a first grader? A few years later, we were picked to participate in the Wexner Heritage Foundation Jewish education program for adults.

As result of those chance opportunities over a three year period, my life was changed forever. Not because I had a "spiritual reawakening" or reconnected with my historic roots. It was because Jewish wisdom and our wisdom traditions regarding the importance and relevance of ritual, peoplehood, family, ethical behavior, the land of Israel and the meaning of life resonated with me and WORKED. It was the type of religious experience that is quite familiar to the users of Viagra or the Atkins Diet.

Have you ever spent time around people who are on the Atkins or South Beach diets? They are total evangelists. They carry on forever about how well their diet WORKS and how it has changed their lives. They tell you way too much about what they can and can't eat and everything they have ingested for the last 48 hours.

The same is true about Viagra or Cialis. And it is true for one reason only. Because they WORK and add value and a sense of being in control to their users. People were living their lives without these things and then all of sudden they discovered them, tried them, and their lives were changed in a very positive way.

If these diet wisdoms or erectile dysfunction wisdoms didn't WORK, then no one would use them--even if their parents and grandparents had used them and were counting on the next generation to carry on the tradition.

Traditions that don't WORK or add value are doomed in our new open society where each of us and our children have the whole range of alternatives to religions, diets, country clubs, professions, neighborhoods, spouses, and wisdom traditions to choose from.

For me, Jewish wisdom WORKS in every aspect of my life and helps me better understand many of the things that are going on in the world. That's why Judaism alone has survived for thousands of years against all odds. We have wisdom traditions that add value to people's lives. What other rational reason could there be?

When I first discovered the relevance of Jewish wisdom, I was a few years into my life's work as a financial advisor and wealth manager. My initial inclination was to take the investment ideas I found most exciting and to buy them all for my clients, my family, and myself. It was a totally honest approach. In cases where I was right, nobody made more money than I did and when I've been wrong, no one has ever lost more money than I did in those ideas.

But as I matured personally and professionally, I came to realize that just because I believed in something didn't make it appropriate for everyone. So how do you decide what's right for each person? I found a great answer in the book of Leviticus which says we are forbidden to "put a stumbling block before the blind."

For more than a thousand years, this line has been interpreted as being about investing and giving advice. Rashi says we are not allowed to give a "blind" or ignorant person bad advice but more recent commentators say we are not allowed to give a "blind" person ANY advice. We are only permitted to give advice to people who were are reasonably sure understand the risks involved and for whom it is appropriate. It also is interpreted as a prohibition against insider trading.

Nothing is perfect, but it has been a great filter for me to run decisions through as I decide which investments to recommend to which people.

There is much personal wisdom in the Torah. There is even more relating to the effective running of a society, community or government.

For years we have all been reading about a great world power using its unique might to liberate a people that was trapped under the harsh rule of a cruel dictator. The dictator was promptly overthrown. The leader of the invading force declared "Mission Accomplished" and expected to be hailed as a liberator by the lucky recipients of His largess. Instead all hell broke loose and the freed people acted out early and often in very ungrateful ways--all of which came to a shock to the Liberator.

Of course I'm talking about the Exodus story as outlined in the Torah. I hope you didn't confuse it with what the U.S. and the Bush administration have experienced in Iraq. Wait a minute--they're the same story!

A couple of weeks ago I was in Torah study class here in Aspen where we looked at the story of Korach in the book of Numbers. He was the leader of a rebellion against Moses during the Exodus. You remember the Exodus--a liberation that was supposed to take a couple weeks but ended up lasting 40 years because God determined that the generation that had lived as slaves for so long was incapable of leading the people into the future. Come on, don't tell me you're thinking about Iraq again.

Korach tried to get the people to challenge the authority of Moses and for his efforts Korach and his family and followers were dramatically disposed of at God's direction.

The discussion in our class revolved around whether Korach got a raw deal. After all, under Moses' leadership the Children of Israel suffered though a number of rough patches. What's so bad about another leader standing up and calling Moses out?

Several commentators have written that it wasn't so much what Korach said as it was how and when he chose to say it. In other words, there's a place for constructive dissent but a society can't tolerate challenges that could tear the whole community apart. At the time, the Children of Israel were still wandering in the desert and it wasn't at all clear how or when they were going to make it to the Promised Land.

I of course immediately started flashing on Hillary Clinton and Scott McClellan. Each of them was an insider and a key part of their respective political communities. Each, for essentially personal reasons, chose to make statements that challenged the honesty and competence of the annointed leaders of those parties and each got the Korach treatment.

In the case of McClellan, his revelations that Bush had basically lied about a lot of things and rushed us into war were never challenged by Republicans. But there was a visceral outpouring of hatred over his book because you're not supposed to tell damaging truths about a sitting president who used to be your employer.

Clinton did herself in by wanting to win the Democratic primary so badly that she got way negative and nasty about Barack Obama long after the outcome of the race was in doubt. She said things that were bad for the party and which will doubtless be used by the McCain campaign in the fall. In so doing, she damaged Obama and the party slightly but Clinton herself suffered the most and has lost the high ground as a Democrat. Bill Clinton even moreso.

The Torah and Talmud are just full of this stuff. Principles, stories, ideas, and teachings that are every bit as useful as Viagra and the South Beach Diet. The organization I now chair, CLAL, is committed to bringing Jewish wisdom to the public square and there is a great hunger among Jews and others to find every edge they can in life. That's why we're going to succeed.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Bush's Worst Legacy--The Desecration of "Patriotism"

Reasonable people can disagree about which of George W. Bush's disastrous decisions will prove to have damaged the American people most.

After all, he is the president who decided to invade Iraq for reasons that all proved to be false and then proceeded to mismanage that war horribly. With the help of a Republican Congress he proceeded to take the country from a budget surplus to a multi-trillion dollar deficit which our children and grandchildren will have to deal with. He shredded the Constitution as he eliminated the rights of habeas corpus and gave himself the right to spy on American citizens in unprecedented ways for any or no reason at all. In addition, he destroyed our reputation and credibility in the world by presiding over agencies that use torture and treat prisoners in ways that Americans never have in the past. Before Bush, we could rightfully claim to be a moral country that refused to torture and demean people in the same ways as those countries we have criticized in the past. No more.

A strong case could be made for each of these damaging missteps to be designated as the worst.

But my vote has to go to the way in which Mr. Bush has twisted the meaning of "patriotism" and turned a powerful important concept into an empty and meaningless slogan.

Since the Iraq war began more than five years ago, Bush has repeatedly referred to the great sacrifices that are being made by patriotic Americans. The truth, of course, is that more than 99% of all Americans have never even been asked to make any sacrifice at all.

The cost of the war is closing in on $1 trillion and yet there has never even been a conversation about how our country is going to pay for it. The vast majority of Americans have been given a tax cut as the bills our children and grandchildren will have to pay balloon into the stratosphere.

The actual fighting has been done by a relative handful of Hispanics seeking a fast track to U.S. citizenship (which they often receive posthumously) and a disproportionate number of men and women from rural communities whose economic opportunities are limited and who may be attracted by the $100,000 enlistment bonuses and $500,000 death benefit available to our soldiers. A small fraction of our soldiers are well educated or have chosen service to their country over attractive employment options.

No one in government ever called for a draft or mandatory government service of any kind during this war. Bush himself has never even suggested that it would be a patriotic act for a young man or woman to enlist.

In an unforgettable July 4th speech two years ago, Bush called on patriotic Americans to pray for our troops and to write a letter to a soldier serving in Iraq. He never mentioned volunteering to serve our country or suggested that anyone do so.

At a news conference three months later, Bush suggested that the most patriotic thing Americans could do to help the war effort was to "keep shopping" to support the economy. It was the same request he made during the week after 9/11 when Americans were shaken by the attack and looking for way to serve their country.

The people who seem most proud of their patriotism today show it by displaying a decal declaring their support for our troops (whatever that means) on their cars and by calling talk radio shows to castigate Democrats and liberals who don't understand that we are facing an evil enemy. The "patriots" I know personally have no interest in paying for this war or in having their children or grandchildren fight in it. But under Bush's definition they are patriots all.

On July 4th I attended a session at the Aspen Ideas Festival where former Republican Congressman Jack Kemp, Stanford history professor David Kennedy, and Harvard government professor Michael Sandel discussed "Patriotism and the Presidency in 2008." The entire discussion focused on the history of the word "patriot." Each of the panelists defined patriotism as the feeling one gets when we hear the national anthem or seeing gargantuan American flags that are made big enough to completely cover football fields.

At no time during the discussion was "shared sacrifice" ever mentioned. It showed the extent to which Bush has succeeded in redefining a once proud term.

I believe that when historians and the rest of us look back on The Bush Years, the phrase "Keep shopping" will stand along side Marie Antoinette's "Let them eat cake." Each quote captured the arrogance of leaders who were steeped in a sense of privilege and entitlement and were completely out of touch with and indifferent to the suffering and challenges their decisions created for millions of common people who paid the price for their selfish and misguided decisions.