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.

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