Thursday, December 27, 2007

We didn't start the fire -- the death of a former prime minister

It was only a few months ago that I was writing about what it felt like to be at Dealey Plaza (the site of JFK's assassination). I was so overcome with grief that I felt physically ill. And now I feel ill, again. Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, is dead. Murdered by the same fanatics that have tried to kill her before.

Murder is evil in all its forms. But the evil of political assassination reaches to another level of magnitude. It is a crime against any hope that our differences will ever be able to be worked out peacefully. It is a crime against democracy. It is a blow against every person who stood with that leader. It is an assault on all our dreams.

May it be the will of the Holy Blessed One that people's eyes will be opened to the truth, the truth that we were not created to maim and to kill, but, rather, to seek what is holy in one another. May it come speedily and in our days.

Tuesday, December 18, 2007

Torah under the trees

The guy in the white shirt in the center of the picture below is me! It's from Hebrew College Currents' recent article about the Oraita retreat back in October.

photo by Anne Meirowitz

The retreat -- and the weeks of follow-up havruta learning on-line -- was a tremendous Torah learning opportunity for which I am deeply grateful, and I would highly recommend this program to rabbis and rabbinical students. Oraita continues on June 16–19 with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi (via video-conference) and Dr. Arthur Green teaching on “Judaism of the 21st Century: Paradigms and Practices for the Global Age” at the Isabella Freedman Jewish Retreat Center in Falls Village, Conn.

Natan Margalit is a great teacher and scholar who is heading up the Oraita program. If you're interested, you can contact him at or 617-559-8617. Or visit

(And if you want to read all the blog postings I made that were inspired by my Oraita experience, click here.)

Monday, December 17, 2007

The revolution will be googleized – living and working in a “cloud”

There were couple of interesting articles in the New York Times recently about how Google is challenging Microsoft. One was a personal account of how the writer declined to buy a copy of Microsoft Word when she bought her last computer and instead has used Google's free on-line word processor ever since. The other article was a long analysis of how Google's “cloud computing” vision may be changing where our computing lives are going. The “cloud” is a place where I've been living and working for a good year now and it's made me so much more efficient and has eliminated so much of the frustration I felt before from computing. I invite you to try the cloud, too!

Do you, like most of us, have to work on your documents both at home and at work or even more locations? Can you imagine having all of your documents right in front of you whatever computer you're sitting in front of? Can you imagine not having to carry around disks or thumb drives, not having to email files to yourself, not having to constantly wonder what folder or hard drive you saved that file on? That's what cloud computing does for you.

The reason it's called cloud computing is that the bulk of the work of the computer, including file storage, no longer happens on the computer in front of you – it happens out in the cloud. That is, out in some data center somewhere that you're connected to via the Internet. You don't need to know where this data center is. And it might very likely not even be in one place. Software like Google's distributes the computing work seamlessly wherever its data servers happen to have capacity at the moment. And there's no center or hub to the system, another reason it's like a cloud. What that decentralization means is that – as it is with the Internet itself – it's almost impossible for the whole network to fail. Or, at the very least, the chance of it failing is infinitely smaller than the risk of your computer's hard drive crashing (along with all the files you have on it) at any time.

The best part of the cloud that Google has made available so far is Google Docs, its free word processing program that works right through your Web browser (even Microsoft's Internet Explorer). I use it for almost everything that I do. When I want to write a new document, I just open up a new one and start writing right away. I don't have to worry – as I always had to do with MS Word – about where I'm going to save it so I can find it again. When I look in my Google Docs directory next time, I know it will be sitting there right on top of the list (the list is organized in the order of the files you last worked on). And if I want to find it again months later, Google Docs has a great search feature that blows away anything MS Word can do – it searches the text in your files in the same efficient and intelligent way that Google's Web search looks through the Internet. And I don't even ever think of saving a file. Google Docs just does it for me all the time (saving all of my old versions in case I want to look back at something I did before).

In addition to Google Docs, Google's free online applications include a spreadsheet (think MS Excel ) and a presentation program (think MS PowerPoint ). They all work great and have simple and intuitive interfaces (you don't need to be looking through a manual – nor will you have to take hours-long classes – to learn to use these programs).


One thing that's fascinating to me about this move to cloud computing is its “back to the future” quality. When I was working in the newspaper business, we had an incredibly excellent mainframe-based computer system that had many of the features just now becoming widely available in Google's products. Those mainframe programs, however, were long ago displaced by PCs. There are many reasons for the PC displacing those older systems, but one was that the programs that Microsoft wrote for those PCs could do a lot of things – especially in terms of manipulating exactly how things you created appeared physically on paper or on other computer screens – that the mainframe systems just couldn't do.

Google's products have this same downside – Google Docs, for example, has none of the sophisticated desktop publishing features of MS Word. But the difference between the old mainframe systems and what Google offers today is that Google's applications actually run on your PC (or Mac). That means if you need desktop publishing you can “bail out” of Google Docs and use your PC for just that one more demanding project.

Google understands this as part of a 90-10 kind of approach – one where 90% of your work gets done with “cloud” software and the other (highly specialized, computer-hungery work requiring having direct access to a hard drive, etc) gets done on your PC itself with “old-fashioned” programs like MS Word.

Another downside of Google Docs, at least for now, is that it you have to be connected to the Internet to use it. In fact, as I started to write this particular post you're reading, I was not connected to the Internet. But, even so, I had not “bailed out” to MS Word to write this. Instead, I was using Sun Microsystems' excellent StarOffice package (an alternative to MS Office ), which is currently available for a free download from Google as part of Google Pack.


Why do I care so much about this to write about it? Well, one reason is that I have always seen the computer as a potentially revolutionary phenomenon – something that has the potential to be a force for human freedom and the expression of the human spirit. Back in the 1980s the personal computer was still a very new device as was the desktop publishing it was starting to make possible. Here in the States, desktop publishing was a godsend for many small businesses. But it had even more profound implications in the Communist world where it threatened to put an end to one of the most powerful tools that totalitarian system had for maintaining its tyranny – the monopoly the Communist party had over the printing press. What the intelligentsia of the Soviet Union saw happening with computing in the West helped make clear that Communism's days were numbered and helped put the forces together that made possible what had once seemed impossible – the Soviet Union deciding on its own to dismantle its Communist system and to tear down the Berlin Wall.

It was a revolution. The changes in information technology made it possible. That was the day of the personal computer. Now is the day – and revolution – of the cloud.

Monday, December 03, 2007

Submission in CPE -- the power and the authority

I had a teacher in rabbinical school who insisted that if you wanted to truly become a rabbi you had to find somebody to be your rabbi and you had to submit yourself to that person.

I rejected that at the time (as a dangerous and perhaps even idolatrous practice), and I still reject it, today. But my experience as a person who supervises chaplain students and directs them in their learning has given me a different perspective on the issues of authority and submission to it.

There is one kind of submission to authority that is surely necessary for the learning process to work-- you have to accept the authority of that learning process. That is, you have to accept the potential of that learning process to teach you something and you have to buy into the method that underlies that learning process.

But getting people to buy into the potential of the process to teach them something is especially problematic in clinical pastoral education (CPE). That's because learning in CPE is unlike most kinds of learning that people have been exposed to in their lives. First of all, learning in CPE is mostly _not_ about the usual educational tasks of acquiring information or learning established techniques -- learning in CPE is about self-transformation. That is, it is about change. And change hurts. People resist it like crazy even when it's in their best interest. Kurt Lewin's force field theory is one of the many ways we have of understanding resistance to change.

And, because the change CPE offers the potential of is such a personal kind of change it can involve people revisiting some of the most personal and painful parts of their lives. For example, a person with a history of sexual abuse will have to revisit those experiences if he or she is going to be able to get to the point where he or she can minster to other abuse survivors without either closing his or herself off from the patient or, alternatively, becoming overwhelmed by feelings while talking with the patient. And who would want to revist such horrible experiences? No wonder people resist the authority of the CPE learning model!

The question, then, becomes how do you help students accept the authority of the learning model? My old rabbinical school teacher seemed to suggest that what's needed is kavod harav/כבוד הרב -- honor of the master or teacher. That is, she suggested that students must be more respectful of their teachers and submit to their authority.

But I think she had it all backwards. What's needed is not kavod harav, but kavod hatalmid/כבוד התלמיד -- honor of the student. That is, the teacher needs to honor the student. I don't mean giving the student everything he or she wants. I mean treating the student with an attitude of respect and service. I mean learning to love and accept the student as being made in the image of God and being able to feel compassion for them.

What kavod hatalmid does is create room for the student to find his or her way of accepting the authority of the process and the authority of the teacher/supervisor. That's when the learning can begin.

Sunday, December 02, 2007


Tonight was the first time that I not only loaded a lot of stuff on my Xtracycle (or "X), but that I also loaded more than I ever possibly could have dreamed of fitting on a standard "non-stretched" bicycle.

The load was not particularly heavy (mostly plastic containers and shelving units along with maybe $30 of groceries), but it was bulky. It took a little thinking to figure out how to get it all nice and stable on the "X". I'm still learning how to efficiently load the "X", so it was a good exercise for me in terms of how learning to use it well.

When it's not loaded, the "X" handles pretty much like any other bike and you really forget that the extra foot and a half of bicycle is back there. But loaded it's a very different experience and kind of hard to explain. There really is something truck-like about it. On the one hand, you can really feel the bike sway with the load and you have to expend a little bit of effort keeping it straight. On the other hand (and this is the part that's hard to explain) it feels incredibly steady. It must have something to do with the "X"'s very low center of gravity when loaded -- you just feel glued to the ground (note, in the pic to the right, how close to the ground the cargo is; standard bike bags -- usually called panniers -- ride much higher).

Did I really need to buy groceries, etc., tonight? Nah, but there's a winter storm coming and I don't want to "bail out" of my car-free life (at least when I don't have to actually leave town) anytime it snows, so I decided to stock up a bit. And, in all honesty, I just love to shop via bicycle. . . It's hard for me to motivate myself to go for a ride unless I know I'm going to stop at the supermarket or something on the way back.

Tonight I rode for about an hour (in temps that were around -3C, or in the upper 20s Fahrenheit). That was about the coldest I've ridden in so far this season and it was a good opportunity for me to think about exactly how I need to outfit myself when I go out for an hours-long ride in winter temps (which I hope to do some snow-free Sunday soon!). I'm grateful for this one heavy wool sweater that I have. I just don't think anything beats wool for working out in cold weather.

I had wool on my feet, too. Believe it or not, I wear sandals when I bike ride in the winter. The advantage of sandals is that you can wear pretty much as many layers of socks as you want without the "shoe" getting too tight. And since the socks don't get all squished from being crowded in a shoe, they better retain the "loft" they need to actually keep you warm. A challenge with sandals, however, is the lack of wind protection for your toes. In the past I've stuffed the front of my socks with newspaper (other people use baggies) for wind protection. But, the sandals I was wearing on the "X" tonight actually have rubber toes, which helped some. If it was much colder I would have needed some additional wind protection down there, though.

By the way, if you look at the second pic, you will see that I have my regular day back (packed with my laptop and a copy of the Brothers Karamazov ) on the back of the left side of the bike. After the main part of my ride, I stopped to get a coffee and read the Brothers "K" for a while. Really enjoying the book. Russian literature was a big part of my undergraduate career, but I haven't read any Dostoevsky in a long time. Having developed more of a faith life of my own since I was an undergrad, I'm more able to appreciate all the religious themes and struggles that populate Dostoevsky's literary universe. It's incredibly rich.

Here are a couple for more pics of the "X" loaded: