Monday, July 12, 2021

Marvin Miller, the influential Jewish MLB union chief, will finally get his Hall of Fame induction — on Rosh Hashanah (JTA)

Marvin Miller, the influential Jewish MLB union chief, will finally get his Hall of Fame induction — on Rosh Hashanah

See in Times of Israel 

See in Jerusalem Post

See in the Forward

 (JTA) — It took several tries, but Marvin Miller, the longtime Jewish Major League Baseball Players Association chief who changed the sport by transforming the players’ union into a powerhouse, will finally be inducted into the baseball Hall of Fame.

There’s one catch — the pandemic-delayed induction ceremony is set to take place on Rosh Hashanah.

The Cooperstown, New York-based Hall of Fame announced last month that the induction will shift from its usual July slot to Sept. 8, the second day of Rosh Hashanah this year. No reason was given explicitly, but a June 9 release suggested the shift was made in hopes that it would be safer to have an in-person ceremony by September, as the coronavirus pandemic abates.

“Planning continues to be adapted to guidelines set forth by the Centers for Disease Control and the State of New York,” said the release, since removed from the Hall of Fame’s website.

In a column last week for Religion News Service, Rabbi Joshua Hammerman of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut, said the schedule was a “scandal” and decried the silence of American Jews on the matter.

“Baseball had plenty of dates from which to choose but opted for one of the three most consecrated days of the Jewish year for this sacred enshrinement,” Hammerman wrote.

Baseball players and fans have long advocated for the induction of Miller, who died in 2012 at 95, into the Hall of Fame because of his profound influence on the game.

Miller grew up in Flatbush, Brooklyn, rooting for the Dodgers. He worked for other unions, including United Steelworkers, before working in baseball. Leading the MLBPA from 1966-1982, he used hardnosed tactics, such as lawsuits and strikes, to scuttle the century-old “reserve clause” which bound players to a team. The move effectively launched the era of free agency.

When Miller started, the minimum MLB salary was $7,000 a year; by the time he died, it was $480,000.

When Miller retired in 1982, Peter Seitz, the arbitrator who ruled in favor of players in the reserve clause case, told The New York Times that Miller was “the Moses who had led Baseball’s Children of Israel out of the land of bondage.”

Miller first made it onto the Hall of Fame ballot in 2003, but until 2020 fell short of the 75% vote ratio needed by the panel. Hall of Fame critics attributed the long wait to lingering resentment among owners, who have a say in the vote.

Hammerman noted that the Hall of Fame has on its website an article lauding Sandy Koufax, the Los Angeles Dodgers pitcher who famously sat out a 1965 World Series game to observe Yom Kippur.

“So what would Sandy Koufax do about this unforced error by Major League Baseball?” Hammerman said. “What should Jews do? If we grant that a World Series game might not be easily moved from its natural October perch, the Hall of Fame ceremony, which typically is in July, most definitely could still be set for a day other than Sept. 8.”

Joining Miller on the 2020 induction roster are Derek Jeter, the New York Yankees shortstop; Ted Simmons, the St. Louis Cardinals catcher; and Larry Walker, the Colorado Rockies right-fielder. Miller will be the fifth Jewish hall-of-famer — players Koufax, Hank Greenberg and Lou Boudreau, along with Pittsburgh Pirates owner Barney Dreyfuss, precede him.

Friday, July 9, 2021

Inducting a Jew into the Hall of Fame on Rosh Hashana? What is the MLB thinking? (RNS and Washington Post)

Inducting a Jew into the Hall of Fame on Rosh Hashana? What is the MLB thinking?  

What would Sandy Koufax do?   See this op-Ed in the Washington Post

FILE - This July 16, 1981 file photo shows baseball union leader Marvin Miller speaking to reporters after rejecting a proposal to end a baseball strike, in New York. Miller, the union leader who revolutionized baseball by empowering players to negotiate multimillion-dollar contracts and to play for teams of their own choosing, was elected to baseball's Hall of Fame on Sunday, Dec. 8, 2019. (AP Photo/Howard, File)

(RNS) — It was announced last month that Major League Baseball’s Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony, normally held in July, has been set for Wednesday, September 8, the second day of Rosh Hashana. To add insult to injury, one of the honorees is Jewish.

No, not Derek Jeter, who will also be inducted, but Marvin Miller, the legendary leader of the Major League Baseball Players Association, a modern-day Moses who released ballplayers from the shackles of bondage by fighting to overturn the dreaded reserve clause. Miller, who died in 2012, will become just the fifth Jewish member of the Hall. 

On Rosh Hashana.

There are two scandals here: One, that baseball had plenty of dates from which to choose but opted for one of the three most consecrated days of the Jewish year for this sacred enshrinement. And two, that almost no one seems to think it’s a scandal, including most American Jews, whose silence on this matter has been deafening.  

For generations, American Jews have been weaned on the stories of Sandy Koufax missing a World Series game in 1965 because it coincided with Yom Kippur. That gesture, more than the lefty’s four no-hitters, three Cy Young Awards, 2,396 strikeouts and multiple World Series heroics (including a Game Seven win that same year), cemented his spot in the American Jewish sports pantheon.

Koufax stands above those whose athletic feats were comparable, but whose dedication to Jewish principle and peoplehood may have been less exemplary. Olympic gymnast Kerri Strug’s mother said her daughter did not become bat mitzvah because “she was too busy.” Mark Spitz shortchanged his Jewish education in favor of swimming practice because, as his father said, “Even God likes a winner.” By contrast, Koufax’s willingness to stand up proudly for his people and tradition remains unsurpassed.

In Koufax’s day, rescheduling a World Series game to avoid Yom Kippur was never considered. Back then, no Jew would have had the audacity to ask for such a delay. They felt fortunate just to have been allowed entrance into America’s pastime. Just leave your tzitzit (fringes) at the door. 

And it’s not as if the date of Yom Kippur wasn’t known in 1965 — it was set thousands of years ago. It just never occurred to anyone at MLB that Jews had a right to see their holy day respected. 

But we live in more pluralistic times, when respecting sacred observances of minorities has become a means of reinforcing inclusiveness toward formerly marginalized groups. Juneteenth is the latest example of that, along with observances during the month of Ramadan.

Former Dodger Sandy Koufax pitches the first pitch during pre-game ceremonies before the Dodgers play against the San Francisco Giants in their MLB National League baseball game in Los Angeles, California on April 1, 2013. Photo courtesy of REUTERS/Alex Gallardo*Editors: This photo may only be republished with RNS-SALKIN-COLUMN, originally transmitted on September 22, 2015.

Former Dodger pitching legend Sandy Koufax throws out the first pitch during pre-game ceremonies before a game in Los Angeles, California, on April 1, 2013. Photo by Alex Gallardo/Reuters

And it’s not as if Rosh Hashana is a weak sibling to Yom Kippur. The 1959 World Series, which also included the Dodgers, coincided with Rosh Hashana, and because of that, Koufax did not pitch in Game 4 (he pitched a 1-0 shutout in Game 5). Also, in 1961 and 1963, Koufax skipped regular season starts that coincided with Rosh Hashana.

Regarding the Day of Atonement, Koufax told the UPI’s Milton Richman that “a man is entitled to his belief, and I believe I should not work on Yom Kippur. It’s as simple as all that, and I have never had any trouble on that account since I’ve been in baseball.”

An article on the Hall of Fame’s own website makes the case for respecting major religious holidays, reporting that the 1959 World Series was not the first time Koufax missed a game in favor of a Jewish holiday. On April 22 of that year, Koufax requested to skip a start scheduled for the first night of Passover.

Koufax was following in the footsteps of Hank Greenberg, another of the five Jewish inductees to the Hall of Fame. Greenberg played in the ’30s, when antisemitism was omnipresent — yet he had the courage never to play on Yom Kippur. In 1937, this may have prevented him from breaking Lou Gehrig’s RBI record. But he did play on Rosh Hashana during a heated pennant race in 1934, after much soul searching and some welcome support from his rabbi, who called Rosh Hashana a “festive holiday,” when playing would be acceptable. Greenberg hit two home runs, including a walk-off game winner. No doubt that rabbi’s lenient ruling was made with a wary eye trained on the Tigers’ unforgiving fan base, which included notorious antisemites like Henry Ford and Father Coughlin.

“I caught hell from my fellow parishioners,” Greenberg later said. “I caught hell from some rabbis.”

So what would Sandy Koufax do about this unforced error by Major League Baseball? What should Jews do? If we grant that a World Series game might not be easily moved from its natural October perch, the Hall of Fame ceremony, which typically is in July, most definitely could still be set for a day other than September 8, especially with someone Jewish being inducted, along with an all-time New York Yankee. I believe there are more than a few Jewish Yankee fans; don’t you think some of them might be perturbed by this?

Or maybe not. Which is my other concern. 

Several weeks ago, a high school football coach in Ohio punished a Kosher-observant player by forcing him to eat pork. The coach and seven of his assistants were fired, but this story elicited a general ho-hum from the Jewish blogosphere. Granted, the player in question was a Hebrew Israelite and not technically a Jew, but pork is pork, humiliation is still humiliation, and this incident should have registered a big number on antisemitism’s Richter scale.

Hannah’s seven sons were martyred because they refused to eat pork, and that led to the Maccabean wars. The Spanish Inquisition used pork to “out” Jews. The Nazis force-fed Jews pork. It should bother us when people don’t respect our most core values and fundamental observances, like the Kosher laws … and Rosh Hashana.

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman. Courtesy photo

Rabbi Joshua Hammerman. Courtesy photo

But instead, people seem to be shrugging it off, saying, “Hall of Fame? No matter. Marvin Miller is dead, anyway. The football coach? No big deal on that either. And pass the pepperoni!”

(Rabbi Joshua Hammerman is the spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut, and the author of “Mensch-Marks: Life Lessons of a Human Rabbi” and “Embracing Auschwitz: Forging a Vibrant, Life-Affirming Judaism that Takes the Holocaust Seriously.” The views expressed in this commentary do not necessarily reflect those of Religion News Service.)

Monday, July 5, 2021

The War to End All Wars Started on a Battlefield in Cortlandt (New York Times)



“ACCURST be he that first invented war,'' was the sentiment penned by Christopher Marlowe in 1590, and Western civilization has been paying lip service to it ever since. In the 1960's war was declared unhealthy for children and other living things, and that slogan was seen adorning posters nationwide. Yet, when one goes beyond the slogans and dreams of the pacifistic few, are we not truly a nation that prefers to march to the beat of a different and more warlike drummer? Who among us would sacrifice an opportunity to see ''Star Wars'' for a special showing of ''Brother Sun Sister Moon''? Our heroes are Clint Eastwood, John Wayne and Bernard Goetz, our national motto is ''Make My Day,'' and weaponry is our grossest national product.

Are we doomed or is war merely popular for the moment because Americans haven't been involved in one for a decade? Ten years is about the amount of time it takes for collective guilt to melt away into nostalgia. If war's current popularity is temporary, can it be arrested before we go too far and ignite a new skirmish, simply because the Duke would have wanted it that way? Somewhere we must draw the line.

The war to end all wars has begun, and it is being fought at this moment in the State Courts and in Albany. It all started in the little town of Cortlandt, situated in the northwest corner of Westchester County.

There, the shot heard round the world was fired not by a soldier, but by a county judge, and his salvo, in the form or a preliminary injunction, silenced the guns of a Queens entrepreneur, who wanted to turn part of Cortlandt into a battlefield for mock war games.  Capture the Flag Inc. purchased a 200-acre wooded tract near a drive-in-theater and planned to begin operations on March 30. In the games, teams of 25 to 30 people (at $30 a person for women and $35 for men) try to steal the other teams' flags under simulated combat conditions.

I used to play ''Capture the Flag'' at camp, and I usually enjoyed it. It is an exciting game of action and strategy, and if Steve Marco, the company's president, intended to sponsor healthy, recreational games of Capture the Flag, I would have no objections. But I wouldn't pay money for it either.

No one would, and Marco knows it. It would be like paying for the opportunity to play Hide and Seek. So Mr. Marco added a few features to his game to make it seem more ''realistic.'' For one thing, he added guns. For another, he put bullets in those guns -not lethal bullets, but dye-filled pellets which, when they strike a player, brand him ''dead'' for the duration of the game. Furthermore, the guns make noise, and the residents of the neighborhood were understandably concerned about the potential noise pollution, in the truest sense of the term: the corruption of the environment. It is not easy to live amid the sounds of war, even if it's only a game.

I commend the town of Cortlandt for taking action against Mr. Marco, and I commend George Pataki, the Republican State Assemblyman, for introducing legislation in Albany that would give local municipalities power to ban war games without having to go to court.

But what scares me is that such legalities are necessary because, without them, not only would war games be initiated, they would thrive. Mr. Marco has hit upon a gold mine. 

What type of society are we that we must constantly prove manhood on the battlefield? ''Violence breeds violence,'' wrote the medieval Jewish poet Ibn Gabirol, echoing a tradition that has, for millennia, attempted to minimize the glory of war. The Jewish sages of ancient times did not even allow weapons to be worn on the Sabbath, although technically it could have been allowed. Why? ''Because they are shameful,'' they said. Golda Meir once said, ''A leader who doesn't stutter before sending his nation into battle is not fit to be a leader.'' Don't we wish that our Presidents of the Vietnam era had done just a bit more stuttering before sending over the troops. War is not glory. It is a nation's shame, mankind's menace.

At Passover seders, Jews spill ten drops of wine when reciting the litany of the Ten Plagues. Why? So as to temper their joy over the victory achieved against the Egyptians. One sage, Rabbi Judah, even contracted the list of plagues into an acrostic, desiring not to hear about them in detail. Let us not dwell on the misery of others. War means misery.

Mr. Marco feels this is all much ado about nothing. He says, ''I think they're afraid that when they see what we're doing it will bring out the little boy in them and make them want to participate.''

Actually, he is right. There is a little boy in all of us, and that boy loves adventure. But what of the mature adult that little boy is supposed to grow up to become? We seem too preoccupied with catering to the whims of that little boy. Do we no longer acknowledge adulthood as a desirable goal of the maturation process?

And what of these people: John Bowen Jr., Frank B. Sanders, Bobby G. Fields, and the 58,019 other Americans who gave their lives in vain in Vietnam? What about the millions who left behind grieving families in other, more justifiable wars? What about them, Mr. Marco? Does Capture the Flag Inc. not kick dirt onto their graves by trivializing the calamity and unspeakable horror that is war?

And why, Mr. Marco, do you stop at guns and pellets? Why not update your venture by adding car bombs, suicide drivers and maybe even a nuclear warhead or two to your arsenals? Wouldn't these make Capture the Flag more exciting and therefore more lucrative? This is not the little boy speaking, Mr. Marco. This is the enraged adult

We must all be enraged adults, pursuing to the end the only battle worth fighting for, the war to end all wars, the battle to eliminate every vestige of war and violence from our culture and from the face of the earth.

So go ahead, Mr. Marco. Make my day. Get out of town before sundown and take John Wayne's posse with you.

If public outcry succeeds at keeping Cortlandt a Demilitarized Zone, maybe there is hope for the rest of the world.

Rabbi Joshua J. Hammerman of the First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill lives in Cortlandt.

Rev. Joshua J. Hammerman of the First Hebrew Congregation of Peekskill lives in Cortlandt

Sunday, July 4, 2021

From shepherd to weaver: seeking God in cyberspace (excerpts from “ God in Cyberspace”)


    No 19. October 2001. 
    � Joshua Hammerman 

    From shepherd to weaver:
    seeking God in cyberspace

    Joshua Hammerman 

    This essay is composed of extracts from Rabbi Joshua Hammerman's (2000), where he takes the reader on a virtual pilgrimage through cyberspace and presents a Jewish perspective on age-old questions of good and evil in a contemporary environment, as well as tackling rather newer questions such as the nature of the web we are weaving. The text has been edited for inclusion in Mots Pluriels. Full publication details of the book can be found at the end of this article. 

    Over the centuries, people of all faiths have employed countless metaphors to describe that which is both Ultimate and ultimately indescribable. The Hebrew Bible alone contains dozens of different images of God, envisioning the sacred as everything from a male warrior to a mother eagle. Each of these represents not only a view of divinity, but also a way of looking at the world - and ourselves. Those who composed the book of Exodus' triumphant Song of the Sea, who called God a "Man of War," had a worldview that was decidedly patriarchal, where an active God with human features could take sides in wars against lesser gods and humans. It was a world where justice prevailed. At the other extreme we have Job, to whom God was a voice out of the whirlwind, distant, terrifying and beyond understanding, reflecting the unjust world in which the righteous Job suffered so horribly. 

    As each generation has struggled to understand its place in the cosmos, it has fashioned a God to facilitate that process. Some might claim that this process makes a mockery of Western religions, which typically see the fashioning of divine images as idolatrous behavior. But the second commandment, the one that says "Make no other Gods before me," says nothing about making other metaphors.[1] Idolatry is when you point to a rock and say, "That's God." When you point to the Grand Canyon and say, "My God!" you are not saying that the canyon is God, but that the awesome spectacle of that huge carved-out rock is helping you to experienceGod. We experience God in many different ways, whenever we sense awe or profound gratitude, order, serenity or wonder. As new technologies take hold, these transcendent feelings are evoked in new ways and become more commonplace and accessible. It is no surprise that the popularity of books, music and films with spiritual themes has increased markedly in recent years. 

    While the latter part of the twentieth century had no monopoly on turbulence - and it is true that through all of history the only constant has been change - the pace of change has increased dramatically over the past three decades. At least it feels that way. Some could claim that the first part of this century was even more tumultuous, what with the inventions of the airplane, automobile and modern mass warfare. But that is of little solace to so many today who feel so lost and detached, reeling with displacement. 

    Perhaps this alienation stems from organized religion's inability to keep up. In the past, religion has been at the forefront either of opposing change (as with the condemnation of "rebels" like Galileo and Spinoza), or promoting it (as with the eventual embrace of great religious figures like Paul and Isaiah). But right now we hear few powerful voices of faith and very little direction from the pulpit. Our clergy seem bent on clinging to old metaphors that have no relevance to people whose worldview has been altered radically. Our churches and synagogues seem curiously out of touch with how most of us are feeling about religion, to the point where many people have become far more comfortable not using the term religion at all, replacing it with the more generic word "spirituality." Yet religion is not dead, just as God was not really dead in the 1960s, despite all claims to the contrary. What is dead is the prime metaphor of God that sustained Americans throughout the middle of the twentieth century. 

    What's dead is "the Shepherd." 

    I can recall the one time I tried to use a new translation of the twenty-third Psalm at a funeral. Immediately afterwards, I was verbally decapitated by an angry mourner for turning the "Valley of the Shadow of Death" into the "Valley of Deepest Darkness" and for changing that cup that "runneth over" into one that "overflows." But my greatest transgression was to tamper with the prime metaphor of that seminal psalm. "The Shepherd" provided the key image of God that sustained American Christians and Jews through the horrors of the Great Depression and cataclysmic wars. That tranquil image of calm certainty allowed people to submit, to accept a lot that might easily include premature loss and tragedy, to resist despair in stoic confidence that right would triumph and that their side wasright. The shepherd metaphor presented God as a loving (male) caretaker, not as intimate as a parent, nor as demanding as a teacher, king or judge. Americans were suffering, but the Shepherd was in complete control of our destinies and, most importantly, He was a God who took responsibility for us. Americans needed to believe that God had a stake in us. 

    So this was the one time that I changed "shepherd" to "companion," an alternative translation of the same Hebrew word. "The Lord is my Companion." Sounded good to me. 

    Big mistake. 

    That mourner, who not coincidentally came from that wartime generation, was looking for the soothing stroke of a shepherd's staff. The last thing he wanted at that moment was a "companion." 

    Since that day I've stayed with "shepherd" at funerals, but I've abandoned that metaphor in every other sense. For I have come to understand that precisely that which galvanized my parents' generation is now numbing my contemporaries and our children. The shepherd metaphor does not comfort me anymore, if it ever did. It has nothing to do with what provides me with the spiritual sustenance I need to make sense of my life. It simply doesn't resonate, for a number of reasons. 

    As a Jew, I cannot imagine myself in the role of sheep, especially when six million of my fellow Jews were led like sheep to the slaughter. Although many resisted and most were heroic even in passive resistance, the image of sheep-to-the-slaughter remains, nearly six decades later, the pervasive nightmare of the Jewish people. Sheep are passive, plump and witless sweaters-in-waiting. The idea of being a sheep sickens me. 

    As a human being, I can not trust a God who, on His shepherd's watch, would allow His sheep to die. The shepherd God might already have been on the critical list before World War II, with new technologies and urban sprawl already rendering this metaphor obsolete. But the Holocaust was the final blow. If the wolves eat the sheep, how can we not fire the shepherd? 

    As a pastor, I find the shepherd-flock image stifling to my ministry and to the congregation. New models of spiritual leadership placing the pastor in the role of a companion provide fertile ground for me. As a fellow seeker, I am able to lead by example, without prodding, with room for my own experimentation, with allowance for an occasional failure. I've found most pastors have great difficulty coming down from the pasture, but once they do the effect is liberating, for them and their former flock. 

    And finally, as a participant in the technological revolution currently changing the way we look at everything, I have found new metaphors that are much more appealing, new ways of organizing my universe that connect me to that which is Greater than myself. 

    So I've been searching for God online. 

    Incidentally, I also believe it's possible to find spirituality in my VCR instruction manual. And in my home videos, my cell phone, my beeper, my remote control, my cable box and television screen; in the Hubble telescope and the space shuttle, in my microwave oven and in a cloned sheep called Dolly. How I see God in these other technological phenomena is the subject for a broad-based book; yet in some sense, a deep search for God on the Internet, the subject of this study, is a microcosm of the larger issue. 

    [. . .] 

    For me, there is no other choice but to seek God through engagement in this world. I come from a tradition that refrains from asceticism. When the world seems to be going haywire, a Jew can't just run off and hide. Neither can we take technology and make it into yet another idol, as cult groups like Heaven's Gate have done. We are enjoined to grapple with the world and make it better, not to escape from it. Admittedly, there are some highly respected ascetic traditions, including some that have biblical roots, which do see great merit in solitude. But even the monastic life typically is not intended as an escape from material reality that surrounds it, but ultimately as a contributor to its salvation. 

    The death of the shepherd metaphor has brought with it the death of rugged individualism as the American ideal. For that shepherd was also, thinly disguised, the Marlboro man, the John Wayne general and the Humphrey Bogart cafe owner. The God of the past generation was a lonely sort, accepting His solitude because that's what true leadership was all about. During the Cold War, America had to stand tall in the saddle, rifle cocked, ready to ward off "evil" Indians and wolves. The God I sought and, to an extent found on the Web, is quite different, and so is the world that we live in. Today's God dances with wolves and prances with Pocahontas (at least with the Disney version). The age of individualism and Cold War wagon circling has given way to one of mystical outreach and interconnection. America's Declaration of Independence has been replaced, in a spiritual sense at least, with a more universal Declaration of Interdependence. 

    So now we escape the green pastures where our cup has run dry and venture boldly beyond the valley of the shadow of death, to explore the rocky terrain of our real and virtual universe, in search of the God we believe in. 

    [. . .] 

    The prevailing metaphor of this new cybervillage we are creating, the Web, is how I think we all are beginning to think of God. "The Lord is my Web" might not sound quite right just yet, but it is beginning to feel right for so many of us. 

    A survey of the Hebrew Bible would not lead us to believe that "web" could possibly become a front-running candidate for divine imagery. In the Hebrew Bible, the term appears fewer than half a dozen times and typically has negative connotations. In the book of Job, one of Job's fairweather friends, Bildad, lectures Job in chapter 8, saying, "So are the paths of all who forget God . . . his hope shall be cut off, and his trust shall be a spider's web." In other words, either the trust will tear apart as easily as a web or it will become ensnarled and bogged down. Either way, not good. And the next verse implies that the houses of the wicked are themselves like webs. Isa. 59:5-6 compares the evil plans of those who seek to thwart the righteous to the webs that the spider spins to catch insects. Ps. 140 mentions the spider and snake as examples of poisonous creatures. 

    Later Jewish sources aren't much more sympathetic. One of the more famous teachings of the Talmudic sage Rav Assi (late third century), based on Isa. 59, is that the evil inclination, though initially as fragile as a spiderweb, eventually gains the firmness of a cart rope (tractate Sukkah 52a).[2] Rabbi Nahman ben Jacob, who lived at about the same time, was known for the misogynous saying, "When a woman is talking she is spinning (a web to capture her male)" (tractate Megilla 14b). In the New Testament, incidentally, the web doesn't appear at all, either as a concept or a metaphor. 

    From this angle, at the root of the web's image problem lies the age-old fear of spiders. According to the Encyclopedia Judaica,[3] the Land of Israel has hundreds of species of spiders and all have poisonous glands in their maxillaries. While the poison in most spiders is far too mild to affect humans, it doesn't exactly create an aura of endearment around a creature that is rather creepy to begin with. 

    But through history, the web has also taken on different meanings, less associated with its spidery source. Anthropologists now claim that human beings were food gatherers before we were hunters and that the first human tool was not an axe or spear, but a basket. Knotting, tying and weaving were revolutionary discoveries, steeped in mystery and magic. In some societies, binding hair or clothing gave one control over that person's soul. In the book of Judges, Samson dares Delilah to weave his hair into a web as a means of sapping his strength. In ancient Greek mythology, the Fates (called Moerae) were three goddesses who controlled human life. They included Clotho, who spun the web of life; Lachesis, who measured its length; and Atropos, who cut it. In modern literature, webs have come to be associated with intricate plot lines. Webs are also associated with tangled tales of deceit, as exemplified in Sir Walter Scott's famous ditty, 

      O, what a tangled web we weave, 
      When first we practise to deceive. 

    In the twentieth century, Picasso saw artistic inspiration in the web and Antoine de Saint-Exupery "a mesh into which relationships are tied." That is exactly what Tim Berners-Lee had in mind for the world's scientists when he created the term "World Wide Web" in 1989. He likely didn't consider this quote of Seattle, chief of the Dwarmish, Susquamish and allied Indian tribes, who wrote in an 1854 letter to President Franklin Pierce: 

      This we know: the earth does not belong to man; man belongs to the earth. This we know. All things are connected like the blood which united one family. All things are connected. Whatever befalls the earth befalls the sons of the earth. Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it. Whatever he does to the web, he does to himself.[4]

    Chief Seattle's words have become gospel to environmentalists everywhere (I even saw them on the menu of the Rainforest Cafe), and the foundation of many earth-based theologies. The second Adam and Eve, the main characters of the second Creation account, would have had little trouble relating to Seattle's passion. Most recently, the popularity of this philosophy of interconnectedness has found expression in the Gaia theory of the earth as a living system and various other systems theories in biology and physics that have moved us from an essentially mechanistic worldview to one that is more holistic. Spiritual-scientific syntheses have cropped up, such as those of Fritjof Capra, author of The Tao of Physics, and most recently The Web of Life, in which he writes: 

      To regain our full humanity, we have to regain our connectedness with the entire web of life. This reconnecting, religio in Latin, is the very essence of the spiritual grounding of deep ecology.[5]

    A second look at the ancient Jewish sages reveals that they, too, understood the power of the web metaphor in grasping the interrelatedness of all creation. The Babylonian Talmud is divided into sixty-three volumes, known as tractates, which were compiled and edited over the course of hundreds of years, until the collected work reached its final form around the year 500. In Hebrew, the word for tractate is Masechet. It so happens that the word also means "web." The labyrinth of collected academic discussions that make up Talmudic literature can best be described in that manner. One does not pick up a tractate of Talmud to gain quick answers to complex questions - in fact, the opposite is true. The Talmud gives us complex responses to what we might have thought were easy questions. Each Talmudic discussion brings us in to the inner world of its participants, often including rabbis of several different generations. Each argument is based on a logic process consistent with the thought processes and assumptions of that particular rabbi. 

    Like a good novel, the Talmud weaves a web of seemingly disconnected information, and by the end, somehow the strands come together to form a cohesive and meaningful whole. This finished web leads us to the conclusion that life is infinitely complex, that certainty is elusive, and that the process of searching for answers is more significant than actually finding them. More often than not, the Talmud doesn't give us the answers. The vast majority of the discussions found in its tractates remain unresolved.[6]

    The word masechet is also found in a rabbinic commentary to the Psalms, known as Midrash Tehillim, and this quote, coming from around the time of the Talmud, helps us understand fully why that particular word was chosen to describe the interconnected and sacred nature of all areas of life; it also brings us to a most significant milepost on our journey: "We are the web," it states, "and You are the Weaver." 

    We have left the shepherd behind us, as you recall, somewhere out to pasture. Now we are introduced to God the weaver, a new and engaging metaphor that turns out to be almost as old as that shepherd one. "The Lord is our Weaver" is an astonishing image, but it gets us only halfway home. The other half will be to see God, as well as all reality, as existing within the web itself, and then transferring that notion to the Web - the Internet - itself. 

    The fact that the word masechet is derived from "web" does not point to a cultural phenomenon that is uniquely Jewish. There is almost certainly a connection between masechet and the Latin word textus, which comes from texere, meaning "to weave, to fabricate." All texts consist of woven strands of ideas coming together to form a whole. Fittingly, they are printed on material that is itself woven, or they appear on electronic screens that consist of interconnected lines or dots. 

    Look around in our society today and see the popularity of web-like images in our language, including tapestries, patchwork quilts, knots, mosaics, and labyrinths. When we see these metaphors in constant use, we must ask what the users are looking for. Most often the use of such imagery exposes a passion for interconnection and a desire for the security and order in a world that appears from close up to be such a mishmash. When former New York mayor David Dinkins called the city a "fabulous mosaic," he was looking at a city that, from close up, appeared to consist of segregated enclaves of various ethnic hues, but from a distance might be seen as an ensemble of complementary pieces. His assumption was that there was some manner of glue holding this mosaic all together. He might have considered himself that substance, though in Crown Heights the mosaic became unglued rather dramatically (just as it has more recently under Mayor Giuliani with the Diallo case and other accusations of police brutality). But on a different level, others might consider that glue to be God. A New York seemingly at peace with itself, with a lower crime rate and increased tourism, only enhances the power of the "fabulous mosaic" myth. 

    I remember as a teen holding an old LP of Carole King's Tapestry in my hand and how the record cover itself felt as if it were woven of wool or flax, and how good that felt to the touch. The songs only added to the sensation. For Jews, the act of holding the braided fringes of the prayer shawl (tallit) in our hands, as we are required to do for various prayers, but many do throughout the service, is a very comforting tactile experience. For me, it is the adult equivalent of holding my blankie, and indeed for many Jews, a lasting childhood memory is that of sitting in synagogue, fiddling with the fringes of a parent's tallit. Running between my fingers four sets of eight interwoven strings, knotted and wound together, I am asked by the tradition to be reminded of the cohesive nature of the divine commandments and of the unity of the Jewish people living in the "four corners" of the world. And doing this while other congregants are doing the same thing (men and women in my congregation) is an additional solidifying factor, along with the fact that the tallit's traditional blue thread reflects the underlying unity of heaven and earth. 

    No doubt about it: We crave webbing. One might call this the "Fruit of the Loom" generation. While our forbears craved independence above all, for us, our most heartfelt prayers are declarations of interdependence. That 1980s hit song "We Are the World" might have been unbelievably corny, but what other hymn could unite the diverse vocal talents of an entire generation? When I run the smooth tassels of my tallit through my fingers, at times I really do feel that "we are the world," that all reality is a neatly woven melange. 

    [. . .] 

    If we are to speak of the Web as holy ground, then the experience of going online has somehow got to be as comforting as running that tallit through my fingers. It has to be more soothing than a blankie, because we can't just come out of the encounter feeling safe and secure - we've got to feel profoundly connected. 


    [1] My teacher, Dr. Neil Gillman, has helped me to better understand the symbolic language we use when we speak of God. His book, Sacred Fragments: Recovering Theology for the Modern Jew (Philadelphia: Jewish Publication Society, 1990) provides excellent background on this topic, particularly chapter 4. 

    [2] The Babylonian Talmud is divided into tractates as opposed to volumes and each page traditionally has two sides to it (a and b). 

    [3] Encyclopedia Judaica (16 vol.) New York: Macmillan, 1972. 

    [4] The chief's letter to President Franklin Pierce was published in Brother Eagle, Sister Sky: A Message from Chief Seattle, 1990. But it might have been a forgery. For a fascinating history of Chief Seattle's speech, and speculation as to what he did and did not originally say, check out an article from the February 1996 issue of Wild West Magazine, which can be found at

    [5] Fritjof Capra, The Web of Life (New York: Anchor Books, 1996). The quote is found on page 296 of the later paperback edition. 

    [6] For more discussion of the similarities between traditional Talmudic study and current online communication, see an article by Sarah Coleman in the 6 April, 2000, edition of Salon, entitled "Jews for Java." "In many ways," the author states, "the Talmud looks like a blueprint for Web design." She then adds, "On a typical Talmud page, these writings (Gemara) are placed in discrete blocks in a tree-ring formation around the Mishnah - with cross-references, links to other sections and arcane symbols and abbreviations. The effect is of a virtual discussion forum between rabbis from different centuries. 'It's actually the world's first hypertext,' says former Israeli Minister of Energy Yossi Vardi." 

    From the book, (c) 2000 by Joshua Hammerman. ISBN 1-55874-821-0. Reprinted by permission of Simcha Press/HCI. 3201 S.W. 15 Street. Deerfield Beach, FL 33442-8190. USA. Email: All rights reserved. 
    (Extracts are from Chapter 1: "The Death of 'the Shepherd'", pp.5-11; and from Chapter 11: "The Web and the Weaver", pp.85-91 & 93-94.)

    Joshua Hammerman is both a rabbi and journalist, and has been spiritual leader of Temple Beth El in Stamford, Connecticut, since 1992. In addition to writing a weekly column for the New York Jewish Week, he has had articles published in the New York Times MagazineNew York Daily NewsNewsdayAtlanta Journal-ConstitutionHartford CourantJerusalem Post and Moment Magazine. Further information about his book, along with biographical details and an interview, can be found at: