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“Breaking Bad”: Moral?



A few years ago my sons told me about a popular program, “Breaking Bad.”  I rented both the first and second years of the shows from the library, and in short order watched all the episodes.  Then I got bored with it – two years was enough.  This last year however I have been watching or recording all the shows, and of course most of the world knows last night was the final episode.

In “Breaking Bad,” besides being a TV show with great actors, we see moral relativism at its peak.  Is Walter White a hero or a villain, or simply a tragic figure forced to do things for his family and their future because of his poor medical insurance?  Some have seen deep symbolism in the show, from the use of colors to the choice of names.

Some have called the show a good example of Satan and the power of evil.  The Jewish message is much simpler.  Everyone is born good, not tainted with original sin.  We all have choices to make, continual choices every day of our lives.  Walter White started to make the wrong choices and in time he grew to enjoy the choices he was making: coveting money, power, the manipulation of people, and even murder.

Besides the excellent acting one of the reasons the show might be so popular is because everyone can make the wrong choices at times, and perhaps viewers see a little of themselves in the wrong choices Walter White made.  It’s not Satan, nor the devil that made Walter White make the wrong choices, but only Walter White.  The fact the show is so very popular might give moralists reason for concern.  Sometimes as Sigmund Freud said however, a cigar is only a cigar.

This much I’m willing to bet however: someday Vince Gilligans will bring Walter White back from the brink. 

Surreptitious Happiness


How often I have heard people say, “all I want for myself and my children is for them to be happy.”  Our Jewish tradition looks at life from a different perspective.  According to Judaism, every child is born with a purpose.  On the eighth day, a child is not magically granted happiness.  Instead of happiness, the child enters into a covenant with God, to repair our broken world, which becomes our central purpose.  Most people look at life differently, trying to achieve happiness through a series of goals:  achieving the best grades to go to the best schools and to have the most significant careers, which will lead to status and maybe result in happiness.

 In our tradition, when King David died, his young inexperienced son, King Solomon, dreamt that God offered him one wish.  He did not dream for happiness or wealth, rather he chose wisdom.

 The truth is clear:  happiness is to be found not in its pursuit, but as an unintended consequence of right living.  In fact, the Hebrew Bible has no word for happiness.  It speaks of being joyful, content, and fortunate.  But the wisdom of Judaism has learned through thousands of years that satisfaction in life is found through the immersion in community and finding something bigger than ourselves.  The great teacher, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel, spoke of the “ineffable delight of sacred deeds.”  This is Judaism’s path of fulfillment:  finding sacred community; nurturing a peaceful home; hospitality to strangers; righteous living; Jewish learning; visiting the sick; acts of kindness; benevolent goodness; perfecting a broken world.  It is a long list, but it is one if followed surreptitiously can bring about happiness.   



Justice or Justice Denied?



Rabbi Ami, one of the most well-known rabbis, lived during the third century.  He was a tremendous scholar and teacher with thousands of students coming to hear his famous words.

            On his death bed, the story is told that he was filled with regret, his eyes with tears. 

            “Why are you weeping, Rabbi?” his students asked, seeking to comfort him.

            But he could not answer, bitterness overwhelmed him. 

            “Is there a Torah you have not learned or taught?’ the students asked.  “You have certainly given generously to charities, treated the hungry and needy with care.  Not only that, you have never sought public office, or sat in judgment on the behavior of others, so why do you weep?”

            “Because in those times, when I could have spoken out for justice, I remained silent, I did nothing!” the dying rabbi confessed.

            When I was thinking about those famous words from Rabbi Ami, I was also thinking about the reaction to the George Zimmerman verdict.  Such a diversity of opinion and interpretation!  Some say Trayvon Martin’s death was like an assassination and some say the exact opposite, purely self-defense for Mr. Zimmerman.  Many are speaking, but few are listening.  A jury has spoken and Mr. Zimmerman is a free man.

            One modern rabbi says, what a disgrace the verdict was, while another says justice was properly served.

            My head is spinning.  But still I remember the words of the famous Rabbi Ami.  “Because in those times when I could have spoken out for justice, I remained silent.  I did nothing!”  Justice we must demand.  How fortunate we are to live in a country with transparent courts and honest judges, often unknown in our long Jewish history.

Week In The Life: One Reform Rabbi

Rabbi Donald Kunstadt

Rabbi Donald Kunstadt

One of my great pleasures is teaching our young people. Just the other day one of our youth asked me, “What does a Rabbi do?” It got me thinking, that very few people have any idea what a Reform Rabbi really does and what I do in particular. People know well of course there are Sabbath services, and holiday services, and hopefully they at least see the Rabbi during the high holy days. And people know the Rabbi will be at a funeral, or a wedding. And board members and members of other committees and boards in our community would know that Rabbi Kunstadt will be there. Hebrew school students, bar mitzvah students, confirmation students, adult education and conversion students, they know that Rabbi Kunstadt will be at their appointment when they make it. Springhill college students know I’ll show up for each lecture. People who read the newspaper know there will be an article from me.

By the very nature of being a Rabbi there are many things I would never talk about and so people don’t know about them. Protecting all confidentiality however, names removed, let me just tell you about a week in my life.

So it’s Wednesday morning because actually my week begins with Wednesday morning. First thing I do is find out who is in the hospitals. Most of the time there are people in the hospitals. I drive out to Providence hospital to visit with one of our members who I’m hopeful will be on the road to recovery. Another family member is there. I haven’t seen them in some time, and it’s a time when a Rabbi uniquely enters into a very emotional relationship. They are fearful about the illness they’re facing. They’re not regular Temple goers. I am there for them, and I pray with them, and I hope with them for a full healing.

On the way over to Temple I stop at one other hospital – Springhill Memorial. When I go to the door of the hospital room it’s marked with special precautions. I have to put on a full disposable yellow gown, rubber gloves, and a face mask. I don’t know because of privacy regulations what’s the matter with the patient, only that these precautions are necessary. After visiting with the patient for some time, it comes out they have the MRSA, the antibiotic resistant staph infection, and they are hoping that the strongest intravenous antibiotics will finally cure the infection. We talk, and I pray with them and the visit is appreciated greatly. Finally I get into the Temple, it’s Wednesday morning and the day is really just beginning. No one has a clue where I’ve been.

I meet with our devoted Temple Secretary Susie, and I am given several messages that need to be returned one urgently, and now I open up the e-mail. You can imagine it is a long list these days. BTW you should know what a wonderful devoted staff we have with Susie Broos, Susan Herring, Mike Jefferson, and Susan Thomas. We could not run the Temple without such great people. And kudus to Small Small and Helen Small who run our RS and Hebrew Schools. Before I begin answering those emails, I sit down with Susie so we can plan the coming Temple bulletin. I tell her what we need to emphasize what important events are coming up and suggest proper placement for those things that are most important for our membership. The bulletin, the Chai notes, my blog – these are our most immediate publicity and they have to be carefully planned.

Just as I’m beginning to put thoughts on paper for a bulletin message and for a blog message I’m told someone is at the door waiting to see a Rabbi. It is someone passing through town who has a long story to tell. The end of the long story is they need financial aid – after some very quick counseling I give what assistance I feel is appropriate.

Now a call comes in from a member telling about another member who’s out in Providence hospital but we didn’t know about it because he didn’t list himself as Jewish, and we would never know they were there. They want to see a Rabbi – their Rabbi. I promise I’ll get out to visit hopefully that very same day after my Torah study class ends at seven p.m.

I have a lunch meeting with one of our members who has been meaning to get together with me. He has some personal issues he wants to discuss. It’s a nice lunch but certainly a working one to help him in his life with some important personal issues.

By the time I get back I just have enough time to prepare for my Torah study class later in the evening. From 4 to 515 I will be teaching Hebrew students. Right after that rehearsing with a bar mitzvah student. And now it’s time for Torah study. That ends a little after seven o’clock at night and since the custodian is long gone I need to lockup Temple before heading out to Providence Hospital one more time. I hate it when this happens – someone went out one of the back doors and did not close it fully so I cannot engage the alarm – it says rear back doors open. I’m always comfortable at the Temple but now it’s 720 dark, no one’s here I am walking through the building trying to figure out what door is wide open. Finally I get the alarm set. I can head out for one last visit. My loving wife Patti saved a delicious dinner for me.

You want to know what my Thursday is like? Rather similar, but with two exceptions. For twenty six years I have been a member of the Rotary Club of Mobile, representing the Temple as the Jewish spiritual leader. The major churches of Mobile all have their Ministers as members, and I am the Jewish representative. Most importantly on Thursday for half the year I teach at Spring Hill College evenings from 6 till 845 at night. I lecture for two hours and 45 min. and at the end of that time, sometimes my throat is quite raw. Part of being a Rabbi.

Friday the day begins very early with a special Rotary committee meeting breakfast and again continues with hospital calls. Equally important is we have shut-ins at nursing homes-members of our Temple. This Friday I know I can do it – I can make it to three different nursing homes before noon time. I can I do it. Lucky I have a Honda Fit. Finally Get into Temple, put in a call to our Cantor who will be coming in for Friday night services at Temple. I tell him about what’s planned for the service so he can pick just the right music. Need to plan out Sunday school and what I’ll be teaching for our young people in the assembly. After contact with our outstanding religious school director Sam Small I find that I’ll be teaching the young ones for a half-hour assembly this Sunday and work on developing an appropriate assembly for them – this week were studying the Holocaust it is a great challenge to develop this age appropriately for young people. The bulletin message finished yes and now time to make sure everything is where it needs to be for publicity. A call comes in just as I am trying to get my thoughts together for my Friday night. It is from the religion editor at the newspaper – they need a comment on an important political issue for tomorrow’s paper. Cantor arrives before services and we talk again briefly about the service. Service begins at six. Over at seven – enormous stickler for that – our services are over in one hour. Leave Temple by 7:45 after visiting with our members at Oneg.

The week continues with the Saturday Shabbat service and all the planning that entails. Arrive for Temple morning breakfast and get to catch up with some of our members on what’s happening in their lives. After the service is over more to be done and again no one knows what I’m doing. A wedding couple can only see me on Saturday afternoon- they work all through the week and much time is needed for their counseling session. I remain at Temple until they arrive. Saturday night most people are going out to movies socializing with their friends. A member has invited us to a party they very much want us to be at. It’s a party but people are asking me about a bar mitzvah date, and a forthcoming wedding. It is a typical Saturday night. Others have a break, but a rabbi never really does.

Our outstanding religious school fills the Sunday morning. For this I’m particularly proud. This is a Taste of Judaism Sunday. 35 students are eagerly waiting for me at 1230. I brought along a cheese sandwich to eat between Sunday school and taste of Judaism class. However someone pulled me aside after religious school and I never had chance to eat it. After Taste of Judaism class ends several students have great interest in the subject and keep me long after the class is over. It’s a gorgeous day I wish I could’ve gone to the beach, enjoy the time when my family but alas it’s too late and they went without me.

Monday it all begins again just like Wednesday. There is one difference in the evening there is a board meeting of a local community board that lasts late into the evening. It’s being held at the Temple and the custodian has his day off this day and so I have to wait till everyone’s gone to finally secure the Temple. It’s late, and it’s dark, and finally the Temple is secure and I’m off for home.

So it’s finally Tuesday. If you notice I began talking about a week with Wednesday. Why? Tuesday is supposed to be my day off. Trying to keep on top of things I dial into my e-mail from home – people have no idea I’m supposed to have a day off. Someone wrote the night before with some urgent issues and wants me to call first thing Tuesday morning. Of course I do, so much for Tuesday really being off. Though I do enjoy the rest of the day I understand there is never really a day off-because I am always on call. I get my haircut, my oil changed and get in a good workout. The week begins again.

So now you know a little about what I do. Many things I have never told anyone. Is it easy-not at all. Is it worthwhile, and ultimately tremendously meaningful-absolutely.

Enduring Love: Worthwhile Advice

love flames as one

There are times I am truly touched. Perhaps what moves me most is seeing the love of a couple who shared a lifetime together, and yet their love is still growing. In some of our members I have seen a love so deep that it is as though the two are one soul. I think of some of our more senior members married for most of their lives who are inseparable. If one was sick or hospitalized, the spouse would never leave their spouse’s bedside. What makes such love flourish? It is a sense of love that surpasses time, but belongs in eternity. Often they have known each other since their youth, gone on to raise families, spent middle-age with each other, gone on to retirement and their most senior years together. They are eternally bound to each other.

When I see such deep love expressed so poignantly especially in old age, I wonder. I wonder what it is that makes love so strong, and what it is that we can share with each other to strengthen our own bonds among families. In that love, I often see a growing love, not one of diminution. Of course at times tragedy has tempered their joy. Of course at times there have been arguments and bickering. Despite all the difficulties, what started out as a magical attraction has turned to the deepest level of friendship and understanding in which the two souls cannot exist without the other.

If I ask such a long-lasting couple their secrets the answers I receive range from: love, to remembering the most important expression, “yes dear.” For everyone the answers must be a little different but what is clear is the commitment never dies, and if anything only strengthens together with the caring they have for each other. I often think back to what a pillar of my former congregation in St. Louis told me after I had blessed him and his wife upon their 50th wedding anniversary. He said marriage is the most difficult job you’ll ever have, and the secret, the secret is to work upon it daily.

Perhaps what seems to the casual observer to be such a blissful union of two souls is really only the result of years of tending the garden of love. What better time of the year than now, today, to nurture our own gardens of family love.

Gaming, Education, Judaism and Utilitarianism

Unfortunately good images seem to stay in our minds for fleeting moments; while negative images are often reproduced and can last generations. For many around the world and in United States the leaders of Alabama have created a few iconic negative ones: Governor Wallace proclaiming, “Segregation now, segregation tomorrow, and segregation forever.” Police dogs attacking protesters during the famous march on Selma. We also have outstanding images: our Gulf Shores sugar white beaches, Mercedes made in Alabama, Sweet home Alabama, sung by people around the world, and soon to be Airbus made in Alabama.

One image I don’t quite understand is our political leaders repeatedly focusing upon raiding bingo parlors and other attempts at gambling in Alabama. Judaism’s teaching on gambling is quite clear: if it’s done as simply a game for entertainment it is considered exactly that, entertainment. If it is done as an attempt at a profession, in other words that is the career of the person with no useful production for society it is not okay, but rather wasteful and destructive.

What does all this however say in a utilitarian sense for gaming in the state of Alabama, when we are surrounded by states that allow legal gambling, and use those funds to assist with educational and other state mandated programs? All you have to do is drive to Biloxi, and you will see enough Alabama license plates to make you believe for just a moment you are in downtown Mobile. All you have to do is open the local paper’s entertainment section, and you will see the majority of the largest entertainment ads are not for downtown Mobile, but for the casinos in Biloxi. Clearly citizens of our great state are gambling in Biloxi, and buying lottery tickets in Florida and other states. So it does appear in a utilitarian sense we are negatively affecting revenue that could be flowing into our state to further much-needed causes such as education.

We also must not forget the danger of addiction. Clearly that is a significant problem with gambling, perhaps the most significant. For the addictive personality, gambling can be a terrible vice. This must be gaming’s biggest and extremely serious negative: the many who will take their last dime to a casino with the fervent belief there is hope for a major winning.

Just as the rabbis reluctantly gave in to gambling when not used as a sole form of income, we should have done the same thing to prevent our state from slipping even further down in the ranks in tax funding, often floating off the bottom, when our neighbors opened to gaming. If we can do something to help the education of our students in Alabama, we should do it. Shortsighted planning in years past can lead to long economic declines. Judaism would clearly tell us to keep the big picture in mind: we have a responsibility to help all our citizens: the poor, the needy, the widow, and the fatherless, and the orphan in the largest utilitarian sense. Those are not my words, but rather the words of our greatest prophets 2700 years ago-except the utilitarian part. That has always been our mandate. Now there is even a new twist in state politics: the new plan to take money away from failing schools and allow children to attend private schools with that same money. Clearly this will not benefit the children who will be forced, for various reasons, to remain in those failing schools, now deprived even further of funding. Imagine if Alabama was synonymous with the best public education in the country, and that became our most important iconic image. Just imagine.

Entertainment 2013: Walking Dead

Walking Dead

I have always liked to think of myself as being rather progressive, open to new experiences and new ideas. However broad-minded I might be, until recently I never paid much attention to the renewed fascination so many have with zombies. The Walking Dead is now one of the most popular TV shows, available also on DVD. The recent first show of the series had a rating of 5.6, which means it handily beat out all other shows broadcast that evening. When one of my kids while on winter break spent a couple of days watching the entire series, I began to think there might be something to it, though my immediate thought was he must be very bored. So I actually sat down and watched, against my natural instincts, a couple of episodes.

It did keep my interest – sort of. Quite a bit of suspense, interspersed with lots of guts and gore, which I could live without but of course we know it’s not real. You would expect that in a zombie show.

So why is there such incredible fascination with zombies? What does it say about our society in general in the year 2013? Maybe we simply need some excitement in our lives, which is actually is not harmful to us personally. Some might enjoy the suspense, and the sense of danger. For others it might be a type of escapism from the real world, which after all isn’t most all entertainment? Perhaps it has a deeper meaning – we are all fearful of death and unsure of what lies beyond this world. Rebirth, reincarnation or the zombie state all speak of our fearful interest in what lies beyond this world.

Maybe what the new zombie craze is really telling us is that society is far from progressing, but in a way turning back to the voyeuristic violent days of the Roman Coliseum. It is like the games without a gladiator’s actual death, but nevertheless still filled with Hollywood violence.

Entertainment for relaxation purposes is not a bad thing. A balanced life has always been a Jewish ideal. So my suggestion is this: along with enjoying your entertainment try to also do something to make this also a better world. It is with the latter I’m sure you will ultimately find far greater meaning.

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