October 27, 2014 § Leave a comment
Sometimes, when I meet people, I am asked: ‘Is it necessary to believe in God to participate in congregational life? Can you join the Temple, for example, if you don’t believe in God?’
Sometimes it is phrased as a statement: ‘I don’t participate because I don’t believe.’
That’s fine, I say, come anyway.
You might think that I say ‘it is okay’ because I am an easy-going sort by nature. You might think that it’s my personality, my outlook, my approach to welcome everyone regardless of belief.
But it is actually a profoundly Jewish point of view.
Whenever I teach Introduction to Judaism at the university, the students are always a bit surprised when I explain that it is entirely possible to be a Jewish atheist. The reason for their surprise lies in the fact that we live in a Christian culture, where religion is defined as ‘belief in God.’ If you do not believe in God, then you are not religious. That is the Christian view.
Judaism is a more complicated subject. Defined in Christian terms, it might not make sense: By all means, we say, participate if you don’t believe in God.
Why? Because Judaism is much more than a belief in God.
As a matter of fact, we have had a number of movements or groups within Judaism that were explicitly or implicitly atheist. For example, the early political Zionists were not religious in the Christian sense of the word – they were avowedly secular. They were seeking to create a nation like all other nations. They were not interested in waiting for God’s redemption. They were interested in forming a state with their own hands, their own effort.
And, similarly, there have been a long line of union organizers and socialists in this country, particularly at the time of the sweatshops and tenements in New York, who were not believers in God. They were not motivated by a sense of commandedness when they worked for social justice. They were, however, very much moved by the lessons of the prophets who decried taking advantage of the poor.
And in the most recent Pew Report, a significant percentage of Jews cite their sense of humor as a key part of what makes them Jewish. For many, a Jewish sense of humor is more closely tied to their self-understanding as a Jew than a belief in God.
Which would explain why, as a rabbi, it really helps to have a sense of humor.
But Judaism is indeed more than a belief in God. To a large degree, in fact, Judaism favors the belief in the power of community over belief in the power of God.
But let’s think about that for a minute: if a belief in God is not absolutely necessary to be Jewish, then do I tell people to come to services anyway? Why should we gather here in this manner, with these books and these songs?
Let me give you a sense of context.
For the early Israelites, belief in God was not an abstract concept. For them, ‘God’ was an experience, and ‘worship’ meant doing something. Their holidays and celebrations were expressions of the natural order of life: of harvest and planting, of birth and dying.
As they became a people, many tribes rather than a singular tribe, they told stories of their foundations to cement their unity.
Their stories related how they encountered God in grand historic terms, redeeming them from slavery, conquering their foes, and revealing the commandments amidst earthquakes and fire. They experienced God as a pillar of fire, something intense and powerful and otherworldly.
As they settled down, and ceased to be nomads, God’s presence continued to be conceptualized as a form of energy – like a lightning bolt in its intensity – that could create life and death. So the Temple would hide that presence, envelop it, and create a process by which it would be encountered.
The rituals that grew up around this Temple dwelling-place were in fact organized around a desire to manage this energy, to keep it holy – to keep it separate – so that it was not chaotic or destructive. God commanded them to create a structure, a process, and a ritual, that allowed them to live in proximity to this energy, and to organize their community around it.
After the destruction of the First Temple, their religious self-understanding became more sophisticated. Contact with the great empires increased the range and depth of abstract thought.
What had been an overwhelming divine force encountered either in moments of grand revelation or as a terrifying pillar of fire was then living in community with the people of Israel, among them, joining them in exile and rejoicing in their return, like a character in an epic play.
They thought of God in terms of covenants and obligations, using the language of diplomacy and statecraft. Holidays and celebrations included the remembrance of significant historical events, moments in the nation’s history. Stories helped keep the culture alive, waiting for the moment of return to the land.
Then, returning home from exile, the stories become more formal, and more structured: they become a defined heritage, a cultural memory. Eventually, they become canonized, to form the literature we know as the Hebrew Bible.
Rabbinic Judaism, the form of Judaism we know best, developed in response to the destruction of the Second Temple, after the return from exile.
It is, in fact, the product of the second exile: the rabbis were working out, over the course of multiple generations, how to live in the wake of this new tragedy. Whether they were standing before the ruins of the Temple, or studying in an academy dispersed far from that place, they felt keenly the loss of the nation’s center-point. The Temple’s sacrifices would occur no more; the central practice of the nation’s worship could no longer be performed. The rabbis sought to answer the question: How do you rebuild, then, after the worst has happened?
It was these ancient rabbis who created our prayer services, a great leap of faith. It took courage to decide that words – and words alone – would be good enough to suffice as prayer.
They were wrestling with the greater problem of meaning – which is why our services bear witness to their questioning. You should know that the assertions of God’s sovereignty are not as certain or as absolute as our inherited liturgy makes them sound. Their literature is marked with a relentless search: why, God, why?
Their life-work is our inheritance, and we are left to wrestle with their texts. Our Father, Our King, we pray: why is our language so lopsided? Why is it so hard to break out of authoritarian and dictatorial images? Why do we feel so distant from You? It’s difficult, always difficult.
In these services, in these printed pages, we are attempting to address what is inchoate and unmanageable in ways that are familiar and engaging. We are here to address the fundamental existential loneliness that we all feel in ways that are real and lasting.
And these traditions, this inheritance, together serve a definite purpose: It’s hard to make up that sort of thing all by yourself, to find something that extends past your own lifetime and your own circle. You need something transcendent.
Sitting here with a prayerbook in your lap, looking out the window at the darkened sky, you join 4,000 years of restlessness, of genuine unease, in the presence of the holy. You are not alone.
What we offer here is a taste of redemption, in the form of a community.
And it is powerful stuff. If you have not been here in a while, perhaps now is the time to come back. Even if you don’t believe and you’re not sure it’s important, and you don’t really know anyone: Perhaps now is the time to come back.
If you find that the words of prayer are not moving you – if you simply hate sitting in this sanctuary and reading responsively – then do something else: Pray with kitchen towels and dish soap. Pray with classroom attendance and fundraising. Pray with your hands and your feet. Be the one who sets up the oneg and moves the chairs; be the one who shows up with a hot dish after the funeral; be the one who cuts the fruit and arranges the seder plate. Come on a Friday night and read in the library until it’s time to eat cookies. We won’t judge – especially if you help clean up afterward.
We’re glad you’re here.
You don’t believe in prayer, you say? That’s fine, I say, come anyway.
October 23, 2014 § Leave a comment
There is more to this world than meets the eye.
It is possible, of course, to have an empiricist view of the world, in which the only things that are possible are the things that can be seen and measured.
But when one spends enough time in this unique space, helping families and individuals make the transition from one kind of life-stage to the next, one starts to become aware of how much energy there is that goes unseen but is indeed felt.
In my own experience, I am most aware of this reality when in the presence of the dying.
In the last stages of the process, a dying person appears to be able to negotiate both realms at once: they speak to persons living and dead, often in the same conversation. It can be difficult to watch, but it also seems somehow holy.
Wave it off as projection if you wish, but there is certainly more here than meets the eye.
You learn, actually, that folks seem to have some control in those last weeks as to when to let go. They will wait for the daughter to fly out from California, or the last cousin to arrive from downstate. Some choose; they wait for the right time; others hold on to every last moment.
And in that liminal time – that holy time between worlds – it seems like they are able to negotiate with both sides at once. They speak to peoples living and dead, as if they were all present in the room.
Personally, I believe that there is some way in which we hear from those who are departed. My grandmother, of blessed memory, died a decade ago. And over that decade, different family members have heard from her – in the sense of hearing her response to things going around us. She comes and goes; we don’t hear from her all at the same time; it’s like she is visiting each of us for a while.
That sort of thing makes the empiricists and other rationalists roll their eyes, if not outwardly, then inwardly. Really? They ask: You want me to believe that you hear from your dead grandmother on an ongoing basis? The dying are hallucinating when they are talking to the dead. And you are projecting your grandmother’s voice.
You don’t have to believe that I hear from her. You can reject it outright if you would like. It may be a pleasant illusion.
Many of us find it difficult to think of the world as having any kind of metaphysical aspect to it at all. But if that’s the case, then there’s no room for God if the empirical world is all there is. And if that is the case, then why should we pray?
Consider the Sh’ma, for example. It is a Biblical text that we recite in each of our services: Sh’ma Yisrael Adonai Eloheinu Adonai Echad. Hear, O Israel, the Lord Your God the Lord is one. That’s what it means – it gets called the ‘watchword of our faith’ in the old Union Prayer Book, because it’s a foundational text for us. If you don’t believe in God, how can this statement be meaningful to you?
There is a way to approach it even if you don’t want to adopt a grand metaphysical view of the world. Let me explain.
The first word is often translated as ‘Hear’ – but it could also be translated as ‘Listen’ or ‘Pay heed.’ That means: don’t just hear it, but put down your phone or your magazine, stop thinking about something else, and really listen. This is important. Are you fully present? Are you fully engaged?
‘Sh’ma Yisrael,’ it says. Listen, Israel. The Lord, your God.
‘The Lord’ is actually a euphemism. We are avoiding saying what’s literally written there. The text says Yod-Heh-Vav-Heh, which is the unpronounceable name of God. It’s God’s first name, if you will, and only the High Priest may say on Yom Kippur. Otherwise, we say Adonai in place of that unpronounceable name. So, Adonai is our way of addressing the transcendent divine creator – the God of everyone – in the context of our own uniquely Jewish relationship.
But you could also think of it as the name for the creative force in the world, the energy that drives evolution forward, that allows chemical reactions to become life. You could decide to say ‘my Lord’ instead of ‘blind chance.’ You are naming a process here; it does not have to be a person.
The Lord is one.
When we say that the Lord, Adonai, is one, echad – what does that mean?
The point of saying echad is the idea that God is singular. By singular we mean unique, unlike anyone or anything else. Extraordinarily different. Transcending time and space, beyond our definitions of it, more than our imaginations allow.
This might not seem like a particularly important point, but it is actually most crucial. When we try to define God – when we try to tame our God-concepts so that they might be comprehensible – we imagine things that are not God.
It’s like creating a small box and then asking God to step inside so that we might carry it around with us like a good-luck charm.
God is so much bigger, and grander, and wilder than our charms and incantations. What most folks call ‘God’ is just a subset of the whole.
What do you do, then, if that’s a bigger statement than you want to make? Is it necessary to take it literally?
Perhaps you might think of it this way: every human being is created in the image of God.
Imagine, then, that it says, ‘Listen, O Israel: every human being, your fellow-humans, every human being is singular.’
Take that message to heart and act upon it.
In other words: if you find it too much, to grand, to foolish to contemplate God, the universe, and everything in the macro scale, then think about God in the microcosm. Value human life, each individual you meet. Listen carefully when people talk. Put down your phone, and stop thinking about what you are going to say next, and listen. Every human being is singular, created in the very image of God. Listen.
If you listen long enough, eventually you might see that person as an individual, rather than as an example of a category. A person rather than a stereotype.
I want to be clear: this isn’t humanism that I am suggesting here. I am not saying that humanity is all there is; I am not saying that humanity is necessarily the most important part.
I am saying, rather, that if you want to know God, then humanity is a good place to start.
In other words, if you are not sure how to love God with all of your heart and all of your mind and all of your being, then direct your attention to the individuals around you, find what is godly in them, and love them for it.
And then you will find that there is more to this world than meets the eye.
September 29, 2014 § Leave a comment
Faith is not a constant thing: life can be wounding when you least expect it: an unforeseen tragedy, an unforgivable betrayal, or an unwelcome diagnosis can waylay the best of us.
And when that happens, we find ourselves doubting the existence of God.
That’s when we stop coming to services, when we stop participating in the holiday celebrations, when we let go of what we thought was important.
I remember, for example, going on a youth group trip with my home congregation in California. We visited Fremont, in northern California, and enjoyed home hospitality among the congregants there. I was staying with a woman who had all sorts of questions for me, once she heard I was about to go study to become a rabbi.
She explained to me that she no longer lit the Shabbat candles every Friday night because her mother had died. So long as her mother was living, she could believe that God loved her and cared for her. But when her mother died, her closeness to God died as well: how could God love her yet take her mother from her?
And, newbie that I was, I did not know precisely what I could say to her that would make everything okay again for her.
‘How can we believe in God when bad things happen to us?’ I wondered. ‘And what can I tell her that will restore her faith.’ Yet there is no magic formula that makes faith possible. Rather, faith is the product of a long process of wrestling.
What I learned in rabbinical school, in fact, is that faith is a very old paradox, one that every generation has faced at one point or another.
For example, we each find that we would like to make the following assertions regarding God:
1. God is good
2. God is all-powerful
3. Evil is real
But those three assertions, taken together, simply do not work. Any two of them together are fine; it’s when you put all three side-by-side that you run into trouble.
Most of the attempts at working on the problem of evil will deny one of those three. Usually, the denial will be that God is all-powerful, or that evil is real – though some will deny the ‘God is good’ but reinterpreting what is meant by ‘good.’
For example, in the wake of the Holocaust, there has been a line of thought that God is perhaps not all-powerful. We find images of God suffering alongside us in the rabbinical literature – the idea that God went into exile with the Jewish people, suffering from the destruction of the ancient Temple in Jerusalem. One could argue, therefore, that (for whatever reason) God cannot prevent these tragedies from happening. That is one possibility.
Or we affirm that God is all-powerful but deny the reality of evil. Much of Hasidic thought, such as CHABAD, takes the position that evil is merely an illusion. The world is a veil that obscures the view of the Divine. The suffering we experience is not actually real.
Except that it feels real.
I have a friend who lost her child to cancer this year. I am not about to tell her that her suffering is not real, that it is merely an illusion obscuring the view of the Divine.
When you are in acute mourning, it is the pain that feels real; it is the rest of your life that appears to be a dream.
Another response is to interpret tragedy as God’s will. God is punishing us, or God is teaching us a lesson. For example, there are folks who will say, in response to a tragedy, ‘God only gives us what we can handle.’
The rabbis like this line of thought: they argue that the many difficulties that Abraham faced were tests, God-given tests, to demonstrate his character and faithfulness.
Except, of course, that one of those tests was the near-sacrifice of his son. Was that a test of his son, too? And did God already know that he would succeed?
The problem with these kinds of frameworks is that it makes God out to be quite cruel. This point, in fact, is the force of the story of Job: God makes an idle bet with ha-Satan, the accuser, and lets ha-Satan ruin Job’s life just to prove a point. They take away his fortune and his children and his livelihood and his house and his health, just to settle a bet. It is breathtaking in its cruelty, if you think about it.
Another problem with this God-concept is that it makes cruelty seem to be okay. If God does it, then we should be allowed to be cruel too. And I don’t think that helps our basic problem in any way. If anything, it makes it worse.
Maimonides has his own answer, of course. Ever the rationalist, he has an explanation.
In Maimonides’ view, there are three types of evil that befall humanity, some of which is in our control and some of which is not:
1. The first is the evil associated with being made of matter, which is changeable and subject to decay. This evil is inherent in the way humanity is made, and cannot be overcome.
2. The second kind of evil is the result of “tyrannical domination” of some people over others. Usually, it is limited to an isolated individual outrage rather than a constant threat, except in times of war.
3. The third kind of evil is that which an individual brings on himself or herself. These are our bad habits and personal vices, large and small, which account for much of our misfortune. This third kind of evil (i.e., the most common kind) is the product of our own doing.
I like this framework because it allows for the possibility of randomness in the system. But this answer is only partially satisfactory, in my view. He has a confidence that it all works out neatly, a confidence that I don’t quite share.
Specifically, he believes that if we’re smart enough we can transcend much of the evil of this world. We can, ultimately, become like the stars, ageless and contemplating.
That structure does not quite work, however, not just because the science behind his assumptions is suspect.
We often blame ourselves for not being smart enough to see trouble coming, but the reality is that it can blindside us. The illusion that our intelligence will protect us from most things is a comfort to us, but it does not work in practice.
Rather, I believe that God created a world that allows for chaos. It is what allows for change and growth, for new species and new traits to arise, for artistic expression and for new ideas. But that same chaotic space also allows for unwanted mutations, cancerous tumors, destructive events, and natural catastrophes. It is built into the very structure of this world, which is why God does not intervene to change it.
It means that we live in a world where 8-year-olds can die of cancer.
It also means that we live in a world where there are 8-year-olds.
We are given no guarantees: we are all vulnerable, all of us. None of us know the bounds of our life or the bounds of the lives of our loved ones.
In the context of this realm of chaos, the laws of science reign; we can use the laws of cause and effect to predict what might happen next.
There are, of course, novelties: there can be new mutations or new ideas that develop that change the very notion of what’s possible. But it still takes place within a basic framework.
Beyond that framework is a kind of energy that we are able to feel, even if we are not able to name it. It is the energy that is present at weddings and ball games, the electricity that you find in group events and some kinds of prayerful encounters.
It is present in the hospital room of a dying person when you hold his or her hand and sing. It is the divine energy, the same energy that makes you cry at weddings and marvel at the fine sweet scent of babies. When we sing the mi sheberach prayer, it is precisely that kind of energy that we are trying to harness.
Belief in that source of energy takes a leap of courage, because it is the belief that these events have real meaning. It is the belief that they are connected in a deep sense.
This is what I want to say: things can be better than what you have known, what you have grown up with, what you might believe to be the case. In that sense, then, hope is real, and necessary and good.
Having worked with people across the spectrum of practice and belief, I can also tell you this: Life can be exceedingly difficult at times, even overwhelming. And we all know that, objectively speaking. It offers no guarantees. Nonetheless, those times when you feel the least religious are also the ones when you need religion most.
Somehow life is better – even the awful parts – when it is shared.
In other words, you don’t need perfect faith. What you need is the courage to try, and the support of a group willing to make the journey with you, step by step.
September 12, 2014 § Leave a comment
I think that I may have told you this: when my son was very young, he could not eat soy. It was an inability to digest soy protein, similar to an allergy, more serious than an intolerance. And, as I discovered, soy is in everything.
He could not eat fast food, chain restaurant food, frozen prepared foods like pizza or pot pies, ice cream products, most snack crackers, most cereals, most breads — and so on. We learned quickly which places prepared their own food and which ones had it trucked in pre-prepared.
It was a royal pain, and as a working single mom and a full-time graduate student, I did not really have the time or money to stop and make every single one of his meals by hand. That was the curse.
But, like any parent, I did what was needed to be done. I simply had to. I had known how to make a few dishes prior to that point, of course, but like most folks I leaned on the prepared foods as well. In response to this changed circumstance, I learned how to cook.
That’s when I learned how to cook Indian food, in fact: realizing that vegetarian meals might be cheaper, I went to the local Indian grocery in Cincinnati and asked the clerk for a recommendation for a cookbook. He called his auntie to come and help me and she selected a copy of ‘Indian Vegetarian Cooking’ for me – “it’s what we give all new brides,” she said. I’ve made just about every dish in that cookbook.
For four years straight I made everything from scratch, in large batches, and froze individual portions in little plastic containers. Everything he ate was made by me. Everything. Because he would be violently ill if it wasn’t.
And that was a blessing, actually. In those same years, it would have been very easy — and quite reasonable — to pick up a serious fast food habit. The dollar menu is cheap and easy and it makes kids happy. But it would have been profoundly distructive to my own health.
Sometimes a curse is a blessing.
But it is very difficult, of course, to see how the curses in this week’s portion could ever be transformed into a blessing. They speak of famine and want, of starvation and degradation. And all this for ignoring God’s commands.
It seems wildly vindictive: how could such activities be punishments if God is just? There are times when we go astray, but why should God be so harsh in punishment?
So let me try and explain what’s really going on here.
According to the text, “Moses and the levitical priests spoke to all Israel, saying: Silence! Hear, O Israel! Today you have become the people of the Lord your God: Heed the Lord your God and observe His commandments and His laws, which I enjoin upon you this day.”
That is to say, Moses is about to explain the terms for the covenant with God. You are about to join in a covenant, he says, let me explain what that will mean.
So, to turn back to the text:
“Thereupon Moses charged the people, saying: After you have crossed the Jordan, the following shall stand on Mount Gerizim when the blessing for the people is spoken: Simeon, Levi, Judah, Issachar, Joseph, and Benjamin. And for the curse, the following shall stand on Mount Ebal: Reuben, Gad, Asher, Zebulun, Dan, and Naphthali.”
In other words, this particular reading of blessings and curses is not a theological statement of what God will do to you if you don’t behave. Rather, this passage is explaining a ritual action, one taken in order to join in a covenant with God.
So what does that mean, exactly?
Our relationship to God is structured as a covenant, which is a very particular type of agreement. In the Ancient Near East, the great powers would enter into agreements with weaker nations. The powerful one would pledge to protect the weaker nation, and in return the weaker one would pledge fidelity to the powerful one.
Thus, the ritual that is enacted here parallels those enacted among nations in the Ancient Near East. In both cases, witnesses are needed: in the case of God and the people Israel, the witnesses are heaven and earth. And, in both cases, a list of blessings and curses are read out loud before the assembly: blessings if the covenant is kept, and curses if it is broken. Here we have a record of the blessings and curses being read aloud, as is appropriate for a covenant ceremony.
As a final step, a ritual action is taken in which something is split into two parts to symbolize the ‘cutting’ of an agreement. Usually it’s an animal. Here, though, the people are split into two parts, so that one half is on Mount Gerizim and one half is on Mount Ebal.
For the record, I suspect that this particular ritual is actually a projection backwards: it’s written after the first exile, as an explanation for what has happened to the Israelite people. There are two reasons why I make this suggestion: first, this ritual is heavy on the spoken word and light on the blood sacrifice, which would suggest a later date for its provenance. Second, the nation did split into two, the northern and southern kingdoms, with half of the people in one and half of the people in the other. So this passage might be a projection backwards, to make the case that the exile was part of God’s plan.
Now you might ask: why do they think in these terms? Why would these images of conquest and subsequent covenant appear here?
Some of it has to do with the ancient belief that there were a multitude of gods that were each assigned to protect a particular territory. That’s the context for the narrative of Jacob’s ladder: Jacob dreams of angels going up the ladder – these are the angels responsible for the territory he is in now – and angels coming down the ladder – these are the angels responsible for the territory he is about to enter. The dream is the realization that God transcends borders. The story teaches: if you must believe in local protective spirits, these might be conceptualized as angels guarding you in a particular territory. But God transcends all.
And that was a revolutionary concept. The common assumption in that time and place was that when one nation would conquer another, the newly-conquered peoples would take on the worship of the conquering peoples’ God.
The covenant ceremony, therefore, is a form of resistance: just as we might sign a treaty with the powerful nation that conquered us, it is also possible to sign a treaty with the power that is our ultimate ruler. And that power, Our God, demands our fidelity. Losing on the battlefield, therefore, does not mean that the other peoples’ gods have won as well. We remain loyal to our God.
In other words: the blessings and curses here are not a tit-for-tat litany of what happens to you if you sin. They are, instead, a statement of defiance: even if we become a conquered people, even if we experience exile, we will remain faithful to our God and our culture. We don’t just believe in God when good things happen to us; we have faith when things are difficult and all appears to be lost.
And that’s a more mature faith: it is moving past an idea that God is like Santa Claus and moving toward an understanding of the world that is much more nuanced and appreciative of all that does go well in our lives. And in that sense, it’s an important lesson for us as we move toward the holidays.
So I will pronounce a blessing upon you: May you be inscribed in the book of life.
August 25, 2014 § 1 Comment
In one of his closing speeches toward the end of Deuteronomy, Moses presents us with a choice: “See, this day I set before you blessing and curse…” Set before us, of course, is a choice between doing good and doing evil, between doing the right thing and doing the wrong thing.
When it is put that way, it seems so easy, really: do the right thing or the wrong thing. It is a choice that you make. And it appears to be really quite clear which way is the right way.
Some things are in fact that clear: when you are standing in line at the cash register, it is indeed wrong to take one of the items on the counter and put it in your pocket without paying for it.
You may have had the sudden awareness when standing there – at a moment when the cashier’s back is turned – that you could do something like that. Maybe it startled you, or frightened you: why am I thinking of such things?
But you should know that this awareness that it is possible to do something wrong is actually your moral insight at work. It means, in fact, that you are making an active moral choice.
In the course of your moral development, you will encounter these decision-points and have to choose. And eventually, through the force of repetition, these decision-points become second nature.
The shoplifting scenario I just mentioned – the awareness that you could take something without paying for it – is one that adults don’t usually have much trouble resisting.
It’s primarily a teenage dilemma, at an age when impulses are strong and the control of those impulses is still quite weak. As a teenager, your brain chemistry is primed to take risks but your thinking skills are not fully developed. You are not fully able to understand the implications of those risks. That’s when the candy at the cash register is a temptation.
That fact is precisely why we have juvenile courts, and that fact is precisely why it’s possible to have your record wiped clean once you’re an adult.
For adults, moral dilemmas regarding stealing are more likely to appear when other pressures are involved– such as when one is experiencing a serious shortfall of cash alongside a pressing need to pay bills. As an adult, you should have the ability to resist the temptation, having learned impulse control as a teenager.
So let’s talk about Judaism for a moment.
What is Judaism’s basic understanding of human nature? Judaism teaches that we are born with competing impulses – the impulse to do wrong, called yetzer ha-ra, and the impulse to do good, called yetzer ha-tov. These two impulses pull us in opposite directions. The image of an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other is really a Jewish image: the idea that we have these competing views, urging us to make a choice.
Note that this is profoundly different than the Christian view, which is the dominant view in American society: Christianity argues that we all are sinful on account of the Original Sin. Because Adam and Eve ate of the fruit of the tree, they became sinful and mortal. In this view, sinfulness will always win, because that is our basic nature, which is why a savior is needed. That’s why Christians refer to their testament – their gospel – as the ‘good news.’ For them, Jesus’ sacrifice offers the good news that sin can ultimately be overcome.
So, to get back to Judaism: Our view is that we have a dual nature. Sin does not always win. In fact, it shouldn’t always win. You are presented with a choice between doing good and doing wrong. And you are expected to choose to do good.
In some areas of your life, that choice is easy. Once you’ve mastered your impulses and grown into adulthood, you don’t need to be congratulated for ignoring the temptations of the candy on the gas station cashier’s countertop: of course you pay for what you take.
But there are other places, other points in your life, where that choice is much harder.
Every one of us has a decision-point where it is necessary to make an active choice: to lie or tell the truth. To gossip or to refrain from gossiping. To fudge the numbers or to give full disclosure. To give in to temptation or to remain chaste. All of these things have the potential to be a decision-point.
One of those decision-points, for example, might relate to issues of race and class: how do you approach someone who is different than you – someone who comes from a different background? Do you choose to learn about the other, to find out what makes that person tick, so that you might find common ground? Or do you retreat into stereotypes?
Do you assume you know a person’s motivations? Or do you ask to hear a person’s story?
I will give you a hint: if you ever find yourself saying ‘but they’re just like that’ you are engaging in a generalization – a stereotype – and haven’t yet done the work of finding out what really is motivating this group’s behavior.
Ask yourself: how do I know that’s true? Have I actually ever met someone who’s like that? And did we ever have an extended conversation to learn why that might be true?
We are fed a steady diet of stereotypes in our movies and television shows. If you don’t actually know a black man personally, for example, it’s easy to start believing the stereotypes, whether you intend to or not, whether you think of yourself as racist or not.
And if you were to rely on those stereotypes, you might decide that an unarmed teenager is a dangerous black man who needs to be subdued. Yet you would be wrong, very wrong, for shooting to kill a child. A man-sized child is still a child. It is your fear that makes him into something larger than he is.
So what is Judaism’s solution to this ongoing dilemma? What does Judaism have to offer us?
As I mentioned earlier, Judaism’s position on human nature is that we are torn between conflicting impulses. We are easily misled by these impulses, so that it is entirely possible to do wrong while convinced of the rightness of our behavior.
Not convinced? Try this little thought-experiment for a moment: think of something you did in the past that brings you a sense of shame.
At the time that you did it, were you convinced that it was the right thing to do? Did you have all kinds of reasons why you ‘had to’ do it or ‘were forced’ to take that action?
Judaism’s answer to this difficulty is found in the edifice of the commandments. We have this elaborate list of do’s and don’ts as a way to give us a way to structure our lives. In the midst of the chaos of competing impulses, the commandments provide an external grid by which we might measure our response.
But there’s a catch: it is entirely possible (in the words of the ancient rabbis) to be ‘a scoundrel within the bounds of the law.’
You can’t just give over all of your moral authority to the law and assume that its literal fulfillment will save you from any wrongdoing. That’s really a variation on the traditional Christian viewpoint: something wholly good that is external to you will save you from your own evil desires. We don’t believe that.
The Jewish view is that you must save yourself. And, in fact, only you can save yourself. And furthermore, you have to do so by working painstakingly through the moral code that you have inherited, deciding point-by-point how to act. It can be excruciatingly difficult.
But that’s the whole of Judaism, as encapsulated in Hillel’s dictum: ‘what is hateful to you do not do to another. That is all of Judaism. Now go and study.’
August 1, 2014 § 2 Comments
Next Tuesday is Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, when both Temples – the first and the second – fell. The First Temple fell in 586 BCE, destroyed by the Babylonians. According to the tradition, the Second Temple fell on the very same date – the ninth of Av – nearly 600 years later, in the year 70 of our secular calendar, this time at the hand of the Romans.
Up until the destruction of the Temple, the primary approach to worship in the Ancient Near East had been animal sacrifice: you bring an animal to the priest, who slaughters the animal in a ritual fashion, burns part of it, and then splits it between you two. The priest gets a portion as his fee, and you have the rest.
And the purpose of this sacrificial system, at least in its ancient form, was to maintain the order of the cosmos.
The Temple, behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies, was the point where heaven and earth meet. The priests were charged with keeping this system going, and preventing the profane elements of living from reaching the holy.
So when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, they destroyed more than a mere building – they destroyed the entire structure of Israelite worship.
And the Romans were fairly thorough in their destruction: they set it on fire, desecrated its precincts, and forbade any further use of the Temple.
If you go to the area of the southern wall excavations in Jerusalem, in fact, you will walk along the Roman street, and encounter the pile of rubble left behind from their efforts that day. In nearly 2000 years no one has cleaned it up. At this point, it is no longer possible to clean it up: those stones are our history, a moment frozen in time.
In the wake of that destruction, however, the ancient rabbis had to rebuild. They had to create a structure for worship that was not dependent upon sacrifices. They had to create a religious self-understanding that was not dependent upon being settled in the land. They had to create a pattern of observance that was not dependent upon what had been destroyed.
Now, the rabbis asked themselves, how do we continue, now that the central cult is gone?
These ancient rabbis, convening in Yavneh, on the banks of the Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) started the process of rebuilding.
They sat together and reasoned amongst themselves: God’s love for us is manifest in the commandments, right? So if we are commanded, and it is no longer possible to fulfill the commandment in its literal sense, then there must be a metaphorical way to do it. If the Temple is not standing, then we shall dress our scrolls as the High Priest. We will transform our kitchen table into the Temple altar. We will offer the words of our mouth in place of sacrificial offerings. And so on.
All of this was done in the context of the existing structure of law, faithful to its spirit yet also radically different in its execution.
Piece by piece, ritual by ritual, each new thing was mapped out, conceptually linked to the ancient practices yet also fundamentally transformed.
And this process of transformation was so successful, and so complete, that it is hard to think of Judaism as being any other way.
So much so, in fact, that later generations were prompted to ask: Why were the Israelites commanded to offer sacrifices? That is to say, if God knew that it would one day change to another form of worship, why ask for sacrifices in the beginning? Why not identify the proper form of worship and require that of the Israelites?
Consider, for example, the answer that Maimonides gives.
For Maimonides, the highest form of worship was the contemplation of God, but the level of discipline needed to accomplish it remains well outside of the capabilities of the masses.
God therefore allowed the sacrificial cult to flourish, as it provided a physical expression of what their minds could not fully grasp.
Moreover, it helped the Israelites transition from their earlier pagan customs to the correct apprehension of God.
As he argues: If God had required that the Israelites suddenly give up their sacrificial service, then “at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon this people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.’” The change would have been too sudden, and too difficult to accommodate––which is what prompts God to provide an alternative.
In Maimonides’ view, these older forms of prayer might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’ part, for they were an accommodation to the weaknesses of human beings.
Immediately following the fall of the Second Temple, however, when the sacrificial cult was no longer operative, prayer-forms were left to the individual to create on an ad hoc basis, without a formal structure.
Thus, he argues, these new prayer-forms were created by the Men of the Great Assembly, sages who were guided by a true apprehension of reality. They created a structure that might be used by worshippers to perfect themselves, so that over the course of many years they might learn the highest form of contemplation.
Maimonides retains a certain nostalgia for the ancient prayer-forms, but one also senses from his text that these newer innovations are in many ways better than what had gone before, in that they are less visceral and more intellectual.
Looking at it from the perspective of the ancient rabbis, these changes to the ritual and theology of Judaism took an enormous leap of faith: where did they find the courage to make such changes?
Looking at it from the perspective of the later rabbis, however, these changes were not changes at all: they were simply what Judaism must be. It is hard to conceive of Judaism as looking any different than it does now.
Thus the interesting thing in all of this, of course, is how different it really has become: the worship of the heart is a far cry from the physicality of cutting animals to dash their blood on the altar and burn their entrails.
I would argue, therefore, that the strength of Judaism lies in our ability and willingness to adapt. We bewail the awful events in our past – these events have shaped us, and are part of our identity – but they do not define us.
We are able to create and build anew. We continuously construct a Jewish self-understanding that is both wildly different than what came before yet also very much its fullest expression. And in this ongoing process we are ever renewed.
June 20, 2014 § Leave a comment
In this week’s portion, a band of men led by Korach challenge Moses’ leadership of the Israelites.
“Now Korah, son of Izhar son of Kohath son of Levi, betook himself, along with Dathan and Abiram sons of Eliab, and On son of Peleth — descendants of Reuben — to rise up against Moses, together with two hundred and fifty Israelites, chieftains of the community, chosen in the assembly, men of repute. They combined against Moses and Aaron and said to them, ‘You have gone too far! For all the community are holy, all of them, and the Lord is in their midst. Why then do you raise yourselves above the Lord’s congregation?’”
Based on this introduction, we’re not sure what the core problem is. Moses has been the number one guy for some time now, working with his siblings to manage the crowd. He was the one who faced Pharaoh, and he was the one who brought the tablets down from Mount Sinai. He also was the one who prevailed when Aaron was involved in the incident with the Golden Calf. So to ask, at this point, why he raises himself above the Lord’s congregation seems a bit misplaced. Why is Korach raising this objection now? The text does not say.
“When Moses heard this, he fell on his face. Then he spoke to Korah and all his company, saying, ‘Come morning, the Lord will make known who is His and who is holy, and will grant him access to Himself; He will grant access to the one He has chosen. Do this: You, Korah and all your band, take fire pans, and tomorrow put fire in them and lay incense on them before the Lord. Then the man whom the Lord chooses, he shall be the holy one. You have gone too far, sons of Levi!’”
Why did Moses fall on his face? Usually, in the Biblical context, that phrase refers to a posture of worship. So he must have turned to God at that moment for support. But this action does not seem to have brought him a sense of calm. To the contrary, he continues:
“‘Hear me, sons of Levi. Is it not enough for you that the God of Israel has set you apart from the community of Israel and given you access to Him, to perform the duties of the Lord’s Tabernacle and to minister to the community and serve them? Now that He has advanced you and all your fellow Levites with you, do you seek the priesthood too? Truly, it is against the Lord that you and all your company have banded together. For who is Aaron that you should rail against him?’”
Aha. Now we have a sense of Korach’s motive: he is seeking power. The objection raised here is not that Moses is doing a bad job or that Aaron is incompetent: rather, Korach and his band want to be the ones who do it instead.
“Moses sent for Dathan and Abiram, sons of Eliab; but they said, ‘We will not come! Is it not enough that you brought us from a land flowing with milk and honey to have us die in the wilderness, that you would also lord it over us? Even if you had brought us to a land flowing with milk and honey, and given us possession of fields and vineyards, should you gouge out those men’s eyes? We will not come!’“
Their response sounds petulant. What, exactly, is their grievance here? That Moses led them out of slavery? That it is hard to live in the wilderness? It seems that their emotions have carried them away and they are simply enjoying being angry.
The text tells us that in response “Moses was much aggrieved.” His emotion is easy to understand in this context. He has spent year after year leading this group without any breaks, and this rebellion is all the thanks he gets. “And he said to the Lord, ‘Pay no regard to their oblation. I have not taken the ass of any one of them, nor have I wronged any one of them.’”
I find that last comment fascinating. He tells God the score: ‘I have done no wrong here, so please don’t cooperate with them.’ As if God was not aware, as if he had to be concerned about God’s support.
This detail provides us with an interesting insight into leadership. We all know that it can be very difficult to take on that role – it carries with it the wellbeing and welfare of the whole group. We are aware that Moses has a whole web of considerations to take into account with every decision he makes. And Aaron is acting on behalf of the entire community when he serves as High Priest.
So when a high-ranking group second-guesses his motivations it destabilizes him for a moment. He is wounded by their remarks.
And we’ve all seen disputes like this one: Moses retaliates in anger, brings the issue to a showdown and the bitter ending involves a whole lot of people disappearing from the congregation.
In that regard, I think that this week’s portion serves as a warning rather than a model.
What should have happened here? How could this dispute been better managed? If this particular conflict was chosen as a case study by the Harvard Business Review, what steps would they suggest for closing the gap in perception between Moses’ understanding of his role and Korach’s?
I can tell you what I’ve learned, based on my own experience. Before I went to rabbinical school I was the Senior Manager of Marketing Communications for a division of Blue Cross/Blue Shield of California. And, in a congregational setting, I have seen a Korach-type rebellion unfold. This is what I have learned.
First, let’s start with the obvious: Korach is, of course, acting badly here.
When people act out, they do so because they are hurting. A person in a good place emotionally can bring up a difficult issue in conversation and talk through the various points rationally. Refusing to come to the table is evidence of emotional pain.
In other words: the rebellion is not about Moses or Aaron. They are probably doing a fine job at the heart of it. Their competence is not the issue.
The issue, rather, is a more complicated one relating to feelings of place and need. By that I mean: Korach is feeling invisible. He needs to have a place in the community, a way of answering the question, ‘and what is your role?’ He needs to be needed: to have a clear part in the overall process. Maybe he is aging and his kids don’t need him so much anymore. Or maybe he is young and has not yet found his place in the world. We don’t have enough of a biography to know for certain, but be we do know that Korach is feeling too small in his world.
On the other side of this dispute, we also know that Moses is not always great at delegating. We saw that in the first few months of leadership when he was given a lesson from his father-in-law Yitro. At that point in the narrative, Moses was listening to every single dispute brought before him by the Israelites. And Yitro explained to him patiently that he simply could not continue in this manner and suggested that he create a tiered court-system for hearing cases.
It would also appear, based on this narrative, that Moses is easily wounded: instead of taking the criticism in stride he forces a showdown. But a shoot-out always leaves someone dead – whether literally, as in the case of Korach who gets swallowed by the earth, or figuratively, as when a family or group of families leaves the congregation. It is infinitely better to negotiate and to listen.
What should Moses have done in this case?
He would have done well to create a tiered approach to the sacrificial service, along the lines of the court system his father-in-law suggested. He could have put Korach and his compatriots in charge of a type of sacrificial offering, so that they would also have a place in the hierarchy. Moses might not think that this arrangement is necessary, but he also has a tendency to over-estimate how much he can do himself.
In other words, had Moses displayed the best kind of leadership, he would have realized that it wasn’t all about him. It wasn’t, in fact, about him at all. The issue at hand was Korach’s place in the world. Had Moses taken himself out of the equation this event would have had a much happier ending.
It’s no his greatest moment, to be sure. But Moses is usually a better leader than that – so what is going with him? Why is he reactive rather than proactive in managing this dispute?
It is likely that Moses is feeling worn out at this point, and is suffering burnout. A good leader needs rest – which is precisely why he and Aaron should have been delegating tasks to Korach in the first place. So Korach had a legitimate concern; had Korach been a better leader himself, he would have been able to approach Moses long before the breaking-point. A well-run organization helps train future leaders so that they learn how to raise these concerns in a timely and appropriate fashion.
As this situation demonstrates, we don’t always act in our best interest, and we don’t always respond in the best way. Leaders get tired, followers get resentful, and everyone gets tired of wandering in the wilderness.
What works best, then? What can we do to make sure we stay on our good behavior, even when we’re hot, tired, and thirsty?
Rest. Take a Shabbat nap, go on vacation, get some time away.
And if a long break is not on the agenda, then at least take a small break: count to ten before responding. Count to 100 if you still don’t think you can respond without bitterness. Moses’ response of ‘falling on his face’ to pray for a moment was a good one – but he should have stalled even longer, until he could respond with equanimity.
But above all else: we should learn from this example the vital necessity of being kind. Most of our disputes are not important enough to have the earth swallow up our opponent. Have empathy for the other side, and focus on the issue rather than the person.
 JPS Tanakh, the book of Numbers, chapter 16.