Am I a good person?

November 13, 2014 § 1 Comment

How do I know if I am a good person or not?

Most of us take an all-or-nothing approach: if I can name one or two bad things I’ve done then I must be a bad person. And if I can name one or two good things I’ve done then I must be a good person.

But our tradition has a more nuanced view.

Let’s consider, for example, Maimonides, one of the great thinkers of our tradition. In his view, virtuous or moral behavior is established through repetition and training.

In other words, any one deed by itself is not what determines your fate.

We are rewarded or punished not for isolated events, but rather for our pattern of behavior. It is not any one event that determines whether you are a good person or not.

So what might that mean for us, in this context?

For most people, the source of their greatest regret is usually one of those moments when they have lacked the courage to do what is right. They could not bear to admit to themselves the full truth of the matter and papered over their guilty conscience with small lies: it didn’t matter. It didn’t hurt. It wasn’t that bad. No one knew.

The consequences that flow from that kind of mistake are what hurt most, sometimes excruciatingly so.

So let’s look at that. Let’s say you once did something stupid and lied about it. It was an error in judgment large enough that it could cause a huge rift in a relationship.

That error is a serious thing. You need to go back and fix it: admit the error, pay for anything that you damaged, acknowledge the hurt and experience the anger that you have caused. If you don’t do that, you’ll create several more errors.

For example, holding on to the sin and keeping it secret only allows it to fester: that’s a second mistake.

Lying to keep others from discovering the truth: a third mistake. And so on.

The pattern of behavior is what determines your character and defines who you are. Can people count on you? Are you reliable? Do you do what you say you will do?

I can tell you this: being honest, reliable, and trustworthy matters quite a bit. It defines whether or not people believe what you say and believe that you are worthy of their love and respect. And we all want those things to be true of us. And if it has not been true of you, it is in your power to fix it.

So let’s go back to Maimonides and look once again at what he had to say:

In Maimonides’ view, virtuous or moral behavior is established through repetition and training. Any one deed by itself is not what determines your fate.

In other words, we are rewarded or punished not for isolated events, but rather for our pattern of behavior. It is not any one event that determines whether you are a good person or not.

So, what do you think: are we punished for our sins?

Maimonides would say yes – but not in the way you might think. In Maimonides’ view, when the Bible speaks of God’s punishment, it refers to the impersonal actions of Providence.

What is Providence? It’s God working through the natural ways of the world. Providence punishes us, he says, by causing things to turn out badly for us. It punishes those who turn their attention away from God and those who cater to the desires of the body, particularly when they do so repeatedly. In his view, these are the natural consequences of sin.

It’s not that God has some kind of elaborate adding machine that keeps track of your sins. Rather, your sins have some very natural consequences.

In the context of the Exodus narrative, for example, it might seem that God is actively changing Pharaoh’s heart, but that is not what happens. Instead, the outcome should be understood as the natural consequence of the Pharaoh’s decisions.

God does not intervene – that is to say, God is not actively causing the heart to become resistant to change; rather, the Pharaoh’s repeated refusals reinforced his resolve and led him to become increasingly resistant to Moses’ requests.

Most of us are not Pharaoh – most of us don’t sin on that grand of a scale. But I think that Maimonides might have a good point here, beyond his efforts in explaining a particularly troubling passage in the Torah.

If you lie to someone, you might not be found out.

But let’s say this one lie causes you to think it’s okay to lie – after all, nothing happened – and as a result, you start inserting small lies into your everyday encounters.

‘Oh, I didn’t get your message,’ you say, instead of ‘I got busy and forgot to respond.’ Not such a big thing, right? Except that it allows bigger things to happen. And what can happen from there is you start lying to yourself.

Addiction, in particular, feeds on this kind of small untruths.

The addict says, ‘I had to work late’ instead of ‘I was out feeding my addiction.’ The addict says, ‘I don’t know what you’re talking about,’ instead of ‘I took that money to feed my addiction.’

Addiction is not the only sin that involves lying:

The cheater says, ‘I had a business meeting,’ instead of ‘I am involved in a relationship with a co-worker.’

Interestingly, however, cheating and addiction often go hand-in-hand. They are, in fact, related phenomena, for they involve lying to the ones you love. And these sins have grave consequences, for they can tear families apart.

So far, we’ve talked here about minor sins like lying leading to larger ones like addiction or cheating. What about the bigger sins, the ones that by themselves are nearly unforgivable, even when they occur within an otherwise praiseworthy lifetime?

Grave sins can also create a barrier to repentance because they are so large.

In those cases, Maimonides says, the sinner must acknowledge so much wrongdoing and make such great changes in his or her character that the goal becomes nearly unreachable.

But here’s the most important point. If you get nothing else out of the High Holidays, you should consider this and take it to heart: repentance is always possible.

The magnitude and multitude of a person’s sins might work to prevent repentance; the pattern of behavior may have become nearly too ingrained to renounce. You have a lot of work to do in that case.

But if you let them go, you can be forgiven. Repentance is always possible.

God waits until the very last moment, to the very end: ‘turn back you sinners, turn back from your sins. Turn back and repent.’ You will be forgiven.

As we read in the liturgy: Lord, it is not the death of sinners you seek, but that they should turn to you and live.

So what do you need to do, you ask? How do you achieve this forgiveness? The answer is both very simple and very difficult.

You turn to the person you have harmed, look them in the face, admit what you have done, and say that you are sorry. You repair what can be repaired, you replace what can be replaced, you repay what can be repaid.

And what happens if the person won’t accept your apology? You are asked to try to mend this relationship three times. If, after the third attempt, they won’t accept your apology, you are off the hook. It’s their problem at that point.

Hopefully the person injured is able to turn and face you and say: I forgive you. It hurt, what you did, but I forgive you.

And having gone through this process, having admitted what was wrong about your behavior, you can ask for God’s forgiveness and then maybe also forgive yourself.

The last step in this process? If presented with the opportunity to sin in the same way again, you refuse.

So, to return to my original question: how do you know if you are a good person or not?

A good person admits it when he or she makes a mistake.

A good person asks for forgiveness.

And a good person avoids the temptation to sin again.

Come anyway

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.

Talking to ghosts

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.

Faith

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.

Counting my blessings

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.

Seeing Color

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.’

What did the Romans destroy?

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.

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