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.

Where Am I?

You are currently viewing the archives for August, 2014 at Godtalk.