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.
May 2, 2014 § Leave a comment
Does it matter how we treat others?
Our tradition says that it most certainly does matter. For example, let me cite a small but telling detail from this week’s portion: “no animal from the herd or from the flock shall be slaughtered on the same day with its young.”
Why should it matter when we slaughter two animals? Why should it be that a day must separate these two events?
Maimonides argues in the Guide for the Perplexed that killing them in sight of one another will cause the mother great pain: “There is no difference,” he writes, “in this case between the pain of man and the pain of other living beings, since the love and tenderness of the mother for her young ones is not produced by reasoning, but by imagination, and this faculty exists not only in man but in most living beings.”
We are taught by our tradition to care about the feelings of animals.
I do think, in fact, that Maimonides would be horrified at modern methods of factory farming, in which animals are treated as living meat rather than as sentient beings with feelings.
The laws of kashrut – the laws of kosher food – are supposed to prevent that kind of thing. But there are, of course, kosher factory farms as well – it is indeed possible to be a scoundrel within the boundaries of the law, and it is possible to find ways within the laws themselves to transcend their concerns.
Even so, I have no doubt that Maimonides would decry them. In his view, it would be the individual who is at fault here, not the law.
Maimonides makes the argument, in fact, that our traditions and our laws seek to train us to be better people. If you observe all the commandments, he argues, then you will perfect your soul. I think that he has a strong argument here. Our tradition provides a structure by which it might be possible to develop an ethical sensitivity to others.
But what happens when the laws themselves appear to be the problem? I will give you an example from this week’s portion: “If anyone kills any human being, he shall be put to death. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it: life for life. If anyone maims his fellow, as he has done so shall it be done to him: fracture for fracture, eye for eye, tooth for tooth. The injury he inflicted on another shall be inflicted on him. One who kills a beast shall make restitution for it; but one who kills a human being shall be put to death.”
It sounds pretty violent, doesn’t it?
As the modern commentator Nehama Leibowitz writes, “Few are the verses of the Bible which have been so frequently and widely misunderstood by Jew and non-Jew as verse 24:20…This misconception has transformed our text into a symbol, the embodiment of vengeance at its cruelest level. One who wishes to express his opposition to forgiveness, concession, and compensation, insisting instead on his pound of flesh, on retaliation of the most brutal and painful kind, resorts to the phrase: ‘eye for eye,’ a formula which conjures up a vision of hacked limbs and gouged eyes.”
But that’s not what it means. Whenever we read this text, in fact, I am quick to point out that the ancient rabbis believed that it meant monetary payment for damages rather than an actual maiming. Here’s one of many such statements:
“It was taught in the school of Hezekia: eye for eye, life for life, and not a life and an eye for an eye, for should you imagine that it is literally meant, it would sometimes happen that an eye and a life would be taken for an eye, for in the process of blinding him he might die.” For the rabbis, an ‘eye for an eye’ means ‘the payment of money equivalent to the worth of an eye for the loss of an eye.’
Even so, Leibowitz notes, this argument “does not rule out the possibility of this being merely an apologetical explanation, a later toning down of ancient barbarity, humanization of the severity of the Torah by subsequent generations.” It could be that the rabbis are trying to tame a vicious verse.
In her work, however, Leibowitz makes a strong argument on the basis of the verse itself for reading the verse as requiring monetary payment. I think that she is correct. Her proof takes several pages of her text to complete, so I will not address it here. But you’re welcome to look it up if you’d like to work through it yourself.
Instead, I’d like to address a larger issue: does it matter how we treat others?
I’d like to go back to our original example, the example of the herd animal and her young, in which our tradition asks us to care about the feelings of animals.
There’s a lot of wisdom in that; as those who have ever worked in the field of spousal abuse know, how you treat animals is predictive of how you will treat people.
In the human-animal relationship, the difference in power is magnified. If you use that power to be absolutely domineering over animals, it is likely – predictive even – that you will do the same to humans that you perceive are weaker than you. Adopting the habit of treating animals well means you are more likely to treat humans well.
And this point relates directly to my sermon from last week, when I suggested that our jokes matter quite a bit.
As I said then: Atrocities happen in places where it is acceptable to marginalize the other. If you can joke about a group as being stupid, foolish, or undeserving, they will be treated as such.
And, as I argued last week: yes, there is a major difference between naming your sports team after an ethnic slur and committing atrocities on the basis of that slur. But, as the German example shows, it’s nonetheless entirely too close for comfort.
So let me expand that argument this week: yes, there is a major difference between putting animals in pens no larger than their bodies and putting people in similarly-sized pens. But, as the German example shows, it’s nonetheless entirely too close for comfort.
The factory farms need to stop, for our own moral good.
What can we do, then, as individuals? What can you do, if you’re not about to start a national campaign against the maltreatment of animals?
Know where your meat comes from. And when you can’t find meat humanely slaughtered, eat vegetarian. Don’t eat fast food – and if you do, don’t order meat from the dollar menu. You know what they had to do to get it down to a dollar. It isn’t worth it.
In other words, what is needed in our day and age is a tenacious idealism: we should not let what ‘is’ eclipse the view of what ‘ought’ to be.
 JPS translation.
 As translated in Nehama Leibowitz, “Emor 2: It (The Mother) and Its Young,” in Studies in Vayikra, p. 389.
 Leibowitz, “Emor 11: Eye for Eye,” in Studies in Vayikra, p. 494.
 From the Babylonian Talumud, Bava Kamma 83b-84a, as quoted in Leibowitz, p. 497.
 Leibowitz, p. 494.
March 7, 2014 § Leave a comment
Why were the Israelites commanded to offer sacrifices? I mean, 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?
As I explained last week, in the 12th century Maimonides argued that the sacrificial system was absolutely necessary: 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 prompted God to provide an alternative:
“Therefore He, may He be exalted, suffered the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them from created or imaginary and unreal things to His own name, may He be exalted, commanding us to practice them with regard to Him, may He be exalted.”
This early form of worship might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’s part, for it was an accommodation to the weakness of human beings.
This week I’d like to look at someone from the 19th century, someone who read Maimonides and agreed with him, someone who attempted to extend and update Maimonides’ medieval arguments so that they might be more in line with the philosophy of modernity.
Hermann Cohen was a philosopher and academic who was the chair of the philosophy department at Phillips University Marburg at the end of the 19th century into the start of the 20th. He was also proud participant in the Reform movement. In his major philosophical treatise, Religion of Reason out of the Sources of Judaism, Cohen argued that the sacrificial system was an important step in the development of rational religion.
In his view, the sacrifices were the first step in the evolution of prayer.
Cohen argues that the catalyst for this evolution – from physical sacrifice to verbal prayer – was the searing words of the prophets, who would vocally criticize the sacrificial cult. Consider, for example, the following passage from the first chapter of Isaiah:
“The multitude of your sacrifices, what are they to me? – says the Lord – I have more than enough of burnt offerings, of rams and the fat of fattened animals; I have no pleasure in the blood of bulls and lambs and goats. When you come to appear before Me, who has asked this of you, this trampling of my courts? Stop bringing meaningless offerings! Your incense is detestable to Me. New Moons, Sabbaths and convocations— I cannot bear your worthless assemblies. Your New Moon feasts and your appointed festivals I hate with all My being. They have become a burden to Me; I am weary of bearing them. When you spread out your hands in prayer, I hide My eyes from you; even when you offer many prayers, I am not listening.’”
And why is God not listening, you ask? The next verse provides the reason, along with its remedy:
“Your hands are full of blood! Wash and make yourselves clean. Take your evil deeds out of my sight; stop doing wrong. Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”
When we see this kind of criticism, it is possible to understand how the Israelites were able to let go of the sacrificial system when the Temple was destroyed. Isaiah and like-minded prophets emphasized the need to engage in ethical behavior, rather than the need to engage in meticulous observance of Temple ritual. Even without the Temple, it was indeed still possible to act in an ethical manner. So his words provided a clue as to how to respond when the Temple was no longer standing.
But that still leaves us with our initial set of questions: what was the act of sacrifice trying to accomplish? And why is it no longer necessary?
To answer those questions, Cohen cites a Talmudic concept: shegagah, the accidental or unintentional sin. Specifically, he is referring to the idea that an intentional sin might be reckoned by God to be accidental if a person makes a concerted and whole-hearted attempt at repentance. In Cohen’s words:
“To err, to go astray, is humanity’s lot, but therefore shegagah is the limit of one’s fault. Whenever this limit is overstepped, only God knows what happens to someone. Human wisdom is at a loss in the presence of the possibility of evil in humanity.” We don’t know how to respond to evil, and furthermore, we don’t know how to forgive sins.
Thus, Cohen argues, “The Day of Atonement maintains the fiction of the unshakable moral preservation of everything human: all human sin is shegagah. Therefore God can forgive without relinquishing God’s justice.”
Let me explain what that last line means. If God were always merciful, there would be no justice in the world because all things would be permitted. On the other hand, if God were always just, there would be no repentance, because nothing would ever be forgiven. So, to preserve both justice and mercy, one should say that all human sin is shegagah, accidental sin. Yes, it is a sin – hence the need for justice – but it is also an accident – hence the need for mercy. Is that a fiction? Of course: but it is a necessary one for moving forward with repentance.
It’s a radical idea that he is proposing here: God’s love is such that any sins we might commit should be reckoned as accidental. All we need to do is turn and repent.
But it’s one he firmly believes. As Cohen writes, “It is the essence of God to forgive the sins of humanity. This is the most important content of the correlation of God and humanity.” This is how God relates to the world.
We are, in essence, already forgiven, even before the act of turning toward God.
We are in need of rituals, however. A sinner is unable to achieve a sense of expiation and forgiveness through his or her own efforts alone.
Let me explain: if you have done something wrong, you want to make it right. But even after you have apologized and righted the wrong, there is this lingering sense of not-rightness. You need to be forgiven. For this reason, Cohen argues, you need a congregation and a ritual. As Cohen writes, “The individual needs the congregation for his or her confession, and within the congregation, sacrifice.”
Thus, the great glory of the sacrificial system was that it established the custom of public worship involving a set ritual. That’s a necessary step in the evolution of religious understanding.
But, to fully understand how this process evolved, it is also important to note here that the priest was not the one granting atonement. Rather, God was the one granting atonement, and doing so in response to a ritual act.
So when it was not possible for the priest to engage in this ritual anymore – after the Second Temple was destroyed – it was entirely possible that a different kind of ritual could be substituted for the sacrificial act. If it is God who is granting atonement, then the priest is helpful but ultimately unnecessary.
So, for example, in the case of the Day of Atonement, it was possible to replace the sacrificial system with the recitation of words – which is precisely what happened.
It was possible for the Israelites to change from one form of worship form to another in the wake of the destruction because the necessary theological structures were already in place. The prophets declared that ethical behavior was more important than ritual behavior. And the priests were clearly acting as a go-between rather than a replacement for God. So without the Temple, what is needed? The answer is clear: ethical behavior plus a ritual for achieving atonement.
What should we make of this evolution now? And what does it tell us about ourselves?
Prayer forms are always changing, and appropriately so. Our prayer looks different than it did a hundred years ago. At the same time, prayer must include elements from the past. Even when our needs change, we crave continuity. Our prayer has a lot in common with the prayers of a hundred years ago.
We also learn from this example that we are not so different from our ancient forebears. We need a ritual to release ourselves of that sense of wrongdoing. We are forgiven, of course, even before we ask: but we need some way of expressing our sorrow, our sense of wrongdoing, and our intention to make things right.
So, when we read the book of Leviticus, we ought to read it with that frame of mind: this is not an ancient book of Temple procedures; it is, rather, the timeless expression of our longing for God.
 Maimonides, Guide of the Perplexed, Shlomo Pines, transl. (Chicago, IL and London: The University of Chicago Press, 1963), III:32, p. 526.
 See the Bavli: Rosh Hashanah 17b and Yoma 86b.
 Hermann Cohen, Religion of Reason Out of the Sources of Judaism (Simon Kaplan, transl. Oxford and New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1994), p. 223. I have changed the translation here to make it gender-neutral.
 Ibid., p. 213.
 Ibid., p. 200.
February 28, 2014 § Leave a comment
What happens when you pray regularly?
What happens if you come to services every week and pray with sincerity? Is that a different kind of experience than coming to services once and a while?
According to Maimonides, the answer would be yes: it is indeed different.
Let me explain. When the Israelites were wandering in the desert, God’s presence would be made manifest to them in the form of a pillar of cloud by day and a pillar of fire by night. This presence was considered dangerous: there was a clear need to set limits and define boundaries so that no one would be harmed by it.
So, as we read in this week’s portion, the Israelites were commanded to build a Mishkan – a portable tabernacle where they would encounter God’s presence in a structured way. And they became accustomed to offering sacrifices as part of their relationship to God.
Ultimately, the theology grew up around the Temple that these sacrifices were keeping the world in order. They were the activities that kept chaos at bay. And, as the society became more centralized and urbane, these activities became centralized around the Temple in Jerusalem. For the Israelites, the Temple was the very center of the world: the place where heaven and earth touch.
However, in the wake of the destruction of the Second Temple, the rabbis were left with the question of what to do about worshipping God. Does it matter that we no longer have the commanded forms of sacrifice available to us? Or are there other possibilities that might be equally valid?
Let’s look at Maimonides’ answer. For Maimonides, the highest form of worship is the contemplation of God. The outward forms of prayer – such as the sacrificial system – are not what matters most. For him, the contemplation of God is what matters most.
The contemplation of God is no small task, as it requires sustained effort. Most of us nowadays are a bit sleep-deprived, so sitting still long enough to engage in contemplation might instead provide an opportunity for a nap. In Maimonides’ time, it’s possible that folks got more sleep – not being distracted by playing Flapping Birds on the iPad or catching up on missed episodes of Downton Abbey on Netflix – but they had at least as many opportunities to get sidetracked by business and family life as we do.
Therefore, Maimonides argues, God commanded the creation of the sacrificial cult, which would provide a physical expression of what their minds could not fully grasp without sustained effort and training. Moreover, engaging in sacrifice helped the Israelites transition from their earlier pagan customs to the correct apprehension of God.
In other words, 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:
“Therefore He, may He be exalted, suffered the above-mentioned kinds of worship to remain, but transferred them from created or imaginary and unreal things to His own name, may He be exalted, commanding us to practice them with regard to Him, may He be exalted.”
These forms of prayer might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’s 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 available, each worshipper had to create prayer-forms individually. And that was exceedingly difficult.
It was for this reason that the Men of the Great Assembly developed a structured prayer-service. These are the folks who created the ‘baruch atah Adonai…’ formula that is so familiar to us today. They made it possible for us to lean on an existing form, rather than having to make it up ourselves each and every time we pray.
Maimondes also argues that the creators of these forms had a specific goal in mind: They created this structure so that the worshipper might use it to perfect himself or herself. Over the course of many years, he or she might learn the highest forms of contemplation.
In the Guide III:51, Maimonides lays out the steps to take toward perfection of one’s prayer, using the structure provided by the Men of the Great Assembly. As he begins:
“The first thing that you should cause your soul to hold fast onto is that while reciting the Shema prayer, you should empty your mind of everything and pray thus. You should not content yourself with being intent while reciting the first verse of Shema and saying the first benediction.”
It is not surprising that he chooses the Shema prayer as his starting-point, as it holds a special place in the prayer service. It is found in the Torah, and reflects the perfection of Moses. It is prescribed as the last words for a pious Jew to recite before death, just as it was uttered by Akiba in the last moments of his martyrdom. In addition, it provides a succinct profession of faith, one that affirms the singularity and uniqueness of God.
We should also note here that the direction of this movement prescribed by Maimonides flows from the simplest and most direct concept––the Shema––to the Bible, and then outward toward the rabbinic literature. This structure reflects the legal distinction of d’oreita (originating from the Torah, the most authoritative source) and d’rabbanan (originating from the rabbis, which is binding, but less authoritative). It also reflects the pattern for the education of the young.
Once this stage has been mastered, it is then possible to continue. As he explains:
“When this has been carried out correctly and has been practiced for years, cause your soul, whenever you read or listen to the Torah, to be constantly directed––the whole of you and your thought––toward reflection on what you are listening to or reading.”
Here Maimonides is teaching his reader how to develop the capacity for hyper-focused attention: First, learn how to clear the mind and consider just this one thing (a task that by itself takes years to master), and then, apply that focus to the Torah reading. Having done that, one might use the Torah text itself as a source of contemplation:
“When this too has been practiced consistently for a certain time, cause your soul to be in such a way that your thought is always quite free of distraction and gives heed to all that you are reading of the discourses of the prophets and even when you read all the benedictions, so that you aim at meditating on what you are uttering and at considering its meaning.”
Once this step has been mastered, it is then possible to focus on the remainder of the service; one approaches the Haftarah portion next, and then the various benedictions in the service. One should start with this singular affirmation expressed by the Shema, and then work methodically towards expanding this capacity for concentration in prayer.
Eventually, it might be possible to differentiate clearly between the prayer-state and mundane-state of mind, and to transition between them at will. Maimonides suggests that the quiet time after the day is finished is ideal for this kind of reflection:
“When, however, you are alone with yourself and no one else is there and while you lie awake upon your bed, you should take great care during these precious times not to set your thought to work on anything other than that intellectual worship consisting in nearness to God and being in His presence in that true reality that I have made known to you and not by way of affectations of the imagination.”
Having used the prayer-service as a vehicle for training, it is now possible to achieve, and achieve at will, that state of hyper-focused intentionality.
During these moments at the end of the day when there is quiet in the house, it is possible to think without interruption. Therefore, Maimonides admonishes, do not waste this precious time thinking about business or household concerns; you have had all day to do so. This quiet time is designated for contemplation at the highest level.
So, let us return to our opening questions: what happens when you pray regularly? What happens if you come to services every week and pray with sincerity? Is that a different kind of experience than coming to services once and a while?
According to Maimonides, the answer would be yes: it is indeed different.
Praying regularly helps us develop the discipline to think about the big questions. Our culture teaches us to run away from them: to cover them up with noise and business, to drown them with consumption in excess, to avoid them through diversion and entertainment. But such activity leaves us feeling hollow.
Praying regularly allows us to cut through the noise and clutter, so that when you stop to think about the big questions – the questions that keep you up at night – you have a structured, disciplined way of considering these things, rather than being held ransom by your anxieties and insecurities.
In other words, what happens when you pray regularly, really pray, according to Maimonides? You perfect your soul.
December 30, 2013 § Leave a comment
Last week, in response to the portion Va’era, I raised some questions relating to God’s hardening of Pharaoh’s heart. This week, I wanted to investigate in greater depth Maimonides’ position on this issue.
In Maimonides’ view, virtuous or moral behavior is established through repetition and training. Individuals are rewarded or punished not for isolated events, but rather for their pattern of behavior. Providence punishes (in the form of adverse outcomes) those who turn their attention away from God or cater to the desires of the body, particularly when they do so repeatedly. These adverse outcomes are the natural consequences of such actions.
Thus, when the Bible speaks of God’s punishment, it refers to the impersonal actions of Providence. In the context of the Exodus narrative, for example, it might seem that God is actively changing Pharaoh’s heart, but the outcome should instead be understood as the natural result of the Pharaoh’s decisions. As Maimonides explains, “…Pharaoh and his followers disobeyed by choice, without force or compusion.” God does not act in the sense of 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.
Maimonides also acknowledges that there are verses in the Torah that “cause many to stumble and think that the Holy One – blessed be He! – has decreed that man shall do good or evil and that man’s heart is not allowed to do as he wishes.” In truth, however, those passages are reporting on the cumulative effect of the individual’s evil actions: Grave sins and repeated transgressions create a barrier to repentance.
In those cases, the sinner must acknowledge so much wrongdoing and make such great changes in his or her character that the goal becomes nearly unreachable. As Maimonides explains: “It is possible that a man might commit a grave iniquity or many sins so that the sentence of the Judge of Truth might be that the doer of those wrongs, done intentionally and deliberately, would be denied repentance.”
“Because they continued to sin,” he writes, “repentance was withheld” and they could not break the pattern of behavior. It was not God who caused their difficulties; rather, they were the ones at fault. “Consequently it can be said,” he writes, “that the Lord did not decree Pharaoh to do ill to Israel, or Sihon to sin in his country or the Canaanites to act horribly or the people of Israel to be idolatrous. All these sins were their own doing and consequently they deserved no opportunity to repent.” The magnitude and multitude of a person’s sins might prevent repentance; the pattern of behavior may have become too ingrained to renounce.
December 23, 2013 § 2 Comments
In Cincinnati, there is a large shopping mall with exactly one lane of traffic into the parking lot and one lane out. It can get really crazy around the Christmas buying season, in fact, and will have a line of a dozen cars waiting to exit. If that were not bad enough, a popular chain restaurant has its entrance right where the traffic backs up, so drivers often have to wait for overly-full diners with doggie bags to make their way across both lanes.
So it happened that once during the holiday season, I was following a suburban as we were attempting to leave the parking lot. It stopped unexpectedly in the lane, right in front of the restaurant – as if there were no line of cars behind him! – and then two able-bodied passengers climbed into the car. Aghast, I honked at him: move it!
What I could not see, however (for he was just outside of my peripheral vision), was the man in a full leg cast up to his hip making his way cautiously across the icy sidewalk to the car. In other words, the suburban actually had a good reason to stop.
The man’s friends and family, absolutely outraged that I would begrudge him his time to be loaded into the car, got out of the car and started yelling at me. One man – I think that he was the driver – kept saying over and over to me, ‘Are you stupid? Are you stupid?’ I tried to mime the idea ‘I’m sorry; I didn’t know’ but that isn’t an easy concept to convey with a gesture. It just seemed to make them madder. So I rolled down the window. He leaned in and said it one more time, this time with emphasis: ‘Are? You? Stu? Pid?’
Um, no, not stupid, actually. Just sorry for having honked at him before I understood the situation.
In the case of Pharaoh, it is not stupidity that causes him to ignore all the signs around him, but rather a refusal to understand. It’s not that he doesn’t see the man in a hip cast, but rather that he simply doesn’t care.
Even so, in responding to Moses, Pharaoh certainly seems remarkably dense. Exactly how many times does Moses have to correctly predict a calamity before Pharaoh believes that Moses has God on his side?
How could Pharaoh be so stubborn? The text, of course, provides its own answer: God intervenes and hardens Pharaoh’s heart. But why does God do that?
We have here a basic problem of free will: if we are to be held responsible for our actions, if we have some kind of ethical responsibility, then we must assume that the actions we take are made on the basis of free will. For it would be merely cruel to punish someone for something outside of his or her control.
But, if we do indeed have free will, then how can it be possible for God to harden Pharaoh’s heart?
Consider the possible implications:
It could mean that God has the ability to intervene and cause someone to fulfill a predetermined destiny. But then we have an ethical difficulty: how do we know when God has made this predetermination, as opposed to knowing when an individual has chosen this path voluntarily? How could we hold everyone responsible if some are indeed responsible but some really are not?
Another possibility is that God does not intervene directly, but that everything ultimately flows from God. For example, the Italian Jewish scholar Samuel David Luzzatto of the early nineteenth century suggested the following understanding: “Know that all acts are ascribed to God, since He is their ultimate cause, some by absolute decree, and others through the operation of human choice granted by Him…In the sense that He is author of all acts, He hardened Pharaoh’s heart…”
In this explanation, it is Pharaoh’s own doing that he has become so stubborn; God is involved only in the sense that God is involved in everything.
But this explanation does not address a critical question: why is Pharaoh being so stupidly stubborn about the Hebrews? Why does he stubbornly endure (or be hardened to endure) ten plagues?
In this regard, I think that Maimonides’ naturalistic explanation makes the most sense: he argues that Pharaoh’s own wickedness has become such an ingrained habit that it is nearly impossible for him to repent and change his ways. It is as if God had hardened his heart, for he is so accustomed to a certain path of behavior.
Aha. There is an important insight there. Sometimes our worst behavior is the force of habit: a reflexive refusal to recognize the pain and suffering of others whenever it is inconvenient to change our ways.
So, to return to my story: honking at someone is hardly a sin, and few would fault me for it. But the incident itself could be used as a metaphor: the people around us might be lumbering on with a difficulty we cannot see. They might be waiting for someone outside our field of view. On a small scale, these small interactions are not noteworthy. But be careful of the habits you create: Don’t go hardening your own heart. Boundless compassion takes effort and practice. And a bit of patience.
 As quoted in Nehama Leibowitz, New Studies in Shemot/Exodus, p. 151.
January 7, 2012 § Leave a comment
I have not always been able to pray.
As a young adult, I had deep problems with the concept of God and the concept of prayer. I would call myself an atheist because I simply could not conceive of a God worthy of genuine prayer. Even when I found my way to Judaism, I was still not immediately able to pray.
What changed my life, however – what put me on this path first as a Jewish seeker and ultimately as a rabbi – was a book of Jewish theology. One evening, in a discussion at the Temple, I was explaining my views on God and advocating a very rationalist point of view. In response, my rabbi observed that I agreed with Maimonides. So, during a business trip, I saw a book about Maimonides, written by Abraham Joshua Heschel, and I picked it up to read on the airplane.
I really liked the book; so, when I saw another one of Heschel’s books, I bought that one too. I believe that the second book I picked up was God in Search of Man – but I am not entirely certain, for I devoured several of his theological works in rapid succession. It could have been Man’s Quest for God or Man is Not Alone.
What I found so persuasive was the idea that the path to God is through wonder. Heschel points to our sense of awe at the everyday, such as the sight of scarlet and orange leaves during in the fall, or the sound of a small child’s giggle, or the delicate taste of a fresh peach. And he describes our feeling of radical amazement, such as those moments when we stand before the ocean or see the valleys stretch out below us from the mountaintop. These are the first steps toward appreciation of the divine, because they point to a realm beyond our understanding, a realm in which we feel a kinship with the world around us.
The purpose of prayer is to become aware of these moments, those moments in which we are no longer locked within the confines of our own needs and desires but rather united with the whole of life. In prayer, we are attempting to rise above ourselves, to transcend what we are capable of doing alone, to seek that which is more meaningful than our passing existence. Prayer also allows us to voice that feeling of sheer gratitude we feel just to be alive.
Of course, sometimes we feel more grateful than at other times. One year, I was invited to speak at a Jewish day school about prayer. At that time I was recovering from ankle surgery and – thinking that the kids might be curious about my bright purple cast – I decided to speak about the prayer asher yatzar, the prayer thanking God for our ability to stand before God and pray. As the prayer explains, if one of our tiny openings were to shut — or one of our closed places were to open — we would not be able to stand.
As I explained to the assembled students, I find that I now understand more precisely what that prayer means, being as a small set of ligaments maybe a centimeter long were able to sweep me off of my feet. After that ordeal, I now have a much greater appreciation for the ability to walk on uneven ground without falling – and I am still afraid of high heels.
But, as the prayer reminds us, we tend to take our health for granted – at least until something slows us down and causes us to reflect on how vulnerable we really are.
The cycle of the High Holiday services is when we pause to reflect on that vulnerability: as the liturgy intones, this is the time of judgment, when our deeds are weighed in the balance and our fate is determined for the coming year: who shall live and who shall perish, who shall see ripe old age and who shall be cut down in the prime of their youth.
I cannot read the lines in the unetaneh tokef prayer without a shiver of fear: perhaps, I wonder, it might be possible to cut some sort of deal with God that will allow me to live forever – or at least until I see my great grandchildren? “Dear God, I promise I will only do good deeds from here on out.” Though I must admit a more accurate prayer would be: “I promise I will only do what seems like a good idea at the time.”
The liturgy of that season also urges us to reaffirm the sovereignty of God. But what exactly are we trying to accomplish with this kind of prayer? To make some kind of theological statement seems to be simple enough: “God – if you are there and can hear me – know that I accept that you are God and there is none else.”
But is that really enough?
Affirming the sovereignty of God means something more than saying, “Hear, O Israel, the God-concept about whom you are deeply, deeply ambivalent, that God-concept is one.” Affirming the sovereignty of God means something more than saying, “Dear Adonai, I have no other God-concept but You.”
Affirming the sovereignty of God means accepting that your life is not your own possession, but rather a loan. We have ownership this life temporarily, but we will have to return it with interest. As with all loans, there is something demanded of us.
In the days leading up to my ankle surgery I fretted a lot; I was worried about it. My husband mused on the fact that I believe that God created the whole world and everything in it, and yet it would appear that I am deeply concerned that God is not sufficiently involved in the details. I giggled at the thought of such a contradiction and then said, yes exactly; evidently there is some chaos built into the system. The outcome is, at least at some level, wholly unpredictable. Who knows whether the surgery will go well or not?
I do get the sense, however, that built into the structure of the cosmos is a kind of delight in our endless surprise, our ability to create whole new possibilities out of the materials we have been given. Otherwise, I would think that being all-knowing would get to be rather dull after a while, sort of like playing tic-tac-toe against yourself.
But then again, who can say whether God has emotions?
If God does have emotions, then also there would also be surprises that would be much less welcome to God.
What happens when we choose badly? In judgment, before whom do we stand?
We know that there is something demanded of us; we are to be just, to act uprightly. We are commanded: Love your neighbor as yourself. Do not stand idle while your neighbor bleeds. If you see your enemy struggling to keep a load from falling, help him. Do not put a stumbling block before the blind. Keep honest weights and measures. Do not oppress the stranger, the orphan, the widow – or anyone else who is vulnerable, for that matter.
It would seem to me then that the act of affirming the sovereignty of God means affirming that there is justice demanded of us, even in the face of a chaotic world. The fact that we cannot be certain in advance of the outcome of a surgery does not mean that there is no God, or that God has no concern for us, or that God is not all-powerful—or that we are free to behave as we please, consequences be damned.
There are indeed consequences. Do not ask me to explain them to you, however, in some kind of neat phrase which sums up why bad things happen to good people. Chaos is built into the system and sometimes truly hideous things happen to perfectly good people. And, as far as I am concerned, any theology that can confidently explain why children should get cancer is a monstrosity. Affirming that there is moral coherence in the world is not the same thing as affirming that all of the loose ends will tie up neatly.
What I am trying to say is this: I can pray intently for healing, but I cannot make a deal with the Divinity to live to see my great-grandchildren, nor can I make an arrangement on behalf of my own children that they should see no harm. The fact of the matter is, our material world is just so much more changeable than that. The chaos in the system makes it impossible to predict the outcome, particularly from our vantage point, and sometimes things go horribly wrong. But even so, the actions we take matter in ways that are fundamentally important because they directly affect the quality of the world around us.
In fact, it is Heschel who argues that each of our actions has the potential to disclose the holy, to transform the world in small steps. In Heschel’s view, even the smallest religious rituals matter to God; it is in these kinds of small acts that we invoke the Divine and bring God into our lives. In that sense, God is in need of humanity so as to put this process into motion, to allow this transformation to happen. Prayer is profoundly important precisely because we are God’s much-needed partners in the redemption of the world.
What was so profoundly moving for me in reading Heschel all those years ago was the exposure to a deeply religious person who was also spiritually honest. In the place of neat answers and tidy constructs, Heschel asked searching questions and demanded honest answers. In the context of his prose, I encountered a genuinely pious Jew who could pray, really pray, even in the wake of tragedy, even in the wake of great pain, even as a refugee who lost most of his family in the Holocaust. And so I imitated him, as best I could, in little steps.
I did not start out knowing how to pray. At that time I did not yet know Hebrew or the mechanics of prayer. I was still deeply alienated from God. But the attempt to imitate Heschel, to imitate his life and his way of prayer, was what lead me to this life, where I am now, a rabbi and a profoundly committed Jew.
And, in that sense, prayer has changed my life, in the most radical way.