August 1, 2014 § 2 Comments
Next Tuesday is Tisha B’Av, the ninth day of the Hebrew month of Av, when both Temples – the first and the second – fell. The First Temple fell in 586 BCE, destroyed by the Babylonians. According to the tradition, the Second Temple fell on the very same date – the ninth of Av – nearly 600 years later, in the year 70 of our secular calendar, this time at the hand of the Romans.
Up until the destruction of the Temple, the primary approach to worship in the Ancient Near East had been animal sacrifice: you bring an animal to the priest, who slaughters the animal in a ritual fashion, burns part of it, and then splits it between you two. The priest gets a portion as his fee, and you have the rest.
And the purpose of this sacrificial system, at least in its ancient form, was to maintain the order of the cosmos.
The Temple, behind the curtain of the Holy of Holies, was the point where heaven and earth meet. The priests were charged with keeping this system going, and preventing the profane elements of living from reaching the holy.
So when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, they destroyed more than a mere building – they destroyed the entire structure of Israelite worship.
And the Romans were fairly thorough in their destruction: they set it on fire, desecrated its precincts, and forbade any further use of the Temple.
If you go to the area of the southern wall excavations in Jerusalem, in fact, you will walk along the Roman street, and encounter the pile of rubble left behind from their efforts that day. In nearly 2000 years no one has cleaned it up. At this point, it is no longer possible to clean it up: those stones are our history, a moment frozen in time.
In the wake of that destruction, however, the ancient rabbis had to rebuild. They had to create a structure for worship that was not dependent upon sacrifices. They had to create a religious self-understanding that was not dependent upon being settled in the land. They had to create a pattern of observance that was not dependent upon what had been destroyed.
Now, the rabbis asked themselves, how do we continue, now that the central cult is gone?
These ancient rabbis, convening in Yavneh, on the banks of the Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) started the process of rebuilding.
They sat together and reasoned amongst themselves: God’s love for us is manifest in the commandments, right? So if we are commanded, and it is no longer possible to fulfill the commandment in its literal sense, then there must be a metaphorical way to do it. If the Temple is not standing, then we shall dress our scrolls as the High Priest. We will transform our kitchen table into the Temple altar. We will offer the words of our mouth in place of sacrificial offerings. And so on.
All of this was done in the context of the existing structure of law, faithful to its spirit yet also radically different in its execution.
Piece by piece, ritual by ritual, each new thing was mapped out, conceptually linked to the ancient practices yet also fundamentally transformed.
And this process of transformation was so successful, and so complete, that it is hard to think of Judaism as being any other way.
So much so, in fact, that later generations were prompted to ask: Why were the Israelites commanded to offer sacrifices? That is to say, if God knew that it would one day change to another form of worship, why ask for sacrifices in the beginning? Why not identify the proper form of worship and require that of the Israelites?
Consider, for example, the answer that Maimonides gives.
For Maimonides, the highest form of worship was the contemplation of God, but the level of discipline needed to accomplish it remains well outside of the capabilities of the masses.
God therefore allowed the sacrificial cult to flourish, as it provided a physical expression of what their minds could not fully grasp.
Moreover, it helped the Israelites transition from their earlier pagan customs to the correct apprehension of God.
As he argues: If God had required that the Israelites suddenly give up their sacrificial service, then “at that time this would have been similar to the appearance of a prophet in these times who, calling upon this people to worship God, would say: ‘God has given you a Law forbidding you to pray to Him, to fast, to call upon Him for help in misfortune. Your worship should consist solely in meditation without any works at all.’” The change would have been too sudden, and too difficult to accommodate––which is what prompts God to provide an alternative.
In Maimonides’ view, these older forms of prayer might be called a ‘gracious ruse’ on God’ part, for they were an accommodation to the weaknesses of human beings.
Immediately following the fall of the Second Temple, however, when the sacrificial cult was no longer operative, prayer-forms were left to the individual to create on an ad hoc basis, without a formal structure.
Thus, he argues, these new prayer-forms were created by the Men of the Great Assembly, sages who were guided by a true apprehension of reality. They created a structure that might be used by worshippers to perfect themselves, so that over the course of many years they might learn the highest form of contemplation.
Maimonides retains a certain nostalgia for the ancient prayer-forms, but one also senses from his text that these newer innovations are in many ways better than what had gone before, in that they are less visceral and more intellectual.
Looking at it from the perspective of the ancient rabbis, these changes to the ritual and theology of Judaism took an enormous leap of faith: where did they find the courage to make such changes?
Looking at it from the perspective of the later rabbis, however, these changes were not changes at all: they were simply what Judaism must be. It is hard to conceive of Judaism as looking any different than it does now.
Thus the interesting thing in all of this, of course, is how different it really has become: the worship of the heart is a far cry from the physicality of cutting animals to dash their blood on the altar and burn their entrails.
I would argue, therefore, that the strength of Judaism lies in our ability and willingness to adapt. We bewail the awful events in our past – these events have shaped us, and are part of our identity – but they do not define us.
We are able to create and build anew. We continuously construct a Jewish self-understanding that is both wildly different than what came before yet also very much its fullest expression. And in this ongoing process we are ever renewed.
June 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
For the sin of gossiping against Moses, Aaron and Miriam are called onto the carpet, and God tells them in no uncertain terms that Moses is special: God speaks to Moses face-to-face. No one else can claim that honor. And then God’s presence departs from them in anger.
As the cloud leaves, Miriam is suddenly covered with white scales.
When Aaron sees her, he immediately assumes that the illness is a punishment for her sin. The timing of the affliction would suggest as such, given that it happened in quick succession. And he says to Moses, “Please my lord, do not hold a grudge against us for acting foolishly and sinning. Let her not be like a stillborn child…” In other words, Aaron’s narrative – the story he tells himself – is that she is now ill because they sinned. In his view, God punishes us through illness and death.
Aaron’s explanation is the one usually adopted by commentators: Miriam was punished for her sin.
The problem with this explanation, however, is that it makes the unreasonable assumption that illness and death occur as a result of God’s anger with us over having done something wrong.
But notice that Moses does not validate this explanation. He does not concern himself with questions as to why she is ill: he simply says, “O God, please heal her.”
And more importantly: God never says that her illness is a punishment.
Look at what God says in response: “If her father had spit in her face, would she not have been embarrassed for seven days?” I believe that the phrase ‘spit in her face’ is intended to call up the image of a father so angry that he is yelling at her, so close to her that he is spitting in her face. Imagine that her earthly father was so angry as to yell at her in this manner, and imagine that she agreed with him. Wouldn’t she be mortified at her behavior? How much more so, then, if it was God who is angry?
In other words, God tells Moses that Miriam is profoundly embarrassed. In this context, in fact, her scaled skin appears to be a physical expression of her emotional state, a stress reaction to having been reproached by God for her bad behavior. In other words: it is not a punishment for her sin, but a symptom of her distress at having been so wrong.
And so, in response, God explains to Moses that she needs time to heal herself. She needs to sit outside of the camp and watch the world go by for about a week until she has recovered from the shock and anguish.
I think, in fact, that it is important that she is outside of the camp for the span of a week. This process of repair does not involve days of introspective brooding inside her tent. It is better that she be out in the fresh air, where she can watch the clouds scuttle by and listen to the sound of leaves. To heal from her affliction, she needs to pay attention to the movement of ants and become familiar with the play of sunlight on blades of grass. We all need a break sometimes to let it all wash over us, to just be still.
What we see here, in fact, is several different responses to the stress of having been wrong before the Lord.
Aaron does not say anything about his own guilt; he focuses on others. His altruism might also be a dodge of his own responsibility.
Miriam, on the other hand, directs her emotions inward, so that they become physical manifestations of her distress.
Moses, of course, was not one of the guilty parties, but his response is interesting nonetheless. He focuses on the task at hand: to heal her.
And God’s response to his plea is to draw attention to Miriam’s emotional state. God’s response, in effect, is to say, ‘I can’t heal her, as this is a manifestation of her own distress. Only Miriam can heal herself, and they only way to do that is for her to spend some time experiencing the painful emotion directly. And the best way to do that is to spend some time in nature, away from the camp and all its motion and noise.’
Anyone who has ever been to AA or Al-Anon or who has had to watch an addict struggle with that affliction understands the wisdom of God’s response: only Miriam can heal herself.
What we also see here is a certain wisdom as to what kinds of actions are healing for us. God’s suggestion to Moses has several gems for us to use: the first one is the awareness that there is no need to move on just yet, for it is possible to sit still for a while. There are things that need doing, but it is likely that most of the things that need doing can be put off for a few days, particularly if you should need to spend some time to recuperate.
In fact, God seems to be very concerned with our need to rest: are we not commanded to rest every single week, on Shabbat?
Another pearl of wisdom: the observation that spending time in nature is healing. Just knowing that you are a part of a larger chain of being, an endless symphony of movement around you, is comforting. And this observation is one is backed by scientific research: a study of brain waves found that just walking among the trees calms us. It is good for her to go out camping for a while.
And there is another gem: we should note that our physical distress might have emotional roots. Our mind-body connection is profound; some afflictions require that the emotional scars are healed before the physical ones recede.
The story we tell ourselves in the wake of an illness will define how well we respond to that illness. There are tales that lead to blind alleys and tales that lead to healing. Listen to God’s response, rather than Aaron’s: instead of viewing illness as God’s punishment, we should give ourselves time to heal.
March 21, 2014 § Leave a comment
For whatever reason, it has been decreed in this country that pita bread must have the taste and consistency of packing foam. In Israel, however, where pita-baking is a cottage industry in its own right, pita has that sweet yeasty flavor of just-baked bread.
What is different about Israeli pita is the oven that it is baked in: it is a large unglazed ceramic globe, standing as tall as a man, with hot wood fire at the bottom.
To bake the bread, small flat pancakes of dough are slapped to the inside wall of the oven, like doughy starfish. When the dough peels itself off the side of the oven, the bread is done.
A skillful baker will know this moment instinctually and place his wooden oar under it to catch its fall. If you wait at the bakery in Emek Refaim in Jerusalem, you can buy a dozen of them right from the oven.
I’m afraid that this week’s Torah portion, however, does not mention the sweet satisfaction of pita bread. Rather, it relates to an unpleasant surprise you might find one morning if you are tasked with the care and use of these ovens: what happens when a small animal crawls inside one of these ovens and dies? Might you still be able to use the oven?
According to the biblical law, the answer would be no.
“The following shall be unclean for you from among the things that swarm on the earth: the mole, the mouse, and great lizards of every variety; the gecko, the land crocodile, the lizard, the sand lizard, and the chameleon. Those are for you the unclean among all the swarming things… And if any of those falls into an earthen vessel, everything inside it shall be unclean and [the vessel] itself you shall break… Everything on which the carcass of any of them falls shall be unclean: an oven or stove shall be smashed. They are unclean and unclean they shall remain for you.”
That’s the rule: an earthenware vessel must be smashed – no exceptions.
Yet, being as these ovens are enormous, they cannot be cheap to make. Finding a dead creepy-crawly in one of these ovens would likely be a crushing loss.
It would preferable, then, to discover an option that does not involve destroying an entire oven. What if, for example, the oven is made in a different fashion – what if it is one of those new-fangled tiled ovens, like what is used for bread-baking in Europe – then what happens if it houses an unwelcome swarming thing? Maybe you could cut the bad part out and leave the rest of the oven intact?
The Talmud has a rather fanciful explanation for how the matter was decided.
“It has been taught” in tractate Bava Metzia, that “on that day” when this issue was decided by the sages, “Rabbi Eliezer brought forth every imaginable argument,” as to why a tiled oven could be made clean again, but the sages “did not accept them” and ruled that it should be destroyed, just like a pita oven.
Said Rabbi Eliezer to them: “‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let this carob-tree prove it!’ Thereupon the carob-tree was torn a hundred cubits out of its place – and some say, four hundred cubits. ‘No proof can be brought from a carob-tree,’ they retorted.”
“Again he said to them: ‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let the stream of water prove it! Whereupon the stream of water flowed backwards. ‘No proof can be brought from a stream of water,’ they rejoined.”
“Again he urged: ‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let the walls of this academy prove it,’ whereupon the walls inclined inward to fall. But Rabbi Joshua rebuked” the walls, “saying, ‘When scholars are engaged in a legal dispute, what right have you to interfere?’ Hence they did not fall, in honor of Rabbi Joshua, nor did they become upright again, in honor of Rabbi Eliezer; and they are still standing thus inclined.”
Again Rabbi Eliezar said to them: “‘If Jewish law agrees with me, let it be proved from Heaven!’ Whereupon a Heavenly Voice cried out: ‘Why do you dispute with Rabbi Eliezer, seeing that in all matters, Jewish law agrees with him?’ But Rabbi Joshua arose and exclaimed: ‘It is not in heaven!’”
“What did he mean by this? — Said Rabbi Jeremiah: That the Torah has already been given at Mount Sinai; we pay no attention to a Heavenly Voice,” instead it says that we should ‘follow the majority.’
Rabbi Nathan met Elijah, who is the prophet who never died but instead wanders the earth and speaks with rabbis. And Rabbi Nathan asked him, “‘What did the Holy One, the one who is blessed, do in that hour?’ Elijah responded: ‘He laughed, saying ‘My children have defeated Me! My children have defeated Me!’”
It’s a fanciful story, rather unexpected, and quite funny. We should assume, of course, that the rabbis knew full well that carob trees do not uproot themselves. I also suspect that it is not a coincidence that this story is structured like a fairy-tale, with three examples. Like ‘three bears’ or ‘three wishes’ or any other group of three in the fairy-tale genre, here we have the three proofs, the carob tree, the stream, and the walls of the academy.
After this triad comes the climax of the story:
“On that day all objects which Rabbi Eliezer had declared clean were brought and burned in a fire. Then they took a vote and excommunicated him.”
Though in modern times we don’t normally practice it, Jewish law does allow for excommunication. It’s actually a form of shunning; it can be done for a specified period of time or done indefinitely, but it ends when the person has repented. So, we learn, the sages excommunicated Rabbi Eliezer even though he was quite right about the oven. But why would they want to do that?
Let me fill in the background, and tell you the backstory: the rabbis are living in exile, in the centuries following the destruction of the second Temple, and they are worried about survival. Rabbi Eliezer was defying the majority in his obstinacy.
Because he was always right about these kinds of things – that is to say, if a voice where ever to come down from heaven to weigh in on an argument, it would surely back his position – he therefore had the kind of personal prestige that could create a genuine rift in the rabbinic world, one which the sages feared could be fatal to the fledgling community.
So they had their reasons for excommunicating him. They were afraid. And they let their fears get the best of them.
Said the sages, “‘Who shall go and inform him?’ ‘I will go,’ answered Rabbi Akiba,” a highly-respected scholar, “‘Lest an unsuitable person go and inform him, and thus destroy his whole world.’ What did Rabbi Akiba do? He donned black garments and wrapped himself in black, and sat at a distance of four cubits” from Rabbi Eliezer. “‘Akiba,’ said Rabbi Eliezer to him, ‘what has particularly happened today?’ ‘Master,’ he replied, ‘it appears to me that your companions are shunning you.’”
Thereupon Rabbi Eliezer “tore his garment,” as a sign of mourning, “and put off his shoes and sat on the earth, while tears streamed from his eyes.” It is a heartbreaking reaction – clearly Rabbi Eliezer had only been seeking the truth, not trying to tear the community asunder.
It would seem to me, then, that even if the community had a very good reason for its actions – and ensuring the survival of the community would qualify as a good reason – it does not have the right to wound an individual in this manner.
We see a similar situation in this week’s portion as well. Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu made a grave mistake in the handling of the fire pans for the tabernacle and they are themselves consumed by fire. It is a terrible accident and it leaves Aaron grieving for his sons.
Shortly thereafter, however, Moses discovers another breach of protocol with regard to the sacrificial service and he takes Aaron’s remaining sons to task:
“Then Moses inquired about the goat of sin offering, and it had already been burned! He was angry with Eleazar and Ithamar, Aaron’s remaining sons, and said, ‘Why did you not eat the sin offering in the sacred area? For it is most holy, and He has given it to you to remove the guilt of the community and to make expiation for them before the Lord. Since its blood was not brought inside the sanctuary, you should certainly have eaten it in the sanctuary, as I commanded.’”
In the immediate aftermath of the deaths of Nadav and Abihu, Aaron had been silent in response to Moses’ rebuke. This time, however, Aaron responds to Moses, arguing with him, suggesting to him that now is not the time to be bringing up such things: ‘See, this day they brought their sin offering and their burnt offering before the Lord, and such things have befallen me! Had I eaten sin offering today, would the Lord have approved?’”
If you are paying close attention to the text, you can visualize Aaron rolling his eyes when Moses is speaking: ‘Really, Moses? Really? I just lost two sons, and you’re worried about how, when and where the goat of the sin offering was burned?’
Moses is a mensch, of course, and knows when to let it drop. He admits that he is wrong: ‘Yes, Aaron, you’re exactly right. I have forgotten what’s most important.’ As the text states: “And when Moses heard this, he approved.”
Disputes will arise, of course, and well-meaning people of good faith will disagree. But what we learn from our Torah portion this week is that we have a responsibility to be gentle with each other, even when we are right – and most especially when we are wrong about being right.
February 21, 2014 § 3 Comments
It seems that every time that I get a cold it goes straight for my voice. Instead of my usual mezzo-soprano, my voice has spent most of this week somewhere in the baritone range. My deepest gravelly voice, in fact, sounds a bit like Janis Joplin, which is precisely why I have one of her songs on my mind today:
O Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz
My friends all have Porsches, I must make amends,
Worked hard all my lifetime, no help from my friends,
So Lord, won’t You buy me a Mercedes Benz
I love that song! It’s just so direct about it.
But we all know, of course, that this kind of pleading does not work. We are all sadly familiar with the fact that God does not take special orders of this kind. It’s usually something we learn as kids: you can’t get a brand-new toy by asking God. You’d have better luck asking Grandma, or saving up your allowance.
So, then, what is the purpose of prayer, if it is not to get stuff? It must have some kind of larger meaning – or else why do we engage in it?
One possible answer to this difficulty is that it is for God’s benefit. We engage in worship because God commands it. It is, after all, one of the demands placed upon us by our covenant: God commands us to make a sanctuary.
For example, we read in our portion today, “This is what the Lord has commanded: Take from among you gifts to the Lord; everyone whose heart so moves him shall bring them — gifts for the Lord: gold, silver, and copper; blue, purple, and crimson yarns, fine linen, and goats’ hair; tanned ram skins, dolphin skins, and acacia wood; oil for lighting, spices for the anointing oil and for the aromatic incense; lapis lazuli and other stones for setting, for the ephod and the breastpiece.” On the face of it, therefore, the purpose of bringing all of these gifts is to offer them to the Lord, to build a sanctuary to honor God.
Interestingly, however, some of the midrashim reject this interpretation. For example, consider this one:
“The whole paraphernalia of the Tabernacle, the candlestick, table, altar, holy things, the tent and curtains – what was their purpose? Israel addressed the Holy One Blessed be He: Lord of the universe, the kings of the heathens have their tent, table, candlestick and incense burner and such are the trappings of sovereignty; for every king has need of them. Should not then Thou which art our King, Saviour and Redeemer possess the same trappings of sovereignty, that it may become known to all the inhabitants of the world that Thou art the King?
“The Almighty answered: You who are flesh and blood have need of this, but I have no such need, since there is no eating or drinking associated with Me, and I have no need of light.” So it’s not for God after all! Why is it commanded then?
In this Midrash, God goes on to tell the Israelites that they are already worthy of divine concern due to the merit of their ancestors. God specifically cites their connection to the Avot – Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. We would also add the Imahot – Sarah, Rebecca, Rachel, and Leah.
But the Israelites object to God’s answer: we do not pray to them, we pray to You. In other words: even though they merit God’s attention and protection on this basis, they still have a need to engage in prayer. For example, what should they do when they need to specifically ask for something in particular? In response, God tells them, okay, fine: “make what you desire but make them as I command you… as it is stated: ‘Make Me a sanctuary…a candlestick…a table…an altar for burning incense.’”
It is like a parent saying to a child, ‘anything that you need I will give you.’ And the child responds: ‘yes, but what about the things that I want? How do I ask for things that I want?’ And the parent finds some structured way to accommodate the child’s request.
What that means, according to this Midrash, is that the sanctuary is not for the honor of God; and it is not to demonstrate the glory to God the way we might demonstrate the glory of an earthly king. Rather, it is provides a structured way to ask for things.
But now we are back to our original problem: it’s not like we can ask God for a Mercedes Benz. We don’t get what we ask for, at least not in any sort of direct, easy-to-catalogue way.
And that’s a genuine pity, of course, because there are so many things that we want, and so many things that we need. Eventually, we learn to ask for bigger things than a new bike, bigger things than a Mercedes Benz. We ask for things like health, long life, children, employment, fulfillment, happiness.
Yet we discover that these things do not come to us magically, just for the asking. It’s one of the great surprises of adulthood: after having the majority of our needs fulfilled by our parents, we venture out into the world to discover that we are not provided with this same kind of support wherever we go. Apparently the world does not owe us anything: not health, not wealth, not happiness. And that can be a rude shock when it comes. Who will take care of me? We find that we must take care of ourselves.
So, then, what are we trying to accomplish in prayer? What is the point of worship? Why do our prayers include requests for God’s response, if we don’t have magical powers over the Godhead?
One possibility is that prayer helps us sort out what we really want, what we really need. In hearing ourselves speak, we realize whether we are asking for something worthy or not. It could be that prayer is our way of coping with this most basic difficulty: an acknowledgment of our boundless need and our limited means of fulfilling that need.
For example, whenever I visit people in the hospital, I will pray with them, if they are willing. And in that prayer, I will state some of our hoped-for outcomes: real ones, like “…and may this person go home soon in good health…” as well as miraculous ones, such as “…and astound his or her doctors with the speed at which healing takes place…”
The point of this act of prayer in the hospital room is more than saying “I hope you get well soon.” It’s a nice sentiment, of course. And the point of prayer in the hospital room is more than the good cheer that comes with having a visitor. It’s a welcome sight as well, of course. But there’s more going on here than that.
As Abraham Joshua Heschel writes, “Reading or studying a prayer is not the same as praying. What marks the act of prayer is the decision to enter and face the presence of God.” Prayer addresses what is transcendent.
But if you are agnostic about God or a non-believer, then the act of prayer does seem to be pointless. Why should we speak of something transcendent, when all we know is what we can sense here and now?
Yet is that really the case? I have found, in my own experience, that we really do sense more than what’s just here and now. What is that energy that fills a room and causes a crowd to cheer at once? What is that energy that fills our eyes with tears when the bride comes walking down the aisle? What is that energy that overflows our heart when we hold a new-born child? What is that energy that we feel and know when a congregation prays on our behalf?
That is the energy that we are addressing in the act of prayer. Prayer is more than merely talking to ourselves, and more than listening to ourselves talk. There is more to it than stating a wish, no matter how dearly felt it is. There is something greater at work here, in fact. In the act of prayer, we are asking that the energy that is available to us be put to work to good ends.
In other words: if you find that you really cannot grasp hold of the full concept of God – if the idea seems entirely too difficult, too fraught, too complicated – then think of it in smaller terms. Make a modest request. Ask that energy be available to you, energy to do what is right. Nothing more. No throne of glory or angels on high: just a small, modest request that you have the energy you need to do what is right.
I started this process of becoming Jewish without a belief in God and with a doubt that prayer can be worthwhile. If my own spiritual life is any indication: if you concentrate on that smaller goal, that practice will ultimately lead you to its source, to something grander and larger. Learn to focus on the energy you can discern, and you will eventually find something much greater than yourself. You are not alone in this search.
January 24, 2014 § 6 Comments
Once when I was a rabbinical student living in Jerusalem, I went to visit the Church of the Holy Sepulcher with a group of friends; while we were there I ended up talking to a group of Christians who were also touring the site. When one of them learned that we were Reform Jews, he asked: if you do not observe all the laws of Judaism, then why are you not Christian?
To his way of thinking, Judaism is a religion of law, whereas Christianity transcends it. So if we do not observe the law, we must be Christian, right? Except, of course, that we are not.
Let me explain what is wrong with his syllogism.
First, let me point out that there is a basic disagreement between Judaism and Christianity regarding the nature of law. This disagreement has theological origins, and it creates a different understanding of our mutual obligations as a community.
Specifically: is the rule of law a burden, something restricts our freedom? Or is it the very structure that allows us to live freely without conflict?
In Paulist thought, living according to the laws of the Bible is a source of anxiety because it is not possible to ever fulfill all of them. We are continually sinning by continually coming up short. To this way of thinking, in fact, the giving of the Torah was intended as a prelude, in that it ultimately leads to an entirely different approach to getting right with God. In other words, the purpose of the Torah was to teach us the depth of our sins.
For many Christians, the way to know the right thing to do is to either take the Holy Spirit into your heart and let it guide your decisions or use Jesus’ example as a guide. Charitable giving, for example, should be motivated by this sense of godliness – which is, in fact, why it is called ‘charity’ – it is related to the word for ‘heart.’ You should be moved by the spirit to give.
But we have a different view entirely. For Jews, the commandments are not a burden. The commandments are a gift. They show us the way to live.
Rather than relying on the spirit of God to motivate us to give from our hearts, we tend to be a bit more pragmatic: for example, when faced with the problem of poverty, our approach is to set up a legal structure. We seek to create a system that is capable of adequately meeting the needs of the poor while also equitably distributing the costs of the collection. That’s why we call it ‘tzedakah’ – righteous giving – for it is rooted in the very concept of ‘righteousness.’ You will give, because it is the righteous thing to do. And you will give out of legal obligation to give, because the poor do not have the luxury of waiting until you feel moved to give.
We Jews really like the rule of law. In fact, as a minority culture, we prefer to live in a society that fundamentally respects the rule of law and has a robust and fair court system.
In the Medieval period, for example, the Jews of that time were not citizens of the state in which they lived. Instead, they had a charter from the local prince or duke, which allowed a certain number of families or individuals to live within the borders of the principality or duchy.
And that number could not be exceeded. If you were born in a given principality and lived there all your life, as had your parents and your grandparents and your great-grandparents, you might still have to find another place to live when you became an adult because the number of Jews allowed in your community had been exceeded. In fact, the charter for the community itself could be revoked at whim, so the whole community might have to move as well.
Not having rights guaranteed by law creates a sense of instability and anxiety that casts a pall over the activities of a given community. No one likes to live in fear.
We Jews tend to like the rule of law because it protects the minority from the majority.
What was – and is – special about the Jewish experience in the United States, for example, is the fact that Jews have had citizenship here from the very beginning. We had no need for special dispensation in order to be here and to participate in the broader society. Whenever we find that we have been excluded or targeted, the law is on our side: we can set things right.
From our perspective, law is not a burden. The rule of law is one of the markers of civilization: it is what allows for a peaceful and stable society.
And it is in this sense that we say that the law is our proof of God’s love for us.
You don’t have to believe in Torah-from-Sinai to appreciate the value of that construction: legislation is a divine right. But, for us, instead of choosing a human King whose will is law, we have located the source of our law in the divine itself, and made the smallest, least important members of the community – the widow, the stranger, and the orphan – our most important legislative priorities. As a matter of religious obligation we must take care of the weakest and poorest among us because God wants us to.
So now let me proceed to my second point regarding my questioner’s syllogism: he wrongly assumes that Jewish law is synonymous with Biblical law.
The Jewish legal system is founded on the Biblical text, which we call the ‘written Torah’. However, we also have a parallel legal tradition – the oral Torah. The oral Torah, according to tradition, is comprised of the laws that God taught Moses orally at the same time as transmitting the written text.
This oral text was compiled Rabbi Judah the Prince around the year 200 in our secular calendar – his document is called the Mishnah. His text attracted the rabbis’ ongoing commentary, which was compiled and redacted in the sixth century. That commentary is called the Gemara. The Mishnah and the Gemara together are called the Talmud. And that text – the Talmudic text –also received ongoing commentary as well. So, when you look at a page of Talmud, what you will see is a conversation that extends from the Biblical period to the modern day.
When you speak of Jewish law in its traditional terms – from Moses to Rabbi Judah the Prince to the Talmud – it all seems rather seamless. And it is seamless, in one sense, for it is in fact an organic growing body of work. But what is not so obvious in that narrative is the rupture that occurs in the year 70 of our secular calendar.
In the year 70, the Second Temple was destroyed. Up until that point, 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. As we read in the Bible, ‘If you observe all of My commandments, then there will be rain in its season…’ These commandments helped keep the cosmos in order.
So when the Romans destroyed the Second Temple, they destroyed more than a mere building – they destroyed the entire structure of Israelite worship.
Now, the rabbis asked themselves, how do we continue, now that the central cult is gone?
The ancient rabbis, convening in Yavneh, on the banks of the Kinneret (also known as the Sea of Galilee) started the process of rebuilding. 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.
Which brings me to my third point: what the man who questioned us did not understand is that the Reform movement has not transcended or repudiated the law.
We do not follow its medieval interpretations: that much is indeed true.
But we have not left that ongoing conversation. In the Reform context, we take the approach that major upheavals in Jewish life – such as the destruction of the Second Temple – call for a revision in our relationship to the law. We are responding to the upheaval caused by the Enlightenment and our Emancipation.
As I mentioned earlier, Jews in the medieval period were not citizens of the state in which they lived. They were, instead, subjects of a prince or duke who would grant them a charter to live within the principality or duchy. So, if you were born into the Jewish community, you were generally unable to leave it unless you converted or became an outlaw. Or both. There were a few – Spinoza, for example – who left the community but never joined another. His was a very lonely life.
After Jews were granted emancipation in Europe – after Jews became citizens of the state in which we lived – then participation in Jewish life became voluntary. And it became possible to make a distinction between religious and secular spheres. That’s why it’s possible, for example, for me to teach Judaism at a public university without conversionary intent. The classroom at the university is secular space. Yet when I deliver a sermon, I do so in a religious sense: the sanctuary is religious space.
What the upheavals of the past two centuries mean for us is that we need Reform. We need to be able to reconsider the received tradition in light of our new understanding of the world and of ourselves.
One area, for example, in need of revision is our understanding of the non-Jews in our midst: as equal citizens, we relate to our fellow-citizens in distinctly different ways than we did in the medieval period.
And we also have extended our appreciation of equal rights into areas of Jewish law as well: we seek to protect underrepresented and minority groups within our own culture as well, such as gays and lesbians.
For us, there is a middle ground between the poles of ‘follow the commandments in their most literal form as received in the Torah’ and ‘repudiate the laws entirely.’ To be Jewish, in our view, is to be part of an ongoing conversation and an evolving legal tradition. To be Jewish is to be commanded, yes, but it is also to be engaged in an ongoing conversation with the texts.
January 16, 2014 § Leave a comment
The language of autonomy that has dominated the Reform movement’s discussion has been a distraction from our core principles, from what has been the driving force of our religious self-understanding.
Yes, to be sure, we allow for individual choice. And yes, that should continue. It just isn’t the sum total of our religious commitments, however. Somehow we have put the emphasis on the least important part. Rather, we are indeed commanded, in the fullest religious sense.
More specifically: we are commanded to respect human dignity in all its forms. And this commandment amounts to something much deeper, grander, and more pervasive than Kant’s philosophical ethics. Kant teaches ‘treat everyone as an end rather than a means to an end.’ He also teaches the need to universalize ethics. But where his ethics really falls short – and where the Reform movement fundamentally parts ways with Kant – is regarding the question of feeding the poor.
In Kant’s view, if you have done what is right, and have attended to all of your moral duties, it is possible to walk past someone who is hungry without a thought. A sense of pity, in fact, is a moral weakness, for it might distract you from the rational calculation of your duties. As long as you yourself have not done something directly that was immoral to cause that person’s poverty, you have met your moral obligations.
We Jews say no. To the contrary: a person who is hungry is indeed a person. And leaving that person to remain hungry is to profane the very name of God. You must act. You are commanded to act. The commandment to practice tzedakah – righteousness – that is, the commandment to engage in righteous living, to respond righteously to the challenge of hunger is a fundamental pillar of Jewish practice and belief. We differ as to the best ways to go about doing that, but you must act. You are commanded to act in response to this person, created in the image of God.
This commandment, in fact, is a point of agreement across all streams of Judaism.
Where the liberal movements part ways with the Orthodox, however, is on the question of extending that sense of human rights beyond the challenge of hunger. We Reform Jews take that commandment so seriously that we extend its reach: we are also commanded to treat persons with dignity in all other areas of life, which (among other things) means offering an equal opportunity to participate in the community.
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 § 1 Comment
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.
December 16, 2013 § 2 Comments
Exodus 4:28 Moses told Aaron about all the things that YHVH had committed to him and all the signs about which He had instructed him. 29 Then Moses and Aaron went and assembled all the elders of the Israelites.
It was a surprisingly large crowd. Aaron looked at Moses to see if he wanted to speak first – and then, realizing the nature of his role, stepped forward to address the elders.
“Sons of Israel” – his voice wavered a bit, so he took a deep breath before continuing – “I am Aaron, this is Moses, my brother; the God of our fathers revealed Himself to Moses in a fiery bush at the Mountain of God, in the Horevah area.” He was speaking quickly now, hoping that his voice would not betray his fear. “God has indeed seen your plight and has sent us to bring you out of Egypt. We will go to Pharaoh – ”
“—Oh yes,” one of the elders interrupted, “and tell Pharaoh that our God wants us to be freed. And Pharaoh will say, ‘who is this God that I should heed him? What is the name of this redeemer-God that you speak of, the God of your fathers?” The elder continued speaking, using a tone that might have conveyed a sense of genuine concern, but also might have been condescension – it was hard to tell. “By any chance did this god tell you his name?” he asked, waiting for an answer, with eyebrows raised. The crowd tittered in nervous anticipation.
“Yes,” said another, picking up on the nature of his question, “did he tell you his name?” – the elder leaned forward to make his point – “was it the God of our Fathers who spoke to you – or was it a demon who has in fact deceived you?”
Aaron’s heart skipped a beat. Moses had been so sure of himself that Aaron had not stopped to think that it could have been a demon who sent them. The metallic taste of fear rose in his throat. Was it really God who spoke to Moses? Was it really God who noted our suffering? Does God even exist? And how could we possibly know?
Standing next to him, Moses spoke quietly with his eyes closed: “I am and will continue to exist as I have always existed. Thus shall you say to the Israelites, I exist sent me to you.”
And at once Aaron understood. “He said,” Aaron announced, his voice grander now, “‘YHVH, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob has sent me to you; this is my name always and this is my memorial from generation to generation.’”
Exodus 4:30 And Aaron repeated all the words that YHVH had spoken to Moses, and he performed the signs in the sight of the people, 31 and the people were convinced. When they heard that YHVH had seen their plight, they bowed low in homage.
December 9, 2013 § 1 Comment
Theology defines what is possible in our lives: the experience of miracles or of no miracles. A landscape illuminated with the divine or a landscape that is not. A life lived within the context of God’s presence or a life without.
For many of us, our theology changes as we grow older. In Joseph’s case, his understanding of God changes and his theology improves.
In this week’s portion, for example, we see Joseph and his brothers many years after he was sold into slavery, many years after he tested them and revealed his identity. We see that in his relationship with his brothers, there is still a current of mistrust, for in the period after their father dies, the brothers appear before Joseph and beg for their lives. They make up a story, convinced that he has been waiting for this moment to exact his revenge.
“His brothers went to him themselves, flung themselves before him, and said, ‘We are prepared to be your slaves.’”
They are truly afraid. But Joseph is not offended. He tells them: “‘Have no fear! Am I a substitute for God? Besides, although you intended me harm, God intended it for good, so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people. And so, fear not. I will sustain you and your children.’ Thus he reassured them, speaking kindly to them.”
In other words, he tells them: What you had intended for evil was transformed by God into good. The jealousy that led you to sell me into slavery ultimately became the catalyst for saving a population from starvation.
And on this basis, he forgives them.
Notice that he does not say it was God’s will. Notice also that he does not argue that things had to happen this way. Notice also that he does not pretend that the brothers had good motives, or that their actions were any less destructive than they actually were.
Rather, he has created a theology that allows him to heal and forgive, by assuming that God has transformed all the negatives into something positive. Even in the darkest depths it is possible to remake the situation into a lasting good.
And what are we to learn from Joseph? After experiencing a tragedy like Joseph’s, we do not need a theology that leaves us wounded with no structure with which to rebuild.
We also do not need a theology that says it is okay that others should have to suffer. And we do not need a theology that blames it all on God and lets us off the hook. Rather, what we need is a theology that allows us to forgive and rebuild. The best response to a tragedy is to create a world where such kinds of evil are unknown.
Then we might be able to say: what was intended as evil was transformed by God into good, because we acted on God’s behalf.