Some will tell you that we need less debate in the Jewish community; that for the sake of unity we need to stifle dissent and limit the amount we argue. I say that we need more debate, not less, and that we will emerge the stronger for it. But what we need is the right kind of debate….
My new book, Judaism’s Great Debates, posits that debate is not only desirable but is central to Judaism. Abraham, Moses, Ben Zakkai, Hillel, the Vilna Gaon, Geiger, Herzl… heroes of every era of Jewish history are engaged in great debates. Moreover the Talmudis replete with debate; it is at the very core of rabbinic reasoning. Indeed it is the Talmud that coins a unique Jewish expression,makhloket l’shem shamayim-an argument for the sake of heaven. The tractate Avot famously teaches: “Every debate that is for the sake of heaven will make a lasting contribution. Every debate that is not for the sake of heaven will not make a lasting contribution.” (5:20) Our sages understood that a debate for the right reasons enhances Judaism. A debate for the wrong reasons detracts from Judaism.
Perhaps the most famous debating pair in Jewish history was Hillel and Shammai (after Abraham and God, that is). In actuality it was not these two sages but their disciples that did most of the arguing. A wonderful passage in tractate Eruvin states: “For three years there was a dispute between Beit Hillel and Bet Shammai, the former asserting, the law is in agreement with our views, and the latter contending, the law is in agreement with our views. Then a voice from heaven announced: eilu v’eilu divrei Elohim hayim, both are the words of the living God.” Deep respect is given to both schools because both sides are speaking the truth as they see it, and have the welfare of the community in mind.
Samson Raphael Hirsch wrote that although in practice one viewpoint will usually prevail (the law went according to Beit Hillel almost every time), “both views will have permanent value because…[they] shed new light on the issue under debate, and will have contributed to the attainment of the proper understanding of the question discussed. They shall be remembered as…advancing the cause of the genuine knowledge of truth.” Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav went even further, calling debate a holy form of communication because it echoes the divine process of tzimtzum, making space for the creation of something new. Just as God enters into an act of self-limitation in order to make possible the created world, so worthy debaters restrain themselves in order to make room for opposing viewpoints. As Rabbi Or Rose comments, “When we disagree with one another, when we take sides, we create the necessary space for the emergence of new and unexpected ideas. Without makhloket…the horizon of human discovery would be severely limited.”
What your mother taught you is true: you can disagree without being disagreeable. A true debater must respectfully listen to the opposing viewpoint in order to articulate a response. A true debate is a conversation, not a yelling match. Would we only remember the next time we get into a Jewish debate that despite our differences we are actually on the same team, that because of our differences we will emerge more enlightened, that our arguments are for the sake of heaven, and that in the very act of debate we are echoing the divine!
This week, the Amazon Kindle version of Jewish Ethics & Social Justice is only $1.99!
In Jewish law, we are told that it is unjust to be biased and be swayed by poverty, to favor the case of the poor over the rich in a dispute. Within the realm of a formal court’s judgment this is crucial (Exodus 23: 3, 6). However, does this notion still apply today, where the disparity of wealth between the poor and the rich has become so large that the poor often can no longer properly advocate for themselves?
This notion of equality before the law is mostly a fallacy today in America, since the poor have such a serious disadvantage in the courtroom. The New York Times reported that more than 90% of criminal cases are never tried before a jury; most people charged with crimes just plead guilty, forfeiting their constitutional rights. The prosecution usually promises to give a deal to those who plead guilty and go all-out against anyone who tries to go to trial. It is simply cheaper to plead guilty than to try to pay for legal counsel.
Every individual should have the same fair opportunity before the law, because we must be committed to truth and justice. But this is not the reality today. Even if it were true, Judaism teaches that we must go over and above the law (lifnim mishurat hadin) to support those more vulnerable (Bava Metzia 83a). Furthermore, we learn that G-d created and destroyed many worlds that were built upon the foundation of din (judgment), and then G-d finally created this world built upon rachamim (mercy) (Rashi to Genesis 1:1). Our world can’t exist on pure judgment, rather, as fallible beings we rely upon the grace, empathy, and kindness of G-d and man.
We must be moved toward mercy for those who are suffering, and this must affect how we build society. President Obama explained the importance of empathy in jurisprudence when choosing Supreme Court justices: “I will seek someone who understands that justice isn’t about some abstract legal theory or footnote in a casebook; it is also about how our laws affect the daily realities of people’s lives. I view the quality of empathy, of understanding and identifying with people’s hopes and struggles as an essential ingredient for arriving at just decisions and outcomes.” Law is not only about principle, it is also about life.
This is all the more true outside of the courtroom. Within the realm of Jewish grassroots activism, we learn that our primary responsibility is not equality, but to prioritize our support for the vulnerable.
Numerous Jewish teachings remind us that our primary responsibility is to protect and prioritize the most vulnerable individuals and parties: “G-d takes the side of the aggrieved and the victim” (Ecclesiastes 3:15). When there is conflict, G-d simply cannot withhold support for the one suffering.
Rav Ahron Soloveichik writes: “A Jew should always identify with the cause of defending
the aggrieved, whosoever the aggrieved may be, just as the concept of tzedek is to be applied uniformly to all humans regardless of race or creed” (Logic of the Heart, Logic of the Mind, 67).
This is what it means to be Jewish, to prioritize the suffering in conflict.
This point is made time and time again by the rabbis. The Talmud, based on the verse “justice, justice, you shall pursue” (Deuteronomy 16:20), teaches that the disadvantaged should be given preference when all else is equal. The Rambam teaches that even if the disadvantaged arrive later than other people, they should be given precedence (Sanhedrin 21:6, Shulhan Arukh CM 15:2).
Thus, in a court of law, all parties are ideally treated equally, as we are guided by the Jewish value of din (judgment); today, however, justice does not prevail. Further, in activism we must favor the vulnerable, since we are guided by the Jewish value of chesed (empathy, loving kindness). In life, we must learn to balance all of our values: love, justice, mercy, etc. In justice, we do not just choose one guiding principle: As Isaiah Berlin teaches, moral life consists of embracing a plurality of values.
We must always be absolutely committed to the truth and be sure that our justice system is fair for all parties. Yet we also, as changemakers, have a special and holy role to give voice to the voiceless and to support the unsupported in society. This is the role of Jewish activism. The rabbis teach that “Even if a righteous person attacks a wicked person, G-d still sides with the victim” (Yalkut Shimoni). All people deserve our love and care but we must follow the path of G-d and make our allegiances clear: with the destitute, oppressed, alienated, and suffering.
About a decade ago I read a Billy Collins poem called “Advice to Writers,” where this former U.S. Poet Laureate suggests:
wash down the walls and scrub the floor
of your study before composing a syllable.
Clean the place as if the Pope were on his way.
Spotlessness is the niece of inspiration.
There’s wisdom there: it feels good to write with an uncluttered mind, unburdened by other concerns.
But taking Ajax to your literal and metaphorical surroundings could border on sterilizing. And also, silencing. Sure, Collins is at least in part joking – it’s a funny poem – but I’m sure he means it, too. The poetic voice he is suggesting his readers to summon, in a clean-pristine room, is very much a solo. People, things – out of the way! The poet is talking! (to himself, and being funny – don’t miss out!). A room with scrubbed floors, however tempting, is not where a soul lives, at least I don’t think so.
My wife and I spent 2008-2009 in Jerusalem, where I was a Dorot Fellow. It was unforgettable year, the time when, more so than ever before, I had an opportunity to write. Location was an open question. Our apartment was neater beyond anything I’ve ever encountered. We have just gotten married, and my wife Shoshana put up a valiant and edifying effort to keep it sane – despite the combination of me, guests, our belongings, and Jerusalem dust who would gang up and daily raise a mighty paw of offense. However close to Collins-compliance state, our place was too small, too removed from pulsing, yelling life that surrounded us. I had to get out.
And so, most often I’d go to a little cafe, called Nocturno, a few minutes away from the apartment. It was a tiny duplex with a winding metal staircase that at its peak managed to host as many as three dozen people, which was kind of unbelievable. Talmud, describing the miraculous occurrences of the Temple, says: “people stood close together, yet when they worshipped there was enough room for all.” It was that sort of a thing. All the space got used up: tables outside, bar stools, loners were doubled up into joint tables, and even the cement ledge that’s technically outside the perimeter had a few people sitting on it. The menu ranged from soup to cigarettes, but most importantly, they brewed great coffee. And the crowd was very colorful. With Bezalel Art School nearby students came out in droves; but there were also heavy grad school folks buried in their books; a few hip religious Jews; secular population of Jerusalem (a wonderful and underexplored breed of their own!); lots of foreigners. A few times I spotted Israeli Arabs – a fact that, in the city where divide lines run at their deepest, says a lot about the cafe and its vibe.
I sat upstairs, with my notebooks, big mugs of coffee, and watched the noise. It was visible. The noise, like the cafe itself, seemed layered, there were floors to it, and winding noise-stairs. The noise-steam rose from cups of noise-sipping noise-masters. Bringing around plates, waiters, served noise-sandwiches. It was neither grating nor even unpleasant. It was a structure. An organic structure. It felt great.
This is where my Jazz Talmud project was born. I was playing around on the page, free-associating, and within a span of a week I wrote a core of poems that became a book. The idea was to use the Talmudic rhetoric, talk the way Talmudic rabbis talked – but address things relevant to me and my life. Talmud is not what Collins would pine after, nor certainly what Joyce’d call a “clean well-lighted place.” Because there is never a single voice cutting through it. It’s like a body; it’s also like a universe. Everybody is talking to everyone – across centuries, backwards and forward, moving, chatting, chattering, agreeing and vehemently disproving, reminiscing, reconciling, recoiling, trying to bring the house down – you get the idea. The same is true for jazz. I once heard a great American poet, David Meltzer, say that jazz is the closest we’ve come to utopia. Because it is incredibly communal and people who may have never met each other before, or maybe can’t stand each other’s guts, will know how to speak to each other in the language much more real than any words we know. People are listening to each other and composing on the spot, responding not merely to one another, but also to the ghosts who’ve inspired the music they’re playing: be it their teachers, or jazz greats who’ve laid down genre’s foundations, or even people in their actual lives – because of the improvisational factor, jazz is visceral and personal, revealing even.
So then what I begun to construct is poems with many voices. With noise-structures and arguments. Here’s an example.
said Rabbi Zusha: “my mother named me Sasha but I fell into a seraphic orchestra pit, and things have not been the same” his students asked him: “what did you see in the pit?” he answered: “behold, four seraphs held a cello, like a naked, newly-formed body, and eight pushed the bow” whose cello? Adam’s whose bow? Mordechai’s, the refused bow that makes cellos of heaven sing the soul-spilling human heaviness — the essence he also said: “in every horn, their lives a family of shadadademons, a family of three or four, on the average angel Gabriel comes to blow his hot breath to let them loose into the world, their clothes flutter, their hearts beat against the four brass bars of domestication, both breaking as a result” therefore, every saxophone is a ripped cage: no, a rib cage: of an ancient being that de-composed long before names of god became the star-tallis in which hearts are wrapped/rapt taught Rabbi Akiva: behold there are names of god that got filtered by moth-screens others got lost in the loss of the hiss of the vinyl some stuck in Karl Marx’s beard some stuck between the boards of the family-table and can only be extracted with a big family knife some spilled on the mama-apron in the deep-fry-metaphysical back-kitchen but these are the 32 revealed names of god: “jehwaep. shadai-doodah woop elohadip dip papadoo dap. strata doo dampa flip clip dedam pam pa derederedere strip tzuris degatee goat boom dupa goat ratata ratata what? you askin? outer bank, jehwaep shadai doodah wap” New Orleans funk band the Meters inherited twenty crumbs of the god-name from the voodoo grandmother who plucked them at the foot of the great phallic Ethiopian Eucalyptus but some say she birthed these crumbs, each in deep pain, each deep in time, each under the brilliant lamp-lights which are the eyes of Messiah himself
Here’s the thing about being both an author and a blogger: It makes you impatient. When I write a rant or draw a cartoon, I scan it in, click a few buttons, and — zoomba! — the world gets it. Or, you know, anyone who happens to be looking at my Twitter page at that moment. When I write a book, I send it to my agent, the editor, the publisher, the copy editor, and then, three years later, you can walk to a bookstore and pick it up.
I’m sure there’s some Jewish lesson I should be able to glean from this. Like, how Jerusalem wasn’t burned in a day or how over a thousand years passed between the time the Gemara was written and the time it was printed up in its first printed version, the Vilna Shas, the kind that we read today, with all the wacky columns and stuff.
Except, not really. Because the Talmud is called the oral Torah, and the essence of a story is in the telling, not when it’s written down and printed with a day-glo green cover and sent to a bookstore. There’s something about the immediacy of storytelling that the three-year publishing process, which is standard for the industry, has missed out on. And, weirdly, I think the Internet is bringing it back.
So, partly because I’m a naturally impatient person — and also partly because it’s 15,000 words, which is a weird length that’s way too long for a short story and way too short for a novel — I put out this new book, Automatic, and I did it myself.
I didn’t just write it in a day. I spent most of a year editing it. I’d probably still be editing it, except that it’s sort of about the band R.E.M. (it’s also sort of about my best friend dying) — and, one day a few weeks ago, R.E.M. broke up. It’s now or never, I told myself. In the space of half an hour, I’d signed up for a Kindle author account. And then I hit send, just like sending an email — and, zoomba. I’d published a book.
Amazon is sort of a double-edged sword — yes, it’s crazy that they own half the universe, but it’s an author’s dream because THEY ACTUALLY SELL BOOKS. People who never go to bookstores, people like most of my family, will click on Amazon and buy a book in a second. (I also put it on Smashwords as a pdf — also $2 — if you don’t have a Kindle.)
But I’m old-fashioned. I don’t own a Kindle and I don’t like reading long things online. Plus, I’m a design slut. I like things that look cool, and books that open like toys, and books that smell like books. So I designed a non-Kindle edition that does all the things ebooks will never do — it has hand lettering and easy-on-the-eyes layouts, and layouts on the page that (hopefully) make you feel like you’re luxuriating in something, not just squeezing the words out of a mass-market paperback. (But, I promise, no annoyingly coy stuff or Fun Fonts). I also made a die-cut front cover, because, dammit, books are meant to be touched.
I showed it to my friend/icon/if-I-wasn’t-a-Hasidic-Jew-I’d-say-“idol” Richard Nash, who said, “Oh, it’s a zine!” And I thought, Oh, yeah — that’s it exactly. Fifteen years after being a teenage zine-maker, using a copy machine at my summer job, I’ve reverted to being exactly where I started. It isn’t glamorous, but hopefully, the product is. And there are worse things in the world.
I know self-publishing is still a dirty word — it’s like Amanda Hocking said, authors shouldn’t have time to do all the stuff involved with publishing; we’re too busy being authors. And I’ve been really fortunate to have people like Scholastic and Soft Skull to take the foot-dragging stuff out of my hands for my big projects. But it’s also nice to finger this little handmade thing in my hand and say, dammit, this is mine.