There is much discussion currently about imposing limits on blasphemy. It seems clear that the vast majority of those in the West oppose it and many in Muslim majority countries support it. I would argue that Judaism has not only tolerated blasphemy, but found a place for it in its sacred texts. This does not mean that communities have always handled heretics well or to suggest pluralism and liberalism are found everywhere in the community, but I do feel there is a model Judaism has that might contribute to a broad religious discussion and conversation.
Rabbinic literature has many examples of challenges to God, explicitly questioning God’s justice. An early precedent in the Bible is Abraham in Genesis 18 (Will not the Judge of the earth do justice?). A well known passage from the Talmud (Menachot 29b) is where Moses questions God after seeing Rabbi Akiva being viciously killed by the Romans. Moses asks: Is this Torah and its reward?” God responds by telling Moses to shut up!
These two passages share a number of things in common even as one is biblical and one rabbinic. Religious figures are allowed to question God. Indeed, placed in their mouths are the most challenging questions. If Abraham can speak out against God’s justice surely can I. If Moses cannot accept that there is reward in the world for following Torah, surely I do not have to accept that belief.
Secondly, and more importantly, what these texts suggest is that our role is not to defend God or attempt to offer interpretations that let God off the hook. Our job is to defend the people against God. Moses must stand up for Rabbi Akiva. Moses is doing much more than ask a question why good people, in this case Rabbi Akiva, suffers. He is raising it as blasphemy. “ Is this Torah and is this its reward?” It is a rhetorical question that has no answer. God does not attempt one. The response of literally: “Quiet! Or shut up, so it has come to My mind” fails to answer anything. Its abruptness only affirms the legitimacy of the challenge.
There are many other texts I can harness, but a blog post is not the place. I will add that Judaism by and large can accommodate blasphemy and heresy as long as it is placed in the mouths of believers and practitioners. It is because nobody questions Moses’s faith that he ask the heretical questions. Ironically it is the most traditional who can be the most radical and yet remain inside the fold.
Do people change? As human beings, are we not the sum of our unique genetic make-up and the equally unique combination of experiences, good and bad, that have brought us to this present moment? And, if the above is the case, than what is the point of the Yom Kippur fast? What is the point of this long day of introspection – the synagogue liturgy peppered with calls for Teshuvah (repentance or return) – if in the end we are who we are, and that’s it?
Some will answer that the meaning of Yom Kippur, this Day of Atonement, also called a Shabbat Shabbaton (the Sabbath of all Sabbaths) is to bring about contrition in our short-comings and strive to make the next year better. There might be something to it. It’s good to try. My view of Judaism has a focus of human perfecting, getting incrementally better and better, rather than the unattainable goal of perfection.
Nonetheless, isn’t it ridiculous to expect that this will be there year you finally get it right? Didn’t I really try last year? And, in fact, what expectation is there that this year will be better than last if the dates for next Yom Kippur are already set on the calendar?
I could no longer expect to really change who I am than I could radically alter my own genetic code or build a time machine that would take me back and tinker with the specific events of my past, especially my early childhood, both good and bad, that shape my personality. After all, Nature and Nurture have shaped me into who I am, and, well, that is that. Isn’t it?
I think not. All of the above misses a powerful trope in Judaism, namely that, while we have free-will, making all of our own choices, nonetheless, our soul has a trajectory.
According to the Talmud (Niddah 30b), every soul is specifically chosen to live the life of every specific person. Every soul is guided by an angel who teaches the soul everything it will need to know in the world. Then, upon birth, the angel touches the upper lip, leaving a tiny dent, confounding speech, and a bit of amnesia. The soul cannot simply come into this world from the realm of God, Infinity, and mystery. As a rabbi I have come to understand my calling less at teaching people Torah, but rather helping them uncovering what they’re soul already knows. I call it Holy Remembering. It accounts for those moments of epiphany when our life’s events align, life makes sense, when disparate pieces of knowledge show us a clearer lens with which to see the world. “I thought I knew it, but now I understand”.
The challenge of Yom Kippur is to consider your soul’s trajectory.
What are the moments of your life, good and bad alike, that have shaped you? What career path you are meant to take, the people you are meant to love, the causes you are meant to champion, the good deeds you were chosen to accomplish—these are all very specific things that you were meant to do; you were designed for these specific things. People often try to turn away from doing the thing they’re meant to do, or are most naturally gifted at. Some events were no doubt simple chance. There is a bit of randomness in the world, but there is order too. Your soul knows what it needs to do in this world, it knows too the experiences you need to help it fulfill its calling. What if your soul chose your parents? What if your soul chose to lead you to those powerful turning-points in your life?
Your soul cast “you” in the role of (your name here) to accomplish some very important things. Sometimes we fight against what our soul wants for us – in those moments, life is a bit of a drag, we feel trapped by circumstance, powerless to overcome our lot in life. The Bible is filled with characters who run away from their soul’s trajectory, Moses feigns a speech impediment, and Jonah, whom we read about on Yom Kippur and whose soul’s trajectory was aimed at the big city of Niniveh, avoids his calling and finds himself inside the bely of a whale instead. But, when we understand, when we honor our soul’s calling, our life has flow – the abundance of life becomes obvious to us, as if it has always been there but now we feel it.
So, Yom Kippur… Introspection – yes, definitely. But, not simply to uncover your particular foibles. You know what they are already and so does God. Rather, ask, “In all those moments, at those touch-points of my life, good and bad, was my soul guiding me to experiences that I needed to have, to help me fulfill my soul’s calling?” “What kind of a caretaker have I been to my soul’s journey.”
The message of the holiday can be: Your soul has chosen you for a reason. Your soul needs you (imperfections and all) to carry it along a unique path, that only you can carry it. Yom Kippur is not really about the past, where you’ve been, but rather, the future, where all those moments have been leading you to. This Yom Kippur, and throughout this new Jewish year, ask, “What roles or tasks am I running away from via distraction that my soul wants me to pursue?”
On Sunday I read a very moving Op Ed in the New York Times by Larkin Warren entitled, “I Was a Welfare Mother.” I was brought to tears by her story about being a single mother trying to complete college and get back on her feet. During those difficult years, she needed government aid to help her get basic supplies and food for herself and her young son. She describes how without food stamps and a monthly check rom the government she never would have made ends meet. After graduating college she got a job in her college’s English Department and went off welfare. She went on to be a writer and editor.
She concludes by saying, “Judge-and-punish-the-poor is not a demonstration of American values. It is, simply, mean. My parents saved me and then — on the dole, in the classroom or crying deep in the night, in love with a little boy who needed everything I could give him — I learned to save myself. I do not apologize. I was not ashamed then; I am not ashamed now. I was, and will always be, profoundly grateful.”
Judge and punish the poor in not an American value, and not a Jewish one either. Jews are required to give tzadaka, charity to help the poor. Time and again the Bible admonishes us to take care of the poor, widowed and orphaned in our midst. Many laws were created to ensure the poor got communal support. Farmers were instructed to leave the corners of their fields unplowed so that the poor could come and harvest the grain for themselves. Everyone was expected to give one tenth of their income to support of the poor.
The highest level of giving to the poor according to Maimonides, the great Jewish philosopher, is to help a person help themselves. In the story Larkin relates, the American government serves this purpose. The money she received from welfare helped her to help herself. There is no greater mitzvah than this, and no better use of our tax dollars. I found this story to be particularly poignant this week of Yom Kippur. The Yom Kippur liturgy clearly states that “Repentance, Prayer, and Charity will avert Gods severe decree. “ Charity, supporting those in need, is just as important as personal repentance and prayer. Think about the import of that for a moment.
According to Jewish law, we have a responsibility to take care of one another. And as Larkin’s story demonstrates, you never know when just a little bit of help will allow someone to survive and then flourish later on. We all need help of some kind at some point in our lives. For some it may be financial, for others emotional, or physical. We do not live in isolation. We cannot always lift ourselves sup by the bootstraps and be independent. We need people around us to support us in our lives.
This week of Yom Kippur, while you are reflecting on your year and the things you want to repent for; Think too of the future and the way you can support someone else. Make plans to give of your time, money, or expertise to help another. You can have a profound impact. As the Talmud teaches, “To save one life is to have saved the world.”
There are white Jews, Black Jews, Asian Jews, and Arab Jews – but blue Jews? No, no such thing exists. Which is exactly why artist Siona Benjamin paints them. Blue is the color of water and sky. It belongs everywhere and nowhere, so when Benjamin paints her figures are often blue. If the Jews are blue, one cannot simply assume a race or identity to them, they could be anyone, at any time.
Born in Bombay, Benjamin grew up amidst Hindus and Muslims and attended Catholic and Zoroastrian schools. She understands the ability of Jews to blend into their environment. An accomplished artist whose fine brushwork and vivid colors evoke the cultural themes of her native land, the subject of many of her paintings engage the stories of Jewish texts. One look at her illustrations for the story of the biblical Queen Esther and I find myself considering this familiar tale from an entirely new point of view, how did she not stand out? What makes us able to choose not to see difference?
At this time of year Judaism can seem overly cerebral. Lots of praying, listening, talking and of course the exception to the rule, the eating. But the moment we finish with Yom Kippur we prepare for Sukkot. By contrast to High Holidays, Sukkot is about doing. It celebrates the very physical work of the harvest. It has us building physical structures and taking holy objects in our hands and shaking them about. Even the eating, with the moving in and out, is much more physical.
And then there is the art. A Sukkah is meant to be decorated. Sure you can just buy a few premade chains or hang apiece of fruit, but you can also take the opportunity to stretch your Jewish thinking and engage with art as text or in creating new art. There is a tradition of inviting ushpizin, mythical guests from the Jewish past into our Sukkot. Peruse Benjamin’s art online and ask yourself how her depictions of Jewish biblical figures might shape your own take on these potential guests, or inspire you to create your own artistic interpretations and representations. Who might you invite from ancient or even modern Jewish history? What would they look like? How would you depict them?
Those lucky enough to be in Northern California can come hang out with Benjamin and make art at Sukkot Under the Stars. But even if you are not in the area, or not even building a Sukkah, take some time this season to gather some friends, create and consider the possibilities inspired by Siona Benjamin and her blue Jews.
In the week leading up to Rosh Hashanah, for our pre-Selichot service study and discussion, I presented the animated shorts of Hanan Harchol, found at www.jewishfoodforthought.com Not only are these charming, they are wonderfully thought-provoking, and generated a great deal of conversation. We watched ‘Forgiveness’ first (Click here to watch).
I will speak for myself when I say that, despite my understanding that forgiveness is creating an internal change that allows another person’s acts to no longer keep a grip on my thoughts and emotions – to, as we hear in the animation, no longer let someone ‘live rent free in my head’ – it is an incredibly difficult thing to do in practice. At times, often unexpectedly, I find myself replaying painful scenes from my life when someone’s words hurt me, or I felt wronged, or someone acted in a way that was dismissive or condescending toward me. I have no desire for these scenes to occupy space in my memory banks. But they seem to have an uncanny ability to maintain their grip.
Mindfulness practices can help combat the power of these thoughts. While I may not be able to neutralize them completely, a greater self-awareness can at least enable me to notice when my mind is in that place, and I can then consciously let it go and try to clear the picture in my head. Sometimes that is as good as it gets. I don’t believe that forgiveness is a one-time thing. It is a process that we need to repeat over and over when a particular moment of our past swims back into view, churning up old emotions with it. And then, perhaps, over time, the more we find ourselves able to notice and dismiss the memory and observe rather than be drawn in by the emotions, the more we are able to neutralize the intensity of the memory when it arises the next time.
Why is it so important to forgive? I’ve been thinking a lot during my preparations and sermon-writing for the High Holydays, that our entire orientation to life – our outlook, our motivation to engage in purposeful acts in the world that make a difference to the community we live in, and the ways that we engage with others on a day-to-day basis, are all driven by the things that we marinate our minds in. There are many ways that we can marinate the mind in something that is burning with negativity. Painful memories from the past are some of the ways. And I know that, for me, when those memories arise, I feel myself get tense and my teeth grit, and my brow furrows, and I’m more likely to be sharp with someone or impatient, and I’m more likely to want to shut myself off from interactions and just hibernate in my own, private space.
But when I do those things, how can I make a positive difference in the world? How can I contribute in a meaningful way to the life of my family, friends, or community? How can I be open enough to give and receive love, to act compassionately, to create space for a different kind of interaction next time around?
Forgiveness is the key. When we read Jonah on Yom Kippur afternoon, that is the message. Jonah wants to see strict justice applied to Nineva. When we dredge up past scenes of hurt, isn’t that what we want? We want to know that person got their comeuppance. We want to know that someone gave them as good as they gave. We want to see them fail at something. But what does that achieve? If we recognize that when we feel miserable we are less likely to do good in the world, why would we hope for someone else’s misery? Yes, there are times when acts are committed that require societal justice to be done. But, on an individual level, forgiveness and legal justice are compatible and can co-exist, because one is an internal state of mind, while the other is a social system for maintaining some controls over the worst excesses of human behavior.
Forgiveness is the key.
This piece was originally published at Rabbi Gurevitz’ blog, ‘Raise it Up’ at http://shmakoleinu-hearourvoices.blogspot.com
The New Year of 5773 is upon us. Rosh Hashanah (the head of the year) is known by several names including Yom HaZikaron (the Day of Remembrance), Yom Teruah (a day of sounding [the shofar]), and Yom HaDin (the Day of Judgement), and Yoma Arikhta (a single long day).
“A single long day.” An odd description for our new year. Is Rosh Hashanah a one-day holiday? Is it a two-day holiday? Or, as the rabbis suggest, is it simply one, very long day?
To better understand why some Jews observe one day of Rosh Hashanah and other festivals while others observe two days, it helps to have a basic understanding of the Jewish calendar. Of course, the word ‘basic’ ought not to be used with such a complex subject as calendrical issues are some of the most difficult to grasp. Perhaps straightforward is a better choice and a very straightforward explanation of why extra festival days are observed may be found here.
At the start of our holy days, it is custom to recite the Shehecheyanu, the blessing that thanks God for enabling us to reach this season. And since the additional day that is added to the beginning of our festivals might actually be the accurate first day (again, please see here for the straightforward explanation), we say that blessing on the second day as well. However, if Rosh Hashanah is really one long day, does the Shehecheyanu need to be recited on the second night? The answer is yes. Sort-of.
Yes, we say the Shehecheyanu on the second night of Rosh Hashanah. But because the Rabbis regarded the two days as one continuous day, and they didn’t like to waste blessings, the custom arose of either eating a new fruit or wearing new clothing on the second day — both experiences that require the recitation of the Shehecheyanu.
So today, may you enjoy the sweetness of a fruit new to you or new for this season. May you enjoy your new shul clothes. And may this one, very long day be filled with awe as we enter this new year.
On this Rosh Hashanah, we pray for renewal of spirit.
May this New Year refresh our commitment to the values we hold most dear:
May we turn and return to our souls,
May we perceive the Divine light within ourselves,
May we be steadfast in remaining conscious that all people are created in God’s image,
May our days be grounded by prayer and meditation, and nourished by an inner life of gratitude,
May Shabbat rest bring us joy each week, infusing the rhythm of our time with meaning,
May kindness, mercy, justice and love guide our interactions,
May we enjoy and nurture friendship and family and caring community,
May our prayer-life and Shabbat rest provide guidance in our daily choices,
May we find focus and satisfaction and success in our chosen endeavors,
May we vigilant to fulfill our commitments and be faithful to sustaining our sacred community with dedication,
May we be infused with the spirit of generosity toward all those in need,
May our appreciation for the sacredness life fill our days with gratitude, humility, compassion and love.
May this New Year renew our lives for good,
And may it bring us joy and sweetness.
Leshanah Tovah, Happy New Year!
One of the things that sometimes is embarrassing and/or sometimes frustrating, is when someone comes up to me and says: “Hi, do you remember me?” Being 59 years old, having been in the rabbinate for 34 years, and having taught many hundreds of people during this period, sometimes the answer is yes, but remind me your name and other times, the answer might very well be no. Which is why I wish people would say, hi, I am so and so, I do not know if you remember me but I took a class etc. and fill in the context. And, you really want to remember them and they want to be remembered and deserve to be remembered. Indeed, a new colleague to the area described one important part of his rabbinate is getting to know his congregants names. People are valued and honored when we remember who they are.
They asked Rabbi Eliezer: “What is the judgment of the grave?”
[He responded:] “When a person passes away, the Angel of Death arrives, hits his grave with his hand, and says ‘Tell me your name!’ He replies: ‘It is revealed and known to the One who Spoke and Created the World that I do not know my name.’”
Associated with this is a custom by some to recite 18 verses a day that contain your name, with the hope you will remember it on your Judgment Day. Rav Yehudah Amital understands this as the need to find our name in Torah, our unique place in Torah, our special connection that is unique to each individual, a piece of Torah that will be known by our name. One can expand this and include do I behave in a way that manifests a concern of the Torah. Am I an exemplar of chachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. Am I a hospitable personality that welcomes others in my presence. Am I a tzedakah, charitable personality, to whom people can turn. Am I identified with a particular mitzvah that then carries my name and with which I will be indentified.
There is a teaching in the Talmud that when two friends depart from one another they should teach each other a short halachah because through that they will remember each other. What do we express whether through actual teaching or behavior that is worthwhile for someone to remember us?
The Unetaneh Tokef prayer ends with the following passage describing God:
There is no set span to Your years and there is no end to the length of Your days. It is impossible to estimate the angelic chariots of Your glory and to elucidate Your Name’s inscrutability. Your Name is worthy of You and You are worthy of Your Name, and You have included Your Name in our name.
We have ultimate worth because God has included His name along with ours. We who are created in the image of God must ask what do we do in our lives that makes us worthy and reflects God’s name in us.
“There is nothing new under the sun.” -Ecclesiastes 1:9.
A High Holiday Prayer, as I imagine it, of a beloved, longtime member of my synagogue…
“In time for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur I am thankful for so many things: The gift of health, for me and my family, that we live in relative security, that we do our best with what we have – but thank the Lord -God knows that nobody’s perfect. This year, again I will try to be a better person. It’s important to try, so I’ll sit and I’ll listen, and I’ll pray, but thank the Lord – God understands that in reality I’m not so different than I was last year. -Amen.”
This is my third high holiday season off the pulpit, and frankly, the only time I really miss it. I miss that guy, and every synagogue has one, who comes early, one of the last to leave, but in fact seems to be going through the motions. I perfectly aware of the lesson that to recognize these qualities in another suggest something similar in myself? Sometimes he’ll cross his arms over his gut, as if to say, “go ahead, rabbi, try and inspire me.” Honestly, I always enjoyed the challenge and if unsuccessful, I would consoled myself with the tantalizing idea that perhaps there is a genetic predisposition for religiosity, ‘so what could I do if he’s not interested?’
The way we approach the High Holidays is completely in our control. That’s what I should remind him. It’s a matter of perspective. A late rabbinic colleague of mine, Rabbi Eddie Tennenbaum (z’l) would say, “If you feel distant from God, who moved?”
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel taught: “(There is a) statement from the book of Ecclesiastes ‘There is nothing new under the sun.’ And I disagree with that statement! I would say there is nothing stale under the sun, except that human beings become stale.”
If you have been approaching the high holidays every year, and it’s become stale, consider this perspective, and hopefully it’s new for you, and might add meaning to the holiday around the corner:
At this time of year we are not only accountable for our mistakes and need to seek forgiveness for them, but also, and just as importantly, we are accountable for all the moments of joy and celebration that came our way and we failed to take part.
Consider this: What moments of joy were out there and I was too busy? It’s missing the joy, the extraordinary within the ordinary, that makes man stale. Let this be the year you see the forrest AND the trees.
I have loved watching the conventions ever since I watched the Democratic Convention in 1988 and heard my fellow Texan, Ann Richards, skewer George HW Bush. She gave the keynote address at the convention that year, and become famous for her biting sense of humor. She made the famous quip about George HW Bush, “Poor George, he can’t help it. He was born with a silver foot in his mouth.” I was honored and excited to campaign for her for Governor of Texas in 1990, and cheered her victory at her inaugural ball where she came to the podium and said, “I know men invented high heels because otherwise they would not hurt so much.” Standing with aching feet in high heels myself, I cheered and hollered for this sassy strong woman.
My fascination which conventions continued when I was fortunate to attend both the Republican and Democratic state conventions in the summer of 1992 as an intern for the American Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC). I staffed the AIPC booth, handing out flyers and answering questions about Israel. President Bush was at the Republican Convention and soon to be President Clinton spoke at the Democratic one. The great state of Texas brings in star power! I remember checking out the other booths and chatting with the volunteers as a sense of excitement swirled around us. We were part of something important.
I watched with tears in my eyes four years ago when Obama accepted the nomination. “We Shall Overcome” kept playing in my head. I had HOPE. I was ready for CHANGE. Our first African American President, proof that progress has been made.
So, unlike Rabbi Amy Small, who wrote last week about her lack of interest in watching the political conventions this year. I was excited to tune in. Even though it has been a tough, even brutal, four years, I wanted to feel that old sense of excitement again. Not surprisingly, I did not get it from the Republican Convention. The messages did not speak to me. But the Democrats delivered. Watching Michelle Obama, I wondered why she has not run for office. While not as biting as Ann Richards, her speech reminded me of my old friend. Here stood a strong woman making her case clearly and articulately. She exemplified women’s power. She was feminine in her presentation, a gold, grey, and deep pink dress with hair and makeup expertly done. Yet, her arm muscles displayed a physical strength and her words a mental one.
Bill brought it the next night combining facts and statistics with humor and stories. And of course President Obama himself commanded the stage and had me wanting to stand up and shout “Four More Years!”
I am looking forward to the debates and the rhetoric to be shared over the next 2 months. I wish more people enjoyed the back and forth as much as I do. The back and forth of arguments is part and parcel of Jewish tradition going back to the Talmud where the rabbis argued about the best policies to live by. Like the presidential candidates of today they expressed differ worls views and wanted to shape society to adhere to their own viewpoints. One of the things I love best about the Talmud is reading the ridiculous ways the rabbis try to one up each other. Sometimes playing fast and loose with Biblical proof texts just as some politicians play with facts. Not surprisingly, throughout history Jews have been active in political movements look at the student activist of the sixties, the women’s movement, civil rights movement, and the gay rights movement. Jews held leadership positions in all of them. Political activism is in our blood. It is part of our inherited tradition whether activists make that connection or not.
So this fall, be a good Jew. Get active in one of the campaigns and fight for an issue that means something to you. One week before Rosh Hashanah is a time to think about the future and what we want it to look like. We each have the power to make that vision a reality. Raise your voice, stand your ground and usher in a New Year that will live up to your dreams. Shannah Tova!