Almost any article I’ve ever seen to do with Judaism, any religious critique of a political event, and even in promotional materials for Jewish spaces such as synagogues and JCCs, in fact, nearly everything we speak about in the Jewish community, makes some reference to Jewish values. Sometimes we speak of these values specifically: Jewish justice, tzedaka, “tikkun olam,” and so on – but more often we speak in vague generalities – as if Jewish values were a fixed and known set of items, like making a reference to the works of Shakespeare.
But I sometimes find myself troubled by these references. Not because I think it’s wrong to improve the world, or to seek justice – quite the contrary – I’ve dedicated my life to these values, and to doing them Jewishly. But just as in all periods of Jewish history, the American Jewish community has adopted the outlook of the society in which we live, and with it, we have -just as in all periods of Jewish history- adopted many if not most of that society’s values as well.
And in many ways, we are the richer for it: the American secular values of autonomy and self-reliance, assertiveness, diversity, love of novelty and innovation, pluralism and more have been blessings to us and to many groups that have found refuge here – and we have also contributed to the lexicon of values that we share as well. Jews have made outsized contributions to American culture – we are home here, and we are blessed in a way that has probably never existed anywhere else at any time.
I wonder though: perhaps I spent too much time hanging out with the medieval re-creationists in college, but I often muse about the values that we have abandoned, and that we even often disparage: constancy, duty, continence, honor. These are values that we rarely hear about, and are not, at least that I’ve seen, values that are held in high regard in our society.
I don’t know why our society has chosen to emphasize this set of values rather than that, but it would probably enrich us to think about whether we may have lost something when we set them aside. We often associate these “old-fashioned values” with the hierarchies and unequal power – and I don’t necessarily think that’s incorrect – but we live in a world where there are still imbalances of power, and these values were ways that societies chose to ameliorate them. They also contributed to maintaining long-term relationships, partnerships, and societal stability. Perhaps we might want to reconsider whether they have something to teach us.
Just before Sukkot began, news came out of a prominent Conservative rabbi who came out to his congregation as gay. His dignified letter to his community spread far beyond: to the wider Jewish community, and even to the mainstream press. The responses varied—some musing on the historicity of such announcements, some dwelling on the difficulty and complexity of his situation—and a few very ugly attacks (I decided not to link to any of them—they can be found if you wish to search for them).
This past week, with the advent of Sukkot, we turn away from dwelling solely on what we have done wrong, and hope that our amends have been accepted. Although we won’t know until Hoshana Rabbah (at the end of Sukkot) whether our apologies have been accepted, we still sit in joy in our sukkot. We invite in the ushpizin—the kabbalistic archetypes of Jewish values of chesed (loving kindness), gevurah (power), tiferet (beauty), nezah (endurance), hod (glory), yesod (foundation), and malchut (majesty), symbolized by various Jewish ancestors who embodied those traits.
The very first of those—Abraham and Sarah—represent chesed, and we are reminded of the midrash of their tent, which stood open on four sides, so that all would feel welcome. We think of the midrash about the four minim—the myrtle, the willow, the palm and the etrog (citron), which we bind and hold together on sukkot because every part of the Jewish community is necessary for any of us to achieve redemption.
We still have not fully achieved that divine trait of chesed in the Jewish community. We have not yet fully been able to welcome all—our tent is not yet open on four sides – but we are getting there, slowly. This past year has seen a seismic shift in American attitudes -and laws- towards marriage equality, and the Jewish community has been a part of that. It’s a small step towards a more comprehensive need to accept one another, not just in marriage, but that there should be no one who fears for their job if they come out—regardless of what profession they are in; no one should fear to be who they are, ever.
The responses that we have seen last week show how far we have to go, and how much work is yet to do, but there is also hope. We are rolling up our sleeves to roll up the sides of our tent. We sit in our fragile huts , looking up at the stars.
I always forget, in between trips, how stunningly beautiful Israel is. When I return, it is like opening a favorite book, one which I’ve read many times, but always return to, looking for my favorite characters, the details of the scenery, the magical, incredible, plot that is its history, the opportunity to feel the Divine in a place, and see it, face-to-face.
As I write this, I am flying home from Israel, and I can’t help but reflect on how this trip has been different for me than previous time spent here. This time, I was here to help staff the Americans for Peace Now study tour. I had offered to my friend and chevruta (study partner), who had made aliyah some years ago, to accompany us on the day that we went to Hebron – you can see what he wrote here. His words reflect those of many people who accompanied us: it is a powerful, and powerfully disturbing, part of our trip.
As one walks down the eerily deserted Shuhada street, formerly a central artery of the city and a road on which only Jews are now permitted for nearly all its length, one sees hundreds of shuttered shops, homes belonging to Palestinians that they cannot enter except by hopping from rooftops, soldiers protecting the 700 settlers in the midst of a city of 250,000 Palestinians. Perhaps the lingering power of the day comes from the opportunity to meet with Bayit Yehudi’s MK Orit Struck, whose defense of this arrangement seems strangely out of tune for a religious person. Her political goals of continuing to annex Palestinian land, her disinterest in the difficulties and pain that this causes Palestinians, and her long-term hope for a religious government are difficult to reconcile with the Judaism that I love for its attendance to justice. Perhaps it is the realization that Hebron is not the only place that this happens: it is simply the place where –if one chooses to go and see it, which most would rather not, and do not – it is the most visible, it is the most shocking.
In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read (Dvarim 27: 17), “Cursed be he who moves his neighbor’s boundary.”
Although this oath (which appears as a mitzvah -commandment- first, not long ago in chapter 19), usually referred to as Hasagat gvul, was expanded by the rabbis to refer to any kind of economic competition, its simple meaning of stealing land by stealthily rearranging the way the borders of the land are marked, as Rashi points out, not one sin, but two. It is, first, a way that the powerful exploit those with less power who cannot defend themselves, but it is also a sneaky sort of sin, something one does “under cover of night,” while “no one is watching,” but which in reality also has to be tacitly allowed by the community in which it happens.
But it shouldn’t be this way. This week’s Torah portion reminds us (Dvarim 29:28), “The hidden things belong to God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever….” Rashi comments that this means that those who do wrong in secret will be punished by God, but when the community knows about it, it is up to us to police it and we are accountable.
Whether in Tel Aviv or Haifa or Jerusalem, everywhere you look, you can see innovation and beauty and creativity. Israel is a developing society, and one which can give so much to the world. But it also suffers from a small group of extremists who are pushing the government to act in ways that are detrimental to its own health.
The opening verses of this week’s Torah portion (Dvarim 29: 9-11) states, “Today you all stand before (lifnei) God …all of Israel …to enter into a covenant with God…” The Kedushat Levi (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) connects the use of the word “lifnei” (“before”) in our Torah portion to the use of the word “panim” (“face”) referring to a discussion in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16a) of the prayer service for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which we will celebrate in fewer than two weeks. He explains that the term “panim” refers to when we are in tune with God – that panim means we turn our faces toward right action, and in turn God turns Her face toward us – as opposed to God looking away from us when She is displeased with our actions.
Rosh Hashanah, aside from being the new year, is also a holiday of judgment: it is the day on which the nations – including Israel- come before God to be judged. So, says the Kedushat Levi, our goal for Rosh Hashanah, should be that we reestablish ourselves in a face-to-face relationship with God, to do right so that the Divine “face” will turn towards us.
I don’t know what the answer is, but it is clear that the ongoing settlement project, in Hebron and elsewhere, is one that is turns us away from God’s face. Aside from the role it plays in preventing a two-state solution, it is, indisputably, a violation of our own laws and ethics. I pray that this new year, we will find a way to create honest fences, and be good neighbors.
“We are not a country that should turn children away and send them back to certain death,” -Maryland Governor, Martin O’Malley.
I’m proud of the stance taken by the governor of my state. The plight of young children coming into the US, fleeing persecution is one we can relate to. The Jewish tradition has reminded us for millennia, that the land is not ours free of charge, but rather that it is God’s, to distribute to whom God will, and that our souls are weighed by the way we remember our privilege, and to what extent we share it.
The Talmud teaches, “The men of Sodom waxed haughty only on account of the good which the Holy One, blessed be He, had lavished upon them. …. They said: Since there cometh forth bread out of [our] earth, and it hath the dust of gold, why should we suffer wayfarers, who come to us only to deplete our wealth. Come, let us abolish refuse to allow strangers to come to our land, as it is written, The flood breaketh out from the inhabitants, they are forgotten of the foot; they are dried up, they are gone away from men.(Job 28:4) (Sanhedrin 109a)”
But it seems that in every generation, we had need of a reminder: a story is told of the Gaon of Vilna, who sat with voice but no vote on the Council of the Jews of Vilna. His task was to comment from a Torah perspective on new legislation proposed before the Council. When there was no such new legislation, he did not take part in the meeting.
One day a member of the Council put forward a proposal for ending or greatly reducing the influx of Jews from poorer regions into Vilna, where they hoped for a better life. The Gaon rose to leave the meeting. “But Rabbi,” said a Council member, “we need your comment on this proposed new legislation!” “What new legislation?” said the Gaon. “This was already the law of Sodom, long ago!” And he left. The proposal was dropped.
Not long ago, a friend of mine posted an excellently snarky commentary about a new television show called, Married at First Sight. On this show, potential—I don’t know what you call them…”contestants,” perhaps?—fill out personality assessments and undergo “spiritual counseling,” and then four experts narrow down several hundred people to three couples. Then they get married. Without meeting one another first.
My friend was gleeful: what a train wreck! But after an initial shiver of dismay at yet another reality show, I thought to myself—y’know, is it really? It’s just bringing back the idea of matchmakers—what’s so shocking about that?
In earlier times, marriage wasn’t expected to be the way that individuals fulfilled themselves. We think of marriage this way now, but the truth is that we think of nearly everything this way—it’s one of the less admirable side-effects of a rights-oriented society (there are good things of course, too, but stay with me here, we’re not talking about those right now). Older societies viewed marriage in different ways, but the pattern tended towards viewing them as a way to join families (not individuals), a child-rearing project, sometimes a way to maximize economic resources (or if you were very wealthy, to concentrate them). When done well, compatibility of background and interest are taken into account, too.
In theory, this leads to much less of the “oh, my infatuation period is over, lets move on to the next high-excitement partner” problem. In a good marriage, where the daughters’ needs were taken into account by her parents (i.e. no child marriage, no large age difference between the future spouses, etc.—a lot of which is actually mentioned in traditional Jewish sources in those eras when marriages were, of course, arranged) that can mean that a lot of the silliness involved in modern courtship arrangements doesn’t happen. There is no problem with people worrying about the passion not being exactly as it once was, because love comes later, and passion is a bonus, if it happens.
And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. There are so many people out there—I see it at least twice a week in my Facebook feed—advocating that if you don’t “feel the passion” at every blessed moment, there’s something wrong and you should leave, whether it’s your job, or your spouse. But if we think about it, that’s kind of crazy: imagine deciding that when your child was old enough that you were no longer in the stage where you daftly stare into the baby’s face all the time and can’t get enough of smelling its adorable baby smell—imagine if people advised you to give away the baby at that point, because you didn’t feel the passion.
It’s the same for marriage (or your job, for that matter) the beginnings, where you gaze moonily at each other all the time, and can’t really think of anything else—that shouldn’t be the end point of the relationship, where you want to stay for years and years. Like the child, there need to be changes as your relationship matures -that’s not a failure of love any more than sending your child off to preschool—or college—is.
I’m not really advocating for parents to once again arrange matches between families—heaven knows I would likely have been appalled at anyone my parents were likely to pick for me. But there may well be something to be said for having someone who is not directly involved in the emotions of the process being the one (or more) who matches couples up—maybe it wouldn’t be a terrible thing for there someone looking out for long-term goals other than simply the excitement of anxiety and physical attraction in the early days of infatuation. Maybe it would be good for us to return—at least a little bit—to couples thinking of their partnering as something more than just the two of them—or, at least for the person matching them up to think of those things. And while I don’t foresee a wholesale return to shadchans (matchmakers), the fact that there is a show in which people who want to meet someone else, and are willing to hand over their choice to people who might do a better job than they do—that’s something to think about.
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I do not want to write about the horrific deaths of the three Israeli boys. I had other things I planned to talk about this week, but I do not feel that it would be right to talk about anything else, anything more trivial.
I do not want to talk about horror, or violence, or the hollow feelings that watching the news over the past two days has left with me.
There is nothing, Not. One. Thing. I can do to ease the parents’ pain; to undo the senseless, vile, killing; to make anything about this situation in any way better.
Nor can anyone else, although many people are trying, in all the wrong ways: by creating Facebook groups calling for revenge, by killing a young Palestinian boy, by marching through the streets chanting for the deaths of people based on their ethnicity.
None of this will assuage one drop of the pain caused by these boys’ loss. It will not ease the fear felt by many parents, or even the more general fear of anti-Jewish feeling or actions by some Arabs. All that feeling seemingly must go somewhere, and I understand that people are desperately looking for a place to spend it, to get rid of their fear and horror and sick,sick, worry. But pouring it out in the streets like sewage bursting its pipe—how can this happen?
I don’t want to talk about this. About any of this. In addition to the sorrow of the loss of those children, I now feel harrowed by the horror of seeing racial violence in the streets of Israel, by Jews. In seeing some people, whom I otherwise had respect for, advocating its rightness. But I think we have to talk about it.
The family of slain Israeli teenager Naftali Fraenkel has been a model of dignity and yahadut (Jewish values) in their tragedy, saying it would be “horrifying and despicable” for the Palestinian boy to have been murdered in revenge, and the boy’s uncle, Yishai Fraenkel, said, “There is no difference between blood and blood. A murderer is a murderer, no matter his nationality and age. There is no justification, no forgiveness and no atonement for any murder.”
Must we make the families of the murdered be our rebukers in their time of sorrow? What a terrible burden to place upon them.
How did we get to this place?
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One of the most pathetic (in the original sense of evoking pathos) passages in the Talmud is one (Bava Metzia 84a) which relates the story of two of the great ones among the rabbis, Rabbi Yohanan and Reish Lakish (Rabbi Shimon ben Lakish).
Reish Lakish’s origins were a little unclear—he may have begun as a gladiator among the Romans, or possibly a brigand. Whichever, he had met Rabbi Yohanan one day when Yohanan was bathing in the river and Reish Lakish was attracted by his beauty. Rabbi Yohanan convinced him to become a Torah scholar with the promise that he would be able to marry Yohanan’s sister, who was even more beautiful than he was.
So far, it’s basically television drama. But Reish Lakish goes for it, and he and Rabbi Yohanan become study partners—havruta—and Reish Lakish, despite his late start, become a great and fearless scholar, unafraid to state his opinions and argue for them.
After many years of their partnership, one day while they were studying, they had a different kind of argument: They were arguing about at what stage different kinds of weapons can be in a state where they can become subject to ritual impurity. The two of them differed in their opinion. But this time, Rabbi Yohanan responded not with an argument, but with an insult, alluding to Reish Lakish’s shady past: “A robber understands his trade.”
A strange response from partners who had argued together for years. One wonders why Rabbi Yohanan suddenly takes to insult. Or perhaps, it wasn’t the first time—perhaps it was only the first time that Reish Lakish took it to heart, because the insult was personal. Either way, what happened was clear: Rabbi Yohanan tried to win the argument not by appealing to reason, but by hurting his opponent.
Reish Lakish was understandably insulted and answered, “And wherewith have you benefited me: there [as a robber] I was called Master, and here I am called Master.” [The word "rav"—or "rabbi" means "master," as in the sense of master of one's trade, like a "master's degree"]
So Reish Lakish was hurt. And his response was one that we can see anywhere: When Rabbi Yohanan attacks his connection to the Jewish people by questioning his origin, Reish Lakish responds by also questioning that connection. He asks, “If you insult me by telling me I don’t belong and I’m only here by your sufferance, then perhaps I really don’t belong.”
Rabbi Yohanan, rather than responding to the distance that he created with his words, deepens them, by indulging himself in feeling insulted, and boasts that he (Yohanan) had brought Reish Lakish to divine service. Yohanan’s indulging himself in feeling that he is insulted is so great that Reish Lakish falls ill. Yohanan’s sister comes to him and begs him to make peace with his old chevruta, but he refuses, and Reish Lakish dies.
The end of the story: Resh Lakish died, and Rabbi Yohanan fell into deep grief. Said the Rabbis, “Who shall go to ease his mind? [to be his new chevruta] Let Rabbi Eleazar son of Pedath go, whose disquisitions are very subtle.” So he went and sat before him; and on every dictum uttered by Rabbi Yohanan he observed: “There is a Baraita which supports you.”
Yohanan complained, “Are you as the son of Lakisha? when I stated a law, the son of Lakisha used to raise twenty-four objections, to which I gave twenty-four answers, which consequently led to a fuller comprehension of the law; whilst you say, ‘A Baraita has been taught which supports you’ do I not know myself that my dicta are right?” Thus he went on rending his garments and weeping, ‘Where are you, O son of Lakisha, where are you, O son of Lakisha;’ and he cried thus until his mind was turned. Thereupon the Rabbis prayed for him, and he died.
The metaphor is clear, and is particularly poignant now, while the Jewish community is busily trying to force out significant sections of itself—through censure, and censorship, and yes, through insult. The very same people who lament the loss of young Jews to intermarriage and assimilation, who complain that this generation isn’t as connected to Israel, are busily telling those very same people, we don’t want you if you can’t shut up and do as we tell you—especially about things that may have quite a bit of room for dispute within the tradition—even about political problems.
It isn’t simply that there is no uniformity of opinion—there never was. There were always Jews who were owners and Jews who were workers, who were on opposite sides of the labor disputes; Jews who were part of the Confederacy and those who fought for the Union; Jews who lived in shtetls, and those who went to the cities; mitnagdim and hasidim; kabbalists and rationalists, and so on—we always disagreed, and sometimes on very large and difficult matters.
But what we must learn is that lesson that ultimately killed both Reish Lakish and Rabbi Yohanan: insult is an attempt to silence your partner in the search for truth—but silencing your bar-plugta, the person who argues with you, is dangerous. One cannot come to deep understanding with those who agree with you—it is only those who are able to argue with you that can bring you to truth. Those who stand up to you, far from being your enemies, are your truest friends. And in that friendship, it is the best and safest place to struggle with what is most difficult.
Truth—especially big truths—cannot be found by silencing the ones with whom you disagree. If you censure and censor those who tell you you are wrong—well, that way lies only death, and madness.
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A few days ago, I ran across an article asking a rabbi what a person could do instead of going to shul to say kaddish. The person in question wasn’t bed-bound—he just didn’t like going to shul.
It’s a difficult question for a rabbi to deal with—although the author of this article did pretty well- because it’s difficult to know what the real underlying question is: Why doesn’t this person like going to shul—is it because he doesn’t know the meaning of the words he is saying? Is it because he draws no comfort from attending a service with people he doesn’t know? Is it because he is unfamiliar with the service?
Similarly, there are many people who are beginning to ask themselves if a minyan could be made online? These don’t seem like related questions, but they are, in that they come from a place where we are unfamiliar with our communities—we no longer need to fear friendship with non-Jews, but in doing so, many of us have failed to develop relationships with our own family, our own tradition – and then, when we seek comfort from it, we find it alien.
I wonder what the boundaries are for our ability to Jewish when we are not face-to-face. Going to shul is such an important part of being in the Jewish community—even for those who don’t love prayer, or don’t understand it well. And what, also, do we say to the person who doesn’t like shul: of course we hope they’ll connect in other ways, but it seems wrong to simply let the person give up on one of the ways we have to directly connect with one another—people we may have nothing in common with, other than being there for each other at a difficult time. And what of the idea that perhaps it isn’t only about you—that it is for others—God, our people, the deceased—that we do these things?
The internet sometimes gets proposed as a solution to this (and related) problems. But even if we set aside the problem of using electronic networks on Shabbat and other restrictive days, how much benefit to us as individuals or as a people could there be in a connection which never demands anything of us (because, for example, how can you bring food to the mourning community member who lives more than a day’s drive away?), and what happens to the idea of a people, even?
And yet, I do think that there is something to be gained from an internet community. I do see how it has enabled me to reconnect with people far from me and stay connected to people I might not otherwise stay connected with, even if it is not the same as the relationships I have with the people who are right here, next door.
What do you think those limitations are? Can we build true Jewish communities online?
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Yet another holiday about which I am ambivalent, Mother’s Day seems this year to have engendered rather more commentary than I can remember in past years. I have read several moving essays from women whose infertility has made Mother’s Day painful, as they are forced to watch the omnipresent cute pictures of babies and advertisements directed at heteronormative families seemingly composed of clumps of gooey gazes of young, pretty, thin (and mostly white) women at their offspring, neatly clad, and freshly scrubbed.
Aside from the commercialism of it all, aside from the very real pain of women who want children and have not been able to bear them, I wonder if this is the best we can do for women. While honoring one’s parents is a Jewish value, I’m not sure that Mother’s Day offers any real honor.
Of course I wouldn’t dare not show up at my own mother’s house, but as for me, I’d rather see our society make genuine changes to the way we treat women. I would consider it a far greater honor to make sure that no girl need fear rape in her high school or college than to get some paid-for gift every year. It would be a lot more clear to me that our society cares about mothers and motherhood if it made more effort to feed the children of all the mothers in it, and pay women the worth of our work—equal to what a man would make.
Of course, that’s sort of the point. It takes a lot less work to show pretty once a year, and make a few grand pronouncements about how motherhood is the most important job than it does to actually honor women. That would require some big changes in the way we do business, in how we live our lives, and would require more than one day’s consideration.
And I will say this, too. You can’t truly honor mothers if you don’t have genuine respect for all women: before, during, and after the years of her fertility, whether or not she chooses to bear children, whether or not she is able.
So if you really want to honor your mother this weekend, get off your duff and go make the world better for every girl, for every old woman, for any child born of woman, boy or girl. Go on: then you can be the hero your mother always told you you were. And that would be the best Mother’s Day present you could give her.
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My parents still live in the house I grew up in. Since leaving it, I have moved 14 times. Each time I move, I have to get rid of the clutter that has accumulated -sometimes more, sometimes less – usually books, but since my child was born, also toys, clothes outgrown, keepsakes from each stage of his life…
I know that I should acquire less. Even though we buy little, it creeps up on me, until I feel weighed down by it all, and yet, many of those things feel precious and irreplaceable. And some of them are.
Each year at Passover, I wonder at all the stuff that seems to be required to leave Egypt -and I think of the Israelites, who left too fast even for bread to rise, but managed to remember their tambourines. No wonder it was so hard for them, no wonder they complained so much: I can imagine them saying to themselves, I can’t leave behind little Dvorah’s first clay bird sculpture, Aharon’s project, that straw-woven hat… even though the straw and the clay were both reminders of the slavery they were escaping.
Sometimes I wish for the purity of having nothing. Sometimes, I long to hold my history in my hands and I am ready for Passover to end, not so I can eat bread, but so I can, for a little while, pretend that the things around me will last into the future.