The state of public discourse, both within the Jewish community and within our society at large, has taken rather a beating. Even when people across the political aisles can be brought to the same room for debate, the exchanges seem to be more a pro forma opportunity to restate one side’s positions or insult the other.
Religious communities aren’t any better. Each one declares itself fully in possession of the knowledge of God’s opinions. And yet, Judaism suggests that perhaps we would be better off having some humility. The Talmud (Berachot 4a) says, “Teach your tongue to say ‘I do not know,’ lest you be led to lying.”
The mystics called this world alma d’sfeka—“a world of doubtfulness,” and yet we find that so often we are convinced of our rightness. Convinced enough to end friendships or to go to war. The talmud is speaking of deliberate falsehood, but it might just as well be speaking of words we speak of things that we consider certain, which may turn out not to be. This doubtful world is one in which conflicting perspectives—which may be equally true to the respective speakers—make the possibility of discerning “the whole story” of anything very difficult, if not impossible.
The midrash compares Moses to the other prophets, saying, “What is the difference between Moses and all the prophets? Rabbi Yehudah in the name of Rabbi Il’ai and the Rabbis (differed). Rabbi Yehudah said: All the prophets saw through nine lenses, but Moses saw through only one. The rabbis said: All the other prophets saw through a dirty lens, but Moses saw through a clear lens.” (Vayikra Rabbah 1:14)
Moses saw the most clearly, but he, the greatest of all prophets, still saw truth through a lens. The clearest sighted among us still was divided from direct knowledge; his vision, too, was limited.
We like to think that religion’s business is to give us answers because it is frightening to have to make decisions without knowing the outcome, and yet we must. It is also disturbing to wonder: Can you have trust if you have doubt? Can you have religion, if you don’t have certainty?
The Talmud, that great argument of the rabbis, in which they strove to discern the will of God, is not really a work of answers—it is a work of questions. Some questions can be answered, but many are left for Elijah the prophet to answer in the future. Some truths cannot be known by us, now.
And so while we have to make decisions—to take risks with not enough information, and to hope that we will know enough, even knowing most of the time we won’t—when we try to persuade others to take a course of action, it might be worthwhile to speak with humility, and ask ourselves, when we feel certain of our rightness, whether it is really the other person whom we are trying to convince.
Before we crash headlong into the various celebratory, lighthearted posts about Purim, I want to draw your attention to something: the holiday we’re celebrating this weekend, is not actually a particularly happy one.
It is a parody of course, but like many parodies, it is rather dark. Starting with what appears to be the murder of the Queen for the crime of refusing to be displayed like a piece of meat, followed by a forced surrender of all “pretty” girls in the kingdoms from their homes, to the end, where the Jews defended themselves to the tune of the death of over 80,000 people, I find it somewhat difficult to find much that I like about the actual thing that we are supposed to be celebrating (I’m fine with the theme of survival, and of giving money to the poor and gifts of food to friends, though).
It seems to me that even though the rabbis still advocated celebration, there was this hint of darkness for them as well. In the Talmud, Megillah 7b, the following story is related:
Raba said: It is the duty of a man to mellow himself [with wine] on Purim until he cannot tell the difference between cursed be Haman’ and ‘blessed be Mordecai’. Rabbah and R`Zera joined together in a Purim feast. They became mellow, and Rabbah arose and cut R`Zera’s throat. On the next day he prayed on his behalf and revived him. Next year he said, Will your honor come and we will have the Purim feast together. He replied: A miracle does not take place on every occasion.
This is the same sort of dark parody related by the megillah itself. Clearly, the punchline is that Rav Zera won’t come back for another round of “mellowing.” The drunkenness of Rabbah results in violence and death, which itself then leads to a miracle – but Rav Zera would prefer not to engage with that kind of miracle, thanks. The megillah, too, offers a miracle – but the miracle seems to be that we defended ourselves with a bloodbath. Perhaps because it is a parody, it’s okay to have zombie heads shooting off in every direction during the joyous finale, but I can’t help but ask whether we were, even as a parody, supposed to enjoin celebration in an abattoir. Were we, then, incapable of imagining an ending where we survived without harming others?
When we are small, we wait for everything. Every day takes forever until you get to the time when you get to go out and play. Each year, we count the days until our birthday. At the end of the year, we finish one grade, and then we look forward to summer vacation, and then begin a new grade, with fresh notebooks, clean and untouched. Eventually, we get to high school, and graduate, and then, perhaps, college, and even, maybe, graduate school. And then most of us get jobs, perhaps get married and maybe have children. Then one day we wake up and wonder: when do we get a “next thing?”
Most of our lives, we are trained to look for the next thing, the next grade, the next age, the graduation, the “real world.” And then we finally get there, and all of a sudden, it seems that one day is much like the next and one year, too.
The recent passing of Harold Ramis reminded me of the wonderful film Groundhog Day, in which Bill Murray plays a self-centered news reporter, who is forced to relive the same day, over and over again until he changes.
In the film, one might think that under the sway of some providential guardian, the world is forced to hold still while he is forced to learn a lesson. But in some ways, the world does not stay the same. Even though each morning Phil (the character’s name) is “sent back,” in reality, each day is different due to the choices Phil makes. At first, he takes advantage, then he despairs, and finally, he tries to improve himself and to help others – even though he knows that the next day everything will be undone.
Groundhog Day is a fantasy, but in some ways, not a very far-fetched one. In most ways, unless we are either particularly selfish, or extremely flighty, our lives are a sort of Groundhog Day. We spend each day doing much the same things as we did the day before, and as we will do the day after.
Psalm 90:12 says, “Teach us to number our days, that we may get a heart of wisdom.” It is a kind of strangeness that when we count something, each successive number is different, and yet, the act of counting confers a kind of sameness on the thing we are counting. So it is with our lives. We can take a sort of Buddhist approach and deny the counting, focusing on the moment. But Judaism suggests that there is a wisdom in the counting itself, in the not focusing on the moment. Is it because when we count, we are able to gaze at a larger picture? Does it remind us that someday, eventually, there will be an end to counting – the great graduation, let us say.
Or, is there a certain courage in noticing that even when we think that everything is the same, there are differences, and those small differences come from us, acting, even when it can’t seem to make any difference.
Even if tomorrow, the cat needs to be rescued from the tree once more, perhaps it is a kind of God’s-eye view to be able to know that that is the case, and, once again, to rescue it.
In this week’s Torah portion, God explains that God has called not only Betzalel and Oholiav to execute their craft on all the holy items that need to be built, but that “in the heart of all who are wise-hearted, I put wisdom so that they will make all that I have commanded.” (Shemot 31:6)
Many people have tried to figure out what distinguishes humans from animals: some have postulated it is our “higher emotions,” but it turns out animals have those (and people have recognized that for a long time); some have suggested it is our intellect – but if that is so, then it is intellect of degree, not kind, for animals are able to solve problems in all kinds of ways. Some have suggested it is language – but it turns out that many animals are able to use not only vocabulary, but syntax, and some even have names for one another. Some say it is morals – but clearly anyone who has ever had a dog knows that an animal knows when it has done wrong.
What I have never heard of an animal doing is expressing the drive to create – to create beauty through art, or to have a craft and make the utilitarian things we need beautiful.
The Torah calls certain individuals chochmat-halev “wise-hearted.” But all human beings have a certain measure of this drive. We all yearn for beauty, and many yearn to create things of beauty. What makes some individuals “wise-hearted?” Instead of simply enjoying the beauty, or perhaps relegated their yearnings to small gestures, they turn their lives into their craft, dedicating time to learning the skills it takes to create not just the occasional beautiful object – and then they send it out into the world, to be regarded by others, to be judged, and to be used.
And when we do this, when we choose a skill and hone it, turning it towards creation, we are b’tzelem elohim, acting in God’s image. For what was God’s creation if not a gesture of art? For a human, art is limited. If we are especially skilled, and work hard, and lucky, too, then perhaps our works will live on after us, at least for a time.
For God, creation is both temporary and permanent – in medieval times some in Arab lands there was a Muslim philosophy that the world was created and destroyed and created anew at every moment. And in the God’s-eye sense, that is true: the sunset that we saw tonight will never be seen again, the child grows to adulthood, species come into being and go extinct. And yet, the universe endures. In its beauty, for a time, God has our regard, and when we are wise-hearted, perhaps for a flicker of God’s eye, we have God’s.
For another perspective on this debate, read Rabbi Rebecca Sirbu’s post here.
Aside from the bigamy laws, I mean. (JK)
Recently, a rabbi was appointed to lead a Unitarian congregation. In a discussion about this appointment, I had mentioned that I could not lead a Unitarian congregation, or any other non-Jewish group, any more than I could officiate at the marriage of two non-Jews. I was surprised by the (small) flurry of questions about why, if there was no intermarriage, I would refrain from officiating at such a wedding.
I have many friends who are not Jews. I have attended – and even participated- and rejoiced at their weddings, as well as occasionally been asked for (and given) counsel, or attended other life events, as a friend. When I celebrate at a non-Jewish friend’s wedding, I am a guest experiencing their tradition (or lack thereof). Even if I offer a private blessing, it is the blessing of a friend, but from outside.
A rabbi, even by the broadest definition, is one who is a rav, a master, of Jewish tradition, whose role is to teach Jewish tradition, and model a Jewish life. I am expected to be a kli kodesh – a holy vessel, at least to the best of my ability, and to do so means to have a particular way of being in the world. My permission to teach and to lead comes from being invested in that tradition, it comes from the people of Israel, and from the Torah of Israel. Even though I share some, and often many, values with people in other traditions, we each have different ways of expressing those values, and of understanding them – and they are not interchangeable.
When I officiate at a wedding, I do so as one who has a particular view of what it means to get married, what the marriage means in terms of future Jewish life and aspirations, of particular spiritual valences as part of a whole Jewish life, joined to a Jewish community that is both horizontal – with other currently living Jews, vertical – with Jews who have passed on and have yet to be born, and of course, in a particular relationship with God.
When I officiate at the wedding of two Jews, I am seeing that they are joining themselves to one another according to the laws of Moses and Israel. Since the laws of Moses and Israel do not apply to non-Jews, I am unqualified to officiate.
In the Polish schools of Hassidut, several of the rebbes teach that to reach God, each individual has a personal spiritual task that they must complete. This is true for religions as well as individuals. There are many values in the world, and in different traditions, we are called to serve and fulfill a mission. And it is not the same mission. That mission is not for ourselves, but for God and for the world. If we don’t immerse ourselves deeply in our own tradition – and each of these traditions are deep in their own way- then we are not really going to be able to understand them, their goals, their values, their expressions. And we will not be able to carry out our purpose.
I can’t marry Christians (or Hindus, or Buddhists, or Muslims, etc) to one another, because to do so would be to assert that marriage means the same thing in all of our traditions – and it does not, and should not.
Tu Bishvat, which begins tonight, is the fourth new year of the Jewish calendar. Beginning as a tax holiday for counting the age of trees in order to know when one could begin to use their fruit, the holiday has come to be a sort of Jewish version of earth day, as well as a celebration of the shivat haminim – the seven famous products of Israel and our connection to the land of Israel.
Although Jews lost many of our agricultural leanings after going into exile, trees are something that anyone can relate to, and many commentators have noted a connection between trees and human beings, and supported this connection with a verse from Deuteronomy.
The original verse is one which is part of Jewish rules of war, asking rhetorically, “When you besiege a city a long time, making war against it to take it, you shalt not destroy the trees by wielding an axe against them; for you may eat of them, but you shalt not cut them down; for is the tree of the field man, that it should be besieged?” (Dvarim 20:19)
Our rabbis took the verse not as a question, though, but as a statement: Humans are a tree of the field.
At this time of year, most trees (at least those in temperate climates) are bare. No one can tell if that tree will bear anything valuable or not – it is only the beginning of the year, and we will have to wait and see – will the sap rise in this tree? Will it flower? Will most of the branches live? Will the flower fruit, or will the blossoms fall unfertilized? Even if there is fruit, will it ripen, will animals eat it, will they rot on the tree?
There is no way to know yet. Similarly, with humans: we may be wise or foolish, righteous or wicked – until the sap rises, there’s no way to know. It is even true to a certain extent that how we grow is strongly influenced by our surroundings – is there a drought for learning, that leaves us ignorant of our own traditions? Are we forced to drink water which is muddy, or do we grow by a clear stream? Is there enough sun for us, or do we grow in the shade – and very importantly, is there someone to care for us, to make sure we grow straight?
But unlike trees, we also have some say over how we turn out. We may be trees of the field, but ultimately, we can choose to go where there is sun and water, to grow straight or be bent, to produce fruit, or to be a dry stick
In her series about the wizard Ged, one of the grand masters of speculative fiction, Ursula K. LeGuin, writes about a young man who must go from being an ignorant boy who seeks power to a man who faces himself, his fears, and his flaws—and ultimately his loss of power and death. (There’s a reason she’s a master of the genre!)
A young Ged, in the first book of the original trilogy, has, through his own arrogance—which is really a reflection of his own sense of inferiority—let a thing of great power and evil into the world. He is rescued by the elder mages, one of whom tells Ged, “You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.”
I’ve often thought that this series is perhaps one of the most Jewish in speculative fiction. The struggle of Ged to redeem himself reminds me of the Sfat Emet‘s comments in this week’s Torah commentary, on the conflict between free will and divine knowledge pointed out by the verse that Pharoah’s heart was hardened (Ex. 10:1). He explains that Jews’ duty is to make clear in the world what God already knows—which negates choice. The reason this task falls to us is because truth is hidden in this world, and it is only in God’s realm that truth is clear. It is our efforts as Jews revealing God’s clear vision that is so important—truth depends upon human effort—because without it, the hiddenness of truth obscures necessity.
The idea that knowing all possible variables allows us to predict all events is a trope in mystical literature, as well as in philosophy of a certain era. That of course, is one way to understand the idea of omniscience. But there are others.
In LeGuin’s books, it is those who try to flail against truth that bring evil into the world, by denying death, grasping at power that does not belong to them—or by covering up truth, by telling a false story that is more attractive. And all of these people, in the end, turn out not to be our caricature of Eviiiiiil, but rather flawed people whose fears rule them. They grasp for power to try not to feel this fear. And this use of inappropriate power is harmful both for them as individuals, and for the world, as the lie that each has told himself also leads others astray. Ultimately, power allows the truth to be hidden, but truth cannot be eliminated. And hiding the truth causes evil to enter the world.
Perhaps that’s why there is so much ferment in the Jewish community over who gets to talk about Israel, and how. When our community refuses to hear anything other than that the other side is purely evil, when it labels anyone who disagrees with what has been so far labelled as “mainstream” Judaism’s views about peace with the Palestinians as a self-hater (or an anti-Semite), it is out of fear.
But as the young mage Ged ultimately learns, it is only in accepting what you fear as part of yourself, accepting all your flaws as reality, that you can be made whole. Ged ultimately faces the terrible shadow and finds that it is (spoiler alert)—a piece of him. To conquer our fears, to reveal the truth, we must be wiling to listen and to see, so that we can uncover the truth. For that reason, I’m proud of the Swarthmore HIllel, which is taking that first step.
Facing what we fear gives us the strength to take our flaws into ourselves, to accept them—and then to fix them. We need not accept anything uncritically. But anything we refuse to hear gives that thing power. And while we needn’t (and shouldn’t!) accept anyone saying that Israel shouldn’t exist, the Hillel organization has been far too ready to exclude a far wider variety of critique than —critiques which are not only true, but necessary.
I do not doubt that those who oppose hearing from speakers who are anti-ZIonist mean well. Neither do I doubt that those Hillels who have interpreted this rule as excluding organizations like Americans for Peace Now and J Street—Zionist organizations that insist upon the necessity of a two-state solution, and on facing straightforwardly the dangers presented by settlements – do. But to use the power that they have as a large Jewish organization to silence debate in the community they are meant to educate is foolish, and ultimately harmful.
Speakers that recognize that Israel’s acts towards Palestinians, towards its own non-Jewish citizens, and towards its peace process are not always in its best interests, let alone just and therefore worthy of a Jewish state, are not the enemy, even though some Hillels (and some other Jewish organizations) have treated them as such. To the contrary, until we as a community recognize that the growth of settlements is a real impediment to peace, that racism is a large and growing problem, that extremist violence is not only from one side—until we face that, we are not going to be able to make the adjustments we need to make so that we can truly be pro-Israel.
The only way to do that is to expose everything to sunlight. Look at the facts; hear all kinds of speakers; trust the Am (people) to make good decisions—and the truth is that we will anyway. The idea that there’s any way to hide the facts in the age of the internet is absurd, when anyone can go online and read a human rights report, see how many “price tags” are occurring, read (or watch) the testimonies of Israeli soldiers, or even just read Israel’s own news reporting, and we do. And indeed, the recent Pew report reflects that people have been doing just this.
To be fair, there has been some recent calling for “civil discourse” in the Jewish community—requests for people to be more open in hearing one another within our community with less name-calling by one side of the other. But even should that call succeed (and I don’t see much evidence of it) it’s not enough. The discourse is not empty of content: the debate is important because lives, on both sides of the line, have been and continue to be deeply affected by decisions made, both by Israelis and by Palestinians, but also by large organizations in the Jewish community that push us to use our voices to maintain an unsustainable status quo, rather than stepping up and doing something about it, while simultaneously lamenting the lessening of the connection between us and Israel.
But that lessening is not because there are problems in Israel. It is because either we are deeply connected to our people, no matter where we are, obliging us —as our tradition insists—to rebuke one another when there is wrongdoing, or else we are not connected. It is the very act of insisting that we may not speak about what we see, that we cannot fulfill our Jewish mission when it pertains to our own people, that is one of the causes of the rift. Love doesn’t flee problems, but it does flee silence.
As the Sfat Emet says, it is our job as Jews to face and reveal the truth, even when it is disturbing. Even when it is about us. This is the lesson that Ged, too, had to learn. That within him was the capacity for terrible things, and only by acknowledging them could he heal himself and the hole he had made in the world. Once the truth is faced, our free will is restored, because we are able to see the path through and we do what we must do.
Swarthmore has made the right choice, not because every speaker they host will be telling the whole truth (although even in a narrative that we wholly reject, we may be able to learn something), but because by opening the debate, they show that they trust us to do the right thing, to understand complex situations, to do our homework, and to act for the right and the good. In doing so, they show faith in the Jewish future, because they understand that in staring both truth and falsehood down, we will learn from both, and “the truth will spring up from the earth.” (Ps. 85:12)
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About a year ago, someone recommended a Paulo Coelho book to me—a popular one—The Alchemist. Most people I know that have read the book loved it: they feel it’s speaking to them, encouraging them to take life by the horns, and live it to it’s fullest; to pursue their dreams. But I… I hated it.
Like many books of its type, its assumption is that when people don’t live their dreams out, it’s because they didn’t try, or they didn’t dream big enough—books like these are inspirational posters writ long. Not that I have anything against inspirational posters. If that’s your thing, feel free. But at the same time, I can’t help but think that this attitude underlies so much of what Judaism struggles with against secular culture: that adults are required to act as part of a social contract and to sometimes do boring things for the sake of others. Where is the recognition that sometimes you work hard at a crappy job to support your family? My father was a bureaucrat until his retirement, and I think he did the best job at it he could, and he did good for others in whatever way he could there. But I strongly doubt that it was the job he dreamed of as a child. But I always had enough to eat and a roof over my head. He’s still married to my mother. Did he not dream big enough? Maybe he should have lit out for the hills to pursue his dreams instead?
When I hear people saying that the only thing in the way of one’s dreams is oneself, I find myself angry for the janitors and clerks and fast food workers—did they not dream big enough? Do they not work hard enough? Do the poor of other nations simply lack imagination? And angry on behalf of people like my father, who work hard all their lives to make sure their families have enough, even if the job isn’t—in itself—meaningful or stirring. Whose lives are just not exciting. From the outside, at least. Continue reading
Every night, for years, when I put my son to bed, I enjoy the ritual (which I know will probably not last much longer) of lying down next to him and reading, and then, at lights out, I say, “Do you know how much I love you?” and he says ( these days, somewhat groaningly), “Yes….”
“How much do I love you?”
“More than the entire universe.”
But a few weeks ago, after the usual exchange, he asked me, “What if you had to choose between the whole universe and me?”
I have to admit, I didn’t really know what to say. He answered his own question, though: he continued, “you would have to choose the universe, because I can’t exist without the whole universe.”
I was reminded of this exchange recently when a colleague posted a question about how to explain the Akedah to a child. How do explain that we have a story in which God asks a father to sacrifice his child, and the father does so? A child that our story claims is beloved by the father?
It is unsatisfactory (and not true to the text) to say that Abraham actually failed the test. But what we can ask is what my child asked me, “What if you had to choose between the universe and me?” and realize that perhaps there is no answer, because without the universe, there is no saving even a remnant of it, and maybe that’s what the metaphor of the story is.
A number of recent essays have been swimming their way across the blogosphere and seem to have serendipitously swirled together. The Conservative movement, even at its largest and healthiest, has always been, like the Jewish people itself, overly worried about its imminent destruction, so when a young woman asks why men raised in an egalitarian setting, who like her, care about halakha, leave for Orthodoxy, when she cannot do so, when the Pew report seems to indicate shrinkage in the stable Jewish middle, when the once-dean of a Conservative rabbinical seminary writes the movement’s obituary, and when the smirky response to the woman asking how her friends could abandon her is responded to with the claim that it’s her own fault for daring to be equal, cause ya know, men can’t stand to have anyone be equal to them, it makes them expendable, one might expect a flurry of worry from the most worried of all Jewish movements. And there were.
Of course, there were also some very interesting discussions spawned from these articles ( by which, yes, I do mean to imply that I found most—except for the first of these—exercises silly). The one that I found myself most interested in was a discussion of when we lost the idea of obligation, and how important it is to get it back. Not simply for the idea of halakha—but also in terms of obligations to one another, and to our communities, and to God—rather than the pursuit of happiness, that goal that seems to take up so much of Americans’ time, and yet be so fleeting.
And so I invited those people who, like me, are Conservative because we care about halakha, deeply and passionately, and we care about the idea of obligation, in all those ways, to have a conversation about how to revive it: To revive a sense of seriousness about halakha, about egalitarianism, and about obligation, together.
The Conservative movement is my home because these are all things that I cannot do without, and I’m ready to find that core of people—whom I know are there, because I’ve met them and davenned with them, and eaten with them—so that the Conservative movement knows they’re there, too.And I invite you too. If you’re interested, leave a message for me and let’s start talking.