In the ongoing dustup that started several years ago between Rabbi Daniel Gordis and a series of young rabbis, most recently Rabbi Sharon Brous of IKAR, Rabbi Gordis either implied or directly stated that in offering the opinion that Jews should have compassion for those who aren’t Jews – in Gordis’ case, for Palestinians- is a betrayal of Judaism.
The columnist Jeff Goldberg, in a somewhat confused defense of Rabbi Gordis, couches Gordis’ plea as saying that a Jew should “love Jews a little more than [one] loves Palestinians.” Rabbi Gordis defending his own statements, begs us to notice that our tradition speaks in a particularistic language, that Judaism has always been internal looking, and strongly asks Jews to recognize one another as part of a special family, a family that we are obligated to care for first and foremost.
He is right, of course. It is absolutely true that Judaism is a particularistic religion. It is also equally, simultaneously, true that Judaism is a universalistic religion as well.
For example, the text that Rabbi Gordis suggests as his proof of Judaism’s particularistic bent, the one which we should take to heart when thinking of who to care for first is part of a longer section in the talmud.
The section of the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Metzia 71a, is one whose context is of lending money to the poor, whether one may lend money for interest and to whom one may charge interest. The text there is attempting to clarify the argument by quoting Exodus 22:24: “If you lend money to any of my people that is poor by you, ” continuing, “[this teaches, if the choice lies between] my people and a heathen, ‘my people’ has preference; the poor or the rich — the ‘poor’ takes precedence; your poor [i.e. your relatives] and the [general] poor of your town — your poor come first; the poor of your city and the poor of another town — the poor of your own town have prior rights. The Master said: ‘[If the choice lies between] my people and a non-Jew — “my people” has preference.’ But is it not obvious? — R. Nahman answered: Huna told me it means that even if [money is lent] to the non-Jew on interest, and to the Israelite without [the latter should take precedence].”
Clearly, this is indeed a section that shows that the tradition expects a certain sort of preference for “one’s own.” And yet, it’s not so completely clear as that. Note that the section does not say that one should help one’s own alone; note that it doesn’t say, help your family and ignore the poor of your town; nor does it say that one should help one’s town and ignore the poor of another town. It does recognize that in a situation of limited resources, one may have to parcel them out preferentially, and in that case, one helps those who are close, first. Elsewhere, the order of importance is laid out even more clearly, starting with oneself, the one’s family, then one’s community, and so forth. Continue reading
I hope that I’m not the only one who immediately thought of the sacrifices that appear scattered throughout the Torah. -There are several in which pairs of animals are sacrificed, but of course, the most famous is the sacrifice of the goats on Yom Kippur. It is a bit different in this case of course: rather than one animal being sacrificed, and the other set free, the turkeys are delivered to the White House in a motorcade where one is pardoned, and then both are retired – to live long lives elsewhere.
I decided not to bother to go and look up the origins of this mysterious ceremony, so that I can imagine it in any way that I wish.
The human predilection for symbolic action is so enormously pervasive.
On the day before much of the country engages in a ritual of gathering families together, many offering examples of what they are grateful for, many, many of them eating the same ritual foods – turkey, pumpkin pie, stuffing, watching the same football game… on this day before, the main dish is pardoned and offered an escape to a long life. I hope all of you will consider offering your own thoughts on what this could possibly mean in the comments.
Compare this ritual to that of the ancient Israelites and their sacrifices of atonement. It makes me wonder if, even in ancient times, the Israelites didn’t really consider sacrifice to be efficacious for atonement any more than we think that it is. After all, the rabbis, after the Temple was destroyed did not elect to maintain a sacrifical cult, even though they could have offered sacrifices somewhere that was not the Temple, as they had prior to it. many of the rabbis hated tashlich – that ceremony still beloved today, in which we cast our sins out with bread to be eaten by the fish – symbolizing several things at once – generosity, atonement… and yet, few people believe that throwing crumbs at fish is really the same as doing the hard work of repentance. Continue reading
I think that it would be wrong to let the day go by without saying something about the election. But I don’t really want to talk about the candidates or their platforms, or what they should have done differently or better, or why this one won or lost. Instead, since a lot of the struggle was over how our government should spend its money, I think it would be worthwhile to ask what kinds of competing economic visions we have for our country, and what Judaism might say about them.
In very general terms, one group has concentrated on the idea of personal responsibility – that each of us ought to be able to stand on our own two feet and not depend upon others, and that if someone works hard enough, they will succeed; the other group, also in very general terms, considers the government to be the external structure for community, and (sometimes) tries to implement programs that will serve to strengthen individuals who are having trouble helping themselves and to create safety nets for them and considers success to often be a matter of luck.
Both of these approaches are valued in Judaism. Our sages tell us unequivocally that “just as shabbat is a covenant, so is work a covenant” (Avot d’Rabbi Natan). And Maimonides criticizes strongly someone who chooses not to work, instead taking charity, even “anyone who decides to study Torah and not work, making his living from charity, desecrates Gods name and disgraces the Torah. Any Torah that is not accompanied by work will lead to its own undoing and cause sin.” In other words, supporting oneself and one’s family is very important, and work is not simply a means for support, but in itself can be a holy task.
At the same time, Judaism also unequivocally states that we are obligated to care for others who have less than we do. Our sages have told us – in numerous and varied places- that we have an obligation to support the poor. Unlike the root of the word “charity” (from “caritas”) tzedakah is not given because one is moved to give, but – as with so many things in Judaism- because we are commanded to give, and we have an obligation to do so. The word itself comes from the word “tzedek” – justice.
It is unfair to label either of the groups “coldhearted,” or “irresponsible,” as I have seen some do: there is plenty of charitable individual giving from the “personal responsibility” group. Nevertheless, Judaism is fairly clear that it doesn’t see individual giving as a sufficient (although it is a necessary) response to poverty. This is for two reasons. First, the tendency to see one’s wealth as something that one has earned out of one’s own sweat, and with no help from others is noted by the Torah itself: Continue reading
Two recent articles had me thinking about the possibility of tshuvah today. The first was an article that appeared in Salon over a tiny brou-ha-ha that was engendered when someone caught sight of a box of milkbones in a picture that Michael Vick tweeted out early this month. Vick, as you may recall, served 2 years in prison for his involvement in dogfighting. The response to the news getting out about this tweet was nearly universal -that it was appalling that anyone had allowed this man to have a dog in his home. After about a week, he issued the following statement, “I understand the strong emotions by some people about our family’s decision to care for a pet. As a father, it is important to make sure my children develop a healthy relationship with animals. I want to ensure that my children establish a loving bond and treat all of God’s creatures with kindness and respect. Our pet is well cared for and loved as a member of our family. To that end, I will continue to honor my commitment to animal welfare and be an instrument of positive change.” What do you think? Is that enough?
The second article was - well, it wasn’t just one article, but let’s go with this version of the story of Amanda Todd. Todd was the girl who committed suicide after being stalked by an adult who convinced her to flash her breasts to the camera, then used the picture to blackmail her into further exposures, then posted her pictures for others; who was bullied in school by students who found the pictures, and who followed her from school to school, city to city, followed by other children determined to harm her, by adults who felt that their sexual pleasure was more important than the girl’s right to grow up unmolested… and by the internet, which made it all too easy for those who tormented her to hound her beyond despair.
On the face of it, there isn’t too much similarity between these two cases. The first is an adult who made choices to harm animals, who broke the law for his own amusement, and who then paid a price for it. About him, we ask whether he should ever be able to own a dog again. Does he deserve to ever own another pet? The second is a girl who only the sickest would call anything but a victim.
Yet, there is a certain similarity –one which rests at least in part upon the ubiquity of social media . Both were unable to move beyond a particular moment in time in which an event occurred because it is forever embedded in Facebook, reddit, twitter. Our pictures are there forever – whether we are the ones who put them there or not, whether we even know that those pictures were taken – once they are posted, they live forever. Our whole lives are scrapbooked for anyone with a little technological savvy to retrieve, and it has become impossible for many to leave their pasts behind.
What happens when our every action is forever? In Judaism there is the notion that when one truly repents, the sin is wiped away as if it has never been. The Talmud in Bava Metzia (58b) says, “Our Rabbis taught: Ye shall not therefore wrong one another; (Lev. 25:17) Scripture refers to verbal wrongs. …E.g., If a person is a penitent, one must not say to them, ‘Remember your former deeds.’”
Unlike many people, I am not, generally opposed to being judgmental. I do believe that when people act badly, we have a responsibility to say so, and to recognize and discern that our choices express values, and that some choices are bad – or wicked. But there is a difference between recognizing that an action is bad, or even that a person’s values are wrong, and freezing the person in time forever according to one, or even several choices that they have made. According to our tradition, there is never a point at which it is too late to turn back, to repent, to try to make your actions right and your life better. It may be difficult, it may be hard for others to believe, but it is always possible. God always accepts true repentance.
But is this possible in the human world when we are chased by our pasts in a way that was never seen before? Judaism recognizes that the onus of redemption is not entirely up to the person who seeks it. After all, the rabbis didn’t say that “a person should not remember his former deeds.” Rather, they said that no one should say to him, “remember your former deeds.”
Easy enough to say. How, though, is this to be achieved, in Amanda Todd’s world? Or Michael Vick’s? Whom do we teach not to pursue people with their pasts, and how do we rein in the technologies that make it possible to not only tell people’s pasts, but stir it up vividly, forever? How can we convince others that it is not only okay to forget other peoples’ pasts, but necessary?
I have no answers. But I felt hopeful after reading this story, which tells of a sports team which offered love to another sports team. I don’t know what landed. Perhaps if the Grapevine Faith students knew, they wouldn’t have been able to do what they did. But perhaps, just perhaps, simply reaching out to the Gainesville students, regardless of what they had done before, nevermind who they were, or what had been done to them, perhaps it will allow one or two or a few of them to leave the past behind them.
I am not really the kind of person who recommends books. I periodically review them, but that’s different. They get on the queue, I read them, I eventually get around to writing them up (Sorry, Aryeh, it did take a while this time), but I don’t usually go around suggesting books to friends. But this book is different.
So, let me begin by saying that I have recommended this book to just about anyone who might have the slightest reason at all to read it. First, I recommended it to all my colleagues at Occupy Faith DC, because, while few of them are Jewish, this book is an incredible map to creating justice in the kinds of urban settings that Occupy has dwelt in. Then, I recommended it to several people who work in specific social justice fields – not necessarily economic justice, although that too, but across the spectrum.
This book is different than any of the -now an entire genre- books of Jewish social justice. I have to admit – I’ve pretty much stopped reading them. I read a few at the beginning. I read one for review purposes not too long ago. I can get through most of them, and for people who like reading that sort of thing, that’s just the sort of thing they’ll like, and I recommend it. There are lots of good reasons for Jews to read these books, sometimes because it will pull them in to understand their Judaism better. More rarely, because I think it will make Jews who are already well-embedded in Judaism be better at thinking about justice. But few books in this genre are worth reading by people because they lay out a game plan for genuine social change that Jews can be part of, and even fewer would I suggest that non-Jews read.
But this book is different.
Rabbi Aryeh Cohen’s book, Justice in the City, (you can also read his blog, by the same name, here) is a beautifully (i.e. clearly) written (and since I assume it will someday be available on ebook, do get it hard copy, the book has a nice feel and layout, too), compelling, easy-to-read discussion of how rabbinic texts, primarily the Babylonian Talmud, lay out a vision of justice. Rabbi Cohen himself states his aim as slightly lower – what a just city should be- but in reading the book, there is merit in thinking of it as a broader picture than that. In fact my only minor quibble with the book is that it uses endnotes rather than footnotes (although they’re located after each chapter, but I still think endnotes are an abomination).
When I first picked up the book, I was a little concerned because Cohen lays out his project as as a dialogue between the Talmud and the modern, French (in my opinion pseudo-) philosopher Levinas. But I needn’t have worried; in fact, he uses Levinas almost as a foil, to craft questions shaped by Levinas’ methods to be more pointed, and the answers clearer.
Without giving anything away, the first half of the book (roughly) is dedicated to overall themes laid out by the rabbis ( he characterizes them as “Be like God and not like Pharaoh;” “the obligation of dissent;” and “the boundaries of responsibility”). The second half of the book lays out specific cases: homelessness, labor, restorative versus punitive justice. It is very clear how these can be applied to contemporary life, and this is what makes the book so valuable, not just to Jews, but to any people of faith seeking to create a better world. Continue reading
A few weeks before I began rabbinical school, I took a vacation and went to visit my in-laws where they were volunteering in the Peace Corps in the Ukraine. Although it was far from the first time I had traveled overseas – I had done quite a bit of traveling actually- visiting the Ukraine was quite different to any other experience I had had.
To travel to Ukraine, one had to apply for a visa, which was not always granted; Ukraine was still a relatively closed country, and did not welcome outsiders. It is a beautiful and interesting place, and we stayed for about a week, visiting different cities, meeting with people, talking to the people my mechutonim (in-laws) had been working with – all lovely. But after a day or two, something struck me as odd. I couldn’t quite place my finger on it, but as the week progressed, I finally realized what it was: there was an extreme regularity about people’s appearance. The relatively closed borders had resulted in a population where there were only a few facial types, skin shades only within a very narrow range (and of the rosy-cheeked variety that one reads about in fairy tales, but I had rarely seen in actual people), and so on.
Growing up in an urban area of the South Atlantic seaboard, I was used to seeing people of all sorts of colors, shapes, ethnicities; people who had immigrated in their own lifetimes or their parents’ or grandparents’. But in Ukraine, I saw none of that. Except, occasionally, I might see someone who looked different: they were easy to point out as “not Ukrainian.”
Until that trip, I had never really understood antisemitism. Not that I hadn’t experienced it – even in urban areas, we were still a location where one might encounter the sort of person who upon getting to know me might mourn, “you’re so nice, it’s such a shame that you’re going to hell,” or ask to examine my horns. But I never really understood what it meant for a person to live in a society where physically, they stood out as “other,” to the extent where they could be pointed out in the street. And when I suddenly grasped this in Ukraine, it was a bit of a revelation.
When the Israelites left Egypt, the Torah tells us that there were 600,000 men, plus children, and also an erev rav, a mixed multitude, went with them. This term, erev rav, later came to have a variety of connotations, not necessarily good ones: some commentators blamed this group for the Israelites straying after the golden calf. But the Torah makes no claims about who these people are at all.
I like to imagine that among them were the now-elderly Shifrah and Puah, the midwives to the Hebrew women who refused to slaughter Israelite sons, and whom, the Torah tells us (Exodus 1:21), God rewarded. I expect that among this group were also other, non-Hebrew, slaves. Perhaps there were also Egyptians, neighbors and friends of the Israelites, or those who simply could not endure the oppression of the Pharaoh towards the Hebrews, and were glad to leave.
Whoever these people were, the Torah, after announcing their presence, goes on to remind us that while foreigners and hired servants who are not circumcised and part of the Israelite family do not eat the Passover sacrifice, if a person joins the community and the males of that family are circumcised, they become fully part of the community and partake of it. Moreover, whether they do or not, “there shall be one Torah for the citizen and for the stranger that lives among the Israelites (Exodus 12:49), that is one law, one justice, the same for everyone.
Until recent times, and in some places to this day, nationality is, indeed, a racial or ethnic category. In some places, it’s easy to point out who belongs, and who looks different, who isn’t “one of us.” But for Jews, this isn’t – or at least, ought not to be- the case. Jewish law insists that one who takes on our practices, who goes through conversion and lives by Jewish law is a full member of the family, regardless of color or origin. Jews who make a distinction between converts and natal Jews, or because someone doesn’t “look Jewish” are, in fact, in violation of Jewish law.
But, I don’t think it’s enough to stop there. In some parts of the Jewish community great care is taken to physically separate themselves from non-Jews, or from Jews who practice in different ways. It is true, that this has some effect in preventing exogamy, and thus increases the number of Jewish grandchildren. But it also misses the point. If Judaism has a mission, then surely that mission involves engaging with the world, and offering to it some of our gifts. But before those of us in liberal communities get too comfy, let me add that that separation doesn’t always take a physical turn. It is also a form of separation to use fear of the other as a fundraising tool, or to refuse to engage with others whom we fear.
When the Temple in Jerusalem was destroyed, we ceased to offer sacrifices, and so there is no sacrifice partaken at the Passover seder. When we eat a seder meal, we invite in to eat “all who are hungry” in remembrance of a rabbi who opened his house to the hungry every night at the time of the Talmud. We invite all who wish to partake of a Passover meal. In earlier times, that was surely only and always other Jews, but today, it’s likely to be quite the erev rav. Many, if not most, of us have non-Jewish relatives. We invite non-Jewish friends who are curious about the seder, or moved by the story of the exodus. While the rabbis of past generations often saw non-Jews as a threat, or a seduction, today, in America at least, they are family, neighbors, and friends.
The Jewish community spends a great amount of time and money worrying about assimilating ourselves out of existence, but we often forget that that threat is there only because we are part of the fabric of every day life. More than tolerated, we are part of the American family.
In a place where everyone looks alike, and you can point to the person who looks different and say, “she’s the outsider,” there could once again be pogroms. And we are not done with that in the US either; as we have seen from recent events, being black in America is still “different,” and still dangerous. And of course, not everywhere is equally heterogeneous. But we are also not the Ukraine. If nothing else, America is a great erev rav, where everyone looks different, and whatever risks there are in that, we live in great blessing, where the Jewish community itself comes in a rainbow of colors, through marriage, conversion and adoption, and no less so are we part of a country where people from everywhere, of all colors, with a thousand different accents, live more or less in harmony.
Are we done with learning to get along? Not quite. Not completely. But it would be a mistake to think that we haven’t gained a great deal by mixing with our neighbors. I love the fact that at my seder table always has non-Jewish friends, people who look differently, think differently. I don’t fear my neighbors, no matter what they look like. We forget what an incredible blessing that is. In running the risk of getting mixed up, we also gain perspectives we never could have gotten from staying separate. There is holiness in separation, and we should continue to recognize our distinctions, but those distinctions are only relevant when we are among others with whom we can compare and discuss them.
This Passover, I’m feeling blessed not only in having been redeemed from Egypt to serve God, but I am thankful that I live in a place that when I walk down the street, I can see so many different kinds of faces, and God in all of them.