Thanksgiving beckons loved ones together to count blessings and honor journeys toward freedom and plenty. Whether our ancestors traveled to these shores from afar or already resided here, our forebears began new lives somewhere else. They placed foundation stones in new worlds, and their dreams for the future fueled them up and down new ladders of social and economic mobility.
Perhaps Plymouth Rock doesn’t mark their exact landing spot, but the Pilgrims who reached the Massachusetts coast in 1620 still personify Thanksgiving’s legacy of dream and journey. Much the same legacy of dream and journey also descends to us from the Bible’s Jacob, whose story of foundation stone and ladder anchor this week’s Torah portion (Vayetzei). The synergies between the two – between the Pilgrims and Jacob, between Plymouth Rock and Jacob’s rock – invite us to reflect on how dreams, journeys, foundations and gratitude shape us on this Thanksgiving day.
No doubt the Pilgrims identified with Jacob’s story. Jacob left his home, journeyed to a new place and stopped there for the night. His story continues (Gen. 28:12-19):
Taking one of the stones of that place, he put it under his head and lay down in that place. He had a dream; a stairway was set on the ground and its top reached to the sky, and angels of God were ascending and descending on it. God was beside him and said, ‘I am the God of your father Abraham and the God of Isaac: the ground on which you are lying I will assign to you and your offspring.…’ Jacob woke from his sleep and said, ‘Surely God is present in this place, and I did not know it!’ Shaken, he said, ‘How awesome is this place! This is none other than Beth El (House of God), the gateway to heaven.’ Early in the morning, Jacob took the stone that he had put under his head, set it up as a pillar and poured oil on it.
Like Jacob, the Pilgrims journeyed to a new world and landed when and where nature brought them. They believed that God brought them to that place and gifted them land where others resided. They imagined this land to be holy, a gateway to a new heaven. In this new land, they would climb a new ladder of freedom and opportunity. For their children, the Pilgrims even created a Jacob’s Ladder toy to honor a Biblical reference that undoubtedly resonated with their own narrative.
The marker stone that moderns call Plymouth Rock, like the marker stone Jacob raised in tribute to his ladder dream, is not only symbolic but also theurgic – evoking God, memory and meaning. The stone pillow under Jacob’s head became a stone pillar of prayer and foundation stone for what Jacob called “Beth El” – House of God. The place we call the Mayflower’s landing site in Plymouth became “Plymouth Rock” and the foundation stone for a whole new civilization – what John Winthrop would call in 1630 a “City Upon a Hill” to shine as a beacon of hope and light for all humanity.
Fast forward to modern-day America. Today’s dreams and markers perhaps are less heady than the days of Pilgrim’s Progress and Jacob’s first Beth El. Even so, it it too much to hope that anywhere we lay our heads or lay a stone marker can be Beth El – a House of God? Is it too much to hope that everywhere can be a landing place for dreams and ascents, no less than for Jacob and the Pilgrims? Is it too much to hope that our own cities can become beacons of hope and light as much as Winthrop’s “City Upon a Hill”?
Thanksgiving celebrates and ignites these hopes – and also reminds us that hope isn’t enough. As families gather for Thanksgiving, many millions live amidst poverty, hunger, war and disease. As long as freedom and prosperity are blessings only for some, the shared dream of Jacob and the Pilgrims will remain unfulfilled. As long as want and fear continue by our own hands, both our civic foundation and our spiritual foundation – the proverbial rock of Beth El – will remain shaky beneath our feet.
Only when we roll up our sleeves and make universal the blessings we honor on Thanksgiving will the true meaning of Plymouth Rock and Jacob’s Rock become fully real for us. Only then will Beth El – the House of God – truly be uplifted as a “house … for all peoples” (Isaiah 56:7).
Election Day in the U.S. is coming. How will being Jewish shape your choice whether to vote?
This November, Americans will elect a new 435-member House of Representatives, a third of the Senate, 36 governors and 6,057 lawmakers comprising 82% of all state legislators. Like paying taxes, serving on juries and registering for the draft, voting is a civic calling critical to any democracy. Unlike other civic callings, however, voting is optional. Whatever the stakes, no law compels Americans to vote. In some elections, only a minority of eligible voters cast ballots – challenging democracy’s core ideal that “majority rules.”
In the “land of the free,” U.S. citizens have a right not to vote. Society advances by collective actions that democratically accountable governments make possible, but American law and society limit government’s power against potential intrusions on personal liberty. A law like Australia’s, which fines citizens who don’t vote, probably wouldn’t wash in the U.S.
While not compelled by civil law, Jewish Americans tend to vote in large numbers – and the political world knows it. In areas with strong Jewish presence, the “Jewish vote” is carefully tracked, highly prized and overtly courted. Groups like AIPAC and J-Street exist to influence Jewish votes and harness Jewish political power. So-called “Jewish issues” (often including Israel, Mideast policy and social programs) rise high on campaign platforms. In New York’s 2014 gubernatorial primary, Gov. Andrew Cuomo campaigned with pictures of himself at the Western Wall, while challenger Zephyr Teachout ran Yiddish campaign ads.
Most pundits and political scientists attribute high Jewish voting rates to higher income, educational attainment and commitment to social justice. Now a new reason is emerging: Orthodox rabbinic mandates to vote for specified candidates. Examples abound: in 2012, 49 rabbis issued a proclamation mandating votes for a Senate candidate opposed to same-sex marriage. In 2013, some rabbis directed followers to support a mayoral candidate adverse to same-sex marriage. Socially conservative rabbis increasingly hold that halacha (Jewish law) mandates votes for what they call “Torah values” in government. This trend is so strong that the New York Times asks, “Are Liberal Jewish Voters a Thing of the Past?”
This narrative begs key questions: does Jewish law require Jewish citizens to vote? Can rabbis tell congregants whom to vote for? What issues should shape the “Jewish vote”?
These questions aren’t new. After the 1948 founding of the modern State of Israel, some Israeli Jews asked if they should vote in elections for the new government. The Lubavitcher Rebbe answered (in Hebrew) that eligible voters must vote to install the most religious parties electable to office. The religious vote was so vital that rabbis told voters to sell their tefillin (ritual phylacteries) for money to reach the polls and cast ballots. At least one rabbi wouldn’t receive congregants on election day until they voted. Apparently, to rabbis it was obvious that Jews must vote.
These rabbis’ approach, however, is circular: it assumes rather than justify a duty to vote. It also fixates on the (ir)religious character of candidates and policies, not the act of voting. Worse, their approach is impossibly subjective and ripe for abuse. An rabbi opposing same-sex marriage (calling it “sacrilege”), and another opposing military intervention (calling it “murder”), each can wield rabbinic authority as a political bludgeon under the guise of “Torah values” on opposing ends of the electoral spectrum. As Joseph Soloveitchik (1908-1993) wrote, rabbis no longer can “be relied on to direct the people in ever-changing political issues: only a political system can [do that].” Thus, Soloveitchik held, Jews mustn’t inject religious dogma into the “shared public square” they cohabit with others.
Were Soloveitchik a constitutional scholar, he might have used the phrase “separation of shul and state” in telling rabbis that they have no authority to mandate voting preferences. His point, however, is clear: rabbis must stay out of the voting booth. That said, I believe that Jewish citizens must vote as a matter of Jewish law. Here’s why.
First, government is important. As in ancient days, we “pray for government’s welfare, for without fear of it [we] would swallow each other alive” (M. Avot 3:2). The duty to create and support government is one of the few duties that Jewish law recognizes for all, Jew and non-Jew alike (B.T. Sanhedrin 56a). To Maimonides (1135-1204), the purpose is to ensure public order (Mishneh Torah, Melachim 9:14); to Nachmanides (1194-1270), the purpose extends to include all social welfare (comm. B.T. Avodah Zara 4a). Public safety, health, social equity, the rule of law – the very fabric of modern life in an interdependent world –today require wise, effective and democratically accountable government as never before.
Second, Jewish tradition views government as a human partnership with God. Where Torah predicts that Israelites would want civil rulers instead of priests and prophets, Moses told the people: “[B]e sure to place over yourselves the king that God elects for you” (Deut. 17:14-15). The canon records that God chose the first king, Saul (1 Sam. 9:16-17). The second king, David, was chosen by God but confirmed by “all of Israel’s elders” (2 Sam. 5:3). The third king, his son Solomon, ruled in David’s bloodline but “all the people” together ratified his accession (1 Kings 1:39). Given this democratic shift, Talmud opined that not even God could select rulers without consulting the people (B.T. Berachot 55a). By medieval days, when Jews elected tax collectors to remit Jewish taxes to Christian realms, Moses Isserles (1520-1572) held that all taxpayers were to assemble and vote “for the sake of heaven” (Shulchan Aruch, Choshen Mishpat 163:1). Declining to vote means ignoring Torah’s notion of human partnership in the “heavenly” work of government. On the other hand, the Chatam Sofer (1762-1839) held that taxpayers who didn’t vote faced no compulsion: their only penalty was to forfeit rights to shape election outcomes.
What the Chatam Sofer didn’t seem to understand is the third and most important reason Jews must vote: Jews value collective action so highly that the public interest can compel individual behavior. The Chatam Sofer didn’t understand the political notion of a social compact: by choosing to live somewhere as citizens, we bind ourselves to contract with that society. As Shlomo ben Meiri (1080-1174, “Rashbam”) held, this social compact obliges Jews to honor the realm’s civil laws in exchange for the realm’s benefits and protection (comm. B.T. Bava Batra 54b). Jewish choice of residency also triggers a duty to help provide the benefits of society, lest anyone’s non-participation cause what economists call free riding. (If anyone could take a public good without giving, then all would have the same incentive – and the public good itself could disappear.) For this reason, Jews must not only pay for public benefits they receive (B.T. Bava Batra 8a) but also directly help as needed to serve the public (B.T. Bava Metzia 108a).
While Talmud’s day the main concerns for collective action were flood control, public transportation, civil defense and public health, in our day these concerns depend mainly on government. It is via government that Jews fulfill their civic duty to communities where they maintain residence and citizenship – not only by paying taxes, but also through public service and especially by voting.The implications are profound. Most pundits and rabbis describe the so-called “Jewish vote” in terms of Israel and Mideast policy, but the real “Jewish issue” is government’s effectiveness to perform its public duties. Understood properly, government’s whole agenda – public health and safety, social policy, criminal justice, environmental protection and more – is a “Jewish issue.” All are necessary concerns of Jewish voters as Jewish voters. That is the Jewish commitment to our nation, tradition and values – whatever our personal politics and partisanship may be.
Judaism’s wisdom tradition teaches that “You do not need to finish the work, but you are not free to desist from it” (M. Avot 2:16). Maybe no single election will fix the nation’s fate, but every election is important – and Judaism’s value of collective action mandates Jews to pitch in. If you’re a citizen, you are not free to stay home on Election Day. You are not free to free-ride on the votes of others. Get to the polls. Vote.
This post summarizes a rabbinic teshuvah (halachic dissertation) I wrote in partial fulfillment of requirements for rabbinic ordination from ALEPH: Alliance for Jewish Renewal. This post is dedicated to Rabbi Daniel Siegel, my dissertation advisor and co-author of Integral Halacha with Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi zt”l (1924-2014).
Like this post? Get the latest in MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
Yom Kippur conjures solemnity and foreboding for many Jews. Ritual fasting, abstinence, penitence, and rehearsing for death evolved as core Yom Kippur tradition to rivet and purify the soul. Hidden from most moderns, however, is another level of Yom Kippur that is bright and light rather than dark and heavy—a day of highest joy and even dancing.
Joy and dancing on Yom Kippur may seem like too-easy spirituality, untraditional or even heresy. But consider: liturgy for Kol Nidre evening begins with the Psalmist’s words of light and joy: “Light is sown for the righteous, and joy for the light of heart” (Ps. 97:11). In ancient days, “there was in Israel no day of greater joy” than Yom Kippur, when singles donned white and danced (Mishnah Ta’anit 4:8). If today this practice seems odd, to Talmud’s rabbis it was obvious! Coinciding with the day Moses received a second Tablets of the Covenant after the Golden Calf episode, Yom Kippur is our day of second chances, forgiveness and re-commitment (Ta’anit 30b)—truly a day of joy.
While the white clothes some wear on Yom Kippur rehearse our death by simulating the traditional Jewish white burial shroud, some moderns re-interpret wearing white to represent the light and joy of angelic purity. After all, light and joy are themes of Yom Kippur’s morning Haftarah. In the prophet Isaiah’s words, purification and holy living will cause our “light to break forth like dawn” (Is. 58:8), our light “will rise in the darkness” (Ps. 58:10), and we “will find our joy in God” (Is. 58:14).
Light and joy—but what of dancing? Talmud describes Israel’s ancient Yom Kippur choreography as m’kholot (circle dances). Tzvi Elimelech of Dinov (1783-1841), the Seer of Lublin‘s disciple, observed that circle dances are most fitting on Yom Kippur because m’kholot share a root word with m’khal, to pardon. The pardon to which Yom Kippur aspires is to return full circle—body, heart, mind and soul—to a condition before impurity.
Easier said than done… and maybe it’s why the Day of Atonement is called Yom Kippur rather than Yom M’khal. During the rest of the year, two words describe daily penance and purification—s’lakh (forgive) and m’khal (pardon). Only on Yom Kippur does liturgy expand to include the third and most complete level of purification—khaper (atone). My teacher, Zalman Schachter-Shalomi who died earlier this year, used to teach that these three levels of purification are like putting a computer file in the trash (forgiving), emptying the trash (pardoning), and wiping the hard drive (atoning). Yom Kippur is for wiping the hard drive: Yom Kippur is for returning full circle to purity.
Putting together these three words in the liturgy of Yom Kippur—s’lakh (forgive), m’khal (pardon) and khaper (atone)—their acronym spells samekh, the Hebrew letter that itself is a circle, the shape of Yom Kippur’s ancient circle dance. What’s more, in gematria (Jewish numerology), the value of samekh is 60, a number that in Jewish philosophy and law represents completeness. On Yom Kippur, we not only wipe our spiritual hard drives clean but also reconnect ends to beginnings, completing the spiritual circuit and becoming complete anew.
That’s why Yom Kippur—even in solemnity—also is for light, joy and circle dancing. It’s why my synagogue will observe Yom Kippur in traditional ways, and also with dancing. On this Yom Kippur, may we all join the ancient circle dance of light, joy and atonement for a truly good and sweet new year. Shanah tovah.
Dedicated to my teacher and circle dancer extraordinaire, R. Elliot Ginsburg.
Most moderns live life on the run. You probably don’t need any reminder, but the Bureau of Labor Statistics reports that the average American claims just 17 minutes per day to relax and think. If you’re like most Americans, you’re running out of time just reading this post.
Modern life has traveled far from the perhaps mythic ideal of Talmud’s sages, who set aside distractions for fully an hour before thrice-daily prayer (Talmud, Berachot 30b). Plainly they didn’t live at the pace of iPhones and split-second commodity futures trading. Ancient mystics who sat for hours in meditation never sat in rush hour traffic, late for a meeting, perilously low on fuel, while desperately needing a bathroom.
Spirituality and mindfulness, we’re told, need the spaciousness of time – yet precisely in all our society’s collective wealth and productivity, most multitasking moderns feel starved for time. Is it any wonder that spiritual wonder sometimes seems so elusive?
The upcoming High Holy Days challenge us to ask: Where is God at the speed of life? Maybe even more importantly: where are we at the speed of life? Where are we when we race – whether literally in body, or in our minds? How can we answer these questions if we don’t bask in time-intensive prayer or regular meditation?
We fast-paced moderns can indeed answer these questions – and, for our spiritual survival and sanity, we must.
The Psalmist wrote, Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid – “I will keep God before me always” (Ps. 16:8). Centuries earlier, Moses encountered God in a common thorn bush (Ex. 3:2). Later, Moses was recorded to teach that ein od milvado – “There is nothing else but God” (Deut. 4:35). These teachings all offer a common promise: awareness of holiness “always” is in our reach “everywhere,” even in “common” contexts. Whatever we may believe or sense in our frenzied pace, tunnel vision, distraction or religious predilections, the God of “always” and “everywhere” must mean God also – even precisely – at our speed of life.
Nice words, but do “always” and “nothing else” really help at the speed of life? Panentheists like Rabbi Art Green offer that everything is part of God: we, our iPhones, traffic jams and everything are part of the unfolding of evolutionary Being, all of them flowing with the potential for holiness. But even if we can imagine it cognitively, few find panentheism especially moving (and I know none who even say “panentheism”) while going nowhere fast in traffic.
For me, the power of “always” and “everywhere” is less in theology than empowerment. By definition, “always” includes now and “everywhere” includes here – no exceptions. If so, then heightened awareness beckons not despite but precisely from daily life’s rough and tumble. When we forget – and we all do – it’s not because cosmic reality changed, but because we stopped paying attention.
As New York Times columnist Frank Bruni recently wrote, how we focus our attention can invest even the most routine daily experience – even sitting at one’s desk, or getting one’s teeth cleaned – with the power to elevate the seemingly ordinary. This is the high potential of “now.” Shiviti Adonai l’negdi tamid: “I will keep God before me always” – even in the dentist’s chair, even in traffic.
The lyricist of “Hello, Dolly!” knew that “It only takes a moment to be loved a whole life long.” It only takes a moment to find our breath, notice a sunrise, smile at a passerby, or count a blessing. It only takes a moment to reclaim “now” – but make no mistake: this isn’t easy spirituality. Claiming a moment (then another, then another) is the teshuvah (spiritual return) to which we re-commit at Rosh Hashanah. Tools of spiritual life – prayer, study, meditation, reflection, good deeds – empower us to make Godly moments “always” and “everywhere.” What would the world be like if we all made a whole year of holy moments like that?
Try it next time you’re stuck in traffic.
Moved by this post? Join the conversation through MyJewishLearning’s weekly blogs newsletter.
About me: I’m a judicial officer. I’ve served on presidential and gubernatorial campaigns, and as counsel to my state Senate. I earned one academic degree in international relations, a second in public law and a third in public policy, and I’ve taught graduate law and policy courses. Even so, in my current role, judicial ethics bar me from publicly discussing most political issues. As such, this Jewish spiritual leader—trained for and steeped in public affairs—can’t publicly discuss the Mideast’s blow by blow. For talk of peace plans, war crimes, two-state solutions, one-state solutions, human shields and human pawns in Mideast politics, please look elsewhere.
Freed from adding my political voice to the Mideast cacophony—and given that most of us don’t readily absorb perspectives challenging what we already believe about the Mideast—my focus here can only be spiritual. So, in good rabbinic tradition, I’ll tell a story.
At bar and bat mitzvah ceremonies, clergy typically say nice things about young adults stepping into tradition. When I became bar mitzvah, I received a surprise. As I sat in front of my family and friends assembled for my bar mitzvah, the rabbi told them that, a few weeks earlier, he’d watched me punch another kid in the face. My blow broke the kid’s nose, which flowed with blood. For emphasis, the rabbi repeated the punch line: I broke the kid’s nose and his face flowed with bright red blood. My teenaged face must have turned bright red to hear this story, at my bar mitzvah, from my rabbi.
The rabbi’s point, he continued, wasn’t that I punched a kid or even that I acted in self-defense. What most got the rabbi’s attention was that he saw me cry while I delivered the knockout blow.
We’re called to cry when we cause pain. We’re called to cry for the fact that causing pain can be necessary in an imperfect world. We’re called to cry for the pain we inflict. We’re called to cry that we ourselves cause pain. We’re called to cry for the humanity of anyone who receives our blow.
Modern culture seems conflicted on crying. Once society held that “real men don’t cry,” but now some romantics seek “men who aren’t afraid to cry.” Some tears are bitter, but “laughter through tears” is a Steel Magnolia’s favorite emotion. Tears connote vulnerability; and often the real issue—the risk in crying—is the vulnerability and inner authenticity that tears depict. That’s one reason we blow the shofar on Rosh Hashanah—to simulate if not stimulate tears (Talmud, Rosh Hashanah 33a). On the other hand, often we judge an action wrong if it brings tears: in Hillel’s famous words, what is hateful to oneself, don’t do to another (Talmud, Shabbat 31a).
War is different, we’re told: “all’s fair in love and war.” It’s military gospel that waging war requires objectifying and dehumanizing people as “targets”: otherwise, most would find it impossible to fight. To be blunt, if purveyors of war let themselves cry, they might not be able to wage war or send others to battle. Psychologists understand this phenomenon in two ways. The first is social identity theory, by which we unconsciously tend to define ourselves by group affiliation. Even if groups are artificial (the classic experiment concerns color war teams at summer camp), in-groupers learn to dislike and even detest out-groupers, subconsciously deeming them inferior. The second, as Milgram’s classic experiment depicted, is conformity: we tend to defer to authority and view ourselves as conformist instruments of their will. Together group identity and conformity can reduce one’s sense of moral responsibility for behaviors that harm others. Such, in a nutshell, is the psychology of war.
Lest we cast scriptural tradition in more pious terms, even the Bible depicts war as psychological dehumanization. Steeling the Israelites for the military challenge of conquering Canaan’s peoples, Torah records God to instruct, “You will smite them. You will utterly destroy them … and show them no mercy” (Deut. 7:2). No mercy, no tears.
But if Jews must fight, Judaism asks more than merciless steel. To the Slonimer Rebbe (1911-2000), it was the Israelite slaves’ very “cry” under the weight of bondage (Ex. 2:23) that began the road to liberation – so Jews must cry for others, for Jews once were slaves in Egypt. One who steels oneself to another’s tears will “cry and not be answered” (Prov. 21:13). Even amidst destruction, the gates of tears never close (Talmud, Bava Metzia 59a). And one mustn’t glorify another’s demise: at the Egyptians’ defeat at the Sea of Reeds, God rebuked the celebrating angels: “My children are drowning and you sing praises?” (Talmud, Megillah 10b; Sanhedrin 39b).
Fast forward to 2014. At the moment of this writing, Mideast missiles stopped flying for now, but cries for war and peace continue to resound across social media, newspaper editorial pages and Cairo cease-fire talks. Meanwhile war’s innocent victims cry plenty.
But how about the tears from the rest of us, safely distant from the war zone, who either cry for war or cry for peace? If we defend the current Mideast violence, do we shed tears for its victims, or do we objectify them as out-groupers for whom suffering and death somehow are less tragic? If we condemn war’s spasms, do we shed tears for the grief that preceded it, or do we take moral refuge behind the price of war as if the status quo ante bellum caused no tears of its own? In short, are we crying the right tears of war and peace?
Crying isn’t enough, of course—the Mideast needs far more than our tears—but spiritually we each begin where we are. A Jew who throws a punch or advocates throwing one, but doesn’t cry for its resulting pain, misses Judaism’s higher calling. Conversely, a Jew who withholds throwing a necessary punch, or condemns throwing one because it would cause pain, might be no more justified because right action sometimes causes hurt. We dehumanize ourselves—we become less capable of moral choices—whenever we steel ourselves to pain we cause or decline painful acts that are necessary.
As a judicial officer I can’t take public sides on Mideast politics. But this much I can say: one who sheds no tears for victims of war has no right to advocate war, and one who refuses to cause necessary pain doesn’t know what real peace is. Those are truths for all of life’s battlefields – home, work, school, synagogue, family, everywhere.
And as for war and peace, if more of us cried the right cries of war and peace, then maybe soon there’d be less to cry about.