Earlier this month in The New York Times, Reza Aslan continued an ongoing argument against Bill Maher’s blanket condemnation of Islam, and also criticized those who insist that Muslim extremists are simply practicing Islam wrong. His op-ed says we need to recognize the complexity of any religion’s relationship with the good or bad behavior of its adherents.
He then goes a step further, saying, “It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.”
When I lead Torah study weekly at Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn, NY, I teach that our Torah remains vital and relevant because we bring our own experiences and ideas to it, combining the text with our lives to find new ways to think about both. While I think Aslan might be overstating his case a bit, it is quite true that interpretations of our sacred texts evolve with the times, as do our religious practice and our sense of which passages speak most to us, based on the perspectives we bring to the text. It has always been so.
At our Torah study, then, more than once, this question has arisen: How do we know that we’re not using the Torah, or the Bible, to just tell us what we want to hear? To put a finer point on it, how do we know that we’re not using the Torah simply to justify our own bad behavior?
It’s a tough question. One classic example of the Bible being used to support injustice is when pre-Civil War slaveholders used it to justify slavery. Today we find slavery abhorrent (though it continues to exist), and recognize that it is wrong even though the Christian and Jewish Bibles, as well as the Quran, are uncritical of it. A different, current example is the use of the Bible, usually Leviticus 18:22, to condemn homosexuality. I and many others believe this is using the Bible to support injustice. (A fascinating alternate interpretation of that verse is in the article “Pit`hu Li Sha`arei Tzedeq” by Rabbi David Greenstein.)
In Pirkei Avot, we read that Ben Bag-Bag said of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” That means we can find everything in there—good and evil, and justification for both.
So how do we know that we aren’t supporting injustice when we use the Torah to help us make choices? My answer is that we might not always be able to be sure, but we have to do the best we can. Here’s how to do that: Study the Torah, study the Bible, study whatever your sacred scriptures are, and study them some more. Do it with other people. Study what people before us have thought about it. Bring your own best sense of right and wrong. Pay attention to when you’re supporting something that causes harm to people—that’s a sign of injustice. Wrestle with the text and argue about it, and listen to what others think. Don’t expect black and white answers, and don’t settle for them. Don’t be so sure you’re right. Expect it to be hard.
And have faith. Faith in ourselves, in our study companions, and in our scriptures, faith that we’ll find a way for ourselves, and that we can bring more good into the world.
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My mother was born in Germany in 1939. She grew up there, emigrating to the United States in 1968, after she married my father. This was possible because my family of origin is not Jewish—I converted to Judaism in my late 20s. Throughout my childhood my family visited our German relatives frequently in the summer. My mother came from a large family, so there were a lot of people to see.
I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know about the Holocaust. By fifth or sixth grade, I was reading about it, and my parents made sure we learned about it. I was about 12 years old when, on one of our vacations in Germany, we visited the Dachau concentration camp site. I knew that my grandfather and my great-uncles were soldiers in the German army, and that one of my great-uncles was killed fighting in Russia. He was 18 years old. None of my relatives were members of the Nazi party, for which I am grateful, but none of them fought as resisters either.
As a teen and a young adult, I struggled with this legacy. In 2009, 10 years after my conversion, I wrote about my identity and what it meant to me. I met my husband in 1990. On his mother’s side, his family was also German, but they were Jewish. His maternal grandparents emigrated to the U.S. in the 1930s. Not all of his family got out.
My family in Germany welcomed my husband from the moment they met him, with open arms. There was never any sense of antisemitism from any of them, and when I decided to convert to Judaism, they were equally nonchalant about it. Over the years, I have asked a couple of my great-uncles about the war, and spoken to my grandmother about it, but it was not generally a topic of conversation with my aunts, uncles and cousins.
Then, last February, my husband and I received an email from one of my uncles by marriage, Onkel G—. He said his pastor had preached a sermon that asked the question of what Germans are to do about their past: Is it enough that they are aware of their responsibility and build memorials? The sermon really moved my uncle and made him think. He concluded his message to us by writing to my husband, “I know your parents and grandparents were particularly affected by the Germans’ Jew-hatred. I apologize for the crime which our parents committed.”
This is a man who never knew his father, because his father was killed in the war. I didn’t realize until he sent this email that no one in my family had said anything like this to us before. Onkel G— was a child during the Holocaust. He didn’t have to apologize for it, and my husband didn’t need him to do it. But the fact that he wanted to, and did, was deeply moving for us.
Nothing can turn back the clock. Every one of us who has harmed another or been harmed knows that. Furthermore, our tradition tells us that no one can forgive a sin that was committed against someone else. Nor can one atone for a sin committed by someone else. Nevertheless, a sincere apology for something we didn’t control, but that continues to have impact, can be meaningful.
Rosh Hashanah begins tomorrow evening. May we have the strength both to apologize sincerely and to forgive. May you have a good year and sweet year to come.
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I was a college student doing about 78 mph on my way from Pittsburgh to New York City to visit my boyfriend. Suddenly flashing lights appeared behind me, my stomach flipped over, and I was busted. The officer sauntered up to my window. He asked questions that I felt were intrusive, like where was I going, where was I coming from, who was I going to see. He made a comment about my “pretty face” being smashed if I crashed at that speed. I wanted him to just give me a ticket and go away. Finally he did.
This isn’t a dramatic story. Most of my interactions with police have been related to speeding. They have been uneventful. I doubt that police officers, when they see this white professional woman’s face, feel at all threatened. Even so, in the story above, I felt shamed and angry. I can only imagine how it feels to be stopped and frisked repeatedly, or pulled over for no reason other than my race. I expect that many officers engaged in those activities are showing at least as much condescension as was shown to me.
I can also only imagine what it is to be a police officer. Last week in the Washington Post, Sunil Dutta wrote about what it’s like for him and his colleagues. His emphasis was on the behavior of the person stopped, not on the behavior of the officer stopping them, though he mentions that officers should treat people with courtesy and respect. Research shows that students meet the expectations of their teachers. By the same token, the way people are treated affects their behavior and their self-image. Police officers have a lot of power over the people they stop. Treating people like criminals, humiliating them, or assuming they’re up to no good, all have an impact on the relationship between police and residents of a community that is detrimental.
Judaism places high value on the dignity of each person. In Genesis 1:27 we are told that humanity was made in the image of God—b’tzelem Elohim. This teaching urges us to recognize every person’s equal value and treat each other with dignity.
Our great rabbi Maimonides wrote that “The Sages say, ‘One who shames (lit., ‘makes white’) the face of his fellow… has no share in the World to Come’ (Pirkei Avot 3:15). Therefore, one must be careful in this matter—that he not embarrass his fellow publicly, whether a small or great [person]. And he should not call him a name which shames him, nor should he speak before him about a matter which embarrasses him.”
We are so far from these goals in many of the interactions between police and civilians in Ferguson, MO, though we saw the difference that mutual respect can make when the state highway patrol took over police operations there. Recognizing how difficult it is, we must move in the direction of honoring the dignity of every person and interacting with them accordingly. This is particularly incumbent on police, who have the power in their encounters with others.
Like everyone else I know who is active in the Jewish community, my Facebook page and email inbox have been inundated with articles about the Pew Research Center survey of U.S. Jews that was released at the beginning of October. With varying degrees of hand-wringing, they say it seems that the Jewish community is shrinking, and in another hundred years or so there will be no more Jews in the U.S. except a small number of Orthodox Jews. The message: We have to do everything possible to get people to stay Jewish and raise Jewish kids, or there won’t be any more Jews.
As I led Torah study at my synagogue in Brooklyn on Shabbat morning last week, these articles were on my mind while we discussed the story of the Tower of Babel in Parashat Noach. The story struck a chord for me this year. I realized that I sometimes feel like the Jewish community is saying, “If we could just build a big enough tower, we could get people to keep being Jewish!” and “We need to make a tower that 20-somethings will think is really cool, and then we’ll be OK!”
Of course this is a flipped-over Tower of Babel. Instead of a tower project enabled by everyone speaking the same language and having the same words, this tower is about trying to get everyone to speak the same language and have the same words. Nevertheless, both towers are about control—let’s make a name for ourselves, let’s control where the community is going.
The Jewish community is changing. I’m not sure what everything in the Pew survey means, though I do know it’s a snapshot in time, and that people’s spiritual needs change over time. I also know that I am a part of a rich and wonderful tradition that has a lot to offer. I trust that tradition. I believe we need to innovate and change. I believe we need to help Jews find a way to live their Judaism that is relevant and spiritually fulfilling. But I want that innovation and that outreach to be based on joy and love for our tradition, not on fear for its future. That positive attitude is what will make us stronger; not an attitude of desperation.
My synagogue is a small community—right now we have just over 100 families and individuals as members. At that Torah study last week there were 25-30 adults who were engaged and excited to wrestle with our Torah. They ranged in age from parents of young children to retirees. Some did not grow up with Judaism. Some weren’t interested in Judaism when they were in their 20s and 30s but became engaged later—through children, or spouses, or an awakening of interest in spirituality or their heritage. They don’t like everything they find in our tradition, but they find a lot that speaks to them where they are in their lives. Torah study allows us to get deeper than the superficialities of everyday life; it gives us a space to talk about the big issues and questions.
I’m less concerned with the Jews in the Pew survey and more concerned with the Jews in my pews. If, as a rabbi, I can facilitate exploration of Judaism and open the door to the joy and richness of Judaism for the people I meet at my synagogue and elsewhere, then perhaps they will choose to increase their involvement with Judaism in one way or another. Or maybe they won’t. I don’t control that. So I’m not going to wring my hands over it; I’m just going to keep trying to help people in their spiritual searches, and not try to build a Tower of Babel that will get them to be the Jews I think they should be.