My boys are getting psyched for the upcoming release of the blockbuster Exodus: Gods And Kings. Exodus promises to be this generation’s The Ten Commandments or The Prince of Egypt, a theatrical rendition of the biblical exodus from Egypt that will resonate for years, if not decades. And, like any depiction of biblical material, it is already sparking controversy: both for its failure to include non-Caucasians in leading roles and for its depiction of God as a moody and demanding child. For eight and 11- year-old boys who attend Jewish day school, though, Exodus is a dream come true: matching the biblical narrative of yetziat Mitzrayim (redemption from slavery in Egypt) they have studied at length with a Hollywood director’s imagination and 3D special effects. Though both the plot and the acting are reported to be somewhat shaky, the digital cinematography will surely be breathtaking.
I plan to return to a discussion of the substance of this movie in my next blog, after I have had a chance to see and analyze it. But there is an aspect of the movie, and its relationship to the biblical narrative, that I want to discuss today because I think it addresses many of the most pressing social and racial issues of our times. Simply put, I hope the movie Exodus spends a good deal of time depicting the horrors of slavery that the Israelites endured before it moves on to the heroic tale of Moses and Aaron standing up to Pharaoh and the climactic battle at the Red Sea. One of the central tenants of Passover, in which Jews commemorate the exodus story, is that we are supposed to feel as if we, personally, were slaves in Egypt. The Torah, too, returns again and again (Exodus 12, Exodus 13, Deuteronomy 5, Deuteronomy 15, and Deuteronomy 24) to the injunction that we remember the experience of slavery in Egypt. Why? Why such a fixation on the bad part of the story of redemption, rather than just the celebration of God’s deliverance? I believe the answer is that we are compelled to feel empathy. We, as Jews, are not allowed to forget what it feels like to suffer, to feel powerless, to be subject to the whims of others.
As a society, we are suffering from a paucity of empathy. The story of Ferguson, I believe, is largely about this inability to experience empathy with what it feels like to be a young African-American in an urban environment. Lost in the cacophony over whether Officer Darren Wilson was justified in killing Michael Brown is this larger narrative of the persistent, systemic racism that results in young black males being seen as threats to law enforcement and thereby justifies their disproportionate incarceration and killing by police. As my colleague Rabbi Rachel Gurevitz recently put it, any effort to move forward after Ferguson requires us “to ask the difficult questions about what kinds of systemic or cultural biases lead to the taking of some lives more often than others.” The exodus story compels us to listen to the pain, the humiliation, and the anger of those of us who are enslaved to this system of injustice.
The same is true when it comes to the issue of President Obama’s recent executive action on undocumented immigrants. Most of the debate in the media and on Capitol Hill revolves around whether or not President Obama overstepped his constitutional authority in deciding not to deport approximately five million undocumented immigrants. But where is the discussion about what it feels like to live under the constant stress and duress of being forcibly removed from one’s family? To put down roots in a community, day after day, year after year, while knowing that these roots can be torn apart at a moment’s notice? About having to decide between reporting an abusive spouse and risking arousing the attention of law enforcement versus keeping silent to remain under the radar? The exodus story compels us to listen to the fear, the frustration, and the suffering of those enslaved to an intransigent, unjust, and nonsensical immigration system.
Today is #Giving Tuesday, a day dedicated to giving back to our communities following the gluttonous consumption of Black Friday and Cyber Monday. Donating one’s resources to charities is, of course, a wonderful mitzvah. But, as my colleague Rabbi Amy Small recently wrote, writing checks of offering other financial support is not enough. “The real impact on our world and on our life’s purpose comes through generous acts of doing.” Doing generates empathy. You can’t click your way to experiencing what it is like to go hungry by dropping off a can of soup to your synagogue’s food pantry collection, but you can if you participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, spending a week (or even just today) trying to live on the $29.40 per week that those receiving food stamps (SNAP benefits) have to spend on food. Or you can spend time working at a food pantry, talking to those who are recipients, hearing their stories.
Judaism commands us to remember, to experience anew, so that we can empathize with those who are still struggling. May we be leaders in urging our society to experience what it feels like for those of us who are marginalized; for those who suffer through the systemic injustices of our current society. And in doing so to defeat the Pharaohs of our own day and to help us transform our own society into something a little bit more holy. Now that’s a message I want to teach my boys.
Teenagers Sasha and Malia Obama couldn’t keep a straight face during the annual Turkey Pardon Ceremony.
Thank God for their commentary in body language!
How could anyone keep a straight face during this grotesque theater of the absurd? Two turkeys, Mac and Cheese, named sardonically for vegetarian foods, were publicly pardoned. This took place just after 45 million un-named turkeys were slaughtered for the American celebration of Thanksgiving.
Maybe the pardoning ritual is an uncomfortable joke. Maybe it is an admission of guilt. Maybe it is an awkward attempt at an atonement ritual. Logically, we know that two spared lives cannot erase 45 million deaths. But maybe the ritual of pardon has some power.
Not as much power, though, as the ritual of a thanksgiving offering of animal life.
In Nepal, this week, many celebrated the festival of Gadhimai. In gratitude to this goddess, hundreds, perhaps thousands, of buffalo were butchered. Many American animal activists criticized the foreign festival; some drew parallels with American Thanksgiving.
Jewish parallels can be drawn as well. Some Jewish writers call Sukkot the Jewish festival of thanksgiving. During Sukkot, the Talmud says, 70 animals were offered on the altar. Lest readers be outraged by such decadence, the Talmud hastens to explain its meaning. Seventy animals hint at the 70 nations of the world. Delicately put, a thanksgiving offering touches a universal chord in human nature. Less delicately, a massive sacrifice of animals brings all people together.
Maybe this explanation seems obvious to you, but to me it begs for psychological and sociological interpretation.
Many Jewish scholars describe eating meat as a “compromise.” The Torah explains this through a teaching story: The original human beings were told to eat grasses and seeds. Only ten generations later, however, people and animals were killing one another. God wiped the earth clean with a flood and restarted it with some new rules. People, who could not avoid killing, could now satisfy their impulses by eating animals.
Perhaps partaking of meat at a festival affirms our species-being. Yes, we are aggressive, the ritual teaches, but we do not need to kill one another. Together we affirm a pact: we kill only other species, and only to eat. At American Thanksgiving, we affirm this pact with family and friends; in the Talmud’s vision of the Temple, strangers from around the world affirm it together. The Temple thus becomes a centre of peace.
Of course, some contemporary psychologists would object. Some may view these extravagant meat-based festivals as bonding rituals. But research shows that people who harm animals are more likely to harm people. The manifest lessons of peaceful festivals contain subtle, subliminal messages of aggression: Us versus them. Desensitization.
When you see through the manifest content to the mixed messages, it’s hard to keep a straight face.
Maybe the U.S.’s first daughters were simply uncomfortable watching their father tell bad jokes on TV. But to suggest that would be to underestimate teens. Real teenagers see inconsistencies, ask edgy questions, and work the answers out in deep private conversations.
That’s why I have tried to see this season through fresh teenage eyes. Thank you, Sasha and Malia, for helping me take another look at festive animal offerings and ask, “Why?”
Photo Credit: Dan Smith, Wikimedia Commons
This Thanksgiving, I felt so grateful for the presence of beloved family. Yet I was also mindful of a friend’s recent comment on the need to have sympathy for those who did not have family with whom to share the holiday. Whether by geography, strained or broken relationships, illness and loss, many could not share the holiday with families.
Others endured the indignity of not being able to afford a Thanksgiving meal. Suffering at home on the holiday, or visiting soup kitchens, it can’t be easy to be outsiders in a culture that seems to elevate “things” over people.
The holiday season has crept earlier, beginning around Halloween. That means that for two months the season of “sharing” can be painful for many people.
Isn’t it ironic that the holiday of “thanks” is celebrated with feasts where abundant food is consumed and discarded? Where is the connection of thankfulness to gluttony? What does this mean for our souls?
The greater irony is that the season of “giving” begins on the holiday of “thanks,” as feasting quickly gives way to shopping. It has become a season celebrating conspicuous consumption.
Enter #GivingTuesday, designated for the Tuesday after Thanksgiving – after the Black Friday and Cyber Monday shopping feasts.
Founded in 2012 by leaders at New York’s 92nd Street Y, #GivingTuesday is a global day dedicated to giving back. Its common purpose is: “to celebrate generosity and to give.” It brings together charities, families, businesses, community centers, and students around the world.
How can we give generously? Many of us will write checks to charities at year’s end. These tzedakah dollars are essential to countless organizations doing so much good in the world.
Yet, as important as that giving is, it is not enough. The real impact on our world and on our life’s purpose comes through generous acts of doing. By getting involved, we can make a difference in people’s lives while living our values.
Doing good becomes a natural habit through experience. There are many hands-on ways to give. The Jewish Council for Pubic Affairs will participate in the Food Stamp Challenge, starting the Sunday after Thanksgiving, to raise awareness of hunger and poverty in the United States. For one week, participants will limit their food budget to the average food stamp (SNAP) benefit. The Jewish Federation of Greater Metrowest is holding a “Community Challah Bake” to benefit hundreds through Jewish Family Service and local food pantries.
It is important to contribute generously to sustain social justice, learning and religious organizations. But this week, we can commence the season of “giving” with mindfulness of our values and commitment to nurture generous living. True giving won’t be found at stores. It requires a heart-opening to the needs of others, and a commitment to make a difference.
I’ll be at the Challah Bake on Tuesday. How will you get involved?
Two Israelis were stabbed last week, Israeli military and police response has continued, and leaders within Fatah have begun talking about a third intifada. There’s no rational response to the heartbreak and fear the Jewish people are feeling right now toward circumstances that threaten our connection to a place we call home. Indeed, we are a people who has historically been forced, in a state of fear, to flee from land to land, deprived of the luxury to think of any place as home.
Today in the US, not only the Jewish friends I have, but also most people I am in contact with, no longer move from place to place out of fear, but propelled by promises of prosperity, or perhaps by the force of history. Whether I am in Israel, or in the US, I feel the pain of being uprooted again, and again. Of not being indigenous to any of the lands I’ve lived on, nor knowing any longer what “home” means. Having just moved to a new city, I am grieving the people and places I will forget as I depart for a new place and meet new people.
This week, in Parashat Toldot, we read that Isaac is thriving, despite losing contact with his father after Abraham attempts to sacrifice him on a mountain. The Torah says, “Isaac sowed in [the] land and reaped a hundredfold the same year” (Gen 26:12). But one day, as Isaac tries to get water for his household, he finds that “the wells which his father’s servants had dug in the days of his father Abraham” have been stopped up with earth. Then king Abimelech tells him to go away (26:15-16). This, according to commentator Nehama Leibowitz, is “the first expulsion” of the Jewish people, foreshadowing millennia of exile, persecution and wandering. Our feelings of uprootedness start here.
Powerfully, however, Isaac does not flee. Instead, he settles there and “dug anew the wells which had been dug in the days of his father Abraham.” A midrash sees Isaac’s act of uncovering the wells as representative of yishuv ha’olam, settling more deeply into his world. Not only does he redig these wells, but “he gave them the same names that his father had given them” (Gen 26:18). In his act of naming, Isaac places himself in relationship with his estranged father, and the history of his family in that particular land.
According to psychological research, “The more children [know] about their family’s history, the stronger their sense of control over their lives, the higher their self-esteem and the more successfully they believed their families functioned.” Despite all our displacement, this research tells us that in order to thrive, we need to reclaim our sense of belonging – wherever we are. Can we, like Isaac, begin to uncover the wells of our ancestors? How do we settle more deeply into the feeling that we belong, whether we consider ourselves to be living in a promised land, diaspora, or exile?
As we drink the water from these wells, the stories of our ancestors give us perspective on our daily experience. Learning these stories, we become more resilient. For me the water is the book of midrash my great-great grandfather wrote, the journal my great-aunt kept, and the family tree my mother has been assembling. As I open the covers of these wells, I prepare to nourish my roots, and ground myself more deeply in the soil of this moment of my life.
Today likely is going to be a rough day for liberals. Election prognosticators are predicting that Republicans will win enough Senate elections to re-take majority control of the Senate. This will give the Republican Party control of both houses of Congress for the first time since the Bush Administration.
This result will be painful to many liberals because it is based not on an ideological change in the electorate, as occurred in 1994, but on the success of Republican obstinacy and effective ineffectiveness over the past two years. This Congress is on pace to become the least effective Congress, in terms of bills passed, in U.S. history! The Republican Party has been transparent in its desire to block any Democratic domestic legislative proposals, even those that hold strong support nationally. As Senator Mitch McConnell, who is poised to become the new Majority Leader of the Senate, famously remarked in 2010, “the single most important thing we want to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president.” There is little effort to pass constructive, pro-active legislation. Instead, the Republican Party has been fixated on events of political theater such as the House of Representatives voting 54 times to repeal, defund, or otherwise thwart the Affordable Care Act (“Obamacare”).
It can feel dispiriting to see obstinacy and ineptitude rewarded with more power when there are so many critical issues in need of resolution. Competent governance, isolated from petty politics, would come up with a way to pass middle-of-the-road measures such as gun control laws requiring that anyone who purchases a gun first passes a background check; comprehensive immigration reform that includes a slow but transparent path to citizenship for the eleven million undocumented residents currently living in America; climate change legislation, whether via a cap and trade program or a carbon tax, to make a significant reduction in our carbon emissions; funding to update our crumbling infrastructure and our archaic electronic grid. These (and countless others) are issues that ought not be liberal or conservative issues. They are the type of progressive, moderate legislation that is necessary to keep our country safe and vibrant. And they are all pipe dreams in a Republican Congress.
So what is a despondent progressive to do today? I was thinking about this last night as I attended a lecture by the Israeli journalist Ari Shavit, author of the bestseller My Promised Land. Shavit was discussing the events of this past summer in Israel and what his vision is for Israel’s future. One thing he said, in particular, struck me. Shavit declared that Zionism is all about being active. Zionism rejects apathy and passivity. It is based on the premise of making the impossible possible. It is about dreaming the dream and then grounding that dream in reality through blood, sweat, and tears. The miracle of Israel’s creation, and its continued existence, is testament to what Zionism can achieve.
I do not mean to suggest that a midterm election is on the same par as the 2000 year struggle to reclaim the Jewish homeland. The political and theological impact of the creation of Israel is incomparable. But I do believe there are instructive lessons from Shavit’s depiction of the modern Zionist struggle that those who are in political mourning would do well to learn. First and foremost, to those who are feeling despondent,don’t give up. Don’t feel defensive about the Affordable Care Act, income inequality, or the need for enhanced environmental regulation.Don’t take this election as a repudiation of your values and aspirations. Continue to dream and hope. Come up with a vision for the society you want to create, and then go about the hard work of realizing this vision pragmatically and skillfully. After all, starting tomorrow, the battle for 2016 begins anew!
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).
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.
“Why do bad things happen to good people” is the most fundamental question of theology. Just about everyone has given it some thought in his lifetime. It’s a simple question, and its outlines are more or less like this: If God is indeed omniscient (all-knowing) and omnipotent (all-powerful), and if He is just and righteous as well, why does He permit upright and honest individuals to suffer. It would seem to be a contradiction in terms, and this apparent contradiction has brought many to the brink of despair … and beyond.
The issue actually presents itself at the very outset of the Torah, which we are just beginning to read anew this Shabbat. We are told that two sons are born to Adam and Eve. One of them, whose name is Abel, is presented as a fine, God-fearing man, while God is extremely displeased with his brother Cain and as a result the latter becomes angry and sullen. To make a long story short, Cain ends up killing his brother with no apparent provocation.
Why did God let him do it? The Torah says explicitly that God knew something malevolent was brewing. Immediately before the murder, God says to Cain “sin crouches at the door.” So God is right there at the scene of the crime, and he is totally aware of what is going on. Yet He deliberately refrains from stepping in to prevent the homicide from taking place!
Let’s backtrack for a moment. Put aside the question of why. The fact is that God did not save Abel from his brother’s onslaught. The Torah is telling us straight out that God does not see His role as one of intervening to prevent crime or to protect the righteous. If we use the argument of “why do bad things happen to good people” as a basis to challenge religious faith, we are seriously mistaken, for it turns out that “bad things happen to good people” is actually a fundamental of biblical religion! To put it differently, this tragic story of fratricide is right here at the beginning of the Torah to nip in the bud any potential misunderstanding: God is right here, but He is not here to stop us from harming each other.
And why not? – Well, right after God says to Cain that “sin crouches at the door,” He adds that “it endeavors to gain mastery over you, but you may yet overcome it.” There is a mighty struggle going on with us, and apparently, allowing this struggle to run its course is more important to God than ensuring that human events always turn out justly. This struggle is the source of evil – when we fail to overcome temptation – it is also the very source of all good. It is of the very essence of the meaning of being human. God created us to grapple with the evil inclination and to choose good, and that entails the possibility of us choosing evil. We are given free will to make bad decisions, and it is exactly that option that makes good decisions good. If God were to prevent all evil – thereby stymieing free will – good would lose all meaning. Life would be emptied of its primary significance.
God has created an unredeemed world, and it is for us to redeem. He has put within us an imperfect character and it is for us to perfect. God will not do it for us. That would fly in the face of the entire Divine plan. It is man’s job.
So when bad things happen to good people, don’t ask “where was God?” God was most certainly there. The question to be asked is rather, “where was man?” God was there, providing us with the opportunity to better ourselves through choosing good. It was one of us who dropped the ball.
Nine months ago I opened the front door of my apartment in Alon Shvut and took a 20-minute walk that began to change my life. My wife asked me to reconsider—it might be dangerous, she said—but I went anyway. My heart beat just a little bit faster than usual as I walked through the Arab fields and vineyards that surround my home in the Judean Hills.
Just a few days earlier I had sat in my living room with a Protestant pastor from the US who had come to the Holy Land in order to meet Palestinians, meet Israeli settlers, and then introduce them to each other. He listened to my story of biblical Zionism and of passionate connection to the rebuilding of Jewish life in the biblical heartland. He heard of my identification with our forefather Abraham, with Isaac and Jacob and with the whole panorama of Jewish history—and then he invited me to a little gathering on a Palestinian farm plot at where Palestinians and Israeli settlers might be able to begin to get to know each other.
Never before had I met a Palestinian as an equal, never before had I socialized with one or broken bread with one. I knew nothing about them. We live so close to each other, and yet we are so far apart.
For us the Palestinians are the consummate other. The other that you ignore, that you never see. The other that you would never give a ride to, the other that you would never invite into your home. The other from whom you are completely distant, the other of whom you are thoroughly suspicious.
For 3 hours or more I chatted with them and ate with them. I looked into their faces from up close, and saw—despite my prejudices—human faces. And I heard stories that were so different from my stories, stories that created strange unfamiliar narratives from the same building blocks as my own narrative, but which I could not reject out of hand. The stories I heard—of deep connection to the land, of exile, of suffering, of humiliation, of loved one lost in the conflict—were authentic and they were real. Never before had I heard such stories. And they affected me deeply.
One Palestinian man—who turned out to be a very close neighbor, except that a very high chain link fence separates between our homes—told me of the fear evoked in the hearts of his children when they saw a settler with a big kipa and long beard like mine. I didn’t get it, until he explained that the kipa and beard were often accompanied by a rifle. And then I began to understand. I blurted out to him, “You say that you are afraid of us? No, we are afraid of you!”
As it began to get dark and there were about 25 or 30 of us left, we sat around in a circle and heard the life story of Ali Abu Awwad, former militant turned nonviolent peace activist. He spoke of nocturnal raids by the Israeli military, of rights denied, of prison. And I knew it was true. I had suppressed my memories of participating in those raids and guarding those prisoners decades ago as a young soldier—and it all came back to me, flooding my consciousness.
Ali’s reality made its way into my heart … and I will never be the same. His truth has not made mine any less true, rather it has shown my truth to be only part of the complex web of the reality in which we live. My life has become so much more complicated as I hold within my consciousness two conflicting truths that are both valid. Loose ends are dangling within me. I have become much more fragmented yet much more whole. As I embrace more and more partial truths, my horizons expand in the direction of the Infinite One, within Whom all truths find their proper place.
These days leading up to Rosh Hashanah are days of teshuva—soul searching and penitence. May my teshuva this year—the most intense and the most paradigm-shattering I have ever experienced—be acceptable before God.
Postscript – The events described above gave birth to Roots/Shorashim/Judur – The Israeli Palestinian Initiative for Grassroots Understanding, Nonviolence and Transformation. For more information, go to www.friendsofroots.net
I always forget, in between trips, how stunningly beautiful Israel is. When I return, it is like opening a favorite book, one which I’ve read many times, but always return to, looking for my favorite characters, the details of the scenery, the magical, incredible, plot that is its history, the opportunity to feel the Divine in a place, and see it, face-to-face.
As I write this, I am flying home from Israel, and I can’t help but reflect on how this trip has been different for me than previous time spent here. This time, I was here to help staff the Americans for Peace Now study tour. I had offered to my friend and chevruta (study partner), who had made aliyah some years ago, to accompany us on the day that we went to Hebron – you can see what he wrote here. His words reflect those of many people who accompanied us: it is a powerful, and powerfully disturbing, part of our trip.
As one walks down the eerily deserted Shuhada street, formerly a central artery of the city and a road on which only Jews are now permitted for nearly all its length, one sees hundreds of shuttered shops, homes belonging to Palestinians that they cannot enter except by hopping from rooftops, soldiers protecting the 700 settlers in the midst of a city of 250,000 Palestinians. Perhaps the lingering power of the day comes from the opportunity to meet with Bayit Yehudi’s MK Orit Struck, whose defense of this arrangement seems strangely out of tune for a religious person. Her political goals of continuing to annex Palestinian land, her disinterest in the difficulties and pain that this causes Palestinians, and her long-term hope for a religious government are difficult to reconcile with the Judaism that I love for its attendance to justice. Perhaps it is the realization that Hebron is not the only place that this happens: it is simply the place where –if one chooses to go and see it, which most would rather not, and do not – it is the most visible, it is the most shocking.
In last week’s Torah portion, Ki Tavo, we read (Dvarim 27: 17), “Cursed be he who moves his neighbor’s boundary.”
Although this oath (which appears as a mitzvah -commandment- first, not long ago in chapter 19), usually referred to as Hasagat gvul, was expanded by the rabbis to refer to any kind of economic competition, its simple meaning of stealing land by stealthily rearranging the way the borders of the land are marked, as Rashi points out, not one sin, but two. It is, first, a way that the powerful exploit those with less power who cannot defend themselves, but it is also a sneaky sort of sin, something one does “under cover of night,” while “no one is watching,” but which in reality also has to be tacitly allowed by the community in which it happens.
But it shouldn’t be this way. This week’s Torah portion reminds us (Dvarim 29:28), “The hidden things belong to God, but the revealed things apply to us and to our children forever….” Rashi comments that this means that those who do wrong in secret will be punished by God, but when the community knows about it, it is up to us to police it and we are accountable.
Whether in Tel Aviv or Haifa or Jerusalem, everywhere you look, you can see innovation and beauty and creativity. Israel is a developing society, and one which can give so much to the world. But it also suffers from a small group of extremists who are pushing the government to act in ways that are detrimental to its own health.
The opening verses of this week’s Torah portion (Dvarim 29: 9-11) states, “Today you all stand before (lifnei) God …all of Israel …to enter into a covenant with God…” The Kedushat Levi (Rabbi Levi Yitzchak of Berditchev) connects the use of the word “lifnei” (“before”) in our Torah portion to the use of the word “panim” (“face”) referring to a discussion in the Talmud (Rosh Hashana 16a) of the prayer service for Rosh Hashana, the Jewish new year, which we will celebrate in fewer than two weeks. He explains that the term “panim” refers to when we are in tune with God – that panim means we turn our faces toward right action, and in turn God turns Her face toward us – as opposed to God looking away from us when She is displeased with our actions.
Rosh Hashanah, aside from being the new year, is also a holiday of judgment: it is the day on which the nations – including Israel- come before God to be judged. So, says the Kedushat Levi, our goal for Rosh Hashanah, should be that we reestablish ourselves in a face-to-face relationship with God, to do right so that the Divine “face” will turn towards us.
I don’t know what the answer is, but it is clear that the ongoing settlement project, in Hebron and elsewhere, is one that is turns us away from God’s face. Aside from the role it plays in preventing a two-state solution, it is, indisputably, a violation of our own laws and ethics. I pray that this new year, we will find a way to create honest fences, and be good neighbors.