When I cook in my kitchen, I have a lot of company. I sometimes speak aloud to my grandmother who helps me intuit when the recipe “looks right.” My father looks on when I make pizza—none was better than his. My mother-in-law sits at the kitchen table recopying her recipes, telling me stories about her life. They are blessed and welcome spirits who provide context for my life.
But I have other company, too—sometimes in my kitchen, but not always. They come unbidden, but are welcome. They teach me to receive every moment of life not in expectation, but as an astonishing and treasured gift—and above all—as a limited resource.
They are the souls who treasured a crumbling crust of bread from their meager prisoners rations in the labor camps. They are the mothers and children who starved in the siege of Leningrad. They are our ancestors who were caught in sieges when the first and second Temples fell, or when the Crusaders crushed their lives. They are the helpless and voiceless pawns caught in current national and global conflicts. They are our neighbors, nearby and a world away. And they remind me that human suffering at the hands of tyrants cannot be sorted into neat columns of place and time and nationality or placed in historical context. They provide context for the way people behave in the world.
Understandably, we try to do this, especially when the reality of the human capacity to harm others makes us feel as if we can’t breathe, either. It’s all just too big to grasp. But really, the tragedies are not about sheer numbers, nor the depth of an oppressor’s depravity. Every tragedy is individual. Mothers, fathers, sons and daughters—whose precious lives were cut short in the name of ideologies – were all once babes dandled on their parents’ knees.
I have no idea how those who survive/d in the most extreme suffering manage/d to open their eyes each morning. I would like to think I could, somehow, to be resourceful enough to not starve or freeze to death. To do whatever it would take. Would I be strong enough? Perhaps. Would the overwhelming pain of it all make my soul long to flee my body? Very likely. Would I be able to pray? I’m not so sure—because when I see the news, I am not so sure I can pray today, either.
The cultures that razed the temples to the ground, brought about the horror of the crusades, and the scourge of the diabolical reign of madmen in the last century were easily identifiable enemies. But the threat we now face is more insidious, and just as deadly. It emerged over the years with war games and paintball and laser tag and the Hunger Games. And today, just as in ancient Jerusalem, the oppressor’s culture is alluring to many even as it destroys the lives of innocents. Today, though, we have no idea if our neighbors are among those who are armed and ready to do harm to others and claim it as their right. Today, we do not know if our children are safe in their schools. How did this happen? In the words of Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel: “Few are guilty, but all are responsible.”
Last Sunday was the second yahrzeit of those who were murdered in Sandy Hook. That town is right next door. Literally. Members of my congregation live there. And they will never, ever live “normal” lives again. Their friends and neighbors lost their children, their innocence, their sense of physical security and for many, their faith in humankind—forever. Children all over town have been traumatized beyond description. In Sandy Hook, as in all other communities in which such tragedies occur, the earth spins slightly off its axis.
Since that infamous day, over 70,000 of your neighbors have been senselessly murdered with guns, and another 200.000 have been wounded. The scale of these atrocities add up to staggering numbers while the ability of their assailants to be armed to the teeth (some 300 million weapons in civilian hands) is each day protected in the name of the chilling ideology that a one’s right to own a gun outweighs the rights of children (and all of us) to live in security. How powerful is the fear of an enemy that cannot be identified! We would, as a nation, never tolerate such an assault from an external enemy. And yet, it is nothing short of terrorism. In truth, the earth is spinning of its axis for all of us.
Rabbi Avraham Joshua Heschel said, when he attended a demonstration against the Vietnam war, “I am here because I cannot pray.” I get it. The anger and frustration have to be channeled into positive, wise and compassionate action.
And I have to ask each morning: what can I do to be worthy of this day, of the breath I draw? If I cannot utter a prayer, is there some way I can BE a prayer? Can I find the wisdom and strength to do whatever it will take, even in my own small way? I think of the Maccabees who were small in number and mighty in the strength that they drew down from the Creator of all life, and of the light and love and justice that are commanded to bring into the world. Like the oil that burned miraculously in the menorah of old, will I be able to burn bright enough, for long enough?
Think of Yael, who risked her life to ensure that the Maccabees would be victorious. Think of Judah and Mattathius who lead the few and the brave. We know our ancestors’ names not because they set out to do something earth-changing—but because they did something—and that something, eventually, changed the world. They remind us that when we respond to the call for justice, and do something—we are worthy of our breath – praying with each small act, lighting one small light at a time—and changing the world.
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.
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.
Sarah our Matriarch passes from the world in this week’s Torah Portion, Hayei Sarah. It is a good opportunity to examine the legacy of her relationship with Abraham her husband.
Only three times in the whole Torah does Sarah our matriarch speak to her husband Abraham. All three instances are in contexts of frustration or conflict in which Sarah is deeply perturbed. In all three cases Abraham does exactly what Sarah asks of him. And in all three cases we find modern feminist commentaries suggesting that Abraham could have reacted very differently than he actually does!
In the first instance, after Abraham and Sarah have suffered decades of barrenness, and ten years since God has promised to make of Abraham a great nation, Sarah says to her husband “Consort with my slave girl; perhaps I shall have a son through her”. Our matriarch has seemingly despaired of ever bearing a child in her own womb – she is indeed 75 years old at this point! – and selflessly offers her maidservant to Abraham as a surrogate mother. “And Abraham heeded Sarah’s request”.
Sarah’s maidservant Hagar conceives … and Sarah is unexpectedly devastated. She is humiliated by the protruding belly of her servant, while her womb is still empty. She feels denigrated by the intimacy between Abraham and Hagar that is broadcast throughout the camp by the pregnancy. Her feminine identity takes a terrible beating, and she lashes out at Abraham, irrationally proclaiming “The wrong done me is your fault! I myself put my slave girl in your bosom; now that she sees that she is pregnant, I am lowered in her esteem”. The patriarch dutifully responds to his wife saying “Your slavegirl is in your hands. Deal with her as you think right.”
In the third dialogue between husband and wife, Ishmael, the son born through Hagar, is already on his way to becoming a young man, and is described as mocking Isaac, the young child that God has in the meanwhile miraculously brought forth from Sarah’s own womb. “She said to Abraham, “Cast out that slave girl and her son”. And here again, despite his pain and misgivings, the patriarch arises early the next morning to do exactly what his spouse has demanded.
Should we – and here I am speaking to our male readers – learn from the example of Abraham, immediately acquiescing to what our wives have asked? Perhaps not!
In Men Are From Mars, Women Are From Venus, author John Gray suggests that men ought to remember that women talk about their problems and suggest avenues of possible action, in order “to get close and not necessarily to get solutions.” They may not want a fix but rather a sympathetic ear and a sincere validation of their emotional struggles. Men and women at times speak different languages.
Perhaps Sarah was really not so naive as to believe that her husband could be intimate with her maidservant without the whole structure of their marriage being shaken. Perhaps she really didn’t countenance her husband actually acceding to her request to go in to Hagar. She just wanted to talk about it, to explore her feelings with Abraham, to let him know how terribly bad she felt that her childlessness was preventing him from realizing God’s promise to him. She desperately wanted to be understood. But Abraham did not understand.
And ditto when she blames Abraham for the mess created by the pregnancy of Hagar. She does not want action and she does not want advice. She simply wants to be heard, for Abraham to feel and acknowledge her pain. “Deal with her as you think right” is no solution at all, for it nips in the bud the intimate conversation that Sarah is so much in need of.
And that brings us to the third case. Perhaps Sarah really did not want Hagar and Ishmael sent out into the wilderness. All she wanted and all she needed was empathy. But to her absolute horror, Abraham took her literally, expelling the boy and his mother and abandoning them to possible death, the last thing in the world she would have wanted.
But in this last of the three instances there is a catch. God himself says to Abraham “listen to her voice”. Perhaps in this instance we must abandon our interpretation, and accept that if God tells Abraham to do as Sarah demanded, that certainly indicates that Sarah had already decisively made up her mind that Ishmael and Hagar must be banished. That may be. But there is another way, radical but plausible. It has been suggested by Marsha Pravder Mirkin that when God says “listen to her voice” what God meant is to listen closely to the emotions behind her words … but not to actually perform the act that she had requested!
So perhaps we are to learn that men ought to listen differently to women than they would to men, with attention to the pathos of the inner world rather than focusing on immediate solutions in the practical world. And this advice may be exactly God’s message to us through Abraham: “Listen to her voice.”
I can’t get anywhere without my phone’s GPS (which my wife and I have named “Miriam”). We’re so reliant on it that there have been a number of times my wife and I have been driving even in our own neighborhood and said, “Wait —where are we? And how do we get home?”
It’s one thing for you or for me to get a little lost. But for London cabbies, that would be unacceptable. Taxi drivers in London need to have spent literally years studying every single back road, housing estate, bar, restaurant, park, and major or minor point of interest for over 25,000 streets. The test to become a London cabbie is often thought to be the hardest exam in the world, and it’s simply called “The Knowledge.”
But as a recent New York Times article asked, how important is the Knowledge in a world where everyone’s phone can have Waze to get real-time traffic reports, and can tell you how to get to whatever you want to see?
The Knowledge seems quaint and outdated today, but it still is being used. Why is that? As Jody Rosen, author of the article, suggests:
Ultimately, the case to make for the Knowledge may be…philosophical, spiritual, sentimental: The Knowledge should be maintained because it is good for London’s soul, and for the souls of Londoners. The Knowledge stands for, well, knowledge—for the Enlightenment ideal of encyclopedic learning, for the humanist notion that diligent intellectual endeavor is ennobling, an end in itself. To support the Knowledge is to make the unfashionable argument that expertise cannot be reduced to data, that there’s something dystopian, or at least depressing, about the outsourcing of humanity’s hard-won erudition to gizmos, even to portable handheld gizmos that themselves are miracles of human imagination and ingenuity.
The Knowledge, then, is not simply an avenue to know whether or not to take Fishponds Road. It’s a belief that learning for its own sake has value.
And that philosophy is a very Jewish one—in Judaism, knowledge and learning have inherent worth. Torah lishma, Torah for its own sake, is to be celebrated.
In many ways, Torah and Talmud study parallel the Knowledge. Why do we need to know the intricate details of animal sacrifices that haven’t been done for thousands of years? Why should liberal Jews care about the laws of purity?
If we think of knowledge as purely instrumental, then the answer is “We don’t.” But there is difference between knowledge and learning. Knowledge is the result; learning is the process. And regardless of whether or not we use that knowledge, we all can strive to be learners.
As Rabbi Bradley Artson teaches,
Learning is not a possession, something to have. It is a process of growth and unfolding that is a permanent accompaniment to human life…
One of the laws of thermodynamics is the principle of entropy — that everything returns to chaos eventually. In the world of biology and physics, only the investment of new energy can counter the inevitable spread of disorder.
This is true of the spirit world, as well. Judaism has made a cardinal mitzvah out of Talmud Torah, Jewish learning. Jews studying together, the Mishnah teaches us, experience in the process the presence of God. (The Bedside Torah, 238-9)
There is joy in discovery. Curiosity is its own reward. The challenge of learning pushes us in new directions. Even if we might never use the laws of animal sacrifice, the simple act of studying our sacred texts is a sacred act, powerful in and of itself. As Artson says, “Go ahead. Learn a little.”
After all, even if a London cabbie could potentially turn on their GPS, ask them just how much value, pride and excitement they felt in their arduous process of learning. We might need or use all the knowledge we gain, but the simple process of learning for its own sake can be deeply spiritual.
I wonder if I would have cried out in remonstration or supplication to the god who bid me rise up to Him1 on a flame consuming my own child! I think not. I’d have been in shock. I’d have felt summarily shut out, abandoned by this incomprehensible god who’d issued an impossible directive and then fled to the farthest reaches of an inaccessible kingdom.
I think I’d have sat in stunned silence on that mountaintop, wrestling with what to do and how to be. And it’s in light of my empathy for Abraham’s utter loneliness in the face of this terrible test that I interpret the rest of the story.
By and by, a second godly voice comes to Abraham, not the first imperious voice from On High, but, now, a still, small divine voice that seems to come from inside him, the voice we call “the angel.” This voice suggests he substitute the ram in the thicket, and Abraham offers God a gift more pleasing than blind obedience, he offers thoughtful human response, holy negotiation between creature and creator. With the help of inner divine council, Abraham offers God a loving counter-offer.
Abraham’s god seems to want to draw him near, but rather than raising Abraham to him, God’s ill-conceived invitation opens a chasm between them. Abraham is left staring into that void, terrified, trying to integrate an incomprehensible command. Gradually, as he sits, his stunned silence evolves into a meditative silence and eventually he enters a state of equanimity that allows him to hear past God’s command to the core of God’s yearning to be in relationship.
The angelic voice whispers his name (Avraham… Avraham…) and Abraham reaches out with his own gesture to close the gap between heaven and earth saying something like: “I can’t meet you on the terms you suggest, oh Holy Blessed One, but I, too, wish to be close, so how about this…”
Indeed, our tradition teaches that when God’s words are drawn through a “crucible upon the earth,” they are “purified seven-fold,”2 and that we are the fiery filter through which God’s words can be rendered seven times more precious than they were when God uttered them.3 We interpret God’s commands in our attempt to enact them, refining and enriching what God asks of us by humanizing God’s words so that they can be manifest in earthly, human terms.
What the transcendent god asked was inconceivable to Abraham’s human sensibility, but what Abraham forged by pulling God’s words through the fire of his human heart was a counter-offer that traversed the distance between God and humankind, making continued relationship possible, resuming the two-way flow that delights God.
And God blessed Abraham for offering up joy, tzchok, as in Isaac’s name, Yitzchak.4
The lesson for us is to remember to be “crucibles upon the earth,” drawing Jewish law and custom through our own filters so that we discover how to best carry out God’s Word in our own way and in our own time, refining the possibility divine words contain into do-able actions that raise us up. God’s words are not complete until we enact them, as we are able.5
1 The word for sacrifice in this week’s Torah portion is “olah,” meaning “a raising up” or a vehicle for rising.
2 Psalm 12:7
3Sfat Emet, Parasht Emor, 5634
4 This play on words attributed to Levy Yitzchak of Berdichev
5 S’fat Emet, Ibid.
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.
Every year, I do my best to engage with the process of teshuvah (repentance) during the High Holidays. A few weeks ago, I made resolutions, asked for and received forgiveness, cast away my sins, felt spiritually renewed…and then the craziness of the year began, as it does each year: right now, my partner and I are settling into our new apartment and unpacking boxes. I am starting new jobs while getting acquainted with a new city. Despite my best intentions, I’ve lost sight of the higher self with whom I am trying to align. Like many of us, I am overwhelmed with the business of life at this time of year.
At the end of this week, we enter the month of Marcheshvan, most notable for its lack of holidays. And last week, at the end of Sukkot, Jewish communities around the world began to add the words to the Amidah that we will say until Passover: mashiv ha’ruach u’morid ha’gashem (“the One who causes the winds to blow and the rains to fall”).
Why do we say this as we enter Marcheshvan?
According to the 12th century commentator, Rashi (in his comment on Lev 25:21) the ancient Israelites would “sow…in Marcheshvan, and reap in Nisan.” Planting seeds at this time could be precarious: Marcheshvan’s ancient name, Bul, suggests it was capable of bringing both floods, and raindrops (from Mar-). The story of Noah’s flood that we read this week expresses our anxiety that the small and fragile seeds we plant, whether physical or spiritual, will be washed away by disaster. In our own lives, the intentions we sow need a special kind of nourishment.
A Hasidic teaching from the Alter Rebbe explains that water, the essential ingredient for life, is an expression of Divine love. Rain is life-giving, and the slow downpour of water sustains the world – whereas a flood of water overwhelms us and is destructive. After the holiday season and the intimate moments with God it hopefully brought, we ready ourselves for the long period until Hannukah by praying that God hold back the flood, showering us instead with the divine “rain” we need in order to continue to nourish the seeds of the highest intentions that we sowed during the High Holidays.
As we emerge from the aseret y’mei ha’t’shuvah (“the 10 days of repentance”), we pray for the capacity to integrate the insights we received during this time into the everyday. During the onslaught of the ordinary, it is all too easy to succumb to old habits. But as we enter Marcheshvan we are invited to consider how to more mindfully re-enter the day-to-day business of our own lives. This month gives us the space we need to bring the resolutions we made during the “high” of these holidays into our everyday functioning. And during this time, along with our ancestors, we ask for the blessing of steady rains to nourish the seeds we have planted.
Whether it is recommitting to a regular spiritual practice, to deepening our learning, or to nourishing our creativity, only we know what nourishment and love will help the seeds of our intentions break open and take root in the ground of our daily lives. Through careful tending, when the time arrives to stop praying for rain at the beginning of Passover, we will be able to reap the fruits of our labor and truly taste our freedom.
“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.
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