A few days ago, David Brooks wrote an article entitled “The Problem of Meaning.” In our society today, and especially in more liberal Jewish circles, “meaning” has become a high value. We want our prayer services to be “meaningful,” we want our social justice activities to be “meaningful,” we want our text study to be “meaningful.”
But, as Brooks notes, meaning can potentially be very self-centered. It is often less about making our world better and more about making ourselves feel better. As he says,
If we look at the people in history who achieved great things — like Nelson Mandela or Albert Schweitzer or Abraham Lincoln — it wasn’t because they wanted to bathe luxuriously in their own sense of meaningfulness. They had objective and eternally true standards of justice and injustice. They were indignant when those eternal standards were violated. They subscribed to moral systems — whether secular or religious — that recommended specific ways of being, and had specific structures of what is right and wrong, and had specific disciplines about how you might get better over time.
In other words, “feeling good” is not enough to drive our lives — and Judaism would agree. Our goal in life is not simply to feel warm and fuzzy inside, it’s to repair our world. If that’s the case, morality, not meaning, should guide us.
The challenge is that while meaning is certainly subjective, morality is also not completely objective, either. Different people place different priorities on different values. So what are we to do?
Rabbi Ralph Mecklenburger, in his book Our Religious Brains: What Cognitive Science Reveals about Belief, Morality, Community and Our Relationship with God, suggests the following:
There must be a best way to construct human morality, though people may never fully agree what that way is…To guide our lives we must rely on some specific cultural synthesis. We “hop” to Judaism or Christianity…believing that in the process we can live largely moral lives. Lest we be paralyzed by uncertainty and indecision, we live as if our set of moral values captures absolute right and wrong, knowing, though, that as a human system, a cultural expression, it may at best come close to that ideal.
So even if we don’t know with certainty what “the right thing to do” would be, we still have to live by principles. And if that’s how we look at morality, that’s where meaning can come back into the equation.
Meaning, at its core, is how we make sense of the world. It allows us to figure out what our lives and our world “mean.” If we view meaning in this way, then our morality, even if it is imperfect, truly is a form of “meaningfulness.”
Yes, meaning can be fluff — or, as Brooks phrased it, “the NutraSweet of the inner life.” But it can also be the driver to a more just and more peaceful society, because it is what allows us to discover how we can best bring our gifts and talents in the service of our world.
If we are looking to better ourselves and our world, morality might be more important. But meaning might be more effective.
This too is holy. The baseball stadium, that is. I know it is not only potentially cliché, but also possibly idolatrous to speak with such spiritual exaggeration. It is true that our society tends towards the fanatical when it comes to our affection for sports. Too many live and die with the touchdown, the missed goal, the great catch or the blown call.
But if spirituality is about the whole transcending the parts; or about disparate, random entities being mystically sewn together into one communal thread; or meaning being deepened by a shared, intimate experience, then the arena of sports can indeed be holy too.
My love for the NY Mets is intertwined with my late mother’s affinity for the Dodgers of Brooklyn. My depth of affection for a perennial loser is unwavering because I inherited the connection from my giver of life. This too, is holy.
From my first summer as a rabbi until two years ago, I spent an annual hot and blessed August afternoon with my spiritual brother and mentor, Rabbi Alan Kay at Shea Stadium and Citi Field. We were there to watch baseball, but intertwined with the webbing of the innings were deep and philosophical conversations about the sermons we were in the midst of preparing for the oncoming Holy Day Season. Between cheers, jeers and peanuts, we mined souls and ancient scripture to answer our calling and those of our respective communities. Our annual spiritual study in Queens was snuffed out too early because Alan succumbed to the scourge of cancer. I miss him and look for him. I see and hear him as the boys of summer play their game. This too, is holy.
And, when my son and I laugh and cry and scream at the arena and at the stadium, we connect and draw closer. It is the sport, but more, it is an entrée for new layers of relationship. Indeed, we create memories which punctuate his childhood and connect the dots of my otherwise frenetic adult existence. This too, is holy.
So, when Stuart Scott, the famous ESPN sports broadcaster, succumbed this week, like my dearest friend and rabbi, Alan did, from the scourge of cancer, at the unbearably young age of forty-nine, I cried. I didn’t know him. I wasn’t close to him or his story. But I cried. I cried because he used his sacred sports platform to teach us about courage; about honor; about humility; about grit; about determination; about family; about acceptance; about the precious nature of the living in this sacred universe, even when we feel robbed of a life that should have been longer.
And then I realized that it wasn’t just me. Stuart Scott’s death reached across the spectrum. The President spoke out in grief. So did Lebron James. And Kobe Bryant. And Michael Jordan. His life touched those whose lives are larger than life. The hardened became soft and vulnerable.
And he was “just” a broadcaster. All of us are “just” what we do each day. But, more, he was a human being. He told the truth. He lived the truth. He fought the truth. He did it through sports, but in his case, sport was sacred. Not because sport by itself is ultimately vital to our quality as human beings. But the manner in which we live in any aspect of our lives is what counts the most. He did it the right way. He embraced every day. He touched so many.
Mr. Scott’s favorite expression which has become part of our colloquial lexicon was “Booyah”. He would yell “Booyah” to joyfully and exuberantly broadcast a superlative homerun, touchdown, defensive stop or goal. But I realize now that he is gone, that he wasn’t merely describing the play; he was embracing the sacred nature of life.
This too, is holy. We should embrace the sacred wherever we come across it.
Booyah, Stuart Scott. Rest in Peace.
Have you already chosen your word for 2015? The word that will focus your attention on what you want to do and who you want to be this year?
It’s not too late to choose. New Year’s Eve—the traditional time for making resolutions—was less than one week ago, and many promises made that night have probably been broken by now.
I chose my word yesterday, after realizing that it had been on my mind all weekend. I guess I needed a little time to overthink the matter.
It probably won’t surprise you that I came across the idea of choosing one word for the year on Facebook. Every Friday morning I spend some time scrolling through the week’s posts of The Originals, a writers group I joined for participants in Jeff Goins’ My500Words writing challenge. On Friday, January 2nd I read Laura Hile’s blog post about her word for 2015 and followed a link to the My One Word website, where I was captivated by the idea of changing my life through focusing on one word.
Rereading the end of that last sentence, I can actually hear how corny it sounds.
Please allow me to explain and, perhaps, to persuade you. I love a challenge.
In fact, challenge is the word that kept occurring to me as I contemplated my choice. A few weeks ago, my daughter invited me to join her in the 2015 Reading Challenge and I readily agreed. Last week I finished the Thursday New York Times crossword in record time and decided to try the Friday puzzle for a new challenge.
Here’s my word:
Etgar is Hebrew for challenge (noun), a modern word derived from an ancient three-letter root, g.r.h, meaning to challenge, provoke or stimulate. I chose a Hebrew word not because I’m a native Hebrew speaker, rather because the process of researching its etymology led me to consult half a dozen books, including an Aramaic dictionary not opened since 2013. Like I said earlier, I love a challenge, particularly one which stimulates the intellect.
Etgar represents what I want to do and who I want to be this year. I’m ready to face whatever challenges are ahead in 2015.
What word do you choose?
It’s been just over a week since Leelah Alcorn committed suicide. Leelah grew up not far from where I live in Cincinnati. If you haven’t heard Leelah’s story, it’s a tragic one. Leelah was a trans teen who chose to kill herself because, as she wrote in her suicide note, “the life I would’ve lived isn’t worth living in… because I’m transgender.”
Leelah’s note was posted on tumblr shortly after she purposefully walked in front of a truck on a dark night, but tumblr has since removed the blog post. In that post, Leelah described feeling like a girl trapped in a boy’s body ever since she was four years old.
Leelah’s parents were not supportive of her gender identity, to say the least. For several months, they completely isolated Leelah by removing her from public school, taking away her computer and phone, and not letting her use social media. Leelah’s parents also took her to Christian therapists who she said told her she was selfish and wrong.
So, Leelah felt her best option was suicide. For Leelah, I am so sad. For every person who struggles for acceptance of their sexuality and/or gender identity, I am sad. For every person who feels life is not worth living, I am so sad and distraught.
That Leelah’s parents used religion (Christianity) to reject their child’s gender identity makes me angry. Clearly, there are many Christians who would accept Leelah for who she was. Certainly, there are some Jews who would argue acceptance of Leelah, and other Jews who would argue rejection.
My Judaism and my humanism bring me to a very simple conclusion: Leelah was a person. She was Leelah. And, my humanness moves me to compassion, to understanding, and to acceptance of others and their feelings.
I do not believe that religion should be used to marginalize and stigmatize. I want to be part of a religious community that is open to possibilities – and that empowers every person to be himself or herself.
Leelah ended her suicide note by asking us to fix society. Our actions cannot bring Leelah back, but hopefully they can make a difference in the lives of others.
Here are just a few small steps you can take to support others:
• Read PFLAG’s Guide to Being a Trans Ally
• If you’re involved in Jewish organizational life, talk to the leadership about how your organization can be most inclusive
• If you have children or work with children, open the door to important and honest conversations about sexuality and gender
• Know the signs of suicide and be ready when you see the sings to open up important conversations and make connections between people and resources available
In the words of Leelah Alcorn, “Fix society. Please.” Challenge accepted.
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Although we’re a bit beyond the portion, there’s been a lot of social media chatter about Dinah – possibly because of the December airing of a television version of the novel by Anita Diamant. I mostly ignored it until a friend asked me about Dinah’s age (without going too far into it, if you follow the timeline laid out in the Torah plainly, she must have been VERY young, possibly a child. She probably isn’t, though) – at that point, I somehow found myself drawn into thinking about this very disturbing story.
There are many difficult passages in the Torah, and the rape of Dinah is among them. Nevertheless, I find the idea of turning what is clearly a forced sexual encounter into some kind of love story (as Diamant does in The Red Tent) – to be very difficult indeed.
Dinah’s role story turns around the first four verses of chapter 34 of Genesis. It is clear from the text that Dinah was violated. In verse two it says,
וַיַּרְא אֹתָהּ שְׁכֶם בֶּן חֲמוֹר הַחִוִּי נְשִׂיא הָאָרֶץ וַיִּקַּח אֹתָהּ וַיִּשְׁכַּב אֹתָהּ וַיְעַנֶּהָ:
“He saw her, Shechem, the son of Hamor the Hivite, the prince of the land; and he took her; he lay with her; and he humbled her.”
What confuses the matter is that this verse is then seemingly followed a declaration of love:
וַתִּדְבַּק נַפְשׁוֹ בְּדִינָה בַּת יַעֲקֹב וַיֶּאֱהַב אֶת הַנַּעֲרָה וַיְדַבֵּר עַל לֵב הַנַּעֲרָה
“His soul cleaved to Dinah the daughter of Jacob and he loved the girl and spoke to the girl’s heart.”
The number of disturbing things about this story start multiplying rather quickly here:
A man kidnaps and rapes a young woman, possibly a very young teen; he then, after forcing her, tells her he loooves her and has his father make an offer for her. Her brothers are outraged. They come up with a plot, telling Hamor that they can’t give her to the uncircumcised and that they’ll let his son marry her only if everyone circumcises themselves. Hamor sells this to his fellow citizens by noting how rich they’ll all get if they intermarry with this wealthy clan. The brothers of Dinah wait until the men of the city are weak from their surgery and then slaughter them, taking their sister home. When Jacob complains that their actions make him look bad, they respond, “הַכְזוֹנָה יַעֲשֶׂה אֶת אֲחוֹתֵנוּ” – Shall he make our sister like a whore?
The “modern” take on this story is that it is about the disgust for exogamy. But a closer reading reveals something different.
It seems unlikely that Shechem was that besotted by a young girl – even a young woman – with whom he was unlikely to have had much interaction. And in fact, he clearly doesn’t “love” her before he violates her. The son of the prince may want her for the moment- but not, probably, because he loves her, but rather because abductions are a tried and true way to marry someone whose family won’t consent (in many cultures- some even today). He wouldn’t have known much about Dinah – but he – and his father – clearly knew whose family she was a part of. And there is some confirmation from the text itself (which a number of commentaries pick up on) that it was not just Shechem, but the entire city, who are implicated in this vile crime: “Jacob’s sons came upon the slain and plundered the city that had defiled their sister. (34:27)”
Note also the focus on family in the verses: “Shechem the son of Hamor, the Hivvite, the prince of the land” and “Dinah the daughter of Jacob” – even though the story begins by calling her “Dinah the daughter of Leah.” As the daughter of Leah, who is not, of herself, wealthy, she is not too interesting. As the daughter of the wealthy Jacob, however, she is someone the son of a prince might be interested in acquiring. So he takes her. And he does it in such a way that – in the Hivite culture- makes her impossible to take back. She’s now someone – they presume – that her family must get rid of, because surely they can’t give her to anyone else now.
But the brothers of Dinah don’t hold that view. To them, she isn’t a pawn in a family dynasty, perfect for cementing an alliance between the city and a wealthy clan that can bring in a lot of money. To her brothers, she is not to be sold. Her brothers may be awful – and there’s a case for that – but clearly they cared about their sister. They didn’t say “shall our family name be blemished?” or “Shall our line be tainted?” but “shall our sister be treated as a whore?”
In other words, they refused to let her body be a pawn for financial exchange. Her brothers, unlike the Hivites, are saying that they don’t care what the state of her virginity is, they won’t stand for this behavior, and won’t write her off as ruined. Remember, the circumcision is a ploy. They have no intention of leaving her there, regardless. And they know that Hamor wants this deal, and will do whatever it takes to get them to settle there because he wants not their family, not their God, but their wealth.
Compare this episode to those of Dinah’s paternal grandmother and great-grandmother. Both were claimed as sisters in order to avoid the threat to Isaac and Abraham that might have been posed by the local prince desiring them. In the case of Sarah, in fact, Avimelech does take her. One might even think of Dinah’s brothers’ actions as a corrective to these earlier episodes. In the case of Sarah, God has to rescue her: and perhaps, indeed, Dinah’s brothers do one better – in Sarah’s case, God goes to a great deal of trouble to make sure that Sarah isn’t defiled by Avimelech – in Dinah’s case, the brothers make it clear that they don’t care – she is their sister, regardless.
Our society also has its Shechems – we read in the news constantly about the ways in which womens’ bodies are treated as objects, and not a month went by in the past year without a story of how a high school or college student was sexually assaulted – and how it is the victim, not the perpetrators, who so often pay the price. In that atmosphere, I find it troubling to turn a story of rape into a romance.
The story of Dinah is still one of its time: we never hear what Dinah thinks, or feels; we don’t really know what happens to her beyond the speculation of the classical midrash. But we know that at the very least, her brothers care enough to protect her, and go against an entire society – and indeed their own father- to bring her home.
Membership is lagging, we haven’t been able to convince the preschool families to join the synagogue and sales in the gift shop are down. What are we to do? Blame the rabbi!
Members are not receiving their donation thank you letters in a timely fashion, the receptionist is not always friendly on the phone and the office forgot to print my great-uncle’s yahrtzeit in the weekly newsletter. What are we to do? Blame the executive director!
People make mistakes and that includes the professionals of synagogues, whether the rabbi, executive director or preschool director. A letter can wait in the outgoing mail box for too long. A receptionist might be having a bad day. It is natural to feel frustrated when bad things happen and to want to locate the person who is at fault. When our synagogues attempt to operate as a command-and-structure type of organization individuals will look up the chain of command and point the finger at the highest link they can reach.
However, most of our synagogues nowadays do not operate with strict hierarchies. The decision making of our congregations has evolved to a more a distributive fashion yet the way we communicate about our synagogues has not evolved with it. There are few synagogues where the current mode of operating is the senior rabbi says “jump” and the only question the rest of the staff and board of directors have is “how high?”. Staff, clergy and lay leadership operate in a collaborative and cooperative mode. We know this from experience and we know this intuitively but when things begin to break down and mistakes are made we revert to viewing our system as a solid command structure and view the source of the problem solely in the lap of one individual. Why?
I believe part of the problem is that we have not fully embraced our new way of operating. Is it made clear in the vision statement of the congregation? Is it communicated in board meetings? Is the membership informed of how the synagogue operates? When something goes wrong do board members point the finger at any one individual or do they look at it through a systemic lens?
There are so many advantages to distributive decision making. The starfish, a vulnerable creature to predators, can lose a limb but still function because it does not rest all of its functioning in one place. As we enter 2015 the landscape for synagogues is still a vulnerable one. The case for synagogue membership is a hard sell for many people. Many synagogue facilities remain both under-utilized and in need of major repair work. The place of the congregation in the fabric of modern society is less and less obvious for vast segments of the American Jewish population. Our synagogues are like starfish: beautiful, complicated organisms that are deeply vulnerable.
The time has arrived to not only transition to a more starfish-like way of operating — a distributed, holistic and balanced power structure, but to assertively and clearly communicate that to our membership. When something goes wrong, and something will always go wrong, the challenge is not to look for which clergy, staff member or board member to blame, but to understand how the system as a whole can operate better in the future. A Starfish Synagogue is a healthier synagogue and a healthier synagogue is a more attractive place for people to pray in, socialize in and ultimately become members of.
* Inspiration for this blog post comes from The Starfish and the Spider: The Unstoppable Power of Leaderless Organizations by Ori Brafman and Rod Beckstrom
I ended 2014 by making the trip from California to New Jersey to visit my father’s grave. I stood on frozen ground remembering the frigid day of his funeral fifteen years ago. On that day, Sylvia Heschel came up beside me at the graveside linking her arm in mine. I pulled her close thinking she sought the warmth of my body, but then she murmured: “I can see them now…” and I realized she was consoling me with her imagining of my father reunited, in death, with her deceased husband, my father’s beloved teacher and friend. In her minds eye these men who loved one another in life were loving one another’s company in death, sharing a scotch, perhaps, singing a niggun, most likely, surely talking about their life with God. Sylvia envisioned a continuity between worlds that I had not imagined until that moment. And in the years since, I have come to join Sylvia Heschel’s musing, finding comfort in imagining that Gan Eden is a welcoming community, a fellowship in the Beyond.
As we close out the secular year, we also close the book of Genesis, reading its last chapters this week, in which our patriarchal father Jacob dies and is “asaf el amav,” “gathered to his people.” His twelve sons carry Jacob’s embalmed body back to Canaan to the cave Abraham dedicated as the family burial plot. He joins his people, buried in the company of Abraham, Sarah, Isaac, Rebecca, and Leah, the Cave of Machpelah just as much a community as the “old neighborhood” of the Jewish Cemetery where my father is buried at the feet of his in-laws and they at the feet of my grandmother’s parents, cousins and friends just across the grassy path.
The death of Jacob lends a transitory finality to the narrative of the patriarchs, but the trip back to the cave of Machpelah brings this ending ‘round to the beginning of the family story, indeed, to the beginning of biblical time, as, according to the Zohar, Adam and Eve are buried there as well. The Zohar describes Abraham’s accidental discovery of the cave while he is chasing a runaway calf. He follows his little charge into the cave, and once inside Abraham becomes aware of a glow that illuminates two burial mounds. As he pauses to acclimate to the light, the image of Adam rises up from one of the mounds and smiles at Abraham. The Zohar teaches that it is in response to Adam’s sweet gesture of welcome that Abraham decides: this will be his burial place.
In another passage we learn that the light by which Abraham sees Adam gesturing to him is a radiance streaming into the cave from an interior gateway to Paradise. The Cave of Machpelah is a portal to Gan Eden, residence of everlasting souls, and also the symbol of both the primordial beginning and the messianic end of time. In the Zohar’s midrashic spin, between culminating one story and opening the next, the Torah returns, in a liminal moment of narrative transition, to the cave with it’s secret door to Eden, remembering its root in God’s glorious Creation and acknowledging it’s promise of God’s redemption. The Torah marks the end of the patriarchal story as we mark our own milestones and comings of age, pausing to acknowledge what and who has brought us to a given moment, while holding that precious moment within the context of the fulfillment we imagine our futures yet to hold.
Last week I returned to my family’s burial plot, making a big trip at a ridiculously busy time. My life is moving forward but I went back, for a moment, just to sing a psalm with my dad, just to touch base, just to be a prodigal returned for the briefest moment before projecting myself forward. I think I heard him affirm a decision I have been wrestling with; I imagined my dear parent rising from his mound nodding as he smiled at me. And I will take that smile into my own next chapter, feeling my father standing at my back as I cross this threshold empowered to nurture the Eden that is coming.
Girl About Town. Toxic Tale. Heroine. Flat Out Fabulous. Sweet and Sour. Stunner.
Unchanging. Gospel. Zen Rose. Love Temple. Divine Choice.
Tribalist. No Faux Pas.
Up the Amp.
Lipstick colors at the Mac Cosmetic kiosk, where I watched my daughter try forty different shades.
Bored, I looked around, hoping to people watch. A middle-aged Woman About Town caught my eye, and said, “I have a Mac Gift card. Would you like to use it?”
Intrigued, I asked for more information. And heard a Toxic Tale. Just completed a Ph.D. $40,000 in debt. Received a gift card, but can’t justify expensive makeup. Since I was shopping at Mac, would I buy the card for cash?
Sure, I said – an easy way to be a Heroine.
I asked about her Ph.D. thesis, and sympathized with the long process.
“Are you an academic?” she asked. Yes, I’m a Jew teaching at a Christian seminary.
Did I know about Rabbi Shapira, a charismatic Israeli Messianic Jewish teacher? Hundreds come to hear him speak. After all, Jesus appears throughout the Old Testament, she said, referring to the Christian practice of “typology” — identifying veiled hints to Jesus in the Hebrew prophets.
Ah! She thought I was a Christian Jew.
For her, an awkward financial transaction had become a Flat Out Fabulous spiritual encounter.
And, though I am not Christian, I did not correct her, because I also liked the feeling of our encounter.
Even though, really, this was a Sweet and Sour moment. Sweet: because two spiritual seekers connected. Because she felt we reached towards the same God. Sour: because the language she chose assumed that her theology is the one we share. For her, all religions express a universally human hope for Christ’s kingdom on earth.
This was also a Stunner of a moment: because I realized that I make a similar assumption.
My theology is Kabbalistic. God is “Eyn Sof,” infinite Divine Energy, a single substance expressed in everything a person can experience: matter, emotions, and ideas. Religious ideas, too, express the one Infinite God. All religious ideas point to this One God. All religious people want only to feel God’s presence everywhere.
For me, interfaith encounters are easy to accept, as long as I can translate them into my theology.
Am I really a Girl About Town? Maybe not.
The next day, I sought help from the Journal of Inter-religious Studies (vol. 13, Feb. 2014). Nine articles list many ways interfaith dialogue can go wrong. People who know little about their own religion’s teachings can try to discuss, defend, and compare. Teachers with local religious education can misrepresent a living global tradition by presenting a single, official theology. Highly learned theologians might teach patriarchal views, ignoring the lived experience of women. Any person of good will can assume that all religions are fundamentally the same – the same as theirs, to be precise.
Yes, I’ve been guilty of them all. Limited knowledge, denominationalism, unwitting sexism, reductionism.
But now I get it. Forty shades of Mac, forty shades of religion. Don’t be a Tribalist. No Faux Pas, please.
The synchronicity is unbearable. Unchanging. Gospel. Zen Rose. Love Temple. Divine Choice. You can’t reduce these to a single colour. Even if you, personally, can only wear one.
My task is to be more like my shopping daughter. Note each colour. Put it in context. Observe carefully. Realize it takes time.
It’s time to Up the Amp on my ecumenism. Which, coincidentally, is the lipstick shade I bought.
Photo credits: Hillary Kaplan and Laura Duhan Kaplan
After watching The Interview I recalled a particular Purim shpiel (a comic dramatization) from nearly 30 years ago. It was a parody of one of our rabbinical school classes, silly as a Purim shpiel should be. I played the role of our beloved teacher, and my acting was so bad and the script so funny that I collapsed into giggles long before it was over.
Purim captures the opposites of joyous humor and gripping fear in response to painful realities. The villain Haman nearly succeeded in fulfilling his mission to wipe out the Jews of Persia. The buffoon of a king, Ahashuerus, is the paradigm of a dangerous ruler, too self-absorbed to pay much caring attention to his people.
In Jewish tradition we are bidden to behave respectfully to rulers we may not like. You never know what they can do to you if you don’t show them respect. We came by this fear honestly. Power in the hands of the misguided or the cruel can cause so much suffering.
The flip side of the instruction to show respect to those in power is that we sometimes need to expose their ineptitude or evil designs. The tool of parody, as on Purim, can express these concerns with nuance. Perhaps that’s why I giggled my way through that Purim shpiel years ago – there was nothing but love for our teacher, so the parody lacked a negative zing. But a parody that critiques a despot issues a call to action: Don’t let this happen!
I spent the first 20 minutes wishing I were watching bad Purim shpiels instead – anything would have been better than the sophomoric antics of Rogen and Franco. The constant gratuitous sexual references and “f…ing” everything wasn’t entertaining. But we stuck with it out of curiosity. We were glad we did.
Thankfully, the humor improved by mid-movie. But more importantly, the message became clear. The film is a full-voiced critique of a dangerous, cruel buffoon of a ruler, Kim Jong-un. The deprivation, starvation and repression of the North Korean people are no laughing matter, and nor are the regime’s nuclear bombs. This film draws our attention to problems that we are too overwhelmed to notice, especially with so many other world problems. How could we possibly have any impact on helping the suffering people of North Korea?
Maybe we can’t. But we can respond by living our values. Jewish tradition is ever hopeful, asserting that goodness will ultimately prevail. If The Interview reminds us to actively sustain American democracy, in a compassionate society that cares for all people, its painful humor will have been worthwhile.
“Merry Christmas,” we’ve heard for weeks.
For Jews living in predominantly Christian societies, Christmas evokes responses ranging from joy to alienation. Some Jews encounter Christmas as a civic winter holiday for all, when grace and good cheer help sooth the social soul. Others experience the Christmas season as a time to tolerate excess consumerism, or feel that society’s adoption of this Christian holiday leaves Jews at the curb. Some Jews feel about Christmas much like Ebenezer Scrooge in Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol: “Bah humbug.”
So what’s a Jew to do? Some write music: half of the top Christmas carols were composed by Jews. Others honor “Jewish tradition” of Chinese food and a movie. Even more traditional is recourse to humor. Spoof codes of halacha (Jewish law) now explicate the tradition of Chinese and a movie; a whole Hilchot Christmas arose to guide Jewish life amidst mistletoe-laden office parties and Christmas consumerism. Naturally for Talmudic exegesis, these fake legal codes have competing versions and even more competing versions.
Healthy humor aside, occasional Jewish humbug at Christmas is no laughing matter: it’s worthy of serious reflection.
The birth of Jesus is for many Christians the purest form of divine grace: “And the Word was made flesh, and dwelt among us … full of grace and truth” (John 1:14). While in Christendom Jesus’ birth evokes “grace and truth,” to some Jews the idea is foreign (God becomes incarnate), alienating (recalling history’s proselytism and forced conversion), and threatening (recalling condemnation as “Christ killers”). On the other hand, many modern Christians embrace Christmas only with the loving and angelic hope of “Peace on earth, good will toward all” (Luke 2:14).
Grace, truth, peace and good will – what could be bad? What’s more, these Christmas values are no less Jewish. Atop Mount Sinai, Moses heard God speak Thirteen Attributes of divinity, firstly that God is rachum v’chanun (merciful and gracious) (Ex. 34:6). Shalom v’rei’ut (peace and good will) are traditional blessings for newly wedded Jewish couples. The Amidah liturgy of Sim Shalom evokes all of these values: “Grant peace everywhere, goodness and blessing, grace, loving kindness and mercy to us and all Israel, Your people. Bless us, our Father, all of us as one, with the light of Your countenance. For by Your light You have given us a Torah of life, loving kindness, righteousness and blessing, mercy and life and peace.”
Grace, truth, peace and good will – Christmas values, and also Jewish values. So if core values of Christmas beckon the Jewish heart, why kvetch over Christmas? If a Jew feels left out of the Christmas party, then what’s a Jew to do?
Modernity’s leading apostle of inter-religious understanding, Raimon Panikkar, teaches that religions are reality maps whose symbolic stories, while particular to individual faith traditions, embed spiritual functions that are transcendent. When we identify a spiritual function common to different religions, we can better navigate another religion’s reality map using the spiritual compass of our own. In Panikkar’s thinking, the function of divine grace on the Jewish reality map is much the same one that inspires Christmas for Christians, even if its dogmatic setting and language are different. Thus, even if some Jews don’t resonate with the Christmas narrative of God made flesh, Jews can intuit the spiritual function of grace – using how Jewish tradition embeds grace – and in that way journey authentically with Christians celebrating Christmas. Jews and Christians can use this same approach to intuit how purification and renewal serve similar spiritual functions on the Christian reality maps of Good Friday and Easter as they do on the Jewish reality maps of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.
Traditions and holidays are not interchangeable – a Jew is a Jew, and a Christian is a Christian – but spiritual functions of these traditions are mutually intelligible. That’s no accident: transcendence is the aim of all religion and spirituality. In Rabbi Zalman Schachter-Shalomi’s words, “Religion is not reality, but only a pointer to the infinite … Don’t confuse the pointer for the point.”
Today’s pointer happens to be Christmas – but the point is grace, truth, peace and good will for all.
So to Christian readers, may grace and peace enfold you as you gather with loved ones for traditional Christmas celebrations. And to Jewish readers, may grace and peace enfold you as you gather with loved ones for traditional Chinese and a movie.