A couple weeks ago I had the opportunity to staff a table at the Chicago Jewish Festival. It was a wonderful opportunity to interact with a wide spectrum of people from the Chicagoland Jewish community. During the course of the day, a member of a missionary Christian organization came to my table to proselytize. Putting aside for this blog post the assumptions that motivate a person behind the act of proselytizing, I found fascinating his use of quotes from Tanakh to justify his theological position. It was not the first time I’ve encountered his approach but for whatever reason it struck me that day.
If there was one way to describe his approach I would call it flat. In the traditional Jewish approach to reading the Bible, the text becomes alive with generations and generations of commentary and layers of understanding. If one would map out a Jewish approach to reading Tanakh as a topographical map, it would contain mountains and hills, valleys and plains. In the contrary approach, as exemplified by that missionary, the text is read without context, without commentary and without depth. The words are understood simply through the bias and lens of the contemporary reader. In interacting with this missionary, and with others like him, it is as if we are operating with two different sets of language and do not share a common vocabulary and reference points to have a meaningful conversation.
However, are there times when it is called for to read the Tanakh absent commentary and rabbinic depth? Even as Jews who inhabit a Biblical world of mountains and hills, are there moments when we can gain from seeing the text as flat?
An example of the power of reading the text flattened: The Hebrew Bible mentions multiple times the need to uphold the rights of the immigrant in your midst (Exodus 22:20, Deuteronomy 24:17, Ezekiel 47:21-23 as just a few examples). It is one of the most dominant themes throughout the entire text. Yet, we know that the rabbis understood this oft-repeated injunction to refer to the legally defined, ger toshav—resident alien, a much more limited category with many specifications and requirements than the broad category of immigrant. Does the flat reading of those many verses in the Tanakh still contain an ethic of how we treat the vulnerable in our society?
I believe they do. There is a power to the text even separated from the traditional Jewish exegetical approach to understanding it. When we conceive of the study of the Talmud we classically divide Talmudic literature into two broad categories: halakha (law) and aggada (homiletics or “everything else”). The aggada is no less valuable than the halakha even if one can not derive specific practical steps from it. The aggada frames the way we view the world and how we conduct our moral selves. Similarly, there are times when reading Tanakh flatly, without the richness of commentary, can inform our moral and ethical selves and help us frame the society we live in. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch (1808-1888) wrote in his work, The Nineteen Letters:
“… we must first acquaint ourselves with Judaism through the source which it, itself, offers, the only documentation and evidence about itself that it has salvaged from the wreck of all its other fortunes: the Torah. And through the Torah we must attain, also, an understanding of Israel’s destiny. For is not Judaism an historical phenomenon, and is not the Torah the only account of its origin, of its first appearance on the stage of history and of its existence for a considerable length of time thereafter? … Before we open it, however, let us consider how to read it. As a subject for philological or antiquarian research? … As Jews we will read this book, as a book tendered to us by God in order that we learn from it about ourselves, what we are and what we should be during our earthly existence. We will read it as Torah— literally, ‘instruction’ —directing and guiding us within God’s world and among humanity, making our inner self come alive.”
This I believe is the value of approaching the Hebrew Bible and reading it on its own terms. There are limits to that endeavor, as that missionary at the Chicago Jewish Festival demonstrated, but just because there are limits does not mean it is not a worthwhile practice.
What gift to get for a Bar or Bat Mitzvah? The challenge with gifts for a life cycle event is two fold. On the one hand you want to give something that is relevant and meaningful to who the person is. On the other hand this gift is meant to mark an exceptional moment and as such we might hope for a gift that either endures or creates meaning. Most of whom a child is at 13 is not likely to endure, and for the most part is a good thing. So finding a fitting gift can be complicated. Moreover, becoming bar or bat mitzvah is about moving towards adulthood not necessarily about staying where you are. And if you opt for trendy you might end up with one of many which for many years ago was personalized Lucite and for my brother calculators. So finding the ‘right’ gift can be challenging.
My daughter and her friends are in the midst of becoming bat and bar mitzvah and I’m hoping to side step the accumulation of Lucite and calculators which besieged me and my brother when we reached that stage. Here are some of the better ideas I’ve gathered so far. I’d love to hear from you about the best (or worst) gifts that you have given or received.
Books: Sure books are old fashioned and may not be relevant in twenty years but they can be meaningful on several levels. Becoming bar or bat mitzvah is in no small part about Jewish learning so helping set up a basic Jewish library is entirely appropriate. What to give? A Bible (I’m partial to The Jewish Study Bible) a haggadah with cool commentary or pictures (Passover is the most celebrated Jewish holiday) other basics include books on Jewish humor, Jewish women or the The Book of Jewish Why.
Secular books can also have staying power. I still have the complete works of Shakespeare cousin Tamar gave me and the atlas cousins Phil and Gil gave me was used up until google maps took over. Jewish educator, Tamar Rabinowich, recalls that, “ I got an entire beautiful collection of the Bronte sister’s books – loved them especially in my late teens.” Similar kinds of classic works can be influential.
Art: Nice art endures. As Debbie Fein-Goldbach of Toronto explains “My favorite Bat Mitzvah gift was a limited edition framed print. Owning some ‘art’ made me feel so grown up.” A print I was given at 13, hangs I my living room even today.
Jewish ritual items: There are particular items that one needs to fulfill Jewish rituals. Many make quite lovely gifts. Everyone can use candle sticks, a Kiddush cup, a Hanukkah menorah, havdalah set, and a mezuzah. The more religious types might appreciate a yad (the pointer used when reading Torah), tefillin or a tallit. Some of these can get kind of pricey, so Andrea Hodos of Moving Torah recommends doing what she and some friends did for a child in their community, “getting together to purchase tefillin.” You may of course not be the only one thinking in this direction, as Career Coach and mother of two Pearl Mattenson warns, “kiddush cups were so popular among my boys’ friends that we can open up a store at this point.” A tallit is often given by a family member so check in before going ahead with a purchase.
Cash: Yes, admittedly it is crass but it is also very useful and is often used by kids to make some of their first adult purchases. My husband pooled his money and bought himself a computer which in the early 1980s put him ahead of the curve on his way to a life time love of technology. Others have used it for buying cars, a trip to Israel, or paying for college. It is also common for b’nai mitzvah to give a portion of their gifts to charity so it may go to a good cause. Denominations of 18 (which is linked to life) are considered good luck.
Tzedakah: Teaching kids about philanthropy as a means of helping them grow is a wonderful gift. I’ve seen several people give two checks, one for the child and the other one to be filled out for the organization of the young person’s choosing. Sometimes a straight donation will do wonders, especially if there is a cause that is near and dear to the heart of bar or bat mitzvah. Author Amy Meltzer gives out Kiva Cards which help to facilitate the giving process.
Sports Memorabilia: Sport team affiliation endures and memorabilia from a beloved team or player are likely to mark both the moment and feel timeless. If you want to give it a Jewish spin, educational consultant and Hebrew School teacher Nancy Martin suggests a “rare baseball card and poster of famous Jewish player who played for bar/bat mitzvah’s favorite team.”
Jewelry: This is a popular choice. Wearing jewelry is part of being grown up and nice pieces can endure as we grow. Items can be Jewish or not!
A truly personal gift: If you know the kid well, you know better than anyone what might be the right thing. Tickets for an outing? A photo of the family dog? A framed copy of the invitation?
You tell us, what is best to give or to avoid?
There are definitely times when I feel like I am single-handedly keeping Barnes and Noble in business. It was very dangerous when I lived walking distance from a store, because I’d go there several times a week, and almost always came away with at least one book in my hand.
I realized that as much as I love reading books, what I truly love is owning books. When I look at my overflowing bookshelves in my house and my office, I smile.
I had always wondered why that was the case, until Rabbi David Wolpe shared this thought from A.E. Newton a few weeks ago: “The buying of more books than one can read is nothing less than the soul reaching towards infinity.” So perhaps the many, many unread books on my shelves are not simply gathering dust. Perhaps all those unread books are there to help me to nourish my soul.
How so? First, unread books remind me that even if I gain some modicum of knowledge and insight, there will always be more to learn. In fact, Jewish learning even intentionally makes it impossible for us to learn everything — every tractate of the Talmud, the great collection of law and learning, begins on page two, never on page one. Why? To teach us that we should never assume that we have found all the answers.
Similarly, owning dozens (or hundreds!) of unread books is a very physical reminder that there is always more wisdom being added to the world. It is both inspiring and humbling to know that whatever we learn, there will always be new facts, new interpretations, and new ideas to discover.
Second, a library filled with unread books gives us the freedom to go browsing in the comfort of our own home or office — and we often overlook the value of browsing. As author Leon Wiseletier wrote beautifully in a piece in the New Republic:
When you search, you find what you were looking for; when you browse, you find what you were not looking for. Search corrects your knowledge, browsing corrects your ignorance. Search narrows, browsing enlarges. It does so by means of accidents, of unexpected adjacencies and improbable associations…[and] serendipity is how the spirit is renewed…
Too often, we search only for the information we need. We type in a Google search, and are very happy when we find the answer we’ve been looking for. But searching is limiting — we have to know in advance what we’re looking for. Browsing, in contrast, opens up our horizons, and helps us develop connections or inspirations that we may have otherwise missed.
So if you, too, have books that are now laying horizontally on top of other books because your shelves are too full, that’s a good thing. They are reminding you that wisdom and knowledge are an ever-expanding enterprise, and they are giving you the opportunity to come across insights you may have otherwise missed.
Unread books do not add to our store of information; to do that, we do actually need to read them. But unread books do add to our store of humility and the broadening of our worldview — and so even if they are never opened, they help our soul reach to infinity.
I am not really the kind of person who recommends books. I periodically review them, but that’s different. They get on the queue, I read them, I eventually get around to writing them up (Sorry, Aryeh, it did take a while this time), but I don’t usually go around suggesting books to friends. But this book is different.
So, let me begin by saying that I have recommended this book to just about anyone who might have the slightest reason at all to read it. First, I recommended it to all my colleagues at Occupy Faith DC, because, while few of them are Jewish, this book is an incredible map to creating justice in the kinds of urban settings that Occupy has dwelt in. Then, I recommended it to several people who work in specific social justice fields – not necessarily economic justice, although that too, but across the spectrum.
This book is different than any of the -now an entire genre- books of Jewish social justice. I have to admit – I’ve pretty much stopped reading them. I read a few at the beginning. I read one for review purposes not too long ago. I can get through most of them, and for people who like reading that sort of thing, that’s just the sort of thing they’ll like, and I recommend it. There are lots of good reasons for Jews to read these books, sometimes because it will pull them in to understand their Judaism better. More rarely, because I think it will make Jews who are already well-embedded in Judaism be better at thinking about justice. But few books in this genre are worth reading by people because they lay out a game plan for genuine social change that Jews can be part of, and even fewer would I suggest that non-Jews read.
But this book is different.
Rabbi Aryeh Cohen’s book, Justice in the City, (you can also read his blog, by the same name, here) is a beautifully (i.e. clearly) written (and since I assume it will someday be available on ebook, do get it hard copy, the book has a nice feel and layout, too), compelling, easy-to-read discussion of how rabbinic texts, primarily the Babylonian Talmud, lay out a vision of justice. Rabbi Cohen himself states his aim as slightly lower – what a just city should be- but in reading the book, there is merit in thinking of it as a broader picture than that. In fact my only minor quibble with the book is that it uses endnotes rather than footnotes (although they’re located after each chapter, but I still think endnotes are an abomination).
When I first picked up the book, I was a little concerned because Cohen lays out his project as as a dialogue between the Talmud and the modern, French (in my opinion pseudo-) philosopher Levinas. But I needn’t have worried; in fact, he uses Levinas almost as a foil, to craft questions shaped by Levinas’ methods to be more pointed, and the answers clearer.
Without giving anything away, the first half of the book (roughly) is dedicated to overall themes laid out by the rabbis ( he characterizes them as “Be like God and not like Pharaoh;” “the obligation of dissent;” and “the boundaries of responsibility”). The second half of the book lays out specific cases: homelessness, labor, restorative versus punitive justice. It is very clear how these can be applied to contemporary life, and this is what makes the book so valuable, not just to Jews, but to any people of faith seeking to create a better world. Continue reading
I want to share the chorus of one of my favorite Indigo Girls songs with you:
So we’re ok, we’re fine, baby I’m here to stop your crying
Chase all the ghosts from your head,
I’m stronger than the monsters beneath your bed
Smarter than the tricks played on your heart,
we’ll look at them together then we’ll take them apart
Adding up the total of a love that’s true,
Multiply life by the Power of Two (Indigo Girls, ‘Power of Two’)
This has been something of a theme song in my life, these past 11 or 12 years. Ever since I met the woman who, two years ago, became my spouse. In fact, we even incorporated the last two lines of the chorus into the Ketubah that we crafted with an artist-friend.
This past week, a great deal in the flow of the news cycle has caught my attention. Thinking about the monsters beneath our beds, or perhaps ‘where the wild things are’, it was notable that Maurice Sendak passed away this week at the age of 83. Hearing the news, I went online and watched his PBS interview with Bill Moyers from a few years back, and then the very different but quite entertaining interview that Stephen Colbert conducted with him just a few months ago. It was in the PBS interview that Sendak explained that the wild things were somewhat inspired by his first generation immigrant Jewish relatives – the aunts and uncles who had escaped Europe while they could still get in but, to a young child, were grotesque caricatures.
I know the ones he meant – they were probably just like the great-aunts and cousins, once-removed, that I remember –the ones with the lipstick that was painted so high that it almost touched their nose, the bright blue eye shadow and long, red nails. And the great-uncles with the hair growing out of their noses and ears. While Sendak lived his life as a secular Jew, he was clearly informed by that family history.
He speaks with Moyers about the courage it takes for a child to look the scary things in the eye and, in so doing, to be able to take back control not only of one’s fears, but of one’s anger. He had an uncanny ability to write from within the psyche of a child and paint the inner landscapes of their minds in vivid detail that they could so deeply relate to.
In the interview that Sendak gave recently with Colbert he mentions that he is also a gay man. Colbert, in his tongue-in-cheek but straight-faced manner, exclaims, ‘they won’t let you be a Boy Scout leader, but they’ll let you write children’s books?!’
While I certainly appreciate the joke, I found my mind considering the juxtaposition of Sendak’s ‘where the wild things are’ and another story that we saw being played out in the cultural and political sphere last week when first Vice-President Biden and then President Obama voiced their personal support of the GLBT community and of same-sex marriage. Sendak’s most famous children’s story can provide a means for young children to look at the monsters and many other things in life that scare them and, perhaps, to realize that they are not really scary after all. While for Biden, we might be amused by the influence of Will and Grace to make the scary and unfamiliar into something accessible and much more normative, it is the President’s words that most effectively demonstrated how we combat homophobia and those who feel strongly that civil equality should not be afforded to those whose love is not of the heterosexual kind:
‘I have to tell you that, over the years, as I talk to friends, and family, and neighbors, as I speak with my own staff who are in committed and monogamous same-sex relationships, who are raising kids together, when I think of those soldiers, or airmen or marines, sailors who are out there fighting on my behalf, and yet feel constrained, even though ‘don’t ask, don’t tell’ is gone because they are not able to commit themselves in a marriage, at a certain point I’ve just concluded that, for me personally, it is important for me to go ahead and affirm that I think same-sex couples should be able to get married.’
The President voices what we know to be true about many things in life, and not only same-sex marriage: so often, fear is born out of ignorance. Once we get to know someone who is different from us, whether it be difference due to a physical disability, a religion, an ethnicity, and so on… we find that the world is a much more complex, colorful, and diverse place. We learn to see the partial truths in multiple perspectives. We learn, and in learning, like Max who stares into the yellows of the eyes of the wild things and does not blink, we confront our fears.
Some of the fears that have been voiced about permitting same-sex marriage include fears about how children are raised, fears about how the institution of marriage is understood, fears about the authority of some churches and other more traditional branches of religious faith groups. But, with the exception of the strongly held beliefs of some faith groups whose legitimate concerns arise out of their understanding of their faith teachings, getting to know people – people in our families, our communities, it becomes abundantly clear that these are not the monsters beneath our bed – these fears are not grounded in reality. And for those who are guided by a faith that appears incompatible with the President’s personal statement, it is important to consider whether such beliefs should be applied to civil rights on behalf of the entire population, many of whom are guided by different (and sometimes also religiously-informed) beliefs.
But I have other fears. My fears are borne out of conversations I’ve had with both adults and, even more heart-wrenching, with teenagers, who have shared their pain when they believe that society has taught them that their sexual identity and their religious identity or spirituality are incompatible. They’ve told me that the message they’ve received is that God hates them. Parents who tell me that they fear for their children and are so terribly afraid that their lives will be that much more difficult because they are homosexual. Some of these fears, too, are based on not knowing, and we can confront and learn to crown ourselves king over these too. But I am so terribly saddened that these are some of the messages that have been internalized from our political and cultural landscape.
This is why it is so important that the President and Vice President made the statements that they made. It is why it is important for people to speak out, and write articles, affirming the holiness of being true to our innermost selves, showing that faith and love do go together.
When Max realizes that he has conquered the wild things, he gets back in his little boat and returns to his bedroom, where he finds a hot meal is waiting. What stronger symbol of the unconditional love between a mother and her child can there be? For, once we have conquered the monsters beneath our bed, we come to understand the Power of Two – its all about looking each other in the eye, its all about relationships, and its all about love.