Unless we’re talking about jury duty, it’s generally nice to be noticed as unique and special; to be chosen. Except when it’s not. “God, I know we’re the ‘chosen people,’” Tevye said, “But can’t you choose someone else once in a while?” The question of being chosen, what academics call “the election of Israel,” is central on my mind lately. On the one-hand, I believe in the unique call of the Jews as Jews, and yet, I believe in the universality of Jewish wisdom as a gift for all. There is a tension here. If Jewish wisdom is such a gift for mindful and meaningful living, is it not for everyone? But, if the Torah’s wisdom is for everyone, what makes it “Jewish”?
On the selective side are famous passages such as this one from the 12th Century:
God gave Israel two Torahs – the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. God gave them the Written Torah which includes 613 Commandments in order to fill them with good deeds and virtues. God gave them the Oral Torah to differentiate them from all other nations. Therefore it was not given in written form so the other nations will not be able to forge it and claim that they are the (also) Israel. - Bamidbar Rabbah, section 14.
And while we are unique, “chosen,” or better and more accurately, we “choose” to live in the values and rituals of Judaism, the enterprise of Judaism cannot succeed in a vacuum. Rabbi Heschel quotes Spanish Inquisition era Rabbi Joseph Yaabez, “If the non-Jews of a certain town are moral, the Jews born there will be so as well.”
The above tension between particularism and universalism is everywhere in Judaism. Every service, three times a day, we conclude with the two-paragraph Aleinu prayer. The first paragraph thanks God for the distinction of being Jewish, “God made our lot unlike that of other people, assigning to us a unique destiny.” The second paragraph puts forth a universalist hope, that our God and the timeless truths of our tradition would someday be embraced by everyone, “Reign over all, soon and for all time… On that day the Lord shall be One and God’s name One.”
Rabbi A.J. Heschel says, “The religions of the world are no more self-sufficient, no more independent, no more isolated than individuals or nations…No religion is an island. We are involved with one another…Today, religious isolationism is a myth. For all the profound differences in perspective and substance, Judaism is sooner or later affected by the intellectual, moral, and spiritual events within the Christian society, and vice versa.” – No Religion is an Island.
The Jewish stance of the past, even the not so distant past, was rightfully suspicious of deep connections to the outside. It was dangerous to become overly involved with the outside world. Today, that same isolationism which perhaps served us has the real potential of suffocating us. To live in a disconnected way in a world that is deeply connected, deeply transparent, is to deny reality. The times have changed, and we can change with it without a threat to the essential fabric of what it means to be Jewish.
I feel compelled to share the Torah I have come to love with Jews and non-Jews alike. It is my firm belief that the wisdom of Judaism can strengthen the lives of the Jews I live and work with. I also believe that the self-same wisdom is helpful for the non-Jews in my life. I readily share it without expectation that Jews will all keep kosher or keep the lesser known rite of not mixing linen and wool. Nor do I expect that non-Jews with whom I share Torah will magically become Jews. Preposterous. Instead, I expect that they come to understand my Jewish perspective, and see the value therein. Who is my Torah for? Ultimately, it is for me, but I like it so much I can’t help but try to share it.
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A favorite rabbinic comment of mine reads Genesis 1:25 as a questions rather than the more commonly translated statement, “Let us make man in our image.”
“No,” say one group of angels. “They will steal, hurt, kill, and take advantage of each other.”
“Yes,” another group of angels argue. “They will be capable of love, compassion, and selflessness.”
And while they argued, God, with the tie breaking vote, and the only vote that matters, created mankind.
There is more to the tale, but at the heart of the above imaginings, is the question of the purpose of humanity. It seems that God believes that someday, enough of humanity will side love, compassion, and selflessness to make the existence of our species worthwhile. Put more poetically by Rabbi A.J. Heschel, “God is in search of man.”
We are a species that can reason itself in or out anything. In light of the devastation of aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan, we must ask ourselves again, “what is man for” if not to love and care for one another [and the rest of the planet and beyond... When my family blesses our Shabbat candles, we close our eyes and wave our hands three times. We say, "One for our friends, one for our family, and one for all the people in the world." Several years back one of my kids added, "and aliens if they exist." We’ve kept his amendment. Why not? If aliens exist, then let us bless them too.]
So, have you given to relief efforts in the Philippines yet? I ask this not in the usual “bleeding-heart” sort of way; I ask with a theological concern. I’m asking, because I’m not sure what it means to be human and not have your heart broken at the knowledge of mass suffering. And more; I wonder what it means to have your heart rent at cries heard and seen around the world, and not respond. I think that to feel the kind of pain that the news is sharing with us and not respond does some inner damage to the psyche, if not the soul. An important ingredient in human self-care is caring for others. So give, even though there are reasons not to:
What I can give is infinitesimal to what is needed? Can I make a difference?
I’m barely making it myself.
It is sad, but I give elsewhere.
The systems of giving and distribution are inefficient and corrupt. Such a small percentage reaches those in need.
Why give in the Philippines and not say, the Congo, Sudan, or Syria, Somalia, or the slums of Brazil?
I suggest that part of being human is the sensibility of caring, of heartbreak, of empathy, as well as a desire for security and justice – not just for self, family, and tribe, but for the entire brotherhood and sisterhood of humanity (if not beyond that). We can rationalize all of our actions and inactions. If you know how to fix the system of giving to be be better and more efficient than what we have today, I implore you to fix it. If, like the vast majority of the developed world, your heart is breaking, but you don’t fit the above description, than give. Give to relief efforts for the sake of the victims, and for the sake of your own heart and soul. Giving, despite the above list and countless other reasons, is an act of heart. Giving in response to this disaster is an act of hope that says that you agree with God’s vote at the top of this blog, that we indeed should exist, that we can build towards a generation that “lives by justice and compassion.”
“Johnson & Johnson agreed to pay a total of $2.2 billion and plead guilty to a misdemeanor in a deal that would settle U.S. Department of Justice investigations into the marketing of antipsychotic Risperdal and other drugs.” – The Wall Street Journal.
The Talmud records that the very first thing a person is asked upon death is the question, “Were you honest in business?”
Gordon Gekko taught us that “greed is good.” The central purpose of a corporation is to make a profit; not, by contrast, to make the world a better place. To prey on an unsuspecting population is reprehensible and abhorrent. The same actions, if made by a person, would not just be criminal, but the individual would be considered a dangerous sociopath. Yet, for some reason, we Americans accept this behavior from corporations.
Can you imagine what would happen if someone in your neighborhood admitted to pushing drugs on the elderly and making mountainous profits from it? The dealer would be incarcerated. They would take away his voting rights; and heaven forefend, his gun ownership rights. The sociopath would be serving a life sentence. The government considers corporations as individuals regarding freedom of speech (see the Supreme Court’s Citizens United Case), but the law gives corporations a privileged eye when it comes to crimes that help the company’s bottom-line at the expense of public safety.
Apparently, J&J encouraged the use of the anti-psychotic for off-label use. They worked with old-age homes and large pharmacies to push the drug as a treatment for dementia – an application the drug was never approved for. People are hemming and hawing about the clumsy launch of healthcare.gov; they point to it as proof of the issues of “big government” involved in healthcare, all the while ignoring a very real issue in health care: The greed of corporate America.
In his final interview before his death in 1972, Rabbi A.J. Heschel said, “There was an old idea in America, that virtue pays. And the idea was helpful to many people, until some of us discovered that crime pays even more. And it does. So why not commit a crime?” Many American corporation have made the switch from virtue to crime and considered the price of getting caught as simply the price of doing business. Apparently, the investing class accepts this reasoning, as evidenced by Johnson & Johnson’s stock dropping a mere 0.4% after their admission of guilt and $2.2 billion fine.
$2.2 billion dollars is a lot of money, but from Johnson & Johnson’s perspective, it’s just the cost of doing business. Their official response to the guilty plea and the fine was to simply put this behind them. “[This] resolves complex and lengthy legal matters, allowing us to continue focusing our full attention on delivering innovative health-care solutions for patients and their families,” said Michael Ullmann, the company’s general counsel (WSJ).
My concern is not with J&J or with JP Morgan Chase (see a previous blog), or any other corporation. No, my concern is with us, that we have come to accept theft and public endangerment from central corporations with little moral outrage. Greed and indifference are a dangerous combination. Heschel taught that “there is a drive for cruel deeds in all men, as there is a drive for goodness in all men. But you need more than a drive for goodness to overcome the drive for evil. You need some greater help. And that greater help, I believe, is a little fear and trembling and love of God.”
One might not need God to be good. Perhaps surprising to some, numerous Jewish text support this notion. However, corporations such as Johnson & Johnson show us exactly what lacking a strong moral compass can lead to.
I believe that pulpit rabbis have an obligation to frame issues of the day in a moral lens even when truth can be found on either side of an issue. Between a healthy respect for a separation between Church and State, a fear of alienating either the Left or the Right in congregations, and genuine humility (after all, he or she does not have all the answers), a rabbi could be left with little to say about the most important events. Some people like it this way; “rabbi you should stick to issues of spirituality.”
Rabbi Heschel responded to the silence of religion in the face of moral need. He said, “If the prophets were alive, they would already be sent to jail by [people who hold this position]. Because the prophets mixed into social-political issues. And, frankly, I would say that God seems to be a non-religious person, because, if you read the worlds of God in the Bible, He always mixes in politics and in social issues.”
Says the Jew to herself, “On the one hand.” And she replies to herself, “Yes, but on the other hand.” Such equivocation is cultivated by the Jewish debate-style of learning, but it is not always laudable. Sometimes its dangerous.
It once happened that that an aggrieved Jew told Caesar to send the Jews a goat to sacrifice at the Temple, a goat that would seem perfectly fine by Roman standards, but that the Jews would find blemished, unfit as a holy offering at the ancient Temple. The Rabbis wanted to offer it, despite its disqualifying blemish, to preserve good relations with the Romans.
Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said to them, “People will then think that blemished animals may be offered upon the altar.”
The rabbis then considered killing the person who brought the animal, so that he could not go and tell the Romans that the Jews did not offer the sacrifice.
Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus said, “We can’t kill that one person, even to save the rest of the people. People will say that anyone who places a blemish in a sacrifice should be killed.”
Rabbi Yochanan said, “The humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus destroyed our temple, burned our sanctuary and exiled us from our land.” [In this case his piety made it impossible to act at all.](Talmud, Gittin 55b-56a).
In this famous passage, Rabbi Yochanan laments “the humility of Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus.” Why? What’s wrong with Rabbi Zekharya ben Avkolus? He’s pulled a classic, dare I say rabbinic, “on the one hand … on the other hand.” But, as Zekharya sees it, the sages are left with no ability to decide on how to proceed. At some point, as Tevye eventually discovered within himself in Fiddler on the Roof, “There is no other hand.” At some point, a position needs to be taken because real choices need to be made.
Consider today’s topic: What should the US do about Syria?
Rabbi Heschel’s words regarding Vietnam forty years ago are just as relevant when we apply it to Syria today. Of course it’s a religious issue. What does God demand of us primarily? Justice and compassion. What does He condemn above all? Murder, killing of innocent people. How can I pray when I have on my conscience the awareness that I am co-responsible for the death of innocent people… In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
I believe that there is a moral imperative for rabbis to speak about Syria, despite, no, because there is no clear right action. Who better to respond in a muddled issue than those who are specifically trained in the Talmud, a veritable encyclopedia of arguments from opposing moral positions. Even if the Yom Kippur sanctuary is not the forum for debate, it can be a starting place for thoughtful conversation.
As a rabbi without a pulpit, it is easy to say what my colleague should do. So, let me take it a step further and wade in myself: It is my opinion that America should make a calculated but limited strike against known chemical weapons caches within Syria. I acknowledge that such an American response to Asad’s use of chemical weapons could incite greater instability in the region, and perhaps freeze our already chilly relationship with Russia. Still, in the “damned if you do, damned if you don’t” situation we find ourselves, I prefer the stance that says, at some point – and chemical weapons are that point – we can no longer ‘stand idly by.’
Sure some will call this naive- “Intervention in Iraq, in Lybia, in Egypt did not work. We should not insert ourselves into another country’s civil war, especially considering that those in Syria prepared to fill the power vacuum may be even worse that Asad.” Some will consider it hypocrisy – “So the US got to use Agent Orange in Vietnam, but now nobody gets to?” Feel free to agree with me or to point out where I’ve got it wrong in your comments below, but with that, a position is staked and our conversation has begun.
When the Temple stood, the rabbinic inability to take a difficult if principled stand caused “the Temple to be destroyed, our sanctuary to be burned, and us to be exiled from our land.” If contemporary rabbis fail to take difficult if principled stands, we risk not the Temple or the land of Israel, but something more: Relevance!
“I propose that you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency. A Marshal Plan for aid to negroes is becoming a necessity. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” - Abraham Joshua Heschel, in a telegram to President Kennedy.
“A nation that continues, year after year, to spend more money on military defense than on programs of social uplift is approaching spiritual death.” – Martin Luther King, Jr. – in a 1967 Address, Beyond Vietnam.
January always renews my admiration for, and the inspiration I draw from, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and from his rabbinic friend, Abraham Joshua Heschel. January 15th was King’s birthday, and January 11th was Heschel’s.
In the quote above, King was speaking against the war in Vietnam as a distraction from the needs of our own citizens. How might it apply now? President Obama drawing down troops in Afganistan, perhaps on a quicker schedule than earlier planed (WSJ), might address the issue of war, but will it mean anything to improving the lives of our nations struggling middle class and the inflating number of working poor – the jobless rate is now down to 7.8% (Bloomberg), but the jobs are not paying the way they were before. I hear King’s challenge and ask: What are the programs that provide social uplift and secure spiritual vitality?
To my mind the answer lies in the 2008 Obama Campaign: Hope and Change. Upon his reelection, the President was right to say that “there is more to do,” and while I generally give him high marks, especially given the largely dysfunctional congress – what do they have against the UN passing guidelines that resemble our own to improve the lives of the disabled, I can’t help be disappointed. After all, where does hope come from? Hope comes from the belief that something better is possible. The soul, or spirit, is such an amazing part of being human. While the brain calculates probabilities of outcomes – what percent of kids born into poverty escape it; the soul can take merely “possible” and expand it into a dream, and under influence of a dream (“I have a dream”) the engine of hope roars to life.
The book title, The Audacity of Hope, one of the books penned by our eloquent president, has always reminded me of the the famous quote that Rabbi Heschel sent by telegram to President Kennedy regarding the issue of civil rights, “The moment calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.” The issue is no longer one of race, but of class. While race is certainly still an issue in this country, and a complication to the issue of class, people of the same class, regardless of race, have more in common than people of the same race but of different socio-economic class.
The key to unlocking the issues of class, and perhaps by extension the issue of race: Education – a gap between the rich and the poor is widening (New York Times: Education gap between the rich and the poor). The degree of education a person has is a greater predictor of success and of class in the United States. And what was true for the past several decades is still true – a good education remains a privilege, and not as it should be, a right. Technology, such as on-line classes and degree programs, has the potential to democratize access to knowledge and wisdom. Nonetheless, technology is not a panacea, by example the University of California Online program has not attracted many students outside its current student population (San Francisco Chronicle).
January ushers in a new year, but also a chance to calibrate our moral compass to those of Rabbi Heschel and of Dr. King. Among the many messages that need to be heard as the President’s inaugurations draws near (Jan. 21, 2013), I add the following:
- Free pre-school for the working poor.
- Smaller classes for our students, and therefore more teachers.
- Continuing education requirements for our teachers.
- Free high education all at public institutions of higher learning (we saw how the GI Bill lifted up an entire generation after WWII).
Mr. President, you believed that healthcare was a right, and you fought for it, remember that access to a good education should also be a right and that education is the key to unlocking this country’s potential and lift its citizenry with hope and “social uplift.” Without a serious plan to tackle the inequalities of education we risk “spiritual death.” I propose the you, Mr. President, declare a state of moral emergency. A Marshall Plan for education has become a necessity. The hour calls for high moral grandeur and spiritual audacity.
“Start working on this great work of art, called your own existence”- AJ Heschel
A Life well lived is an art: with guides on perspective, scale, composition, ect.
The great artists know when to break the very rules they follow, it’s the breaking of pattern and expectation that creates interest, wonder, and awe.
Such is life.
So what is religion? Specifically, what is Judaism? What is Halacha, Jewish law, ”THE way,” “THE path?” To be sure, there is more than one set of rules to follow in order to make great art, just as there is truth to be found in more than one religion. Great art borrows from other great art. Similarly, ‘no religion is an island’ (again Heschel); we borrow and share, and are deeply influenced by the religion and culture that surrounds us. Halacha then, is “a set of rules” that gives life structure and meaning.
But we have to remember that rules, patterns, are appreciated more when disrupted, challenged. It is the disruption of pattern that makes us take note of both the new and the expected. Fundamentally, our psyche is trained to take for granted the expected and to pay attention to the unique, the surprising, the break in a pattern. Such is the excitement of new love (as described in a New York Times piece on marriage, “New Love: A Short Shelf Life.” The summary: exciting for 2 years, boring and expected for about 20, with a renewed excitement at empty nest. –I’ll simply disagree for now – there is so much more to blissful married life).
In any artform, including Life, including specifically Jewish life, the better you know the rules, the more masterful the impact in breaking them. An analogy: Consider the power of a well placed single word paragraph.
English teachers can’t teach you that.
Consider Spielberg’s girl in the red dress at the end of Shindler’s List. The color adds meaning both to the innocence preserved and to the ominous nature of the otherwise black-and-white film.
In the Bible, the law of primogeniture, the rule that says that the oldest inherits, is constantly overturned: Abraham is not the oldest, Isaac is not the oldest, Jacob is younger than his twin Esau and has to trick and steal to inherit. Even King David, the rightful king of Israel, is the youngest. Why does the Bible so often highlight the breaking of this rule? Because rules gain meaning when the possibility of breaking them also exists.
It is said that there was once a very pious Jew who when he would read the verse, “…and do not be seduced by your heart or led astray by your eyes,” he would start crying (Numbers 15:39, the third paragraph of the Shema prayer said twice daily).
“Why do you cry,” he was asked?
“Because,” the pious man replied, “my entire life I have done exactly what the letter of the law has required of me, and in so doing, I’ve never had the opportunity to fully understand this verse.”
Years ago I chose not to wear my kippa (head covering). I wear it everyday, just about wherever I go. I wear it as a reminder of God, as a symbol of humility, that God is above me, and as an identification with the Jewish people. Driving a U-Haul across the country almost twenty years ago, I pulled into a truck stop in Oklahoma. I decided to put my kippa in my pocket. I wondered to myself why I was doing that? Am I not proud of being Jewish? So, I was wondering about this as I approach the register inside the station. The man in front of me was wearing jeans and a flannel shirt – just like me! I’ve always wanted to be a long-haul trucker. I had this great sense of authenticity. I fit in – until he turned around. His shirt was open and revealed a giant swastika that covered the entirety of his barrel chest. I became very conscious of the kippa in my pocket. All of its symbolism was somehow all the more powerful in my pocket than it is day-to-day in my life in Los Angeles, or New York, where I was headed.
“Profane one Shabbat so that one can keep many Shabbatot” -Yoma 85B
It seems that our religion, so often associated with the strictures of laws, might be better described as teaching the artful breaking of laws.
I content that there is an essential paradox at the heart of a meaningful life: Breaking with tradition and law, has the very real possibility of strengthening tradition and the power of the very rules being broken.
It’s not over until…
When the Simpsons go to see Carmen at the Springfield Opera House Homer asked Bart when the show will end. Bart replied, ‘it’s not over till the fat lady sings.’ To which Homer then points to a zoftig soprano on stage and says, ‘is that one fat enough for you, son?’
If you are glad that it is finally Election Day because you think that ‘it will finally be over’, then you’re wrong. “It” being the mind-numbing, ping-ponging Romeny-said-then-Obama-said twenty-four hour news cycle and the billion dollar ad campaigns. And the idea of it being over is wrong. As it stands right now, even in a country where 25% of us are clinically obese there isn’t a fat lady large enough to end this show. The Infotainment industry will not allow it.
My fear is that regardless of who is elected the division created and divisiveness employed in the last two elections have created a powerful schism in the fabric of our country. Regardless of the results of this election, we will remain a country divided. See Thomas Friedman’s piece, ‘The morning after the morning after,’ in the Sunday NYTimes.
Rabbi A. J. Heschel taught, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
Rabbi Heschel’s insight should remind us that we must put pressure on our elected leaders, in control of government or in opposition, that we demand action on the 99% of issues where there is agreement. We will not tolerate inaction for the sake of political point scoring or posturing for the next round. As a nation we are above that.
In the Talmudic academy of old, as hot and contentious a place as the US Congress can be, rabbis of diametrically opposed view rallied hard against the other’s position. But there are rules for such a machloket, such a disagreement. First and foremost, the two sides must list everything regarding the issue at hand on which they agree. The Talmud might use the term “chulei alma” – ‘the entire world agrees’, even these two seemingly opposing rabbis about 99% of the issue at hand. Than, ‘mai benaihu’- ‘what is between them’. It is on the minutia of the tiny 1% of a problem that rabbis might agree to disagree.
Regardless of my fear that the battle is done but the war that divides us politically will continue, I pray and hold out hope.
Based on the wisdom of the Talmud understanding of how we go about disagreeing, we must demand two things after this election, regardless who wins the Presidency and who controls Congress: A) Left and Right must publicly and honestly debate the 1% of issues upon which they disagree. B) Right and Left must not use the 1% of issues upon which they disagree as hostage to acting upon the 99% that they do agree upon.