There is an old rabbinic tale of Hillel and Shammai, the rabbinic leaders of their generation. A would-be convert comes to Shammai and offers to “convert to Judaism if you can teach me the entire Torah while standing on one foot.” Shammai kicks him out of the room. The same person approaches Hillel with the same offer. Hillel’s answer is, “What is hateful to you do not do to others. All else is commentary. Go and learn.”
This paradigmatic story is used to illustrate the greatness of Hillel. In his generation Roman persecution reached new heights. Hillel included anyone who wanted to be a part of the community to better sustain it. Shammai is seen as a curmudgeon; excluding and thereby limiting community.
The irony of our reaction is that Shammai was right and Hillel was wrong. What kind of chutzpah does it take for a person to offer conversion under those circumstances? The only rabbis I know of today who would take that offer charge thousands of dollars for a penny-ante conversion which isn’t worth the toner the certificate used in printing. Of what use would this person be?
In point of fact we want to be like Hillel – but we act like Shammai. We want to be inclusive but the majority of the Jewish community is more comfortable with Shammai. Change is challenging. New people coming into our community tend to come to services earlier and sit in our seats. They are not interested in the old feuds that sometimes dominate congregational interactions. They have new ideas and methods. Clergy and congregational leadership, used to their own intrinsic dynamic can be easily put off by this fresh air and mark their territory in uncomfortable ways.
The story is also a cautionary tale for those who practice inclusion. It’s not by accident that the convert offers a deal that is at heart disrespectful. He is mocking the tradition by suggesting it can be encapsulated in just a few seconds. If that’s all there is, why be Jewish? In similar circumstance would we be inclusive to someone equally mocking, equally obnoxious? Would we include a sincere Messianic Jew? Would we count a felon in a minyan? Would you allow a known wife beater to have an honor?
Shammai was Hillel’s contemporary. He too faced Roman persecution. His response was to restrict entrance into the community so that its values and practices remained constant. Can we say he was wrong?
I believe that the key to the story is Hillel’s message. “What is hateful to you, don’t do.” Inclusion and exclusion are byproducts of “ahavat Yisrael,” love of Israel. If you truly act out of love and compassion, you will know when to include and what lines must be drawn to keep the constantly ever-changing nature of the community. The highest purpose to which a rabbi can aspire is to be the guide in this endeavor.
I experience the world through Jewish history. I came by it honestly, having been a lifelong avid student of Jewish history. The story drew me in, like learning about my family’s past.
I feel Jewish history like the blood in my veins. So this week I had a chance to retrace a certain Jewish journey, of sorts. While visiting my daughter in Spain, I felt the history of our people there, with visions of the Golden Age when Jews were a thriving community. I heard the names of Jewish communities all over the Iberian peninsula reverberating in my memory, then felt grief and sadness for the fate of those communities under the Inquisition. The fear and hatred wrought by the Inquisitors, the heinous torture they inflicted on suspected Conversos, secret Jews are a great stain on history. The journey of the Jewish people, so marked by our wanderings, was forever changed.
Thankfully, the relationship of the Spanish people to our people has changed, and now the Spanish government is discussing the offering of citizenship to Jews of Spanish origin—even 500+ years since the Inquisition.
I left Spain, boarding a flight to Istanbul, where I had visited several years ago with the warm hospitality of Turkish hosts. In Turkey I felt Jewish history in my bones, in what was once a significant destination for Jews fleeing the Inquisition. The Ottoman rulers welcomed Jews and offered safe haven and new homes. Our people owe a great debt to Turkey for the friendship offered at such an important time.
History marches on, and now there are few Jews in Turkey. We Jews continued to wander, eventually finding unprecedented opportunity to settle in our ancient homeland in the late 19th century. Fleeing European persecution yet again, our people established a refuge for all Jews by creating the State of Israel.
So when I boarded my next flight, this time to Tel Aviv, I smiled at the sweep of history. Here we are, a Jewish people with our long-awaited rebirth. Now we can travel and live in Spain, visit and enjoy Turkey, and also walk the paths of our ancestors in Israel. I am warmed by remembering just how remarkable that is.
Israel is the destination from our wanderings. Yes, I will return home to New Jersey next month, but I carry this place with me everywhere. And I wonder, and I worry, will my children, and their peers, growing up in a time when historical memory pales in comparison to the opportunities presented by the global community—will they carry it in their hearts? Our biggest challenge today is to nurture both cultural openness and Jewish pride. The key lies not only in recalling the sufferings of our past, but in experiencing the remarkable. Israel is a complicated and imperfect place, but it is indeed extraordinary. Israel is uniquely a product of Jewish experience and skillful survival. We did this together, and that includes today’s youth too.
It was some 30 years ago that President Reagan signed into law and established a new federal holiday: The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Day to be observed on his birthday. It took a couple years after the passage of the law for it to be first observed and it was only commemorated in all 50 states for the first time in 2000. Every year during this time I try and reflect on the ever evolving nature of social justice and our country. One of the highlights of my previous work at Harvard was the annual event put together by the Harvard Chaplains on this weekend exploring a different theme of Dr. King’s with modern day applications through lecture, poetry and music.
This year I began to re-read Dr. King’s address to the congregation at Temple Israel in Los Angeles in 1965. Three years before he was assassinated he spoke powerfully that evening in California filling the Sanctuary with his prophetic and powerful voice for justice. One paragraph struck me deeply this year:
“We are all caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. And what affects one directly affects all indirectly. For some strange reason, I can never be what I ought to be until you are what you ought to be. And you can never be what you ought to be until I am what I ought to be. John Donne caught it years ago and placed it in graphic terms, “No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.” And he goes on toward the end to say, ‘Any man’s death diminishes me because I am involved in mankind. And therefore never sin to know for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for thee.’”
It seems to me that we are witnessing a breakdown in the shared space of society in our current time. The shared public square where divergent views come and meet; where people of differing social backgrounds, educations and religious, ethnic, racial and cultural backgrounds gather seems to be disappearing. We live in our own individual silos. It is possible that the only interaction an upper middle-class individual and a poorer individual might have is within the context of waiter/busboy/barista/bus driver and customer.
When we fail to know one another in society we experience a lack of empathy and care. If I can put all the people who are different than me in boxes made by my own lack of personal experience, stereotypes and judgments than I don’t have to worry about their welfare or well being. In the same speech Dr. King also declared the truth that: “A great nation is a compassionate nation.” Compassion grows from an active and dynamic shared society and the empathy, care and concern that it generates.
How do we rebuild a shared society? How do we exit our individual silos and begin to build together? It takes small steps and small victories. It takes getting to know the people who serve you and the people you serve. It takes inhabiting the public spaces of a city together. It takes putting down the smartphone or tablet and not being afraid or feeling it awkward to encounter the person sitting next to you on the bus or subway.
In these ways and in so many other myriad of ways we will cause to flourish yet again the diverse shared society that is one of the keys that made this country so great. During this weekend let us commit ourselves to that important task.
As I took my seat on an airplane flying from Toronto to Vancouver, the man next to me put on large headphones. He then actively avoided noticing me for four and a half hours.
His behavior bothered me.
He had his reasons for wanting to be alone and they had nothing to do with me. Still, what he did sparked something for me.
Despite the walls he put up, we were not actually separate. His actions, and the thoughts and feelings behind them, affected me.
And I saw:
His psyche is inside him, and also outside of him.
Consciousness is both inside and outside each of us.
To imagine my consciousness centred in my body, as I usually do, is an illusion.
The source of experience lies beyond my body, brain, or mind.
What I am, what we are, is not bounded by our bodies.
Of course there is life after death, because the source of life does not die.
My old view of an “I” centred within me and generated by my brain is a false product of unclear thinking.
Just as gossip makes it hard to see people truly, so the conventions of language and dogmas of science make it hard to see myself truly.
To see clearly, I have to lift veils of opinion over and over again.
I sat in my seat, typed a report on my laptop, entertained someone’s bored baby, walked through the airport, and endured the chaotic crush at baggage claim. I just did it all with a beatific smile on my face. Many people smiled back, delighted to be lifted for a moment out of their traveler’s stress.
The words I choose to describe this experience are not unique. I seem to have learned them from great teachers before me.
In his book Republic (c. 380 BCE), Plato tells the allegory of the cave. We live as if we are prisoners in a darkened cave, seeing shadows cast on a wall, and imagining them to be real objects. If a person were to break free, exit the cave, behold the real world in sunlight, and return with a magnificent report, the prisoners would still prefer to live in their shadowy reality. The cave is everyday human thought; the prisoners are you and me.
The Alter Rebbe Schneur Zalman of Lyadi, in his Kabbalistic work Tanya (1797), describes God’s light emanating through successive screens. Some screens, such as the human experience of identification with a body, cannot be removed. But we can increase our awareness of the screens, and thus of the Divine light showing through them.
Some religious traditions label mystical experience subversive.
This week, I understand why. In this type of experience, gossip appears as a veil. Models of the self appear as a veil. Religious theories about the nature of God and the soul appear as a veil, too. At best, they seem to be partial metaphors; at worst, they seem to be mistakes and lies.
Not just everyone else’s religious theories; the ones I was raised with, too.
No, I won’t be abandoning Judaism. My parents raised me with religious and cultural Judaism as a natural habitat and I did the same with my children. For me, connection with ancestors and a chain of tradition 3,000 years old is another kind of mystical experience. It’s an experience rooted in body, culture, and personal identity — quite different from last week’s transcendent experience.
From a personal and cultural perspective, Judaism is “mine.” At the same time, from a spiritual perspective, I am part of something much larger than “me” or “mine.”
So when I encounter choices, like Susan Katz Miller’s decision to raise dual-faith children described in the New York Times article “Being Partly Jewish,” I understand. I understand both the negative and positive responses to her decision.
I understand, profoundly, the fear of Jewish civilization disappearing. If that happened, a lot of what I am, too, would disappear. It might even seem as though I had lived in vain.
And I also understand, profoundly, that Judaism is only a civilization. Its religion is only a set of symbols pointing beyond themselves. By enjoying two faith traditions, one might compromise everything on the cultural level. But, at the spiritual level, one might well compromise nothing at all.
The prophet Zechariah speculated that Judaism might ultimately transcend itself. “On that day, God will be one and God’s name will be one” (Zechariah 14:9).
Maybe it will. I don’t ultimately know.
And that’s okay, because ultimately, there may be no “I.”
And, ultimately, true spiritual knowledge may not belong to the “I” at all.
Image: One World Trade Center, a structure mirroring the sky, photo by Laura Duhan Kaplan, 2013.
Cross-posted at OnSophiaStreet.