Cruising on Fifth Avenue one day, a taxi is hailed by a man standing on the corner. Entering the cab, the man says, “Take me to the Palmer House.”
“The Palmer House?” says the cabbie. “That’s in Chicago.”
“I know,” says his fare. “That’s where I want to go.” “I’ll drive you to Kennedy,” says the cabbie. “You can fly.”
“I’m afraid of flying.”
“Then I’ll drive you over to Grand Central and you can take the train.”
“No, the train takes too long and besides, then I’d have to get from Union Station to the Palmer House.”
“If I drove you all the way to Chicago it would cost a fortune. Twice a fortune, because you’d have to pay for me to deadhead back to New York.”
“That’s OK, I can afford it. Here’s a few hundred dollars now. I’ll pay the rest when we get there.”
With no further argument to make, the cabbie drives out of Manhattan into New Jersey and then connects with the Pennsylvania Turnpike, thence to the Ohio Turnpike, the Indiana Turnpike, and finally the Skyway into Chicago. He takes Stony Island to 57th Street, where he turns onto Lake Shore Drive. He drives north as far as Congress, cuts over to Michigan Avenue, goes north again until he can pull over to Wabash, drives back one block south, and screeches to a stop in front of the Wabash entrance to the Palmer House-after two days and one night of nonstop driving.
The passenger peers at the meter, gives the cabbie several hundred dollars to cover the fare and a decent tip, and then opens the door to step onto the sidewalk.
Before anyone can close the door, two women who have been standing at the curb slide into the back seat. Before the startled cabbie can speak, one of the women says, “We want to go to an address on Flatbush Avenue.”
“Uh-uh, lady,” says the cabbie. “I don’t go to Brooklyn.”
While you may have to be a New Yorker to fully appreciate the joke, the truth is there are many places we are willing to go and also some to which we refuse to venture. Some places we refuse to go based on principle, while other places we may be scared to approach. Sometimes there are borders or boundaries that may actually prevent us from going forth and other times we may not realize that all we have to do is gather up some courage and move forward.
This past week I had the opportunity to speak with students at a local university. There were two rabbis and each of us was asked to describe our formative moments in our Jewish development. What stood out for me was my first rabbinic position as the associate director of Hillel at major Midwest university. I was fresh out of eight years at Yeshiva. My boss was a Reform rabbi. Working with him and the hundreds of students I met forced me to move from having some deep commitments to issues to also having deep responsibilities to people. When issues became people, things became much more complex. Boundaries may have expanded or in some cases contracted, but they became rooted in genuine human experiences. My responsibility was no longer only to the issue or ideology, but to the person as well.
In traditional congregations, an additional Torah portion will be read this Shabbat known as Parashat Parah-or Red Heifer Shabbat. To enter the Sanctuary or later the Temple, one had to be in a state of religious purity. If one had encountered a dead body, even in a circumstance of burial and fulfilling a commandment to look after the dead, one would become ritually impure. You would require a sprinkling of the ashes from the Red Heifer as part of the ritual purification process. To cross the sacred boundary in an impure state would result in karet, spiritual excision.
What are the boundaries worth crossing? What borders should remain closed? When might our desires to be embracing of others open up doors for us. When do we say we cannot go there? What are the limits of the sacred we should not cross?
These days the pundits and analysts say that the peace process is over. Remember Oslo? Remember the Roadmap for Peace back in 2002? It is now one more memory on the heaping pile of “almost” peace deals. Now, 10 years later, as much has changed as has stayed the same, including the fact that some of you will surely disagree with me about even that statement.
I was reflecting on this when I recently had a chance to see my favorite singer-songwriter, Israeli superstar David Broza, in New Jersey. It was a unique setting – just about 100 people in a small, informal performance space at the NJ Performing Arts Center (NJPAC.) More than a performance, it was a “conversation with the artist”, conducted by the director of the arts program at NJPAC, who brought the audience into the conversation as well. For long-time Broza fans like most of us in that audience, it was a thrill to sit at the master’s feet, so to speak. Here is why: Broza is not only a beloved and influential popular artist for two generations of Israelis. He not only earned an international reputation for his music, but he is one of us. He is not only an incredibly talented singer, composer and master of his guitar, he is also a living example of a commitment to peace that one can only wish the politicians should learn.
As his website, rather humbly, I think, says:
More than a singer/songwriter, David Broza is also well known for his commitment and dedication to several humanitarian causes, predominantly, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.
“Beginning in 1977, Broza has been working to bring the message of peace to the masses by joining peace movements, and singing what has become the anthem of the Peace process, his hit song, Yihye Tov.
In a recent project, Broza has written and recorded with the Palestinian music group, Sabreen, the song ‘Belibi’, that featured Broza and Sabreen’s Wissam Murad, and two children’s choirs, one from each side of the conflict. In Search for Common Ground presented awards to both artists in November of 2006.”
Broza’s music is inspiring, and made that much sweeter when you meet the artist in person and learn his story. By working on behalf of tolerance, justice and co-existence, Broza is an example of “lived” Jewish values that we look to Israeli society to represent as its very raison d’etre.
A few years ago I made his song “Yihye Tov” the ringer on my IPhone. I wanted to remind myself to never to give up hope that the world can be healed, that things will be better, and that we must keep our dreams of peace alive in our everyday moments. The song movingly envisions:
“I look out of the window and it makes me very sad, spring has left, who knows when it will return. The clown has become a king the prophet has become a clown and I have forgotten the way , but I am still here. And all will be good yes, all will be good , though I sometimes break down but this night oh, this night, I will stay with you.
We will yet learn to live together between the groves of olive trees children will live without fear without borders, without bomb-shelters on graves grass will grow, for peace and love, one hundred years of war, but we have not lost hope.”
A few years ago we heard Broza perform at NJPAC, and while he gave a fabulous performance of a wide range of his music, he left me sitting on the edge of my seat waiting for “Yihye Tov” in vain. We were fortunate that night to be invited to a “chat with the artist” after the show and, of course, a fan hastened to ask Broza why he hadn’t sung his signature song. He said, sadly, that he was a bit tired of it. There is still no peace. I left with such a heavy heart.
But I refused to give in to despair. Like a prayer, I have sung the song many, many times since then. And I continue to support and engage in Arab-Israeli peace projects, though I have been called naïve, or worse.
This time, when Broza was asked to sing “Yihye Tov”, he happily obliged. I smiled thinking about how he had brought the song back to life this past summer with new words for the Israeli “social justice” protests that swept the country. Yes, I felt, there is hope, things will be better.
After the show I had an opportunity to personally say hello to David Broza. I reminded him of that show a few years ago when he didn’t sing “the” song. He didn’t remember that until I reminded him of it. Not bad, I thought, that his hope has so overcome his sadness that he doesn’t even recall that moment. That made me happy. I so appreciated the very human, open-heartedness that Broza brought to the stage, and to our conversation. I’m grateful to him for yet more inspiration.
Yihye Tov. It’ll be good – we have not lost hope.
Jewish tradition takes pride in these words, we will do and heed-na’aseh v’nishmah and one Talmudic passage even have God wondering who revealed this great secret, these words to the Jewish People. The context of course is Sinai and these words are seen as the great acceptance of Torah. The technical term for these words is hysteron proteron, “latter before” where the first term actually occurs after the second term, for example, put on your shoes and socks, but is placed first to emphasize its importance. Israel commits herself at Sinai to the totality of practice, even without necessarily knowing the extent of the laws.
Rabbi Sholom Noach Berezovsky, author of the Netivot Shalom, offers an additional reading of these words. He sees na’aseh as a commitment to do God’s will, even in the absence of specific details or legal injuctions. While fully faithful to traditional Jewish practice as legally binding, Berezovsky still understands that even in the most strict attention to observance, one must ask am I doing God’s will. While one could use this idea in an antinomian direction, for Berezovsky the question might be as I observe a particular practice, am I doing it in a way pleasing to God and one that really reflects the will of the Divine?
One of the best examples where this insight can be seen is in the case of Maimonides. In his legal work, he discusses the laws of slavery. While many would initially recoil from imagining that such laws should play a role in our tradition, nonetheless they are firmly rooted in Biblical practice. While the laws associated with Jewish slaves serve as a way for a slave to pay off enormous debt, Jews were permitted to own non-Jewish slaves. Even while acknowledging this, and codifying it, Maimonides says as follows:
It is permissible to have a Canaanite slave perform excruciating labor. Although this is the law, the attribute of piety and the way of wisdom is for a person to be merciful and to pursue justice, not to make his slaves carry a heavy yoke, nor cause them distress. He should allow them to partake of all the food and drink he serves. This was the practice of the Sages of the first generations who would give their slaves from every dish of which they themselves would partake. And they would provide food for their animals and slaves before partaking of their own meals. And so, it is written Psalms 123:2: “As the eyes of slaves to their master’s hand, and like the eyes of a maid-servant to her mistress’ hand, so are our eyes to God.”
Similarly, we should not embarrass a slave by our deeds or with words, for the Torah prescribed that they perform service, not that they be humiliated. Nor should one shout or vent anger upon them extensively. Instead, one should speak to them gently, and listen to their claims. This is explicitly stated with regard to the positive paths of Job for which he was praised Job 31:13, 15: “Have I ever shunned justice for my slave and maid-servant when they quarreled with me…. Did not He who made me in the belly make him? Was it not the One who prepared us in the womb?”
Cruelty and arrogance are found only among idol-worshipping gentiles. By contrast, the descendants of Abraham our patriarch, i.e., the Jews whom the Holy One, blessed be He, granted the goodness of the Torah and commanded to observe righteous statutes and judgments, are merciful to all.
And similarly, with regard to the attributes of the Holy One, blessed be He, which He commanded us to emulate, it is written Psalms 145:9: “His mercies are upon all of His works.” And whoever shows mercy to others will have mercy shown to him, as implied by Deuteronomy 13:18: “He will show you mercy, and be merciful upon you and multiply you.”
In effect what Maimonides has done here is to be honest with what exists within Jewish tradition in a specific case and then asked what really the will of God should be in this case. Looking at the tradition as a whole, Maimonides transform the question of what is permissible or forbidden to rather one of how does my behavior best reflect God’s will. For Maimonides it is to emulate God’s practice of mercy which effectively undoes what one is theoretically permitted to do. The righteous statutes and judgments, our commandments, must lead us to be merciful in all our actions.
This being the case, then we can suggest na’aseh v’nishmah is not a revolutionary call, but rather one of evolutionary development. It seeks to move us in a direction that does not undermine past practice as primitive or lacking authority, but rather pushes us to ask the broader religious question. It is not a commitment only to mechanical practice, but to a deep moral conscious behavior.
Last week I had the privilege to lead a conversation with 20 or so Jewish young adults in Boston on behalf of the Combined Jewish Philanthropies. The topic that I had came prepared for was an exploration into the philosophy behind the legalism of Judaism: Why does Judaism emphasize commandment? What is the value of mitzvah as commandment in our day and age? I had prepared source sheets outlining various approaches from thinkers such as R. Samson Raphael Hirsch, R. Joseph Soloveitchik and Nachmanides.
As soon as we began the conversation I quickly realized I needed to drastically shift my
priorities for the evening. It became clear that what was pressing on the minds of these intelligent, engaging and thoughtful young Jewish adults was the cost of admission to the Jewish community. Why is it that one of the first things they encounter upon entering a synagogue is a membership request form? Why can they not attend a Rosh Hashanah service without a ticket? One participant described her dismay at having attempted to visit the historic synagogue in a European city and being told to come back later for the official tour and that it would cost $54.
While it was possible to explain the technical ways in which Jewish communities are organized and how they are financed in distinction from religious traditions that have a central organizing body that funds individual meeting places, the emotional strength of their feelings of not being welcomed and embraced remained true. Is it possible to rethink the way we structure charitable giving in our communities or perhaps the way in which it is communicated? These are not simple questions with simple answers.
It was with this backdrop that I read a story in the New York Times entitled “Loans Without Profit Help Relieve Economic Pain.” This story details an age-old Jewish practice that within the context of a depressed economy and a severely hurting middle class, seems radical and counter-cultural. The thought behind this practice might very well be the redemptive force behind constructing a radically embracing community.
Jewish communities in fulfillment of the Biblical command to offer financial assistance to each other (Exodus 22:24) have established free-loan societies in every time and place throughout history. Indeed, some of the first communal organizations established in America were these free-loan organizations, called Gemachs (an abbreviation for the Hebrew “gemilut chasadim,” acts of loving kindness). The oldest one being the Hebrew Free Loan Society of New York established in 1892. People are offered small, interest-free loans with a weekly installment plan for repayment. The idea is simple with tremendous implications.
Imagine a society where when someone is suffering they know they can turn to the community for support. This sounds simple but in our cultural context this is not so simple. Paycheck late this week? Did not get the overtime hours this month you thought you were getting? Unexpected illness or house repairs? Where do you go? You could go to a paycheck loan storefront and be charged interest of anywhere up to 390% of what you borrowed. You could ask friends or family assuming they have the spare money to help you in the moment. No matter how one examines it, your options are limited.
Thus, the brilliance of the Gemach. Coming up short this month? Here is the help you need, with no interest. What do we ask in return from you? Nothing, except when times get better for you, remember to help others who are in need like you were. As the rabbi interviewed for the story in the New York Times said “You help the people who are struggling. And you try to preserve their dignity.”
To help others with no strings attached. To have as your aim the preservation of their inherent dignity. These are the ingredients necessary for the building blocks of creating a radically embracing community.
The following exchange between myself and my students was a familiar one throughout my year long fellowship with Rabbis Without Borders (RWB):
Me: I’ll be away for a few days but I’ll see you when I get back.
Student: Where are you going?
Me: I have a fellowship with Rabbis Without Borders this year.
Student: Cool! Are you going to [fill in space with poverty stricken, war torn location]?
Me: No, I’ll be in Midtown Manhattan.
Student: Oh… O.k. Why is it called Rabbis Without Borders then?
Indeed, it is quite easy to conflate Rabbis Without Borders with the renowned organization, Doctors Without Borders. Yet, as you may have surmised, we were not delivering first aid care to the suffering habitués of Midtown Manhattan. Although, perhaps some emergency pastoral care would have been quite useful.
The objective of RWB (as I understand it) is to bring together rabbis from all different locations and denominations and facilitate meaningful conversations about bringing Judaism public: translating Jewish teachings and wisdom into a language that can be heard by people of all religions and no religion, throughout the public square, and impact culture, society and the public discourse and serve as a catalyst for positive steps towards that end. I often have said that another name for Rabbis Without Borders could have been Rabbis Without Accents. In other words, rabbis who are able to meaningfully and comprehensibly bring themselves and their teachings into the larger communal, societal and global conversation.
This endeavor, this striving to bring about positive change through the vehicle of the wisdom of the Torah is not a new one. In every age there have been individuals who have both existed firmly within the rooted tradition and within the sometimes fine, almost indiscernible space and sometimes 12-lane super-highway amount of space between “us” and “them.”
One such example is sourced within the Babylonian Talmud in Tractate Avodah Zarah 44b. This source reflects a polemical confrontation between two distinct ideological worlds but also reveals fascinating insights. The Mishnah records:
שאל פרוקלוס בן פלוספוס את ר”ג בעכו, שהיה רוחץ במרחץ של אפרודיטי, אמר ליה, כתוב בתורתכם: +דברים יג+ לא ידבק בידך מאומה מן החרם, מפני מה אתה רוחץ במרחץ של אפרודיטי? אמר לו: אין משיבין במרחץ. וכשיצא, אמר לו: אני לא באתי בגבולה, היא באה בגבולי, אין אומרים: נעשה מרחץ נוי לאפרודיטי, אלא אומר: נעשה אפרודיטי נוי למרחץ. דבר אחר: אם נותנים לך ממון הרבה, אי אתה נכנס לעבודת כוכבים שלך ערום ובעל קרי ומשתין בפניה, זו עומדת על פי הביב וכל העם משתינין לפניה, לא נאמר אלא אלהיהם, את שנוהג בו משום אלוה – אסור, את שאינו נוהג בו משום אלוה – מותר
Proclos, son of a philosopher, put a question to Rabban Gamaliel in Acco when the latter was bathing in the bath house of Aphrodite. He said to him, “It is written in your Torah: ‘Nothing of the banned property shall adhere to your hand (Deut. 13:18):’ Why are you bathing in the bath house of Aphrodite?” He replied to him, “We may not answer in a bath house.” When he came out, he said to him, “I did not come into her domain, she has come into mine. Nobody says, the bath was made as an adornment for Aphrodite, but he does say, Aphrodite was made as an adornment for the bath. Another reason is, if you were given a large sum of money, you will still not enter the presence of one of your revered statues while you were unclothed or relieve yourself in front of it. But this statue of Aphrodite stands by a sewer and all people relieve themselves before it. In the Torah it is only stated “their gods (Deut. 12:2),” i.e. what is treated as a deity is prohibited, what is not treated as such is permitted.
Here we have the famed Rabban Gamaliel, one of the most important Talmudic rabbinic figures, situated in one of the most important Roman institutions, the bath house. And indeed it is not just any bath house but rather it is a bath house dedicated to Aphrodite, the Greek goddess of love, pleasure, beauty and procreation. If this seems like a dissonant moment to you than you would be in a similar position as our antagonist, Proclos.
We can reason that Proclos, both by his name and by his designation as a son of a philosopher, is certainly not of the rabbinic community and also not a Jewish individual. By labeling him the son of a philosopher, the Talmud very much locates him within the cultural nexus of the Greco-Roman world in distinction from the very rabbinic and very Jewish, Rabban Gamaliel. This makes it all the more striking that the proof text by which Proclos summons a challenge against R. Gamaliel’s behavior is none other than the Torah itself. It is as if Proclos says to him, “Aren’t you living a hypocritical life? I’ve read your book and I know what you’re doing is wrong!”
Rabban Gamaliel does several things in response to the challenge set before him. The first one reveals to us precisely how R. Gamaliel understood himself. After Proclos finishes speaking, R. Gamaliel responds by saying “We may not answer in a bath house.” It is a Jewish legal principle that one may not speak words of Torah in either a restroom or a bath house or other places where the nature of the place brings people to wear less than an otherwise normal amount of clothing. By insisting on maintaining this practice, R. Gamaliel sends a clear message that he does not view his actions as being disjointed from his fundamental Jewish beliefs. He is not leading two separate lives, one public and one private, but rather the entirety of his life is bound up in his worldview.
Yet, nonetheless, he still was found in the bath house dedicated to Aphrodite. How could you possibly reconcile this belief with that action? Professor Moshe Halbertal of Hebrew University, in his essay in the book Tolerance and Intolerance in Early Judaism and Christianity (1998, Cambridge University Press), understood R. Gamaliel’s defense of his action to be that of laying forth the groundwork for a new paradigm for relations between “us” and “them.” By reshaping the way he saw the bath house; not as a Roman religious institution, but a decorative Roman cultural institution, he constructed a neutral space, where both Jews and others (in his case, pagans) could meet and interact.
In fact, the very ability for a person like Proclos to be able to have the opportunity to raise a challenge to a person like Rabban Gamaliel presupposes the existence of a conceptual and physical space in which they could meet. Thus, it is possible to see the redefinition of the bath house by R. Gamaliel as the transformation of a particular cultural institution of the Roman world into a public square where a multiplicity of voices could be heard and be in dialogue with each other.
The wisdom of understanding that to be a person committed to specific religious convictions does not necessitate being only in or only out but that the genuine path lies in being a bit of both, is one that needs further cultivation and expression.
Thankfully, we have women and men today in the Jewish community who serve as inspirations and role models for this path. I have had the privilege of hearing Chief Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks twice now as he has come to speak at Harvard. During both of his visits, the respective lecture halls were filled to capacity. In the audience were Jews and non-Jews, religious and secular, academics and professionals. Why did all these people from so many disparate backgrounds come to hear a rabbi? It can not just be on the basis of his rabbinic title alone for if that were the case I would have a standing room only audience for each of my classes! I believe it is because he translates the profound teachings of our tradition and transmits them eloquently in direct application to the issues most on the minds of people today.
We can look throughout Jewish history up until contemporary times and discover a history replete with people like R. Gamaliel and Rabbi Sacks. Those individuals who serve as guiding posts for living a Jewish life that impacts the broader world. The prophet Isaiah calls upon us to be a light unto the nations and the special thing about light is, as the Chasidic masters have taught, a little bit of light can dispel a whole lot of darkness. Whether you are a rabbi without borders or a rabbi without accents or simply a human being who wants to make their impact in changing the world for the better: Where is your light? How are you cultivating it and how are you using it to dispel the darkness in our society?
- Rabbi Ben Greenberg
Welcome to the Rabbis Without Borders Blog on MyJewishLearning.com! Humm, “Rabbis Without Borders” sounds like “Doctors Without Borders,” so this must be blog about rabbis traveling around the world tending to people’s spiritual needs, right?
Well, not exactly. Rabbis Without Borders are rabbis who offer Jewish wisdom, wisdom from the Jewish tradition, in ways that can be helpful to you in your life. As rabbis, we want to use Jewish tradition to help you flourish in your life, to help you live and grow. The “with out borders” part means not that we travel around the world, but that we want to offer you wisdom from a variety of perspectives. There will be 10 different rabbis writing on this blog and each rabbi comes from a different stream in Judaism. Some of the rabbis will answer your questions on the weekly Torah portion. Some will answer your questions about what Judaism has to say about what is going on in the world today. Some will answer your questions about God and spiritual matters. And some will answer your questions about parenting, household issues, and navigating challenges in life. The Jewish tradition has wisdom on each of these subjects and many more. Our goal is to help you access that wisdom and use it in your life.
All of the rabbis writing here are Rabbis Without Borders Fellows at Clal- The National Jewish Center for learning and Leadership. Founded in 1974, Clal (www.clal.org) is a think tank, leadership training institute and resource center. For over thirty years Clal has led the way in building creative, compelling, pluralist Jewish community and life. Rabbis Without Borders is the next phase of this work.
Rabbis Without Borders (www.rabbiswithoutborders.org) Fellows have completed a year long intensive Fellowship which has pushed them to think out side the box. These are rabbis who use our ancient tradition in new and exciting ways. We are networked with each other and continually challenge each other to try new things. We are excited to partner with myjewishlearning.com in sharing our ideas with you.
We hope that you find our thoughts to be meaningful and useful. We look forward to reading your comments and hearing your thoughts on our posts.
Rabbi Rebecca W. Sirbu
Director, Rabbis Without Borders, Clal