You may have caught a couple of stories that have been spreading virally over blogs and Face book the last couple of weeks. Both share one theme in common – in simple and unassuming ways, ordinary people acting morally or compassionately. In the first story, a fellow traveler on a subway line caught a picture of an African-American man taking a nap on the shoulder of a white man wearing a kippah. I mention the specifics of ethnicity and religious identity here because I believe they are relevant to the impact of the story and the way it went viral. More on that in a moment. In the second story, a rabbi in New Haven bought a second hand desk and, upon taking it apart to fit it through a door at home, discovered $98,000 hidden inside it. He called the previous owner and returned to her what happened to be an inheritance that she had hidden there years ago.
Why have these two stories caught the imagination of so many? They may have particularly moved Jewish readers, pleased (or perhaps even relieved) to see a story featuring a fellow tribe member in such a positive light, but clearly these stories have spread far beyond our own community. Are we surprised to see such acts of kindness, compassion and honesty in a world where we have come to expect only self-interest and getting ahead? That might be the cynic’s response, but I think there’s more to it than that.
First, let me back to the detail of ethnic and religious identity in the first picture. While I don’t believe for a moment that this had anything to do with the motivations of the individuals themselves, from a purely pragmatic perspective, I do think it had something to do with why the picture went viral. Think for a moment; if it had been two white or two black people side by side, with no distinguishing garb to demonstrate the difference in some aspect of their identity, would this have caught the photographer’s eye? There might have been an assumption that these were two friends, boyfriends or girlfriends. So, while it might detract a little from the overall ‘feel good’ of this story, I think it is hard to deny that part of the impact of the image is the underlying assumption that these two individuals were not previously connected in any way. There’s a whole other narrative we could write about that but, for now, let’s stay with the positive. What I see here is a visual cue that is largely interpreted as ‘the kindness of strangers’.
Likewise, the Rabbi who returned $98,000 had made a transaction for a second-hand desk with someone with whom he previously had no connection. So we see two examples of people acting kindly and morally toward others because of some inner calling that directs them to interact with others in these ways in these particular moments. And, in both cases, what drives that decision is consideration of the ‘other’. As Isaac Theil was reported to have said to the traveler who took the photo, “He must have had a long day, let him sleep. We’ve all been there, right?”
I’d like to suggest one other frame for both of these stories. We are presented with individuals who, by appearance or title, are assumed to be observant Jews. While I know that many others without such an identity may have acted in exactly the same way in these circumstances and, in fact, people are demonstrating these acts of kindness every day (but rarely to this attention because there is nothing remarkable about their identity to make them stand out from the crowd), I think that many may be assuming that an underlying spiritual ethic is at least a part of the story here.
And certainly, Jewish ethics are in alignment with the choices that were made in these stories. So often, when I talk about Jewish ethics as abstract theory, I will find my students (teenagers or adults) reflecting on what feels like lofty ideals to aim toward but that are hard to truly live up to in practice. Many of the stories we have to illustrate these values are drawn from times and places that seem so distant from our own, featuring exemplary figures who are hard to emulate. Take, for example the following ethical statement that can be found in our morning liturgy:
“May one always revere God in private as in public.” [L’olam yehay adam y’ray Shamayim ba-seter u’va-galui]. It’s a bit like the question, “Does the tree make a sound when it falls in the forest and no one is there to hear it?” (cited from The Wisdom of Judaism: An Introduction to the Values of the Talmud, By Rabbi Dov Peretz Elkins, Jewish Lights Publishing).
And here is a story that illustrates this principle:
The Chaffetz Chayyim was once given a ride in a horse-drawn carriage. The driver, unaware of the identity of his passenger, stopped the carriage near a grove, and stepped down. After instructing the Chaffetz Chayyim to ‘call out if anybody sees me,’ he started to gather fruit from the trees in the field. Within a matter of seconds, the Chaffetz Chayyim called out in an agitated voice, ‘We are seen, we are seen.’ The frightened driver dropped the fruit, rushed back to the wagon, and drove off in great haste. After he had driven for a minute or two he turned around and saw that the road behind them was empty. He turned to the Chaffetz Chayyim in anger, saying, ‘Why did you yell out like that? There was no one watching me.’ The Chaffetz Chayyim pointed skyward: ‘God saw what you were doing. God is always watching.’ (as told by Joseph Telushkin in A Code of Jewish Ethics Vol 1: You Shall be Holy, p. 489).
Perhaps what we have in these two recent stories are simply contemporary examples of a spiritual ethics story; ones that we can relate to, that we can discuss and debate, find ourselves in more easily and, ultimately, be inspired by.
Below, Rabbi Alana Suskin explains why her family doesn’t trick-or-treat. To hear from another Jewish mom with a different perspective, check out: “Why I Let My Jewish Kids Trick or Treat”
I feel fairly ambivalent about Halloween. On the positive side: although winter in the DC metro area is an exercise in perfect misery of cold and drippy wet, the end of October is still decidedly fall and can still often be quite nice: not yet rainy, not terribly cold, sometimes there are still bright leaves on the trees. So there’s the mid-autumn thing.
There’s also the neighborhoodliness of all the folks putting on a show for the kids, an opportunity for people to meet and interact with their neighbors, which these days can be a rare exercise.
There’s also a few pagan friends I have who look forward to their religious observance of Samhain (the pre-Christian, Celtic name for the holiday upon which the roman church based All Hallows’ Eve when it couldn’t rid the local populations of their age old observances). I’m pleased for them.
But most of all, with the more recent innovation of making a big deal out of what was a relatively small deal when I was little, I am Thrilled. To. Happiness. about the post Halloween sales of orange fairy lights and other useful sukkah items for the year to follow. (Yay!)
All that said, I don’t trick or treat, and neither does my child. And because we’ve talked about it, and he understands “we don’t observe that holiday,” at least at this point (he’s nine) he doesn’t seem to mind, even though he does have friends—even Jewish friends—who do.
Right now, what we do is help other kids celebrate their holiday by giving out candy (and if he eats a few Snickers bars, that’s fine, although he was sad when I explained to him that even though there are actually no authenticated cases of non-family members harming children with Halloween snacks, we can’t make candy apples or other treats to give out because people are afraid that someone might hurt their kids by giving them something harmful) and if he wants to dress up for them in a costume, he can do that even though our dress up holiday is Purim.
We have also talked about whether the values of Halloween are Jewish values: whether demanding gifts from others is a Jewish value (we didn’t get into the under threat of “trick” part), and we talked about how Judaism views death and dead bodies, and whether displaying “funny” skeletons and ghosts is in line with Jewish tradition, which views the human body, even after death, as holy, which is why Judaism forbids displaying corpses, even those of criminals after execution, and why it is considered a very holy mitzvah (obligation, and good deed) to be part of a chevreh kadishah l’metim (holy society for the care of the dead) in which one takes care, gently and with reverence for the soul which inhabited it, of the recently deceased corpse.
Which is why, when one is sitting with the body after death, making sure it is never left alone, one does not say certain prayers in the same room as the deceased’s body, lest the soul feel mocked because it cannot engage in that mitzvah anymore.
And it is also why, when it was in town, we did not go see the museum exhibit in which the corpses of people who had been preserved were posed in all sorts of positions for display of their inner workings. We talked about how, although Jewish tradition believes that the soul separates from the body after death, the body is a gift to us from God, and is an important part of us, to be treated with respect during life as well as after death, which is why we do not tattoo it, or mutilate it for any reason other than medical necessity, or throw it away until we have fulfilled the missions that God assigned us and then we are taken from it.
For us, the whistling In the dark of Halloween in making light of skeletons and ghosts and displaying them is not in line with the love we should have for those who passed from this earth before us, and whose love sustains us—and are not a threat to us—even after they are gone.
Finally, I find myself enormously disturbed by the sexualization both of little girls in their purchased costumes, but also in the adult celebrations in urban gathering areas (etc). While I firmly hold that the value of tzniut (modesty) is far more about respectful speech, humility, non-conspicuous consumption both in dress and in possessions, and deportment in general, the overemphasis on sexuality for women, let alone little girls, is not a value I share or wish to.
Which is why, since so few people know or observe the pagan, or even Christian origins of the day, it could be reasonably considered an “American” holiday, (Thanksgiving’s origins, on the other hand, are decidedly American, but its themes are religious in a way that is perfectly in line with Jewish values), we nevertheless do not celebrate Halloween.
One of my beliefs about Judaism is that as Jews we live and can model countercultural values, and it seems to me that, at least in my own home, Halloween is a time when we can model our difference—in a very quiet way.
I don’t, of course, go around harshing everyone’s mellow—I don’t criticize those who find a bit of harmless fun in it, I don’t even suggest that those Jews who enjoy it ought to refrain and I certainly don’t have anything against cupcakes, chocolate, or little kids spending an evening outside int he dark. But it is an terrific opportunity to have a discussion with your family about Jewish values, about how we view death and life, sexuality (for older kids), and the difference between Purim’s dress up where we are obligated to give food to others, and Halloween’s where we demand it from others.
A couple of weeks ago, Michal Kohane caused a few ripples in the blogosphere by getting fired over the column “40 Plus and Screwed: More on Less Young Adult Engagement.” Her premise is that the Jewish community has put most of its efforts into engaging 20-and-30-somethings – with trips, and “service opportunities,” grants, fellowships, and essentially begging young Jews to come and be Jewish by offering all kinds of swag and calling them “leaders” (whether or not they are) and basically offering any kind of enticement that can be imagined as attractive to the young. And that this effort is excessive, misguided – and really, not quite Jewish in its exclusion from consideration the talents and wisdom of those over this age demographic:
…one can be “old,” and much freer, able and available, professionally and spiritually, with lots of energy, insight, wisdom and knowledge about life, but guess what. If that’s who you are, the Jewish people don’t need you anymore. Oh, wait, I’m exaggerating. They do need you. You’re welcome to pay dues. And memberships. And support the never-ending campaigns. And we will call on our various phonathons, because young people need to party. And travel. And explore their identity. And you? you’re already 50, maybe even 60. Seriously? You haven’t been to Israel?? and you still date?? But that’s one leg in the World to Come! So we are not going to invest in you. Please, step aside, and hand over the keys. And your check book? Thanks. Because that is the only role we left you. You are “40 plus and – therefore – screwed.”
Yes, I’m exaggerating, but not much. At a recent meeting about the millennia generation, someone – over 45 – dared ask, what can any of us, “alter kakers” ”do. Alter Kakers by the way is not a nice thing to say, but no one corrected the derogatory term. One “millennia child” answered quickly: “You can listen,” he said. Another joked: “there is really nothing you can do.” The audience nodded with pride.
I don’t disagree. I would also add, although she doesn’t that this particular form of ageism is gendered (take a look around the room of any powerful Jewish organization and see how many of them are older men, as opposed to older women).
But I’d ask some additional questions here – not because she’s wrong, but because I think she actually misses the point. While there is certainly ageism, and gender bias, and an insane focus on getting young Jews to breed by any means possible, this doesn’t really have anything to do with the young people whose narcissism she complains about. These programs aren’t developed by those twenty and thirty somethings, and don’t, for the most part take into account their needs – which is why many of them fail to develop long-term affiliations.
But here’s the real question:
Not just for the “screwed 40somethings,” but also the 20 and 30 somethings. Why are we offering any bribes at all?
Because, ultimately that’s what a great deal of this boils down to. “Please be Jewish, so we don’t die out.”
But Judaism doesn’t need that.
Judaism is not going to die out. And I think perhaps it’s time that we stopped treating Judaism as though it needed to be bolstered by various metaphorical swag bags.
The attitude comes from a view of Judaism which thinks that Judaism is simply a sort of super-ethnicity, with some nice cultural baggage that we want to live on. But Judaism is a rich, powerful relationship with the universe and the divine, and it is a mission. And not everyone is going to accept that mission.
The mission requires some dedication – it means that priorities have to be set because -as Moses said to Reuven and Gad in the Torah portion this week – your cattle? really? You’re going to put your flocks ahead of this great mission that we’re on? They are not the most important thing. God drives our lives, and our goals; God is our mission, and bringing the holy into this world is our mission- you need to get your priorities straight, and sometimes that means setting aside the bigger paycheck, the soccer game, the Saturday shopping trip.
Instead of asking why 40-somethings aren’t being offered tidbits along with 20-somethings, I’d ask, “what are you offering Judaism?” All of us, whatever age we are.
I have to say, I’m also tired of the endless programs, the baby-marriage-hookup-drives for the young, the demographic desperation.
And in perfect honesty, I suspect that few of those 20 and 30 somethings are that impressed by them either.
Judaism is a rich, deep tradition – it is a difficult one, because it is not one that is accessed superficially and easily. It is demanding of time and effort. It is not just about once a week – Judaism is a 24/7 activity, that requires immersion, study, patience, persistence and connection to other Jews.
It can’t be done well in isolation. And frankly, maybe it’s not for everyone.
Which is not to say “My way or the highway.” Our communities have gotten lazy abut very basic things: friendliness (but NOT customer service. Judaism is not a business, and the faster we drop that foolish trope, the better), acceptance, and yes, thinking about what a community is.
Both edgy indie minyans and shuls have forgotten that communities are not about finding your age or personality niche and working it. If you have an age range of only twenty years, you have failed, because a community must be composed of children, teens, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty-somethings, Also eighty-somethings. People who are sweet, people who are annoying as heck; people with money, and those who are middle class (the few of those left) and people who are poor. People with green hair or adopted children, or no children, or single people, or gay and lesbian couples or people who like to camp in the great outdoors and those who think that Holiday inn is roughing it.
That is a community.
There are definitely things that we could all do better, no question. Lots of things could be done better.
The fact that some people will start at a more basic level of learning is fine, but we shouldn’t be offering only basic learning. Study can be done at all kinds of levels for all kinds of different abilities – but it should be challenging and difficult and rich for anyone at whatever level – and all of us should take ourselves to the table -Every Single Person should make a commitment to study and Jewish living, and spending time with people who are not like you.
And no one should be satisfied with the same basics over and over again – or, more realistically, unsatisfied with them. Because I think that’s really what’s missing. The superficial is terribly unsatisfying. Have we gone too far in some ways, emphasizing flashy programs over deep study and demographic concerns over genuine commitment to an important mission from God?
And that’s why Kohane is right, and wrong: it isn’t that people over forty have been excluded – it’s that all of us have been. And it’s long past time to do something about it. But there’s no “someone else” to do it. It’s us. So get up, and open a book, and go to shul, and do something Jewish with someone else. If you don’t have the skills to do it yourself, well, that’s what shul is for – to create a community where we can all lean on each other.
Recently there has been a rash of articles declaring how stupid American parents have overcoddled their children in all sorts of way, resulting in college students who call to ask their parents for advice daily, college graduates who move back into the parental home – sometimes for years, parents who call their offsprings’ college professors to demand that they should receive higher grades.
The resounding opinion seems to have become that parents are investing too heavily in their children, protecting them from too much, and refusing to let them grow up. Is this true? Are we producing a nation of wimps?
Except for the last of these, which strikes me as Snopes-bait (the over-the-topness combined with the lack of specificity smells strongly of urban legend), I’m going to offer a suggestion: it’s a crock.
It’s not that there aren’t individuals who hop on to ridiculous trends, or that children have less freedom to play on their own and roam around relatively unsupervised, or even a tendency to emphasize “specialness” over achievement. By and large, human beings are resilient enough, even as children, that this makes not that great an impact. What I doubt is the underlying thinking of the idea that caring deeply abut one’s children is divorced from the circumstances in which we live – in which success is more and more difficult to come by, and as we have fewer children, the success of each one counts more, as there are fewer of us to help one another.
But the true underlying thought is a peculiarly American idea – that respect and love for one’s parents is a flaw; that true adult hood means cutting oneself off from one’s family; that advice from one’s elders is a bad thing; that individuals should stand alone. These ideas have become dominant in American society – but they are lies.
Many cultures expect children to live with their families, to ask their parents for advice, to remain in a network of relationships in which to protect one’s circle is of paramount value – including Judaism. Rather than criticize the cell phones for “making” adult children depend upon their parents, we should be examining the society in which we live, where it has become a necessity for us to rebuild natural familial ties with one another. Many people speak of the contract of our society being broken: our businesses take no care for their employees, preferring to work them hard without sufficient compensation, our government and communities fail in caring for the power and powerless; laws favor the wealthy. But if anything, the dependance of children on their parents is a sign of healing, not of harm. Perhaps it is from here that we will once again begin to build communities and a society in which instead of valorizing the self over all others, we will once again begin to value our relationships with others.
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