Earlier this month in The New York Times, Reza Aslan continued an ongoing argument against Bill Maher’s blanket condemnation of Islam, and also criticized those who insist that Muslim extremists are simply practicing Islam wrong. His op-ed says we need to recognize the complexity of any religion’s relationship with the good or bad behavior of its adherents.
He then goes a step further, saying, “It is a fallacy to believe that people of faith derive their values primarily from their Scriptures. The opposite is true. People of faith insert their values into their Scriptures, reading them through the lens of their own cultural, ethnic, nationalistic and even political perspectives.”
When I lead Torah study weekly at Temple Beth Emeth in Brooklyn, NY, I teach that our Torah remains vital and relevant because we bring our own experiences and ideas to it, combining the text with our lives to find new ways to think about both. While I think Aslan might be overstating his case a bit, it is quite true that interpretations of our sacred texts evolve with the times, as do our religious practice and our sense of which passages speak most to us, based on the perspectives we bring to the text. It has always been so.
At our Torah study, then, more than once, this question has arisen: How do we know that we’re not using the Torah, or the Bible, to just tell us what we want to hear? To put a finer point on it, how do we know that we’re not using the Torah simply to justify our own bad behavior?
It’s a tough question. One classic example of the Bible being used to support injustice is when pre-Civil War slaveholders used it to justify slavery. Today we find slavery abhorrent (though it continues to exist), and recognize that it is wrong even though the Christian and Jewish Bibles, as well as the Quran, are uncritical of it. A different, current example is the use of the Bible, usually Leviticus 18:22, to condemn homosexuality. I and many others believe this is using the Bible to support injustice. (A fascinating alternate interpretation of that verse is in the article “Pit`hu Li Sha`arei Tzedeq” by Rabbi David Greenstein.)
In Pirkei Avot, we read that Ben Bag-Bag said of the Torah, “Turn it and turn it again, for everything is in it.” That means we can find everything in there—good and evil, and justification for both.
So how do we know that we aren’t supporting injustice when we use the Torah to help us make choices? My answer is that we might not always be able to be sure, but we have to do the best we can. Here’s how to do that: Study the Torah, study the Bible, study whatever your sacred scriptures are, and study them some more. Do it with other people. Study what people before us have thought about it. Bring your own best sense of right and wrong. Pay attention to when you’re supporting something that causes harm to people—that’s a sign of injustice. Wrestle with the text and argue about it, and listen to what others think. Don’t expect black and white answers, and don’t settle for them. Don’t be so sure you’re right. Expect it to be hard.
And have faith. Faith in ourselves, in our study companions, and in our scriptures, faith that we’ll find a way for ourselves, and that we can bring more good into the world.
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I grew up in Texas, like in most of the South, people in Texas greet each other warmly and a smile is always in place. During a typical run through a grocery store, I would get smiled at by strangers, smiled at and chatted up by the check-out clerk, and smiled at by the bag boy or girl who carried my purchases to the car. In Texas, no one lacks for a smile. They may hate your guts, but they will still smile at you.
Now I live in New York. Smiling at strangers is verboten. If a check out clerk tries to engage me in conversation, I get suspicious. If a stranger on the street smiles at me, I have learned to look the other way. The Northeast does not believe in a culture of smiling.
This leaves me stuck between two cultures, and it sometimes gets me in trouble, especially in professional situations. My natural Texan inclination is to smile. This works to my advantage when people experience me as warm and friendly. However, it works to my disadvantage when the person I am interacting with interprets my smile to mean that I am simply a sweet person whom they do not have to take too seriously. I smile in tough negotiations, and I smile when disagreeing with someone. Circumstances in which others, particularly New Yorkers, will most definitely NOT be smiling.
I have given serious consideration to trying to unlearn my smiling habit. But then I came across this saying in The Ethics of Our Fathers, a Jewish book of wisdom, “Receive every person with a cheerful countenance,” (Pirkei Avot 1:15) and it struck me that there is deep wisdom in smiling. To really smile at someone you must look them in the face. Doing so helps you see them as a fellow human being, someone who is like yourself, with their own thoughts, feelings and reactions. By smiling at someone you create a connection at a very human level which can span deep divides. One smile can heal a lot of hurt.
I decided that this is a person I want to be, a person who smiles and connects to others. My smile is no longer just an ingrained habit, but a conscious choice. I like reaching out to others with a cheerful countenance. I like the kinds of relationships this leads me into. I can disagree with someone and smile at them at the same time, communicating that we can be in relationship while standing on different sides of an issue. In our highly fractured all or nothing culture, there is great power in smiling and communicating that message. Consciously smile at someone and see what follows. Your smile holds great power.
Reading Anne- Marie Slaughter’s article in The Atlantic, “Why Women Still Can’t Have It All” has caused me to wonder, what would “having it all” looks like. As I was letting my imagination go and dreaming big, a teaching from the Jewish wisdom book, The Ethics of Our Fathers came in to my head. “Who is rich? One who is happy with his portion.”
I began to think about the wisdom of that statement. On one hand, it makes perfect sense. We each have our lot in life, and if we can make peace with it then we could indeed lead happy and fulfilled lives. We would not want for anything. On the other hand, if we all accept whatever we have, then there would be very little drive to make the world a better place. Human ingenuity is sparked by an individual desiring something to be better than it is. Without this drive to make things better we might all still be living in caves and hunting and gathering for our food.
The article sparked an internal debate about this delicate balance between being happy with what I have and striving for more. If I may be chutzpadick enough to compare myself to Mrs. Slaughter, I see many similarities in our personal stories. Like her, I have entered a field previously dominated by men, and I am very thankful for the women before me who led the way. Like her, I have a spouse who shares parenting and domestic duties equally. And like her I have a wonderful job which affords me flexibility when I need to attend an event at my daughter’s school or take her to the doctor. When I look at the big picture I feel rich. I am happy with my life and my work.
And yet…I have a desire for more. Like most women, I too make compromises to balance life and work. To rise in my field to a position of national prominence I would have to travel much more than I am willing to do. I choose to be home with my husband and daughter. By making this choice I am limiting my career trajectory. In addition, I work in a field still dominated by men and a male definition of what a leader looks like and sounds like. I don’t have a long beard or a deep voice. My leadership style is not always recognized as “leadership” because I have a quieter style which focuses on relationship building rather than being the center of attention.
There is so much I want to change both in my field in particular and American society as a whole. I want a world where men and women have the ability to reach the height of their career success and have time to be with those they love.
But my guess is that even when that happens, life will still be a balancing act. It might be easier to balance work and home life, but it will still need to be done. And we will always need to balance being happy with what we have and striving for more. This is part and parcel of what it means to be human.
Yesterday was a big day for our family. My daughter graduated from college. She was the fourth of our five children (in our blended family) to graduate with academic honors. The youngest, now a college junior, is headed there. It was a day for all the pride that parents feel at college graduation. I couldn’t wipe the memory of her pre-school graduation out of my mind as I watched this poised, beautiful young woman in cap and gown take her place in front of the audience as she was recognized for her accomplishments. She told of her areas of academic interest in her double major of Comparative Literature and Women’s and Gender Studies and was applauded for it. Her yellow cord hanging down the front of her academic gown announced her achievement for high grades. Her Phi Betta Kappa pin completed the outfit. Her modest smile was the same as the one she wore on the day of her pre-school graduation, and I teared up.
I’m not telling you this to brag. My daughter’s achievements were well earned; she worked very hard for four years. In fact, she worked hard for the 12 years before that too. She had earned this moment of pride. It belongs to her.
Her favorite professor told me softly how wonderful my daughter is. “She is really talented. She is such a great thinker, with wonderful questions, and she writes so well! I’m watching her.” I asked her if she had discussed future pursuits with my daughter, and she enthusiastically reveled in being an advisor to my daughter. She hastened to add that she would stay in touch and continue to be there for her.
We – parents and professors — had all done our best to give my daughter (and all of our kids) the tools to succeed as learners. She grew up in a home that valued education, one filled with books, journals and discussions. She was encouraged and supported, including our commitment to pay for her undergraduate education, as we did for each of our children. I realize that we were blessed with the ability to do this, even though it was not easy (this is a story for another day.) I was determined that my children should not have to struggle to be educated as I had when my parents didn’t provide for my education. We encouraged our kids to study subjects that interested them – to engage with the world through the ideas, questions and knowledge that would fill them with possibilities and prepare them to chart their future.
Our family’s Jewish values had taught us the value of learning. The primary tool for Jewish engagement is the discursive nature of Talmud study. Our sages of the early generation of the Talmud spoke repeatedly of the importance of learning; for example, exhorting us to, “Acquire for yourself a teacher.” (Mishnah Pirke Avot 1:6)
There is a lot of talk these days about a perceived failure of a liberal arts education to prepare young adults for careers in the real world. Many twenty-somethings are un- and underemployed. It is a frightening problem for a parent of three young adult children who relish their learning in the humanities. But yesterday I remembered why I encouraged my kids to pursue their interests. As my daughter’s professor reminded me, the ability to ask good questions, the interest to pursue knowledge and the skills to organize and integrate thoughts and write well are significant life skills for success in any pursuit.
Yesterday’s front-page story in the New York Times documented, in sad detail, the sharp decline in public funding for college education and the enormous burden of student debt that has become a national crisis. The problems are vast and deep: the cost of college education is rising faster than is sustainable; it is becoming unaffordable for most Americans. Americans families will have an increasingly difficult time justifying the investment – sadly, many who are burdened by sizable student loans are already proof of this. Without a doubt, our country needs structural change. We must recover our foundations as a nation that offers opportunity for all.
I celebrate the blessing that education offered my children and me. Congratulations to the class of 2012 – our future leaders, teachers, and great minds. There is no telling what you will accomplish. Don’t let our nation off the hook – it is our responsibility to preserve what we taught you – that education shapes our future, together.