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?
Those of us who fall under the general rubric of “believers” may feel a sense of God’s presence in our lives at most, if not every moment, and others may find God hidden or seemingly absent much of the time. This experience of God’s absence probably goes back to time eternal and the Bible records how our ancestors confronted it. Much has been written, and much will be written as people of deep faith continue to face this question.
One of the much discussed themes of Purim is this hiddenness of God in the Book of Esther. I will not attempt to add anything new to this theological concern, except to point out something that emerges from the mitzvot/practices of Purim.
After describing the mitzvot of Purim which include reading the Megillah, giving gifts to the poor, gifts of food one to another and have a festive meal, Maimonides (Mishneh Torah Laws of Megillah 2:17) adds:
“It is preferable to spend more on gifts to the poor than on the Purim meal or on presents to friends. For no joy is greater or more glorious than the joy of gladdening the hearts of the poor, the orphans, the widows, and the strangers. Indeed, he who causes the hearts of these unfortunates to rejoice emulates the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones” (Is. 57:15)”
Maimonides reminds us that while all the mitzvot of Purim are binding, gifts to the poor should be of greatest importance. What is striking is his use of the idea that to support the poor is an expression of imitating God. This is a theme expressed in a number of areas by Maimonides (see my previous post Hysteron Proteron for one example). While Jewish law has its specific applications in all areas, we who follow the law should also be a certain type of religious personality whose goal is to lead a life in imitation of the Divine. Thus when I come to Purim, I must observe all its practices. The serious religious personality who understands that they must be seeking to emulate God, will pursue supporting the poor to a greater extent than the other mitzvot.
While I have no illusion that Maimonides intended this, supporting the poor on Purim (and any other time as well) is a way of addressing the problem of God’s apparent absence. On Purim I “emulate the Divine Presence, of whom Scripture says, “to revive the spirit of the humble, and to revive the heart of the contrite ones”. While God’s absence may and perhaps should bother us theologically, it in no way can hamper us morally and ethically. I must always act as if I am in God’s presence, seeking to emulate all that God does.
Rick Santorum’s recent theological musings will likely prove to be an irresistible teaching moment for clergy of all sorts. Here’s my take on his take on President Obama’s take on the Bible’s take on nature.
First, let’s go to the tape…
On Saturday, at an event in Ohio, Santorum contrasted his own views with Obama’s “phony” theology, which is “not a theology based on the Bible, [but] a different theology.” A day later, on CBS with Bob Schieffer, he clarifed that he was not questioning whether or not Obama was Christian, but was speaking specifically about the President’s environmental policy:
Well, I was talking about the radical environmentalists…That’s what I was talking about: Energy, this idea that man is here to serve the Earth, as opposed to husband its resources and be good stewards of the Earth. And I think that is a phony ideal. I don’t believe that that’s what we’re here to do – that man is here to use the resources and use them wisely, to care for the Earth, to be a steward of the Earth, but we’re not here to serve the Earth.
In contrasting “stewardship” with “service,” Santorum is alluding to the divergent creation stories at the beginning of the Bible. Yes, “stories.” Biblical scholars have long noted that there appear to be two stories about the creation of the world in opening chapters of Genesis. In the first, God creates the heavens and earth majestically, with divine speech; in the second, God is more of an artist, fashioning people out of clay. Many people (including many people of faith) accept a theory known as the Documentary Hypothesis which posits that several different written sources existed independently of each other, in some cases for hundreds of years, before they were finally edited together sometime after the Babylonian Exile. People who see the Bible through this lens would see the two different creation stories as reflecting the understanding of two different authors or schools, and would be interested in what the differences between them can teach us about their respective writers.
Scholars assign Genesis 1-2:4a to the source known as “P,” whose major claim to fame is the book of Leviticus. The “P” Creation story has God imposing order upon chaos, a process culminating in the creation of human beings “in God’s image.” Humanity is charged with subduing nature and ruling over it (or “having dominion” over it)…which is to say, humanity is charged with continuing God’s work of majestic mastery.
The version which begins with the second half of Genesis 2:4 is typically assigned to the “document” known as JE. It seems to reflect a more rural worldview. JE’s first human is a farmer, placed in the Garden of Eden l’ovdah ul’shomrah, to “work” it (or even, without betraying the original Hebrew, to “serve” it) and to “guard” it. Limits are placed on humanity’s dominion over the planet in this creation story.
One need not accept the Documentary Hypothesis in order to learn from the contrasts between these two chapters of Genesis. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik’s “Lonely Man of Faith” (also part of this week’s zeitgeist…thank you very much, David Brooks, for acquainting your readers with The Rav) sees in “Adam I” and “Adam II” contrasting, but necessary, expressions of a sound relationship between humanity and nature (and God). The “majestic man” of Genesis 1 and the “covenantal man” of Genesis 2 are both incomplete pictures of a human being. Taken together, they begin to describe us in our complexity. Indeed, for Soloveitchik, one couldn’t exist without the other, and the presence of the two of them is evidence that one very talented Hand wrote both stories.
Are we to master the world, subdue it, have dominion over it? Or are we to guard it, preserve it, perhaps even “serve” it? The Bible doesn’t answer that question; it merely helps us know how to ask it. And while Rick Santorum speaks the helpful language of “stewardship,” by placing that term in opposition to “service,” he seems to be leaning toward a view that is shaped primarily, if not exclusively, by “Adam I” thinking. For his part, President Obama’s environmental policies may lean more “Adam II” than Candidate Santorum’s (or not — ask some environmentalists what they think!), but to brand them as the product of a “phony theology” is to demonstrate a weak understanding of the full breadth and complexity of religious teachings on humanity’s relationship to this vast and bountiful, but by no means infinite, home.
The State of the Jewish Union is… Meh, we’ll see.
Education is the beating heart of Judaism. Where the secular world sees wisdom as a means to power, Judaism sees wisdom as an end unto itself. “Torah L’ishma, Torah study, learning for it’s own sake,” for the shear holiness of the endeavor, is a distinctly Jewish goal. The Torah’s expansive rabbinic commentary, the Mishnah, the Talmud, all of the Midrashim, and all of the articulated Halachot, all of the ever-sprawling Oral Torah has at it’s central goal, to have holiness touch the heart of man.
Just as wisdom for Her own sake is a specifically Jewish concept, the Jewish approach to learning is likewise unique. Both learning and experience are expected: “Eim ein Kemach, ein Torah, Eim ein Torah, ein Kemah - Without a livelihood there can be not Torah, without Torah there can be no livelihood.” In such a concept there is a built in human dynamic because no two people can have the exact same experience. Thus the study of God requires the interaction between human’s. Why were human beings created in the image of God? Rabbi Heschel taught that it was a response to one of the Ten Commandments, “Thou Shall Not Make an Image of God? – Since man cannot live without God, God made man in God’s image to be a constant reminder. Yet no two of us are exactly alike. And this is the key to understanding the specific nexus that Judaism finds itself at the beginning of the 21st century: For us there has always been a necessary, incalculable balance between the individual and the whole. It is a paradox.
The traditional Jewish learning style is called Hevruta, from the Hebrew root, Haver, friend. Ideal study does not happen in a vacuum, but rather, with another opinion, another world view and set of experiences. Without a counter-balanced voice, one might have the hubris to believe that he or she is right – and one might vary well be correct. But Judaism believes in a multiplicity of correct views. Remember Fiddler on the Roof?
It was a horse!
It was a mule!
You’re both right.
How can they both be right?
You’re also right.
Two Jews three opinions -right? Of course right, but why? The Torah is like a diamond, one beautiful gem with countless facets. Each person is sees Her light refracted through the particular prism of his or her particular vantage. And it was meant to be this way. Only, we are asked to consider the vary truths we hold about the most sacred texts and ideas that we know ALSO from the perspective of the other. We are asked to collect perspectives of other peoples facets as a way of getting as close as we can to the ultimate light of this dazzling diamond. This is amazing. Amazing and scary and beautiful.
Today there is such a polarization of views: Orthodox, Reform, Conservative, Ultra-Orthodox, Hassidic, Jewish- Buddhist, and my favorite, the quickly growing “Just Jewish.” My concern is that almost all perspectives on our beautiful religion have been poisoned by the often polarizing forces of modernity: Branding and expedience asks us to choose between competing ideas, this OR that, rather than the native Jewish mode of celebrating competing ideas, this AND that. The Torah commands, “You Shall have but one Torah,” which some have come to understand as “my way, and not yours.” Unfortunately, this kind of thinking is rampant – it weakens Judaism, it tears us apart. Where we once modeled how to deal with the paradox of competing values and perspectives, we have more often than not succumbed to the myopic view of “I” and “Me” forgetting completely that God is found in dialogue with the “Other.” If we continue to diminish the light of Torah by holding only our “truth” above other’s, one of the sad outcome of modernity’s denomenationalism, we fail to rise to the call of being a “light unto the nations.”
Thus lies the importance of CLAL’s Rabbis Without Borders mission: Pluralism is the only authentically Jewish way into the 21 Century. Different rabbis from varying perspectives support each other in their multiplicity of Jewish expressions. We disagree, we challenge, but we also always support each other. It is the only truly authentic way of Jewish learning, of being Jewish. Judaism will quickly sink into irrelevance if it cannot recover its central truth that ONLY differences that remain in dialogue are holy.
Here is the humbling truth of Judaism at the crossroads of the superconductor quickness of modernity: Jewish expressions that see themselves as “more authentic” than another ultimately subvert the light of the entire Torah precisely at a time when humanity needs Her as a beacon.
My daughter sings in the choir at her Jewish high school. Only her mother can attend the annual concert. I am not allowed to attend as this would violate “kol isha” hearing the voice of a woman sing. While the school certainly allows my daughter to sing, out of modesty it cannot take place in front of men.
In many Hasidic sources, based on a Zohar passage, the Exodus from Egypt is viewed as the movement from silence to speech. Pharaoh’s oppression of the Israelites was so intense that initially the people could not even respond to God and Moses’s call of redemption. They lacked the strength to simply listen to Moses. The Exodus became the restoration of the authentic Jewish voice to the People, for at Sinai they spoke loud and clear as one to accept the Torah. Moses who in Egypt complained he cannot speak well gained a full voice at Sinai and for the rest of his life. It is no accident that our annual retelling of the Exodus story at Passover is such an important verbal activity. It is precisely though telling and talking that we show we are free of the oppression from Egypt. What emerges from this is that to give someone voice is to liberate them and to suppress voice is to enslave them.
In an American context this can certainly resonate with our concern for free speech. While Jewish tradition has many laws concerning proper speech and would recoil from the repugnant nature of much of what passes today as protected free speech, nonetheless one should be very hesitant to suppress someone’s voice because that borders on enslaving them. At the same time, there is much American society could learn from the ethics of speech that plays a role in Jewish tradition.
As an Orthodox rabbi, I have followed as many have, the issues of “kol isha” hearing a women’s voice that have played out both in a singing context and even women not being allowed to present at a medical conference in Israel recently sponsored by a very important organization Puah which works on issues in fertility. While this is not the place to enter into the legal arguments, there is an underlying tension being played out between traditional understandings of modesty, unfortunately and incorrectly placed as a burden/responsibility on women, and an open society where women are full participants in the public square. At least one leading rabbi has argued for a more open understanding of this issue, but what I have seen lacking is this viewing of suppressing women’s voices as an act of oppression. It returns the woman to a form of slavery and the silencer to a type of Pharaoh. However this will play itself out in Israel and in America, this imperative of giving voice to people must begin to enter into the discussion, even as the community wrestles with the imperative of modesty.
“What is Hanukah?” the Talmud asks and typically each year at this time we are reminded by a variety of writers what the “true” meaning of Hanukah is. From the pages of the Wall Street Journal to numerous websites, scholars, rabbis, educators, and the “man (sic) on the street” offer their take on the nature of Hanukah. To be clear, many of these pieces are quite engaging and informative and this year I have certainly profited from their insights.
It is in this vein, I want to share an approach of Rabbi Isaac Hutner obm. In one of his teachings R. Hutner suggests that the lasting impact of Greece on Israel was the development of machloket-differences of opinion as to the practice of Torah. The Greeks, through their decrees, caused Torah to be forgotten and it was this forgetting that created differences of opinions as to what the correct practice was and should be. It was the war with the Greeks and their defeat at the time of Hanukah that created the “war over Torah”, the sometimes acrimonious debates in which rabbis and sages engage in order to recover what was lost during the persecutions by the Greeks . The legacy of Greece is the legacy of the darkness caused by the accurate tradition of Torah being lost. However, this legacy of darkness and forgetting is compensated by the recovery project of the sages, the “war over Torah” which increased the knowledge of Torah itself. Debate led to new understandings and insights. Even the rejected positions had to be justified and explained. The legacy of Hanukah is the increased light of knowledge of Torah overcoming the darkness of the forgotten Torah. It was the forgetting caused by the Greeks that allowed Torah to expand exponentially in its scope and knowledge.
This rather inadequate summary of my reading of R. Hutner’s teaching I hope will lead the reader to explore it in depth in the original. To be sure not all agree with R Hutner’s understanding of the origin of machloket- differences of opinion. In the context of his teaching I do want to reflect on “war over Torah”. While the tradition itself hopes and expects that the “enemies” in this battle, who are after all sages, will become “lovers” in the end, there is a danger in intellectual/religious battle that one go overboard and flex one’s muscles in a way that ventures far beyond a search for truth to a destruction of civility. There are examples of this in the Talmud. We certainly see this problem pervading our own political and religious discourse. Perhaps even in this pursuit of truth we may have to stop sometimes and not use it as a license for slamming those with whom we may have even profound disagreement.
However R. Hutner asserts something that may appear at first as counterintuitive. True love he says only can emerge from those with whom you have disagreement. Becoming “lovers” is only possible because you had profound differences and were able to engage them in a way that brought you closer in the end. Becoming closer does not mean reaching full agreement, but it does mean having a deep attachment to your ideological opponent. What might our discourse look like if we retained this as a goal even while maintaining our deep convictions and commitment to pursuing the truth as we conceive it?
Is this true of our most intimate relationships as well? Might it be that learning how to truly argue without achieving full agreement is what can bring lovers the closest? The answer to that I leave to you, in the meantime Happy Hanukah.
As I walked through the streets of New York City one chilly morning last April, a young woman with a big smile threw her hand in front of me and cheerfully yelled: “Free bag! Want a free bag?”
“Sure.” I thought. “I can always use an extra reusable cloth tote.”
The bag she handed me was cream in color, featuring black print across the front that read: “The Secret of the Universe.” This seemed perfect! I had just finished a three-day conference with Rabbis Without Borders, where 22 rabbis from across the country and beyond the denominational boundaries had come together to wrestle with how to bring meaning to our lives and the lives of the people we touch. And here I was, with a few hours to spare on that windy day in Manhattan, running errands before my flight back to Austin, and a friendly blond woman was offering me a simple cloth bag that would disclose the answer to that very question with which rabbis have struggled for millennia.
I peered inside the bag and pulled out a card. “The secret of the Universe” – read the card – was Bobbi Brown concealer.
On the surface – just like the literally superficial makeup this bag was advertising – this whole notion of finding “the secret of the universe” seems like a cliché, maybe even silly. But, in truth, Bobbi Brown’s marketing people are onto something – something beneath the skin. They are tapping into our deep human desire to unlock meaning in our lives. Framed in this way, I don’t think any of us would call it silly. When I sit with folks who are battling cancer, struggling to heal traumatized relationships, or searching for a transformative career change, the question of “meaning” is far from silly; it is essential.
But Judaism teaches us that the answer to the question — “What is the secret that gives our lives meaning?” – isn’t found in a magical compact of make-up used for concealing. Rather, it is found on the opposite end of the spectrum – in deep and honest revealing. That’s the deeper truth of Jewish wisdom: “the secret” is located in sacred connections, holy experiences, and loving relationships that don’t conceal – but rather reveal – goodness and light.
The Mishnah of Pirket Avot (Ethics of Our Fathers) teaches: The world stands on three things: On Torah, on Avodah (purposeful prayer) and on Gimilut Chasadim (Acts of loving-kindness.
Torah: The climax of our Jewish narrative is the moment of Revelation on Mount Sinai, when God spoke face to face with Moses, revealing a language of justice, peace, and love to the Jewish people. We recapture that experience of revelation each time we sit down and study Torah with a chevrauta – a study partner – bringing new understandings to our texts and creating a space for our Jewish language to continue to evolve. The act of studying with a partner reflects the tremendous value Judaism places on encountering other human beings in sacred relationships that permit us to reveal the depth of our souls.
Avodah – Purposeful Prayer: Originally, in the time of the Temple, Avodah referred to the sacrificial offerings. Our offerings now come in the form of communal connection and recitation of sacred texts. When we truly engage in purposeful prayer, we experience the potential of revelation — we both reach out to the mystery of God, and also reach inward to connect with the mystery of our souls. In doing so, we strive to reveal our deepest feelings to the one who needs to understand us best – ourselves. Life can be disheartening and scary, yet when we come together in passionate communal prayer, we support one another and gain strength and inspiration to do the revelatory, healing work that our society so desperately needs.
G’milut Chasadim – Acts of Lovingkindness: The first Lubavitcher Rebbe, Shneur Zalman, taught that there are moments in each of our lives when we become worn down and are unable to simply spring back and find meaning in life. Rebbe Shneur Zalman explained that when those moments arise, we must go out and share kindness with another human being. Visit a resident in a nursing home. Volunteer in a soup kitchen. Spend time in an inner-city school helping children learn to read. When we engage in selfless acts that elevate others, we reveal God’s love and goodness to all those we touch. In that moment, not only do we bring light to others; we become filled with light ourselves.
Bobbi Brown just might have the secret to concealing an annoying pimple, but when it comes to searching for the secret to the universe, I vote for revelation over concealment and Jewish wisdom over elegantly packaged make-up.
At Congregation B’nai Israel, Bridgeport, CT, I’m blessed with a class of almost 30 eighth graders and we meet weekly on Monday evenings.
Last week, we began a conversation with them that emerged from a desire to highlight the upcoming Reform movement biennial conference. I haven’t attended a Biennial for several years, but they are always exciting opportunities for me to hear how visions are being articulated and what kinds of new ideas are being incubated. Some of that comes from the official program but, as is so often the case with these large conferences, its the one-to-one conversations that we get to have with old friends, and new people that we chance upon that provide some of the great food-for-thought. And praying on Shabbat with approximately 5,000 people (the estimated turnout this year) is a unique experience.
This year, Teen Engagement is one of the key areas of focus, with a special track of the conference dedicated to this work. The old models of top-down movement-led design of a program to be launched and rolled out across the country is gone. Instead, a vision of a much more fluid and dynamic project that involves teens in conversations to co-create new opportunities is the direction we are heading.
I wanted my teens in my eighth-grade class to know about this, and gain a sense of being part of something bigger. We began with an initial trigger video, playing this:
While the context for this video is Israel, and the miracle of returning to the land, we extended the conversation to ask our teens how they respond to an idea of carrying a heritage and being part of ‘the hope’ for what might still be to come. The core of our conversation turned to the challenges they identified to their being engaged in Jewish life and activity and, finally, to some of the creative ideas they might have to respond to those challenges.
I don’t think I can truly do justice to what emerged during the conversation, but it was indeed very hopeful and helpful. We only had limited time, and I’m sure the conversations will continue, but the two areas they focused on was the communal worship experience, and ways of engaging in Jewish culture and ideas that tapped into some of the cultural forms and technologies that they are utilizing in the rest of their lives.
On the worship front, they sought more diverse expressions and experiences, and a musical style that had the energy of the music that some of them knew from Jewish summer camp. While this music has been a major influence on the evolving music of prayer in the Reform movement from the mid-1970s, there is no question that the newest sounds still emerge from camp, and a multi-generational service is not going to be the same experience as an age-specific experience. But the generation-specific sounds are not the only reason why young adult independent minyanim and 20s-30s services in large city-based congregations are proving to be increasingly popular.
My teens also pointed to the way that they are engaged in creating the prayer experience when they are at camp, weaving contemporary themes and readings into the core prayers. This is very much in tune with what we are seeing among our engaged younger generations – a desire for more of a ‘do-it-yourself’ kind of Jewish community, where a Rabbi may offer guidance and support, but is not expected or even wanted to be crafting and leading the whole experience. This kind of inclusive engagement in creating communal prayer experiences is working for teens and young adults beyond the Jewish community too. Rev. Nadia Bolz-Weber, a Lutheran minister in Boulder, CO, leads an emergent Christian community that uses this approach to shape the worship experience. She says that it is important that the worshipers are producing and not consuming. ”Sometimes things are a little ‘clunky’ but its completely worth it because the people are really owning it,” she says.
Beyond the world of synagogue and Jewish worship, my teens had expressed the ‘otherness’ that they sometimes feel in their public school context, where they could name countless examples of ignorance of Judaism or ways in which their sense of Jewish identity was so different to outsider perceptions. But their pride in their identity was strong, and they sought more opportunities to be with teens who ‘get it’. Not necessarily through more face-to-face opportunities – these kids already have heavily scheduled lives – but they brainstormed things like a Jewish Facebook for under-18 Jewish teens who wanted to talk about ‘Jew-stuff’ or a Jewish kind of Second Life where they could experiment with different kinds of virtual Jewish experiences and explore more of Judaism for themselves (these kids haven’t discovered ‘Second Life’ yet, otherwise they might know that there is already quite an extensive area of Israel, synagogues and more already there!).
They also loved getting ‘Jewish answers’ to the everyday things … how about a ‘Jewish Siri’?
So much of what I heard in this brief conversation and brainstorm reinforced what we with Rabbis Without Borders have been discussing for some time now as we seek to better understand the contemporary cultural contexts in which we passionately share paths to Jewish life. There are start-up organizations, online communities, and worship communities already responding to the next generation, but ‘mainstream’ Jewish institutions and congregations have a ways to go. I’m encouraged by a Biennial conference that is opening to new conversations and forms of engagement. As we respond and co-create an evolutionary Judaism together, within and beyond Jewish movements, we need only ask the questions and we’ll find that our youth have plenty to say.
I am a “Rabbi Without Borders” who is also a “Rabbi at the Border.”
Readers of this blog may know by now that a “Rabbi Without Borders” is a rabbi committed to testing the assumptions that the Jewish people have made about the various boundaries that define Jewish life, both individually and communally. We are not entirely without borders, of course…but each of chose to associate ourselves with CLAL and with RWB because we believe that life is much more interesting near the margins, and that our rabbinates are at their best when we are away from the easy, comfortable middle ground that might define our denomination (for example).
So what is a “Rabbi at the Border?” Quite simply, a rabbi who serves a congregation in El Paso, Texas! Living and working right at the U.S.-Mexican border (and I do mean “right at” the Border…I really can see Mexico from my synagogue) is different, in all sorts of ways. I am truly blessed to live in a place that reminds me, on a regular basis, of some of the key teachings of my faith with respect to hospitality and justice for all…and especially for gerim, which is usually translated as “strangers,” but which I think of as “people at the threshold.”
There’s a Jewish teaching which grounds me as a Rabbi Without Borders at the Border:
“God spoke to Moses in the wilderness of Sinai” (Num 1:1). This teaches us that only one who can make himself like that wilderness, ownerless and free, can acquire Wisdom and Torah” (Midrash Bamidbar Rabba 1:7).
Widsom and Torah, in other words, are available to us only to the extent that we can step away from that which is easy, comfortable, “ours.”
To live where I do, at the threshold between two nations and two languages, and to do so as a member of the paradigmatic threshold people — the “wandering Jews” — is sometimes a challenge, but always a blessing. I look forward to bringing bi-weekly dispatches from the Border, through the lens of an open, affirming, welcoming Torah whose ways are pleasantness, whose paths are peace!
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