In recent weeks, several of my colleagues both on this blog and elsewhere, have written thoughtful articles on current issues of national concern. Issues such as immigration reform, vaccinations, perspectives on scientific research, and more. Like all the pieces that we share here, these articles are designed to stimulate thought and dialogue. Sometimes they express a strongly-held opinion, but more often they seek to contribute to an ongoing conversation by bringing in personal experience, or pastoral experience from working with others. Often they bring some Jewish textual wisdom into their writing, usually to demonstrate the existence of Jewish conversations throughout the centuries that might provide ethical or spiritual narratives that embed the contemporary debate in something much larger and older.
As I’ve read these various articles I am, of course, also interested in the commentary – the comments – that are generated by a wide variety of readers. Those who agree and those who disagree. Just as with the commentaries upon commentaries that we find in the Talmud and centuries of Jewish debate, the commentary can add considerably to the depth and impact of the article itself. Many times my own personal perspective on an issue has been broadened when, having read something with which I thought I was in wholehearted agreement, I then read comments that present cogent and thoughtful arguments for an opposing point of view.
However, in recent weeks I’ve noticed a different kind of commentary that, while perhaps not surprising in the broader context of the culture of social media, nevertheless causes me enormous sadness. Commentary that, rather than presenting a counterpoint to the article, responds to the author with utter disdain for their audacity to offer an opinion on the topic altogether as a rabbi. Some commentary seeks to diminish the very essence of people who do their work with care and the utmost of integrity using language that I cannot imagine would be used in any genuine face-to-face encounter. While I wish to call for all who wish to enrich and broaden the thoughtful debate on issues to do so in a way that holds firm to Jewish ethical principles of human interaction (see teachings on Derech Eretz – respect, Bushah – causing embarrassment, for example), I also wish to address the deeper question of what rabbis speak about, how we speak about them, and why.
When we study Torah, and the vast vault of Jewish literature and wisdom that the teachers of our tradition have generated over centuries, we quickly see that Judaism is infinitely more than a set of ritual practices or ancient stories of our origins. It is a path through life, with wisdom teachings on every aspect of that life, from health and safety issues, to business ethics, to ethical ways of engaging with and treating foreigners, to the obligation to create a just society that takes care of its poor and takes steps to protect the most disenfranchised. Now, it is the case that we often cannot simply lift a quote or a law from a particular moment in time or place in those texts as a proof-text for a particular perspective on a contemporary issue. But these texts often provide us with very worthwhile guidance on how to sift through both the fact and the opinions on a contemporary issue. They can sometimes offer us another way to frame the conversation (a conversation on giving tzedakah that might start with judgments on how the tzedakah will be used, gets broadened to a consideration of the dignity of the receiver when viewed through the lens of Jewish teachings, for example). And yes, sometimes, there is a clearly expressed ethical position in our tradition that, while not perhaps helping us determine whether a specific piece of legislation is well-worded or designed or not, can point to a Jewish way of thinking about what kind of changes get us closer to a vision of the best society we can be. And it’s never black or white. Society has changed a great deal over the centuries, and the sources we might consult may no longer do what we need them to do in a contemporary situation.
We live in an age when experts of all kinds are being challenged and questioned. That is not a bad thing, although it does sometimes make it harder for a society to chart a clear path forward on certain issues. When rabbis speak on issues of pressing relevance to our lives – issues that are also being debated by scientists, by politicians, by doctors, and more, it is to add to the breadth of perspectives that are to be found in the public square on these issues. Because if we believe that our faith tradition has more to offer than lighting candles on Shabbat, celebrating a Bar or Bat Mitzvah, or keeping kosher, then it is the job of the teachers of that tradition to bring to light the enormous wealth of material from our tradition that can continue to help us navigate our path through life today. That life is shaped by a myriad of forces, decisions, expert guidance, and ethical choices, each and every day. And that is why rabbis need to talk about these issues too. And if you disagree with what you hear or what you read, present your arguments and offer alternative points of view. I believe that we can do all of that… amicably.
If a chicken and half takes a day and a half to lay an egg and a half, and if an eastbound train leaving San Francisco travels at twice the speed of a southbound train leaving Chicago, how long will it take the organized Jewish community to argue about it and place the responsibility (blame?) on other Jews?
So if you’re smiling, I understand. If not… I understand that, too, because to be honest, I am weary of the arguing and perhaps wearier still of the seemingly ceaseless effort devoted to what I call “talking about talking about it.” Or in some cases, “arguing about arguing about it.” Intra-faith conflict is in the news every day—here, in Israel, and elsewhere—as if we don’t have enough to be concerned about from external detractors.
And to my mind, the damage it causes places Jewish life in greater peril than any, or perhaps all, of the issues being disputed.
So here are my naïve question: Has the squabbling brought us a scintilla closer to unity? Of course not. Devil’s advocate question: Are we so secure in our theologies and ideologies that we are convinced that others are categorically wrong? When do our attempts at grasping and articulating the “right” way to engage the sacred devolve into hubris? And if that happens, are we truly concerned with the sacred?
Even as I write this I am hearing possible responses and bracing myself for them. Am I more right in my thinking than anyone else is in his or hers? No. I’m not trying to be. I am just trying to understand why we continue to employ failed methods of communication, kick dead horses and blame one another for the poor outcome. This is what one friend calls making ourselves right by making other people wrong.
Yes, there will always be serious differences with which we must engage. So I am reminded every day—like recently—when a man called to say that his mother, who had just died, wasn’t really Jewish and neither was he. Why? Because he learned that she had been converted, before his birth, by a Reform rabbi. Now, he, who was raised in a strong Conservative life, is in the depths of an identity crisis, agonizing because he “knows” that if he wanted to make Aliyah the Orthodox would not “accept” him, period. He had lost his mother, and felt his link to the Jewish people was not valid. His grief-stricken response? Walk away from what he sees as tragic mishugas (madness).
I am not mentioning this to debate his reasoning, but rather, offering it as an example of the frustration, pain and misunderstandings that can result from a toxic combination of ignorance and ideological zeal.
So when we wonder why Jews seem detached from Jewish life… maybe it’s not because our programs are at the wrong time of day, or because we do or don’t have music at Shabbat services, or because our events weren’t well enough advertised, or because empty-nesters are busy on Tuesdays at 2pm. Maybe we need to look a little harder at how organized Jewish life is perceived by those who have stepped away.
It is a shame, in my eyes, that we say that if anti-Semites come for us we would all be seen as Jews. Just Jews… no matter our backgrounds, line of decent, movement of lack thereof, level of observance, sexual orientation… yet it is so difficult for many to see one another as “just Jews” the best of reasons—for the sake of our present and future, so we can get on with reviving the soul of Jewish life. It is only through greater heartfelt devotion to our people, faith and tradition, than to our investment in conflict that we can attain growth.
Will it require risks? Of course. But, in my opinion, it is far riskier not to engage in these difficult conversations for the benefit of the greater cause. We may need to draw some lines in the sand, and let others be washed away. And most importantly, we need to be sure that our motivations are unquestionably positive and for the sake of healing—and holiness.
Last week, Derek Jeter — the New York Yankees’ star shortstop for almost 20 years — announced that 2014 would be his final year. Not only was he the face of the Yankees, in a poll of over 1000 baseball fans, he was seen to be “the face of baseball.”
So as his incredible career comes to a close, and as both Yankee fans and baseball fans start to think about his impact, I want to highlight one Jewish value that I think exemplifies Derek Jeter’s legacy: da lifnei mi atah omed – “Know before Whom you stand.”
That phrase from Rabbinic literature is on top of many arks in synagogues. The idea is that if we are constantly reminded that God is watching us, we become that much more likely to consider our actions and to ensure that we behave in ethical ways.
And as a lot of research shows, if we have someone else we have to answer to — whether that is a boss, a colleague, a spouse or simply public opinion — we become much more committed to fulfilling our goals and acting more appropriately. After all, we humans are masters at rationalizing poor behavior. We can easily talk ourselves out of going to the gym (“it’s raining out!”), or into cheating a little bit on our taxes (“everyone else does it!”). If we don’t have anyone else to answer to, our brains are experts at creating excuses.
So even if we don’t believe in all-powerful, all-seeing Deity, if we are constantly reminded that someone may always be watching and that we should “know before Whom we stand,” then we act more responsibly.
That was a lesson that stuck with Derek Jeter over 20 years ago, three years before he truly broke into the Major Leagues. During spring training in 1993, Jeter and Don Mattingly (the face of the Yankees of that time) were heading back to the clubhouse from the field. The stands were empty — there were no coaches, no other players, no media. Despite that, rather than simply strolling back to the dugout, Mattingly told Jeter to run in anyway. Why? “Because you never know who is watching.”
Mattingly’s lesson that “you never know who is watching” inspired Jeter at the outset of his career. He would hustle, he would play hard, and he wouldn’t showboat because he always knew that anything he did would be watching and scrutinized. In the end, that made him a fantastic ballplayer and a mensch of a human being.
Indeed, if we always keep in mind that someone is paying attention to our words and actions, we will make sure to bring our A game.
That was a lesson the Rabbis wanted to teach, as well. When Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai was dying, his students went to visit him. They said: “Master, give us your blessing.” He answered: “May you fear God as much as you fear human beings.” They said: “Is that all?” He replied: “That is more than enough, believe me! Don’t you know that when we are about to do something wrong, we dismiss God from our minds and hope that no human eye will see us!”
In our world today, someone is always watching. And that’s why Derek Jeter was “the face of baseball.” Yes, other players had better stats and may have objectively have been better players. But because he always “knew before whom he stood,” he acted with respect, hard work and humility — towards himself, his teammates, his opponents and the game of baseball.
And that’s a legacy we all can strive to leave, as well.