The story broke two weeks ago, and updates are still front-page news.
Allegedly, New Jersey Governor Christie’s leadership team closed lanes on the George Washington Bridge into Fort Lee for no reason — except to annoy the mayor of Fort Lee, who did not endorse Christie’s bid for re-election.
No one died in the four-day traffic jam. However, some very nasty emails were circulated. Emails documenting a petty, mean-spirited understanding of political exchange, in which politics serves individual careers rather than the common good.
“Moving on can’t happen,” says one New York Times reader-commentator, “until Christie accepts the blame for creating and enabling the culture that led to Bridge-gate.”
Two weeks ago, at our Young Adult Talmud study, we agreed: it is a matter of creating an ethical culture. Around a table at Kafka’s Coffee and Tea in Vancouver, Canada, graduate students in political science, education, business and medicine discussed a famous passage of Talmud (Bava Metzia 58b) about verbal fraud.
Just as there is fraud in buying and selling, so too there is fraud in words. One may not say to a merchant, “How much is this object,” if one does not wish to buy.
“Why not?” I asked. “Why should I not entertain myself by bantering with a shopkeeper?”
Because, students said, business is based on trust. Asking prices for no reason gives a false impression; thus, it is a breach of trust. Normally, we assume we can trust our business associates, unless we have a specific reason not to. If you think you are too cynical and savvy to trust naively, remember your behavior when shopping in the supermarket. You read labels, assume the information is true, purchase a product, and put it right into your body.
And because, students said, it is personally harmful to the shopkeeper. By engaging with you, the shopkeeper invests time. The time, however, might have been more wisely invested in another customer. The shopkeeper also invests emotional energy in you. When you falsely represent yourself, you manipulate the shopkeeper’s mood, for your own purposes.
And because, students said, words are the foundation of human communication. When you intentionally misuse words, you undermine a social foundation. The real purpose of communication is to create human community. In fact, the real purpose of business is to create community. When you are dishonest in business, you undermine human community.
At this point in the discussion – I am not making this up – an education student said, “Hey, did you hear about what happened in New Jersey?” Words were used badly, moods were manipulated, trust was broken, and community was undermined.
For the matter is entrusted to the heart, and concerning any matter that is entrusted to the heart, it was said: “And you shall fear your God” (Leviticus 25:17).
“When you do a very small wrong,” said a medical student, “you may think you are getting away with it, but God sees what happened.”
“Let’s get away from the idea of God as a judge,” said another medical student, “and talk about our conscience. When you do something bad, you feel bad.”
“And the bad feeling in you affects others,” said a business student. “If we want good relationships, we have to stop stockpiling lists of times others harmed us.” Otherwise, we retaliate simply for the sake of retaliation – as Governor Christie’s team seems to have done.
Didn’t the students think they were getting a little overly spiritual? After all, we were discussing business and politics.
“There are higher truths than business,” said a political science student.
“The matter is entrusted to the heart, and that’s where God lives,” said a medical student. “God is the space where we do interpersonal mitzvot. Create a trusting community, and you bring God into the world.”
As they talked, I began to see the bridge as a metaphor. Bridge-gate does open onto higher principles. A bridge of trust connects humans in community; narrow the bridge, and community is constricted. Jewish mystics talk about the flow of divine energy that animates the world. When we see only our selves and fail to honour others who help sustain us, we block the flow.
The students in our Talmud group understand this higher truth. May they be the politicians, educators, healers, and business leaders of the future.
Image: theoldmotor.com. Cross-posted at On Sophia Street.
About a year ago, someone recommended a Paulo Coelho book to me—a popular one—The Alchemist. Most people I know that have read the book loved it: they feel it’s speaking to them, encouraging them to take life by the horns, and live it to it’s fullest; to pursue their dreams. But I… I hated it.
Like many books of its type, its assumption is that when people don’t live their dreams out, it’s because they didn’t try, or they didn’t dream big enough—books like these are inspirational posters writ long. Not that I have anything against inspirational posters. If that’s your thing, feel free. But at the same time, I can’t help but think that this attitude underlies so much of what Judaism struggles with against secular culture: that adults are required to act as part of a social contract and to sometimes do boring things for the sake of others. Where is the recognition that sometimes you work hard at a crappy job to support your family? My father was a bureaucrat until his retirement, and I think he did the best job at it he could, and he did good for others in whatever way he could there. But I strongly doubt that it was the job he dreamed of as a child. But I always had enough to eat and a roof over my head. He’s still married to my mother. Did he not dream big enough? Maybe he should have lit out for the hills to pursue his dreams instead?
When I hear people saying that the only thing in the way of one’s dreams is oneself, I find myself angry for the janitors and clerks and fast food workers—did they not dream big enough? Do they not work hard enough? Do the poor of other nations simply lack imagination? And angry on behalf of people like my father, who work hard all their lives to make sure their families have enough, even if the job isn’t—in itself—meaningful or stirring. Whose lives are just not exciting. From the outside, at least. Continue reading
Two weeks ago I posted a piece responding to some articles on patrilineality which provoked several excellent other blog posts and a lot of conversations. I deeply appreciate both the supportive and the critical responses, as a result of which I continue to examine and reexamine my approach to the matter.
Although after having done so, I remain convinced that the Conservative approach remains correct, halachicly speaking, I thought it might be interesting to present a sugiyah from the talmud in which the schools of Hillel and Shammai discuss a breach between them which could have led to their division from one another in a profound way, yet did not.
In the talmud Yevamot 14a (I’m using the Soncino translation) we read the response to a dispute involving who is permitted to marry whom. I’ve added comments in brackets to try to make it more understandable.
The talmud says,
Come and hear: THOUGH THESE FORBADE WHAT THE OTHERS PERMITTED … BEIT [The school of] SHAMMAI, NEVERTHELESS, DID NOT REFRAIN FROM MARRYING WOMEN FROM THE FAMILIES OF BEIT HILLEL, NOR DID BEIT HILLEL [REFRAIN FROM MARRYING WOMEN] FROM THE FAMILIES OF BEIT SHAMMAI. Now, if it be said that [Beit Hillel] did not act [in accordance with their own view] one can well understand why THEY DID NOT REFRAIN [from intermarrying with one another] [Because this would mean that they both acted according to the same principles, but one school did so while acting contrary to the principles that they held]. If, however, it be said that [Beit Shamai] did act [in accordance with their own view], why did they not refrain? That Beit Shammai did not refrain from marrying women from the families of Beth Hillel may well be justified because [the individuals in question] are the children of persons guilty only of the infringement of a [relatively minor prohibition, for which the punishment is also minor] but why did not Beit Hillel refrain from [marrying women from the families of] Beth Shammai [Because descendants from these marriages between rivals, which are permitted by Beit Shammai, are regarded by Beit Hillel as forbidden and involve a major penalty]? Such people, surely, being children of persons who are guilty of an offense involving karet, are illegitimate [this causes a major problem - how can one marry into the family of someone if their status might be someone you are prohibited to marry, and which carries a major penalty for doing so if it turns out to be the case]! And if it be suggested that Beit Hillel are of the opinion that the descendant of those who are guilty of an offence involving karet is not a [illegitimate], surely, [it may be retorted], Rabbi Eleazar said: Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are in disagreement on the questions of rivals, they concede that an illegitimate is only he who is descended from a marriage which is forbidden as incest and punishable with karet! Does not this then conclusively prove that [Beit Shammai] did not act [in accordance with their own view]? — No; they acted, indeed, [in accordance with their own view], but they informed [Beit Hillel] [of the existence of any such cases] and [Beit Hillel] kept away.
So, we see that situations like these are not novel – we have always had a diversity of halachic opinions on matters that in their time were no doubt just as painful to those involved. Yet, in the end, the two schools continued to marry one another – their solution, according to the talmud, being that they made clear, out of respect for one another, who fell into or outside of their boundaries – but they remained one community, despite their differences.
On Yevamot 14b, the talmud concludes:
Come and hear: Although Beit Shammai and Beit Hillel are in disagreement on the
questions of rivals, sisters, an old bill of divorce, a doubtfully married woman, a woman whom her husband had divorced and who stayed with him over the night in an inn, money, valuables, a perutah and the value of a perutah, Beit Shammai did not, nevertheless, abstain from marrying women of the families of Beit Hillel, nor did Beit Hillel refrain from marrying those of Beit Shammai.
This is to teach you that they showed love and friendship towards one another, thus putting into practice the Scriptural text, “Love ye truth and peace.”
Are you on the freedom bandwagon yet? Celebrations of the concept of freedom seem to be permeating the cultural-political zeitgeist these days. Stephen Spielberg’s movie “Lincoln,” which tells the story of President Lincoln’s efforts to pass a Constitutional amendment banning slavery, just received a leading 12 nominations for best picture of the year. Martin Luther King Jr. Day, in which we celebrate the birth of the great civil rights hero who helped lead African Americans in their struggle for freedom from racial oppression, is just around the corner (January 21).
And have you seen the Piers Morgan-Alex Jones interview yet? In a clip that has gone viral, Jones, a radio talk show host and gun enthusiast, launches into a vitriolic tirade about guns, freedom, and potential revolution that makes one wonder how he qualified for a gun permit in the first place.
All of this happens to be coinciding with the time of year in which Jews read the Exodus narrative. At first glance, it appears to be perfect timing. After all, the story of God’s deliverance of the Israelites from slavery to freedom formed the moral and linguistic basis for Kin’’s civil rights oratory and is inextricably intertwined with Western society’s development of a natural right to liberty (which underlies both the 13th Amendment and gun owner’s claims to liberty from government intrusion into gun ownership). Continue reading
It’s not over until…
When the Simpsons go to see Carmen at the Springfield Opera House Homer asked Bart when the show will end. Bart replied, ‘it’s not over till the fat lady sings.’ To which Homer then points to a zoftig soprano on stage and says, ‘is that one fat enough for you, son?’
If you are glad that it is finally Election Day because you think that ‘it will finally be over’, then you’re wrong. “It” being the mind-numbing, ping-ponging Romeny-said-then-Obama-said twenty-four hour news cycle and the billion dollar ad campaigns. And the idea of it being over is wrong. As it stands right now, even in a country where 25% of us are clinically obese there isn’t a fat lady large enough to end this show. The Infotainment industry will not allow it.
My fear is that regardless of who is elected the division created and divisiveness employed in the last two elections have created a powerful schism in the fabric of our country. Regardless of the results of this election, we will remain a country divided. See Thomas Friedman’s piece, ‘The morning after the morning after,’ in the Sunday NYTimes.
Rabbi A. J. Heschel taught, “In a free society, some are guilty, all are responsible.”
Rabbi Heschel’s insight should remind us that we must put pressure on our elected leaders, in control of government or in opposition, that we demand action on the 99% of issues where there is agreement. We will not tolerate inaction for the sake of political point scoring or posturing for the next round. As a nation we are above that.
In the Talmudic academy of old, as hot and contentious a place as the US Congress can be, rabbis of diametrically opposed view rallied hard against the other’s position. But there are rules for such a machloket, such a disagreement. First and foremost, the two sides must list everything regarding the issue at hand on which they agree. The Talmud might use the term “chulei alma” – ‘the entire world agrees’, even these two seemingly opposing rabbis about 99% of the issue at hand. Than, ‘mai benaihu’- ‘what is between them’. It is on the minutia of the tiny 1% of a problem that rabbis might agree to disagree.
Regardless of my fear that the battle is done but the war that divides us politically will continue, I pray and hold out hope.
Based on the wisdom of the Talmud understanding of how we go about disagreeing, we must demand two things after this election, regardless who wins the Presidency and who controls Congress: A) Left and Right must publicly and honestly debate the 1% of issues upon which they disagree. B) Right and Left must not use the 1% of issues upon which they disagree as hostage to acting upon the 99% that they do agree upon.
This past Sunday was claimed by many churches around the country ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’. It’s the day that the pastors of these churches have chosen to speak not just of the issues that are important to us all, where religious traditions and values may offer some guidance or wisdom, but to speak directly about the candidate that they are supporting.
Wait! What about separation of church and state? You may well ask. What about the IRS and preserving their 501 c3 status, which does not permit the endorsement or political candidates by such organizations?
Well, it appears that this group of church leaders are intentionally thumbing their nose at the IRS. They are making the claim that they have a 1st amendment right to speak freely from the pulpit on any matter. It also appears to be the case, according to a report on PBS’ ‘Religion and Ethics Weekly’ a couple of weeks back, that the department that might pay attention to such breaches and the regional directors who might respond do not currently exist, so it is most likely that pastors who choose to speak out from the pulpit this Sunday will face no consequences for doing so.
Now, its interesting to note the somewhat non-inclusive nature of this ‘Pulpit Freedom Sunday’. There are no synagogues or mosques identifying with this movement. Although it has certainly sparked some conversation among rabbis, and I suspect that I’m not the only rabbi who spoke on this issue last Shabbat.
And it does appear that there are considerable numbers of religious leaders who are comfortable parsing the difference between their 1st amendment rights as individuals versus their organization’s limitations based on their tax-exempt status. So, for example, while it would be wrong for a synagogue board to vote and endorse, on behalf of the congregation, a political candidate, should or could a rabbi who works for that congregation publicly do so as an individual in their own right?
Over 600 rabbis, from across the Jewish denominations, have signed their names – as individuals – to ‘Rabbis for Obama’. There is no equivalent website with names listed for Romney, although a rabbi has sought to create such a group and can be contacted online too.
I will tell you now, my name is not on that list. And, while I see that many of my colleagues who I deeply respect as rabbis, have chosen to add themselves to the list, I am not at all comfortable with it. I see little difference between adding one’s name to a publicly available list of this kind, and endorsing a candidate from the pulpit. And, while I am no constitutional scholar, and am willing to accept the possibility that individual religious leaders may have a constitutional right to something, that doesn’t mean that, as responsible religious leaders and teachers, we should necessarily exercise that right. Continue reading
There is much discussion currently about imposing limits on blasphemy. It seems clear that the vast majority of those in the West oppose it and many in Muslim majority countries support it. I would argue that Judaism has not only tolerated blasphemy, but found a place for it in its sacred texts. This does not mean that communities have always handled heretics well or to suggest pluralism and liberalism are found everywhere in the community, but I do feel there is a model Judaism has that might contribute to a broad religious discussion and conversation.
Rabbinic literature has many examples of challenges to God, explicitly questioning God’s justice. An early precedent in the Bible is Abraham in Genesis 18 (Will not the Judge of the earth do justice?). A well known passage from the Talmud (Menachot 29b) is where Moses questions God after seeing Rabbi Akiva being viciously killed by the Romans. Moses asks: Is this Torah and its reward?” God responds by telling Moses to shut up!
These two passages share a number of things in common even as one is biblical and one rabbinic. Religious figures are allowed to question God. Indeed, placed in their mouths are the most challenging questions. If Abraham can speak out against God’s justice surely can I. If Moses cannot accept that there is reward in the world for following Torah, surely I do not have to accept that belief.
Secondly, and more importantly, what these texts suggest is that our role is not to defend God or attempt to offer interpretations that let God off the hook. Our job is to defend the people against God. Moses must stand up for Rabbi Akiva. Moses is doing much more than ask a question why good people, in this case Rabbi Akiva, suffers. He is raising it as blasphemy. “ Is this Torah and is this its reward?” It is a rhetorical question that has no answer. God does not attempt one. The response of literally: “Quiet! Or shut up, so it has come to My mind” fails to answer anything. Its abruptness only affirms the legitimacy of the challenge.
There are many other texts I can harness, but a blog post is not the place. I will add that Judaism by and large can accommodate blasphemy and heresy as long as it is placed in the mouths of believers and practitioners. It is because nobody questions Moses’s faith that he ask the heretical questions. Ironically it is the most traditional who can be the most radical and yet remain inside the fold.
One of the things that sometimes is embarrassing and/or sometimes frustrating, is when someone comes up to me and says: “Hi, do you remember me?” Being 59 years old, having been in the rabbinate for 34 years, and having taught many hundreds of people during this period, sometimes the answer is yes, but remind me your name and other times, the answer might very well be no. Which is why I wish people would say, hi, I am so and so, I do not know if you remember me but I took a class etc. and fill in the context. And, you really want to remember them and they want to be remembered and deserve to be remembered. Indeed, a new colleague to the area described one important part of his rabbinate is getting to know his congregants names. People are valued and honored when we remember who they are.
They asked Rabbi Eliezer: “What is the judgment of the grave?”
[He responded:] “When a person passes away, the Angel of Death arrives, hits his grave with his hand, and says ‘Tell me your name!’ He replies: ‘It is revealed and known to the One who Spoke and Created the World that I do not know my name.’”
Associated with this is a custom by some to recite 18 verses a day that contain your name, with the hope you will remember it on your Judgment Day. Rav Yehudah Amital understands this as the need to find our name in Torah, our unique place in Torah, our special connection that is unique to each individual, a piece of Torah that will be known by our name. One can expand this and include do I behave in a way that manifests a concern of the Torah. Am I an exemplar of chachnasat orchim, welcoming guests. Am I a hospitable personality that welcomes others in my presence. Am I a tzedakah, charitable personality, to whom people can turn. Am I identified with a particular mitzvah that then carries my name and with which I will be indentified.
There is a teaching in the Talmud that when two friends depart from one another they should teach each other a short halachah because through that they will remember each other. What do we express whether through actual teaching or behavior that is worthwhile for someone to remember us?
The Unetaneh Tokef prayer ends with the following passage describing God:
There is no set span to Your years and there is no end to the length of Your days. It is impossible to estimate the angelic chariots of Your glory and to elucidate Your Name’s inscrutability. Your Name is worthy of You and You are worthy of Your Name, and You have included Your Name in our name.
We have ultimate worth because God has included His name along with ours. We who are created in the image of God must ask what do we do in our lives that makes us worthy and reflects God’s name in us.
2. And Moses spoke to the chiefs of the tribes concerning the people of Israel, saying, This is the thing which the Lord has commanded.
3. If a man vows a vow to the Lord, or swears an oath to bind his soul with a bond; he shall not break his word, he shall do according to all that proceeds out of his mouth.
Jewish tradition has consistently emphasized the importance of language and the creative/destructive potential it contains. After all, it is God’s speech which created the world! (Genesis 1)We all know from our personal experiences when the right word made a significant impact and the wrong word spoken or written hurt us badly. It should therefore not surprise us that the Torah commands when you take a vow you must fulfill it. Language and speech are very serious matters and are not to be dismissed easily.
It is therefore all the more striking that the rabbis create a category where vows can be easily dismissed, even to the point of describing the releasing of vows as “hanging in the air” with no scriptural basis to justify or support this conclusion. A somewhat dissenting voice agrees that vows can be released, but is done with some scriptural support. In an almost hyper literal reading of the verse “he shall not break his word,” he shall not break it but others may break it for him and release him from his vow!
Why allow this departure from the plain meaning of the Torah? Why enable people to break their word?
On the one hand, this might be a great act of compassion. We often make claims for ourselves in the heat of the moment that are nigh impossible to fulfill. As important as language and speech are, we can easily go overboard and so the rabbis give us an out.
I think there is a deeper message here as well. “He shall not break his word,” he shall not break it but others may break it for him and release him from his vow” The “others” are critical players here in helping a person release their vows. I do not live in isolation. An impetuous act affects many more than myself. Whatever I think I impose upon myself is not really the case. It touches others as well, family, friends or the community at large. Perhaps this hyper literal reading of the Torah is exposing the moral flaw of taking a vow upon myself because “myself” is really an artificial construct. I only exist with others, in some form of community. Any vow I take is never only about me.
…And to be clear, in the following analogy, Chase is the prostitute.
At a time when two-income families struggle to make ends-meet, 50% of Spanish young adults are unemployed, much of Europe is bucking austerity measures, and a generation closer to home questions the the financial value of higher education, I think it a timely service to provide a solution to very public multi-billion dollar losses: Very long tzitzit for Wall Street bankers (be they Jewish, non-Jewish, male or female).
Sure Chase can take the hit, but we’re talking about earning back the hearts and minds of the the 99% to boost back consumer confidence, so trust in big banks still matters. As a quick reminder, Tzitzit are the knotted dangling threads tied to each of the four corners of a garment (either on a prayer shawl, tallit, or often on the undergarment). The tzitzit are meant to remind a Jew of the 613 commandments enumerated in the Torah. A talmudic analogy is in order; this might take a moment, and to be clear, in the following analogy, Chase is the prostitute:
There was once a man who was meticulous in the observance of the mitzvah (commandment) of tzitzit. He heard that there was a prostitute in a faraway city who charged four hundred gold talents for her services. He sent her the exorbitant fee and set an appointed time to meet her. When he arrived at the appointed time … she prepared for him seven beds, one atop the other — six of silver and the highest one was made of gold. Six silver ladders led to the six silver beds, and a golden ladder led to the uppermost one. The prostitute unclothed herself and sat on the uppermost bed, and he, too, joined her. As he was disrobing, the four fringes of his tzitzit slapped him in his face. He immediately slid off the bed onto the floor, where he was quickly joined by the woman.
“I swear by the Roman Caesar,” the harlot exclaimed, “I will not leave you until you reveal to me what flaw you have found in me!”
“I swear,” the man replied, “that I have never seen a woman as beautiful as you. However, there is one mitzvah which we were commanded by our G‑d, and tzitzit is its name… Now the four tzitzit appeared to me as four witnesses, testifying to this truth.”
“I still will not leave you,” the prostitute said, “until you provide me with your name, the names of your city, rabbi and the school in which you study Torah.” He wrote down all the information and handed it to her.
The woman sold all of her possessions. A third of the money she gave to the government, a third she handed out to the poor, and the remaining third she took with her — along with the silver and gold beds — and she proceeded to the school which the man had named, the study hall of Rabbi Chiya.
“Rabbi,” she said to Rabbi Chiya, “I would like to convert.”
“Perhaps,” Rabbi Chiya responded, “You desire to convert because you have taken a liking to a student here?” The woman pulled out the piece of paper with the information and related to the rabbi the miracle which transpired with the tzitzit. “You may go and claim that which is rightfully yours,” the rabbi proclaimed.
She ended up marrying the man. Those very beds which she originally prepared for him illicitly, she now prepared for him lawfully. – Talmud Menachot 44a
Could We Imagine JP Morgan Chaste?
Some will argue that as long as Chase doesn’t need government money to cover its loss than it shouldn’t matter – investors understand the risks. But if that is so, than Chase shouldn’t have needed the practically free $55 billion loan from the Treasury to buy-out Bear Sterns or the $25 billion TARP money. If only Jamie Dimon, the CEO of JP Morgan Chase, and his Wall Street compatriots took the MBA Oath. Back in his time at Harvard’s Business School there was no need to make statements such as: “I will report the performance and risks of my enterprise accurately and honestly.” Instead it seems that many on Wall Street went to the same university as a past congregant of mine. Behind his desk the old high school dropout, who became a very successful hardware manufacturer proudly posted his diploma from Screw U.
If corporations such as Chase insist on being treated (when it suits them) as individuals (such as during campaign season), than when they break the trust of the public, they should do Teshuva (repent). The initial step in true repentance is refraining from the previous errors (this should be followed by contrition, confession before God, and a responsibility for future action). What already seems clear is that the stench from Chase’s recent $2-5 billion dollar loss is that it smells a lot like the security swaps that finally collapse the teetering world economy just a few years ago. Wall Street has learned nothing.
A Talmudic Solution to Chase’s Embarrassing, Cringeworthy, and Irresponsible $2 to 5 Billion Dollar Loss.
It would be nice to feel trust that Chase, and other banks, were not just waiting us out so that they could go back to their goal of world domination. I for one would feel reassured if all the Wall Street bankers would wear really long tzitzit to remind themselves not to screw us again. If that seems distasteful, perhaps too religious, let them take the route of the righteous prostitute in the story above. Let Chase take their total wealth (approx. $380 billion in total cash or cash equivalence) and distribute it as she did: One third to the government (for creating and then taking advantage of loopholes), one third to the poor (because ultimately, the profits made were on the backs of the 99%), and only then should they be allowed to keep the remaining third.