There has been a desire to pin down the central complaint of the 99%, which the Occupy Wall Street organizers purport to represent. So, in preparation for the group’s General Strike on May 1st, International Worker’s Day, the annual commemoration of the 1886 Haymarket Massacre in Chicago, I am adding my rabbinic voice to help clarify their message.
The problem begins with the opening lines of the Constitution, a document almost 236 years old – long enough to make its intentions debatable. Making ancient texts intelligible and relevant is the central role of the rabbi, so as as rabbi I feel especially qualified to clear up the issue.
“We the People of the United States, in Order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general Welfare, and secure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.”
The American Legal system approaches the Constitution in such a Jewish way, it makes Talmud scholars out of every judge and lawyer. The Talmud, formalized between 500CE and 600CE, atomizes the words of the earlier Mishnah, codified in 200CE. The intervening hundreds of years require of scholars deep exploration to decipher the intent of the of the original words, words which when they were set down were perfectly clear to the rabbis of the older Mishnah. The discrepancy in years between the authorship of the Constitution and the presence have made decoding its intended meaning equally onerous. “Well, what do you mean ‘We the People?” “What was the intent of ‘general Welfare’?” “What level of disagreement is meant to be rectified by ‘insure domestic tranquility’?”
I was studying for a rabbinical school Talmud exam when the case of Bush v. Gore was broadcasting on the radio as background noise. I was struck by the similarity of argumentation of the lawyers before the Supreme Court and the sages on the Ancient page in front of me.
My thoughts at the time are still clear to me: 1) Yes, I could have been a lawyer. 2) David Boies and Ted Olson, counsel for Gore and Bush respectively, are hacks. They should try the whole case again in Aramaic!
As a rabbi, trained in the circuitous logic of hyper-analysis of ancient text, I’d like to take a shot at interpreting a specific phrase of the preamble of the Constitution, “secure the Blessings of Liberty.”
“Secure”: A sense of safety, to exist without threat, to person or property.
“Blessing”: Usually translated from Barech (for Hebrew speakers -like Baruch atta Adonai), is a sense of divine oversight. Is the use of the word ‘blessing’ in the constitution a breach of the intent to separate church and state? A fair talmudic question, which deserves a talmud response, no?
For those who have an issue with “In God we trust” on our currency or “one nation, under God” added into the Pledge of Allegiance (when, by whom) – Yes. However, we should rule with the majority, who consider ‘blessings’ to mean expressly the following: ‘with good fortune and ability to effect an outcome that, if we all did agreed about the existence of a divine being, and about the nature of that being, as well as how to worship said deity, we would ascribe the attribute of oversight and agreement to said action. In the case of the Constitution, the good fortune and ability to secure liberty.
But what is ‘liberty’?: Freedom, yes, but we need to consider the intent of the term in its sitz im leben (academic speak for time and place). So we turn to the inscription on the Liberty Bell, Leviticus 25:10:
And you shall hallow the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout all the land unto all the inhabitants thereof: it shall be a jubilee unto you; and you shall return every man unto his possession, and you shall return every man unto his family.
Our best rendering of this clause of the Constitution’s preamble seems to mean that there will be either divine, or empowered human oversight, to ensure that everyone should feel safe and secure, that as far and wide as they may venture out, they can always return home. If we are to also take the idea of the jubilee seriously, the idea of a re-set of property and wealth, every fifty years, than we might extrapolate that every fifty years we ensure that no one, no segment of the American population has sunk to far, and if they have, that they should be restored to possessions and family.
Which brings up yet another issue (for the uninitiated, please appreciate the meandering brilliance of rabbinic logic): In a society that prides itself of upward mobility, does anyone really want to be restored to the way things were? Consider the fantastic 2005 series on Class which apeared in the New York Times (written before the national and world economic bubbles burst):
“A paradox lies at the heart of this new American meritocracy. Merit has replaced the old system of inherited privilege, in which parents to the manner born handed down the manor to their children. But merit, it turns out, is at least partly class-based. Parents with money, education and connections cultivate in their children the habits that the meritocracy rewards. When their children then succeed, their success is seen as earned. The scramble to scoop up a house in the best school district, channel a child into the right preschool program or land the best medical specialist are all part of a quiet contest among social groups that the affluent and educated are winning in a rout.”
In a nutshell, there may be a real cap to what is possible for even a well intentioned American to achieve. On the other side of this equation, there may not be any limit to how far an American can fall – you can loose your home and even the ability to maintain your family.”
Which brings us to the current mood of the country, and what I believe it means to be part of the “99%”: With the exception of the most wealthy, the 1%, the financially most ‘secure’ Americans, there is a sense that our “blessings of liberty” are not secure. There is little confidence that one will not loose all possession and the ability to provide for family. Too many families are one major illness, one more month of unemployment away from loosing everything.
Some have complained that the message of the Occupy Wall Street crowd has been variegated and muddled, but in talmudic and constitutional terms, I believe the message is clear and profound:
We the bottom 99% of the people of the United States, do not believe that we have the ability to secure the blessings of liberty, not for ourselves nor for our posterity.
If the above rendering rings true for you, than you may be a 99%er, and you should seriously consider joining the General Strike on May 1st.
I have always been struck by car commercials. Car commercials to me seem unique in the world of advertising. Whereas other commercials tend to advertise the features of their product, which of course will make your life easier, happier and more fulfilled, a car commercial tends to depict the experience of simply having the car. The experience alone of having this new model of car will lift your life to the heights of ecstasy and elation. You may be driving everyday to work but when you get behind the wheel of this car you will gracefully be floating down the Swiss Alps. While other industries tell you how their product enables you to be happier; the car commercial assures you that the car itself is happiness.
Yet, we know while that new car may be safer, more comfortable and more gas efficient, it alone does not bring us genuine and lasting happiness. In fact one would be hard pressed to identify any single product that has brought us real happiness. Of course, we experience the joy of having something new and revel in discovering all of its features and unique aspects but soon the newness begins to disappear and along with it the temporary boost to our sense of joy.
How do we achieve a true, genuine and lasting happiness in our lifetimes? This is to put it simply perhaps the question of our time. As people who live in an era most defined as the era of the individual, we seek personal fulfillment and personal happiness to a greater extent than those in generations before us. Unfortunately, I don’t possess the definitive answer to this perplexing question (but if I did I would be sure to blog about it on MJL!) and I am inclined to think that there is no definitive answer to this question as so much of it is contextual and specific to each case. However, I would like to propose a perspective, a shift in orientation, that could provide an avenue for a life of genuine and lasting happiness.
Rabbi Dr. Aaron Kirschenbaum of Tel Aviv University articulates a dichotomy between rights and responsibilities, between Western law and Jewish law. He writes in his work Equity in Jewish Law (Ktav, 1991):
“Social, political, and legal theory in Western liberal society conceives man as a plenitude of rights; people do as they please unless constrained by the hedges of the law. The state governs the individual; the liberal democratic state governs the individual by enlightened laws. In contrast, the Jewish tradition measures the human being by the duties and responsibilities he bears…
Indeed, according to the rabbis of the Talmud, the Covenant subsequent to the Exodus – for which the Theophany took place – was not between God and the six hundred thousand Israelites who had come out of Egypt. It was between God and the Community of Israel. The formation of the community was thus a necessary concomitant of the Revelation.”
The Jewish experience is born out of community. When we come into the world our family celebrates our birth in the context of community. When we reach crucial developmental milestones in our lives, those are marked in communal ceremonies and rituals. Our wedding symbolizes this reality most profoundly when we stand under the chuppah, the canopy representing the intimacy of marital bonds, that is open to all sides and surrounded by our family and friends. Lastly, our final passing from this world is also observed within the embrace of community. This is not coincidental, as Rabbi Dr. Kirschenbaum noted, but rather is indicative of the founding narrative of our people. Judaism; its narratives, rituals and legal system is rooted in the communal. The effect of this is a shift towards responsibilities and a perspective that places each individual within the larger story of a people and a destiny, a shared past and an equally shared future.
Who is rich? The one who rejoices in their portion.
This statement from the Sages can mean much more than only a reflection on a life satisfied with one’s worldly affairs. Of course, it does deeply mean that, and that alone is a valuable lesson for a world dominated by sheer materialism, of which the advertising I mentioned earlier is only a small part, but possibly it is also a reading on who we are on an existential level. Do I exist solely as one individual absent a larger picture? Are my needs, wants, desires, passions and concerns the only dominating motive and drive for my life? A life wholly consumed by I, quickly turns to the reality of the finitude of our lives. Deep dissatisfaction and unhappiness arises out of a sense of futility and irrelevancy.
A life interwoven and bound up in the trajectory and narrative arc of a people that transcends generations can instill purpose, dignity and genuine happiness to our existence. My needs and wants are connected to the needs and wants of others. My story is part of the greater Jewish story. I am a link between all the generations that came before me and all those that will come after me. I am a guardian of a sacred trust that I have inherited and tasked with not only its preservation, for it is not an exhibit in a museum to be mummified and put on display, but its cultivation, furtherance and elevation.
This way of thinking and approach to living can foster lasting and true happiness. I offer it as a model to consider. It has proven successful for me and as one of my mentors and teachers Rabbi Dr. Tsvi Blanchard would often end his lectures with, I invite you to explore the possibility of this for your life.
This week has been a heavy one for the Jewish people and an indescribably difficult one for the parents of young Ayelet Galena zt”l who left this world Monday morning. Ayelet was two years old and was diagnosed with a rare bone marrow disorder called dyskeratosis congenita.
Ayelet’s struggle for life became everyone’s struggle. Her parents utilizing social media, particularly Facebook, updated her close to 6,000 “fans” on a regular basis. The images of little Ayelet simultaneously exhibiting so much will to life and yet so much suffering and pain, united thousands of people to do something. Many people prayed for her daily; others baked challah in her merit, while others re-posted the updates from her parents to their social circles often, thereby expanding the circle of support and care by leaps and bounds.
The loss of Ayelet is not just the loss of one beautiful little girl. It is not just the loss of the potential for her life and all that she might have accomplished. It is both of those things but also so much more. The Mishnah in Tractate Sanhedrin teaches us that the loss of a single life is as if an entire world was lost forever. There are generations of descendants from Ayelet the world will never know. There are countless people who would have been touched by her life who will not have that experience. In chaos theory there exists a concept called the butterfly effect in which one small change can bring about tremendous results that would be impossible to anticipate. The loss of Ayelet is not just a small change to the world, it is an enormous change, and the impact that she would have brought to her family, her people and the rest of humanity, will never be known.
Yet, the Mishnah also teaches us the converse as well. One who saves a life is as if she or he saved the entire world. And there is no doubt that the heart wrenching struggle for life waged by Ayelet and her family, broadcast to the world has brought about so much good. One often wonders how much they can truly impact the world. What difference can I really have in a global community of over seven billion people? The story of Ayelet is the loudest protest possible against the proposition that our lives do not and cannot matter. Each one of us can make such a tremendous difference.
Of all the actions that occurred to express support with Ayelet and her family, perhaps the most impactful of them all was the organization of countless cheek swabbing drives to add people to the bone marrow registry of Gift of Life and the also important fundraising drives for Gift of Life. Because of those cheek swabbing drives, when Ayelet tragically left this world on Monday morning, 21 people had found their lives saved through the bone marrow registry and the registration of all those new people. Twenty one people in this world owe their lives to the good will of complete strangers who were inspired at the very deepest levels to act because of Ayelet Galena zt”l. In other words, because of Ayelet there now exists another twenty one worlds of human life and meaning.
This is the impact of one person. One two year old child was able to galvanize people to give of themselves and restore life to another twenty one people. If we learn anything from the tragedy of the loss of Ayelet let it be two ideas: 1) Donate to Gift of Life and register with Gift of Life. Each registration to the list costs money; the more people who are registered the greater chance that another human being can live another day and if you have not done so already, take that simple cheek swab and become part of the registry. 2) Anytime you feel your life does not matter, anytime you are confident that the world would be no worse or better with or without you, remember Ayelet. The struggle of one small child restored life to twenty one people. Ponder and reflect on that because you never know how and in what way you will make that difference.
Many Jews have ambivalent feelings about the Occupy Wall Street Movement. Thankfully, the Jewish story in the United States has largely been one of success. The dominant narrative (but by no means the only narrative) is that Jews came as immigrants to this country, worked hard, got educations, and moved from the poor, to the middle class, and in many cases in to the upper classes of American society. Those Jews who have achieved great financial success feel attacked by the Occupy Movement. At an event held by the Edgar Bronfman Foundation where Simon Greer, the head of the Cummings Foundation, presented on “Jews and the 99%”, a man in the audience commented, “Why am I being painted by the Movement as a bad guy? I am not a bad person. I am an example of how to succeed in this country.” He was able to fulfill the American dream. He grew up poor, went to college, founded a business and is now considered to be “successful by any standard,” he said.
What Simon Greer, and an Op-Ed by Anderw Kohut the president of the Pew Research Center, point out is that Americans are not upset that there is income inequality in this country, but rather they are upset that it seems that now those in the lower economic echelons do not get a fair chance at raising themselves out of their current state. In Kohuts Op-Ed, he cites “ a Gallup poll last month found 54% believing that income inequality was an ‘acceptable part of our economic system’…What is different these days is that a despondent public, struggling with difficult times and an uncertain future, is upset over a perceived lack of fairness in public policy. For example 61% of Americans now say the economic system in this country unfairly favors the wealthy.”
People need to have hope that they can do better. Hope that their dreams can be fulfilled. Hope that their children’s lives will be better than their own. Depression is really an apt word for the state of this country right now. A key symptom of depression is a lack of hope. Kohut ends his op ed by writing, “What the public wants is not a war on the rich but more policies that promote opportunity.”
Jewish leaders and the Jewish community have a lot to teach Americans about hope. The concept of hoping for a better time in the midst of the deepest darkest days is a central theme in our liturgy, the way we organize our communities, and the Jewish nationalist quest for a homeland in Israel.
First take a look at our liturgy. Since the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem in 70 ce, Jews have prayed and hoped for the re-establishment of the Temple. This hope for an eventual return to the holy land, and the re-building of the Temple carried the Jews though thousands of years of Diaspora living. While holding on to this hope, the Jews leaders crafted a Judaism not based on offering sacrifices to the Temple, but rather on daily prayer and rituals. A new Judaism emerged, one which today makes the rebuilding of the Temple itself irrelevant. Yet, it was the hope for the return to the land of Israel and dreams of the Temple that carried Jews forward. Without hope, all would have been lost. Statements and prayers for hope can be found all over the prayer book and Jewish texts.
Then, during the nineteenth century Jews across Europe had the hope of one day making it to the “goldene medina,” the golden land of America, where they imagined the streets were paved with gold. This hope propelled tens of thousands of Jews to travel from across Europe in many different waves of immigration to the US. Then once they were here, the hope of eventual success in America caused Jews to organize Jewish welfare boards, Jewish Social Service Agencies, Jewish Community Centers, and the United Jewish Appeal in order to help Jews here in America and those suffering from persecution in every corner of the world. The Jewish community erected an amazing social support system which still exists today. The Jewish value of helping the poor, widowed, and orphaned was then and still is today taken seriously by the leaders of these organizations. With the hope of eventual success these great organizations would never have been established, and the Jewish community would not be as successful as we are today.
And of course, there always was the hope of returning to the promised land, to Israel. While Jews dreamt about Israel in different ways, some for religious reasons, others for secular nationalist ones, the goal of achieving a homeland stayed with Jews for centuries. It is no surprise that the name of the Israeli nation anthem is “Hatikvah,” “The Hope.”
We have a lot to teach about sustaining hope and the power the simple act of hope has to propel people forward to achieve great things. The Talmud teaches, “you must remove the stumbling block before the blind.” Now is the time to organize to remove the stumbling blocks which stand before us. The Occupy Movement will not succeed if it is based in anger. The message needs to be turned around and made positive. Hope is a positive message. It is the message that propelled Barak Obama in to the White House four years ago. But four years of continued economic depression had taken hope away from the average American.
Let’s restore the hope that the American economy can be strong again. That those who work hard and want to succeed can. Let’s remove the stumbling blocks that exist for those born into poverty. There are many different viewpoints and public policy arguments to be made on how to do this. I am not going to advocate here for any particular one. But I am going to strongly assert that before any particular policy can be effective we have to re-establish the grand hope that our country has the will and resources to help all of its citizens get a leg up.
All of us need to start preaching the call for hope. This is the starting point for our individual and collective success.
“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.
Last year, just before Chanukah, a reporter for the Austin American-Statesman came to me for some assistance. Her four-year-old daughter had come home from school and asked her to explain the meaning of Chanukah. Although the reporter had grown up in New York City and had many Jewish friends, she didn’t feel equipped to adequately answer the question. She also realized that if she felt this way, there certainly must be others with a similar lack of “Chanukah knowledge.” That’s where I came in; the reporter asked me to write a piece that would help well-meaning, culturally curious parents answer their children’s questions. Here’s what I wrote:
My 6-year-old daughter, Noa, was particularly thrilled by Chanukah last year. She became more excited each night, as the number of candles we lit increased. The last night was enthralling, as she set each candle in the menorah that stood next to the window in our living room.
Chanukah (meaning dedication) comes at the darkest point of the year, waking us from our apathy and reminding us to be in awe of all of the small and large wonders in our lives. In the darkest of days, we have the amazing capacity to bring light — to bring goodness and peace — to those we encounter.
We light a menorah in our window for eight nights, adding one candle each night so that by the final night we have all eight candles and the helper candle, used to light the others (called the shamash), sparkling through the glass. By lighting the candles in the window, we don’t merely retain our light — rather, we shine it out onto the world.
But why the eight nights and eight candles? The story of Chanukah is one to which we can all relate.
It is the story of the small and righteous winning out over the large oppressive forces in the world. In 165 B.C.E., after discrimination, forced assimilation and violence, a small group of Jewish fighters, led by Judah Maccabee, won religious freedom from the large Hellenistic Assyrian army, led by the King Antiochus.
The rabbis responsible for writing the Talmud centuries later, who were living in a time when a military solution to oppression was not feasible, were uncomfortable simply celebrating a military victory, and therefore emphasized a more spiritual dimension with the legend of the oil. We are told that after the war, when the Maccabees went to rededicate our temple, there was only enough oil to light the menorah for one night. Yet, amazingly, this small cruse of oil lasted for eight days, enough time for our people to acquire more oil. Similar to Judah Maccabee’s tiny army, the small amount of oil would not dissipate.
Today, we eat special fried foods that symbolize the miracle of the oil — specifically potato pancakes (latkes) and jelly doughnuts. We also play a game called dreidel. Each side of this unique top is engraved with a letter symbolizing the line “A great miracle happened there.”
Traditionally, teachers were paid during Chanukah in gelt (coins), and therefore it also has become customary for children (and adults!) to enjoy chocolate Chanukah gelt.
Whatever story we choose to tell our children — whether it is one of victory over oppression or of miraculous oil — the essential message is the same. Sometimes life is rough. Sometimes people are mean, hurting us and getting us down. Yet, in the end, goodness will win out.
We all have a powerful inner light — represented by the candles of the menorah. It is our job — even in the darkest of days — to remain dedicated to allowing our light to shine bright, illuminating our world and bringing us to a better tomorrow.
It seems to me that we do not do a lot of talking to each other anymore. There is lots of talking about each other or past each other but not a lot of talking to each other. Furthermore, the tone of our supposed dialogues have become increasingly fractious and divisive. One does not need to look very far to find examples of this phenomenon both from within the Jewish community and in the larger American situation.
Anything we do within our own small communities is now readily available for review by anyone with an Internet connection around the globe. We do not live in a world anymore where I can do what I want or say what I please without facing the potential criticism of a global audience. Yet, is critique always the right approach? The urge to condemn or critique can be strong. One can feel justified in their offering of condemnation, perhaps even righteous, but still is this the preferred approach?
The Babylonian Talmud, in Tractate Shabbat 31a, relates the oft-quoted story of the potential convert who came before the first-century sage Shammai, asking to convert on condition that all of Judaism be taught to him while standing on one foot. The Talmud records that Shammai angrily chased him away while whereupon approaching Hillel with the same request, he was immediately converted. Several other stories of a similar nature are offered with the same result: Shammai scolding while Hillel embraced them. It is the end of this particular passage though that most provocatively puts forth a different tactic from the one of critique and condemnation. The Talmud asserts that “Shammai’s impatience sought to drive us [converts] from the world, but Hillel’s gentleness brought us under the wings of the Divine Presence.”
On a similar note, the Babylonian Talmud in several places (Eruvin 72b; Hullin 58a; Niddah 59b) demonstrates that the ability to permit something (in Hebrew “koah de’heteira“) is preferable over the opposite ability to prohibit. It takes a careful approach to matters, a nuanced view of a situation and knowledge of all the dimensions to a problem to genuinely permit. Any knee-jerk reactionary can scream from rooftops condemnations but a true mensch and scholar can be expansive and open.
The 16th-century Greek rabbinical judge of the northwestern city of Arta, Rabbi Benjamin Mattathias, in his work of legal rulings teaches that the power to permit is greater than the power to prohibit just as the sayings of scholars is greater than the sayings of prophets (She’alot U’Teshuvot Binyamin Ze’ev, sec. 7). Perhaps we can understand this comparison as telling us that while a scholar can modulate and adjust his or her perspective over time, can take in extenuating circumstances into his or her calculations, this is not possible for a prophet, who simply conveys a Divine message to the people. So too it is all too often easier to prohibit, less taxing and time consuming to just simply say no, but it is the person who weighs all the evidence, considers all the points and perspectives, that can authentically permit. (The same is also true, of course, if the conclusion one arrives at after careful study is a prohibitive one.)
In our world of condemnations, chastisements and ridicule I would like to suggest that the power of praise, while sometimes more difficult and not as natural, is preferable over the power of criticism. There has been lots said in rabbinic thought throughout the ages about the superiority of the koah de’heteira, the power of permitting things, but nowadays I think our time urges us to discuss publicly and openly the koah de’shevah, the power and preference for praise over critique, compliment over ridicule and thoughtfulness over cynicism.
In a society with more praise and less critique, more considerate reflection and less knee-jerk negativity, we might come that much closer to healing the rifts that are tearing us apart and dividing our communities.
A young man adorned with a black hat, a prayer shawl and phylacteries offers up his morning prayers in the same library where I study with my erudite Talmud teacher.
On Mondays, I infuse my mind and spirit with the insights of the Babylonian Talmud. Three Modern Orthodox male lawyers and I (a post-denominational female rabbi) find delight in analyzing the legal codes associated with voluminous pages of the detailed conversations and arguments of the rabbis.
Today I am the teacher’s only pupil. I concentrate on reading the Rashi script.
The man with the black hat paces back and forth in front of the room as he choreographs his prayer dance before God. He moves with quiet determination while he places his black and white tallis over his shoulders. He wraps the tefillin around his arm and on his forehead. He adjusts his black hat often and deliberately. I see him focusing on his paperback prayer book, but I cannot detect any sound.
My teacher, oblivious to the young man’s presence, continues to expound on the first sugya (passage). The man with the black hat is my distraction. Is he offended that a woman and a man are studying holy texts together? If so, why doesn’t he take his prayers to another place? Is he eavesdropping on our learning while concentrating on his blessings? Does he find it interesting? Or amusing? Is he surprised at my agility with the Hebrew text, or has he succumbed to the beauty of my teacher’s Talmudic treatises?
I longed to tell him my “Yentl” story.
My father, an Orthodox rabbi, had no sons to transmit his passion for Torah learning. Instead, when I entered rabbinical school at the age of forty and took my first Talmud class, I realized a dream. Every night after class, my father and I studied Talmud. The intimacy of our reflections opened up more than the secrets revealed on the written page. I immersed myself in the wisdom of my father, the greatest gift of my life.
The thrill of those intimate discussions flashed like lightning into my heart space as I held the Talmud in my hands and ingested the instruction of my tutor.
We have many teachers in life. Some remind us of other teachers, not by what they know,
but how they transmit what they know.
The attendance of the man with the black hat solidified the devotion and the dedication
the three of us sustained in the room filled with the books of our people. How could he not have stayed? He soaked up the deliberations of the Talmud just as I had done decades before with my father at my parents’ kitchen table in the Bronx.
Is it permissible to begin your morning prayers while the study of Talmud between a man and a woman is already in motion? According to the man with the black hat, it is permissible and precious.
I’m excited about the new Muppet Movie, and who wouldn’t be given great lines like the following from the trailer:
Kermit, the straight man, pleads, “The Muppets have always been about artistic integrity, not cheap tricks.”
Fozzie walks in and says, “Check it out, fart shoes!!” The adorable, Borscht Belt Bear has whoopee cushions strapped to his loafers.
It’s a sight gag with perfect timing folks, and Judaism has been celebrating that particular shtick for a long, long time. Consider the Talmudic template for the above Muppet scene:
Pelemo, a rabbi who, if I were casting Muppets, would be played by Gonzo the Weirdo, sets up the bit, “On which head does a two-headed man put on his tefillin?”
Rabbi Yehuda, plays the straight man (Kermit the Frog) who has had it up to his eyeballs with Pelemo’s outlandish remarks, “Either geli (get out of here) or be subject to a formal ban!”
Then, the best set-up term in the Talmud, addehakhi, “At that very moment,” a man walks in and says, “an infant with two heads has been born to me. How many shekalim am I obliged to give for the pidyon haben?” (B. Talmud, Menahot 37a).
How about this one? A poor beggar asks Rava for food. The great rabbi, knowing the law regarding sustaining a poor person, asks the beggar what he is accustomed to eating.
“Fattened chicken and aged wine,” the beggar says.
The rabbi protests that the beggar ought to have less extravagant taste, that such luxury is a strain on the community.
Addehahki, “just then,” Rava’s sister, whom he hasn’t seen in 13 years shows up, carrying, wait for it… “Fattened chicken and aged wine!” (Wocka Wocka!).
[For the academic types, take a look at Structure and Form in the Babylonian Talmud, by Louis Jacobs. He has a whole chapter on "the device of addehakhi."]
Was the Tigeris and Euphrates, the location for the early Babylonian Academies that produced the Talmud, the precursor to the Catskills where borscht belt humor was perfected?
One of the kings of that vaudevillian, take-my-wife-please, Henny-Youngman-styled humor, Milton Berle (Milton Berlinger) actually was a guest for one of my favorite Muppet Show episodes. He goes at it with Statler & Waldorf, the heckling old-timers in the balcony:
Waldorf say to Uncle Milty during his opening bit, “You know what, I just figured out your style. You work like Gregory Peck.”
Berle responds, “Gregory Peck is not a comedian.”
“Well…,” Statler lets the punchline just hang there.
“Now just a minute, please,” the agitated Milt says, “I have been a successful comedian half my life.”
And to that my Muppet heroes say, “How come we got this half?”
Statler and Waldorf are my heroes because they represent that “old Jews telling jokes” humor that I hope to embody someday. These are punchlines that you see coming from a mile away and you laugh anyway. (Just about every joke on the oldjewstellingjokes.com website is a classic, but the commercials are annoying. The book version made a very special gift).
Is there a unique Jewish humor? Remember the Seinfeld episode where the dentist is suspected of converting to Judaism for the jokes? A great deal has been written about the topic (take for example, Joseph Telushkin’s Jewish Humor). Every movie has it’s challenges, but the one I’ll be looking out for with the Muppets was laid down by Saul Bellow, who said, “Oppressed people tend to be witty.”
The truth is that Jewish anti-Semitism in America is at a historic low. Is Mel Brooks ( Melvin Kaminsky) correct, that our humor is our form of revenge – think, Spring Time for Hitler (The Producers) ? Is Woody Allen (Allen Stewart Konigsberg) right, that “Comedy is just tragedy plus time?” If they’re right, does that mean our kids’ kids won’t think we’re funny? I say that there must be more than misery that instills a sense of comedy.
Keep the jokes coming. Feel free to share a classic “Jewish” joke…