Tag Archives: wisdom

Choking on the Apple

gan eden friezeI wasn’t at The People’s Climate March in New York on Sunday. I wanted to be, but I was, instead, writing a sermon for the holidays about… you guessed it…. the woeful state of the environment.

And thinking… about the Garden of Eden, when Adam and Eve took things into their own hands— literally and figuratively. And the more I ponder it, the less I think the story has anything much to do with fruit (yes, I know it wasn’t an apple), or a serpent, or temptation, or Adam’s and Eve’s innocence of foolishness. Nor the idea that they wanted to be god-like. Quite the contrary.

I think it’s about their deciding that they were just fine without listening to or being grateful to God, thank you very much. They asserted their independencebut not because they had to evolve emotionally so we wouldn’t be stuck forever in the garden (to me, a pretty scary thought, since I tend to picture the glassy-eyed beings from H. G. Well’s The Time Machine). But because they decided that they knew better. So they were unceremoniously booted out of paradise, and ever since, we have been abusing the bounty and blessings of what once was perfectly balanced creation. So yes, perhaps the sins of the fathers are passed down to the thousandth generation.

We have gloried (in pride? or in shame?) in our efforts to make the most of the consequences of the expulsion. We thrill at the results of our labors (which were, as you will recall, punishment for the sin in the Garden).

Now, as the unhappy fruits of our self-serving labors are ripening fast, the stakes are higher than ever. And we, as a nation, like Adam and Eve, when they were found out… are hiding and making excuses. And we turn our faces away from all who suffer because of our behavior. Not just the endangered wild plants and animalsbut all life all over the worldand for all who are yet to be born.

And all because we, the created, have decided that we know better than our Creator.
We’re choking on that “apple” still.

And now, on Rosh Hashanah, which our sages tell us is the day of the creation of humankind, what do we say again and again? “Hashiveinu Adonai, elecha, v’nashuvah, chadesh yameinu k’kedem“Return us to you, Adonai, and we will return, renew our days as in days of old.”

Perhaps this yearand maybe alwayswe can read his verse as a call to return to the essential teaching of the Garden. To remember that we need to regain humility and stand in awe of our Creator and all creation. That everything we have is a blessing and a gift and that we are obligated to care for and sustain it. In this way, as partners with our Creator, we can renew all creation as in days of oldfor ourselves and all living thingsl’olam va’edfor all time.

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Posted on September 23, 2014

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Is Torah Just For Jews?

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Unless we’re talking about jury duty, it’s generally nice to be noticed as unique and special; to be chosen. Except when it’s not. “God, I know we’re the ‘chosen people,’” Tevye said, “But can’t you choose someone else once in a while?” The question of being chosen, what academics call “the election of Israel,” is central on my mind lately. On the one-hand, I believe in the unique call of the Jews as Jews, and yet, I believe in the universality of Jewish wisdom as a gift for all. There is a tension here. If Jewish wisdom is such a gift for mindful and meaningful living, is it not for everyone? But, if the Torah’s wisdom is for everyone, what makes it “Jewish”?

On the selective side are famous passages such as this one from the 12th Century:
God gave Israel two Torahs – the Written Torah and the Oral Torah. God gave them the Written Torah which includes 613 Commandments in order to fill them with good deeds and virtues. God gave them the Oral Torah to differentiate them from all other nations. Therefore it was not given in written form so the other nations will not be able to forge it and claim that they are the (also) Israel. - Bamidbar Rabbah, section 14.

And while we are unique, “chosen,” or better and more accurately, we “choose” to live in the values and rituals of Judaism, the enterprise of Judaism cannot succeed in a vacuum. Rabbi Heschel quotes Spanish Inquisition era Rabbi Joseph Yaabez, “If the non-Jews of a certain town are moral, the Jews born there will be so as well.”

The above tension between particularism and universalism is everywhere in Judaism. Every service, three times a day, we conclude with the two-paragraph Aleinu prayer. The first paragraph thanks God for the distinction of being Jewish, “God made our lot unlike that of other people, assigning to us a unique destiny.” The second paragraph puts forth a universalist hope, that our God and the timeless truths of our tradition would someday be embraced by everyone, “Reign over all, soon and for all time… On that day the Lord shall be One and God’s name One.”

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel

Rabbi A.J. Heschel says, “The religions of the world are no more self-sufficient, no more independent, no more isolated than individuals or nations…No religion is an island. We are involved with one another…Today, religious isolationism is a myth. For all the profound differences in perspective and substance, Judaism is sooner or later affected by the intellectual, moral, and spiritual events within the Christian society, and vice versa.” – No Religion is an Island.

The Jewish stance of the past, even the not so distant past, was rightfully suspicious of deep connections to the outside. It was dangerous to become overly involved with the outside world. Today, that same isolationism which perhaps served us has the real potential of suffocating us. To live in a disconnected way in a world that is deeply connected, deeply transparent, is to deny reality. The times have changed, and we can change with it without a threat to the essential fabric of what it means to be Jewish.

I feel compelled to share the Torah I have come to love with Jews and non-Jews alike. It is my firm belief that the wisdom of Judaism can strengthen the lives of the Jews I live and work with. I also believe that the self-same wisdom is helpful for the non-Jews in my life. I readily share it without expectation that Jews will all keep kosher or keep the lesser known rite of not mixing linen and wool.  Nor do I expect that non-Jews with whom I share Torah will magically become Jews. Preposterous. Instead, I expect that they come to understand my Jewish perspective, and see the value therein. Who is my Torah for? Ultimately, it is for me, but I like it so much I can’t help but try to share it.

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Posted on December 17, 2013

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Silence or: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the NSA

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The NSA Know-it-all (click to see in theweek.com)

Sooner or later, everything you say or do will be recorded.  The internet, like an elephant, never forgets.

I’m sure that I could have gone far in Miss America competitions, not the bikini part of course. Nobody needs that! I mean the interview part. I’m pretty good at saying partially interesting-partially idiotic things such as these gems from listmania’s 10 (True) Stupid Comments Miss America Contestants Have Made:

“My most important role model is Mother Teresa, because she’s just so awesome!”
“No, I don’t think the Miss America Pageant denigrates women. Well… maybe the ugly one…”
“I have always admired you, Mr. Parker. Especially your drive to get dogs neutral.”
“The world would be a better place if all blind people could see.”

The need to say something is so great that a person might just blab on and say something stupid, or worse. I’ve been present when someone asked a woman who was no longer a size zero, “When are you due?” And sure enough, the woman was not pregnant. I didn’t say that awful thing, but the horror of that moment stopped the earth it’s orbit. It was a long moment, seared into my neural pathways. In that pregnant pause one could hear the angels of heaven’s choir collectively gasp. Since that moment I never comment on a woman’s pregnancy, not even a “you look great!” I imagine a day when a friend’s water might break and will be on the phone with 911 for an ambulance, and I’ll say, “Oh, you’re pregnant?”

In the Mishnah (200 C.E.) Rabbi Shimon taught the following lesson: “I was raised among the wise, and I have found that there is nothing more becoming a person than silence” (Avot 1:17). (The literal translation reads ‘nothing is better for one’s body (tov la’guf) than silence).

Yes, silence is golden. I knew that, but I forgot it a decade ago when I was asked to volunteer at a charity golf event. I’m not a golfer. The deal was to ask each golfer at the tee of the ninth hole for another five bucks toward the charity or let me, the non-golfing rabbi, tee off for the player. imgres-1Everybody paid – golfers are dumb. In any case, another volunteer was stationed there with me and as it was, we quickly ran out of things to say. Why did I have to be leaning on the Par Aide golfball washer? Why, in that moment, did I have to be mindlessly playing, up and down, with its plunger? More importantly, why couldn’t I keep from speaking just for the sake of speaking?
“Why don’t any of these guys stop to wash their balls,” I asked? The horror on the face of the other volunteer, a woman I had never met, snapped the rewind of the previous five seconds and I realized just what I had said. Why don’t any of these guys stop to wash their balls? Did I say that? Shit!

indecent-exposureThe National Security Agency is listening to our phone calls and tracking our internet usage. Google Now (aka,Today) knows everything about us, and is learning to monetize your likes and dislikes, as well as every search you’ve ever done – ever! It seems safe to say that everything you say is being recorded and will live on forever as some horrid proof of Neitzche’s theory of Eternal Recurrence.
images-1Woody Allen: “Great. That means I’ll have to sit through the Ice Capades again.”

To my mind, there are two likely outcomes to the showdown that modernity is having between the right to privacy and the amassed personal data now available in digital age:
Just as the Beastie Boys would for their right to party, people are going to fight like mad for their right to privacy. It’s already happening.  Laws for privacy will stand, but we are so addicted to what interconnectivity can do for us that we will continue to willingly forfeit our privacy.
Some people will embrace that there is no such thing as privacy anymore. These people have never run out of things to say on a golf course or have have greater powers of denial than I.  They simply hope that technological security will keep one step ahead of the digital- ne’er-do-wells. It hasn’t and it won’t. The announcement that the Pentagon’s Cyber Command plans to form thirteen offensive teams by 2015 should dispel us of that naive mindset.

I’d like to suggest an alternative. We should become practiced in the wisdom of Rabbi Shimon, who taught that silence is healthy for us humans. Isn’t silence precisely the counterbalance to the pathology of needing to fill every moment with having something to say? Since the digital-age seems bent on preserving every idiotic thing we say along with the brilliant and quotable. I wonder about the moment in the not so distant future in which we have learned to accept that everything we say is heard and being recorded -will we also learn to be more intentional in what we say? Maybe then I’ll be allowed back on a golf course. Until then, the virtue of appreciating silence as wisdom is needed more than ever before.

Posted on June 18, 2013

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Is Freedom A Jewish Virtue?

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).

Martin_Luther_King_Jr_with_medallion_NYWTS

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

Posted on January 14, 2013

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The Urgency of Civility

Seinfeld's Frank Constanza, demonstrating anger

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.

Posted on November 25, 2011

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