Friday, March 24, 2023

What Power Corrupts


The Repentant King David by Luca Giordano, oil on canvas. 164 x 207 cm

What are the psychological effects of being a prison guard? This was the primary objective of the controversial Stanford Prison Study, which took place in August 1971. The lead investigator, Philip Zimbardo, recruited 24 undergraduate students to volunteer for the study; the group was divided evenly into “guards” and “prisoners,” and they were meant to conform to that role.


Ultimately, what unfolded was extremely disturbing. The “guards” quickly became drunk with power and began to exhibit increasing sadism towards their “prisoners.” What was intended to be a two-week study had to be cut short, and was ended on day six.


Zimbardo offered this summary of his study: Everyone and everything in the prison was defined by power. To be a guard who did not take advantage of this institutionally sanctioned use of power was to appear “weak,”... Using Erich Fromm's definition of sadism, as ‘the wish for absolute control over another living being,’ all of the mock guards at one time or another during this study behaved sadistically toward the prisoners.


In a matter of days, a group of ordinary university students were transformed by a simulation; the illusion of dominance turned them into brutes. The very system that gives leaders power also pressures those who wield it to use it. In other words, power corrupts.


Zimbardo's study has many critics, including many who considered the study to be unethical. But the intuition that power corrupts is well accepted, and there are many examples, too numerous to count, of this being the case. And the question is: Why does power corrupt?


There are several answers offered. Perhaps, as in the case of Macbeth, ambition becomes a compulsion. The slightest taste of power leaves one hungering for more and more, which launches an endless spiral that devours one's soul. Or perhaps it is actually an illusion; it is not so much that power corrupts, but rather that the corrupt are drawn to power.


An unusual verse in Leviticus (4:22) leads several commentaries to offer their own understanding of how power corrupts. It says “that a king has sinned, and done something unintentionally against any of the commandments of the Lord his God….he shall bring as his offering a kid of the goats, a male without blemish.”


Four types of sin-offerings are mentioned in this chapter: that of the High Priest, the Sanhedrin along with the entire community, the king, and of individuals.


The unusual language before the king’s sin-offering catches the attention of the commentaries. The three other offerings are introduced with the Hebrew word “im,” “if.” In other words, these people may do what is right, and avoid sin; they only have to bring a sacrifice “if” they sin. But the King’s sin-offering begins with the word “asher,” “that.” This implies that there is no doubt or question: the King will certainly sin. 


Two commentaries, Rabbeinu Bachya and Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno, offer the following explanation: power will make a king arrogant. Success and comfort can confuse one’s moral compass, and without humility, a powerful person can begin to think that they are omnipotent. One can predict with certainty that the king will sin because the power he holds will corrupt him.


Rabbeinu Bachya notes that for this reason the Torah legislates clear limits on the King’s wealth and stature, and requires him to carry a Torah scroll at all times. This will ensure “that his heart may not be lifted above his brethren, that he may not turn aside from the commandment to the right or to the left…” (Deuteronomy 17:21.) Unbridled political power is a recipe for decadence and decay, and for this reason, the Torah limits the power of the king.


These are the most common, and most obvious, explanations for why power corrupts. Arrogance and ambition can erode one’s conscience, and then the unethical becomes an expedient way of preserving power.


But what is of greater importance is that power doesn’t just undermine one’s character; it undermines one’s judgment.


Rashi, based on the Talmud (Horayot 10b), offers a poetic reading of this verse. He re-reads the Hebrew word “asher,” “that,” as implying “ashrei,” “happy,” and says: “Happy is the generation whose king takes care to bring an atonement sacrifice…”


This Rashi offers two important lessons. The first is that a king doesn’t diminish their stature by admitting their mistake; on the contrary, by seeking atonement, they become a true role model. The Talmud here emphasizes that “if a king brings a sin-offering, certainly the common man will do so as well.” Elsewhere, the Talmud explains that King David, by admitting his sin with Batsheva, becomes the role model of repentance (Moed Katan 16b). One can be a role model by having the courage to confess one’s mistakes.


The second lesson of Rashi is even more critical. The full quotation of Rashi is “Happy is the generation whose king takes care to bring an atonement sacrifice even for an inadvertent act of his; how much the more certain is it that he will do penance for his wilful sins.”


This Rashi is puzzling. To rephrase it, it says that the generation should be happy that the king is meticulous about small sins, because then we know he will be careful about large sins as well. It is difficult to understand why this is a further reason for happiness; what is exceptional is that the king cares even about small sins!


The answer lies in why a king might avoid bringing a sacrifice for a small, unintentional sin. It is easy for someone in power to justify hiding a minor transgression. They are public figures, and it might make sense to keep things quiet, both to avoid controversy as well as unnecessary shame and embarrassment. Small sins are small enough to overlook with a clean conscience.


But this is precisely what Rashi is teaching us; that those who ignore small sins will soon be comfortable with large ones. “One transgression leads to another” (Pirkei Avot 4:2,) and a king who can rationalize one sin will quickly rationalize another. This will contaminate one’s judgment, and give them a false sense of reality. As time goes on, it gets even worse; what was once unthinkable is now readily embraced.


Power can certainly corrupt the soul; what Rashi reminds us is that it can corrupt one’s mind as well.


All too often, a tyrant’s undoing will lie in their inability to accept that they made a mistake. They will reject good advice, and demand to hear only positive news, even if there is none. Having twisted their minds with endless rationalizations, they no longer can see reality clearly. They will make mistakes in the cabinet and on the battlefield, and even in the doctor’s office. And over time, these misjudgments will eventually cause their ruin.


But until that happens, those drunk with power can cause enormous destruction. Rashi is correct when he says, “Happy is the generation whose king admits his mistakes."

Friday, March 17, 2023

Why Do We Have Children?


Title: The tabernacle, breast plate, altar of burnt offering, censers, the molten sea,

 brazen laver Abstract/medium: 1 print. 1879

“Life is misery, and it would have been better not to have been born. But who is so lucky? Scarcely one in a hundred thousand.” This Jewish witticism (first quoted by Freud), is the epigraph of David Benatar’s book Better Never to Have Been: The Harm of Coming into Existence. Benatar, a Professor of Philosophy at the University of Cape Town, is one of a group of philosophers called anti-natalists, who argue that it is morally impermissible to have children, because coming into being actually causes harm to the unborn child.


This provocative argument has elicited some astonished responses, particularly from religious philosophers. Elizabeth Anscombe begins her essay on the topic, Why Have Children?, by asserting that “this very title tells of the times we live in.” Anti-natalism is a blueprint for the end of humanity.


Anti-natalists are unfazed by these reactions, and insist that one must look at the cold moral logic of the situation. They note that consent is usually required before meddling in the affairs of another; so how can you create a baby against their will?


Benatar focuses on suffering as the central moral reason why one may not procreate. As he sees it, we are always obligated to prevent any being, even future beings, from suffering, and there is no obligation to offer joy to an as-of-yet-unborn baby. He takes his argument a step further by offering a wholly pessimistic view of human existence. He explains that even those who think they are happy dramatically overestimate the goodness of their own lives, and overlook the pain and suffering endured by themselves and others.


Pessimism is not unique to anti-natalists. Many philosophers have embraced this perspective; Schopenhauer proclaims that “human life must be some kind of mistake.” Even the Talmud (Eruvin 13b) declares "It would have been better for man not to have been created than have been created," which is the origin of the Jewish witticism Freud and Benatar quote.


However, Judaism is anything but anti-natalist. The first commandment in the Torah is “to be fruitful and multiply.” Throughout history, Jews have created child-centered communities; and children take center stage at the most significant ritual moment of the year, the Seder. (It must be noted that emphasizing children can at times marginalize the single and childless, who are too often implicitly excluded. But a community is only a true community if it embraces everyone; and we can only raise the next generation of children as a unified whole.) Pessimists or not, Jews have always embraced the importance of having children.


During disasters that calculus changes. Rabbi Yishmael, who lived in a time of crushing persecution, is quoted by the Talmud (Baba Batra 60b) as saying, “We should have decreed upon ourselves not to marry and not to have children, and let the children of Israel disappear on their own.” There are periods in history when to be born a Jew is to be condemned to a life of difficulty and distress; and that may be too much to ask. I once officiated at the funeral of a Holocaust survivor, who was a beloved, sweet, and caring woman; I learned that after the war, she had refused to have children because of the horrors she had seen. She simply couldn't bear to bring a child into a world that, she knew from firsthand experience, is filled with suffering.


There are times when having a child is absurd; and the years of Egyptian slavery were such a time. The Talmud (Sotah 12a) says that after Pharaoh's decree to throw all the male children into the river, Amram, the leader of the Jewish community, decided that everyone should stop having children.


That would be the reasonable thing to do. Who could bring a child into a life of slavery?


But the women of the community took a different path. According to the Talmud, Amram's own daughter Miriam rebukes him and says, “Father, your decree is harsher than that of Pharaoh. Pharaoh decreed only with regard to the males, but you decreed that both males and females will no longer be born.”


Miriam’s argument is: It is better to survive and suffer. We cannot let Pharaoh determine the future of the Jewish people.


The Kiyor, the faucet in the Temple where the Kohanim washed their hands, was made from mirrors that were donated by women. Rashi (Exodus 38:8), borrowing from the Talmud and the Midrash Tanchuna, offers a fascinating backstory to this donation:


The Israelite women owned mirrors, which they used to adorn themselves. Even these (valuable personal items) they did not withhold from donating. But Moses rejected them because their purpose is to enhance sexual attraction. The Holy One, blessed is He, said to Moses, ‘Accept [these mirrors], for these are more precious to Me than anything; through them the women set up many multitudes of children in Egypt.’ When their husbands were weary from back-breaking labor, the women would go out into the fields and bring them food and drink to eat. Then the women would take out the mirrors and look into them together with their husbands, and would playfully say ‘I am more beautiful than you.’ And in this way seduced their husbands… conceiving and giving birth there, as it is said: “Under the apple tree I aroused you” (Song 8:5).


In this imaginative retelling, the Jewish women in Egypt hold their marriages together with warmth and love; this affectionate mirror game is not just an exercise in intimacy, it is an act of profound holiness. Elsewhere, the Talmud explains that charoset has apples in the recipe, to honor how those righteous women held the Jewish future together under the apple tree. Having children in Egypt was an act of heroism.


Perhaps these righteous women should have done differently; had they thought about it rationally, they would have desisted from procreation. But they were not philosophers. They had chosen survival despite suffering, and were certain their children would do the same.


Most parents would tell you that all they want for their children is to be happy. But that could never be true of Jewish parents; had that been so, Jews would have disappeared a long time ago. It wasn’t always happy to be a Jew, and a far better life beckoned to those who converted or assimilated. But there are more important things in life than being happy.


But this doesn’t represent a lack of love. Jewish parents recognize that every child represents the Jewish future; and that has actually intensified the community’s appreciation for children, who are not just loved, but treasured.


Rabbi Yisrael Meir Lau tells about a speech he heard as a 10-year-old child, in a displaced children’s center in Ecoius, France. A group of local politicians came to visit the center, filled with the youngest survivors of the Holocaust. The children did not want to listen to the politicians, and sat stone silent, ignoring the speakers. Then the final speaker got up. As Rabbi Lau describes him, the man “was a Jew who had survived Auschwitz, where he had lost his wife and children. Since the liberation, he had dedicated all his time, energy, and resources to war orphans.” 


Rabbi Lau describes what happened next:

At that moment, without any advance planning, five hundred pairs of eyes lifted in a look of solidarity toward the Jew standing on the stage. He was one of us. We looked at him, and he saw hundreds of pairs of eyes fixed on him in a powerful gesture of empathy. Tears choked his throat. He gripped the microphone, and for several long seconds, the microphone broadcast only the sounds of his hands shaking. He tried to control himself, but managed to say only three words in Yiddish: “Kinder, taiyereh kinder” (“Children, dear children”). Then he burst into tears...We all considered it unmanly to cry, since, after all, we had survived the concentration camps. Yet each boy sitting on the grassy plaza stealthily wiped his eyes with his sleeve...then the dam broke. All at once, the lawn of [the orphanage] was transformed into a literal vale of tears.


This Holocaust survivor, alone in the world, devoted himself to the remaining Jewish children in Europe. In three tear-choked words, he summarized his mission: “Kinder, taiyereh kinder.”


Why do we have children? This story explains it all. Perhaps it isn’t rational; we simply know that they are our destiny. But that doesn’t diminish our love for them; it only increases it. They are our “Kinder, taiyereh kinder.”

Can ChatGPT Write A Better Sermon?


The Goldsmith, Old Testament series, gouache on board, 8 3/8 × 4 1/2 in. (21.3 × 11.4 cm), circa

1896–1902 by James Jacques Joseph Tissot (French 1836-1902)

When ChatGPT was first unveiled, the public reaction was a mixture of fascination and trepidation. Some authors even wondered whether this was the moment when computers become self-aware; perhaps the science fiction nightmare of Skynet taking over is just around the corner. Other, more mundane worries cropped up; some teachers were concerned that their students would turn to ChatGPT to write academic papers.


These worries turned out to be false alarms. ChatGPT has no native intelligence of its own; it is simply a brilliant mimic. Much like the complete-a-sentence tool on emails and word processors, ChatGPT guesses the answer based on how similar questions were answered elsewhere on the internet. But it can also be wildly inaccurate, and at times will make up answers that have no basis in fact; it can even get basic math wrong. ChatGPT is an exceptional imitator.


But writing sermons is one area in which ChatGPT seems to excel. Several rabbis and ministers have posted ChatGPT sermons; one online headline blared “ChatGPT is coming for religion and lazy pastors might use it to write their sermons.” The article quotes Rabbi Joshua Franklin, who told his congregation, after sharing a sermon written entirely by ChatGPT, “I’m deathly afraid…I thought truck drivers were going to go long before the rabbi, in terms of losing our positions to artificial intelligence.” And the question is: can ChatGPT write a better sermon?


I think we are looking at this the wrong way. If Chat GPT can write a sermon purely based on mimicry, the real question is: Why can't Rabbis write a better sermon than ChatGPT?


ChatGPT knows how to reproduce predictable sermonic platitudes, and is programmed to do so. The real issue is the all too frequent color-by-numbers sermons that are easy to imitate.


Repetition is not a flaw; it is critical to repeat fundamental messages over and over again. Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto, at the beginning of his classic text The Path of the Just, declares that I have composed this work not to teach people what they do not know, but to remind them of what they already know and which is very familiar to them. Important lessons need to be emphasized. When people tell me that my sermon “is preaching to the choir,” I have a standard response: Sometimes the choir needs a sermon too.


But this should not be an excuse for a lack of creativity. There are profound insights into the most basic of ethical concepts. Superficiality actually betrays a lack of enthusiasm for the very message being conveyed.


Creativity is a foundational Jewish value. In our Torah reading, God calls upon Betzalel to oversee the construction of the Mishkan, the first Sanctuary in the desert. He is presented in a dramatic fashion: “See, I have called by name Betzalel the son of Uri, the son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah. And I have filled him with the spirit of God, in wisdom, in understanding, in knowledge, and in all manner of workmanship.” (Exodus 31:2-3)


The appointment, and the phrase “called by name,” pique the interest of many commentaries. One passage in the Midrash wonders why God didn't ask Moses to perform this task. Others seek to understand what these words mean, and in what way Betzalel’s ability is unique.


Most of these interpretations point to the same idea: Creativity is transcendent. The Ramban explains that what made Betzalel unique is that he was raised as a slave in Egypt, where the Jews had been crushed under the work in mortar and in brick, and had acquired no knowledge of how to work with silver and gold, and the cutting of precious stones… It was thus a wonder that there was to be found amongst them such a great wise-hearted man,.. a craftsman, an embroiderer, and a weaver…..And even those who know them and are used to doing them, if their hands are continually engaged in [work with] lime and mud, lose the ability to do with them such artistic and delicate work. A slave should not know how to be a craftsman. Betzalel’s creativity is the product of a soul that refused to be crushed, and his artistry is an expression of inner freedom; and that creativity can belong to anyone who is truly inspired.


Another Midrash explains that Betzalel understood the very secret of God's creation. This understanding hints at how significant creativity is in Judaism.


Science values creativity because it opens new vistas of understanding; but one would imagine that Judaism, which is based on tradition, would be hostile to creativity. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, in the second section of Halakhic Man, argues the opposite is true. Echoing the Midrash about Betzalel, he explains that man is meant to emulate God; and if God is a creator, man must be a creator as well. Rabbi Soloveitchik explains that much of one’s religious experience, including repentance, prophecy, and a personal relationship with God, depend on a person's creativity. Self-development is a creative act, one which reinterprets the past and reimagines the future, and the willingness to innovate is fundamental to spiritual growth. To Rabbi Soloveitchik, creativity is a fundamental value of Judaism, one which it shares with the scientific world.


Creativity requires independence, insight, and imagination, all abilities that ChatGPT lacks. But ChatGPT is not alone in pushing platitudes and humbug; many humans do so as well. If we find that our own opinions sound a lot like ChatGPT, that is not a flaw in it; rather, it is the product of our own failings. Like a parrot, ChatGPT forces us to hear what we actually sound like.


Parallel to the development of smarter computers is the dumbing of humanity. Ideas have to be crunched into predigested social media slogans; they are then repeated without nuance. The polarization in American politics is not just a sociological phenomenon; it is an intellectual transformation, where people no longer think critically, and no longer care to have independent views. Platitudes rule the day.


In the last two centuries, Jews have had remarkable success in the world of science. Norman Lebrecht, in his book Genius and Anxiety, examines how this happened. In the introduction, he tells a story about the students in an elite Lithuanian Yeshiva that leave every week to go watch the local soccer match. The head of the Yeshiva asks them why they were missing from their studies. The students explain that they are soccer fans, and love watching the game. The rabbi decides to learn what it is that his students are so enthusiastic about, so he accompanies them to a soccer game. After watching intently for the first half, the rabbi turns to the students and says: “I have solved your problem.” “How so”, his students ask. “Just give one ball to each team and they won't have anything left to fight over.”


This might be a joke, but it betrays profound brilliance. Instead of simply following the game, the rabbi was thinking about how he could make it better. Creativity is an obligation on all those created in the image of God; we, too, can improve what is flawed and failed. And that has been part of Jewish culture, going all the way back to Betzalel.

Friday, March 03, 2023

Living with Uncertainty


The Execution of Vincent Fettmilch in 1616, 17th Century, Artist Unknown

Purim is a perennial holiday. The Encyclopedia Judaica lists nearly 100 different local holidays called Purim Sheni (Second Purim), that celebrate the miraculous rescue of that community’s Jews. Purim was observed well beyond the 14th and 15th of Adar; and one gets the impression that in the diaspora, Jews saw their entire lives from the perspective of Purim. 


Cairo’s Jews held a Purim Sheni in commemoration of events that took place in 1524, when the local governor, Ahmad Shaitan Pasha, rebelled against the Sultan Solemain. The head of the mint, Abraham Kastro, was a Jew and he refused to mint currency in Ahmad Shaitan’s name. Imprisonments of Jews followed, and Ahmad put in place a plan to massacre the Jewish community and plunder their belongings. Just in time, Shaitan was attacked in the bathhouse by his own officers, and after fleeing, was caught and executed. The community embraced this as their own Purim story, and the Megillat Purim Mitzraim declares:  


The Jews, therefore, who dwell in Cairo ordained and took upon themselves, and upon their children, and upon all who join themselves to them, to fast on the twenty-seventh day of the month of Adar, and to read this scroll on the twenty-eighth day of it, and to make it a day of feasting and rejoicing. 


A similar Purim Sheni was held in Frankfurt. It was called called “Purim Vinz,” named after the villain, Vincenz Fettmilch, a grocer who led a local uprising. On August 22, 1614, Fettmilch incited a mob to attack and loot the Jewish Quarter; two Jews were murdered. The entire Jewish community, nearly 2,000 people, was expelled from Frankfurt. On February 28, 1616, the Emperor of the Holy Roman Empire, Matthias, arrested Fettmilch and executed him; on the same day, the exiled Jews were led back into Frankfurt by imperial soldiers. Yoseph Norlingen, the rabbi of the community and the author of Yoseph Ometz, decreed that the 20th of Adar would be a local Purim, and like Purim, be preceded by a fast day on the 19th of Adar. 


Not everyone agreed with the practice of local Purims. Rabbi Hezekiah da Silva, the 17th-century author of the Pri Chadash, opposed the practice of local Purims and maintained that the ability to declare new holidays stopped after the destruction of the Temple. But the consensus opinion was to meticulously observe these fast days and holidays. Rabbi Moshe Sofer, who was raised in Frankfurt, writes that he, and his teacher Rabbi Nathan Adler, would continue to observe Purim Vinz well after they moved away from Frankfurt. 


The proliferation of local Purims raises a question: why were they called Purim? Why weren’t these holidays given a new name? Yosef Hayim Yerushalmi in Zakhor: Jewish History and Jewish Memory theorizes it is driven by “a resistance to novelty in history”; for medieval Jews, the present was a repetition of the past, and both were one and the same. Calling a local miracle “Purim” was a way for Jewish communities to connect their current events to sacred history. 


However, the insistence that these local Purims include a “Fast of Esther” and a reading of the Megillah, essentially a full recreation of the Purim ritual, tells us something about their view of Purim as well. Yes, they believed that history repeats itself, over and over. But they didn’t make second Passovers or Second Hanukahs. They believed that Purim uniquely reflected their experience in the diaspora more than any other historical event.  


Purim is an incomplete holiday. There is no Hallel on Purim; the Talmud explains that this is because “we are still the slaves of Ahasuerus.” (Megillah 14a) Rav Amram Gaon ruled to recite the Tachanun prayer, which is ordinarily omitted on other holidays, on Purim. This would seem to indicate that Purim is not a full holiday. 


Rabbi Joseph Ber Soloveitchik explains that this is because "what happened on Purim was not of a permanent nature. They were saved, of course. However, no one could guarantee that the next day the same story would not repeat itself. That is why there is no Hallel." In another essay, he points out that the very name Purim, lots, is based on Haman’s lottery to choose a date for the annihilation of the Jews; and he sees this choice of name as emphasizing the random nature of history. He explains, “thus, the name Purim expresses the erratic capriciousness of events. It alerts the Jew to the sudden turns of fortune, lurking dangers, the fickleness of life, even as the lot itself seems to operate through blind chance.” To Rabbi Soloveitchik, Purim has tragic undertones; the triumph of Purim is incomplete. Another Haman can arise at any time; and not in every generation does a miracle occur.   


Rabbi Soloveitchik is correct in pointing out how Purim is incomplete; but I would argue that is not unfortunate. In fact, the very incompleteness of the Purim redemption is what makes it so important, and what inspires so many Purim Shenis. 


There is a strange passage in the Talmud (Megillah 7b) “A person is obligated to become intoxicated on Purim until the point that they do not know the difference between ‘cursed is Haman’ and ‘blessed is Mordecai.'” Leaving aside whether this should be one’s practice on Purim, (many rabbinic authorities strongly condemn the practice of excessive drinking,) the text itself is paradoxical: it says one should celebrate to the point that they forget why they are celebrating! Amnesia is the very goal of the Purim celebration. 


But forgetfulness has its virtues. Purim teaches us that we can’t rely on the successes of the past; we will need to confront Haman and Amalek once again, the very next day. We must leave behind today’s celebration and confront tomorrow’s challenges. 


Purim is an etch-a-sketch redemption; we see its beauty, only to watch it disappear. Another crisis arises, and we must draw up another solution. There was one Purim in Persia; but there will be other Purims everywhere, and in every era. 


Humans abhor uncertainty; we are constantly in search of stability. Purim reminds us that no matter what, life remains a lottery. And just like there was a crisis yesterday, there will be a crisis today, and there will be another crisis tomorrow. Instead of hiding away in an imaginary palace, we need to take control of our destiny.  


We must accept, and even embrace, the uncertain life. This is not a tragedy; it is reality. The very purpose of Purim is to encourage others to follow in the footsteps of Mordechai and Esther, and show courage and determination in the face of uncertainty.  


This is a forgotten skill. When life is comfortable, courage gets lost. Even the smallest threat can send ten of thousands into a panic, taking cover from a worry that their great-grandparents would have laughed at.  


A few years ago, I shared a dinner with Yiftach Reicher Atir, a retired Israeli General who had participated in Operation Entebbe. At the time he was a young officer in a Sayeret Matkal unit. There were many memorable anecdotes shared that evening, but one, in particular, stands out. During the dinner, someone asked him: “What happened the day after you got back?” The expectation was that these soldiers must have had a celebration, a whirlwind of receptions in their honor. But that wasn’t what happened. Atir explained that all the soldiers came back to the base the next morning, and they “had another commander, and another mission.” 


“Another commander, another mission.” There is no time to relax because the task is not yet complete. 


This is the very lesson of Purim. No triumph is final. Uncertainty is the only thing in life you can truly count on. Every single day, we have a new challenge; and we must always undertake that new mission with courage and determination.  


And if we continue to do so, we will have the opportunity to celebrate many a Purim in the future.

Friday, February 24, 2023

Portable: The Story Of Jewish Survival


The Erection of the Tabernacle and the Sacred Vessels, as in Exodus 40:17–19;

from the 1728 Figures de la Bible

The phrase is memorable because it is apt: “portable homeland.” In a somewhat rambling essay entitled “Confessions,” Heinrich Heine describes how the Jews…preserved the Bible from the great conflagration of the sacred temple, and all through the middle ages carried it about with them like a portable homeland… Heine observes that the Torah became a refuge for the Jews during exile. They found comfort inside a virtual reality, an otherworldly homeland floating in a sea of words.


Portable is the story of Parshat Terumah. The Mishkan, the first sanctuary of the Jewish people, was meant to be disassembled, transported, and reassembled at each stop during their 40-year journey in the desert. After the Jews settled in the land of Israel, a permanent Temple was built in Jerusalem, which became the spiritual and national center of the Jews. But after the Temple was destroyed, the Jews faced a profound challenge: How would they be able to maintain their religious identity without the Temple? Our Parsha hints at the solution; every sanctuary, even the Temple, can be portable, just like the very first sanctuary in the desert.


The midrashic phrase “this verse demands to be read poetically” describes an unusual verse in this week’s Torah reading. We are told how the Ark of the Covenant (which will carry the Luchot, the tablets inscribed with the Ten Commandments), is to be constructed. Just like several other furnishings in the Mishkan, the Ark is meant to have poles that slide into the sides, to enable it to be carried from place to place. But then there is a puzzling commandment, which pertains only to the Ark: “The poles shall remain in the rings of the ark: they shall not be removed from it.” (Exodus 25:15). This is strange. Why leave the poles in permanently? And why is this rule only for the Ark?


Several commentaries explain this strange command by focusing on how remote and holy the Ark was; it was kept in the Holy of Holies, a room visited only once a year, and only by the High Priest. Bekhor Shor suggests the following. One would remove the poles from the other furnishings to create more space for people to walk by inside the sanctuary. But for the Ark, which was in the Holy of Holies, that was unnecessary; nobody ever walked near it. Ralbag offers a different explanation. He says the poles weren’t allowed to be removed in order to prevent the possibility that someone might hold the Ark while removing the poles; that touch would be disrespectful to the Ark.


Other commentaries read this prohibition as symbolic. The Luchot inside the Ark represent the Torah; and the Meshech Chochmah explains that the poles symbolize the financial supporters of Yeshivot, who “hold up” these Torah institutions. The lesson is that the dedication of philanthropists is inseparable from the Torah studied at these Yeshivot; they are two parts of one whole.


Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch offers an explanation that is reminiscent of Heine’s remark. He also focuses on the Ark as a symbol of the Torah, and says: The command that the poles must never be removed from the Ark establishes from the outset, and for all time to come, the truth that this Torah and its mission are not confined to the soil on which the sanctuary and the Temple once stood. Like the Ark, the Torah must be ever-ready, at a moment's notice, for any journey. Even in exile, the portable homeland is always with us, ensuring the continuation of the Jewish people.


This lesson became critical after the destruction of the Temple when rabbinic leadership focused on repairing the spiritual breach. Some despaired; others recognized that Judaism had to carry on. When Rabbi Joshua exclaimed that with the destruction of the Temple, there was no longer any way to find atonement for one’s sins, his teacher, Rabbi Yochanan ben Zakai said to him: “My son, don’t be upset. There is another atonement that is just as good: acts of kindness.” (Avot deRabbi Natan 5.) The synagogue became a “miniature sanctuary,” and prayer became a replacement for sacrifice; the Hebrew names for the furnishings of the synagogue are even borrowed from the Temple: Aron, Shulchan, Parochet, Ner Tamid. And the home too became a domestic Temple. The Talmud (Berakhot 55a) remarks: “When the Temple was standing, the altar (and sacrifices) atoned for a person, but now that the Temple is destroyed, a person’s table brings atonement for them (by being a place where one invites the poor and needy).” The home and synagogue became the new centers of Jewish worship.


After the destruction, the rabbis found a way to rebuild a broken people. Replacements were found for what had been lost; Jewish life would still thrive even after exile and destruction. The locus of Judaism moved from Israel to the Diaspora, and from the Temple to the synagogue and home. Rabbinic Judaism was a brilliant reinvention, a way to enable the soul of the Torah to live on even after upheaval and displacement.


At the same time, the rabbis made certain to retain the connection to the Temple and the Land of Israel. Tisha B’Av mourns the destruction and is filled with prayers for a return to the land. The Chanukah candles commemorate the Menorah in the Temple, and the holiday itself celebrates the rededication of the Temple. On Pesach and Yom Kippur, holidays in which the Temple service once played a central role, we end by declaring “next year in Jerusalem.”


The Torah served as both a replacement for, and a reminder of, what had been lost and destroyed. Immersed in the Torah, the Jews could retain their religious identity in the Diaspora; imbued with hope of returning home, they could endure the bitterness of exile. This unique combination is the recipe for a portable homeland; and with it, Jews could survive far into the west, even while their hearts remained in the east.


Roger Kamenetz, in his book The Jew in the Lotus, describes meetings that the Dalai Lama held with American Jewish leaders after receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1989. Worried that Tibetan culture will disappear in exile, he turned to these Jewish leaders and asked: “Tell me your secret…the secret of Jewish survival.” He understood that the Jews had managed to survive two millennia of wandering; as Kamenetz puts it, “In the Dalai Lamas’s eyes, and in the eyes of many Tibetans, the Jews are survival experts.”


The answer to his question can be found in one phrase: portable homeland. Wherever Jews went, they carried the Torah with them. They lived in a virtual reality filled with learning and spirituality, hopes and dreams.


Diaspora should have been the end of the Jewish people; instead, it was their finest hour, an era characterized by a heroic display of tenacity and determination. All this was possible because of their portable homeland.

Friday, February 17, 2023

There Must Be Justice in the World


"An eye for an eye." Critics cite this Biblical punishment to indict Judaism for being an unforgiving, legalistic religion. This verse has become theological shorthand for a rules-obsessed religious outlook that is heartless and harsh. In many instances, this critique morphs into anti-Semitism; when Shakespeare’s Shylock craves a pound of flesh, he echoes centuries of anti-Jewish polemics about “an eye for an eye.” And to this day, critics of Israel invoke “an eye for an eye” to describe Israeli actions, a trope inextricably intertwined with antisemitic slanders of the past. 


The roots of this allegation are found in the New Testament, in the Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus teaches his disciples that they should reject “an eye for an eye”: You have heard the law that says the punishment must match the injury: ‘An eye for an eye, and a tooth for a tooth.’ But I say, do not resist an evil person! If someone slaps you on the right cheek, offer the other cheek also. …. Love your enemies, bless them that curse you, do good to them that hate you, and pray for them which despitefully use you, and persecute you… In this passage, the New Testament roundly rejects an eye for an eye; but at the same time, it shackles Judaism to this barbaric practice. 


But that is not what Judaism teaches. Jewish interpreters are adamant in declaring that “an eye for an eye” is not meant to be understood literally. The Talmud offers half a dozen arguments to prove that the text must mean monetary compensation; Benno Jacob argues, that by definition, the Hebrew word "tachat" in this verse can only mean an actual repayment. On a practical level, it would seem impossible to implement the punishment of “an eye for an eye” in a fair manner; removing an eye, (certainly, in ancient times,) would result in a disproportionate injury, and could even end up killing the accused.  


One could stop the discussion here by saying that in practical terms, “an eye for an eye” is essentially fiction. But there are lessons to be learned from the literal interpretation of the text as well. How one understands “an eye for an eye” relates to a much larger question: what is justice? 


For many Christian readers, the Sermon on the Mount teaches that one must pursue the exact opposite path from “an eye for an eye.” Pope Francis, in a 2013 sermon, explains that this is a rejection of human conceptions of justice: 


“If we live according to the law of “an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth”, we will never escape from the spiral of evil. The evil one is clever, and deludes us into thinking that with our human justice we can save ourselves and save the world! In reality, only the justice of God can save us!” 


To do good to them that hate you is the very path to redemption; and that requires an emphasis on transforming criminals.  


Without question, any discussion of crime and punishment must consider the importance of rehabilitation. As the Talmud (Berakhot 10a) puts it, Judaism also hopes to uproot sins and improve sinners. To this end, reformers endeavored to turn prisons into penitentiaries, places where criminals would repent from their crimes. Educational and work opportunities were provided to prisoners to help them rebuild their lives, and over the years, some excellent programs have found significant success. Love does make a difference, and encourages people to change. But when taken to an extreme, the path of love fails; replacing the local police force with a cadre of social workers will only lead to more crime. Love can never replace justice. 


For this reason, “an eye for an eye” deserves a second look. 


There are many rabbinic thinkers, including Maimonides in the Guide for the Perplexed, that find lessons in the literal meaning of “an eye for an eye.” Rabbi Moise Tedeschi, in his Hoil Moshe, explains that “an eye for an eye” was meant to be understood literally during Israel's early history. The former slaves struggled to build a civil society, and it was a time of chaos; harsh punishment was necessary to instill a sense of law and order. It is only later, at a time of greater stability, that “an eye for an eye” could be interpreted as a monetary payment. In other words, “an eye for an eye” was a type of martial law, and only intended for a short period of history. 


This interpretation highlights the importance of deterrence. Crimes must be punished as a warning to others; without severe punishments, society will dissolve into anarchy. At times, extreme measures are necessary for the greater good, even if they are as brutal as “an eye for an eye.” 


But the most significant lesson of “an eye for an eye” is that punishment is part of the pursuit of justice; and in the case of a bloody assault, retribution is required. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno writes that “an eye for an eye” is what ought to be the judgment against the offender, if we were to apply the principle of the punishment fitting the crime in all its severity. There is a profound injustice in allowing someone who assaulted his neighbor to pay his way out of the crime. Emanuel Levinas points out, this justice based on peace and kindness… leaves the way open for the rich! They can easily pay for the broken teeth, the gouged-out eyes, and the fractured limbs left around them. The world remains a comfortable place for the strong,... Yes, eye for eye. Neither all eternity, nor all the money in the world, can heal the outrage done to man. It is a disfigurement or wound that bleeds for all time…  


“An eye for an eye” is, in the end, a theoretical proposal. Ultimately, all physical punishments were abandoned and considered cruel; they were replaced with incarceration, which matches the severity of corporal punishment without inflicting any physical pain. But the lesson of “an eye for an eye” still remains; justice demands that evildoers be punished, and a society that indulges criminals is itself criminal. When writing about how it is critical for a sovereign to pursue “the equalization of punishment with the crime,” Immanuel Kant explains: 


..(Punishment) ought to be done in order that every one may realize the desert of his deeds, and that blood guiltiness may not remain upon the people; for otherwise they might all be regarded as participators in the murder…. 


It is easy to diminish justice; it is the gruff, off-putting, hard-edged counterpart of love. But love doesn’t conquer all; you need to have order and civility first in order for love to flourish. And that is impossible without justice. 


Lenn Evan Goodman begins his book On Justice with the following anecdote. As a child in Los Angeles, he had a Hebrew school teacher, Dr. Lubliner, who, when he rolled up his sleeves on hot days, exposed a pale blue tattooed number on his forearm. Dr. Lubliner was a man of great dignity and learning. He had much to teach, but almost never spoke about the Holocaust.  But one time, in a tangentially connected discussion, Dr. Lubliner interjected: "I believe there's justice in the world…there must be justice." 


Goodman adds that another time he arrived at Hebrew school early, and saw Dr. Lubliner silently saying the Mincha prayer. At that moment Goodman thought to himself: "if a man like that can believe in God, so can I." 


Love may be transcendent, but that is not enough on its own. To believe in God is to believe in the possibility of ending the rule of evil, and that “all wickedness will vanish like smoke.”  


There must be justice in the world too.