Thursday, December 10, 2009

The Jar is One Eighth Full: The Case for Jewish Optimism

I’m an Orthodox Rabbi, and I’m an optimist.

Optimism is out of place in the Jewish community. Every year, Jews are chronologically further removed from the events that founded the Jewish tradition, and there’s a foreboding sense that as time goes on, Jews are becoming progressively removed from their spiritual traditions as well. Indeed, one could say that contemporary assimilation is predicted by the theological concept of “Yeridat Hadorot”, “The Decline of Generations”, which affirms that every generation is spiritually inferior to the previous one. Jewish law assumes that contemporary Jews cannot understand religious texts as profoundly as previous generations, and even the ability to concentrate during prayer has been lost. Yeridat Hadorot can leave Orthodox Jews in particular with the melancholy feeling that we have missed the boat historically, that the golden age of Judaism occurred generations ago.

Historically, the 20th century was a challenging time for Jews. The enormous destruction caused by the Holocaust has left many Jews feeling like orphans in history, torn away from a culture that embodied authentic Jewish practice. And the unprecedented tranquility that Jews have experienced in the last 60 years has ironically had an unexpected negative impact. Jews were always prepared for the challenges of discrimination and anti-Semitism; but we have been woefully unprepared for the challenges of prosperity. Affluence has brought with it a soul numbing materialism that leaves many people uninterested in religious values and spiritual depth. Acceptance into mainstream society has enabled Jews to comfortably work with, live with, and marry with non-Jews. Jews are well accepted into all strata of American society, to the point that the engagement of President Clinton’s daughter to a Jew went unremarked in the national press. Considering the powerful forces for assimilation, it’s easy to imagine the gradual disappearance of the Jewish people. Indeed, in one lecture, Rav Joseph B. Soloveitchik related that worries about assimilation literally kept him up at night. Jewish optimism seems impossible; there are just too many things for a Jew to worry about.

But Jewish pessimism is costly; worrying too much leads to anger, distrust and paranoia. Paranoia makes it impossible to see the world clearly; concerns about anti-Semitism become inflated, and a President who is less supportive of Israel than his predecessor is immediately branded an anti-Zionist, and his Jewish aides branded self-hating Jews. In this culture of pessimism, disagreements between Jews become exaggerated, and political and ideological rivals are no longer opponents, but rather enemies. (Yitzchak Rabin’s assassination is the prime example of this, but the needless hatred that led to his assassination can still be found today in many groups on both the left and the right). In the religious realm, every choice is endowed with excessive significance, to the point that Jews who agree 98 percent of the time with each other consider each other irreconcilable foes, all because of an ideological nuance. Rav Naftali Tzvi Berlin astutely predicted that healthy criticism can morph into unhealthy condemnation, and create a paranoid atmosphere where anyone to one’s right or left is hated for their fanaticism or heterodoxy.

What we all need to remember is that the most critical message of Chanukah is optimism. The iconic ritual of the Menorah reminds us that we must consider the possibilities even one measly jar of oil holds; miracles are possible, if you make the effort. And we light the Menorah on the darkest, coldest nights of the year to show that even one candle can shine bright with the spirit of redemption, and to symbolize that even a few ill prepared people can take on a powerful army and change the course of Jewish history.

There many areas that Jews can be optimistic about today. The State of Israel remains a miracle 61 years later, and some of her most devoted supporters are non-Jews. Young Jews still exhibit remarkable idealism and devotion to higher ideals; and many Jewish communities are thriving, and filled with passion. And today, Jews have remarkable economic resources, and Jewish philanthropies raise billions of dollars a year. The Jewish people have come a long way in the last sixty years.

On Chanukah, it’s time for some Jewish optimism. It’s time for Jews to stop looking for the worst in their fellow Jews. And it’s time to celebrate the possibilities of the Jewish future, because when it comes to Jewish destiny, the jar is never seven eighths empty, it’s always one eighth full.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Everyday Angels
What is an angel? Mentioned throughout Jewish literature from the Bible onward, the existence of angels is both universally accepted and vaguely understood. Lurking in the netherworld between heaven and earth, the precise nature of angels is the subject of a fair amount of controversy. Are they independent beings, or manifestations of God? Do they have a physical image? Can they choose their actions, and perhaps even sin? Are they jealous of human beings? Is it acceptable to pray to angels?

Many of these questions are thrashed out in debates between mystics and rationalists, debates that are familiar territory to anyone who has studied medieval Jewish philosophy. On one side, there are philosophers who reduce the nature of angels to the philosophical minimum, because a more robust depiction of angels would be a threat to pure monotheism. To rationalists, angels, as beings that can be prayed to and can intercede for man, contradict the idea that the Bible emphasizes that “the LORD is God in heaven above, and upon the earth beneath: there is none else.” (Deut. 4:40). On the other hand, mystics see angels as an element within a varied and complex spiritual world that inhabits the space between God above and man below; angels are but one of a host of spiritual creatures in the four worlds that span from God to the physical world. The specific nature of angels is vague, a topic that is debated and debatable.

The very Hebrew word for angel is ambiguous. The word employed for angel, “Malach”, literally means “messenger”; the word “malach” can refer equally well to the young man carrying a package by bicycle from one downtown office to another, or the winged spirit carrying a message from God to man. Indeed, at several points in the biblical narrative, commentaries are unsure if the word “malach” refers to an angel, or just a flesh and blood messenger! I would argue that this ambiguity is no coincidence; the Torah intentionally chose to leave the identity of angels murky, to impart an important lesson. The Torah wants us to shift our gaze, and instead of searching for winged angels above, open our eyes to the everyday angels below.

In order to find “everyday angels”, one must appreciate the fact that God winks at man from time to time. “God has many messengers”, and sometimes the message is for us. Indeed, some of the Rabbis of the Talmud would listen to schoolchildren memorizing the Bible, certain that the verse the child was reciting contained a hidden message. And in everyday life, there are everyday angels, on a divine mission to make us stronger by encouraging us, protecting us, and even wrestling with us.

Sometimes, even rationalists like me can feel the presence of angels. My wife Lisa and I had struggled to have children into the third year of our marriage. One Friday night, after a long week, we chose to have dinner at home alone. As we were making Kiddush, we heard a knock on the door. Outside was a young Chassidic man with his very pregnant wife. They had been driving from Crown Heights to Monsey, but got stuck in traffic and had to get off the highway before Shabbat began. After finding their way to the Reform Synagogue, they ran into the Conservative Rabbi, who wisely directed them to our home, the house of the Orthodox Rabbi, over a mile away. (I guess the Mitzvah of welcoming guests brings all Jews together.). We had not prepared for guests, but managed to make them feel comfortable, and we shared our home and our food with our unexpected visitors. Lisa and I felt as if taking in guests that week was our special obligation; after all, that Shabbat was the Parsha of Vayera, where Abraham and Sarah show exceptional hospitality to three strangers who come by their tent.

Now it turns out that the three strangers who visit Abraham and Sarah are actually angels. It also turns out that they are coming to tell the old couple that they will finally have a child.

Abraham and Sarah have a son one year later. And, as it turns out, after inviting in our unexpected pregnant guests, Lisa and I had twin boys ten months later.

This young husband and wife weren’t angels; but there’s no doubt in our minds that they were malachim, messengers from God. They came bearing good tidings, and the message that it’s important not just to fill our homes with children, but also to open our homes to guests.

They were everyday angels carrying an extraordinary message.