Thursday, October 28, 2021

How to Choose a Spouse


In 15th century Italy, a Jewish father and son got into an argument regarding who the son should marry. The father pressured his son to take an oath that he would never choose a wife without his father's permission; now, questions arose about the validity of the oath. This query was posed to the Maharik, Rabbi Joseph Colon Trabotto, the preeminent scholar of Italian Jewry. In his response, the Maharik tackled a related issue: Does the obligation to honor one’s father and mother extend to the choice of a spouse? He responded that the son can ignore his parents’ wishes, and marry whomever he chooses.  The Maharik offers a fascinating argument for this ruling. The Talmud rules that a child should not obey a parental request to violate the Torah. Since marriage is a mitzvah, and marriage requires mutual attraction, the son should marry someone of his own choosing. Because attraction is critical to marriage, the father's rejection of his son’s chosen spouse runs contrary to the mitzvah of marriage.

The Maharik’s conclusion was not obvious to other rabbis. Rav Tzemach Gaon, the leader of Babylonian Jewry in the late 9th century, wrote that it was immodest for a young woman to offer her opinion about whom to marry, and she should leave the choice to her father. The Sefer Chasidim of 12th century Germany pronounced that a son who doesn’t listen to his father’s voice regarding marriage is a sinner. However, the rabbinic consensus eventually followed the Maharik, who is cited by Rabbi Moshe Isserles in his glosses to the Shulchan Aruch.

Nearly a century after the Maharik, Rabbi Elijah Capsali of Crete amplified this ruling, and made it clear that romantic love is a Jewish value. He argued that forcing a young man to marry someone he doesn't love only creates anger and bitterness in the home, which is contrary to the Torah. The son's love must be respected, and he quotes in this connection a verse from the Song of Songs, "Vast floods cannot quench love, nor rivers drown it”; love is critical to marriage.  Jeffrey Woolf, in his analysis of Capsali's responsa, explains that its emphasis on romantic love contains "Renaissance echoes.” But while this is true, Capsali made a persuasive case that romantic love is very much a part of the Jewish tradition, beginning with the Bible. 

Our Torah reading offers a very different model for choosing a spouse: the arranged marriage.  Avraham is in need of a wife for his son Yitzchak, and dispatched his servant Eliezer to Aram Naharayim, his birthplace, to find an appropriate match. Eliezer returned with Rivka; and without a prior meeting, Yitzchak and Rivka marry. Remarkably, this marriage of two strangers flourished, and Yitzchak and Rivka grew to love each other.

Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch saw this arranged marriage as a superior model of true love. In his commentary to the Parsha, he contrasted this marriage with romantic love, and wrote that “... Jewish marriages are contracted not on the basis of passion, but on the strength of reason and judgment. Parents and relatives consider whether the two young people are suited to each other; therefore, their love increases as they come to know each other better. Most other marriages are made on the basis of what they call love. But... we immediately see the vast gulf between the love of the partners before marriage and what happens afterward ... how different (marriage is) from what the two partners had imagined beforehand. This sort of love is blind; each step into the future brings new disillusionment. Not so of Jewish marriage; here the wedding is not the culmination, but only the beginning of true love." To Hirsch, what mattered most in a marriage was compatibility and commitment; love is not necessary at the outset. Romance can even be a hindrance; the unrealistic dreams of star struck lovers may actually undermine their future marital happiness. And Hirsch's positive view of arranged marriage has some basis in experience; recent studies on couples in arranged marriages have shown that they have similar or greater levels of marital satisfaction as couples in romantic marriages.

The method by which one chooses a spouse is less significant than we might imagine; there are models of both romantic and arranged marriages in the Torah. But there is another issue that the Parsha highlights, which is far more significant: What are we choosing when we choose a spouse?

Many people believe that we are fated to marry a particular person. There is a folk belief in a bashert, a person that God intended to be your spouse. This idea is based on a passage in the Talmud, which says that 40 days before a baby is born, a divine voice announces who the child will marry. A similar concept, called soulmates, has evolved in general society. It is based on a passage in Plato that says that man and woman were divided at the beginning of their creation, and that the two halves continue to search for each other until they are finally reunited. From this perspective, you are not actually choosing; you are experiencing a miracle when your bashert/soulmate is revealed to you.

Eliezer's actions in our Parsha can be interpreted as the search for Yitzchak's bashert.  Upon arriving in Aram Naharayim, Eliezer turned to God, and established a sign; he would ask for water at the well, and the young woman who offered the right response would be the one meant to be Yitzchak’s wife. Eliezer is asking God to choose Yitzchak's bashert.

Maimonides criticized both Eliezer and the concept of bashert. He wrote that Eliezer's actions constitute divination and would later be prohibited by the Torah. In the opinion of Maimonides, there's no difference between turning around when a black cat crosses your path and what Eliezer did; both are forbidden forms of superstition.

More significant is Maimonides' rejection of the concept of bashert; he explained that man always has free will to choose what is right or wrong, and marriage is no different than any other activity. A person can choose if they want to marry, and who they want to marry; none of it is preordained.

Maimonides is intuitively correct. It is never simple to get married; it is, as the Talmud remarks, as difficult as splitting the Red Sea. There are many wonderful people who search for their bashert for years on end, without success; and there are many others who are trapped in painful marriages. They know that bashert simply isn’t true; and telling them that marriage is divinely predestined only adds insult to injury.

The ideas of bashert and soulmates have another great weakness:  the myth of happily ever after. Finding the “right one” feels like a dream come true and a divine miracle; and once the presumed soulmate arrives, the future seems bright. The couple then expects that the rest of their lives will continue along the same path. When I meet with couples before their weddings, I introduce them to several excellent research-based marriage education programs, and talk to them about the importance of building skills that will strengthen their relationship for the long term. But oftentimes, their eyes glaze over; they are so happy, so in love, they can’t imagine that anything will ever change. It is easy to believe that one has a match made in heaven, with no additional assembly required.

Rashi and Rabbi Yoseph Bechor Shor differ with Maimonides, and offer a very different interpretation of Eliezer’s plan. Their interpretation offers a powerful insight into how to choose a spouse. Eliezer was not searching for a bashert, a divinely ordained wife; he was simply looking for a young woman who was kind, who would give water to a stranger and his camels. While it might seem strange to choose a wife because of one act of kindness, it may be as good a way of choosing a spouse as any. Without kindness there is no love; but with kindness, even two strangers in an arranged marriage can learn to love each other. What you should choose when choosing a spouse is someone who can help you build a relationship, one act of kindness at a time.

Rav Chaskel of Kuzmir offers a further insight into Eliezer’s decision. The Midrash adds a fascinating detail about what happened at the well. He said that as Eliezer observed  Rivka, miraculously, the water of the well jumped into Rivka’s jar. Yet even though this occurred, Eliezer continued to wait, to see if Rivka will treat him with kindness. Rav Chaskel asked: Shouldn’t a miracle be evidence enough that she is the right one? Why wasn’t Rivka selected once the water jumped into her jar?

Rav Chaskel gives a sharp and illuminating response: “because one act of kindness is worth a thousand miracles.”

The same is true of love. Perhaps there is a bashert who is miraculously chosen for you. But Rav Chaskel’s lesson is about choosing a spouse; and he reminds us that one act of kindness is far more important than who is your bashert.

Wednesday, October 20, 2021

The Greatest Jewish Joke Ever

In 1893, Rabbi Hermann Adler, the Chief Rabbi of England, wrote an essay about Jewish humor for The Eclectic Magazine of Foreign Literature, Science and Art. He was responding to comments made by two prominent intellectuals, Ernest Renan and Thomas Carlyle, suggesting that Jews completely lack a sense of humor. (They probably were projecting a medieval caricature of the rigid Pharisees onto their Jewish contemporaries.) Rabbi Adler wrote a lengthy essay in response, in which he collected examples of Jewish humor from the Tanakh down to Moses Montefiore. Rabbi Adler himself had a sharp wit, and in his essay, he makes it clear that he took great pride in the Jewish sense of humor.

One might find it difficult to believe that anyone could accuse the Jews of being unfunny. Steve Allen, in his 1981 history of American humor “Funny People,” labeled comedy as a “Jewish cottage industry,” and observed that 80% of the comedians in the U.S. at that time were Jewish. The association of Jews with humor is so strong, that in the 2013 Pew study, 42% of American Jews responded that having a sense of humor was an essential part of what being Jewish means to them. (Of course, one wishes that contemporary Jews were as devoted to Shabbat as they are to sitcoms.) There are many, many books of Jewish humor, numerous studies analyzing Jewish humor, and multiple types of Jewish jokes. There are jokes about antisemites, foolish Jews and rabbis, off-color jokes and witty jokes, jokes about business, family and Judaism itself.

Jewish humor is not a religious tradition. In fact, rabbinic literature is ambivalent about comedy, and there are frequent condemnations of “leitzanut,” mockery, in ethical guidebooks. Many rabbis condemned the folk tradition of a “Purim Rav,” a comedian who would parody the local rabbi on Purim, mimicking the rabbi’s mannerisms and ridiculing his idiosyncrasies. Some rabbis found the lampooning they received on Purim difficult to take; there is a legend that Rabbi Shimon Sofer, the Chief Rabbi of Krakow, died right after Purim due to the grief caused by a particularly irreverent “Purim Rav.” At the same time, jokes are recognized as being a valuable psychological tool; the Talmud tells of one rabbi who would always tell jokes before he taught, to get the students to relax and focus. In another passage, Elijah comes from heaven to tell a local rabbi that two jesters in his neighborhood have an honored place in the world to come, because their jokes cheered up the depressed. Humor can certainly be a spiritual tool, but there is no commandment to be funny.

So why are Jews so funny? Sigmund Freud, in his 1905 essay “Jokes And Their Relation To The Unconscious,” devotes an unusual amount of space to Jewish jokes; it is clear that he believes Jewish humor is remarkable. In a time when Jews were extremely discreet in what they wrote about their compatriots, Freud features some unflattering jokes Jews would tell about themselves. He repeats a joke about Galitzianer Jews that pokes fun at their reputation for rarely taking baths:

“Two Jews met in the neighbourhood of the bathhouse. ‘Have you taken a bath?’ asked one of them. ‘What?’ asked the other in return, ‘is there one missing?'” (This is one of four different jokes about Jews and bathing that Freud repeats.)

Ruth Wisse, in her bookNo Joke: Making Jewish Humor,” points out that Freud’s contemporary Arthur Schnitzler criticized Freud for publishing these jokes, which Schnitzler said made Freud sound more antisemitic than antisemites. However, Freud was unconcerned, and saw these jokes as depicting a positive side to Jewish culture. He explains that these Jewish jokes aremeant to portray the democratic mode of thinking of Jews, which recognizes no distinction between lords and serfs, but also, alas, upsets discipline and co-operation.” 

Jews certainly know how to laugh at themselves, and to make fun of their failings. There is a joke about three Jews who are about to be executed by firing squad. The sergeant in charge asks each one whether he wants a blindfold. “Yes,” says the first Jew, in a resigned tone. “OK,” says the second Jew, in a quiet voice. “And what about you?” he enquires of the third Jew. “No,” says the third Jew, “I don't want your lousy blindfold,” followed by a few choice curses. The second Jew immediately leans over to him and whispers: "Listen, Moshe, don't make trouble. Take the blindfold. "

This joke is mercilessly self-critical and funny at the same time; but laughter helped Jews contend with a hostile environment, and cope during the most difficult of times. There was an entire genre of jokes created by Jews from the Soviet Union; and several books have been written about Jewish humor during the Holocaust. One would think that there are times and places where humor is impossible; but actually, that is where humor is most needed. Comedy is a refuge, a shelter for the heartbroken. One excellent example of this, from an obituary in Canadian newspaper, tells of a Holocaust survivor returning to visit the concentration camps: 

“When, in the 1980s, Celine returned to Theresienstadt with her husband Maximilien, they were stopped at the ticket counter. ‘Last time I was here,’ Celine told the ticket vendor, ‘I got in for free.’”

I had heard a similar anecdote about another survivor who returned to Auschwitz. At the ticket counter, he rolled up his sleeve, showed the number tattooed on his arm, and asked, “do I get an alumni discount?” Laughter offers ready relief for the persecuted.

Some Jewish jokes wield ridicule as a weapon. The Midrash tells the story of a young Avraham breaking his father’s idols, and then claiming that the largest idol was angry, and broke the others; this is pure satire, a joke about the silliness of paganism. (And the Talmud makes clear that one is entitled to mock paganism, even in an extreme fashion.) In response to antisemitism, Jews mocked their boorish and barbaric enemies. One example of this is the joke that Joseph Telushkin retells in his book “Jewish Humor”:

“During the Second World War, a southern matron calls up the local army base. ‘We would be honored,’ she tells the sergeant who takes her call, ‘to accommodate five soldiers at our Thanksgiving dinner.’ ‘That's very gracious of you, ma'am,’ the sergeant answers. ‘Just please make sure they're not Jews,’ the matron adds. ‘I understand, ma'am.’ Thanksgiving afternoon, the woman answers the front doorbell and is horrified to find five black soldiers standing in the doorway. ‘We're here for Thanksgiving dinner, ma'am,’ one of the soldiers says. ‘Bu ... bu ... but your sergeant has made a terrible mistake,’ the woman says. ‘Oh no, ma'am,’ the soldier answers. ‘Sergeant Greenberg never makes mistakes.’”

Mockery was a weapon, a way for Jews to belittle and diminish those who  mistreat them.

But there is no purer form of Jewish humor than the absurd. A classic example is a joke told by Leo Rosten in “The Joys of Yiddish.”

A man posed a riddle to his son: “What’s purple, hangs on the wall and whistles?”

When the son gave up, he answered: a herring.
“A herring?” his son said. “A herring isn’t purple.”
“Nu,” replied the father, “they painted the herring purple.”
“But hanging on a wall? How does a herring hang on a wall?”

“Aha! You nail the herring to the wall.”

“But a herring doesn’t whistle,” his son shouted.

“Nu, so it doesn’t whistle.”

This joke is actually a joke about jokes, a riddle that fails to add up; it absurdly ends up with a “nu” for a conclusion. And it is here where the Jewish love for humor begins. Let me explain why.

The name of the second Jewish patriarch is Yitzchak; the root word of his name is tzachak, which means laughter. In our Parsha, the root tzachak is employed several times; almost all are in relation to the birth, naming and raising of Yitzchak. They indicate the joy and shock Avraham and Sarah have when learning they will have a child in old age. The root word is also used when Lot tells his sons-in-law that their home city of Sodom is about to be destroyed. They do not believe him, for his words are “like a joke [kimitzacheik] in their eyes.”

The double reference to laughter highlights that both events are improbable to the point of being funny. And indeed they are. To an observer at the time, the possibility that a major city like Sodom will disappear, or that a childless, wandering, elderly couple will be the progenitors of a great civilization seems ludicrous. The funny thing is, this strange outcome is precisely what occurs; and it is here that the Jewish love for humor begins.

It is difficult to write a short article on Jewish humor; there are only so many jokes that you can tell, and so many others that have to be left out. But the greatest Jewish joke is ever-present: that am yisrael chai, that a small nation beat ridiculous odds time and time again. Just like the elderly couple Avraham and Sarah, Jews were expected to disappear; instead, they continue to thrive, year after year. Isn’t that laughably absurd?  Yes, it is; and that’s why the first Jewish child was named Yitzchak.


Thursday, October 07, 2021

Ordinary Greatness


Thomas Carlyle argued for the “great man” theory of history, that "the history of the world is but the biography of great men." The unique traits of great leaders allows them to transform everyone and everything around them, and change the course of history. And while the great man theory has lost favor in recent years, undoubtedly it is partially true. There are many historical figures that did change the world; for example, America would not be the same without Washington and Lincoln, and Israel would not exist without Herzl.

At first glance, the narrative of the Tanakh is also the biography of great men; most of the focus is given to larger than life individuals. Characters such as Avraham, Yoseph, Moshe, David and Shlomo take the center stage, and then direct the course of action. The abilities of these heroes is amplified in the Midrashim and other Rabbinic commentaries, leaving them with truly larger than life attributes. These great men are our heroes.

This focus on greatness has had a profound impact on Jewish culture, and has made greatness a life goal to be embraced. Many have taken the view that the entire educational system should be focused on developing the elite students, even if it means abandoning the needs of the other students. Rav Eliyahu Dessler, when contrasting the Lithuanian Yeshiva system with the educational system of early-20th-century German orthodoxy, wrote that the goal of the Lithuanian system is to create great scholars, even if it means under-serving the other students. He based his view on a Midrash that says “one thousand students enter to study Bible and only one comes out as a great Talmud scholar.”

This aspiration for greatness affects the perspective of parents as well. Maimonides makes a telling remark when he writes that a person “should set his heart to have a son who perhaps will be a wise and great man in Israel.”

This is the “great man” theory of child rearing, in which our expectations for our children are geared to greatness. David Bader highlights this in a comic Haiku entitled the “Jewish Mother’s Lament”:

Is one Nobel Prize
so much to ask from a child
after all I've done?”

For better or for worse, the Jewish community has put the “great man” theory into practice.

But there are other models of a proper life. Noach, the title character of our Parsha, is a perfect example of ordinary greatness. The Torah itself is unclear on how to describe Noach. He is considered worthy of being saved because he is a “righteous man,” which is high praise; but we are also told that “he found favor with the Lord,” which implies that he was somewhat undeserving, and saved because of his charisma. And then in a third verse there is a qualifier, “righteous before Me in this generation,“ which leads one to wonder whether Noach’s righteousness was merely relative to the rest of his generation, who were deeply immoral. For this reason, the Rabbis of the Talmud debate whether Noach would have been greater had he lived at a different time, and they speculate whether or not he could have been as great as Avraham.

But perhaps we need to stop comparing Noach to Avraham, because Noach does not conform to the usual models of greatness. Instead, he is a good person who steps up to the plate when needed, the right man who arrives at the right time. The Torah’s ambiguity about Noach is intentional, because Noach is both good and great at the same time.

Noach’s character defies the rigid fundamentalism of greatness; he reminds us that one can be a humble man of the earth and still save the world. And he is far from the only one in the Tanakh who exhibits ordinary greatness; Ruth, Esther and all the leaders in the Book of Judges are ordinary people who make an extraordinary impact. Their goodness is their greatness.

Ordinary greatness is the foundation of the Chassidic tradition of the “lamed vuv tzadikim,” the 36 hidden righteous men who uphold the world. They appear like ordinary men and live ordinary lives, yet in undertaking an important act of piety or charity, these ordinary Joes save the world. The lamedvuvnik offers us an alternative paradigm of greatness: a good man quietly doing good things, on the periphery and away from the limelight. The beauty of the lamedvuvnik tradition is that it forces us to consider that anyone might be great, even the common man; and who knows, maybe the gruff, grizzled and wrinkled water carrier in the back of the tiny synagogue is carrying the fate of the entire world on his shoulders.

Gershon Scholem has noted that this idea of hidden righteous men, lamedvvuniks, has some basis in the Talmud; and in a larger sense, there are many talmudic stories about jesters, pimps and thugs who find a distinguished place in the world to come because of the good deeds that they do. It is interesting that the Chassidic movement, which is oriented around the tzaddik (a great man who functions as a divine intermediary), gave so much attention to the simple looking lamedvuvnik.  But perhaps that is the point: even when recognizing great heroes, the quiet contributions of everyday heroes must never be forgotten.

This lamedvuvnik is an excellent role model for those who feel conflicted about their goals, uncertain about whether they must always pursue the next great possibility. Parents in particular are often torn between their career and their children. And, for anyone, every new opportunity requires new sacrifices. There are times when people don’t choose the path of greatness because they have other priorities, and the lesson of the lamed vuv tzadikim is you don’t need to do it all; you just need to do good.

The lamedvuvnik life is a model of understated greatness, to change the world one person at a time. George Elliot expresses this idea beautifully when she writes at the end of “Middlemarch”: "The growing good of the world is ... half owing to the number who lived faithfully a hidden life, and rest in unvisited tombs."

In the course of my career I have met many people from all walks of life, but it’s the lamedvuvniks that inspire me the most. One of them was Harold, who was the “candyman”  of my previous congregation; he was the person who gave out sweets to all the children in the synagogue, and the greeter who helped people find their seats. When he passed away his funeral was filled to capacity; the staff at the funeral home were curious, wondering why Harold was famous. Harold’s resume said he was a retired insurance salesman, but as I explained in my eulogy, Harold was a lot more:

“What was it about Harold that was special? Harold was not a wealthy man, (although he was more contented than virtually anyone). He was not a Nobel prize winning scientist, (although he had more common sense than anyone); he was not an Olympic athlete, not a cabinet minister, and you didn’t see his name in the newspaper. Fame and fortune were not Harold’s calling card.

What was special about Harold was a simple trait; Harold never passed people by. Every person he met, big or small (oh, how he loved children!) famous or unknown, important or unimportant, were treated to Harold’s brand of friendship, good humor and charm. What was special about Harold was that he made everyone he met feel special.”

Harold knew the lamedvuvnik credo: change the world one person at a time. In the course of our lives, every one of us has met our own, personal, lamedvuvnik: a parent, teacher, friend, or even a stranger who has made an enormous difference in our lives.

Sometimes, you can be great just by being good.