Thursday, May 25, 2023

Without Loyalty, Judaism Disappears


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William Blake, Naomi entreating Ruth and Orpah to return to the land of Moab, 1795 

Shlomo Carlebach would relate an anecdote about his visits to college campuses in the 1970s. After finishing a concert, he would ask the students he met what religion they were. Some would say they were Roman Catholic, while others would say they were Protestant. But other university students would answer his question by saying, “I am a human being.” To which Carlebach would immediately respond: You must be a Jew!”


The answer these students gave is not at all new, and echoes the words of the ancient philosopher Diogenes who, when asked where he came from, would declare "I am a citizen of the world." This view is even more seductive now that we live in a global village, and what happens anywhere is broadcast everywhere. To identify with one small group feels parochial and narrow.


The Book of Ruth presents a dramatically different view than Diogenes, and offers a seminar on the importance of loyalty, of staying close to those who are closest to you.


The narrative of Ruth begins with an estrangement, a failure of loyalty. During a famine, a man named Elimelech and his family leave Israel and go to the plains of Moab. From later passages in the book, Elimelech's prominence becomes clear; yet during a crisis, he chooses to leave his community behind to find greener pastures for himself. Rashi condemns Elimelech’s behavior and writes: He was very wealthy, and the leader of the generation. He left Israel for a foreign land because of his stinginess, for he was miserly toward the poor who came to beg from him; therefore Elimelech was punished.


Tragedy ensues. Elimelech dies, and his two sons, who then marry Moabite women, die as well. Naomi, Elimelech's widow, decides to return to the land of Israel and to her hometown of Bethlehem. As she leaves, Naomi is accompanied by her two Moabite daughters-in-law, Ruth and Orpah. Mid-trip, Naomi stops and implores her daughters-in-law to return to their parents' homes because there's no future for them in Israel.


Orpah accepts her mother-in-law's advice, and tearfully bids her farewell. But Ruth refuses to go. She remains at Naomi's side, even though her mother-in-law has excused her and exhorted her to leave. In two short sentences,(Ruth 1:16-17) Ruth expresses a profound depth of loyalty: Don’t urge me to leave you or to turn back from you. Where you go I will go, and where you stay I will stay. Your people will be my people and your God my God. Where you die I will die, and there I will be buried. May the Lord deal with me, be it ever so severely, if even death separates you and me.


In a comment that further highlights the theme of loyalty, the Midrash finds fault in Orpah's behavior. It connects her name to the Hebrew word oreph, the back of the neck. In the Midrash's view, Orpah is too quick to turn her back on Naomi, especially when her own sister-in-law continues forward.


Ruth's loyalty to her mother-in-law is all the more remarkable considering that she is a Moabite, from a nation that descended from Lot, Abraham’s nephew. Lot and Abraham share the journey from Aram to Canaan, then to Egypt and back. They are truly like brothers. But then they separate over a business dispute.


This separation grows deeper with time. After the Exodus, when the Jews are journeying from Egypt to the land of Israel, the Moabites refuse to offer them water and even engage Balaam to curse the Jews. Ruth's lineage is from a nation who have turned their backs on Abraham’s family, which makes Ruth’s loyalty all the more remarkable.


The conclusion of the Book of Ruth is intertwined with two legal institutions that obligate relatives to help out their kin. One is yibum, the levirate marriage. When a man dies childless and leaves behind a widow, the brother of the deceased has an obligation to continue that man's name and marry the widow. Marrying the widow to a family member (who then has children with her), ensures that the deceased brother will always be remembered, and his name will be carried on. (In the Book of Ruth, this legal institution is extended to include a close relative, Boaz, as well.)


The second institution is the redemption of a field. The Bible explains (Leviticus 25:25) that If one of your fellow Israelites becomes poor and sells some of their property, their nearest relative is to come and redeem what they have sold. This repurchase carries profound significance. In an agrarian society, identity is rooted in the land itself, which is transferred from generation to generation; when relatives repurchase these fields and return them to impoverished members of their family, they have returned them to their roots and given them dignity.


Both of these legal institutions are founded on the importance of loyalty, and reflect the unique obligations one has towards a close relative.


In the final chapter of the book, two men are confronted with these obligations: Boaz and Ploni Almoni  (a pseudonym that means "anonymous"). They are the ones who must redeem Naomi’s fields, and marry her widowed daughter-in-law Ruth. The anonymous Ploni Almoni is given priority because he is the closest relative; but he refuses, saying (according to the interpretation of Ibn Ezra and Ralbag) that he's worried about a cash crunch, that if he acquires the new field he won’t have enough money to hire workers for all his properties.


Ploni Almoni puts his individual needs above his responsibility to his kin; and he remains anonymous to history, like a faded flower, like whirling dust. It is Boaz, who is loyal to his family and community, who together with Ruth becomes the foundation of the house of David, and the future of the Jewish nation.


The Book of Ruth’s emphasis on the obligations of loyalty contrasts sharply with a staunchly universalist ethic, which sees preferential love for a particular community as narrow and self-centered.


While moral universalism correctly demands that we treat everyone with dignity and justice, loyalty demands that we go a step further and make substantial sacrifices for kinfolk and compatriots. The moral argument for loyalty is grounded first in reality; to care about everyone is to care about no one in particular. Without preferential love, even basic relationships are impossible. Richard M. Hare pointed out that, even for universalists, If mothers had the propensity to care equally for all the children in the world, it is unlikely that children would be as well provided for even as they are. The dilution of the responsibility would weaken it out of existence. But the Book of Ruth goes further, well beyond a pragmatic acceptance of loyalty; instead, it celebrates the spiritual power of commitment.


Rabbi Dr. Samuel Lebens, in his book A Guide for the Jewish Undecided, sees Ruth's conversion as a paradigm of authentic Jewish belief. Our identities always shape our perspective, or as Lebens puts it, “It is what makes reasoning possible to begin with.” He points out a fascinating contrast between the conversion of Ruth (the only one found in the Tanakh) and the conversion of Paul in the New Testament. As it is described in the Book of Acts, Paul comes to Christianity after he sees a grand vision on the road to Damascus, and suddenly the scales fall from his eyes. In contrast, the conversion of Ruth is founded on personal connection and familial love. On the road to Bethlehem, Ruth perseveres in her love for Naomi; and that draws her close to God and the Torah. It is her decision to commit to the Jewish people that transforms Ruth.


Faith grows out of our commitments, which is why the Book of Ruth is read on Shavuot. At the foot of Mount Sinai the Jews pledged naaseh v’nishmah, “we will do and we will listen.” In other words, the Jews were pledging to loyally follow God, and by doing so, understand the spiritual value of the Torah. Enlightenment is the product of one's commitments. And so it was with Ruth.


But like the Carlebach's college student, many young Jews find loyalty to be difficult. They have grown up in what psychologists call a WEIRD culture: Western, Educated, Industrialized, Rich, and Democratic, which, as Jonathan Haidt explains in The Righteous Mind, devalues loyalty. Calls for loyalty are often met with suspicion and derision. Even some young rabbis struggle with loyalty; they will dither in response to terror attacks and conflict in Israel, worried more about political implications than personal commitments.


It is not surprising that as the Jewish community becomes more immersed in a WEIRD culture, loyalty has diminished, as well as our community’s connection to Judaism and the Jewish people.


But on the road to Bethlehem, Ruth chooses loyalty. And that has made all the difference.

Friday, May 19, 2023

The Jerusalem of the Simple Jew


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Paratroopers at the Western Wall During the Six Day War, June 7, 1967; David Rubinger

On June 7, 1967, the Israeli army returned Jewish sovereignty to Jerusalem for the first time in 1,900 years. And for the last 56 years, this day has been celebrated on the Israeli calendar as Yom Yerushalayim (Jerusalem Day).


Yitzchak Rabin, who was then the Chief of Staff of the Israeli army, visited the Kotel (the Western Wall of the Temple Mount) that day. Rabin reported that when they “reached the Western Wall, I was breathless ... I felt truly shaken and stood there murmuring a prayer for peace. The paratroopers were struggling to reach the Wall and touch it. We stood among a tangle of rugged, battle-weary men who were unable to believe their eyes or restrain their emotions. Their eyes were moist with tears, their speech incoherent. The overwhelming desire was to cling to the Wall, to hold on to that great moment as long as possible.” Rabin’s wife Leah would later say that he considered that visit to be the “peak moment” of his life. Even though he was a secular and stoic career military man, Jerusalem made a dramatic impact on Yitzchak Rabin, as it has on so many others. The question is why. Where does this Jerusalem mystique come from?


There’s no one answer to this question, and that’s part of the mystique. “Jerusalem has seventy names” declares the Midrash. And while the Tanakh does have several names for Jerusalem, including Tziyon, Shalem and Yevus, the Midrash’s point is that Jerusalem is transcendent, and as such, can be seen through multiple perspectives.


The student of history sees a city that has transformed the world, and is central to three major religions.


Extraordinary historical figures have traversed this city. The founders of Judaism lived here: Abraham and Isaac, David and Solomon, Isaiah and Jeremiah, Ezra and Nehemiah, Judah Maccabee and his sons, Hillel and Shammai, Rabbi Akiva and Rabbi Yishmael. And the list goes on and on.


Jerusalem’s influence is not restricted to Judaism; the important personalities of Christianity, Jesus, James, Peter and Paul, all spent time in Jerusalem as well, and Muslims revere the Temple Mount as the location of Muhammad’s night journey.


Due to religious influence, Jerusalem has always grabbed the headlines. For hundreds of years, maps put Jerusalem at the center. In the Bünting Clover Leaf Map of 1581, the three continents of Europe, Africa and Asia are the petals of a clover, with Jerusalem in a circle at the very center of the world.


Over 60% of tourists who visit Jerusalem are Christian; they come because of the deep connection they have to its history. Thomas Friedman tells of one such visit to Jerusalem:

“When American astronaut Neil Armstrong, a devout Christian, visited Israel after his trip to the moon, he was taken on a tour of the Old City of Jerusalem by Israeli archaeologist Meir Ben-Dov. When they got to the Hulda Gate, which is at the top of the stairs leading to the Temple Mount, Armstrong asked Ben-Dov whether Jesus had stepped anywhere around there. ‘I told him, “Look, Jesus was a Jew,”’ recalled Ben-Dov. ‘These are the steps that lead to the Temple, so he must have walked here many times.’


Armstrong then asked if these were the original steps, and Ben-Dov confirmed that they were.


‘So Jesus stepped right here?’ asked Armstrong.


‘That’s right,’ answered Ben-Dov.


‘I have to tell you,’ Armstrong said to the Israeli archaeologist, ‘I am more excited stepping on these stones than I was stepping on the moon.’”


If you ask a historian what is special about Jerusalem, they will tell you: It is a place that has changed the world. Wherever you go, you are walking in the footsteps of some of the greatest figures in history.


The student of Halakha stands in awe of Jerusalem, a place replete with unique mitzvot (commandments). One-third of the Talmud deals with religious laws connected to Jerusalem, including the Temple service and the rules of ritual purity. Jerusalem was once central to the religious practice of Judaism.


While it is forgotten now, the picture found in the Tanakh and Rabbinic literature is dramatic. The thrice-yearly holiday pilgrimage of aliyah leregel brought millions of Jews to Jerusalem for the holidays; Josephus, the first-century historian, writes of a year when 256,500 Passover sacrifices were brought. He estimates that at least 10 people shared each sacrifice, which works out to over 2.5 million cramming into Jerusalem for Passover! These holidays were a time when people of all classes, countries and observances came together. The Jewish philosopher, Philo of Alexandria, described how “countless multitudes from countless cities come, some over land, others over sea, from east and west and north and south at every feast.” A network of highways facilitated the trip to Jerusalem; these are now being discovered by archeologists, all around Jerusalem.


Religious visits to Jerusalem extended beyond the holidays. There is another law called Maaser Sheni, where four out of every seven years the farmer would bring 10% of the value of his produce to Jerusalem, either in fruit or in cash, and use them to enjoy meals in the holy city.


Mystics have a more dramatic vision. For them, Jerusalem is the center of the universe. The Midrash Tanchuma (Kedoshim 10) writes that Jerusalem is where the creation of the world began, or what is sometimes called Umbilicus Mundi, the navel of the world. Inside the Temple is “the foundation stone from which the world was founded.” The Spanish Kabbalist Yoseph Gikatilla takes this a step further and explains that: “From the Temple, all the channels of divine influence spread out to the world … the divine presence sends blessing to the entire world through the Temple.”


When it comes to Jerusalem, most people are mystics. They visit the Kotel and put in a kvitl, a small note of prayers. Everyone does this: Presidents, Prime Ministers, actors and rock stars.


The mystical view is well-traveled. There is an old joke, that was retold by Prime Minister Menachem Begin to President Reagan at a White House State dinner, that reflects this view. Begin’s joke goes like this:


“The President brought me into the Oval Office, and he showed me on the table three phones— one red, one white and one blue. And he explained to me: ‘The white is the direct line to Mrs. Thatcher; the blue to President Mitterrand.'’ And then I asked him, ‘What is the red phone?’ ‘That is a direct line to God.'’ So, I asked the President, ‘Mr. President, do you use it often?’ And the President said, ‘Oh, no, very rarely. It's very expensive. Long distance—so long a distance. And I cannot afford it. I have to cut the budget and…’ [Laughter]

So, then the President visited Jerusalem, and I showed him my office, and there are three phones. One was white, one was blue. And I said, ‘The white is a direct line to President Sadat.’ By the by, I have such a line, and he has such a line. ‘And the other, well, to Mrs. Thatcher.’ And there is a red phone. And the President asked, ‘What is the red phone for?’ And I said, ‘This is a direct line to God.’ So, the President asked me, ‘Do you use it often?’ I say, ‘Every day.’ ‘How can you afford it?’ And I said, ‘Here, in Jerusalem, it is being considered a local call.’


(Begin continued on another note and said: ‘Now, Mr. President, neither of us has direct lines to God. I only believe that God listens to the prayer of a Jew and a Christian and of a Moslem—of every human being. But, if I have to continue with the story, then I will say that when you come, as I do believe, to Jerusalem, I will immediately put at your disposal the red phone. [Laughter] On the house. [Laughter] A local call.’)”


To the mystic, Jerusalem is different because a call to God from Jerusalem is a local call.


I appreciate the perspectives of the Halakhist, the mystic and the historian, but I believe there is one perspective that exceeds them all: that of the simple Jew.


The simple Jew never left Jerusalem. Shmuel Yosef Agnon spoke for them when he said this in his 1966 Nobel Prize Speech: “As a result of the historic catastrophe in which Titus of Rome destroyed Jerusalem and Israel was exiled from its land, I was born in one of the cities of the Exile. But always I regarded myself as one who was born in Jerusalem.”


And in 1967, the simple Jew came home.


The first time I visited Israel was when I was 7. My grandfather, who was 71 at the time, came with us; it was his first trip to Israel. The look he had on his face when visiting the Kotel was the look of a man transformed, a Jew achieving his dream.


My grandfather’s dream is an ancient dream. Jews have dreamed of Jerusalem from the moment they went into exile. As they were driven out of their homeland in 587 B.C.E., they declared: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, may my right hand forget its skill. May my tongue cling to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not keep Jerusalem in mind even at my happiest hour (Psalm 137).”


Jews never forgot Jerusalem. We pray about Jerusalem every day, we pray toward Jerusalem every day, and at every wedding, we break a glass to remember Jerusalem. At the Passover Seder we sing “next year in Jerusalem.” In Ethiopia, Jewish children would look at the storks migrating northward toward Israel and sing a song:

“Stork, stork, how is our land?

Stork, stork, how is Jerusalem?

Stork, stork, give us the word!”


The simple Jew always dreamed of Jerusalem.


It is the love of the simple Jew that makes Yom Yerushalayim special. Moshe Amirav, one of the first soldiers to reach the Kotel on June 7, 1967, said this:


“I can't help from smiling today when I recall how we searched for the Kotel. There we ran, a bunch of panting soldiers, wandering around the Temple Mount, looking for a huge stone wall … We pass the Mograbim gate, pushing, hurrying, and all of a sudden we are stopped, as if hit by lightning. In front of our eyes stands, grey and large, quiet and sad—the Kotel. … Little by little I started getting closer to the Kotel. Slowly … I came closer, an emissary of dad, grandpa, greatgrandpa, and all the generations from all the diasporas that didn't make it here, and so they sent me here. Someone said the Shehechiyanu prayer, and I couldn't say amen. All I could do was put my hand on the rock. The tears flowing out of my eyes were not mine … they were the tears of all the People of Israel, tears of hope and prayer.”


This is what the Jerusalem mystique means to me. It is not about history, Halakha or Kabbalah; it is about the simple Jew, and the dreams of the Jewish People.


Fifty-six years ago the simple Jew could finally go home again. And that is what I celebrate on Yom Yerushalayim.

Friday, May 12, 2023

When Bad Things Happen to Good People


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The Blessings of Peace the Curses of War, James Gillray, 2 January 1795

Rabbi Harold Kushner passed away two weeks ago. When he was a young congregational rabbi, tragedy struck his family. His 3-year-old son Aaron was diagnosed with progeria syndrome, a disease that leads to premature aging. This diagnosis condemned Aaron to an early death, and he passed away in 1977 at age 14.


In his grief, Kushner wrestled with the question of how God lets the righteous suffer. For generations, theologians and philosophers have searched for what is called theodicy, a vindication of divine justice in this world. Four years after Aaron’s death, Kushner published his own response to this question; the book, When Bad Things Happen to Good People, became an international bestseller. Kushner went on to become an author and lecturer whose wisdom touched millions of people around the world.


Kushner’s response to this question was heterodox. He argued that God actually didn’t have the power to prevent catastrophes. As a result, Kushner had to reinterpret many Jewish concepts, including prayer, which he explained as an exercise in virtue, an act of self-transformation. Because of this, his writings were roundly criticized in Orthodox circles.


Whether or not one agrees with Kushner’s views, his book was popular precisely because it dealt with a question that arises frequently but is rarely discussed. For this reason alone, Rabbi Harold Kushner is owed a debt of gratitude.


Suffering is a traumatic topic, and the difficulties it raises are often repressed. Many who have profound faith worry that asking questions might erode their faith, or even worse, think the questions themselves are a betrayal of faith. But this question is an existential one; even atheists will find it profoundly disturbing to live in a world where evil can brazenly take place, with innocents dying by the thousands because of the whims of a depraved madman. The escapism of Hollywood, where the good guy always triumphs, is popular because it is instinctive; we are born expecting justice. Sadly, life isn’t like that.


In the Babylonian Talmud, there is an acceptance of the reality of senseless suffering. In one passage, it relates how Elisha Ben Avuyah, a colleague of Rabbi Akiva, lost his faith during the horrific Roman persecutions of his time. He saw his colleagues, great saints, murdered. The Talmud (Kiddushin 39b) says: What caused Elisha (to leave the faith)? …he saw the tongue of Ḥutzpit the interpreter dragged along by a pig. Elisha said: Shall a mouth that produced pearls of wisdom now lap up dirt? Elisha Ben Avuyah loses his faith because he cannot understand how God could let bad things happen to good people.


Two generations later, Elisha Ben Abuya's grandson, Rabbi Yaakov, offers an explanation to this question: There is no reward in this world for good deeds. Justice is only possible in the world to come. There, the righteous will be rewarded and the wicked will be punished. It is only in the afterlife that the soul can receive its just desserts.


Parshat Bechukotai (Leviticus Chapter 26) offers a dramatically different view of this topic: in it, reward and punishment are meted out, right here, in this world. If you follow My laws and faithfully observe My commandments, blessings will follow; there will be abundant rain and produce, and there will be peace and tranquility in the land. if you reject My laws and spurn My rules you will be cursed; and there will be famine, war, and disease.


Many commentaries, including Ibn Ezra, Rambam, and Abrabanel, are troubled by the fact that the Torah focuses solely on earthly rewards and completely ignores the afterlife. But, there is a second aspect of the question; as Rabbi Shmuel Eidels, the Maharsha, wonders, how does Rabbi Yaakov, who rejects the possibility of earthly rewards, understand our Torah reading?


But the black-and-white approach of this Torah reading is attractive to those who want to find a sin for every calamity. Even today, it is not uncommon for Rabbis to make confident proclamations after every disaster, and to declare with certainty which sin caused it.


These finger-pointing explanations are not only deeply flawed, they are also deeply insensitive. The Talmud (Baba Metzia 58b) says that anyone who tells a grieving person that their suffering is due to their own sins has violated the Biblical prohibition of verbal abuse.


Early on in my own rabbinical career, I invited a scholar-in-residence who had written a book about why bad things happen to good people; it was intended as a response to Kushner's book. At the Shabbat luncheon, the scholar-in-residence stood up to make her presentation. After presenting some of her ideas, one of the members of the synagogue, a Holocaust survivor, got up and made a comment. She responded quickly to him and continued to speak. But then he continued to offer one comment after the other, each one with more and more emotion, until it became a full-blown outburst. He shouted: How can you tell me that the people in the Holocaust deserved to die? How can you say that about my parents?


At the time, I felt bad for the scholar in residence, who had her presentation ruined. As I got older, I realize that it was the Holocaust survivor who I should have felt bad for. He had to listen to someone tell him that his family members who were murdered deserved their fate.


Some contemporary theologians offer a more realistic defense of God’s justice, which is called soul-making theodicy; it is best articulated by John Hick in his classic work, Evil and the God of Love. The premise is that humanity only achieves greatness in a world that contains evil and confusion, because then it chooses to do so on its own. Free will can only arise when there are no clear consequences to one's actions; religious doubt is part of the design. Hick explains:


….this world must be a place of soul-making. And its value is to be judged, not primarily by the quantity of pleasure and pain occurring in it at any particular moment, but by its fitness for its primary purpose, the purpose of soul-making.


Without evil there is no free will. And without free will, human beings will fail to flourish. Suffering, tragedy, and evil are necessary for the greater good, because they allow humanity to independently choose goodness.


Similar ideas are offered by Jewish philosophers. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch notes that the Hebrew word for a trial of faith, nisayon, is the same as the Hebrew word for raising up (nissa,) because a test builds one’s character; the bitterness of suffering is itself the silver lining that carries untold blessings. And Hick's soul-making theodicy also bears an uncanny resemblance to the Kabbalistic concept of "the bread of shame," one which was popularized by Rabbi Moshe Chaim Luzzatto.


Despite its realism, even soul-making theodicy is unsatisfactory, because any explanation one can offer will seem meaningless to those who suffer. Abstract justifications for evil can’t alleviate their anguish, and they remain tortured by the fact that God had inflicted such agony on them.


Kushner himself said it best. During an interview in 2012, he was asked to imagine what might have been had his son not gotten sick. (He actually had commented on this at the end of his book as well.) Kushner rephrased the question:


Would I have rather had a normal child, and ended up being a mediocre rabbi who never had a book published in his life?.... Yes, I would go for that in a moment.


Theodicy is fated to always fall short, and perhaps is best not to attempt it at all. From the outset, the entire project of defending God’s goodness is suspect. God does not need a defense attorney; He can make the case for himself. And God continues to do so in every sunrise, every leaf, and every breath we take.


More importantly, one can love God while questioning God at the very same time. Because it is cited so frequently, the story of Abraham at the Akeidah has become our model of faith; here is the courageous hero, never flinching, never losing faith, despite enormous emotional turmoil.


But the Bible offers a second model of faith, one which is very different than Abraham: Job. He asks bitter, difficult questions of God; and it is those questions themselves that connect Job to God. Job reminds us that whether we embrace God or wrestle with God, we continue to maintain an intimate relationship with God. Even if we cannot answer our questions for God, that is not a lack of faith; this is why in Pirkei Avot (4:15) we are told: We do not have the ability to explain the success of the wicked or the suffering of the righteous. There simply is no answer to the question of why bad things happen to good people.


But we must go beyond asking questions. Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik offers a very different view of a Jewish response to suffering. He says the question itself, Why do bad things happen to good people?”, implies that if we find an answer, we should passively accept our fate and assume that God did everything for the best. Rabbi Soloveitchik points out that on the contrary, Judaism actually refuses to make peace with death and tragedy. When someone dies, Jewish law requires that their relatives mourn bitterly and tear their clothes. Judaism demands that one should be enraged by tragedy.


Instead, the real question that has to be asked is: How do I respond to tragedy? Our obligation in the face of a catastrophe is to act: to comfort and aid those who have suffered, and to use human creativity to prevent future catastrophes. The only Jewish response to tragedy is to restore human dignity and rebuild the world.


How then does one read the curses and blessings in Parshat Bechukotai? Perhaps as a challenge, a reminder that the world we yearn for, in which the wicked are punished and the righteous rewarded, is far from reality. We continue to dream of a perfect world; but dreams alone are not enough. We must go into battle against evil, and do as much good as possible. And with every act of kindness, we start to turn that dream into reality.

Friday, May 05, 2023

Consensus Isn't Just Nice


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Worshippers at the Western Wall in Jerusalem hear the reciting of the priestly blessing

during the Succot holiday, October 11, 1995

Jews have a lot of holidays. The Talmud claims that Haman, when libeling the Jews to Ahasuerus, argued that the Jews constantly missed work with the excuse that “today is Shabbat, today is Passover.” Since then, many other employers have had similar complaints. The current Supreme Court case of Groff v. DeJoy is the culmination of a half-century-plus of litigation regarding the right to observe the Sabbath and religious holidays.


Jewish holidays move around the calendar. Like the old joke, they are never on time, only too early or too late. Constantly moving dates are confusing enough for Jews, but can be bewildering for non-Jews. A work colleague of a friend of mine wanted to ensure that her Jewish friends could make it to her wedding. This bride knew that the holidays of Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur could pose a conflict, so she consulted a Jewish calendar, found the dates, and planned her wedding for another day. The problem was that the bride used the current year's Jewish calendar, not the following year’s; she assumed the dates for Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur never moved. As luck would have it, she booked her wedding for the following Yom Kippur!


The never-ending movement of the holidays magnifies their presence; everyone is constantly checking their agendas to see exactly when the next holiday is going to arrive. The Jewish calendar leaves one with the distinct feeling that every day is potentially a holiday; and that is by design.


The full list of Biblical holidays is found in the Torah reading of Emor (Lev. 23), and each has its own purpose. Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur foster spiritual growth and seek divine forgiveness. Pesach, Shavuot, and Sukkot, the three pilgrimage festivals, celebrate both Jewish history and the agricultural season. Shabbat commemorates the creation of the world.


But the holidays are not just a random collection of individual celebrations; together, they have a unified purpose. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch explains that the holidays and Shabbat are the counterparts to the Temple. The Temple creates a center of holiness in space where one can find spiritual connection; the holidays create holiness in time, with multiple opportunities for spiritual renewal. To borrow a phrase from Abraham Joshua Heschel, the Shabbat and the Holidays are “a cathedral in time”; and that cathedral is always in plain sight, with the next Shabbat or holiday just around the corner.


The Talmud describes the holidays as being “half of for God, and half of for you,” a mix of celebration and spirituality. As one would expect, most commentaries emphasize the spiritual aspects. Rabbi Ovadiah Seforno says the holidays are intended for learning, days when the community should gather to listen to wise teachers. The Kuzari (3:5) sees the holidays as a form of “spiritual nourishment,” and part of a larger cycle that includes the daily prayers. The three daily prayers rejuvenate the soul. After that, the Shabbat repairs what the prayers cannot, and the holidays repair what Shabbat cannot.


Maimonides takes a very different view, and emphasizes rejoicing as the central purpose of holidays. He explains (Moreh Nevukhim 3:43) that "the festivals are all for rejoicing and pleasurable gatherings, which is generally indispensable for humanity; they are also useful in the establishment of friendship, which must exist among people living in communal societies." In a later passage, he talks about the holiday pilgrimage as reinforcing the sense of “fraternity of one to the other.” Joy brings psychological benefits to everyone; but it serves a critical communal purpose, in bringing people closer to each other.


The holidays are not merely conduits to the divine; they are meant to bring people closer together. That friendship is what makes the holidays holy.


It may seem surprising that Maimonides, who is usually depicted as an extreme rationalist, attaches such importance to friendship. The philosophic quest is of such importance that he advises that “every excellent man stays frequently in solitude, and does not meet anyone unless it is necessary.” (3:51.) But, as Don Seeman argues in his article "Maimonides and Friendship", that represents a very incomplete picture. Maimonides emphasizes over and again that friendship is critical to human flourishing. At one point he declares, I say then: It is well known that friends are something that is necessary for man throughout his whole life. …. When he is healthy and happy he will delight in them, in times of adversity he will turn to them, and in times of old age and weakness he will seek help from them. A single tribe that is united …. and because of this, love and help one another, and have pity on one another; the attainment of this is the most important of the purposes of the Law. (3:49.)


This is not just a rhetorical flourish; it is how Maimonides lived his life. This great philosopher did not live in a garret, alone. Even at a young age he devoted himself to the community, and he was a dedicated doctor who spent endless hours with his patients.


Contemporary Jewish philosophers take this idea a step further, and see friendship as opening the door to otherworldly inspiration; one can see a reflection of the divine in the shared love of two human beings. And, as Maimonides wrote, the emphasis on friendship is not a secondary goal of Judaism; it may actually be its most important goal.


Unity requires that no person be left behind. The joy of the holiday is meant to include everyone, which, Maimonides reminds us, requires a person to have an open door policy for people from very different social strata:


When a person eats and drinks [in celebration of a holiday], he is obligated to feed converts, orphans, widows, and others who are destitute and poor. In contrast, a person who locks the gates of his courtyard and eats and drinks with his children and his wife, without feeding the poor and the embittered, is [not indulging in] rejoicing associated with a mitzvah, but rather the rejoicing of his gut. (Holidays 6:18)


The Talmud also says that the ordinary rules regarding the am haaretz, the ignorant, whom one cannot trust to keep Torah law meticulously, are suspended on the holidays. Now, they are trusted regarding tithes and ritual purity, which allows everyone to eat from each others’ meals. In support of this ruling, the Talmud quotes a verse that says, “and all the men of Israel gathered to the city, like one man, united as friends.” (Judges 20:11. In Hebrew, kol Yisrael chaverim.) On holidays, when the community gathers, everyone must be united as one.


Bringing people together is the challenge of the 21st century; Social isolation is the order of the day. Overwork, combined with an at the fingertips availability of endless food and entertainment, has led to cocooning, where people wrap themselves up in their own little bubbles. Email and social media have replaced in-person connections, and as a consequence we have lost the ability to bridge social gaps. Politics has become so toxic that people break off relationships with friends and family.


So, rabbis and communal leaders make speeches about fostering community and building consensus. Everyone agrees it is a serious subject; but it is also seriously ignored. And that’s because consensus is perceived as something that is nice but not something important.


Consensus has an image problem; it is soft and sweet, like a young child’s Mother’s Day card. On the other hand, politics is powerful. The language we bring to debate is filled with military metaphors. Opinions are strong. Arguments are strong. To bring people together is what kindergarten teachers do; but to launch into battle is what generals do, to be competitive is what CEOs do. That’s why we don't respect consensus.


Yet consensus is the very goal of the holidays. They are meant to bring together the wealthy and the poor, and connect comfortable families with widows and orphans. They are meant to unite the ignorant with the learned, the less observant with the pious. They are days of solidarity and connection, because that is the very purpose of the law itself.


Consensus isn't just nice. Without it, we will have failed as a community and as individuals. And as Jewish history has taught us time and again, the end of solidarity is the beginning of exile.