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.

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