Emeritus: Out of Merit? Out of Gas? Out of What?

I have reached the age when most of my rabbi and professor friends are retiring. Unlike mail carriers, lawyers, electricians, and pretty much everyone else, however, they are being renamed emeriti. At university commencement exercises just this past week, I observed a cohort of newly designated professors emeriti being ceremoniously awarded their new title as if it were a promotion rather than just a euphemism for “retiree.”

What does it mean, I wondered, to be named emeritus (emerita, for women) — a title that is anything but a study in innocence. From the Latin, ex meritum, it might, with a stretch, be  taken as implying the condition of no longer being in a state of merit – no small matter, after all. Affording myself some homiletical license, let me pursue this line of thought a little.

Practically speaking, professors or clergy emeriti are simply people who no longer merit their normal salary and emoluments: their offices, perhaps, or support staff, and pulpit or library privileges. But psychologically, the condition of ex meritum can seem to mean being “out of merit,” like “out of gas,” stranded on the highway of life with no capacity to continue the journey? When you are “out of merit,” what exactly are you out of?

The issue of “merit” runs deep in western culture, where 2,000 years of Jewish and Christian theology have argued over what constitutes ultimate human merit – “justification” before God, in Christian terminology. Jews typically have argued that we are “justified by works” – that our merit consists in performing the good deeds that God wants. By contrast, classical Christian thought has held that human beings are irreparably born into a state of sin so that no amount of good works can save them. They are “justified” only by “faith” in the grace of God, “grace” being God’s determination to love us even though we are emeritus (“without merit”).

Either way, the matter of human “merit” has exercised western culture for two millennia. I am reminded of it, perhaps, because my newest book (Naming God, Jewish Lights Publishing, June, 2015) examines Avinu Malkeinu, “Our Father, Our King,” a favorite Jewish prayer whose best-known line approaches the Christian position by pleading for God to show us grace “because we have no good deeds” – because we are, that is to say, emeritus, “out of merit.”

It may be more than accidental that we generally reserve the term emeritus for clergy and teachers. Teaching, in western culture, was once the province of the church, after all, and being a “churchman” was a “calling” to do God’s work. Official theology aside, it was popularly thought that preaching the gospel in pulpit or classroom was about as meritorious an activity as one might find. The day you stopped, you were emeritus, “out of merit” — just like everyone else, that is.

Secularism has eroded such medieval metaphysics by now, but not altogether for the better. Our secular society has done away with divine “calling” but replaced it with “professions” – a term that still has religious connotations of “professing higher truths” and that demarcates doctors, lawyers, and accountants, say, as more worthwhile than plumbers, farmers, and mere money-makers, let alone volunteers and unpaid parents. We ought to counter that secular bias by maintaining that we are all called to serve God in our own distinctive ways, whether by parenting, teaching, or blacksmithing; through our professions, our crafts, our businesses, or our artistry; through just being kind and good and helpful, if we cannot or do not work for profit.

God calls all of us, then, not just some of us; and not just to work (as meriti) until we retire (as emeriti). Ultimate “merit,” we should say, is not just what we do for a living. Retirement may be the opportunity of a lifetime to replace dependence on what human institutions decide to reward for what God would have us be.

“What God wants” said the biblical prophet Micah, some 2,700 years ago is for us “to practice justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with the Divine.” Here is the only calling that all of us can practice, independent of our age, our health, and the accidents that befall us. It is the only calling we carry to the grave and the calling from which we can never be declared emeriti.


Sinai in Columbus

That’s exactly how it felt for those of us who gathered to revisit 30 spectacular years of the Wexner Foundation, my vote for the experiment with the greatest vision and long-term promise for 21st-century Jewry. The brain child of Leslie Wexner in Columbus, the Foundation has quietly but systematically been establishing a coalition of partners who can change the world: a generation of young Israelis brought to Harvard to learn leadership and business entrepreneurship; a cadre of young adults about to enter careers in Jewish organizational leadership; and a massive cohort of Jewish men and women in every major city in North America, who have been given the Jewish education they always wanted paired with vision to lead the communities that they serve.

Just two weeks ago, some 1500 graduates of all three programs converged on Columbus to say thank you and to herald their coming of age as the next generation charged with creating a Jewish future, the people who already determine much of Jewish life and who are poised to do a lot more.

Wexner is not one of yesteryear’s salvage operations: saving Jewish literacy, Jewish memories, Jewish in-marriage, Jewish nostalgia, or Jewish anything-else. It is a crash course in studying Jewishly, thinking differently and acting strategically — not to recoup past losses, but to establish future gains. It lays the groundwork to be for our time what the Rabbis were for life under Rome, what Maimonides was for the golden age of medieval philosophy; and what Zionists were for a window of opportunity in which to establish only the third Jewish commonwealth in history.

As befits a “Sinai” experience, I walked away with a “Torah” that undergirds the Wexner vision – boiled down here into Ten Commandments that stand out for me. To be sure, there are many more, and each of these deserves expansion, but you get the idea: they should be emblazoned on the boardroom walls of every Jewish organization and the computer screen savers of everyone who works there.

  1. Attack tomorrow’s challenges, not yesterday’s. Be proactive, not reactive.
  2. If we demonstrate the reason Judaism matters, it will start to matter.
  3. Develop a compelling vision of why and how it ought to matter, and remain systematically and scrupulously true to that vision,
  4. Root the vision in a strong moral compass; be value-driven – with guiding values that are inherently Jewish but intensely universal as well.
  5. Saturate your organization with that strong moral leadership buttressed by authentic Jewish learning.
  6. Run your organization with consummate excellence. Your mission is too serious to let it be compromised by mediocrity. Demanding excellence for yourself, you will get it from others.
  7. Treat those others with respect: your own staff; the teachers and consultants you hire; the people you serve – the people who put their faith in you. In almost 30 years of teaching Wexner classes, I can say that nowhere else have I been shown such consummate respect. My adult Wexner students have had their time, energy, and attention richly rewarded by access to cutting edge thinking, spectacular presenters, and conferences in environments that give the message, “You matter.”
  8. Practice scrupulous honesty with regular reviews of what is working and what isn’t. Do whatever is necessary to reestablish the centrality of your vision and the excellence of how you carry it out.
  9. Surround yourself with the right people: they must share your values and your vision; they must do, with excellence, what you cannot do yourself; and work positively as a team with faith in what you all are building together.
  10. Over time, these practices will build trust – trust well-placed, trust that will catapult everyone to a place of demanding the best from themselves and enjoying the common journey to a better future.

Human Character and the Magnets of Time

In 1864, with the Civil War approaching its long and bloody end, Abraham Lincoln took stock. “Human nature will not change,” he averred. “In any future great national trial, we shall have as weak and as strong, as silly and as wise, as bad and as good.”

He was describing the diverse cast of characters that the war projected into the spotlight of history. But he might equally have meant any single human being, then or now, for we all combine within ourselves the potential for contrasts: we are often weak, but can choose to be strong; silly sometimes, but overall (we hope), wise; good (we pray) – but at times (we fear), at least complicit in some evil.

Physically, genetics deals us disparate hands: we are tall or short, dark or light, graceful or clumsy. But character is different. There we choose what to become. To appreciate happiness, live through grief with nobility, be unstintingly grateful, show appropriate love, be generous in spirit — these measures of human depth do not emerge automatically. They require nurture.

Precisely this is the religious quest: to foster human character befitting those who are made in the image of God. Toward that end, this week’s sedra delineates the Jewish calendar, for as much as a calendar structures time, it also creates the character of those who follow it.

A calendar is like the stretching of time across a plain, and dropping magnets along the way. The magnets are those special days that attract us as we march through the year’s terrain. Each magnet attracts a different part of our psyche, but taken together, they plumb the entirety of our human endowment. The religious calendar is the key to the deepest resources of our soul.

Shabbat, for instance, is a day not for work, but for God. Imagine the personal depths we might discover if a seventh of our time were dedicated to spiritual awareness, unselfish acts for the sake of God, and taking stands for the sake of heaven. Passover proclaims the value of family and friends, and the sharing of relationships in a state of freedom. Shavuot — the harvest, when we were commanded, “Leave gleanings for the poor and the stranger” — teaches generosity; as Sukkot features gratitude, a time to “rejoice before your God” for one full week. The High Holy Days generate introspection and remorse, pardon and new beginnings.

The holidays mentioned so far are all biblical, but the calendar didn’t stop with the Bible. As the centuries have rolled by, the magnetic field of Jewish time has multiplied its points of attraction. New holidays added to old allow us to delve down ever deeper in our pool of character, ever enlarging our capacity to be fully human.

The Rabbis added Chanukah, with its ever-possible miracle of light; Purim, for adults to remember how to play and stay young; and Simchat Torah to dance: momentarily, with the Torah; but beyond that, with the ongoing wonder of life itself.

We now have Yom Hashoah, history’s archive of horror-beyond-belief, to acknowledge the demonic depths to which even “cultured” people can descend; and Yom Ha’atzma’ut, where a national anthem trumpets Hatikvah, “hope,” in a land where even deserts come to life.

We can enter the stream of human potential any holiday we wish, and most of us wait until Rosh Hashanah to start again. But right now will do just fine. We are in the period called the Omer, when we count the days until Shavuot – practice, really, for numbering all our better tomorrows. This omer period, as we count the days, we should count also how our days are spent. If we ignore the magnetic rhythm of the Jewish year, we forfeit the fullness of our humanity, letting time congeal into one large yearly clump of blandness. By yielding instead to the magnets of time, we become practiced in those virtues that color our lives in multifaceted glory.

Congregational Algebra

Are you interested in launching a thoughtful conversation on what your congregation should be doing better? Most people are. But they don’t know how to begin. If you open the conversation with, “How can we do better?” you get everyone’s favorite complaint – something you have probably heard before. The conversation goes nowhere new. Conversations depend on the conversational frames that introduce them!

General Rule # 1:

Conversations require conversational frames, a way to think about the issue at hand.

We all use such frames, usually just by asking, “What do you think of X” or, ”The agenda now calls for a discussion of Y.” These straightforward frames can be disastrous because they invite people to say the same things they always do. The people who feel strongly (pro or con) reiterate what you knew they would say in advance; the whiners whine all over again; most people have nothing new to say.

General Rule #2:

Inviting conversations but ignoring the frames with which we introduce them is disastrous.

As we just saw, conversations poorly framed invite redundancy. Information theory measures information as ”the extent to which a communication cannot be predicted in advance.” By that measure, most meetings on “what we ought to do about X” elicit little or no information at all. Everyone leaves frustrated and worn out, and the meeting chair is left with copious notes on virtually nothing that could not have been predicted without the meeting even having occurred.

General Rule #3:

Conversational frames should be intriguing, inviting, unthreatening, and compelling

Intriguing: They should shed new light on the way the topic is to be               approached.

Inviting: They should get people to lean in, suspecting they have                               something to say; not sit back waiting for others who are “smarter” or            more expert” to talk.

Unthreatening: They should avoid pressing hot buttons that put people on          the defensive or suggest they should keep quiet lest they sound stupid.

Compelling: They should make the issue sound both interesting and           important – worthy of attention and requiring action.

Not all topics require such careful consideration of frames. Some issues are just “technical”; they call for “fixes” that are pretty straightforward. If the roof is leaking, you don’t need a philosophical introduction about the theological implications of water damage!

But the question of how to make the congregation a better place is not technical. It is what Ronald Heifetz calls “adaptive” – the answer will emerge only from engaging conversation that determines the actual nature of the problem. That’s where congregational algebra comes in.

I am not sure where the equation comes from (it is cited everywhere, in books and on line), and it occurs in several different forms, but I use the following version as a frame to prompt “How can we do things better” conversations. (My colleagues -Isa Aron, Steven Cohen, and Ari Kelman – and I used it in our book, Sacred Strategies, 2010]). Here it is.

C = D x V x F x B x S > R.

Or, spelled out: Change = Dissatisfaction x Vision x First Steps x Belief in ourselves x System, all of which must be greater than Resistance.

Next time you have a general conversation about doing things better, frame the discussion by asking, “What gets in our way when we try to improve what we do?”

  • Some congregations are satisfied with mediocrity; they will never feel challenged to change.
  • Others have no large Vision of where they should go. Without vision of something better, they will be leery of voicing Dissatisfaction, even if they feel it. Or, if they do voice it, they will leave dispirited, with no clear vision to guide their way beyond it.
  • Some congregations never manage to take the necessary First steps. They make plans that never even get off the ground.
  • Others lack Belief in their own ability to succeed. They have an institutional inferiority complex. When it comes to thinking big, it doesn’t even pay to try!
  • And many congregations lack efficient Systems, so that bold initiatives get started, but fizzle out and die. By System, I mean such things as good professional personnel; effective communications; mutual accountability, proper support staff; and the like.

My own experience suggests that the two most common problems are lack of vision (and, therefore, fear of acknowledging dissatisfaction) and systemic dysfunction.

Whatever the case, try some congregational algebra the next time your board meets to think through “how we can do things better.” Frame the conversation with an algebraic equation that is actually fun to discuss. Ask them what will most prevent them from succeeding at whatever it is they decide to do: Dissatisfaction? Vision? Taking First Steps? Belief in Themselves? or the System (and if, the latter, what part of the system is broken)?

It will help you generate later conversations that will target your congregation’s weakness and move you to a new level of conversation and problem solving.

When God Drops By

Sometimes you need a very good memory!

That is the case this year, as Passover began on a Friday night and ended on Saturday night, eight days later. Jews attending synagogue thus found their weekly Torah cycle interrupted not just for one week but for two, as special Passover readings were interjected into the normal weekly progression. Only this week, do we finally pick up where we left off three weeks ago, resuming the tale of Aaron’s investiture as high priest. We start with the enigmatic phrase, “On the eighth day.” But, eighth day of what?

You have to remember that the reading three weeks ago ended with Aaron and his sons (newly ordained as priests) having to wait seven days outside the desert sanctuary (the mishkan). Only now, on the eighth day, can Aaron and his family enter it to initiate sacrifice on behalf of the people. By doing so, they celebrate the fact that God has come to dwell there.

But still: why only on the eighth day?

A Talmudic tradition says the eighth day corresponded to Nisan 1, the anniversary of the day that God began to speak the universe into being. If so, our reading really does require a good memory! It assumes you are thinking back all the way to the act of creation itself. We saw there how God created the world in seven days. Now, as it were, though countless centuries have elapsed, we come to the eighth day: not just the eighth day of Aaron’s ordination, but the eighth day of creation.

The universe was apparently incomplete all those years, awaiting a final act of creation that even almighty God cannot accomplish. God can make the world, even visit it on occasion; but God cannot live in it without the work we do that invites God in.

So that is what the many weeks of reading through Exodus (and now, Leviticus) have been about. All that detailed stuff about hammering together boards and sockets, sowing priestly garments, preparing the eternal light, and affixing the gorgeous drapery — even Aaron’s crash course in sacrifice: all of that was about the uniquely human task of bringing God here to earth, to dwell.

Architect Ludwig Mies van der Rohe reputedly said, “God is in the detail.” He did not mean God’s details (though they are beautiful enough) – the microscopic magnificence of a butterfly’s wing or the billions of flower species each different from the next. He meant our own. Yes, all these past few weeks of reading Torah have been about finding God in our details, the details of a desert mishkan that, made just right, invites God in.

When God finished the divine share of creation, “God blessed the seventh day and rested.” But think about it: Can God get tired? No, God rested because there was nothing left for God to do. Creation had now to be delegated to us. That is why the sixth day of creation ends with the words, “God looked at everything he had done.” Everything God had done, not everything there is to do – like a builder of a home who erects the framework but then must await the electrician to light the place up. From the seventh day on, then, God awaited this eighth day, when God’s creatures might finally finish the job by doing the one thing God could not: make a dwelling place here for God.

We are invited to continue that tradition, not just in building actual sanctuaries, but in our everyday pursuits. Whatever our tasks – planting a garden, serving a customer, preparing a report, representing a client, visiting the sick, chairing a committee – we are to do them with such excellence of detail that even God would feel comfortable dropping by. Are you raising a family? Attending to business? Volunteering in a synagogue? Building a friendship? These are not mere pastimes to fill the space between birth and death. They are examples of a sanctuary, updated for our time: examples of the human ability to find creativity meaningful and work fulfilling. So decorate your home, sell your product, investigate a school for your children, invent a better something-or-other – but do it right; cut no corners. You may find God coming to live nearby. And some day, someone may write of you. “It was an evening and it was a morning: an eighth day.”

God and the Good, or What Good is God?

What makes things ethically good? That’s Plato’s classic question in his dialogue, Euthyphro: Grant that the gods love what is holy, he says, but do they love the holy because it is holy? Or is it holy because the gods love it?

Change “holy” to “good,” and you get our dilemma. Do the gods advise such things as justice and kindness because they are good? Or are these things good because the gods advise them?

Most readers cheer when Plato demonstrates the former: justice and kindness are intrinsically good — not just called good because the gods like them. Hurray for the independent good!

But Plato’s question reads more threateningly when we replace the Greek “gods” with our own God. Does the prophetic adjuration to do “what is good: do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8) mean that justice, mercy, and humility before God are good because God likes them? Or that God likes them because they are good?

What we said for the Greek gods must hold for our God as well. God must like the good because it is really good, not the other way around.

But then, who needs God? If the good exists in and of itself, doesn’t God become ethically redundant?

Not necessarily. We might say that God does indeed like the good because it is good, just as we should. But note the verbs. God does and we just should – because sometimes we do not. God necessarily does like the good because God is altogether good by nature. Not being God, we sometimes get it wrong.

So the good is the good on its own merit; God likes the good because it is good, but also because God’s nature is altogether good. Religions, we might say, preach the good both on its own merit, but also in the name of God who recognizes it.

All of which leads us to the function of religion, which, it turns out, does three things to lead us to be good.

  1. Religion teaches, argues, reasons, cajoles, preaches and pleads: Like philosophy, religion too reminds us cognitively of our obligation to choose the good. But unlike philosophy, religion links the good with God, using one ideal (God) to reinforce the other (the good).
  2. Religion uses ritual to enhance its moral message. People don’t actually respond well to purely cognitive reasoning. We require also the aesthetic, which religion supplies through ritual. It is one thing to say that God wants “justice, mercy and humility.” It is another to enact it in ritual that moves people to internalize these goods as what we should choose – as God does. Over a century ago (1912), sociologist Emile Durkheim noted how ritual enlists our emotions, not just our mind, to reinforce communities that hold people responsible for ethical behavior.
  3. Religion tells stories. Part of the aesthetic appeal comes also from religion’s endless rehearsing of stories about ethical dilemmas. “The artistic is very close to the ethical,” writes literary critic Terry Eagleton (How to Read Literature, pp. 75, 77), discussing George Eliot who wanted readers to “imagine and to feel” the “pains and joys” of her characters. We develop “imaginative sympathy” with the heroes and victims of our religious narratives.

As a Marxist, Eagleton suspects that such sympathy is hardly enough to guarantee the good, however, and no doubt, he is right – else serial killers and corporate polluters could be reborn by a course in reading the classics. Neither is religious ritual sufficient – regular attendees at worship are not necessarily models of morality.

So religions do all three.

  1. They moralize, lecture, teach, and preach (as philosophy does), but they go farther by linking what is independently good to God who is good.
  2. They provide rituals that create cohesive communities and move us emotionally beyond what mere argument can accomplish.
  3. They provide stories with which we identify.

All this makes religion a delivery system for the ethical; it does not, however, guarantee that the ethics it delivers are necessarily moral. But the same can be said of every other option: Philosophy includes Marxism gone wrong as well as Kant’s ethical imperative.

Religion’s very power to deliver explains the evil it has wrought; but that very same power explains also the good of which it is capable. The specter of religion on the side of evil should not deter us from the promise of religion on the side of good; and given the complexity of human personality and culture, I can think of nothing better than religion to advance humanity beyond our current state.

Jews and Christians as the Theological Double Helix in Time

The period of Passover to Shavuot (for Jews) and Easter to Pentecost (for Christians) exemplifies the similarities that mark our two faiths, despite the obvious differences. It ought also to evoke some daring theology that we might share together. Recounting our intertwined history is commonplace; making theological sense of it is not.

Suppose, however, that our shared history does have theological meaning; and suppose as well that we took it seriously together. How might we transform mutual animosities of the past into faithful commitment to the future?

Take these days of counting in which we now find ourselves: the sefirah, as Jews call it. Jews are now “counting” the fifty days from Passover to Shavuot, the festival that marks the giving of Torah. It was on Shavuot as well – Pentecost, as Greek-speaking Jews called it – that the Christian Book of Acts identifies as the time when the disciples were visited by the Holy Spirit.

If you want revelation, expect it 50 days after Passover. Both Jews and Christians knew that.

There were differences, of course. For the Christian Fathers, these were days of supreme joy, an expectation of the second coming. For the Rabbis, they were eventually made over into a period of mourning. But in their own distinctive ways, both faiths saw these fifty days as anticipating the purpose for which they had come into being. The Jewish Exodus from Egypt was mere prologue to Sinai; the Easter miracle culminated in Pentecost’s gift of the spirit.

There are two ways to narrate the tale of this commonality of vision. The most common version sees Christianity as branching off from rabbinic Judaism. In that scenario, the author of Acts deliberately borrowed the Jewish understanding of Shavuot as backdrop for his account of the Holy Spirit. An alternative understanding, however, would see Judaism and Christianity as two parallel and alternative interpretations of Hebrew Scripture, with neither one preceding the other. Both Jews and Christians would trace their roots to the first- and second-century search for meaning in a common biblical heritage.

In the past, we have each found it convenient to emphasize the first and mistaken scenario – – the idea that Christianity broke away from rabbinic Judaism. Christians could then fault Jews for falling short of Judaism’s intended fulfillment in Christ. Jews could see Christians as going shamefully astray by misunderstanding what the Hebrew Bible is all about.

History, moreover, has not been kind to our relationship. Medieval theologies and the inequities in power have reinforced our sibling rivalries, virtually destroying the possibility of seeing ourselves as sister religions with a common past, now struggling in unison for a shared vision of a better world order.

But the Middle Ages are just part of a much larger story – not just the centuries when we were at each other’s throats, but our birth as twins in the womb of late antiquity, and our nurture through infancy on a single set of sacred tales, to the point of becoming virtual mirrors of each other: Passover is to Easter as Shavuot is to Pentecost, for example.

History is not just the facts but the story line connecting them. Instead of rivals in a zero-sum game, we might equally well devise a story that positions us together as potential allies. We are a double helix of history, constantly swirling round each other through time, never getting close enough to lose our separate identities but never flying off into totally independent orbits either. We are two religious traditions in dialogue from birth, each with our own language, lessons, and liturgy – but also, interdependent parts of a larger entity, poised to work together now in joint pursuit of a better human destiny.

The story we tell of who we are need not be dictated by the worst of what we were. These days of counting in which we both engage can be models of common hope and affirmation. Perhaps the world needs us now, locked not in mutual combat but in collaborative affirmation of divine purpose.

We are indeed the end result of scientific facts, but history is the narrative that links the facts together, and there is more than a single narrative to tell. Among them is the theological tale of being a double helix in time, with differently nuanced versions of a divine message guaranteeing human dignity and promise.