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.

Take Four

“Aren’t all religions alike?” people want to know. “Isn’t the point really just to be a good person?”

Well, yes and no. What makes any religion great is indeed its commitment to human goodness. But religions approach that goodness in their own distinctive ways. They all serve up the idea of how properly to respond to the human condition, but they slice it differently.

The issue arose most recently for me when I visited the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s definitive exhibit entitled, “The Plains Indians” – the culture of a large grouping of tribes ranging from the Cree and Ojibwa in western Canada to the Cheyenne, Comanche, and Sioux nations scattered southward all the way to Texas.

One of the items on display references four basic values of these Plains Indians: generosity, courage, wisdom and fortitude.

As it happens, I had just discovered elsewhere that over in England, Jane Austen’s 1817 tombstone praises her for charity, devotion, faith, and purity (see Roy and Leslie Adkins, Jane Austen’s England).

Hmmmm. Generosity, courage, wisdom and fortitude, on one hand; charity, devotion, faith, and purity, on the other.

Every culture, said pioneer sociologist Max Weber (1864-1920), establishes its own “ideal type,” the recipe for perfection that its adherents strive ideally to emulate. What we have here, then, are two examples of ideal types: generosity, courage, wisdom and fortitude (for the Indian Peoples of the plains) and charity, devotion, faith, and purity (for Christians like Jane Austin).

The attributes are gendered. The tribal culture’s selection is largely male, the model for tribal braves; Austin’s set was prescribed for pre-Victorian women. But even so, they tell us a lot about Native American religion on one hand and Christianity on the other.

The tribal traits are weighted toward the competitive (even warlike) life on the plains, where tribes contended with the need to hunt and fight for control of their environment. High on their list are courage and fortitude, what every young man was asked to demonstrate in the grueling vision quest that marked his transition to manhood.

With Austen, by contrast, we get a feminized version of recognized Christian virtues: faith and devotion, certainly, but also charity and purity – traits found in monastic culture for men as well.

Native American religion inculcated attributes of bravery, its ideal type being the Indian Brave. Christian religion accented faith, but also selflessness (even self-abnegation) and the challenge to remain pure in a world filled with temptations of the flesh; its ideal type was the solitary monk, devoting days and nights to the veneration of God while avoiding worldly pleasures.

What about Jews? What would the four Jewish attributes be? As with Native Americans and Christians, the Jewish ideals too were intended originally for men, but have nowadays been generalized to women also. What are they?

To some extent, any four terms are an arbitrary selection – just as the Indian and Christian examples here must be. But their general orientation is not. What is the Jewish ideal type? If not the Native Brave or the Christian monk, what does classical Judaism prescribe as ideal?

I suspect the Rabbis would have advocated learning, justice, righteousness and making peace. Their ideal was the learned judge who dispenses justice, acts with righteousness, and makes peace between warring parties. These four traits figure prominently in such manuals of behavior as Pirkei Avot (second century) and they recur throughout rabbinic literature. They epitomize the Jewish exemplar of talmid chakham.

So back to the original question: aren’t all religions just cases of being a good person? Not really.

To be sure, they all admire the good; and there is much that they share. Whether expressly mentioned here or not, for example, peace is valued by all three cultures; so too is generosity, which appears expressly in the Native list and is reflected in monastic vows of poverty. Similarly, all three religions esteem living in accord with the divine; offering part of our bounty back to God (or the gods); and learning the wisdom of the past. I make no inveterate distinctions here: as I said, all great religions are great for a reason – they all raise us up to be our highest selves.

But they approach the good differently; they slice the ideal in different ways. In identifying with a given religion, adherents learn to value that religion’s particular slicing. Judaism’s signature path to the good is through learning and study, by which one becomes a scholar; scholarship must lead to action, however: lo hamidrash ha’ikar ela hama’aseh (“not learning but doing is the main thing”). And the highest form of action is to act justly and rightly so as to bring peace where there is strife.

From Great Sabbath to Great Seder: From Getting the Word Out to Getting the Message Through

It’s Shabbat Hagadol again, the “Great Shabbat” that precedes the seder, and time for my annual plea to make this year’s seder something worthy of being called great. No one knows exactly why this anticipatory Shabbat is called “great” – the term appears first in the Gospel of John (of all places) and no Jewish source uses it until the Middle Ages, by which time, no one knew any more what it meant. Among the possibilities, however, is the realization that it precedes the greatest holiday in our calendar: Passover, which gave us our birth as a People and introduced freedom from slavery as a supreme value for all humanity.

Unless we rise from our annual seder convinced of Passover’s “greatness,” we miss the mark. It must echo with this year’s news, not just antiquity’s events. The “Great Shabbat” was established to rehearse the Haggadah in advance, anticipating moments for our seder to make old words sound entirely new.

Just think of all change that our Haggadah has undergone in attempts to retain its freshness. Originally, there was no printed text at all – in an oral age, people made it up as they went along. Originally too, there were three, not four cups of wine, and some rabbis even added a fifth cup, because the ones they had represented God’s acts of deliverance in the past, but they wanted a cup to remain unconsumed on the table unless God appeared to save us once again. By the late Middle Ages, that became an Elijah’s Cup. And nowadays, some people have added a Miriam’s Cup as well.

The meal didn’t come only half way through the night either. People ate first, originally, using the foods to prompt discussion. When people began to “eat and run,” however, the meal was postponed to make hungry diners sit through the discussion before satisfying their appetites.

There were not four questions originally either; and a child did not ask them until the Middle Ages. Since people ate first, children asked genuine questions prompted by the meal. Our “four questions” are just rabbinic examples of what to say to a child who cannot think of anything to ask. Without a meal coming first, and with nothing to prompt a child’s curiosity, these became standardized questions that children delivered by rote, the way we do today.

No one sang Dayyenu in the early years either. It was still optional in the tenth century.

At first, the Seder’s high point was an opaque midrash about some “wandering Aramean” who was worse than Pharaoh. Traditional seders still have that midrash, although those who say it are unlikely to know that it was a veiled reference to Roman domination – change the vowels and the Hebrew aRaMi (Aramean) becomes RoMi (Roman). After the Crusades, a new climax was added: opening the door for Elijah, and hoping for the messiah. “Next year in Jerusalem!” we began saying.

A slew of new Haggadahs appear annually about now. Some are just glitzier rewrites of the old; others provide commentary with contemporary interpretations; some update our story to reflect the realities of slavery still rampant round the world. More than a new Haggadah, however, consider the need to be a genuine leader of the seder, not just its facilitator. Ask people for a new question that we ought to be considering. Take time for them to express what slaveries they feel, what freedom might look like this year.

Feel free to skip readings that make little sense to you. The book we use for a holiday of freedom should not be oppressive! The point of the seder is not its readings but its message: the Jewish People’s mission is to see a world redeemed from degradation.

Do whatever you can to apply that message to our time. Just rereading the same old script of the centuries may get the word out; but only pausing to make the script come alive we get the message through.


What Business Are We In?

Synagogues should be asking, “What business are we in?” That may seem obvious, but it isn’t, and most synagogue leaders get it wrong – with disastrous consequences.

The usual answers are things like Jewish education, Shabbat and holiday services, social action, or even all of the above, in the tried and true triad of religion: Torah (study) avodah (prayer) and g’milut chasadim (good deeds).

Religion may be what we do, however; it is not our business. The two are not the same.

The question arises compellingly in Peter Drucker’s 1954 classic, The Practice of Management. Drucker’s 1950s example is Cadillac. What it did was manufacture cars; its business, however, was not automobiles but status. Recognizing its business aright led to the realization that its competitors were not Chevrolet and Ford but high fashion and diamonds.

So what is the synagogue’s business?

During the years following World War II, we were in the continuity business. We had lost 6,000,000 and Israel was beleaguered. Challenged by anti-Semitism without and assimilation within, synagogues implicitly guaranteed Jewish continuity. So too did UJA and Federations, but explicitly, and when they proved better at raising huge sums of money to build up Israel and rescue Jews from the Soviet Union, they surpassed synagogues as the dominant Jewish organization. Wrongly so, synagogues complained, thinking the proper Jewish business was study, prayer and good deeds. Rightly so, said average Jews – whose passion was saving Jewish lives and who belonged to synagogues mostly to educate their children, another sign that what they wanted to invest in was continuity, not religion.

What made continuity our business was the fact that the customers (the rank and file Jews) wanted it enough to “buy” it. The business is not necessarily what the entrepreneurs running the show think it is. It is what the customers want. And from the 1950s to the 1990s, the fear of Jewish discontinuity was enough to galvanize the troops.

It isn’t any more, much as Jewish leaders may wish otherwise. Lots of Jews identify as Jews but not enough to insist on raising Jewish children, paying for Jewish education, supporting Jewish causes, and joining Jewish synagogues. Continuity is no longer a sufficient business to be in – not if we want to stay in business.

But neither is religion – not by itself, that is. Witness the Pew study where people increasingly say they are not religious, even though they may spiritual.

Still, religion deserves a closer look, not for what it is but for what it delivers. In the post War years, it succeeded as long as it delivered continuity. What does it (or can it) deliver now?

Religion was once what sociologist Peter Berger famously called the Sacred Canopy — the overarching reality that drove everything people did. To abandon your religion was to trade in the very essence of who you were. Not any more, however. A moment’s observation reveals that religion has become discretionary – what we do (if we wish) with our discretionary time, money and attention. I attend Sabbath services; you play golf; she gardens. I drop $3,000 as synagogue dues; you join the country club; he buys season tickets at the Met. I go to Torah study, you attend lectures on art; others take classes in American history.

Like it or not, that’s just the way it is.

But not all discretionary activity is of the same consequence to consumers. Movie-going on the odd Saturday night ranks lower than what we can call “committed pursuits,” the discretionary choices we make about matters of commitment. In the good old days when religion was a sacred canopy we knew who we were: we were Jewish or Lutheran, or Catholic or Episcopalian. Without a sacred canopy, it is not clear just what counts as our identity.

When the canopy first began to unravel (with the advent of modernity), people thought nationalism would take its place: and for many, it has. We pay taxes to, obey the laws of, and are most dependent on our countries. But the wars of the twentieth century showed us just how horribly, terribly, wrong nation states can become. “Moral man” is subject to “immoral society,” warned Reinhold Neibuhr way back in 1932. So as much as we may value national citizenship as primary, we hesitate to adopt as the deepest motto of our identity, “My country right or wrong.”

And, in any event, with the religious canopy gone, we have room for multiple identities, not just our nationality: I may be an American, a Jew, a professor, and a serious violinist; you may be an American and Jew, but also a feminist, judge, and artist. Whatever we say we “are” requires the committed allocation of discretionary time, money and attention.

Synagogues compete for these resources, the symbolic tokens of people’s inner identities. We are ultimately in the identity business. The Age of Continuity has become The Age of Fractured Identity.

A great deal follows, most particularly, how synagogues make themselves known to the world. Synagogues in the Age of Continuity advertised programs that would keep Jews Jewish: a better religious school, a guaranteed bar/bat mitzvah, or Sunday afternoon lectures on Israel. In the Age of Fractured Identity, these still matter, but for different reasons. If identity is the issue, we need most to demonstrate that we are a serious candidate for people’s deepest selves, their aspirations to matter, their pursuit for meaning, and their desire not to have lived and died in vain.

As it turns out, religion is profoundly (even uniquely) suited to this venture. That’s why synagogues matter more now than ever.

Why We Study Sacrifices: A Happy Case of Collusion

“Collusion” is usually a dirty word denoting police brutality, government corruption, corporate price-fixing, and everyone on the take. But collusion can equally describe the unsung cooperative venture that is life itself: how plants absorb carbon dioxide and exchange it for oxygen, allowing humans to breathe oxygen and give carbon dioxide back, for instance. All of life is about giving and getting in happy collusion.

The Torah calls it sacrifice, and devotes a whole book of Torah to it. We miss the point if we think this week’s Torah reading (the beginning of Leviticus) introduces just a picayune and lengthy treatment of how to offer animals on an altar that has not existed since the Romans destroyed it almost two thousand years ago.

Moses’ opening instruction provides a broader picture: “When you offer a sacrifice from yourselves to God….” The peculiar placement of mikem (“from yourselves”) implies more than the rote offering of animals. Sacrifice can be anything, as long as you really own it, says Ibn Ezra; better still, it must be something “from within yourself.”

The point is this: we study the sacrifices not because we expect to offer up animals again, but because sacrifice is only tangentially about animals in the first place. On a deeper level, it is about the human passion to give up even what we hold dearest, if our doing so will further life’s larger purposes. It is about self-sacrifice or it is about nothing.

Other animal species sacrifice themselves also, but only through instinct. We humans operate with similar instincts, but having stretched the instinct into conscious choice, we need guidance on how to make our choices. How do we know when self‑sacrifice is in order?

If you think that is an easy question, think through all the bad “Jewish mother” jokes that revolve around Mother’s stereotypical desire to sacrifice herself unduly. (“How many Jewish mothers does it take to change a light bulb? None; “I’ll just sit in the dark.”) Studies of Jewish culture do demonstrate that Jews have been taught to give, not to receive, and to that extent, there is some truth to the humor. Though a caricature, it reflects the possibility that not all self-sacrifice is desirable.

The thing is, sacrifice is a fancy word for “gift.” It requires a giver and a receiver. What happens if you spend the day cooking a beautiful dinner for the family, but the family runs off for evening activities without bothering to eat it? How do you feel if you choose a birthday present for the one you love, only to find it lying around unused and unappreciated for months afterward. So this opening reading of Leviticus cautions further, “The person bringing the sacrifice should offer it up according to his will before God.” But whose will are we describing here, the giver’s or God’s?

The likely answer is, “Both!” Sacrifice works only when giver and receiver are in collusion.

The key may be the rabbinic concept of et ratson. Et means time; but what is et ratson – literally, “a time of will,” a time that is propitious, presumably? But what is that, if not a time when two wills intersect? It takes a relationship to establish et ratson, a moment when two wills intersect so that gifts become gifts to both giver and receiver.