The Ongoing Human Project: Why and How I Keep Shabbat

How does one determine the proper way to keep Shabbat? I get that question regularly from Jews who do not follow halachah traditionally, but who do not consider it irrelevant, and want a means of deciding such things as whether to write or ride or use electricity then. Their dilemma arises particularly in this week’s reading, where the classic commandment to observe Shabbat is found.

Because that commandment is adjacent to discussion of building the desert sanctuary, the Rabbis interpret Shabbat work to include all items connected with that sanctuary’s sacrificial cult – 39 activities in all, including sowing and ploughing; kneading, and baking; spinning and tearing; slaughtering and writing; kindling or dousing a fire; and so on (M. Shabbat 7:2).

Liberally minded Jews often wonder about these things. Kindling fire was difficult work back then, they say, but flicking an electric switch is hardly backbreaking labor. They miss the point. While they may well decide that turning on lights is permissible for them on Shabbat, that decision can hardly be based on the amount of actual toil involved. The Rabbis’ concept of work goes much deeper than that.

The 39 forms of tabernacle work fall into four categories: baking bread (for the priests); preparing fabric (for the tabernacle’s curtains); preparing a scroll (for writing); and building (the tabernacle itself). These four, however, are part of a larger category: they are all part of the human project of building and preserving culture.

This insight arrives by applying an insight from anthropologist, Claude Levi Strauss, who noted that every human society cooks food, mandates clothing, builds and decorates homes, and transmits learning from generation to generation. This insistence on converting raw nature into cuisine, style, art, and a historical record are what make us fully human.

The rabbinic forms of work, then, are no mere laundry list of random items. They are all exemplifications of the grand human project of transforming nature into culture.

“Work” is not just going to a job or doing the housework, therefore. It is the ongoing human effort to leave our mark upon the world. This human project inevitably engages us, because it is the means of staking out our worth and, in the end, what we will be remembered for. It’s what gets us up the morning.            But at the same time, it’s what we lose sleep over. Shabbat, therefore, is the day that provides a break from the ongoing task of advancing the human project; as if God says, “I hold you responsible for perfecting my world – but not today.”

So here is how I, a liberal Jew, make Shabbat decisions. I consult halachah with seriousness; I then measure my life by its principles, but not by all its specific regulations. One such principle is to take time off from the human project. So anything connected with that project’s work and worry gets put on hold.

On Shabbat, therefore, I do not (for example) write my books, articles and columns; but I do email personal notes to friends and family. Shabbat reading can be about anything – but not connected to my research. I study Torah, but not any section on which I am writing an article. I do no errands; but I drive to synagogue, simchahs, and leisure-time activities that enhance life’s fullness.

On Shabbat, I cherish the gift of family and friends; I fill my soul with music and art, love and laughter, nature and nurture, both solitude and community. My responsibility for the human project will return soon enough, when Shabbat is over.

I have the highest regard for Jews who follow the traditional halachic guide to keeping Shabbat. But imagining just that single path to proper Shabbat observance puts Shabbat beyond the reach of those who find its halachic details unpersuasive, but who nonetheless want to honor Shabbat in a reasonable and satisfying way. This underlying principle of the Ongoing Human Project can be compelling guide to making Shabbat matter in our lives.

Reason, Imagination and Morality: Humanity at its Best and a Window Onto God

Way back at the burning bush (Exodus 3:6), “Moses hid his face, being afraid to look at God.” And for good reason: as God explains later (Exodus 33:20), “No one can see me and live.” Yet here (Exodus 24:10), not just Moses, but Aaron, Nadav, Abihu, and even the Israelite elders, “saw the God of Israel, yet He did not raise His hand against them.”

Why not? What exactly did they see?

Rashi says they just glanced at God; enough to deserve punishment, maybe, but not so much that God could not postpone it, to avoid marring the joy of revelation.

That’s not a great answer to our philosophically inclined commentators, who offer an alternative solution, dependent on Maimonides’ understanding of prophecy. God cannot be seen, they point out, because God is invisible. Moses and his party must, therefore, simply have intuited a prophetic vision of God, Such a vision, says Maimonides, arises out of the combination of three perfected character traits: reason, imagination and morality — precisely the three hallmarks, incidentally, that Immanuel Kant would later celebrate as the essence of humanity: pure reason, aesthetic judgment, and the moral law.

But how could all those priests and elders have attained the prophetic capacity that we reserve for Moses alone?

We should supplement Maimonides, then, with the view of Judah Hechasid, the leader of German mysticism following the Crusades. Judah composed Shir Hakavod, (“Song of Glory,” called also Anim Z’mirot) a daring anthropomorphic description of God that is still recited in traditional synagogues at the end of Musaf — as if he had actually perceived God in human form. But Judah was more sophisticated than that. He believed God has two aspects: the ultimate and hidden side that no one sees; and a “visual translation,” so to speak — an emanation from the concealed part, in knowable human form, the way a shadow of something hidden from sight might be projected upon a screen. How else can we know an unknowable God? Surely God must project at least a hint of what divinity is like.

Return now to Maimonides, for whom ultimate seeing is more than visual. All animals see; but human beings “see” prophetically. We may not all be prophets, any more than we are all brilliant philosophers, accomplished artists, and perfected moral agents, but we all experience reason, imagination, and morality to some degree. And the way we best express this higher-order “seeing” is through speech.

There are exceptions: artistic geniuses like Picasso and Beethoven who transcend pure speech in providing the imagination of greatness; but most of us speak our worlds into being. The side of the divine that God shares with us, in the philosophy of Judah Hechasid, may not be, as Judah thought, an actual sighting of God. More likely, it is the manifestation of whatever it is that prompts us to grasp for language of the divine – what we call the “sacred.”

Over 100 years ago, Emil Durkheim, the Jewish founder of modern sociology wondered where words and concepts come from. How do we get the idea of “allness,” for instance – and then words like “all,” “eternity” and “forever”? He denied the standard philosophical reasoning that attributed such ideas to the internal working of our minds, acting independently. Ideas, Durkheim insisted, are prompted by external experiences, which then evoke words – especially, Durkheim thought, the word, “sacred.”

A lesser word does not do justice to experiences like moments of love, the kindness of strangers, scientific breakthroughs , and beauty that takes the breath away. The word “sacred” arose when, from the human side, the Israelites on the mountain put together reason, imagination and morality to exercise prophetic vision; while God offered a glimpse of what those three elements might reasonably strive to comprehend.

What Moses and the Israelite leaders saw that day was not the face of God, but possibilities that demanded a new word: “sacred.” And we have been striving for it ever since.

Three Strikes and You’re Out — Or Maybe Not!

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Three is the critical number. On that, both sides agree. Three generations, that is: the third generation is a turning point.

But “turning point” to what? There, the two sides differ. For Talmudic sage Rabbi Yochanan, three successive generations of Torah scholars guarantees that “Torah will never depart from their offspring” (BM 85a). Sociologist Marcus Lee Hanson, however, warns that after three generations, family traditions die. For Rabbi Yochanan, a third generation ensures continuity. For Professor Hanson, it spells continuity’s demise.

Who is right?

Our own experience favors Hansen. His study of ethnic communities showed that immigrants (the first generation) love tradition. Their children reject their parents’ nostalgia. The grandchildren try to recover what their parents rejected. But the game ends there, at the third generation, because the fourth generation just doesn’t care.

American Jews today are living this fourth-generation nightmare, watching our young people identify as Jewish but remain “neutral to negative” about Jewish causes, Jewish charity, Jewish learning, and a Jewish future.

But maybe Rabbi Yochanan is on to something. He is discussing Torah, not ethnicity, and our commentators cite him in connection with the commandment in this week’s Torah reading (Bo) to tell our children the story of leaving Egypt.

Whether we have a future depends on what we take that story to be. Will it be historical memories of anti-Semitism, or even a Jewish state like all other states but speaking Hebrew on the streets – however much that moved so many of the older generations to tears of joy? Or will it be something eternal and profound: a call to believe in the Jewish mission of the centuries, of which both Israel and we may be a part?

Believing, alas, is what American Jews do most poorly. By believing, I mean no blind acceptance of the Exodus account in all its detail. It is a story more than it is history. What matters is the meaning we find in it. Telling it at our seders should evoke gratitude and wonder at the sheer thought of being part of something transcendent: a divine plan, no less — being covenanted into history to accomplish great expectations.

Most seders nowadays have traded in gratitude and wonder for fun family get-togethers, updated, perhaps, with activities and toy frogs to amuse the children. They may briefly flirt with seriousness when we enlarge the tale to include the Shoah and Israel, but, like it or not, these provide no transcendent meaning for the fourth generation, the one who Hansen says “just won’t care.” Yes, trips to Israel are important, and yes also, we should never forget the murdered 6,000,000, but neither is enough to sear the fourth generation’s soul the way it does their elders’.

By contrast, what would happen if we treated the seder as earnestly as we do Yom Kippur? Not for confessions of sin but for professions of belief: the insistence that the grand design of history took a turn for the better when an ancient people said, “Enough of slavery! We are on our way to Sinai, to a life of promise, and to God.”

The Haggadah’s famous “Four-Sons midrash” says that our story varies with the wisdom, wickedness, or foolishness of the child who asks. Our issue, however, is less the children asking than the parents answering. We are not wicked, but judging by how we squander the seder by replacing faith with fun, we are not all that wise either. Children should leave the seder table entranced, not entertained, by elders who believe they are still charged with a God-given task. Hearing their parents assert their faith in that age-old Jewish calling might really make this night “different from all other nights.”

Remember the child who doesn’t even know how to ask? We are the adults who don’t know how to answer. We are long on historical memory; short on faith that it means anything. And that is the recipe for disaster. Just ask Hansen.

Whatever Happened To All The Good Jewish Cheers?

Parashat Vay’chi

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

A football team with a losing season keeps its spirits high by joking, “The other teams may get the wins but we have all the good cheers.”

There is something to be said for having the good cheers, not just in moments of loss and despair, but in happier times too. It takes the right language to move us on to higher moral ground.

In that regard, it sometimes seems that it is Christianity, not Judaism, that has all the good cheers. So, at least, I am told, on occasion, by Jews who are taken with the repeated evangelical claim, “God loves you.“ Why don’t Jews say that, they ask. Why, similarly, is it the New Testament that says, “Love thy neighbor as thyself”? Why can’t Jews have that cheer as well?

Actually, we do have those cheers! The Golden Rule was preached by Hillel, before it was by Jesus. And God’s love was standard doctrine among Rabbis back then. “Happy are you, O Israel, for God loves you,” Rabbi Akiba insisted. We don’t lack the good cheers so much as we have just stopped cheering.

It’s not those cheers alone that I have in mind. I mean also other ideas and concepts that deepen life’s meaning.

Take the sense that we are gifted to be alive, and charged with caring for God’s universe; that we are born with purpose; and that our worth as individuals transcends the money we are lucky to have and the education we are fortunate to get. Christians have words for all of this: “calling,” “stewardship,” and “ministry.” The idea, simply put, is that we are called to fulfill our purpose in life, that we are stewards of whatever falls into our hands as the area of that calling, and that we become ministers toward that end.

Words like “calling,” “stewardship” and “ministry” matter, because they evoke a mindset that otherwise eludes us. How different life becomes when we believe that we are placed on earth as “ministers” of a higher purpose – like ministers of government who further human destiny; that as “stewards,” we must keep faith with what is in our care; and that we are “called” to fulfil that “stewardship” as our distinctive “ministry.” Why can’t Jews have cheers like this?

Granted, “calling,” “stewardship,” and “ministry” do not sound very Jewish. But that is because English was largely developed by the intellectual elite who served the Church. Over time, Christianity has cornered the market on its cheers. But only in English! We Jews have them all – in the original Hebrew!

Take “calling.” The middle chapter of Torah is labeled Vayikra, “God called,” the implicit lesson being that we are indeed “called” to the way of life that Vayikra details: sacrifice for others and seeking the sacred on a day-to-day basis.

As for “stewardship” and “ministry,” our commentator Sforno finds those concepts in this week’s Torah portion, when Joseph assures his brothers that he was destined for success because God had assigned him a task — his own distinctive “ministry,” if you will. Sforno calls him God’s shaliach, the technical term in Jewish law for a legal agent. But it is much more than that. Morally, sh’lichut (“legal agency”) means “ministry” or “calling.” Joseph was called to the ministry of stewarding God’s people through the famine.

Jewish law adds depth to these cheers. It stipulates, for example, that even in their absence, principals may be represented by their agents, but only if those agents act in their principals’ best interests. God appoints us, we might say, to act in God’s best interests, given the fact that God often seems so absent. Our “ministry” is to be proper stewards over God’s ongoing creation.

We Jews do have the right cheers – but in Hebrew, waiting for us to translate them and to reclaim them as our own, thereby acknowledging the Jewish commitment to the human condition into which we are born.

Reevaluating Esau

[I know this is late. I meant to get it posted in time for the relevant Torah reading this year (Parashat Toldot). But it is one of my best pieces, so I am posting it now — better late than never]

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Why would Esau abandon his birthright? He arrives home after a day’s hunt, smells his brother’s cooking, and trades the birthright away for dinner. Why indeed would he do that?

Details matter here. The first thing Esau announces upon entering the tent is, “I am weary.” Jacob makes him a proposition, “Sell (michrah) your birthright.” Esau despairs: “I am about to die. What good is my birthright to me?” And with that, the deed is done.

Esau deserves more sympathy than he gets, because we are conditioned to treat him as the “heavy.” But God is compassionate, the Rabbis say, so we should be too. Look again at Esau, then.

Are we to believe that Esau’s weariness is pure physical exhaustion? Could this mighty man of strength be so weak that he cannot pour himself some stew? That he cannot think straight enough to keep his birthright intact? Hardly. Take him at his word! “I am weary… about to die.” It doesn’t take much to diagnose Esau as suffering from a malady that attacks millions of us still: Depression.

The Rabbis emphasize the word used by Jacob, an unusual version of the imperative, michrah, “Sell!” It can also be read, machrah, not the imperative, but the past tense, meaning, “She (or it) sold” — as if rather than asking for the birthright, Jacob was observing that something or other had already sold it. Nachmanides indicates what that “something” was: it is Esau’s weariness, ayefut in Hebrew, a feminine abstract noun, and the real subject of the sentence.

On this reading, Esau arrives home at dark, his depression creeping in with the setting sun. “I am weary,” he announces, “ready to die. What good is anything to me?”

“Your weariness has sold the birthright,” Jacob observes.

And the Torah sums it up: “Esau treated even his birthright with contempt,” not because he is too tired to think clearly, but because his very soul is so weary of the world, that he is ready to die.

Thousands of readers will now recognize Esau in themselves or in those they love. Sufferers of depression present themselves as strong and filled with promise, while inside, they are weary beyond belief. Their own birthright — fresh air, sunshine, life itself — seems meaningless. People ask them to snap out of it — as if they could. But they cannot. They can barely get out of bed in
the morning. Like Esau, they are oh so weary — ready to die.

How, we may wonder, does Esau fare in the end? Years later, returning from servitude to Laban, Jacob encounters his brother who has done quite well for himself. He is wealthy, thriving, a man with family, land, and servants. But Jacob overlooks the obvious to peer into Esau’s soul. Having recognized, once, how “Esau’s weariness has sold his birthright” Jacob now judges anew. “Looking into your face,” he says, “is like looking into the face of God” (Gen. 33:10).

Jacob recognizes Esau’s depression as a thing of the past: his brother’s face, once weary, now shines with divine radiance. With his new-found peace of mind, Esau can even forgive Jacob for taking advantage of him when they were children. He kisses Jacob, assures him he is content with life, and calmly takes his leave.

Esau is a case study in hope. If Esau can be transformed into a mirror of the divine, then so can we. But first we must decide that daily weariness is neither normal nor necessary. Happiness depends on the inner life of the soul, and the soul can find the most surprising cures, even when we least expect them.

In our day, God stores up miracles in medical discoveries. If you are weary unto death, find a doctor. Decide that you have had enough of sadness. It is never too late to learn to shine like God.

Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot

Shabbat Chol Hamo’ed Sukkot

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Ma’aseh sheyaha, as the Rabbis say – “Here’s a story for you.”

Several years ago, I was visiting Manhattan’s West Side Judaica -– one of my regular pilgrimages to a place of Jewish books, s’forim, as they are known: not the commercialized products reviewed in the New York Times, but arcane Hebrew texts from long ago that get newly reissued on occasion. With Passover arriving in a week, I decided also to buy a matzah tray for my kitchen table.

Noiach, the lovely man I deal with there, showed me several – one of them particularly beautiful, but so beyond my budget that I opted for something plainer and less expensive. As he began wrapping it, however, I changed my mind.

“No” I said, “I’ll take the expensive one, l’kuv’d yont’f “– literally, “in honor of the holiday.”

“Yes,” he nodded, knowingly, “l’kuv’d yont’f.”

I have no idea where I learned to say “l’kuv’d” anything – maybe from my Yiddish-speaking grandparents when I was little and still spoke the language. Whatever the case, the word l’kuv’d, which I hadn’t used in decades, somehow rose from deep inside my Jewish consciousness – a reflection of a value Jews hold dear.

L’kuv’d is the Yiddishized version of the Hebrew likhvod , “in honor of.” In context here, it meant honoring the holiday by beautifying its observance. The word occurs everywhere, however, in the Jewish conversation of the centuries and in all those s’forim I mentioned. Likhvod hamet (“in honor of the dead”) describes the Jewish instinct to show honor to the dead not just the living. “Honor” is what Torah commands us to show parents and teachers. Embarrassing people is forbidden because it contravenes k’vod habriyot (“the honor due God’s creatures”); we destroy places of idolatry, not for God’s sake, but because their existence is an embarrassment to the people who built them. We Jews are a culture of honor.

How spectacular! Noiach (from the traditionalist world of the Sanz Chasidim) and I (a Reform rabbi) may seem to have little in common. But I justify buying an expensive matzah tray by saying l‘kuv’d yunt’f” and Noiach knows exactly what I mean. Because both of us read and revere those s’forim that he sells and I buy, we share the rock-bottom Jewish commitment to a culture of honor – and we treat each other accordingly.

Reinforcing our loyalty to this culture of honor is central to Sukkot, which features our holding together “the four species”: the etrog; and the palm, myrtle, and willow branches that constitute the lulav. Those s’forim that we Jews pour over liken them to the Jewish People bound together as one despite our differences, likhvod hashem – “in honor of God,” whose People we are.

In this culture of honor, we learn from one another. The very expression, “culture of honor” came from Jonathan Rosenblatt, an Orthodox rabbi in Riverdale, who taught it to some 300 synagogue representatives from all movements convened by Synagogue 2000, an organization dedicated to transforming synagogues into moral and spiritual centers for the 21st century. We shared insight, music, and learning across denominations because as different as we are, we all insist that what God wants for organizational life, and for relationships generally, is honor.

The opposite of a culture of honor, says Rabbi Rosenblatt, is a culture of blame, where people cover their own faults by blaming others. It might also be a culture of nastiness or humiliation where we build ourselves up by tearing others down. But blame, nastiness and humiliation are not the Jewish way.

Sh’ma yisrael, we Jews say; and then: barukh shem k’vod malkhuto l’olam va’ed, which can be translated as “Blessed is the Name [of God]: the glory of His Kingdom is eternal; or better: “The honor [that is typical] of His Kingdom is what’s lasting.” To be a Jew is to construct together a culture that models what the world can be: however much we differ, we treat each other with honor.


Why High Holiday Serivces Matter More Than You Might Think

“…Jews are baffled by [services] … Especially on the high holidays, they really don’t know what to make of this great big thick book that everyone is going through rather slowly, often for hours at a time.”

“The High Holidays are the unique message of … the human dream.”

“One should rise at the end of the High Holiday service committed to the proposition that … we are historical moments in the making.”