What, I often wonder, is religion’s “value added,” when it comes to matters of moment? Religious people are not necessarily more moral. And too often, they seem simply to be adding selective religious quotes that amplify the discussion without further clarifying it. I mean, for example, in our Jewish case, such one-liners as tikkun olam (“repairing the world”) and Tzedek tzedek tirdof (“Pursue justice, justice”). Sometimes, the preponderance of Jewish tradition does support one side over another, but sometimes both positions can be buttressed by accommodating Jewish citations; and in any case, a single aphorism is hardly what lawyers would call probative.
There has to be something more, some core Jewish values that transcend the convenient cliches, cherry-picked to demonstrate what we would have said anyway.
By core values, I mean axiomatic understandings that are core to who we are, the kind of thing embedded by Thomas Jefferson in the American Declaration of Independence: that we are endowed by our Creator with the “unalienable Rights [of] Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It wasn’t altogether Jefferson’s idea, mind you — he built on the philosophy of John Locke (1632–1704), who proclaimed the right to “life, health, liberty [and] possessions” – a quotation that is often shortened (for purposes of comparison to Jefferson) to “Life, liberty and property.” Jefferson changed “property” to “happiness.” As a Virginia planter, he hardly objected to property, but he was enamored of another claim by Locke: that “a careful and constant pursuit of true and solid happiness” is “the foundation of liberty.”
As a master of rhetorical style, Jefferson knew too that people respond to sets of three: like “good, bad or indifferent,” “no ifs ands or buts,” “Father, Son, and Holy Ghost,” and “God, Torah, Israel.” So he combined Locke’s “life” and “health” (without health, we shorten life). He even adopted Locke’s “in pursuit of” language. And out came “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness.”
He chose “happiness” because he cared most about liberty; and Locke, remember, had described happiness as liberty’s very “foundation”; and by “happiness,” Jefferson meant (as Locke did) the “true and solid” sort, not the hedonistic pleasures of the moment, but what Aristotle had called eudaimonia, the serenity of mind that comes from a life well lived.
Judaism too has such timeless verities, but unlike the American example, we cannot always trace their evolution. The ones I have in mind come full-blown, not in a constitutional preamble, but in the liturgy for the three once-agricultural and pilgrim festivals of Passover, Shavuot and Sukkot.
For all of them (and for other occasions as well), the Rabbis mandated a prayer thanking God “for giving us life, sustaining us and bringing us to this moment” (the familiar shehechiyanu). The Rabbis would have agreed with Jefferson: life is an unalienable right granted by God.
The three festivals yield three other values, embedded in the prayer that inaugurates each festival, the kiddush.
Passover’s value was obvious, because the Bible itself saw it as the festival of liberation from servitude. So the Kiddush for Passover thanks God for “this festival of Passover, the time of our liberation.
Sukkot, meanwhile, was remembered by the Rabbis as an annual scene of monumental happiness, possibly because it was the last of the three annual harvests (counting from Passover), the end of the agricultural year, just prior to the winter rains. “Anyone who has never seen the happiness of Sukkot,” the Rabbis said, “has never seen true happiness altogether.” Accordingly, the inaugural prayer for Sukkot celebrates God “who brings us to this festival of Sukkot, the time of our happiness.”
If we had only these three prayers — gratitude for giving us life; the Passover celebration of liberty, and the Sukkot celebration of happiness — we would have a remarkable equivalence between Jefferson’s Declaration of Independence, on one hand, and Judaism’s core values, on the other.
But now, my question: If Judaism provides only what Americanism already understands, where is Judaism’s value added? The answer comes from the inaugural prayer for the festival I have skipped over: Shavuot. The kiddush introducing Shavuot thanks God for “the time when we received Torah.”
The Jewish value added is what we call Torah, which has many connotations, all of them celebrating the gift of divine wisdom. But Torah does to wisdom what Eudaimonia did to happiness: it reinterpreted wisdom as the “true and solid sort,” not academia separated from life, but knowledge that touches life. Rabbi Gordon Tucker once remarked that Torah lishmah does not mean “Torah for its own sake,” but “Torah for the sake to which it is intended,” which (I think it fair to say) is wisdom for the sake of “a life well lived.”
Torah is also a pursuit, however, like Locke’s pursuit of property and Jefferson’s pursuit of happiness, but in the Jewish case, a pursuit of what Jewish tradition calls “learning.” “Learning” is also a verb describing the process by which the noun “learning” is achieved. It is characterized by fruitful dialogue, debate even, undertaken in such a way that the two sides commit themselves to 1. the objective evaluation of evidence and 2. respect for one another – the ideal being “an argument for the sake of heaven” (machloket l’shem shamayim).
Here then, at a very deep level, we find the Jewish “value added.” Like the American instance, Judaism too values “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” But for Jews the “life well led” for which we strive, personally and communally, comes from “learning” – debating and discussing for the common good (“for the sake of heaven”).
What that means, especially in this current moment of national discourse seems obvious. We have every obligation to support the causes we hold dear. But we are obliged to do so in a “learned” fashion, tempering emotional heat with enlightened wisdom. Not everyone will listen to us, but some people will. We call that “drawing people near to Torah,” an attribute of the disciples of Aaron, say our sages; and insofar as Torah is “learning for the common good,” for a “life well led” by one and all, you don’t have to be Jewish to be attracted to it.