High Holiday Worship Retooled? Or the Borscht Belt with all the Food That Can Kill Us?

I have a riddle: Why are High-Holiday Services like the long-gone borscht-belt hotels in the Catskills?

Answer is: The hotels served all you could eat of dreadfully unhealthy food, giving rise to the joke, “The food there is awful, but they make it up in volume.” High-Holiday worship, likewise, is judged by many as terrible, but we make it up in endlessness.

So why aren’t rabbis and cantors doing something about this (the High Holidays, that is, not the Catskills)?

Actually, they are, says Professor Jack Wertheimer, who has documented how synagogues are coming to terms with their reputation for being “crashingly dull.” He excoriates those large funders and federations who abandon synagogues to do their necessary work unaided by the very philanthropical agents most able to help them.

But, Wertheimer cautions, this liturgical innovation comes at a cost: the loss of liturgical competency. In their effort to respond to the momentary, synagogues sacrifice the momentous: they “absorb into Jewish life much that is inimical to it” thus “ratifying” the loss as an acceptable given. That, Wertheimer bemoans, is “the actual—and unaddressed—crisis of American Judaism today.”

Is Wertheimer correct?  “Yes, yes, and no,” I say, in my response to him (mosaicmagazine.com). Yes, the best of our synagogues have embarked on transformation of historic proportions; yes, only a handful of federations and independent big givers recognize it or seem even to care, one way or the other. But, no, the biggest problem is neither the “loss of cultural literacy,” nor synagogues that hasten the loss along.

I differ most when Wertheimer identifies “hospitality, diversity, spirituality, creativity, non-judgmentalism, tikkun olam, [and] personalized religion” as “faddish nostrums.” The word “tradition” comes from the Latin tradere, “to deliver or hand over” as a matter of actual ownership. No one will care to own anything of Jewish tradition if they do not feel hospitably welcomed by synagogues that offer it, and all the less so if the “it” being offered is a-spiritual, uncreative, judgmental, unconcerned with the shape of the world, and impersonal.”

Wertheimer romanticizes tradition. Nostalgia isn’t what it used to be, and neither is the tradition for which we feel nostalgic. Tradition is the famous river of Heraclitus that changes each time we enter it. But he is not altogether wrong: if tradition is a river flowing through time, we need at least to stand in the river bed, not beat out a path of our own in the jungle growth that leads away from it. Jewish competence (a better word than literacy) does matter.

Jack Wertheimer is a fine scholar and observer of American Judaism. He and I are fellow travelers, passionate about a Judaism that is thick with substance and import. We are committed likewise to synagogues as what I like to call “communities of profundity,” the communal foci for our spiritual and moral Jewish future, the places where we “speak and act in a register that does justice to the human condition.”

For the discussion in its entirety see:

https://mosaicmagazine.com/response/2018/09/whats-wrong-with-nostalgia-for-judaisms-millennia-long-tradition/

Advertisements

The Grand Subpoena: To Attest and To Protest Too

“Attest” and “protest”: on these two stands of human conscience the civilized world depends. They are central to this week’s reading, Atem Nitzavim.., “You stand…,” a reference to the way we rise in a courtroom to offer testimony — to tell, as the saying goes, “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” We “attest,” that is, to the truth; but in so doing, we also “protest” the trashing of those truths by people who find them inconvenient.

It is not just truths that are at stake, says Shimon ben Gamaliel (Avot 1:18), but justice and peace as well, for truth, justice and peace are the three things on which humanity stands or falls. At our best, Maimonides explains, we human beings naturally strive for intellectual and moral perfection (truth and peace), but these rely on the prior existence of justice.

Failed attestation gets its fair share of recognition, because the lies we tell, the rancor we cause, and the injustices we engender are seen and heard; they leave a trail to be investigated, reported, and disseminated for discussion.

Failed protestation, by contrast — the failure to protest the moral outrages that other people perpetrate — more easily goes unattended, because observers taking notes on the large but finite number of things that people actually did say or do can hardly know, much less include, the infinity of things they didn’t. A news report on some public statement by the president, say, is simply incapable of including everything that the entire cabinet or congress did not say in response.

But our moral accounting sheet has both columns: “attestation,” the active stands we take, by word or deed; and “protestation,“ the passive stands we failed to take, when other people were saying or doing what we knew to be wrong. The first, Yom Kippur will soon remind us, are sins of commission; the latter are sins of omission.

Commentators regularly observe that the word “you” (atem) in “You are standing” (atem nitzavim) is followed by “all of you” (kulkhem) — leaders and followers, household-heads and their entire families. The Torah, seemingly, cannot close without each and every Jew being subpoenaed to stand before God. This was, says Ramban, a renewal of the Sinai covenant, but with everyone on hand, not just Moses alone atop the mountain. Kli Yakar goes further: it was an altogether new covenant, he says, because the old one failed, in that the people who were not personally alongside Moses at the time felt no responsibility for it.

In particular, says Or Hachaim, their failure lay in the second column of moral responsibility: protestation. Hard as it may be to speak truth, act justly, and seek peace, it is infinitely harder to go public against those who don’t: we risk displeasing them; we may even benefit from their actions; and besides, no one will notice, much less report, if we simply choose to turn our backs, keep silent, and go about your business. The Talmud, however, warns expressly that those who fail to protest against the sins of their household, city, people, and nation are punished for those sins, as if they had done them themselves (Shabbat 54b).

Don’t we hold the average collaborators of the Shoah guilty of this very sin? Not that they all personally dispossessed, enslaved, and ultimately murdered their Jews, but that they failed to protest when others did so.

Rosh Hashanah falls just one day after Atem Nitzavim this year. However much we gobble up apples and honey while wishing each other sweetness, we should remember that on Yom Kippur, just ten days later, we will stand, “all of us,” to be held accountable for the balance sheet that measures how we did in humanity’s search for truth, justice and peace. The easy part is what, in word or deed, we wrongly attested to. The hard part, but no less important, is what we should have protested, but didn’t.

 

 

Social Justice and the Secular Bath

I follow synagogue mission statements the way normal people follow the stock market. A synagogue’s statement of purpose is its prospectus, the reason we should care that it exists. For many synagogues, this raison d’etre features tikkun olam, some form of social justice.

Tikkun olam, however, is not the simple thing that they imagine.

The concept is rabbinic, but it took on special importance in medieval kabbalah, which pictured fault lines creeping into the fabric of creation from the very beginning of time. These cosmic fractures, as it were, engender all that is bad about the universe. Tikkun olam — literally, “correcting the universe” – was redefined as the process of restoring creation to its intended state of wholeness.

The Kabbalists were a mystical elite, however, less interested in helping the poor than in helping some metaphysical cosmic unity to come into being. The kabbalistic tikkun olam consisted in performing mitzvot with esoteric meanings in mind. Saying the right prayer with the right intention, for example, would crank the world forward on its way to messianic perfection.

Hasidic masters popularized kabbalah by applying it to human psychology. The universe requiring correction was now said to be our very own souls – the human psyche, we might say. We bear our own internal fracture lines that impact the world’s goodness; we cannot be part of the solution until we admit we are part of the problem.

Take this week’s mandate to appoint “for yourself judges and officers in your gates.” On the face of it, the Torah is describing the institutions of a just society. But sixteenth-century Kabbalist Isaiah Horowitz read it differently.  The Hebrew “for yourself,” he said, is l’kha (singular) not lakhem (plural), so it must be addressing each of us as individuals, in which case, the “gates” denote the sensory openings to our inner selves: our eyes and ears which take in the world; our mouth with which we give back to it.

Yes, said Hasidic master Jacob Joseph of Polnoye.  We must see to our own fractured state of being first.  If we do not fix ourselves, we will never fix the universe.

Synagogues who advocate tikkun olam have largely forgotten these kabbalistic/Hasidic theologies. If they know them at all, they discount them as medieval superstition.Tikkun olam has been laundered free of any stains left by its original mystical context and become a benign catch-all term for good deeds, charity, and social action in general.

Other richly contoured metaphors of Jewish tradition have similarly been given a secular bath by modern-day Jews who get queasy about anything theological. God’s “graciousness” (for example) was originally “grace”:  not some ho-hum variety of pleasant benevolence, but the wow-inducing experience of knowing God loves us, even if everyone else lets us down and even if we don’t deserve it. God’s “grace” is closely associated with tikkun olam. When we are utterly broken, God actually fixes us, and then empowers us to fix others.

How is it that we Jews who do so much else with panache manage to lose our imaginative nerve when it comes to religion? We probably would have advised Marc Chagall to forego all those angels, donkey’s heads, and heavenly brides. Some pretty clouds and sunsets are enough, we would have said.

Deracinated views of tikkun olam as some mere and modern do-good impulse has failed us. Sociologists have studied congregations that say they stand for social justice. Their members, it turns out, like the idea that their synagogue does “good deeds,” but, on the whole, they themselves do no more “good-deed work” than other people. The synagogue’s way of speaking is so uninspired! It does not move them.

Synagogues are not just secular bodies that provide life-cycle ceremonies and hootenannies in Hebrew called services. Synagogues are to other not-for-profits what Chagall’s imaginative skyscapes are to ordinary clouds and sunsets. Without transcendently imaginative language to stir the soul, tikkun olam becomes banal; so does the synagogue; and so do we.

 

“Loving God”:The Meaning of the Sh’ma

What Jew doesn’t know the Sh’ma with its following V’ahavta, the command to love God with all our heart, soul, and might. We learn it as children and die with it on our lips. But do we all believe it?

What makes people believe in God to the point of offering God love?

Some people reason their way to God – like Maimonides (1138-1204). Seeing how everything in the universe is dependent on something else, he concluded that there had to be something ultimate and unchanging to support it all. By definition, that was God. Loving God, he thought, followed naturally from observing “the magnificence of all that is,” and “the incomparable and infinite wisdom” of the One who made it.

But reason can also lead away from God, so most God-believers depend on intuition; or, frequently, a “Eureka moment” when God’s reality just, somehow, becomes clear. After the fact, they may argue their case, but belief comes first; reason only justifies it.

Think of the Bible as the record of our ancestors’ Eureka moments. Jacob’s dream of a heavenly ladder convinces him that “God is in this place and I did not know it.” Moses encounters God personally and descends Mt. Sinai to tell his people what he now cannot doubt: Sh’ma yisra’el Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad, “Listen up, Israel: Adonai is our God; Adonai alone; v’ahavta…  “Love God with all your heart, soul and might.”

The Israelites take his word for it, as do we. But their faith lapses on occasion, as does ours. With no Eureka moment of our own, it can be hard to believe with certainty in a personal God.

Philosophers after Maimonides also apply reason – that’s what philosophers do – but they had prior Eureka moments, or at least, intuition. Take Chasdai Crescas (1340-1410), who, even in Spain, encountered Italian humanism and its reassertion of the emotions. The way to God, it followed, was not by Maimonidean logical detachment, but by love. For Maimonides, the command to love God was secondary to the argument for God’s singularity. Crescas reversed the order. Open yourself to God’s love by offering love back, and the Eureka-like certainty of God’s reality will hit home.

Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) too believed, “We know love only when we love and are loved.” He simply “knew” God’s love and could not help but return it.

All three thinkers began with something they experienced as indubitably real: reason (Maimonides) or love (Crescas and Rosenzweig).

We too value reason and love. But we have issues of our own: and with them, an opportunity to think anew about “loving God.”

We are the wealthiest, most accepted, most educated, and most powerful diasporan community in Jewish history. Yet contentment eludes us. We are successful, but is that all there is? We live longer, only to watch family and friends die off, and to know that we too are here today and gone tomorrow. Good health fails; relationships sour; families turn out differently than we imagined; life itself is tenuous. To love any of these above all else is to court eventual disaster. The Sh’ma insists on something beyond it all.

Our era is awash with people looking for that something — in eastern philosophies, Buddhist meditation, deeper yoga. Yet, Judaism already has it, if we take the Sh’ma seriously.

Jewish thought offers many ways to picture the God of the Sh’ma:  a person; a friendly presence; a force for good; and more. But these cannot do God justice, says Maimonides, because God is beyond our imaginative capacity.

The Sh’ma, therefore, refers to none of these pictures in particular. It insists only on something beyond the phenomena that fail: something that is eternal, trustworthy, and good: it names that “God.”

Loving God is a state of mind, a spiritual perspective, whereby we anchor ourselves in “the eternal, trustworthy, and good,” so that when all else fails (as eventually it will), we are not left empty and bereft.

Zealotry, Good and Bad

 

It’s easy to be a religious dilettante, harder to take religion seriously, if only because serious religion entails zealotry, a “bad word,” these days. Zealotry need not be evil, however. To be sure, “evil” zealotry feeds on hatred, grows fat on violence, and blights our very right to say that we are human. But “good” zealotry is what sustains our noblest ideals in the face of opposition. It took zealotry, for example, for abolitionists to build the underground railroad; or for righteous Gentiles to hide Jews during the Sho’ah.

We see them both, good and bad, in the two-part story of Pinchas.

In Part One, last week, the Israelites “whore” after Midianite women who inveigle them into idolatry. God’s anger explodes; Moses orders mass execution; God adds an accompanying plague to boot.

As part of this, an Israelite man introduces a Midianite woman to his friends, probably as his wife-to-be. Pinchas, a sanctuary guard, murders them both, thereby expiating the “crime” and ending the plague.

The Torah considers this “good” zealotry, as we see from Part Two, this week, where God rewards Pinchas with a special covenant and the priesthood.  The Mishnah concurs by codifying Pinchas’s zealotry as normative: “If a man cohabits with an Aramean woman, zealots may kill him.”

But the Talmud effectively reverses the Mishnah’s ruling by demanding conditions that cannot be met. The woman must be an idolater; the zealot must be acting for God; the couple must be seen engaging in actual intercourse, and there must be at least ten witnesses to it. Also, any would-be avenger who asks permission, is told that Jewish law prohibits it. For the Talmud, Pinchas is a zealot for evil.

These two faces of zealotry are reinforced in a Targum tradition that identifies Pinchas as none other than Elijah, another zealot – sometimes for evil, as in I Kings 18, where he defeats the prophets of Baal (so far so good), but then unduly and gratuitously slaughters them as well. He is also a zealot for good, however: he does, after all, defeat the Baalites; he is a healer, to the point of resurrecting the child of a poor widow (I Kings 17); and he will someday herald the coming of the messiah.

Medieval tradition conflated Elijah, the herald, with the messiah whom he heralds. Haggadah imagery, for example, pictures someone with a shofar (Elijah) and/or someone on a donkey (the messiah) collecting Jews on Seder eve to bring them to Jerusalem. But sometimes, it is hard to tell one from the other, and sometimes one image stands for both.

The messiah too, after all, is a zealot, good and bad. The “bad” comes through in traditions that picture the messiah as a warrior, bringing wanton destruction in his wake. Do we really want a messiah as God’s revenger, “pouring out wrath on the nations” – men, women and children, presumably, “who do not know You” (from the traditional Passover Haggadah, based on Ps. 79:6)? Sure, these traditions often reflect reactions to our own persecution, but still, do we really believe them? “Men, women and children” after all!

But again, we have the positive side, the Talmudic tradition that even as we await the messiah’s public appearance, that very same messiah sits outside the city’s gates bandaging the wounds of lepers.

By its very nature, religion is messianic – insofar as it demands a better time, an end to oppression and pain. By our very nature as serious religionists, we sense the obligation to do whatever we can to be messianic ourselves, lest we accept evil and suffering as just the way the world is. But which messiah do we strive to be? The healer or the warrior, the good or the bad?

In terms of Pinchas, the question is what Pinchas we have in mind: the zealot for good (as the Bible has it) or for evil (as the Talmud prefers). I take the Talmud as Judaism’s final word. Jewish law lines up against him.

Healing the world is not inherently harder than conquering it. I choose healing over hurting.

Memo to Moses, CEO Am Yisrael, Inc.

To Moses Rabbeinu,

CEO, Am Yisrael, Inc.

Dear Moses,

We appreciate your hiring our firm to look retrospectively at the corporate revolt that you call “The Korah Affair.” To be honest, our first recommendation is that you consult some literature on Jewish leadership – we suggest More Than Managing  (Jewish Lights Publishing) which is readily available. Also, your future company executives might hire professional coaches to avoid repeating basic errors.

More on them later, but for now, we note, with concern, how much the affair took you by surprise, and how you still seem to miss its full complexity. Although hired to investigate Korah alone, we found pervasive discontent throughout your ranks: disgruntled Levites allied with Department Heads (the Tribal Chieftains, in your vocabulary); and support by Dothan and Abiram , descendants of Reuben, your oldest founding partner, giving the revolt respectability.  Korah spoke for many people!

Opposition first arose when you mishandled the episode of the corporate spies dispatched to examine your proposed takeover of Canaan Realty Industries. Their negative report was indeed shortsighted, but calling in God to condemn everyone to years of wandering was pure petulance on your part.

The precipitating factor re Korah was your restructuring of the corporate priesthood, following the spy-debacle. Sure, your second-echelon leaders blindsided you, but you had already blindsided them, unwisely isolating yourself and then having to call God back in again.

Appealing to God whenever you get into trouble may seem satisfying now, but it is no long-term solution. We project a time of corporate diversification, with your company’s presence everywhere, and with God having grown tired of these “last-minute” pleas to Divine Headquarters.  Future rabbeinus (whatever their actual titles end up being) won’t be able to count on a deus ex machina to save them.

Another thing: note the brilliance of Korah’s charge, “You went too far; the whole community is holy.” He lifted that from your own company charter (“Kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” Exodus 18:6). No wonder you almost lost this one. You isolated yourself, took counsel with no one, blindsided your team, and never explained your position to anyone, thereby ceding the high ground to the opposition.

Had Korah been properly motivated, his claim against you (“we are all equally holy”) might have led to dialogue, negotiation, and appropriate compromise: a win-win solution whereby your opposition felt heard and appreciated; and came around to supporting your nominees for the priesthood. You wouldn’t have had to call in God and slaughter the opposition.  I mean, think of all you lost by killing them instead of motivating them to work with you!

We cannot here go into all the leadership lessons to be learned from the Korah Affair, but one of them is the talmudic insistence that conflict is actually a desirable thing, as long as it is “a dispute for the sake of heaven” (machloket l’shem shamayim) – the quintessential model being the Schools of Hillel and Shammai; and its opposite (conflict for the wrong reasons) being Korah.

Korah was so alienated from your company’s process that he was not in this for the sake of heaven. Our transcript of testimony (verse 16:1) says that “Korah took,” meaning (says Rashi and others)  “he took only himself, separately” – it was all about him!

By contrast, the Schools of Hillel and Shammai argued for all the right reasons and in all the right ways. They were in constant communication, expressing legitimate differences. Hillel proved mostly victorious, but Shammai prevailed some of the time, and his name too is recorded with honor for posterity.

We recommend that your successors depend less on God as mighty intervener and more on themselves as God’s agents here on earth; less on power and more on character and knowhow. For heaven’s sake (literally!) let them remain true to core principles, encourage honest debate, treat their opposition with respect, and be open to change themselves when they are wrong. The Korah Affair can become history, something we just read once a year for reminders.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Parashah Consulting

 

The Why Not the How: Peoplehood With Purpose

Year by year, we read through the Torah from beginning to end, skipping nothing, right?

Maybe not. Not originally anyway. The Yerushalmi (the Talmud from the Land of Israel) reports Mishnah Megillah 4:10 as saying, “The Priestly Benediction [Numbers 6:24-26] is neither read nor translated.” The parallel passage in the Babli (the Talmud from Babylonia), however, says, “We read the priestly benediction but do not translate it.” And that is the rule today. In either case, it may not be translated.

“Translated” here refers to simultaneous translation during services, a practice that was commonplace when there were no printed books for following along. On either Talmudic account, the Priestly Benediction remains untranslated. But why?

The Yerushalmi doesn’t say, but the Babli explains it brilliantly. The blessing asks God 1. to bless us and keep us; 2. To deal kindly with us and be gracious to us; and 3. To bestow favor upon us and grant us peace. The problem, says the Babli is the Hebrew verb, “to bestow favor,” which can also mean “to show judicial favoritism,” a practice that is deeply abhorrent to the Torah’s sense of justice. Indeed, Deuteronomy 10:17 says explicitly, God “shows no favoritism.”

To be sure, only the uninformed would confuse “favor” with “favoritism,” the Babli says. People with enough education to understand the original Hebrew would know better. They would reason, for example, that when we keep the mitzvot, we even go beyond the letter of the law to do it right (Berachot 20b), so when we ask God to “bestow favor” we just mean that God should properly reward meritorious behavior.

Still, the uninformed might confuse “showing favor” with “favoritism,” as might the translators themselves, so even the opinion that permits the Hebrew reading prohibits its translation – just to play it safe.

There is more to this than meets the eye. The debate has consequences for the central Jewish belief in being the Chosen People. When we say, in our Torah blessings, for example, asher bachar banu … v’natan lanu et torato, “who chose us… and gave us Torah,” is God’s” favoring” of Israel really “favoritism”?

The answer has to be “No”! Israel must somehow have merited the right to be chosen. Indeed, a familiar midrash says that God offered the Torah to many peoples, but only Israel accepted it. That claim can sound gratuitously self-congratulatory, but its point is not to boast about ourselves; it is to save the reputation of God, and to underscore the virtue of judicial impartiality. Moral probity demands that any special relationship with God must be earned.

The Rabbis make the same claim about other peoples, who are said to have their own “Noahide” covenants with God, and who, presumably, must merit them, as we do ours. The prophet Amos likens Israel to Cushites and Philistines, for example, leading Rashi to picture God asking Israel rhetorically, “Aren’t you descended from Noah, the same as  everyone else?” Jewish peoplehood is nothing if it is not earned. The minute we cease deserving to be God’s People, it is as if we no longer are.

In the days of our infancy, we had Moses to intercede for us when we faltered. But having now grown up, we must also face up to the demands of Jewish Peoplehood. Jewish continuity cannot exist just for its own sake. It must be rooted in some transcendent mission. More than just a People, we must be a People with Purpose.

Much is said and written about the threats to Jewish peoplehood: anti-Semitism from without and apathy from within. By contrast, relatively little conversation occurs on why we still deserve this age-old relationship with God. Jews were “chosen” because God had a purpose for us in mind. Our organizational agendas, school curricula, and institutional mission statements would do well  to insist on that purpose.  The “why” of survival is no less important than the “how.” Without knowing the “why,” the “how” will fail. Committed to the “why,” the “how” will follow.