Open Letter to My Students 46: Value Added 


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 (16321704), 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. 


One response to “Open Letter to My Students 46: Value Added 

  1. Elyse Frishman

    Hi Larry,

    Your wonderful (as always) letter sparks me to consider again the why behind my study of Kabbalah. I also reflect on the conversation we began to have about rabbinic vision.

    I think about the direction of American liberal Judaism, so grounded in community connection and social justice. Must our spirituality, too, be anchored in the journey of the Self? That would seem to radically limit the path of the modern Jew.

    I mentioned to you last time we met that in Kabbalah, Shavuot emphasizes Matan Torah rather than Kabbalat Torah. The focus is on the Higher, not on me/us. We are the vehicle, not the purpose.

    The debacle of the golden calf reminds that avodah, not ethics, is the starting place.

    Understanding who one serves brings the awareness that one cannot serve if moral character and ethical behavior are weak. (This comes up in Kabbalah, too; see below about Torah lishmah). Torah provides plenty to get us in order. Yet, who I am is not the end goal. Rather: where I am in the constellation of the Higher, and that my realized place completes a larger scheme.

    Understanding what avodah means defines our path. Has our imagination limited avodah to communal, socially just tikun?

    Our liturgy is framed in three fantastic ways regarding this.
    1. Shema and Aleynu: the ideal of Higher Oneness, and our obligation to pursue this
    2. The Tefila, opening with Adonai Sefatai tiftach and closing with Yihyu l’ratzon: that as we as “priests,” whose words can and should be shaped with divinity, are permitted to make requests for humanity because having expressed true awareness of and appreciation for God, we can be trusted to do so. (How ironic that Yiyhu l’ratzon distorted into a prayer of personal request).
    3. Torah at our core — lishmah

    What we perceive — in this case, whether the focus is on me/us or the Higher — shapes everything. Gives direction and meaning to our lives. Grants the possibility of a Higher vision.

    Exploring the Jewish value-add, perhaps we might consider whether or not a Self-focused American Judaism limits Jewish spirituality. You referenced Gordon’s interpretation of Torah lishmah as “for the sake of a life well-lived.” How we understand what is “a life well-lived” is at stake here.

    In Kabbalah, Torah lishmah means studying Torah for the sake of the Higher. Kabbalah realizes that we begin our study of Torah lo lishmah, since what we really seek is to feel connection with the Higher, which is serving ourselves. It’s not bad, but it’s misdirected. Torah lishmah is the study for the sake of the hHigher’s purpose, not ours.

    If we believe that human living is only a fraction of eternal life, that our neshamot endure before and after our bodies, what then is the possibility of Torah lishmah, for a life well-lived?

    My understanding is that Torah for the sake of the Higher is Torah for the sake of our neshamot. This must extend beyond the tikun of this world, to the tikun — reformation — of the Whole, with emphasis on the spiritual realm. Too abstract? Perhaps. Probably. Maybe even surely for the many Jews for whom wrestling with the Higher is too hard or dangerous. But for those of us who must enter the fray, I think of Adrienne Rich’s poem, “Prospective Immigrants, Take Note”:

    “Either you will go through this door
    or you will not go through.
    If you go through,
    there is always the risk of remembering your name.”

    Has the trauma of life in general, raising a family/the economy/Covid/climate change/racism/ etc, crippled our spiritual vision? Yet are we the first to be troubled by Life? Are we a weak generation because the American Self is so hypnotic? Are we a generation of avodah zarah?

    Our Jewish name, our Jewish being invites the deep awareness that we are more than our human selves. Isn’t this what we Jews are meant to recapture, reform and refine?

    We are bright enough to see where our people are and know and trust that they can reach so much higher. We rabbis are talented enough to shape a vision that invites them in compellingly.

    Torah lishmah — a life well-lived — would be one that elevates us spiritually so that our expectations shift from me to us to All.

    And this would then be a critical realm of thought for enabling a rabbinic vision.

    Thoughts? 🙂

    Much love.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s