Category Archives: liturgical insights

Not Knowledge But Wisdom

We confuse knowledge with wisdom. “Knowledge” derives from demonstrable facts: the facts of science, for example, which no serious and informed person can reasonably reject. We may debate alternative interpretations, but the debate will be demonstrably knowledgeable.

Some knowledge arrives less scientifically: how we know someone loves us, or the way a brilliant portrait catches the essence of its subject. These things too are “knowledge.”

Wisdom is something else altogether. It is insight into living deeply and well. All the knowledge in the world need not add up to wisdom, and wisdom can come from someone with no formal education whatever – “out of the mouths of babes,” as the saying goes (from Psalms 8:2, actually).

Religion converts knowledge into wisdom. A scholar may be exceptionally knowledgeable about the Talmud. The same scholar becomes your rabbi , however, only if that knowledge supplies wisdom also.

The S’lichot  service, this Saturday night, anticipates the High Holidays that begin just a few days later. We label them “high” because of the wisdom, not the knowledge, they provide. Take sermons, for example. Packed only with knowledge, they fail. What we want from sermons is wisdom, that we may live better.

So too, High Holiday prayers offer wisdom, rather than knowledge. Sh’ma koleinu  (“[God], hear our voice”), for example, is a central S’lichot  prayer. The searcher after knowledge questions scientifically if God can really hear, and, if so, how God does the hearing. “Renew our days, as of old,” the prayer continues. The seeker after knowledge is skeptical: Can we really recover the days of our youth?

As knowledge, these prayers fail.  God is not a super-human being with extra-sharp hearing; and the past is really “passed” – it is unrecoverable.

Yet the prayer remains “true” as wisdom. “God,” said theologian Henry Slonimsky (1884-1970), “is the Friend we suppose to exist behind the phenomena.” Behind the phenomena, note! Beyond what science studies. God is, alternatively, a “power making for righteousness,” according to Matthew Arnold, whom Slonimsky liked to cite, and who influenced Mordecai Kaplan to define God as “the power that makes for salvation.”

Wisdom relies on proverb, poetry and metaphor: language that is evocative more than it is descriptive. That God should “hear our voice,” Slonimsky insisted, expresses “the demand of the human heart” that our voices of pain and aspiration deserve being heard.

“How tragically inadequate the response,” he conceded, knowing full well that prayers may not be “answered.” But nonetheless, “we are so convinced of their utter righteousness, we will not take no for an answer.”

Here lies the wisdom of the High Holidays: the insistent cry of the human spirit. We are not so constructed as to be slavishly accepting of anything less than what this spirit instinctively demands: righteousness and justice, truth and goodness; we will fight to the end that these may prevail.

That same human spirit, however, is part and parcel of the universe, part of evolution itself, as if something about the universe is supportive of the spirit’s insistence. That “something” is the “Friend behind the phenomena” in Slonimsky’s words, the “power making for righteousness” for Matthew Arnold: what we normally call God.

The seemingly endless praying on these Days of Awe add up to more than the meaning of any given prayer. The experience as a whole reaffirms not just what God wants from us but what we demand of God: Yes, “righteousness” above all! Yes, “justice” and “truth” too. The human heart is certain of these certainties. It is our very nature to live with purpose derived from the promise that these will triumph.

We acknowledge (“knowledge,” that is) that our trials and tribulations may persist even after the prayers are over. But the wisdom of prayer is no less certain. Our lives are not for naught; we are part of something greater than whatever it is that pains us. We have a voice that demands being “heard”; and yes, we can feel ourselves renewed “as of old.”

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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.

Parashat Vayakhel

On June 14, 1954, millions of Americans stumbled over the Pledge of Allegiance. The 1892 original said, “one nation, indivisible.” Now Congress required everyone to pause after “one nation” and insert “under God.”

Recognizing God in 1954 was not just piety; it was also a Cold War response to Godless Communism. Since the Pledge is as close to a public prayer as we are likely to get, we should wonder if prayers, too, can be politically motivated. And indeed they can.

Shabbat candle-lighting, for example, derives from Exodus 35:3: “Light no fire throughout your settlements on Shabbat.” Early in the rabbinic era, this verse prompted vociferous debate. The Sadducees, a party of Scriptural literalists, thought it mandated dousing all fires before Shabbat began. The Pharisees said the ban covered new fires only; fires already lit could continue burning.

The Rabbis inherited the Pharisaic mantle, and assured people that God could never have intended us to keep Shabbat in cold, dark, gloom. Shabbat demanded oneg, joy. The Rabbis, therefore, permitted Jews to light fires in their homes before nightfall on Friday; in fact, they demanded it! And ever since then, Shabbat has featured symbolic candle-lighting.

But Shabbat lights were not yet a mitzvah  — there was no blessing over them. That came only in the 9th century, when a sect called Karaites reasserted Sadducean literalism, and declared the entire rabbinic tradition misguided. In response, the rabbis upped the ante, declaring Shabbat candles a mitzvah and requiring the blessing, “Blessed is God… who commanded us to kindle Shabbat lights.”

A more recent example of politics is Chief Rabbi Herzog’s 1948 prayer for the State of Israel, which called the new state “the first flowering of our redemption.” In time, the phrase came to be seen, by some, as a mandate for the wholesale eviction of Arabs from their land. We now live in a new “post-moral” age, went the reasoning; what was unethical before “the first flowering” is ethical today.

Some new prayer books, therefore, omit the phrase or go out of their way to prevent such a radical reading of it.

What should we think about the politicization of prayer? The answer is, we should welcome it as a sign that we think religion matters. Piety not worth arguing over is not worth taking seriously. Prayer should absolutely address such matters as the nature of Shabbat (in rabbinic times) and the theological standing of Israel (in our own).

We should, therefore, not hesitate to pray for parallel matters of moment in our time. Prayer is not just praise, petition, and thanksgiving addressed to God. It is equally a message to one another, a way we get our own values straight. We pray for things, not just because God might then support them but because we are more likely to.

A couple of months back, for instance, synagogues might have prayed that Marlise Machado Muñoz — the brain-dead women forced to remain on life support against her family’s will – be given death with dignity; or we might pray, this Shabbat, for Congress to be granted the wisdom to raise, not lower, food stamp allowance. Sure, such prayers are controversial, but some things ought to matter enough to warrant praying for them, and any ensuing “debate for the sake of heaven” (machloket l’shem shamayim) would be a welcome break from the saccharine sentiment of prayers that ask only for peace on earth, generally — ho-hum petitions that are virtually meaningless. Such generalities have their place, but some things are actually within our power to bring about, if we care enough to do so. Why not pray for them – an act that just might galvanize us to work for them?

If prayers speak only in platitudes, religion itself becomes platitudinous, a word that the dictionary defines as a polite way of saying, “trite, hackneyed, and banal,” precisely what religion should not become. People who claim to be irreligious may not be against it; they may just think it too dull to matter.

Parashat Ki Teitsei

The weekly Haftarah is usually related to the Torah portion that it follows, but this week’s Haftarah, Isaiah 54: 1-10, seems different. It is the fifth of seven readings that began after Tisha B’av, as part of a rising crescendo of faith in a better time to come – not a bad lesson these days, with renewed reminders of global warming, genocide in Darfur, and the bankruptcy of American cities.

Instead of Isaiah, Jews once upon a time read Zechariah 9, an even more explicit promise of hope, because of its express guarantee of a messiah who will save us from the terrors of history. Zechariah 9:9 contains the familiar picture of the messiah on a white donkey, an image borrowed by the Gospel of Matthew, who has Jesus ride a donkey for his triumphal entry into Jerusalem. Perhaps, say scholars, it was precisely the Christian use of this verse that prompted the Rabbis to replace the Zechariah reading with the Isaiah passage that we now have.

Well, perhaps. But is that really the way things work? When Christians borrow a Jewish image or idiom, do we Jews abandon it?

I doubt it: For one thing, the image of a messiah riding a donkey shows up in medieval Haggadah illustrations, so we never gave up the image entirely. For another, there is the motsi – the blessing we say over bread. The Talmud interprets “bread” here messianically – the bread God will provide in time to come. Similarly, in the birkat hamazon, the grace after meals, where we praise God for feeding the whole world, it is not that God already does so, but that someday, we trust, God will. Christian theology co-opted the messianic symbolism of bread too: among other things, the Lord’s Prayer requests, “Give us this day our daily bread.” Echoing the Rabbis, Church Fathers call that “the bread of the Kingdom-come,” not the ordinary stuff we hold in our hands or put in our stomachs. Bread also became the central substance of the Eucharist, the ritual that most defines classical Christian faith. Jews didn’t stop saying the motsi or the birkat hamazon on that account.

But wait. Didn’t we drop their messianic meaning?

You might think so, because of how few Jews know what that meaning is. Our ignorance, however, is no reaction to Christianity. It is part of the mistaken notion that no self-respecting modern Jew can entertain matters of religious belief — the very promises that make religion worthwhile in the first place. Most Jews who recite mealtime prayers do so purely out of habit, sometimes mindlessly mumbling through them; others, seeing no point in them, let them lapse – why not, if they have no transcendent significance.

We hardly need to worry about fighting Christian interpretation, which, in any event, is usually just our own, transferred to a Christian context. Our problem today is the ease with which we have settled for practice without meaning — the way we have given up intimations of transcendence.

The seven Haftarah readings of which this week’s passage is the fifth culminates in the promise of Rosh Hashanah: the hope that God’s purposes will someday be realized worldwide – that’s what the shofar is supposed to herald. In this week’s reading, God assures us, “My love will never leave you. My covenant of peace shall never be removed.”

Should we just mumble this through, the way we do the motsi? Or are we willing to consider the possibility that we are born into a world where love can dominate, where we are in covenant with the divine, and where evil and want just might slowly but inexorably be expunged from human experience?

I have trouble believing these things every hour of every day. Who doesn’t? But the Haftarah, the motsi and the birkat hamazon are prayers. Prayer is precisely the medium that punctuates the humdrum and the harrowing with the poetry of possibility.

Ritual is the regularized affirmation of order that matters; Inherited rituals are reminders of the shapes other people saw. Our ancestors saw patterns we should not want to do without. Even the lowly motsi should be a metaphoric means of dreaming in league with God.

B’ha’alotcha: On Ritual, Religion, and Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder

Freud did not have our sedra specifically in mind when he wrote his treatises on religion. He would have pointed to its demand that the Passover sacrifice be done “in accordance with all its rules and rites” as evidence of his claim that religion is a caricature of obsessive-compulsive neurosis.

To be sure, it is a ritual; and the very nature of ritual is that it must be done “just right.” But that was, of course, Freud’s very point.

Still, Freud was not altogether objective in his critique. Lots of things, not just religion, are done “just right,” including Freud’s own writings which follow very strict canons of scientific research and argument. In the government of Freud’s Vienna, everything followed exact bureaucratic specification. And if Freud had consulted his own physician, lawyer, or accountant, he would have noticed all due attention being paid to detail.

As to ritual, whatever academic conferences Freud attended were nothing, if not ritually determined as to such things as who gave papers to whom; and who responded and how. Indeed, the psychoanalytic method has itself been described as a highly ritualized process. It was not, therefore, ritual that Freud found objectionable so much as it was religion, which he had rejected long before he applied his psychological theory to it. Freud’s commitment to scientific secularism had no room for religion, and as time went on, Freud developed theories that justified his objections.

But Freud was a genius and a doggedly accurate observer of human behavior; he was not, therefore, altogether wrong. Sometimes religious ritual does approximate obsessive-compulsive disorder. An example is the way some medieval Jews interpreted the phrase, “in accordance with all its rules and rites.” The 11th-century rabbi, Joseph Tov Elem (or Bonfils, his French surname), incorporated the line into a pre-Passover synagogue poem that highlighted the importance of attending to every detail of Passover preparation. One verse of that larger composition still concludes our Haggadah: “The Passover celebration has concluded appropriately,” we say, “in accordance with all its rules and rites.”

Bonfils had internalized an attitude that pervaded Christian circles in his day: the idea that religious rites (like baptism and Eucharist) achieve their intended impact as an automatic consequence of punctilious attention to detail. By contrast, skipping a single step or doing anything out of order renders the ritual null and void, so at roughly the same time that Bonfils was writing his poem, other rabbis were developing mnemonics to guide Seder leaders in doing everything “just right.” We still have one such mnemonic today: Kadesh urchatz, by Samuel ben Solomon of Falaise. We chant it as the Seder begins just to anticipate what follows, but originally, it was used to guarantee that the Seder not be rendered worthless on account of an error in order.

In its time, this was indeed an obsessive-compulsive attitude, but it is not typical of the mainstream Jewish approach to ritual over the years. Even “in accordance with all its rules and rites” was interpreted to mean more than an obsessive concern for sacrificial detail. Both Rashi and Ramban, for example, think it also entails linking the ritual acts of the Passover sacrifice to the non-ritual aspects of the Passover message — eating unleavened bread, for instance, as a recollection of the haste with which Jews departed Egypt so long ago. Elsewhere, too, the impact of halachic action is not normally believed to follow magically as a consequence of doing it flawlessly.

Of course we perform our rituals “properly.” Otherwise they would not be rituals. But everything that matters deeply to us gets done that way: arranging an anniversary evening, perfecting a golf swing, posing for an important photograph, creating a beautiful dinner: these are all examples of making sure that details do not get overlooked. Far from being obsessive-compulsive behavior, these are instances of artistic enterprise.

The lesson of it all — from the biblical Passover sacrifice to the Seder of today, and every other ritual we have as well — is that human beings have an artistic impulse at our very core. We describe God’s original act of creation as artistry; and we have been partners with God ever after. We love harmonized melodies, complementary color schemes, matching clothes, flowing language, and even coincidences that suggest patterns behind pure randomness. We should conclude (contra Freud) that while people can use ritual to further their own obsessive-compulsive needs, most of us appreciate it for its artistry — the means to express ourselves through what is graceful, elegant, beautiful, and profound.

We Have Sinned — Even for People Who Think They Haven’t

Of all the prayers people ask me about, none is quite so fascinating as Ashamnu and Al chet, the two confessions that highlight our annual Yom Kippur worship. Most synagogue goers recognize them — and are confused by them! The standard Ashkenazi version of Al chet, after all, is a double alphabetic acrostic listing two sins for every letter of the Hebrew alphabet. Do we really think we are guilty of all that?

Indeed, most of us think we are guilty of very little in the “sin” department. We hardly credit the antiquated word “sin” with any currency whatever. Even Evangelical Christians have softened their traditional message of fire and brimstone in favor of emphasizing the therapeutic side of human nature. We err; we fail; we make mistakes; but do we really sin?

We Have Sinned:  Sin and Confession in Judaism, Edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD.

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism

To figure this all out, I just edited a new book, We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism (Jewish Lights Publishing). Here are some of the things I found out, things that make me take sin very very seriously — albeit with a modern twist.

To begin with, it is not just Christians who took sin seriously in antiquity; the Rabbis too believed that sin is part and parcel of human nature. If not “original,” sin is certainly “primal” in the rabbinic view. But sin is just a word, until we clothe it in telling metaphors; and Jews have used many metaphors to express what sin “exactly” is. The usual metaphor by which it is explained today, “missing the mark,” is hardly the best or even the most common. Sin is a whole lot more burdensome than that!

I use the word “burdensome” because for biblical Jews, sin was exactly that: a burden that weighs us down. God lifts the burden off our shoulders. I find that useful. Don’t we, today, still feel the burden of a guilty conscience? Don’t we too strive to relieve ourselves of the burden of guilt? On Yom Kippur we discover the healing presence of God who relieves us of whatever it is that weighs us down, preventing us from moving forward.

By rabbinic times, the favored metaphor became “sin as a debt.” The more we sin, the more we go into debt. “Punishment” in Hebrew is puranut, from the Hebrew root para, “to pay off what we owe.” The Lord’s Prayer of Jesus asks God to “forgive us our trespasses,” but also, in a more modern translation, “forgive us our debts.” Here too is a metaphor that works as well now as it did 2,000 years ago. Debt grows exponentially if we do not pay it back; so too, sin begets sin until lying, cheating, and faking our way through every passing day becomes the normal thing to do. Atonement for the moral debts we owe wipes the slate clean that we may start again.

Modern thinking denies credence to the word sin, because the nineteenth century taught us all what paragons of virtue we human beings can be. Reason and science demonstrated, we thought, that all things are possible. To be sure, the world wars of the twentieth century gave some of us pause in that regard; but all in all, our faith in human promise has remained. We still believe in the eventual victory of dignity, decency, and nobility.

Are we not, then, guilty of at least this one sin: neglecting the ongoing struggle for dignity, decency, and nobility. Hence the third metaphor for our time: t’shuvah, “turning.” as the realization that we have lost our way, are heading in the wrong direction, and must reverse our path. Look around! Whether we take our stand on the left or on the right, can any of us find much nobility in politics, advertising, business ethics, government, or anywhere else at all?

I have not let the twentieth century’s horrors erase my faith in human nobility. If all of us rise from Yom Kippur committed to furthering human dignity and rewarding the decency of those who feel similarly, I believe we can have it once again.

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism

We Have Sinned:  Sin and Confession in Judaism, Edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD.

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism

All my life, I’ve wondered about the High-Holiday confessions in Judaism, and I finally edited a book about them. Called We Have Sinned, it just came out from Jewish Lights Publishing, and it represents a multitude of Jewish voices on the topics of sin, human nature, and repentance.

The book is a beginning of a conversation. I hope we can continue it here.

(We Have Sinned is available in print as well as various e-formats: Kindle [Amazon.com], Nook [B&N], and iBooks [Apple]; and also directly from Jewish Lights.)