Category Archives: parashat hashavua

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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Government of Checks and Balances: But With an Interesting Twist!

Americans are not the first to devise a constitution calling for the separation of powers. The Torah too legislated institutionalized checks and balances – but with an “interesting twist.”

In keeping with antiquity, the executive branch was a monarchy, but in Israel’s case, a limited monarchy, a king who was subject to the rule of law, and chosen from among the people (Deut. 17:15)  — lest he rule with no empathy for the ruled. Also, he could not use his position to amass excessive wealth, especially horses – what we would call his own private militia, a natural proclivity of kings, says Ramban. Kings had to maintain their own written reminder of these limitations (17:18-19), which, says the Talmud (San. 21a), they were to carry with them wherever they went.

Ancient Israel had yet to envision a democratically elected legislature, but its priestly class was a legislature of sorts; it could not actually vote in new laws (as we do) because the Torah was assumed to have all the laws the people needed. But priests could “interpret” old laws to get new ones, a practice the Rabbis extended, with their doctrine of an “oral Torah” that supplemented the written one.  Like the king, priests too were hemmed in by limitations: having no landed patrimony of their own, they were supported by, and dependent on, the Temple offerings brought by the people (18:1).

The Torah also demands an independent judiciary with the necessary complement of law-enforcing officials, including police with punitive authority to enforce the law (Rashi, 16:18). Hence this portion’s name (16:18), Shoftim (“Judges”) but, more properly, Shoftim v’shotrim, “Judges and Officials” — what the celebrated TV series called “law and order.”

In matters of punishment, however, the people are to appeal to the “judge,” not the “police” (17:9). The judge decides what the police can do – a principle important enough for the Torah to demand it explicitly in every generation (17:9). Worrying about romantics who might bypass the judiciary of their time as being inferior to the judges of “the good old days,” the Torah expressly empowers judges of every era. “They are all we have,” says Rashi; “We must obey them.”

So there you have it, all in this week’s portion: an executive (a king, but chosen from the people, for the people); a legislature (a priesthood, dependent on support from the people they serve); and a judiciary (with attendant police power, but no independent police force that might abuse its power).

Still, even a good system of checks and balances can break down, so we get this “interesting twist”: a fourth element called “prophets.” All ancient people had prophets, but not like Israel’s, individuals who operated outside the system to bring conscience to bear on everyone else. Institutionalized power abhors conscience, however; it prefers the predictability of routinized bureaucracy. So in time, prophecy came to an end: in the commonwealth established after the return from Babylonian exile, the priests and monarch simply declared prophecy over and done with.

The Rabbis too distrusted individuals claiming direct revelation from God.  But anticipating history’s need for independent conscience, the Rabbis gave us an alternative to prophets: every single citizen, you and me. They then demanded that the citizenry be informed: hence the centrality of study in Jewish culture.

And finally, the Rabbis demanded responsible exercise of that informed conscience by every single person. When the Torah says, “Establish law and order,” it adds “at your gates” and “for yourself  [singular]” (16:18) – leading Sefer Yetsirah to identify “the gates” as the gateways to every person’s senses, our eyes, ears, nose and mouth. The ultimate gatekeepers of justice are informed citizens, who monitor what is said, heard, seen, and even smelled.

The biblical prophets are gone, leaving every single one of us to take their place. Even the best of governments fail if we do not attune our senses to catch the telltale signs of moral rot right in our own back yard.

 

Do Jews Believe In A Soul?

Do Jews believe in a soul?

The answer is, “Yes, yes, yes, and “sort-of.”

The “sort-of” arises within the welter of detail regarding the Levitical sacrifices, a system that allowed for different levels of giving depending on personal financial means. Those unable to afford costly animal sacrifices brought a grain offering. Rashi observes that the person offering it is called a nefesh – a word usually translated as “soul.” He wants to know why here, particularly, the Torah calls a “person” a nefesh.

The answer, he says, is that grain is offered expressly by the poor. Objectively speaking, it may not cost much, but for the poor it is so enormous a sacrifice that God says to those who offer it, “I consider it as if you have offered your very soul.”

So nefesh — literally, just “person” – implies, for Rashi, something more. It bespeaks the moral core of our being: the part that overcomes selfishness; the deeply-rooted sense that we must live up to responsibility, doing what we can, as best we can. We ourselves call such people “good souls.” They come through; you can count on them.

Does nefesh mean “soul” in this case? In a way; metaphorically, at least; “sort-of.”

It is the Zohar that provides us with the “yes, yes, and yes” – three affirmatives corresponding to three different biblical and rabbinic words for “soul,” from which the kabbalists deduce the lesson that the soul has three parts.

The first “yes” affirms the highest part of the soul, the n’shamah what we normally think of as the soul that preexists us and lives on after we die. It is non-material, purely spiritual, so scientific study can neither prove nor disprove it. Brain science may discover the electro-chemistry of how we work, but not of all we are. We sense something more, an inexplicable entity that animates the deepest wellsprings of the “self” we hope to become.

The n’shamah is that “something more,” an invitation to realize the Godlike embrace of morality, creativity, artistry and truth. Being unexplainable scientifically, it appears within us as a mysterious gift from without. Hence the idea of a n’shamah as “heaven-sent”: a glimpse of transcendence; purpose beyond our admittedly paltry – and, conceivably, petty — personal lives, dwarfed as they are by the infinitude of the universe. When the rest of us dies – body, brain, and all – the soul part called n’shamah is what we say lives on.

The second “yes” denotes the second part of the soul, the ru’ach. If the n’shamah is wholly other, utterly ethereal and divine, the part of God that reaches down and pulls us up to greater moral, artistic, and intellectual stature, the ru’ach is the part of human nature that reaches up receptively to embrace the wonder it all.

Even people who disbelieve in the eternality of a separate and non-material n’shamah can appreciate the potential for nobility that lies miraculously within them. In Dickens’ Tale of Two Cities, the brilliant but dissolute Sydney Carton sacrifices himself on the guillotine to save somebody else. When he famously declares, “It is a far far better thing that I do than I have ever done,” he is (Jews would say) acknowledging the upward aspiration of his ru’ach.

The final “yes” returns to the nefesh, the part of the soul that is actually embodied. Even our bodies are sacred, Judaism says. Torture, enslavement, corporal punishment – we know these to be wrong, because human beings are more than conglomerations of bodily organs to be owned, used or abused. They are, simultaneously a nefesh – neither the n’shamah that is given from on high nor the ru’ach that reaches up from within, but our very earthly selves that must live with the financial loss engendered by the sacrifices we make.

This nefesh is Rashi’s “sort of.” But it is also a “yes,” because the earthly experience of loss comes with the satisfaction of reaching higher. And that is the nefesh talking.

The Shape of Time

Before cell phones, we bought paper calendars – things you hung on a wall or put in your pocket or pocketbook. They gave us pictures of time.

No one knows what time actually is, after all. Time is something we live through, grow older in, but what is it?

Our calendars tell us, through the tacit decisions behind their organization.

That annual calendar you bought, for example, was organized in double-page spreads, called weeks. Each double page had seven days. The pages were blank but for the dates and days – and numbers down one side corresponding to hours.

The whole point of this calendar was to fill in as many lines as you could with appointments, as if life were a game in which the person who dies with the most appointments wins.

This “for-appointments-only” calendar derives from our implicit understanding of time as a commodity that can be “saved,” “lost,” “spent,” or “wasted.” By this secular calculus, “wasting time” is a sin for which we get chastised, because
“Time is money.”

Money, however, is fungible – funds set aside for one purpose are interchangeable with funds set aside for another. So too is time, according to this model. Every day, every hour, is the same as any other. Time is empty, just an arbitrary number on the left side of the calendar page, demanding an appointment to give it value.

Not so the Jewish calendar, which you don’t have to buy because funeral homes and kosher butchers give them out for free. While secular calendars come empty, Jewish calendars come loaded: a changeable time of sunset (for lighting candles); names for each week (drawn from the weekly Torah reading) and a plethora of days that come colored to show their importance. They are most certainly not all alike.

The most usual colored day is Shabbat, the only day in the week with a name. the others, “Day One” “Day Two” and so on (in Hebrew), are just numbered upward to lead to Shabbat. The point of this calendar is not to list appointments (for which there is no room anyway) but to get to the colored days when appointments are actually prohibited!

The Jewish calendar divides the secular from the sacred; and reminds us that the fullness of life requires them both.

Most interesting is another colored day, that occurs each month: Rosh Chodesh, “the new moon.” When it falls mid-week, Rosh Chodesh is easily passed over. This week, however, the new month (of Shevat) coincides with Shabbat, allowing us to stop and give Rosh Chodesh its due.

Unlike those pocket secular calendars that are divided by weeks, Jewish calendars display whole months: each page begins with a Rosh Chodesh. Secular months are arbitrary, unattached to actual lunar phases. Jewish months are really lunar. New moons matter.

Jewish law considers them half-holy days, not altogether days of rest (like Shabbat). But Talmudic tradition in the Land of Israel recognized that women (whose monthly cycle roughly mirrors the cosmic one) could properly refrain from work then, if they liked. And all Jews there thought enough of Rosh Chodesh to provide it with its own evening Kiddush. These are home observances, not public ones, and I wish we still had them.

Acknowledging the newness of every moon and month reminds us of the grand possibility of starting our own lives over again. We regularly associate that message with Rosh Hashanah, but Rosh Hashanah is just one new moon of many. Every new moon invites us to turn over a new page in the calendar, the point being that we can simultaneously turn over a new page in our lives.

I love Rosh Hashanah’s message of life renewed. But some months are so bad, I’d rather not wait a whole year for Rosh Hashanah to return. And our calendar says I don’t have to. I just watch for the next new moon, bid the awful month past a happy “Good riddance,” and start my life all over again.

Humanity: A Moral Category, Not an Anthropological One

The story of Noah reminds us of how far humanity has come from the days when we were crawly creatures emerging from the water; and how easy it is to slip back once again to where it all began. Noah’s generation does just that. It is evil incarnate. Subhuman-like, it saturates the earth with violence. So it is left to sink into the mud, as the flood returns the world to its own primeval origins.

Critics who demand that the narrative of the flood be literally true miss the point. The Bible captures eternal truths less through history than through stories, and this story’s message is the need to persevere in our evolutionary climb to moral maturity. At one extreme (still a whole book away) there is Sinai, the symbolic pinnacle of our moral climb upward. At the other, there is Noah’s generation, dragging the world down to disaster; and in between, there is Noah, who is everyman and everywoman: mostly moral, but hardly a saint; and precariously afloat in an ark, just a fraction short of going under.

Noah personifies the human struggle to resist the undertow of evil lest a single generation wash out every trace of the human climb from mud to mountain peak, and millions of years of steady evolution count for nothing.

At the end of the story, Noah dispatches a dove (in Hebrew, a yonah) to find land. The dove is symbolic, for birds fly; they are not dragged down; they herald hope beyond the visible horizon; they remind us, the ordinary Noahs of the world, that we need not sink back into the sea.

The same symbolism recurs later in a human being, the prophet Yonah — Jonah, in English.

Jonah is Noah revisited. He too inhabits a storm-tossed ship that threatens to spill its human cargo into nothingness. He too faces evil: the Ninevites. But he too is only human, hesitant to fulfil his moral promise, to the point of being swallowed by a fish that drags him ever lower into the very depths of the sea whence humankind first evolved. As if replicating human evolution, the fish spits him onto dry land insisting that he fulfill his human mission. “Humanity” is a moral category, not just an anthropological one. If we lose our moral center we lose being human.

Yonah the bird, and Yonah the man are metaphors also, the Rabbis say, for Israel, who is charged with the struggle to retain that moral center. The case of the prophet is explicit: when the sailors ask after his identity, Jonah says, Ivri anokhi, “I am a Hebrew” (Jonah 1:9). As for Noah’s dove, the Tosafot tell us, “The dove is Israel,” and for proof, direct us to Song of Songs 2:14: “My dove, in the crags of the rocks.”

The dove in Song of Songs, they say, is Israel, waiting in the rocks of the mountains to hear God’s voice: mountains, mind you, the metaphoric moral peak that humans who have evolved from the slime must climb. Noah’s dove, the idealized Israel in metaphoric form, flies off in search of an echo of God, a rumor that evil can be overcome and that life persists beyond it.

Jews divide the Bible into three constituent sections: Torah, Nevi’im (Prophets) and Ketuvim (Writings). All three units remind us of the centrality of the yonah, the dove of moral hope. The story of Noah is in Torah, Jonah is a prophet, and the Song of Songs comes from the Writings. Once upon a time, the Jewish People left Egypt for Sinai and became a yonah, a dove perched high in the mountain crags to hear God’s moral voice. Sometimes (like Jonah the prophet) we evade our charge, and relapse into the primal waters where we began. But sometimes too, we manage to be Noah’s yonah, the dove that strives to fly higher, there to confirm the news of a better moral day.

 

 

A Realist’s View of Heaven; or Just, “Heaven, Really!”

The universe, we like to imagine, encompasses two categories of reality: the heavenly and the earthly. We know what the earthly is – science has been studying it for centuries. But what, exactly, is the heavenly? The usual explanations are often unenlightening – they just replace one problematic word (heavenly) with others (divine, Godly, spiritual, and so on), leaving us pretty much where we started: wondering if “heavenly” is anything real altogether — anything more, that is, than a wishful figure of speech.

The medieval commentator Ibn Ezra objects to this evasion of clarity. In the portion of Torah called Ha’azinu (Deuteronomy 32) — which Jews read in synagogue this coming week — for example, Moses calls on heaven and earth as witnesses (v. 32:1), and Ibn Ezra disparages interpretations that identify “the heavenly” as angels, or even rain. Yes, the angels must live in heaven and yes, rain comes from on high, but neither term tells us anything about heaven itself. “Actually,” he concludes, “heaven and earth” denote the two categories of “everything that has permanent existence.”

Let’s start there: we have two categories of existence that are permanent: the heavenly and the earthly. What can we add, without lapsing into dubious metaphysics?

The earthly is familiar to us. Over four centuries of scientific analysis has built up massive sets of laws describing it. Unfortunately, these laws are stunningly amoral – they explain the phenomena of nature, but without regard for good and bad, right and wrong. Philosopher John Stuart Mill captured the problem by observing: “Nature impales men… burns them to death… starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold…. A single hurricane destroys the hopes of a season…. All this Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice.”

So religion adds a category: the heavenly, something equally real, albeit not amenable to scientific measurement. We should not think of “the heavenly” as a separate realm, however, some actual space somewhere or other. It is just another perspective on the same phenomena that we study with science. It too looks at nature but from the perspective of human empathy, and the consequent demand for mercy and justice.

The earthly perspective of science provides an unsympathetic calculus of how the universe works: how hurricanes happen, for example. The heavenly perspective of empathy evaluates the way that universe affects the lives of those who live in it: not the science of how hurricanes happen, but sympathy for the way a hurricane devastates this ruined farmer or that grieving mother whose child was crushed under a falling tree. “Science and the earthly” measure truth; “empathy and the heavenly” allocate kindness.

The two perspectives coalesce in our concept of life. From a scientific perspective, the various forms of life come and go; Darwinian selection favors continuity of the species, but cares not one whit about any given instance of it. By analogy, sociology or economics, say, can rightly be called “sciences” insofar as they study the laws by which human organizations and the economy operate – without, however, any necessary sympathy for the poor, the sick, and the victimized in the systems that they study. When economists or urban planners actually decide to address these unfortunates, they adopt the perspective of the heavenly.

Thank God for the heavenly perspective that supplements scientific knowledge with kindness. But thank God for scientific understanding too – without it we wouldn’t know how to alleviate the misery that empathy uncovers.

Scholars tell us that the last three portions of the Torah (Deuteronomy 31-34, that is) follow from the portion before them, Nitsavim (Deuteronomy 29:9-30:20), which Jews read in synagogue just two weeks ago (and which Reform Jews read on Yom Kippur as well). There, Moses also summons heaven and earth (v. 30:19), this time to witness the claim that we are given life and death, and the insistence that we choose life. But who wouldn’t choose life? Why remind us about the obvious?

The point must be that in choosing life, we risk choosing only one of the two perspectives on it. We actually need both: the scientific laws on how life works, and the empathic kindness toward the way those laws impact the less fortunate among us.

Quite rightly, Moses calls both heaven and earth as witnesses to history. Either one alone, science without empathy or empathy without science, will ruin us.

Donkeys, Tongs, and the Coming of the Messiah

The talking donkey most familiar to Americans these days is the cartoon character “Donkey” from the hit movie Shrek (2001). But Donkey’s predecessor, Francis the talking mule, debuted in a 1946 World War II novel, and then seven follow-up films in the 1950s; and the unbeatable original is a whole lot older still — Balaam’s donkey of Numbers 22.

All three donkeys are noticeably smarter than the people who own them, and maybe that’s the point. A donkey is a jackass, after all, the archetypically stupid beast of burden; granting them intelligence is a favorite artistic strategy

The Rabbis, who think Balaam’s donkey was real, trace its origin to creation itself, when God fashioned a variety of things that history would someday require but put them aside until they were needed. One such item was Balaam’s donkey. Another was the first set of tongs

Yes, tongs!

A quintessential breakthrough in human material culture is metallurgy: first iron, and then the process of heating it above 800 degrees centigrade to “steel” it for tasks where ordinary iron breaks. But to manipulate iron, you need tongs, and in order to make the tongs, you first need other tongs! It follows, then, that alongside Balaam’s donkey, God must also have fashioned a set of primeval tongs, which humans eventually discovered and used to make all the other tongs.

Long before metallurgy, there was fire itself, of course, so another rabbinic tale traces that also to God. This story accents Adam, the human being who discovered it; celebrated its heat and light; thanked God for it; and used it ever after

To tongs and fire as benchmarks in human progress, we should add writing, the means of transmitting knowledge through the generations. Rabbinic tradition ascribes the discovery of writing to Enoch, a descendent of Adam. Legend pictures God allowing Enoch to live among the angels, so that he might attain their mastery of the natural universe, and write it down for humans to learn

The important lesson here is that all these tales picture God as welcoming human discovery — unlike Zeus of Greek mythology, from whom Prometheus, like some primeval industrial spy, has to steal these very secrets (metallurgy, fire and script) and give them to mortals: an act for which he is punished by being shackled to a crag, where every day, an eagle rips open his flesh to devour his liver. The God of the Rabbis, by contrast, willingly creates everything we need – writing, fire, tongs, and even (for a single cameo appearance) a talking donkey: and then glories in our discovering them.

Civilization requires regularized breakthrough inventions, but do we invent them despite creation or does the very plan of creation favor our inventiveness? Judaism’s answer is the latter: the cosmos and we are in sync. God welcomes curiosity. God wants us to uncover the world’s secrets

Judaism views the universe as massive beyond imagination, but created with order and logic – just awaiting human discovery. To be a Jew is to value the art of exploring the unknown. Adam stops to investigate fire; Enoch writes notes on what the angels know; some unknown blacksmith figured out how to use tongs; and Balaam marvels at, and listens to, a talking jackass.

God supplies the world with whatever we might need; we dedicate ourselves to finding it. That, the Rabbis say, is what God wants: we are in league with God in manufacturing progress.

Progress is slow, however, measured only in eons, so we must commit ourselves to this business called life, for the long haul. Only eventually will we, conceivably, discover miraculous solutions for such problems as intractable disease, endemic poverty, ecological disaster and war.

We call that eventuality the messianic age, which tradition describes as a messiah arriving on yet one more donkey. That too, perhaps, is a holdover from creation, deposited in the wings of history and awaiting its turn on the world stage. Stay tuned. Who knows