Category Archives: spirituality

There Really Are Miracles: Hanukah, Parashat Miketz

There really are miracles.

Ask children, too young to look cynically at birthday candles, bubble baths and cushiony piles of autumn leaves; ask adults old enough to appreciate the gift of each unfailing sunrise and another day on earth. I’m not talking about the sun standing still or the Red Sea parting, or even the odd case of spontaneous remission from deathly illness that, admittedly, happens to some people (but not to others). The miracles I look for are not breaks in the natural order; they are simpler things, like human decency where we least expect it and the everyday moments that evoke deep breaths of gratitude just for the privilege of being.

Like beauty, miracles are in the eye of the beholder. For people too jaded to see them, Hanukah supplies a crash course in beholding. We do it through light.

Yes, light: an entity so ordinary that we take it for granted, yet a miracle in and of itself. In a universe of relativity, it is the only constant, moving at 186,287.49 miles per second. It is somehow both a wave and a particle; able to permeate not just air, but water and glass as well. We humans see only a fraction of the total light spectrum, but the part we see refracts gorgeously into the colors of the rainbow. Light heats our homes, warms our hearts, and shines our way forward.

Light runs deep in cultural consciousness. Lord Byron gives us “the light of love, the purity of grace.” Oliver Goldsmith likens light to hope, which “like the gleaming taper’s light,/ Adorns and cheers our way.” Milton called it the “offspring of heav’n first-born.”

It resonates equally through Jewish texts, not just as God’s first act of creation but a metaphor for angels, a gift reserved for the righteous from the moment of creation, and a “new light” that will shine on Zion in messianic times.

I love Hanukah, therefore. Forget the presents, the commercial kitsch and even the Maccabean war that started it all. The Rabbis who compiled our Bible omitted the books that describe the war; a single paragraph about it was added to the Amidah, but only as a footnote to the main story: the miracle of light. To the Gemara’s question, “What is Hanukah,” the Rabbis speak only of light – the wonderful cruse of oil that burned longer than anyone had reason to anticipate. Josephus recalls Hanukah in his day as a torchlight parade to light up the darkness.

Why, then, do we keep Hanukah? Not because we won a war: the Maccabees turned out to be as autocratic a dynasty as any other of the petty tyrannies that characterized antiquity. Hanukah is one thing only: a celebration of light – the light of freedom, the light of wisdom, the light of hope, the light of promise, and the light of joy. Our candles are lit at night, not daytime – so people can see them; and on our window sills, so the light invades the darkened streets and alleys l’farsomei nissa (in the words of the Talmud), “to publicize the miracle.”

How desperately we need reminders of miracles! We just had an election for a government that has increasingly stopped working. The stock market is at record highs, but unemployment won’t go away. We cannot afford the wars that we shouldn’t have been fighting in the first place, but have ample cause to worry about the world we are retreating from. At a time when “a thick gloom fell through the sunshine and darken’d me,” Walt Whitman wondered, “must I indeed learn to chant the cold dirges of the baffled and sullen hymns of defeat?” He might have been speaking for us.

Had Whitman walked past Jewish homes at night, he would have found the insistent Jewish answer in the light of Hanukkah candles. Miracles persist; the light shines even when all looks darkest, and keeps on shining long after we are certain it should have been extinguished.

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.

B’har

Advocates of modern political and economic positions often look to the Bible for religious support — as if revelation some thousands of years ago should have anticipated the dilemmas of every age to come. This week’s portion, with its compelling laws of ownership, have therefore been mined by liberals and conservatives alike to defend their views.

Ardent socialists, for example, have cheered the idea of declaring every fiftieth (or Jubilee) year a time when land devolves upon the original owners, thereby prohibiting large landed interests from owning real estate in perpetuity. Equally ardent capitalists note the high value placed on private ownership in the first place. The Bible itself measures land value against the number of harvests to be realized before the Jubilee, thus recognizing due market value to guide investors. Land purchased in the first year of a fifty-year cycle is worth more than the same land purchased, say, just ten years before that cycle’s end.

To all of this, the modern collector of commentaries, Yehudah Nachshoni, reminds us that both socialism or capitalism are “concepts derived from modernity.” Readers can find support for both throughout the Torah, which, after all, was given long before Adam Smith or Karl Marx.

Not that Torah is irrelevant to modern concerns; but what it provides is a spiritual framework, not an economic one. Maimonides rightly observes (in his Guide, 3:38) that the laws of sabbatical and Jubilee years were given “to imply sympathy with our fellow human beings and to promote the wellbeing of humanity.”

Its essential claim is that all property — land first and foremost in an agrarian economy — belongs to God. By extension, we, the owners, also belong to God. Neither land nor people can be ravaged for personal gain.

To be sure, ecological concerns are inherent in laws that prevent abuse of land; the land is God’s after all, not ours, in the long run. But overall, the Torah’s concerns here are with issues of people, who are, as it were, tenants gifted with stewardship over goods that predated our coming into the world and will be here long after we die.

In biblical times, ownership of at least some plot of land was crucial, so the Torah makes each of us a landholder. We may sell our land if absolutely necessary, but not all of it — at least some residue of property must be retained lest the owner become completely destitute and become indentured to some other person.

In reality, indentured servitude did occur, of course — Torah’s regulations here are ideals, after all, and as such, were as subject to economic conditions as we are. So rabbinic regulation turned to conditions of indenture, as a consequence of the spiritual principle that we too belong to God — no less than the land does.

If we sell ourselves, in effect, as a matter of economic survival, our masters must recognize that they now have mere stewardship over us, until such time as we can revert to our original master, God. The entire Jewish story begins with the proclamation that God redeemed us from Egyptian slavery and says, “You are my servants” — not (say the rabbis) so that you should become “servants to other servants.” We may indeed, therefore, acquire masters for ourselves in respect to any manner of work, but insofar as we are God’s servants, “we have no power to sell ourselves into absolute servitude.”

Most obviously, our new masters may not make total serfs of us, subjugating us through hard labor — farekh, in Hebrew, the same word used to describe the work that taskmasters assigned the Israelites in Egypt. But the Rabbis apply it to even the smallest details — like asking servants to do unnecessary work just to keep them busy. We also may not give our workers assignments with no end in sight, like doing field work “until I return,” since the worker has no idea when that will be.

These rules, moreover, apply not just to Jews. The Torah has no modern concepts as clear cut as absolute particularism versus universalism; it had no concept of social rules that might apply to people completely beyond the reach of Jewish governmental structures. But it takes a universal turn when it applies these rules of common decency to everyone within the jurisdiction of Jews: not just Jews but resident aliens as well.

The Torah even worries about the spiritual condition of the master. Modern Orthodox master Isaac Breuer lived at the height of rampant capitalism and worried about the wealthy who deny that God owns everything and even live as if they too do not own everything because what they own actually owns them!

More important than the precise examples is the principle: the earth is God’s; all creation is God’s; we are part of creation; we are God’s as well. And in God’s scheme, we are all intended to get beyond Egyptian servitude so that regardless of economic conditions, we may not be reduced to have lives of indignity.

Parashat Mishpatim

Twice this week, we encounter Israel’s famous acceptance of responsibility at Sinai. The people first say, simply, “Whatever God says, we will do” (Exodus 24:3). Just a few lines later (24:7), they say, “Whatever God says, we will do and we will hear.”

Tradition has made much of these affirmations. For starters, they have been applied to two different moments in time: the first followed God’s demand that Israel prepare for revelation; the second refers to revelation itself.

Then too, the order of the verbs — first “we will do” and only then, “we will hear” — has attracted enormous commentary. Most interpreters have deduced the lesson that proper comprehension of God’s will flows only from the prior performance of it, not the other way around: that is, we do not first hear and then do; we do and only then do we hear.

But how could that be? “Something” had to have been heard to prompt the doing. The answer must be that, existentially speaking, what we hear at first is only a vague demand for action that must be tried out before we really understand it; in that sense, “we will do” really does come first; only out of doing, do we more fully grasp what was meant by the first hearing. Only then can we revisit the original hearing and rehear it for all that it entails.

Now we understand a lesser-noted difference — in the first promise, “Israel answered in a single voice.” Not so the second time. There, the unanimity of voice is missing. They had no trouble agreeing with one voice that they would prepare for the covenant. But they were of more than a single opinion as to what that covenant entailed, since they knew that it would mean different things for each of them, and only after trying it, would each person know what it might mean personally.

The idea that we try out what we think God wants runs counter to the usual understanding of religion, which, we assume, is black or white, totally objective, clear and distinct from the outset. Nowhere else do we suffer from this childlike delusion. Congress makes rules but then changes them, as exigency demands. Even the Supreme Court changes its mind on what exactly we mean, by, say, “cruel and unusual punishment.”

Sure, we promise enduring love to the ones we marry — but the naivete of courting gives way to the experience of actual marriage, when we understand better what true love demands. Yes, we pledge allegiance to the flag — but then we alter the kind of America for which we believe the flag must stand: the “manifest destiny” of the days when Americans thought the entire continent belonged to them is long gone; our inalienable right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness means different things in different eras.

Why should this ever-changing landscape of understanding not apply also to religion? Israel could speak with one united voice when the only thing at stake was preparing to receive the covenant. The covenant’s exact terms, however, were another matter. Everyone agreed to commit to it, but they knew that the “it” in question would change, as experience kept revising the understanding of what God had asked for.

Religion gets short shrift in America today because the idea of utter changelessness is blatantly childish. Until we treat religion as a fully adult thing, we can expect religious loyalty to falter. The only way forward is to reassert what Torah here implies: we Jews do agree to do what God wants; but not with a single voice, because we know our understanding must change with personal experience. We hear things differently as we age through life. And God, who made us, knows that very well.

God is Good; Nature is Neutral; Yadda Yadda Yadda: Let’s Move On

Having just edited a book called We Have Sinned (Jewish Lights, 2012), I was interviewed last week on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” part of an interfaith dialogue on sin and repentance. I was struck by a segment in the show which raised the issue of God’s love. In response to a question from the host, Neal Conan, the imam assured us that Allah is merciful. The Roman Catholic priest concurred: Christians too view God as merciful. I then cited Rabbi Akiba’s guarantee, “Happy are you O Israel, for God loves you; happier still are you because you know God loves you.” As I finished, I wondered: Why this fetish with staking out claims on God’s love?

Well, for one thing, a lot of people have apparently been raised believing the opposite: a lot of clerics have spent a lot of time describing God as a pretty harsh judge. For another, religious leaders who represent this eternal God of love are often the worst spewers of violence and venom. And finally, the universe that God is supposed to manage can seem downright cruel: the world of hurricanes, droughts and tsunamis is not exactly a loving place.

Each of these difficulties deserves an answer.

1. I regret the miserable systems of religious education that have somehow managed to miss the point. Old-world religion did indeed emphasize sin and punishment more than love and pardon, but those are bygone days, and religion today is no more responsible for them than modern science is for medieval alchemy.

2. Religion’s oppressiveness comes from fundamentalists who use religious certitude for their own selfish ends. The issue, however, is not religion; it is power. Religions, nation states, individual demagogues, and corporations are alike in causing willful damage whenever they get too much power. Religious hate-mongers do abound, but so too do evil CEOs and government officials, and we should no more get rid of religion than we should business and democracy.

3. Way back in 1874, John Stuart Mill set us right about nature, saying, “It impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death, crushes them with stones… starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold, poisons them by the quick or slow venom of her exhalations, and has hundreds of other hideous deaths in reserve…. All this Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice.” So yes, the created world is not particularly kind “by nature.” But its laws are open to human investigation, and we have the possibility of taming it for human benefit rather than abusing it by squandering its bounty or poisoning its water, earth and air. God does not micromanage the universe, but God gave us the wisdom and the wherewithal to do so.

Anxiety about God’s goodness may be personal or theoretical. The most common personal concern is our own immediate suffering: tragic death or illness, let us say. Our hearts go out to such victims and their families, who, understandably, wish God had intervened to prevent the undeserved cruelty. Unfortunately, God does not work that way, because to do so would involve playing fast and free with the laws of nature, and all of scientific promise depends precisely on the inevitability of the laws that we discover and then can use to our best benefit.

The usual theoretical concern is the question of whether religions are good or bad for the human race. If they merely foment hatred, war, and hardship, they ought indeed to be boycotted or even banned. But religious faith is no more evil than scientific curiosity or artistic imagination. All three are part of human nature, and if nature is neutral, then so too are they. At their best, science gives us knowledge to make life better; art creates beauty to make life richer; and religion provides perspective that makes life deeper.

Religion is properly the search for “perspective” — why we are here, what makes life worthwhile, what constitutes purpose, how best to live, and (when the time comes) how best to die as well. Let’s stop the childish questions about God’s mercy and religion’s beneficence. Of course God is merciful, or God is not God; and since religion is here to stay, like it or not, we may as well fashion it so that we have a good reason for liking it.

Why Faith Matters

Abraham’s centrality for Western civilization has been debated ever since the earliest Christians described him as the paradigmatic “man of faith.” Salvation, they concluded, arises through “faith” (what we believe) not through “works” (what we do). The Rabbis, by contrast, emphasized works over faith.

But Abraham as a paragon of faith is part of Jewish tradition too. Only through faith in a God who summons him does Abraham leaves home and family altogether. Rav Soloveitchik has provided an entire treatise entitled ”The Lonely Man of Faith.” Faith matters in Judaism.

How could it not — faith is inherent to being human! It takes faith to imagine that anything we do at all has importance in the long run. We have little or no control over our personal fate; we cannot predict what will happen to those we love; when we die, we take nothing with us; and, frankly, how much do we remember about even our grandparents, not to mention their grandparents? The entropy of time washes memories away.

It is also not clear that what we do has any long-term impact on history, which we wish we could control but, obviously, cannot. It takes faith to act as if life is worthwhile despite regular personal setbacks and in the face of traumatic global events we never expected and have trouble controlling now that they are here.

Soloveitchik traces the human experience of faith to the Bible’s very beginning. He links the Bible’s two separate accounts of creation (Genesis 1:1-2:4; and 2:5-2:24) to parallel aspects of human nature. The first story addresses the need to be creative. “Fill the earth and master it,” God says (1:28) — in other words, “Be productive; do something.” The second narrative, however, focuses on God’s giving us “the breath of life” (2:7). Its concern is life itself: not what we fill our lives with doing but what the point of all that “doing” really is. This deeper question addresses what we mean by redemption, or (as Christians prefer saying) salvation. Story One highlights accomplishment; Story Two underscores redemption.

From childhood on we are trained to value accomplishments but, eventually, accomplishments pale. That is the message of Ecclesiastes: “Utter futility! All is futile. What real value is there in all the gains we make beneath the sun?” If that sounds jaded, just consider how history is filled with accomplishments that do not matter anymore. We go to school to get a job, get a job to build a career, build a career to get ahead, get ahead to get further ahead, and so on. But to what end? “Accomplishment” is simply what we do; “redemption“ is the certain sense of why we do it. Redemption derives from faith in a transcendent purpose, a higher ideal to which we owe allegiance. Judaism calls that God.

We are back to asking whether we are saved by works or by faith — by accomplishments, that is, or by redemption. Accomplishments satisfy the human thirst for creativity, but will not suffice at moments when we are forced to wonder why creativity matters in the first place. Faith alone can tell us we amount to something, even when we feel like failures; when devastating illness interrupts our plans; and when we die so poor as to have little sense of material accomplishment or so young as to be unable even to conceive of a lifelong project, let alone to see it through. Only faith provides the redemptive certainty that we matter regardless of how our accomplishments turn out. And only faith can measure our accomplishments in the first place.

The Bible introduces Abraham as someone of no accomplishments at all; we get no biography of him whatsoever (the Rabbis have to make all that up). Abraham’s single claim to fame is that he responds to God’s call to undertake a journey in faith. He will face disappointment after disappointment; struggle with the land to which he is summoned; lose the battle to save Lot; banish his first son Ishmael; prematurely bury his beloved wife Sarah; and die virtually alone, far away from Isaac whom he once almost sacrificed. But his faith in a God whom he never sees will not flag.

Why are Jews so heavily invested in accomplishment, but not redemption or faith? Why are we so ready to dismiss the possibility of God, of being called, and of measuring ourselves without accomplishment as our center? The challenge is hardly to be like Abraham the great accomplisher. It is to face the possibility that we are called, like Abraham, to have faith in redemption, no matter what we manage to accomplish.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books is now available.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

I’m happy to announce that my latest book, One Hundred Great Jewish Books, is now available. The full title, One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation, reflects an idea I have been playing with for about a decade now. What is Judaism, if not an identity that is portrayed through a rolling conversation across the centuries! The book is a running record of the conversation as portrayed through every variety of Jewish book: classical texts and medieval responsa, but also modern fiction, short stories, histories, biographies, and even comic books, encyclopedias, and cook books. I read over 200 books to make the selection, but here it is at last: my running guide to the Jewish conversational record.

I hope you enjoy it, so we can continue the conversation here.

9/11: Remembering How We Remembered

By tomorrow, the various memorials for 9/11 around the country will be matters of memory, allowing us to remember how we remembered. That exercise is worthwhile because it elucidates two different meanings of the word “remember”: the ordinary sense in which we merely bring to mind whatever it is we want to recall and the ritual usage that goes much deeper than that. We remember 9/11 — ritually; we remember how we remembered it — ordinarily.

It’s too bad we use the same word for both. Remembering 9/11 is a far cry from remembering where we put our checkbook or the way it was when we were ten. English sometimes strives to keep them different by calling the ordinary sense “remembering,” and the ritual sense “remembrance.”

We are all familiar with rituals of remembrance, an activity common to most religions but central also to secular communal consciousness. Even societies that deliberately reject religion — France during the French Revolution and the Soviet Union, for example  — practice them. If nothing else, they must remember the revolutionary moment in which they were formed, and for that, they need something sacred, if not “religious.” Central to the act is usually an attempt to relive what happened in condensed form: rereading a Declaration of Independence, perhaps, or recreating a mock battle. With 9/11, there were six moments of silence — one for each of the four hijacked planes that caused the mayhem and one more for each of the buildings that crumbled.

Television too played this ritual role by reliving the day’s fateful horrors. Witnesses remembered what it was like; young people described growing up in the shadow of the tragedy, and pundits waxed eloquent on the meaning of the occasion — not to provide information that we didn’t know already, but to ritualize the knowledge we already had, by reviewing it, rehearsing it, re-feeling it, and reliving it.

Because ritual remembrance is a category of the sacred, and because Judaism and Christianity are religions where remembering is central, we can learn a lot about even the secular act of remembrance by borrowing terms and concepts from Jewish-Christian understanding.

First, Christian. At his Last Supper, Jesus famously said, “Do this in memory of me.” Ever since, the primary liturgical act for Christians has been the Eucharist, a ritualized replication of that moment, described by the Greek term for remembrance, anamnesis. The New Dictionary of Sacramental Worship calls the Greek word ”practically untranslatable in English. ‘Memorial,’  ‘commemoration,’ ‘remembrance’ all suggest a recollection of the past, whereas anamnesis means making present an object or person from the past.” What matters is this sense of “making present,” as if past and present coalesce into a single intensive experience of “now.” It is as if we are able to inhabit two separate points in time simultaneously. Time stops momentarily (and momentously), as “then” and “now” become the same.

Jews do not use the Greek, but have the same ritual consciousness in, for example, the wedding ceremony where the concluding “seven blessings” (the sheva b’rakhot) invoke the idyllic Garden of Eden on one hand, and final redemption yet to come, on the other, collapsing them both into the current blissful moment under the wedding canopy.

In lieu of the Greek anamnesis, the specifically Jewish contribution is the parallel Hebrew word for remembrance, zekher (or zikaron, a variant that means the same thing). We hear regularly of a zekher with reference to the Temple, creation, leaving Egypt, and other events and realities of another era. But the most telling use of zekher comes from the Talmud which employs the term legally by saying, “There may be no proof for such and such a proposition, but there is a zekher for it.” Zecher Can hardly mean “remembrance” here.  It is better translated as,” pointer.”

Now we understand ritual remembrance. It is a pointer that fastens our attention across time, space, and even logic. It attaches where we are to somewhere else we wish to be. It rivets our consciousness on our inherent connectivity to something that might otherwise be lost among the disparate sense perceptions that constantly assail us, as if to say that regardless of how our lives may change, this particular pathway of attentiveness must never be lost. We move on with our lives when the moment of remembrance ends, but the connecting tissue to the event being memorialized attends us wherever we go, deepening our sense of what matters and committing ourselves to the lessons that flow from it.

Kol Nidre: A Sneak Preview

It seems a long way off, but before we know it, summer swelter will give way to autumn cool, and we will be back in synagogue listening to Kol Nidre. The roots of Kol Nidre lie in this week’s parashah, where Moses cautions the people, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he may not break his pledge.”  We find two categories here: “vow” (neder) and “oath” (sh’vu’ah). Both are ways of forbidding something to oneself: saying, for example (by neder), “I vow never to give you a gift again”; or (by sh’vu’ah), “I swear, by God, never to give you a gift again.”

But the Hebrew for obligation (issar) was taken as yet a third category, and others too were eventually added to the lexicon of sacred promises that must be honored.  Kol Nidre is a prayer from the ninth century (or so) that effects the annulment of them all. Its various terms (nidrei, konamei, kinusei, etc.) denote the legal niceties of these various classes of oaths and vows.

Buried in this legal nitpicking are a number of lessons that touch the halakhic understanding of human nature and our relationship to God.

Take, for example, the interesting possibility of a person pledging (by vow or by oath) not to fulfill a mitzvah.  A husband dies, let us say, and the grieving widow is so devastated that she vows (or swears) never to light Shabbat candles again. We saw above how a person might vow (or swear) never to give someone a gift.  Gift-giving is optional: a woman may indeed decide never to give her recalcitrant son any more presents. But candle-lighting is commanded; may she promise never to light Shabbat candles?

The answer is that she may, but only through a neder (a vow), not a sh’vu’ah (an oath). That is because the prohibition of a neder is considered as falling upon the thing being forbidden, while the prohibition of a sh’vu’ah (an oath) is seen as devolving on the person doing the forbidding. In our case, then, the woman is allowed to define a particularly difficult mitzvah as beyond her psychological ken (through a neder), even though she may not define herself as beyond the doing of it (through a sh’vu’ah).

But why is that? Don’t these amount to the same thing, in the long run?

Rabbi Daniel Landes explains the difference with theological sensitivity. In an essay on the halakhah of vows composed for a book I am editing on Kol Nidre (All These Vows, Jewish Lights Publishing, August, 2011), he explains that in general, the obligation to do mitzvot goes back to an oath (a sh’vu’ah)  that our ancestors made at Sinai. Halakhah does not permit us to break that oath, which we, as Jews, inherit as our mandate. “It is the person who is obliged at Sinai,” however, “not the objects of halakhah to which the person relates,” and a vow (a neder), as we have seen, falls on the object, not the person.

Even more interesting than the halakhah itself, I think, is the idea that seems to lie behind it.  Under the force of trauma, we may find this or that mitzvah too much to bear, to the point where we may vow not to do it. Even without being traumatized, we may find ourselves questioning a particular halakhic act, to the point where we pledge to abandon it. And God, as it were, understands all this; God appreciates the dilemmas that life deals us. But the focus must remain the traumatizing or alienating activity that we would otherwise gladly do, not we, the doers of it, for no matter how estranged halakhic acts may appear, we are not permitted to assume that we are personally estranged from the comforting presence of God.

It is hoped that we will return to doing the mitzvah, of course – our hypothetical woman may annul her rash vow not to light Shabbat candles. And until she does, she may indeed abandon it. She should know, however, that God never abandons her.

Judaism is about obligations; but obligations are about relationships. Halakhic theory accepts the fact that for a time, at least, this or that obligation may seem painfully beyond us. It does not, however, countenance our imagining that we are painfully removed from God. The divine-human relationship is sacrosanct.

What we see here in Judaism’s insistence on the love of God. Churches regularly proclaim God’s love. Synagogues don’t, but should. A loving God is central to everything Judaism holds dear.