Category Archives: theology

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.

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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.

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.

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.

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.