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The Why Not the How: Peoplehood With Purpose

Year by year, we read through the Torah from beginning to end, skipping nothing, right?

Maybe not. Not originally anyway. The Yerushalmi (the Talmud from the Land of Israel) reports Mishnah Megillah 4:10 as saying, “The Priestly Benediction [Numbers 6:24-26] is neither read nor translated.” The parallel passage in the Babli (the Talmud from Babylonia), however, says, “We read the priestly benediction but do not translate it.” And that is the rule today. In either case, it may not be translated.

“Translated” here refers to simultaneous translation during services, a practice that was commonplace when there were no printed books for following along. On either Talmudic account, the Priestly Benediction remains untranslated. But why?

The Yerushalmi doesn’t say, but the Babli explains it brilliantly. The blessing asks God 1. to bless us and keep us; 2. To deal kindly with us and be gracious to us; and 3. To bestow favor upon us and grant us peace. The problem, says the Babli is the Hebrew verb, “to bestow favor,” which can also mean “to show judicial favoritism,” a practice that is deeply abhorrent to the Torah’s sense of justice. Indeed, Deuteronomy 10:17 says explicitly, God “shows no favoritism.”

To be sure, only the uninformed would confuse “favor” with “favoritism,” the Babli says. People with enough education to understand the original Hebrew would know better. They would reason, for example, that when we keep the mitzvot, we even go beyond the letter of the law to do it right (Berachot 20b), so when we ask God to “bestow favor” we just mean that God should properly reward meritorious behavior.

Still, the uninformed might confuse “showing favor” with “favoritism,” as might the translators themselves, so even the opinion that permits the Hebrew reading prohibits its translation – just to play it safe.

There is more to this than meets the eye. The debate has consequences for the central Jewish belief in being the Chosen People. When we say, in our Torah blessings, for example, asher bachar banu … v’natan lanu et torato, “who chose us… and gave us Torah,” is God’s” favoring” of Israel really “favoritism”?

The answer has to be “No”! Israel must somehow have merited the right to be chosen. Indeed, a familiar midrash says that God offered the Torah to many peoples, but only Israel accepted it. That claim can sound gratuitously self-congratulatory, but its point is not to boast about ourselves; it is to save the reputation of God, and to underscore the virtue of judicial impartiality. Moral probity demands that any special relationship with God must be earned.

The Rabbis make the same claim about other peoples, who are said to have their own “Noahide” covenants with God, and who, presumably, must merit them, as we do ours. The prophet Amos likens Israel to Cushites and Philistines, for example, leading Rashi to picture God asking Israel rhetorically, “Aren’t you descended from Noah, the same as  everyone else?” Jewish peoplehood is nothing if it is not earned. The minute we cease deserving to be God’s People, it is as if we no longer are.

In the days of our infancy, we had Moses to intercede for us when we faltered. But having now grown up, we must also face up to the demands of Jewish Peoplehood. Jewish continuity cannot exist just for its own sake. It must be rooted in some transcendent mission. More than just a People, we must be a People with Purpose.

Much is said and written about the threats to Jewish peoplehood: anti-Semitism from without and apathy from within. By contrast, relatively little conversation occurs on why we still deserve this age-old relationship with God. Jews were “chosen” because God had a purpose for us in mind. Our organizational agendas, school curricula, and institutional mission statements would do well  to insist on that purpose.  The “why” of survival is no less important than the “how.” Without knowing the “why,” the “how” will fail. Committed to the “why,” the “how” will follow.

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Everybody Knows Your Name, or A Name Worth Being Known By?

 

Remember the TV icon Cheers, the place where “everybody knows your name”? Less acknowledged are two prior lines: “where you can see our troubles are all the same” and “where people know [that] people are all the same.”

There you have it: the Cheers  version of our time. We are  bereft of  natural communities like extended families (where, as Robert Frost says, “they have to take you in”). Without such solace, our problems “drive us to drink” —  or, at least, to bars, where we feel better, because we see that “our troubles are all the same;” that “we are all the same”; and that people still know our names.

Torah is not Cheers, but Judaism too thinks we are ultimately all the same. Yes, God made each of us unique, but we are all descended from Adam and Eve (Maimonides, Commentary to M. Sanhedrin 4:5). It agrees too that our names matter. It differs, however, in noting we have many names, and the one that counts is not the one bestowed on us at birth but the one we make for ourselves thereafter. We are graced with free will (Maimonides, Laws of Repentance, 5:1) and can conscientiously choose to live so that our names are associated with godliness.

Judaism is, therefore, less like Cheers and more like Socrates, for whom, “The unexamined life is not worth living.” Torah is the Jewish mirror for self-examination; as are penitence and prayer. The Rabbis awakened each day to all three, hoping for a life beyond shame, a life with honor, and a life where we do not succumb to the evil inclination, which is like yeast that puffs us up with our own self-importance (Ber. 17a).

Cheers  is a cozy retreat from life to a place where “everybody knows your name.” Judaism embraces life, as the means to earn a name worth being known by.

We call that “character.”

“Character” is the topic of Tractate Avot, mandatory reading for this period of “counting the days” (sefirah) between Passover and Shavuot.  “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But being for myself, what am I?”  (1:14); We pursue our self-interest, but at what cost? Similarly, “A name made great is a name destroyed” (1:13); the pursuit of fame and fortune is useless. Instead, we should avoid spite, profanity, envy, and arrogance (2:15, 3:15, 4:4-5, 28); see the best in others (4:3);  value truth, justice, friendliness, and peace (1:15, 18); and personify humanity at its best, especially when those around us personify it at its worst (2:6).

Character forms slowly and is not changed easily. God didn’t reveal the Torah the minute the Israelites left Egypt, because slaves suffer the debilitating character of docility, fear, and pessimism. God risked revelation only years later, at Sinai; and when Israel defaulted into the idolatry of the golden calf, God waited a whole generation more before admitting them to the promised land.

But character can change with persistent effort over time, and that, says Menachem Mendel of Lubavitch,  is what the sefirah is for: the cleansing of character. Normally, he points out – for new moons and sabbatical years — calendrical counting is entrusted to the bet din, the rabbinical court that represents all of Israel. Not so the sefirah. The commandment to count the days, he says, falls on each of us individually.

The same is true of the Ten Commandments, the Lubavitcher continues. They are even addressed to each of us in the singular, because basic moral obligation is central to individual character. Each of us can acquire a good name, but only on our own (Avot 2:8).

What’s in a name, then? Everything! Not the name we are given, but the name we achieve, our mark of character. From Passover to Shavuot we get seven weeks of counting, seven weeks to commit ourselves to achieving the “the crown of a good name” which is better than the crown of royalty itself (Avot 4:17).

 

 

Is Religion Divisive?

Critics never tire of blaming religion for the world’s divisiveness, hatred and wars. They point to such things as the many Protestant/Catholic conflicts, the Crusades, and (in modern times) the Hindu/Muslim clashes that produced separate states of India and Pakistan. More current examples include Sunnis and Shiites; Jihadist Islam; the Buddhist persecution of Muslim Rohingyas in Myanmar, and the ultra-Orthodox minority in Israel that threatens Muslims and liberal Jews alike.

These are indeed instances of people using religion for evil, just as critics charge.  But saying that something is often used for evil ends does not imply that the thing being used is evil in itself; or that in different hands, it cannot equally be used for good. Food, for example, causes obesity; but no one concludes that all food is bad. Logic can lead to error, but we do not conclude that we should aim at being illogical. It is specifically bad food (or food badly used) and bad logic (or logic wrongly applied) that bring us grief. The question with everything is how it is used and why people use it that way.

Actually, it is not so much religion that has been at stake as it is religious ethnicity, because for most of human history (and even today) religious belief has been inextricably tied to the stuff of ethnicity. Ought we, then, to get rid of Klezmer music and Pakistani food?

The truly monumental evil of our time comes from neither religion nor ethnicity, however.  It is nationalism wed to ideology that gave us the Great War of 1914; nationalism wed to racism that gave us Hitler; and totalitarian ideology that produced Stalin.

We should differentiate cause  from reason.  Cause is the set of circumstances that produce a phenomenon; reason  is the stated justification for that phenomenon. Religion, ethnicity, nationalism, and ideology are just some of the reasons cited by those who wage the wars or inflict the cruelties in question. People bent on these evils select any reason that seems in vogue.  Religion has been one of them, but if religion had not been available, the perpetrators would have chosen something else.

The culprit is not religion, but religion misused; and religion misused is just the reason , not the cause. Religion alone causes nothing.

Nowadays, when critics cite religion negatively, they usually mean the religion practiced by people who dislike modernity and who want to turn back the clock to some imagined halcyon yesteryear. Such people do not use religion alone as their rationale, however. They are equally likely to champion ethnicity or nationalism, the way the nineteenth century tended to prefer reasons of race. Any one of these can be misused to rationalize evil. None of them actually causes it.  The cause is fear of modernity, to which gets added any reason whatever that will make deep-seated fear seem legitimate.

Distrust of modernity is just the proximate cause, however. The deeper cause is change itself, particularly because change carries with it a redistribution of power. In our time, the cutting edge of change, worldwide, is likely to feature acceptance of science; religious reform; international collaboration; advanced education; the obliteration of old ethnic prejudices; a global economy; and the like. The opposition champions the reverse: suspicion of science, a return to old-time religious verities, nationalist  pride, localist loyalties, and ethnic solidarity.

Overall, religion has more often been a blessing than a curse. It comforts the suffering, achieves community with purpose, insists on ethics, and posits a better world worth having. It challenges us to reach higher, act better, and believe more fully in the best that humanity has to offer.  Throwing out religion because we abhor how some people use it is like throwing out the baby with the bath water. We would be better off demonstrating the many ways that religion enriches human lives, and letting the baby work its many positive miracles upon us.

Peace of Mind

Primo Levi, recently released from Auschwitz, recalls a savvy confidante warning him, “The war is not yet over – not for you.” Indeed, on July 4, 1946, the few remaining Jews in the Polish town of Kielce were herded together and clubbed, stoned, or stabbed to death.  In 1946 as well, Jewish survivors elsewhere, barely alive from concentration-camp starvation and forced death marches, languished in Displaced Persons camps with nowhere to go. Even here, 64% of American Jews claimed personal familiarity with anti-Semitism. 1946 was not a very good year.

How amazing, then that in 1946, the leading book on the New York Times best-seller list was authored by a Rabbi from Boston, Joshua Loth Liebman, and entitled Peace of Mind.

“This is the gift that God reserves for special proteges,” Liebman wrote. “Talent and beauty God gives to many. Wealth is commonplace, fame not rare. But peace of mind – that is the fondest sign of God’s love.”

Peace of mind is an inner virtue: not something we gain from life’s experiences, but something we take to them, to help us make it through them. Think of Aaron, who suffers the sudden death of his two oldest sons. The Torah defends the event as divine punishment for offering “alien fire,” an obscure sin that neither the Talmud nor the commentators explain very satisfactorily.  I read the account as a case of “grasping at straws,” like Job’s friends who imagine all suffering must be deserved. It isn’t. When inexplicable tragedies strike — through hurricanes, earthquakes, and such – we too call them “acts of God,” without really meaning it.

What matters, however, is not the logic we supply but the response we manage to muster. Aaron, the Torah says, is silent. He endures the loss and moves on.

With all our sophistication on dealing with bereavement, we tend nowadays to fault him for not venting his anger, railing at God, crying foul. I don’t necessarily recommend such stoic silence, but I do marvel at the Torah’s picture of Aaron the father who takes even the tragic death of his children with equanimity.

By contrast, when King David’s son Absalom dies (while in armed revolt against him, no less), David laments, “Oh my son Absalom, Absalom my son, would that I had died instead of you.” What do we learn from Aaron that we do not see in David?

Every biblical hero is painted with faults, but also redeeming virtues.  Abraham almost sacrifices his son, but is faithful; Moses loses his temper, but is humble; And Aaron? Aaron’s failure is his role in making the golden calf. What is his distinctive virtue?

From Passover to Shavuot, we read Pirkei Avot, the rabbinic book of wisdom par excellence. The first week’s instalment says, “Be among the disciples of Aaron, loving peace and pursuing it.”  Aaron’s genius, apparently, lies in the attainment of peace.

But not just any peace.

We normally think of peace as something external, peace between individuals or nations. But Aaron’s peace is different — not peace without, but peace within, the kind of inner peace that allows Aaron the father to go on in life despite the trauma of two lost children. Aaron had mastered Joshua Loth Liebman’s peace of mind.

Sooner or later, we all discover our lives spinning out of control.  We wake up one day with a rare disease that we thought only other people could get; a drunk driver barrels into us and cripples us for life. There are lesser crises too: we lose a big promotion; discover that someone we love has lied to us; undergo a miscarriage, suffer mid-life crises and problems with aging. How in the world do we get through all that?

Only with what Liebman describes and Aaron epitomizes: the peace of mind that sees us through our difficult days. “Loving peace of mind and pursuing it” is the only armor we have against life’s inevitable trials. It was Aaron’s secret and it can be ours as well.

The One Question for the Passover Seder

The story is told of a dying sage surrounded by admiring disciples intent on obtaining the key to life. “What’s the answer?” they ask. “It depends,” the sage replies. “What is the question?”

That really is sage advice. Everything depends on the question we ask.

This questioning goes back to the seder’s origins, the Mishnah, which says, “The second cup of wine is poured, and here the son asks the father.” But what does he ask? The Mishnah does not say, and for centuries the question or questions varied. The Talmud lists our four questions but just as suggestions of the kind of thing a child might notice and inquire about. Only in the Middle Ages did they somehow become “official”.

Even then, however, it was the father who asked them, not the children – a sign that they are symbolic of deeper questions that only adults are able to contemplate. Eventually, the questions were relegated to children, but not on that account made central to the evening’s proceedings. Only with the baby-boomer generation did we come to treat them as virtually sacrosanct – a sign of post-World-War-II Judaism, in general, becoming “pediatric”: religion as a childhood diversion that adults no longer believe.

Until then, the point of the seder was hardly children chanting questions memorized in religious school; it was adults deliberating the consequences of taking Jewish existence seriously. The “four sons narrative,” is not really about “sons” or even about “children.” Adults too can be wise, evil, foolish or just plain uninvolved.

“Even if we were all wise and all knowledgeable” the Talmud says, “we would still be obliged to relate the Passover story.” But why? If we were so smart, wouldn’t we already know it? My Talmud teacher, Samuel Atlas, of blessed memory, answered this objection by observing that the underlying question for Passover changes with the times. Mah nishtanah… “Why is this night different” should be read symbolically to mean “Why are our times different?” What question should preoccupy us in our time?

I do not mean a passing question for 2018 alone. I mean an ongoing question of substance; and because Passover marks our birth as a People, I mean the most pressing question possible for the Jewish People’s continued existence. What is that question?

The child-centeredness of the seder’s questions is not altogether an error, if we redefine “children” as the next generation, the young adult millennials who fault their elders for asking old questions rather than facing up to a new one. Here’s their burning question: Why be Jewish altogether? Or, translated into seder language: Why does it matter that God delivered us from Egypt in the first place?

That question is anathema to most of my generation who think Jewish existence requires no justification. In every generation (the Haggadah says) people rise up to enslave or even kill us. But God saves us – or, in more modern, even Zionistic, language, we fight to save ourselves.  What more do we need to know?

But, the millennials say, for what end? What’s the point of it all? If being Jewish has no transcendent purpose, then why bother?

We left Egypt to serve God: that’s the Torah’s answer. Do people still believe that? What does “service of God” mean today? Without thinking that through, we will have nothing to say “when our children ask,” and we will perish – not by others who rise up against us, but by our own intellectual lethargy. Passover insists that Judaism matters profoundly. Our seder this year should explain why.

 

Our Love Affair With Doctors

The age-old Jewish love affair with medicine began this week, as it were: with Exodus 21:18/19, which discusses mayhem, the willful assault by one person upon another. According to Torah, the guilty party must provide healing for the victim — from which the Talmud deduces (BK 85a) the aggressor’s obligation to pay for medical care (with extra remuneration for pain, humiliation, and damages for loss of income, as well).

If the injuring party is also a doctor, who offers his/her own medical services instead of paying someone else, the injured party can refuse, because, to the victim, the assailant is like “a lion lying in wait,” and victims have the right to doctors whom they trust. Nor can the assailant supply a doctor-friend who will heal for free, since the victim can argue that “a doctor who heals for nothing is worth nothing” (BK 85a).

In addition, the assailant cannot claim (for example) that the victim need only pray and God will answer the prayer, because, says Rashi, it is forbidden to rely on God alone to provide healing, The Tosafot go farther, specifying consultation with doctors also for what we would call “acts of God”; even there, we cannot count on God alone to “undo the damage.”

The Talmud prohibits Jews from even dwelling in a town where there is no doctor (San. 17b).

So early on, Judaism decided that we cannot trust simply on God, that doctors are therefore necessary, that they may charge for what they do; and that those who need healing have a right to it. Pretty advanced thinking for late antiquity and The Middle Ages, I would say!

Yet inexplicably, the same Talmud also says (M. Kid. 4:14 = Kid. 82a), “The best of doctors belong in Hell” (gehinnom, in talmudic parlance). It’s only a side (and snide) comment, one of many unauthoritative aphorisms, so we cannot put much stock in it.  But we learn a lot from later rabbinic attempts to understand it. The comment pointedly specifies doctors who are “the best,” not “the most righteous,” we are told, having in mind doctors who think they are beyond the obligation to heal the poor (Rashi); or those whose arrogance prevents them from consulting with medical colleagues in cases of medical uncertainty (Maharsha, Samuel Edels, Poland, 1555-1631).

When it comes to valuing life and those who help sustain it, rabbinic tradition has much to be proud of.

But the Rabbis do not just anticipate modern-day perspectives. They offer a spiritual insight that is nowadays easily forgotten. Healing derives ultimately from God, they insist, so physicians do their work as deputies from God. To be called to the profession of healing is to be God’s presence in the face of pain. But it is more, even, than that.  Since God’s ultimate presence is seen in the original act of creation, healing must be viewed as the continuation of that act.

As a prisoner in Auschwitz, Primo Levi remembers having to watch a man die slowly on the gallows. As the victim twists in agony, Levi thinks, “To destroy a man is almost as difficult as to create one.” Like the gallows, disease too slowly destroys what God has created – destruction and sickness on one hand; creation and healing on the other. Those who heal are the antithesis of destroyers; they create new lives for those they save.

Each morning, we say a blessing that praises God for “healing and doing miracle work” (rofei kol basar umafli la’asot). “Healing,” then, is “miracle work.” We may know how medicine works its wonders, but it remains a wonder nonetheless — a miracle that anything works at all. The best of doctors are not those who deserve gehinnom, but those who stand in awe at the gift of being God’s personal agents on earth, charged with nothing short of creating lives as God once did.

 

 

 

 

Cracow, Auschwitz, and Egypt: Lest Memory Fail

Cracow is a city where Jewish grandmothers used to sit and drink their “glass of tea.” When I visited Cracow’s Jewish quarter, twenty-five years ago, the only Jews drinking tea were visitors like me “coming home” to sip the taste of life as our grandmothers had described it. When I visited again last year, the quarter was rebuilt and reenergized: instead of grandmothers in kitchens drinking tea, young people on street corners ordering lattes.

Twenty-five years ago, the ghostly remains of Cracow synagogues silhouetted huddles of elderly men — memory brokers selling painful recollections to pilgrims like me. They are gone today, as are their first-hand memories of the way it really was. This time round, my bright and bouncy guide duly walked me past the corner where Jews were rounded up for deportation, but all she had was distant history: what researchers  uncovered and then wrote down for her to read and then tell me. How easily memory fossilizes into history.

We need real memory, this week’s Torah portion insists, for the Haggadah’s “four sons” who ask “why?” – not just of Egypt but of Cracow too: as it says, “When your children ask you, tell them….”

Tell them what? How God took us out of Egypt? No problem. But also, “What happened to the Jewish grandmothers who once smiled over glasses of Cracow tea?” What do you tell them when memory becomes history and history is just not good enough?

For a while, memorials keep memories fresh: as at Auschwitz.

Twenty-five years ago, when I first walked the rusting Auschwitz railroad tracks that once brought cattle cars of Jews to die, I felt it in my bones. It was winter, very cold, with darkening skies scowling down on the barren grounds; and I, the only visitor on that late December afternoon. The chill was everywhere, as was the horror of the place as if it were still up and running and smoking with the stench of Jewish bodies.

This time round, Auschwitz the memorial had become Auschwitz the museum, but not a good one. It was more like a theme park, where visitors are herded through with earphones tuned to robotic explanations intoned by guides whom they can barely see. The young man behind me shuffled past the glass-encased exhibits of suitcases, shoes, and hair — drinking a Coke. Did he even vaguely comprehend the final ignominy? All that’s left of all those Jews, under glass!

What happens when guides know only the history they studied in “guide” school; and memorials become semi-autonomous guided tours?

I now appreciate the Torah’s admonition that we set aside as sacred a day of memory (Ex. 12:14) and a night of watching (12:42), to recollect what we can for our “four sons” – as if we really had been there.

To foolish children, we can do no more than summarize our story in a single simple line, and hope for the best.

Worse are evil children who think Hitler happened to someone else. Auschwitz is just one more museum, like the one downtown with old Greek sculpture. Cracow is just one more city with bars and night life.

The wise, thank God, insist on knowing it all, getting it straight, and maybe (with effort) dredging up some distant memory and making it their own.

But I like best the child who “knows not what to ask.” I have come to admire that child as no simpleton at all, for what can you ask, if you begin to grasp what Auschwitz really was? And how can we respond, except to do the impossible: to convey the Auschwitz story as if we still remember it, the way we remember the Exodus, as if we ourselves had been there?

The seder is not just fun and food. It is for children to know that in Egypt, Jews went free; and in Auschwitz they did not. And then to move on, but with a memory in mind not a Coca Cola in hand.