Category Archives: values

Humanity: A Moral Category, Not an Anthropological One

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

 

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Why We Need Synagogues, or, What Synagogues Need to Be

The core problem with synagogues is that they have no raison d’etre, no obvious reason to continue. It is not that they do not work. Most of them work quite well – at what they do. It is just not clear to a lot of people why they should keep on doing it. There are obvious exceptions — synagogues that focus single-mindedly on purpose. But most synagogue boards, professionals and rabbis would be hard put to say in a sentence what their purpose is.  They know what they do, but they have no compelling rationale by with which to judge it and no correspondingly convincing rhetoric to enroll the loyalty of people whose needs run deeper than life-cycle celebrations and high holiday tickets.

To the extent that there is any rationale at all, it is likely to be captured in the word “community.” But what kind of community, and community to what end? The usual response, “sacred community,” does not get us very far because as little as we commonly know what synagogues are for, even less do we commonly know what the sacred is.

Until relatively recently, the absence of a transcendent reason for synagogues to exist could easily be overlooked. “Proper” Americans automatically affiliated with a “church of their choice” and synagogues were our “churches.” Besides, we needed our own places to pursue a Jewish agenda: fighting anti-Semitism, hearing about Israel, passing on our heritage, and the like. Those reasons are still valid, more or less, especially if you add the goal of playing out the prophetic commitment to correcting the world’s ills.

But that agenda rings true only for Jews already committed to Judaism’s mission and to pursuing it in the traditional synagogue setting. More and more Jews have discovered they can change the world faster and better outside the synagogue context: Habitat for Humanity, The American Jewish World Service, Mazon, Hazon, or any number of like-minded addresses that focus attention and funding on good causes. As for education and lobbying, few synagogues can compete with organizations like AJC, JNF, UJA, and Federations, which specialize in matters that synagogues only dabble at. JCCs provide preschools and have long aspired to running full scale religious schools as well – not to mention High Holiday services. Entrepreneurial rabbis now hang out shingles promising privately planned bar/bat mitzvahs, weddings, burial, and even catering during shivah.  So why synagogues, which are generalists in an age of specialization and which cost a fortune and require affiliation, to boot?

The answer must lie in synagogues becoming what they alone can be: deeply rooted Jewish responses to the human condition in our time.

One approach comes from philosopher Charles Taylor’s recognition that human nature demands judgments of “admiration and contempt,” two polar extremes by which we measure moral worth. We assume the existence of something we call “the good,” and pursue it for no other reason than that we should. For starters, then, synagogues can be the singular place where community forms to direct attention to the good. A vision of the good is central to religion in general, certainly to Judaism. Think of the synagogue as a moral center for the 21st century.

This polar judgment of “admiration or contempt” transcends the moral, however. It encompasses also the sense that life should matter; that we live not just from moment to moment but to create an identity whose whole is greater than the sum of the parts. We are authors of our own life’s project, the part of us that gets reported as our eulogy someday — the praise we earn because of the dignity of a life well led. Call this spirituality, the soaring of the human spirit to encompass a mission beyond the gritty needs of daily existence. We see it even in the hell of war-time destruction, when some combatants rise above the fray to display a higher self than we have reason to expect. All the more do we expect it of ourselves, given the privileged conditions in which we live.

More than just being moral, then, we have the sense that we should better ourselves, develop life projects, build a business, make a home, stand for something. We believe in the right – indeed, the obligation — to be true to the best that is in us, not to squander our potential in self-centered gluttony, laziness, or hedonism.

Humanity at its best seeks out the good and leads fulfilling lives that matter. The synagogue is the community that engages Jews in that twin endeavor. All else follows from this, the synagogue’s mission: to be a moral and spiritual center for the 21st century.

“Despoiling the Egyptians”: An Exercise In Moral Logic

The  sedra for this week (Bo) features one of the most troubling episodes in all of Torah: the so-called despoiling of the Egyptians. Back in Exodus 3, the Israelites are promised that they will leave Egypt not just with their freedom but with great wealth. “You shall strip the Egyptians bare,” goes the promise, in colloquial English of today.

Sure enough, this week the Israelites prepare to leave by “borrowing” objects of silver and gold from their neighbors. Borrowing? Not exactly. Everybody knows, that they are leaving Egypt for good with no intention of returning. The Egyptians comply because “God disposed them favorably” toward their erstwhile Jewish slaves (verse 11:3). How so? They repented of the evil they had done as slave masters, says Ramban. But let’s face it: it didn’t hurt any that the Egyptians were frightened to death by the plagues.

This is a significant moral dilemma. When the Egyptians had the upper hand, they impoverished the Jews. Now that the tables are turned, should the Jews then impoverish the Egyptians? Ibn Ezra dismisses the whole issue by insisting that God who owns the entire world can rightfully allot it to whomever He wishes. End of story. But most commentators cannot buy that. Surely God is subject to the same moral law as that which binds human beings.

So commentators try to get the Israelites off the moral hook by observing that the Israelites “borrowed” the Egyptians’ goods only at Moses’ insistence. They were not looters, that is, not a mob intent on extortion. The Israelites requested their neighbors possessions against their own will, actually – purely because Moses commanded them to do so.

Still, what moral rationale could Moses have had? Following the Talmud (Sanhedrin 91a), most commentators decide that Moses was only claiming the wages owed from years of unpaid slavery. This was not vengeance; it was justice. Ethical law prohibits an underclass from using its sudden turn of fortune to rob former masters. But Moses (a prophet, after all) imposed a higher order of moral logic than what ethical law permits.

Ever the philosopher and legalist, Maimonides thinks through the consequences of this position. In his code (Hilkhot Y’sodei Torah, Chapter 9) he comes to the astonishing conclusion that “someone who is known to be a prophet” may temporarily override the laws of Torah. But think about it: are we really ready to permit our leaders, even temporarily, to override morality? They would have to be recognized prophets of course but how can we know for sure that someone is a prophet?

Maimonides’ prime example — Elijah who offers a sacrifice on Mount Carmel despite the Torah’s mandate to do so only in Jerusalem — is talmudic (Yeb 90b). But Elijah’s case is different. Whatever he did, he did himself. Convinced of an emergency situation, he acted on his own — he did not induce others to sacrifice outside the Temple. And the rule of Torah that he dismissed was not a moral one. It impacted God, perhaps, but not other human beings.

The case of Moses is more difficult because Moses instructed others to disobey a precept and because the precept in question was moral. Can just anyone, then, be a modern-day Moses?

That frightening possibility may underlie Maimonides’ insistence that Moses was utterly unique. The Torah concludes by observing that no prophet has ever arisen like Moses, and Maimonides raises that observation to the status of being one of his 13 principles of faith. In principle, then, a prophet may instruct others to countermand basic moral logic. In practice, however, we are wary of anyone who tries to do so. No one, after all, is like Moses.

The logic attributed to Moses is not wrong: considerations of justice should (and do) guide our thinking about compensation for slaves – – that has been our position regarding the Sho’ah. But we arrive at that conclusion by going through the institution of law, not by going around it.

In the end, the Torah is not in heaven, Maimonides reminds us. It remains the responsibility of human beings to interpret it. But interpretation is the very stuff of law not its dismissal. In the era before Sinai, Moses was the singular embodiment of legal interpretation. He had the right, therefore, to instruct the Israelites to take what was properly theirs. But no one has arisen like Moses, and we are beyond him now.

The sure sign of civilization, Judaism insists, is the rule of law. Societies stand or fall on the balance of justice and mercy with which their understanding of law operates. We insist as well on morality but entrust it to the complexity of such properly functioning legal systems.

Denominations: The Final, Moral, Test

In response to my blog decrying the premature obituary of religious denominations, I have received several emails that deserve response. Some readers charge me with unfairly championing Reform Judaism as the only successful merger of modernity and tradition. Others think I unfairly dismiss Orthodoxy as a monolithic premodern whole. Still others persist in thinking that denominations necessarily limit creativity. At the very least, others say, why not argue for a single denomination outside of Orthodoxy, giving us Orthodox on one hand and non-Orthodox on the other? These are very important critiques that require clarification. Let me take each in its turn.

1.      “I unfairly champion Reform Judaism as the only successful merger of modernity and tradition.”

I never said it and don’t believe it. All denominations today arose as responses to the challenge of remaining Jews in a modern world. So too, did Zionism and Jewish socialism, the strategies that were favored in eastern Europe where religious reform did not dominate Jewish consciousness as much as it did in the west. All Jews have had to wrestle with modernity and either affirm it or (at some psychic cost) deny it. I cited today’s Reform Judaism an exemplary instance of merging modernity and tradition, but there can be others.

2.      “I unfairly dismiss Orthodoxy as a monolithic whole that is inherently premodern.”

Not so. Modern Orthodoxy is exactly what its name implies: modern and Orthodox. Its preeminent German founder, Samson Raphael Hirsch shared a great deal with the reformers, including the conviction that he was at home in Germany, the desire for modern aesthetics in worship, and the conviction that chosen peoplehood implies a Jewish mission. To be sure, Hirsch faulted his likeminded Reform colleagues on other counts, but is he modern? Of course. Modern Orthodoxy has moved on significantly from its Hirschian origins, just as modern Reform has from its parallel German starting point, but by no means do I dismiss modern Orthodoxy as inferior, even though I, myself, have chosen to identify as Reform.

3.      “We would be better off with untrammeled creativity on the congregational level, but without denominations which limit it.”

It is not true that institutions necessarily protect the status quo. Renaissance art and Baroque music (for example) were supported by the establishment. Great inventiveness has arisen out of corporation-sponsored think tanks. Denominations can catalyze greatness by encouraging brilliance, supporting genius, and rewarding excellence.

4.      “Why not opt for a single denomination outside of Orthodoxy, so that we have Orthodox on one hand and non-Orthodox on the other?”

We live in a time of enormous personal choice and if denominations offer real options, people are more likely to identify with a particular type of Judaism than with Judaism in general. Jews insistent on traditionalist worship and a halakhic life-style will be drawn to Orthodoxy. Jews who care deeply about egalitarian worship, a tradition of prophetic ethics, and spirituality will be happiest in Reform. Other denominations can and should make their own claims to specificity. Because we cannot predict the kind of Judaism that any given person will seek, we need strong denominational addresses all along the Jewish spectrum.

I am, you see, very much a pluralist. I think we need pluralism to keep us sharp and competitive. Respectful denominational competition can be healthy. But as much as we should champion everyone else’s right to practice Judaism as they wish, we also have an obligation to identify deeply as our own kind of Jew. We should allow for many options but be passionate in supporting our own favored option.

5.      The moral argument

I say “everyone else’s right to practice Judaism as they wish.” But there are limits. Some interpretations of Judaism are beyond the pale, offensive to the point where we must say so. When, for example, a rabbi in Israel refuses to rent to a Muslim on prejudicial, even racial, grounds, we must all denounce his message as a kind of Judaism we will not tolerate. We should stand together in respecting the licit interpretations of Torah while denouncing the illicit ones.

That is another reason for denominations. In the normal course of things, be it politics, religion or life in general, the crazies always shout the loudest. How much impact can the reasoned opposition of several scattered synagogues have? Denominations, however, speak with the accumulated voice of many; they command attention in the press and media. We need their voice of sanity when Judaism is wrongly represented as other than it is.

Indeed, the moral test of denominations is precisely this. Are they willing to make their voice heard? Given the disturbing news from Israel of torched mosques, abused women, and trampled human rights, we are at the point where we are about to find out.

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.

God’s Second Book: The Most Valuable Jewish Value

Why be Jewish – other than the fact that you like it, of course? The most common answer is, “For its values.” But what exactly are Jewish values? I don’t mean grand generalizations like an affinity for justice and an insistence on learning – although these are not irrelevant. I have in mind something very specific, some single teaching that elucidates the Jewish outlook on the world.

My choice for today is ein mukdam um’uchar batorah, “There is no chronological order to Torah,” a teaching used to explain the fact that some things in Torah seem out of order. Implicit in this principle is an insightful understanding of the role of sacred scripture.

Scripture has become problematic in the modern world. On the one hand, acknowledging something as sacred writ is enormously enriching. That is why so many people insist on it even though they no longer believe that it was dictated by God. Scripture provides us with spiritual ballast, connection to times past, a text around which to ritualize a community’s present, a vocabulary for intergenerational discussion, and a sacred story that becomes the center of conversational gravity generation after generation.

But Scripture can also be a problem. Much like a national constitution, it serves its believers as a foundational document, but unlike a national constitution, it cannot be emended. It is, by definition, canonical, and, therefore, unalterable through time. It easily becomes a rival to such other sources of truth as science and reason.

The Rabbis, moreover, believed scripture came from God, making it all the more unalterable by mere human beings. Yet they knew also that some of its claims couldn’t possibly reflect the divine will. Stoning a “stubborn and rebellious son”? Extracting “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth”? Impossible. So they erected the legal fiction of an oral law, a commentary that had come down from Sinai alongside the written Torah and been passed along as an interpretive guide to each successive generation. Jews could now read Scripture selectively.

The Bible’s most morally reprehensible elements, they held, had never actually been acted upon — they were there for other lessons they contained. Even the chronological sequence of the Bible was not actually the way it presented itself: ein mukdam um’uchar batorah.

I understand that as (among other things) a subtle recognition that Scripture cannot collide with science, not even the soft science of history, let alone the hard sciences like geology, chemistry, physics and astronomy. Maimonides (among others) affirmed that understanding. Accepting the consequences of ein mukdam um’uchar batorah allows me to lead my life with the certainty that nothing science finds can conflict with what Judaism has to say.

Galileo said, of his own scientific curiosity, that he was simply investigating God’s second book, nature; the first book, of course, was the Bible. I, similarly, see Torah (my Scripture) as God’s first book, and the universe as the second one — each of them created and revealed in its own way. It seems, at the moment, that the universe was formed from a cosmological singularity that brought time into being; it seems also that the Bible evolved from a historical process conditioned by that very flow of time. If opinions change on either of these realities, so be it. Since both “books” are by the very same author, they cannot contradict one another. I can rest secure that as new scientific findings arrive, my reading of Torah need not conflict with those findings.

In no way does that make Scripture irrelevant. Scripture was never intended to define scientific reality. It provides other benefits, like the ones outlined above. When I want to know how the world works, I go to science. When I want to know what the world means, I go to Torah. We need them both, and ein mukdam um’uchar batorah prevents my having to choose one at the expense of the other.

This insistence on a dual source of truth has been a Jewish hallmark through the ages. In an age of renewed insistence on Scriptural inerrancy, and a time when reasonable people can easily find religion antediluvian, I nominate ein mukdam um’uchar batorah as the most valuable value in the Jewish lexicon.