Category Archives: values

I’m Haunted: We All Should Be

It’s a week since Passover ended. But I remain haunted. Haunted by its message, especially in the light of Yom Hashoah, Holocaust Memorial Day that is coming to its end even as I write this.When it began, I asked, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” Looking back, I ask, “What question should we be asking now?

The answer begins with a Holocaust memory: Elie Wiesel’s account of Jews in a concentration camp unable to celebrate Simchat Torah for lack of a Torah scroll with which to dance. One man solves the problem by picking up a child and holding him as he would a scroll. “This will be our Torah!” he announces.

We are not told what happened to that child, but we can guess, and I thought of him while reviewing Dayyenu, that celebration of God’s many mighty acts, each one being Dayyenu(“Enough!”); but it wasn’t enough, not for the concentration-camp children like the one in the story. “Let my people go,” Moses demanded of Pharaoh; and he didn’t. Neither did Hitler.

Originally, Hitler did propose letting Jews go; the problem was, no one would take them. The Final Solution was really the Second Solution – undertaken when the first one, exporting Europe’s Jews, failed. Even after August 1, 1942, when our government learned with certainty that Jewish genocide was in the works, we refused to help. When Sweden offered to admit 20,000 Jewish children if America would feed them, we turned them down.

We were not the only ones. In 1945, a Canadian official was asked how many Jews could be admitted after the war ended. His infamous reply is legendary: “None is too many.”

These facts are representative of a thousand others, well known by now. Jews would become a public charge, people said; the economy couldn’t sustain them. Many of them were criminals. They would make us “vulnerable to enemies,” the State Department argued.

We Jews can properly disagree on many things, but the moral obligation to open our borders to oppressed seekers of asylum is not one of them. When we say, “Never again,” we cannot just mean “Never, just for ourselves”! Yet here we are, closing borders and saying of others what was said of us: they will be a public charge; they are criminals; we’ll be vulnerable to terrorists.

The failed states that created these refugees are not Nazi Germany: I know that. They are not cases of state-sponsored genocide: I know that too. And not all the refugees are alike: some are more threatened than others. But the horrors they do face — starvation, murder, rape, and more — can kill you just the same.

The helpless children among them remind me of another Wiesel account:  of an Auschwitz child publicly hanged but too weightless for the noose to kill him right away. Instead, he dangles in the wind, as if awaiting salvation after all. Refugee children too are “dangling in the wind” while we decide their fate. Is America still “that great strong land of love” (in Langston Hughes’ words) or not?

The Seder question, “Why is this night different from all other nights?” becomes newly macabre when we recall that Wiesel named his Auschwitz testimony “Night.” For would-be immigrants, cruelly and needlessly sent back home to disaster, “this night” is not at all different from all other nights. When mounting darkness occludes all hope, when it chokes off every possibility of deliverance, night is just night.

We Jews (more than most) have known night. We know (better than most) that we should be debating the best possible way to do the right thing. We should not be doing whatever we can to do nothing.

So what question is in order now, one week after Passover and in the flickering twilight of Yom Hashoah? It is this: How can we not remember that as much as Pharaoh wouldn’t let us out, Amalek wouldn’t let us through; and when the Nazis would let us leave, America wouldn’t let us in? Jews, especially, have the obligation to ensure that history does not record our America as another Amalek.

Advertisements

The Family Business

“So what do you do?” That’s the question we most frequently ask upon meeting someone new.

A version projected onto medieval times has a builder reply, “See that cathedral? I build the story 60 feet up; my father built the one below it, and his father built the one below that. My son will build it higher still, as will his son after him.”

Talk about going into the family business!

We Jews, however, build no such multi-generational cathedrals; our equivalent is a generational chain of blessing, an idea with which the Book of Genesis ends.

The scene is Jacob on his death bed, blessing his children. “This,” says the Torah, “is what their father said.” But why call Jacob “their father” rather than “Jacob,” his name? Because, says Genesis Rabbah (100:12), these future progenitors of Israel will receive blessing from many generations of parents, not just from Jacob. “Where one generation ends, the next one begins.”

Blessing began with Abraham and Sarah, then continued with Isaac and Rebekah, and kept going all the way to Moses. The Haftarah extends the chain still further, by picturing King David dying and adjuring Solomon to “keep God’s charge” just as he, David, had done.

Generational continuity is a way to solve a perennially difficult passage in the history of biblical interpretation: Ramban’s insistence that beyond being the story of what has already happened, Genesis is a prophetic premonition of what was yet to be. The plain sense of Ramban’s claim has prompted endless futile efforts to find a code by which chance combinations of biblical letters might somehow reveal the future.

As a confirmed medieval mystic, Ramban may indeed have believed that, but equally, he may have meant something more intellectually acceptable. Genesis is not just stories about particular individuals, he realized; it provides patterns that recur through time: sibling rivalry, for example; and (our case here) the parental insistence on blessing. Every parental generation is heir to the cumulative blessing of its past; and then passes that on enhanced by its own contribution to posterity. Each successive generation thus inherits a compound set of blessings: what its immediate parents were able to fashion, and what parental generations over the centuries managed to pass along earlier.

We have here an early Jewish affirmation of a doctrine that captured western thought only with the Enlightenment: the idea of progress. Most ancient peoples saw history as an endless and repetitive cycle. Not so Israel, said Mircea Eliade, the professor who founded History of Religion as a discipline. Israel adopted a linear view of history, a developmental line by which every generation can build on the accomplishment of those who came before. We are not just doomed to repeat what others have done. We can all accomplish together what no single generation can bring about alone.

To be sure, some parental generations bequeath the opposite: not blessings but curses. Hence our prayer on holidays, livrachah v’lo liklalah: “May we know blessing, not curse.” Every generation must struggle with the legacy it leaves behind. Are we adding to the blessing or detracting from it? Yet Jews insist that over time, blessing will prove victorious. History is cumulative and the good will win the day. “On that day, God shall be One and God’s name shall be One” (Zechariah 14:9 and the end of Alenu).

Our insistence on progress derives from our reading of Genesis. Each generation inherits the legacy of blessings left by those who came before, and then strives to add its own set of blessings onto that.  Not for nothing did we choose Hatikvah(“The Hope”) as Israel’s national anthem. We are a people of hope and of promise.

“So what do you do?”

The next time people ask you that, tell them, “See this thing called history? I inherit the blessings of my predecessors and I add my blessings to theirs; my children and my children’s children will do likewise. I am a Jew. I believe in progress.

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.

 

 

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.