Social Justice and the Secular Bath

I follow synagogue mission statements the way normal people follow the stock market. A synagogue’s statement of purpose is its prospectus, the reason we should care that it exists. For many synagogues, this raison d’etre features tikkun olam, some form of social justice.

Tikkun olam, however, is not the simple thing that they imagine.

The concept is rabbinic, but it took on special importance in medieval kabbalah, which pictured fault lines creeping into the fabric of creation from the very beginning of time. These cosmic fractures, as it were, engender all that is bad about the universe. Tikkun olam — literally, “correcting the universe” – was redefined as the process of restoring creation to its intended state of wholeness.

The Kabbalists were a mystical elite, however, less interested in helping the poor than in helping some metaphysical cosmic unity to come into being. The kabbalistic tikkun olam consisted in performing mitzvot with esoteric meanings in mind. Saying the right prayer with the right intention, for example, would crank the world forward on its way to messianic perfection.

Hasidic masters popularized kabbalah by applying it to human psychology. The universe requiring correction was now said to be our very own souls – the human psyche, we might say. We bear our own internal fracture lines that impact the world’s goodness; we cannot be part of the solution until we admit we are part of the problem.

Take this week’s mandate to appoint “for yourself judges and officers in your gates.” On the face of it, the Torah is describing the institutions of a just society. But sixteenth-century Kabbalist Isaiah Horowitz read it differently.  The Hebrew “for yourself,” he said, is l’kha (singular) not lakhem (plural), so it must be addressing each of us as individuals, in which case, the “gates” denote the sensory openings to our inner selves: our eyes and ears which take in the world; our mouth with which we give back to it.

Yes, said Hasidic master Jacob Joseph of Polnoye.  We must see to our own fractured state of being first.  If we do not fix ourselves, we will never fix the universe.

Synagogues who advocate tikkun olam have largely forgotten these kabbalistic/Hasidic theologies. If they know them at all, they discount them as medieval superstition.Tikkun olam has been laundered free of any stains left by its original mystical context and become a benign catch-all term for good deeds, charity, and social action in general.

Other richly contoured metaphors of Jewish tradition have similarly been given a secular bath by modern-day Jews who get queasy about anything theological. God’s “graciousness” (for example) was originally “grace”:  not some ho-hum variety of pleasant benevolence, but the wow-inducing experience of knowing God loves us, even if everyone else lets us down and even if we don’t deserve it. God’s “grace” is closely associated with tikkun olam. When we are utterly broken, God actually fixes us, and then empowers us to fix others.

How is it that we Jews who do so much else with panache manage to lose our imaginative nerve when it comes to religion? We probably would have advised Marc Chagall to forego all those angels, donkey’s heads, and heavenly brides. Some pretty clouds and sunsets are enough, we would have said.

Deracinated views of tikkun olam as some mere and modern do-good impulse has failed us. Sociologists have studied congregations that say they stand for social justice. Their members, it turns out, like the idea that their synagogue does “good deeds,” but, on the whole, they themselves do no more “good-deed work” than other people. The synagogue’s way of speaking is so uninspired! It does not move them.

Synagogues are not just secular bodies that provide life-cycle ceremonies and hootenannies in Hebrew called services. Synagogues are to other not-for-profits what Chagall’s imaginative skyscapes are to ordinary clouds and sunsets. Without transcendently imaginative language to stir the soul, tikkun olam becomes banal; so does the synagogue; and so do we.



“Loving God”:The Meaning of the Sh’ma

What Jew doesn’t know the Sh’ma with its following V’ahavta, the command to love God with all our heart, soul, and might. We learn it as children and die with it on our lips. But do we all believe it?

What makes people believe in God to the point of offering God love?

Some people reason their way to God – like Maimonides (1138-1204). Seeing how everything in the universe is dependent on something else, he concluded that there had to be something ultimate and unchanging to support it all. By definition, that was God. Loving God, he thought, followed naturally from observing “the magnificence of all that is,” and “the incomparable and infinite wisdom” of the One who made it.

But reason can also lead away from God, so most God-believers depend on intuition; or, frequently, a “Eureka moment” when God’s reality just, somehow, becomes clear. After the fact, they may argue their case, but belief comes first; reason only justifies it.

Think of the Bible as the record of our ancestors’ Eureka moments. Jacob’s dream of a heavenly ladder convinces him that “God is in this place and I did not know it.” Moses encounters God personally and descends Mt. Sinai to tell his people what he now cannot doubt: Sh’ma yisra’el Adonai eloheinu Adonai echad, “Listen up, Israel: Adonai is our God; Adonai alone; v’ahavta…  “Love God with all your heart, soul and might.”

The Israelites take his word for it, as do we. But their faith lapses on occasion, as does ours. With no Eureka moment of our own, it can be hard to believe with certainty in a personal God.

Philosophers after Maimonides also apply reason – that’s what philosophers do – but they had prior Eureka moments, or at least, intuition. Take Chasdai Crescas (1340-1410), who, even in Spain, encountered Italian humanism and its reassertion of the emotions. The way to God, it followed, was not by Maimonidean logical detachment, but by love. For Maimonides, the command to love God was secondary to the argument for God’s singularity. Crescas reversed the order. Open yourself to God’s love by offering love back, and the Eureka-like certainty of God’s reality will hit home.

Franz Rosenzweig (1886-1929) too believed, “We know love only when we love and are loved.” He simply “knew” God’s love and could not help but return it.

All three thinkers began with something they experienced as indubitably real: reason (Maimonides) or love (Crescas and Rosenzweig).

We too value reason and love. But we have issues of our own: and with them, an opportunity to think anew about “loving God.”

We are the wealthiest, most accepted, most educated, and most powerful diasporan community in Jewish history. Yet contentment eludes us. We are successful, but is that all there is? We live longer, only to watch family and friends die off, and to know that we too are here today and gone tomorrow. Good health fails; relationships sour; families turn out differently than we imagined; life itself is tenuous. To love any of these above all else is to court eventual disaster. The Sh’ma insists on something beyond it all.

Our era is awash with people looking for that something — in eastern philosophies, Buddhist meditation, deeper yoga. Yet, Judaism already has it, if we take the Sh’ma seriously.

Jewish thought offers many ways to picture the God of the Sh’ma:  a person; a friendly presence; a force for good; and more. But these cannot do God justice, says Maimonides, because God is beyond our imaginative capacity.

The Sh’ma, therefore, refers to none of these pictures in particular. It insists only on something beyond the phenomena that fail: something that is eternal, trustworthy, and good: it names that “God.”

Loving God is a state of mind, a spiritual perspective, whereby we anchor ourselves in “the eternal, trustworthy, and good,” so that when all else fails (as eventually it will), we are not left empty and bereft.

Zealotry, Good and Bad


It’s easy to be a religious dilettante, harder to take religion seriously, if only because serious religion entails zealotry, a “bad word,” these days. Zealotry need not be evil, however. To be sure, “evil” zealotry feeds on hatred, grows fat on violence, and blights our very right to say that we are human. But “good” zealotry is what sustains our noblest ideals in the face of opposition. It took zealotry, for example, for abolitionists to build the underground railroad; or for righteous Gentiles to hide Jews during the Sho’ah.

We see them both, good and bad, in the two-part story of Pinchas.

In Part One, last week, the Israelites “whore” after Midianite women who inveigle them into idolatry. God’s anger explodes; Moses orders mass execution; God adds an accompanying plague to boot.

As part of this, an Israelite man introduces a Midianite woman to his friends, probably as his wife-to-be. Pinchas, a sanctuary guard, murders them both, thereby expiating the “crime” and ending the plague.

The Torah considers this “good” zealotry, as we see from Part Two, this week, where God rewards Pinchas with a special covenant and the priesthood.  The Mishnah concurs by codifying Pinchas’s zealotry as normative: “If a man cohabits with an Aramean woman, zealots may kill him.”

But the Talmud effectively reverses the Mishnah’s ruling by demanding conditions that cannot be met. The woman must be an idolater; the zealot must be acting for God; the couple must be seen engaging in actual intercourse, and there must be at least ten witnesses to it. Also, any would-be avenger who asks permission, is told that Jewish law prohibits it. For the Talmud, Pinchas is a zealot for evil.

These two faces of zealotry are reinforced in a Targum tradition that identifies Pinchas as none other than Elijah, another zealot – sometimes for evil, as in I Kings 18, where he defeats the prophets of Baal (so far so good), but then unduly and gratuitously slaughters them as well. He is also a zealot for good, however: he does, after all, defeat the Baalites; he is a healer, to the point of resurrecting the child of a poor widow (I Kings 17); and he will someday herald the coming of the messiah.

Medieval tradition conflated Elijah, the herald, with the messiah whom he heralds. Haggadah imagery, for example, pictures someone with a shofar (Elijah) and/or someone on a donkey (the messiah) collecting Jews on Seder eve to bring them to Jerusalem. But sometimes, it is hard to tell one from the other, and sometimes one image stands for both.

The messiah too, after all, is a zealot, good and bad. The “bad” comes through in traditions that picture the messiah as a warrior, bringing wanton destruction in his wake. Do we really want a messiah as God’s revenger, “pouring out wrath on the nations” – men, women and children, presumably, “who do not know You” (from the traditional Passover Haggadah, based on Ps. 79:6)? Sure, these traditions often reflect reactions to our own persecution, but still, do we really believe them? “Men, women and children” after all!

But again, we have the positive side, the Talmudic tradition that even as we await the messiah’s public appearance, that very same messiah sits outside the city’s gates bandaging the wounds of lepers.

By its very nature, religion is messianic – insofar as it demands a better time, an end to oppression and pain. By our very nature as serious religionists, we sense the obligation to do whatever we can to be messianic ourselves, lest we accept evil and suffering as just the way the world is. But which messiah do we strive to be? The healer or the warrior, the good or the bad?

In terms of Pinchas, the question is what Pinchas we have in mind: the zealot for good (as the Bible has it) or for evil (as the Talmud prefers). I take the Talmud as Judaism’s final word. Jewish law lines up against him.

Healing the world is not inherently harder than conquering it. I choose healing over hurting.

Memo to Moses, CEO Am Yisrael, Inc.

To Moses Rabbeinu,

CEO, Am Yisrael, Inc.

Dear Moses,

We appreciate your hiring our firm to look retrospectively at the corporate revolt that you call “The Korah Affair.” To be honest, our first recommendation is that you consult some literature on Jewish leadership – we suggest More Than Managing  (Jewish Lights Publishing) which is readily available. Also, your future company executives might hire professional coaches to avoid repeating basic errors.

More on them later, but for now, we note, with concern, how much the affair took you by surprise, and how you still seem to miss its full complexity. Although hired to investigate Korah alone, we found pervasive discontent throughout your ranks: disgruntled Levites allied with Department Heads (the Tribal Chieftains, in your vocabulary); and support by Dothan and Abiram , descendants of Reuben, your oldest founding partner, giving the revolt respectability.  Korah spoke for many people!

Opposition first arose when you mishandled the episode of the corporate spies dispatched to examine your proposed takeover of Canaan Realty Industries. Their negative report was indeed shortsighted, but calling in God to condemn everyone to years of wandering was pure petulance on your part.

The precipitating factor re Korah was your restructuring of the corporate priesthood, following the spy-debacle. Sure, your second-echelon leaders blindsided you, but you had already blindsided them, unwisely isolating yourself and then having to call God back in again.

Appealing to God whenever you get into trouble may seem satisfying now, but it is no long-term solution. We project a time of corporate diversification, with your company’s presence everywhere, and with God having grown tired of these “last-minute” pleas to Divine Headquarters.  Future rabbeinus (whatever their actual titles end up being) won’t be able to count on a deus ex machina to save them.

Another thing: note the brilliance of Korah’s charge, “You went too far; the whole community is holy.” He lifted that from your own company charter (“Kingdom of priests and a holy nation,” Exodus 18:6). No wonder you almost lost this one. You isolated yourself, took counsel with no one, blindsided your team, and never explained your position to anyone, thereby ceding the high ground to the opposition.

Had Korah been properly motivated, his claim against you (“we are all equally holy”) might have led to dialogue, negotiation, and appropriate compromise: a win-win solution whereby your opposition felt heard and appreciated; and came around to supporting your nominees for the priesthood. You wouldn’t have had to call in God and slaughter the opposition.  I mean, think of all you lost by killing them instead of motivating them to work with you!

We cannot here go into all the leadership lessons to be learned from the Korah Affair, but one of them is the talmudic insistence that conflict is actually a desirable thing, as long as it is “a dispute for the sake of heaven” (machloket l’shem shamayim) – the quintessential model being the Schools of Hillel and Shammai; and its opposite (conflict for the wrong reasons) being Korah.

Korah was so alienated from your company’s process that he was not in this for the sake of heaven. Our transcript of testimony (verse 16:1) says that “Korah took,” meaning (says Rashi and others)  “he took only himself, separately” – it was all about him!

By contrast, the Schools of Hillel and Shammai argued for all the right reasons and in all the right ways. They were in constant communication, expressing legitimate differences. Hillel proved mostly victorious, but Shammai prevailed some of the time, and his name too is recorded with honor for posterity.

We recommend that your successors depend less on God as mighty intervener and more on themselves as God’s agents here on earth; less on power and more on character and knowhow. For heaven’s sake (literally!) let them remain true to core principles, encourage honest debate, treat their opposition with respect, and be open to change themselves when they are wrong. The Korah Affair can become history, something we just read once a year for reminders.


Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman

Parashah Consulting


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.

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.