Tag Archives: God

Tazri’a-M’tsora

Medically speaking, the biblical disease that is usually translated as “leprosy” (tsara’at) has nothing to do with slander (motsi shem ra). But our pre-scientific rabbinic ancestors connected the two as if they did. Tsara’at for them was like advanced and untreatable cancer for us. They deliberately associated the gravest threat to bodily health with character damage caused by the misuse of language, as if to say they were equivalent.

That decision should take our breath away. Our culture cares relatively little about damage we do through verbal abuse. Beyond taking adequate care to avoid lawsuits, we engage rather freely in speaking loosely of others.

Jewish law, by contrast, is nothing short of obsessive on the subject. It delineates three kinds of verbal abuse and insists that we cease and desist from each and every one: 1. We are forbidden to invent or pass on lies about people (motsi shem ra). 2. We may not even speak negatively about them regarding things that happen to be true (lashon hara)! 3. And even idle gossip (r’chilut) is forbidden, since gossip thrives on the objectionable, if not the downright sordid.

Clear distinctions among the three categories emerge only in the Middle Ages, where, for instance, the two great legalists Maimonides and Nachmanides argue whether lashon hara is its own classification or just a particularly heinous case of r’chilut. Until then, rabbinic writing frequently lumps them all together as just plain scurrilous talk, which insidiously eats away at a person’s good name and thereby causes injury. The Talmud goes so far as to say that “speaking lashon hara is like denying the existence of God.”

This, mind you, is for lashon hara — speaking evil of others, even if the charges are true! Why is even this lesser offense equivalent to, of all things, apostasy — pretty much the worst crime against God that the Jewish imagination can muster?

Our commentators are of no single opinion on the subject. One prominent example (attributed to Maimonides himself, among others) provides the slippery slope scenario. If we get used to speaking negatively about our own ordinary friends and acquaintances, it is only a matter of time until we do so even of people in authority, including those whose wisdom and way of life testify of God’s existence. We would thereby end up implicitly casting doubt on the most obvious human exemplars of God’s reality.

A better answer, I think, comes from a teaching attributed to the Chafetz Chaim, who is said to have cautioned against speaking lashon hara even of oneself. Discussion of lashon hara usually assumes that the prohibition is rooted in the damage that it causes. But what damage do we cause ourselves by owning up to our own negative character traits? Doesn’t Judaism demand we do just that? We call it t’shuvah (“repentance”)!

The Chafetz Chaim is, no doubt, thinking of people who go beyond proper <i.t'shuvah — people, that is, who habitually run themselves down. It is this constant negativity toward oneself that is forbidden — because being overly self-critical is a slight on God, the Creator who made us.

At stake is what we call religious anthropology, our doctrine of human nature. Judaism insists on seeing something divine in each and every one of us. In 1994, a singing group, “The Halo Benders,” released an album entitled, “God Don’t Make No Junk” — a title that has inspired hundreds of T-shirts, bumper stickers, web-site postings, and other forms of subtle protest against a society that teaches us that we are, overall, wanting.

We can understand the Chafetz Chaim as emphasizing the much earlier and specifically Jewish version of “God don’t make no junk.” It’s one thing to take honest stock of who we are; it’s quite another to run ourselves down all the time (even if the charges are mostly true) without simultaneously appreciating what is good, decent and even godly within us. The self-directed lashon hara of speaking overly negatively about ourselves ignores the reality of God that forms the essence of every living soul.

The implicit denial of God’s presence in any human being, even ourselves, is indeed the subtlest of apostasies. And it is a sin.

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God is Good; Nature is Neutral; Yadda Yadda Yadda: Let’s Move On

Having just edited a book called We Have Sinned (Jewish Lights, 2012), I was interviewed last week on NPR’s “Talk of the Nation,” part of an interfaith dialogue on sin and repentance. I was struck by a segment in the show which raised the issue of God’s love. In response to a question from the host, Neal Conan, the imam assured us that Allah is merciful. The Roman Catholic priest concurred: Christians too view God as merciful. I then cited Rabbi Akiba’s guarantee, “Happy are you O Israel, for God loves you; happier still are you because you know God loves you.” As I finished, I wondered: Why this fetish with staking out claims on God’s love?

Well, for one thing, a lot of people have apparently been raised believing the opposite: a lot of clerics have spent a lot of time describing God as a pretty harsh judge. For another, religious leaders who represent this eternal God of love are often the worst spewers of violence and venom. And finally, the universe that God is supposed to manage can seem downright cruel: the world of hurricanes, droughts and tsunamis is not exactly a loving place.

Each of these difficulties deserves an answer.

1. I regret the miserable systems of religious education that have somehow managed to miss the point. Old-world religion did indeed emphasize sin and punishment more than love and pardon, but those are bygone days, and religion today is no more responsible for them than modern science is for medieval alchemy.

2. Religion’s oppressiveness comes from fundamentalists who use religious certitude for their own selfish ends. The issue, however, is not religion; it is power. Religions, nation states, individual demagogues, and corporations are alike in causing willful damage whenever they get too much power. Religious hate-mongers do abound, but so too do evil CEOs and government officials, and we should no more get rid of religion than we should business and democracy.

3. Way back in 1874, John Stuart Mill set us right about nature, saying, “It impales men, breaks them as if on the wheel, casts them to be devoured by wild beasts, burns them to death, crushes them with stones… starves them with hunger, freezes them with cold, poisons them by the quick or slow venom of her exhalations, and has hundreds of other hideous deaths in reserve…. All this Nature does with the most supercilious disregard both of mercy and of justice.” So yes, the created world is not particularly kind “by nature.” But its laws are open to human investigation, and we have the possibility of taming it for human benefit rather than abusing it by squandering its bounty or poisoning its water, earth and air. God does not micromanage the universe, but God gave us the wisdom and the wherewithal to do so.

Anxiety about God’s goodness may be personal or theoretical. The most common personal concern is our own immediate suffering: tragic death or illness, let us say. Our hearts go out to such victims and their families, who, understandably, wish God had intervened to prevent the undeserved cruelty. Unfortunately, God does not work that way, because to do so would involve playing fast and free with the laws of nature, and all of scientific promise depends precisely on the inevitability of the laws that we discover and then can use to our best benefit.

The usual theoretical concern is the question of whether religions are good or bad for the human race. If they merely foment hatred, war, and hardship, they ought indeed to be boycotted or even banned. But religious faith is no more evil than scientific curiosity or artistic imagination. All three are part of human nature, and if nature is neutral, then so too are they. At their best, science gives us knowledge to make life better; art creates beauty to make life richer; and religion provides perspective that makes life deeper.

Religion is properly the search for “perspective” — why we are here, what makes life worthwhile, what constitutes purpose, how best to live, and (when the time comes) how best to die as well. Let’s stop the childish questions about God’s mercy and religion’s beneficence. Of course God is merciful, or God is not God; and since religion is here to stay, like it or not, we may as well fashion it so that we have a good reason for liking it.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books is now available.

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation

I’m happy to announce that my latest book, One Hundred Great Jewish Books, is now available. The full title, One Hundred Great Jewish Books: Three Millennia of Jewish Conversation, reflects an idea I have been playing with for about a decade now. What is Judaism, if not an identity that is portrayed through a rolling conversation across the centuries! The book is a running record of the conversation as portrayed through every variety of Jewish book: classical texts and medieval responsa, but also modern fiction, short stories, histories, biographies, and even comic books, encyclopedias, and cook books. I read over 200 books to make the selection, but here it is at last: my running guide to the Jewish conversational record.

I hope you enjoy it, so we can continue the conversation here.

Kol Nidre: A Sneak Preview

It seems a long way off, but before we know it, summer swelter will give way to autumn cool, and we will be back in synagogue listening to Kol Nidre. The roots of Kol Nidre lie in this week’s parashah, where Moses cautions the people, “If a man makes a vow to the Lord or takes an oath imposing an obligation on himself, he may not break his pledge.”  We find two categories here: “vow” (neder) and “oath” (sh’vu’ah). Both are ways of forbidding something to oneself: saying, for example (by neder), “I vow never to give you a gift again”; or (by sh’vu’ah), “I swear, by God, never to give you a gift again.”

But the Hebrew for obligation (issar) was taken as yet a third category, and others too were eventually added to the lexicon of sacred promises that must be honored.  Kol Nidre is a prayer from the ninth century (or so) that effects the annulment of them all. Its various terms (nidrei, konamei, kinusei, etc.) denote the legal niceties of these various classes of oaths and vows.

Buried in this legal nitpicking are a number of lessons that touch the halakhic understanding of human nature and our relationship to God.

Take, for example, the interesting possibility of a person pledging (by vow or by oath) not to fulfill a mitzvah.  A husband dies, let us say, and the grieving widow is so devastated that she vows (or swears) never to light Shabbat candles again. We saw above how a person might vow (or swear) never to give someone a gift.  Gift-giving is optional: a woman may indeed decide never to give her recalcitrant son any more presents. But candle-lighting is commanded; may she promise never to light Shabbat candles?

The answer is that she may, but only through a neder (a vow), not a sh’vu’ah (an oath). That is because the prohibition of a neder is considered as falling upon the thing being forbidden, while the prohibition of a sh’vu’ah (an oath) is seen as devolving on the person doing the forbidding. In our case, then, the woman is allowed to define a particularly difficult mitzvah as beyond her psychological ken (through a neder), even though she may not define herself as beyond the doing of it (through a sh’vu’ah).

But why is that? Don’t these amount to the same thing, in the long run?

Rabbi Daniel Landes explains the difference with theological sensitivity. In an essay on the halakhah of vows composed for a book I am editing on Kol Nidre (All These Vows, Jewish Lights Publishing, August, 2011), he explains that in general, the obligation to do mitzvot goes back to an oath (a sh’vu’ah)  that our ancestors made at Sinai. Halakhah does not permit us to break that oath, which we, as Jews, inherit as our mandate. “It is the person who is obliged at Sinai,” however, “not the objects of halakhah to which the person relates,” and a vow (a neder), as we have seen, falls on the object, not the person.

Even more interesting than the halakhah itself, I think, is the idea that seems to lie behind it.  Under the force of trauma, we may find this or that mitzvah too much to bear, to the point where we may vow not to do it. Even without being traumatized, we may find ourselves questioning a particular halakhic act, to the point where we pledge to abandon it. And God, as it were, understands all this; God appreciates the dilemmas that life deals us. But the focus must remain the traumatizing or alienating activity that we would otherwise gladly do, not we, the doers of it, for no matter how estranged halakhic acts may appear, we are not permitted to assume that we are personally estranged from the comforting presence of God.

It is hoped that we will return to doing the mitzvah, of course – our hypothetical woman may annul her rash vow not to light Shabbat candles. And until she does, she may indeed abandon it. She should know, however, that God never abandons her.

Judaism is about obligations; but obligations are about relationships. Halakhic theory accepts the fact that for a time, at least, this or that obligation may seem painfully beyond us. It does not, however, countenance our imagining that we are painfully removed from God. The divine-human relationship is sacrosanct.

What we see here in Judaism’s insistence on the love of God. Churches regularly proclaim God’s love. Synagogues don’t, but should. A loving God is central to everything Judaism holds dear.

Can God’s Mind Change? God’s Second Book (Part 2)

Isn’t it possible for authors to change their minds between books? Even if (as I argued in the last post) both Torah and the universe are products of the same divine author, it does not follow (as I thought it did) that the two books cannot contradict each other. So argues Rabbi Rick Block in a thoughtful note that I greatly appreciate.

Let’s rethink the issue, using a test case, philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein, one of the most influential minds of the twentieth century. In 1921, he wrote Tractatus LogicoPhilosophicus, a densely argued study of the logic behind language. Following the school of thought that we call logical positivism, he limited meaningful sentences to statements of fact that are ultimately rooted in evidence from the senses. That excludes religion, ethics, and aesthetics, none of which is open to empirical proof. Statements about God, goodness, and beauty are neither true nor false: they are simply meaningless.

Later, however, his Philosophical Investigations (published posthumously in 1953) seemed to contradict the Tractatus, in that it included religion, ethics and aesthetics as meaningful. Language, he now declared, was like a toolkit, that can be used to do different things: promising, hoping, describing (as in science) and so on. He called each of these things “a game.” The Tractatus described the game of science; but not the games of theology, ethics, and art, which are “meaningless,” perhaps, but only according to the game-rules of science. Investigations pointed out the need to describe the rules for these other games.

The Investigations does not disprove the Tractatus. It just limits its applicability and goes beyond it to include that part of reality for which the Tractatus did not work.

Like Wittgenstein, God too, we may say, has two books: Torah is God’s book of religion; Nature is God’s book of science. They are about different things; they cannot disprove each other, because they operate as different games with different rules of meaning..

Scientific knowledge works in mathematics, the language of Nature, it seems. When we translate those formulae into prose, we get sentences that follow Wittgenstein’s rules in the Tractatus. When we shift to religion, we change the game — and with it, the context in which to understand the sentences. Two sentences that seem to say contradictory things (“God created the heaven and earth,” from the Book of Torah, and “A big bang created time and a universe,” from the Book of Nature) sound like opposites because their syntax is similar. But they may both be right, because they operate in different realms of thought. In that way, they are like Wittgenstein’s two books. They complete, rather than deny, one another.

One more analogy is in order: fiction. Fiction is an art, much like painting, where Monet, for example, can paint several versions of haystacks, all of them equally accurate. A composer of fiction may, similarly, write two novels that contradict each other but be equally true. Insofar as scientific authors write metaphoric explanations of nature’s phenomena, they may do likewise, but when they try actually to frame nature’s laws, they may not make two contradictory claims, without one of them being wrong.

We can liken God’s two books to a nicely boxed set of two volumes, one on science and the other on what we loosely call religion. God’s first book, Torah, is the religious one. It is a work of art, containing such things as fiction, poetry, aphorisms, laws, ethics, values, and a subjective view of Israel’s history. Like any work of art, it regularly attracts new readings. The second book, Nature, is scientific. We change our readings there as well, but contradictory readings of Nature must refute one another, because the Book of Nature (as measured by mathematics) is changeless and, unlike art, a zero-sum game of “true or false.”

I do not mean to say that any reading of Torah is as possible as any other. Some interpretations of art are just wrong — as I said in an earlier blog, Hamlet cannot be a Marxist spoof on Capitalism. Also, ethics, unlike stories, poetry, and such, are absolute, so, like science, cannot admit two absolutely contradictory claims.

But comparing Torah with Nature, we can say that Torah and Nature are God’s two books which cannot refute one another. Like Wittgenstein’s two books, they represent extensions of one another – what we can call a dual extension of God’s mind.

When we look back at great authors, we call it a retrospective. Think of Torah and Nature as God’s retrospective, which we array with awe and reread with care.

Verbal Stretching, Word Rustling, and the Fate of Religion

Words live in fields, where they stretch, grow, and expand with the reach of human inquisitiveness. Take “fishing,” a word some ancestor must have coined many eons back, upon successfully spearing a swimming thing in the water. When fishing became a leisure-time activity instead of a means to procure food, “goin’ fishing” came to mean the blissful inactivity of watching a fishing line bob in the water – fish or no fish on the other end.

The New York Times of June 5 testifies to the freedom with which “fishing” still circulates in its verbal field. A stock broker accused of insider trading proclaims his innocence by calling the investigation “a fishing expedition.” That’s a verbal and a metaphoric stretch, or, at least, it was once. Now it’s too commonplace to count; it is, if anything, a dead metaphor. So too is the idea of “stretch” in “metaphoric stretch,” but “stretch” is a good word, because calling the FBI’s actions “fishing” stretches linguistic use, and, therefore, the imagination, as well as the world itself. The world now comes with potential “catches”: the “little fish” who get thrown back into the street, and the “big fish” whom the little fish help the FBI to hook.

A second article describes the scam by which emails from seemingly reputable corporations, like our banks or employers, request personal information that can be manipulated for identity theft. It’s called “phishing,” another stretch of the imagination, not just conceptually this time, but visually too, because of the clever substitution of “ph” for “f” – like the rock group PHISH.  It turns out also that China has been phishing for American diplomats. This is not just a mass email going out randomly to millions. Its targeted nature earns it the name “spear phishing.” The high profile of the would-be targets may even make it a case of “whaling.”

Words and the world work in tandem. Simply by opening our senses to the changing world around us, we stretch it into more than what it was. Like an animal hide stretched out to dry, this expanding world requires pegs – verbal pegs — to stake out the new territory. It is easier to use old words than to make up new ones, because old ones come with meanings we can borrow. So metaphors become the very best pegs with which we stretch our consciousness of what the world is newly made of.

Words aren’t allowed to roam completely wild, however. Technical language is guarded by linguistic police who fence off the field where the words have grown up and demand they be used properly. Biologists, for example, mean something specific by a virus. Still, viruses attack computers and web messages can go viral; so even technical vocabulary can be hijacked for general use.

It’s a good sign when linguistic rustlers multiply; it means your words are prolific, doing well enough to be desired for the light they can shed on someone else’s corner of the universe. When linguistic rustlers no longer care enough to carry off stray words from their technical holding pens, the words in question may as well be dead.

That seems to be the trouble with religion. Nobody wants to carry its words away captive any more. We still have echoes of when they did: “revelatory finds” once harked back to revelation from Sinai; “redemptive moments” recalled the parting of the Red Sea. But nowadays, the religious verbal police can relax: no one wants our words any more.

Words are also like currency. When no one wants them, their value goes down. Ours is an era of theological currency debasement. Take even the word “God.” People use it all the time, but, God knows, it doesn’t buy the serious attention it used to.

The easy theological answer is for religious personnel to hunker down in their theological verbal fields and continue making sentences to each other about things that no one else cares about. I imagine the alchemists did that at some point or other. Religion too can aspire to becoming alchemy. A better course is to head out into the world, riding our theological verbiage with wild abandon, and showing people how poetically our religious vocabulary can get at the very heart of things. We can even do a little rustling of our own, showing the theological implications of such secular words as “pattern,” “purpose” and “promise” (see “Ya Gotta Believe – Something [Part 2],” May 15, 2011).

The world will go on no matter what, stretched by whatever verbal pegs people find useful. Whether it gets stretched religiously depends on how well the keepers of religious language provide powerful religious metaphors to do the stretching. The alternative is to retire from the task and go fishing.

“Clearing God’s Bad Name”: Did I Go Too Far?

Did I go too far in my recent post entitled “Clearing God’s Bad Name”? I was discussing the way we read Torah portions in which God threatens dire punishment for human disobedience. It was time, I said, to “dispense with the childish belief in a God of simplistic reward and punishment.”  The God in whom we ought to believe can hardly be vengeful, I argued. It is time we cleared God’s name.

I published the piece separately in a couple of newspapers to which I submit regular articles on Torah, and received a thoughtful critique from a reader who took me to task for going too far. We may not, he cautioned, “excise portions of the Torah because our timid intelligence has deduced that we are so much more ‘enlightened’ than previous generations.” The letter arrived privately, so I will not divulge the author’s name – suffice it to say that his objection is that I was “preaching against the text,” the “sin” of sermonizing contrary to what the sacred text actually says.

Preachers do it all the time, of course, but use midrash, Talmud, or commentaries from somewhere else in the tradition as their justification — as if to say, “The Torah looks like it says such and such, but it really doesn’t; it really means something else (even the opposite of what its surface meaning appears to be).”

To some extent, I did that. But I went farther and did indeed leave the bounds of normal interpretation by denying a basic understanding of God that we find in most of rabbinic literature.

My critic finds that too much to take, and as I say, I take him seriously enough to want to think the matter through here as an instance of a machloket l’shem shamayim, what the Rabbis call “an argument for the sale of heaven.” Why don’t I think I went too far?

For starters, let us ask how Jews read Torah.

We read it so closely that every word and letter counts – but we do not read it literally. And we read it interpretively, the whole point being to come up with a chiddush, a novel insight that speaks to the situation of the reader seeking meaning in the text.

It is generally presupposed that whatever meaning we find is drawn out from the text, not read into it. The idea is to be properly objective in interpreting a passage so as to arrive at what the text really means. Now, it is not 100% clear that we can ever be absolutely objective about any text; sophisticated theorists know there is always some degree of subjectivity in the way we read. But in any event, sermonic interpretation, for sure, doesn’t work that way. “Meaning” here is always subjective, dependent on both the text and the reader, a sort of pincer movement back and forth between the two.  It is not so much “what the text means” as “how the text becomes meaningful to the person reading it.”

There are some limits of course – as there are for interpreting every piece of literature. If I say that Hamlet, for example, is about indecision, or moral outrage, or the oedipal complex, you will at least entertain the possibility that I am right. But suppose I say it is a Marxist spoof on capitalism. For lots of reasons that is utter nonsense. In making that claim, I lose all credibility. If no one even thinks my claim is sensible, I get read out of the reading community as a crackpot.

What, then, counts as the limits to sermonic interpretation? We would like to imagine that the interpreter always interprets Torah by citing other pieces of Torah – quoting the Talmud to elucidate the Bible, a medieval authority to interpret the Talmud, and so on. But it is never that clean. The twelfth-century Spanish commentator Ibn Ezra doubted that Moses had written the entire Torah. Afraid to come right out and question his received chain of tradition, he used allusion: hamevin yavin, he said, “The discerning reader will understand what I am getting at.” He got away with it.  Spinoza came right out and said roughly the same thing and was excommunicated. Spinoza had no readers willing to go as far as he did.

Ibn Ezra was more careful; but even he risked going over the line. He knew most readers would not follow his half-heretical suggestion. But he knew also that he was not the only reader who lost sleep over a traditional claim that no longer made sense to his growing historical consciousness. Rather than  risk positioning the Bible so that no one would respect it altogether, he went out on a limb and argued against the text.

I am no Ibn Ezra, and certainly no Spinoza, but in our time too, we dare not shy from confronting the real questions that people have – especially about God. Otherwise, we risk speaking to a shrinking audience of people who are already insiders in the Torah game we play – but alienating everyone else. Especially when it comes to hurtful images of God we too must sometimes preach against the text.