Thursday, March 21, 2019

Shouting Out Kindness

Today is the holiday of Purim. It is a day that is marked by revelry. And yet the costumes and masks we wear obscure a darker theme.

A quick reminder. A long time ago in the land of Persia a wicked man named Haman wanted to kill all the Jews, but Queen Esther, through courage and wit, as well as the persistence of her uncle Mordecai, saved the Jewish people and killed Haman and all of his followers. The end. Let’s party.

The Torah reading for this day recalls the story of Amalek who attacked the Israelites during their journey through the wilderness. The Amalekites killed the weak, the elderly and the children, who walked in the back of the Israelites. What kind of person attacks the infirm? What kind of person kills the stragglers? And so Amalek has become synonymous with all evil-doers.

In fact the Jewish tradition draws a line from Amalek to everyone, and anyone, who sought to kill the Jewish people. It sees history’s worst and most despicable genocidal killers as Amalekites. It sees Haman as his descendant. How curious then that we don’t drown out Amalek’s name. And yet every time we hear Haman’s name we shake our groggers. Let no one even hear the name of the man who tried to kill us.

Likewise New Zealand’s Prime Minister, Jacinda Ardern, refuses to utter the name of the man who murdered 50 Muslim worshippers during their Friday prayers. He attacked people while they were bowed in prayer. Like Amalek he attacked people from behind. And just as we drown out Haman’s name so must we drown out the name of every evil doers. It is what we should do whenever someone guns down others, wherever that might be, whether it be in church, synagogue, mosque or temple. Too many know the names of the murderers who killed at a Sikh Temple in Milwaukee, a church in Charleston, a synagogue in Pittsburgh and now a mosque in Christchurch.

Just as we must drown out the evil-doers’ names we must embrace those who now feel victimized and hurt. I still recall the outpouring of love and support for our community after the attack at Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue. Likewise we must now reach out to our Muslim neighbors and friends. Recall the sympathetic words we received. Recall the words of our local church leaders. Remember especially how those words eased our pain. Embrace our Muslim neighbors who are now touched by an extra measure of grief.

We are so quick to condemn hate. It is so easy to call out antisemitism. Let it be just as simple to shower our brothers and sisters with love and support. Tomorrow afternoon the Jewish Community Relations Council of Long Island is organizing a show of solidarity and support outside local mosques. I will join them at the Islamic Center of Long Island. Regardless of our differences, at this moment and at this hour, I plan to stand with neighbors during their time of grief. I plan to offer my support when they feel so vulnerable. We are bound together by a shared commitment to faith. We are drawn together by a shared attachment to our local community.

Not so long ago people of other faiths offered me their support. Their presence aided my prayers. Their solidarity lifted my spirits. How can I not offer similar support?

Let the names of these evil-doers be erased.

Let our kindness never be blotted out.

Thursday, March 14, 2019

It's Because of the Mountain

This week we begin reading the Book of Leviticus, called in Hebrew Vayikra.  The opening words are: “Vayikra el Moshe—And God called to Moses.”  Curiously the last letter, alef, of the first word, vayikra, is calligraphed smaller in the Torah scroll.  Why is the alef smaller?

There are no good explanations for this tradition.  There are however plenty of sermons and interpretations.    

The Hasidic rebbe, Simcha Bunim of Peshischa, offers an answer. He discovers a beautiful lesson in the small letter alef.  He teaches:
The letter alef is small just like Moses made himself small.  Even though Moses attained the greatest heights ever reached by man, he was unmoved by that fact and remained as humble as ever. When a person stands at the top of a mountain, he does not boast about how tall he is, because it is the mountain that makes him so tall.  By the same token, Moses felt that whatever he had accomplished was due to God, and he had no reason to feel proud of his achievements.
Imagine if the world had more people like Moses.  Imagine if most people believed that all of their achievements were because of others.  Imagine if we believed that our accomplishments and successes were because we are standing on a mountain top fashioned by God?

It’s an image worth pondering.  It’s a world worth working towards.

It’s only because of others.  It’s really only because of the mountain.  Our achievements are because others lifted us.

On whose shoulders do we stand?  To whom should we offer thanks?



Saturday, March 9, 2019

Antisemitism is a Sin: That's All There is to It

What follows is this week's sermon about antisemitism.

Typically I make every effort to be even handed when discussing contemporary controversies. But when it comes to antisemitism I do not think we should make any such attempt. And so I wish this evening to speak about Representative Ihlan Omar who continues to rely on antisemitic tropes when talking about Israel. She accuses Jews of dual loyalties and suggests that support for Israel is only, for example, about the Benjamins. She has offered apologies, but I think there is something more problematic at work. Representative Omar does not criticize Israel’s policies. For her Israel is more a myth than a reality, more a caricature than a living democratic state struggling with its many challenges.

Bret Stephens writes: 
For those who don’t get it, claims that Israel "hypnotizes" the world, or that it uses money to bend others to its will, or that its American supporters "push for allegiance to a foreign country," repackage falsehoods commonly used against Jews for centuries. People can debate the case for Israel on the merits, but those who support the state should not have to face allegations that their sympathies have been purchased, or their brains hijacked, or their loyalties divided.” (The New York Times)
If Representative Omar had visited Israel and even if she had come back with critical reports we might be understanding, although of course stung by her criticism. She has not. Instead she speaks about Israel as if it’s a cartoon where the good guy and bad are all-too obvious. It is a sad thing to say, and many scholars have noted, but Israel has become the Jew among nations. Antisemitism is now disguised as anti-Israel sentiment. We hear, “I am not antisemitic. “I am anti-Israel. I stand against Zionism.” But Zionism, and Israel, is the belief that the Jewish people have a right to a homeland of their own and that the place where our people exercises that right is in our ancestral land.

Such Zionist commitments are not statements about what may or may not constitute Palestinian rights. One can affirm the right of Palestinians for a state and also be supportive of the Jewish people’s right. The notion that they are mutually exclusive is false. The idea that to support Palestinian rights must mean that the Jewish people’s right must therefore be negated is wrong. And the corollary that to affirm our people’s right to self-determination must mean that Palestinian rights must then be denied is also wrong. People mistakenly think they cannot champion both Jewish and Palestinian rights. But that is not of course the larger problem. Then again perhaps it is part of the problem. People think, I have to choose sides. I am either for the Palestinians or for the State of Israel.

A growing number on the left, both here and now in England, think however that the real conflict is that Zionism is a distortion of Judaism. This could not be farther from the truth. Moreover such an idea is antisemitic. And antisemitism must be called out. Whether it is an offensive carnival float in Belgium in which Hasidic Jews are depicted with money and a rat or words by a representative from the political party you call your own, it must be called out. In fact if you call yourself a Democrat then you have even more responsibility to call out such antisemitism within your own ranks. It’s easy, and perhaps gratifying or at the very least affirming, when it is found on the other side of the aisle, but it’s even more important when it comes from the side for whom you voted. You cannot look the other way most especially when it comes from within your own ranks.

On the left there is this growing tendency to separate the Jewish people from one of our chief commitments and devotions, namely Israel. And I will have none of this. It is antisemitic to say Israel does not belong in the Middle East. It is antisemitc to say our devotion to Israel makes our commitment to this country suspect. It is antisemitic to say that Judaism has little do with the land of Israel or Jerusalem or Zion.

This is why I am so proud that the Muslim leaders who participated in the Shalom Hartman Institute’s Muslim Leadership Initiative came to Jerusalem to learn about why Israel—that is the modern and the ancient Israel—is so important and so integral to the Jewish people. And this is exactly what Representative Omar does not seem to get. She should similarly go to Israel and see it for herself. And she could then even come back and say, “The US gives too much aid to Israel.” Or, “I don’t want US dollars to be used at West Bank checkpoints.” Or, “I disagree with what the AIPAC lobbyists who met with me this afternoon said.” I might argue with her if she said such things—and I imagine such arguments would be quite heated, but that would be within her rights as a representative. That would even be in keeping with her responsibilities. She is not however doing anything even approaching this.

Her words are antisemitic. Moreover her antisemitism cannot be excused because she has suffered anti-Muslim attacks as for example what happened in West Virginia where she was likened to Islamist extremists who perpetrated 9-11. She should also not get a pass because she is a freshman in Congress. Antisemitism is antisemitism. It is the same whether it’s a Republican or Democrat, a liberal or conservative, the old or the young.

I don’t know what is in Representative Omar’s heart. I can never know that. I do not know what motives her. I can certainly judge her words and her actions. And on that count she comes ups woefully lacking. And that brings me to this week’s Torah portion. We read that the Israelites finished building the tabernacle, the portable sanctuary that accompanied them on their wanderings. The Israelites gladly donate to this project, giving of themselves in order to complete the project. The problem is that they had the exact same intention when they gave beforehand to another project. That time it was to build the golden calf. And that was of course the greatest sin the Israelites ever committed.

The Talmud comments: “One cannot understand the nature of this people. If they are appealed to for a calf, they give. If appealed to for the Tabernacle, they give.” (Jerusalem Talmud Shekalim) Both acts are motivated by the people’s desire to give. If we were to judge these acts by their motivations we might claim they were both good. They are of course not in any way the same. One is entirely sinful and the other entirely good.

People say that politicians on the left, such as Representative Omar, are motivated by their desire to seek justice for the Palestinians. And alleviating the suffering of Palestinians—the Gaza strip is for example becoming increasingly uninhabitable— is a noble goal. Alleviating suffering is always of course an unqualified good. This may or not be what is motivating Representative Omar. The larger issue is that this is entirely beside the point. Antisemitism is a sin and that’s all there is to it.

I pray. May we find the strength to say antisemitism is a sin in a loud and clear voice. May we find the courage to say this whether it is directed at our friends or neighbors, whether it is directed at leaders who agree with us on all other matters or leaders who disagree with us on every manner of thing. Antisemitism is a sin and that’s all there is to it. This is something that must never be papered over by high minded intentions.

Antisemitism is a sin and that’s all there is to it. Say this loudly. Say this clearly.    

Thursday, March 7, 2019

Finishing the World

The ancient rabbis taught that God intentionally left creation incomplete. On most days I find this teaching inspiring and even comforting.

God granted us free will. God left creation unfinished, leaving room in the world for us to act. God in effect bowed out of each and every detail in this world so that our actions might be our own and so that we might enhance creation. The Kabbalists added to this notion when they argued that God withdrew from the world. Otherwise, they reasoned, God’s presence would overwhelm us. If God did not withdraw, there would be no room for anything but God.

God made this imperfect world so that there would be the necessity for us to get involved, a call for us to improve ourselves and better the world. God wants us to do more.

But after weeks and months of reading the news, of poring over the details about antisemitism, terror attacks, gun violence and climate change, I find myself wishing, and praying, that God would just fix this mess and repair creation. I find myself wanting to retreat into the poetry of prayer.

At this moment I feel willing to forgo a measure of free will if God were to reorder things, right such terrible wrongs, heal the many injustices we see about us and mend this broken world. How nice that would be. How soothing.

But prayer cannot fix the brokenness between us. Perhaps it can mend an individual soul but never a nation. It cannot repair hatred. Prayer cannot rebuild the glaciers. Instead it offers a respite. Prayer provides a goad to action. It must inspire us to act.

This week we read about the completion of the Tabernacle: “When Moses had finished the work, the cloud covered the Tent of Meeting, and the Presence of the Lord filled the Tabernacle…” (Exodus 40)

The tabernacle was the vehicle by which God led the people on their journeys. It became synonymous with our house of prayer. In fact the Hebrew word for tabernacle, mishkan, is related to the Hebrew “to dwell” which is connected to one of our tradition’s names for God, Shechinah. This is the name that we use when we want to suggest God’s presence is near and felt. And all of this is tied to the building of the mishkan, tabernacle. All of this is tied to the work that we do.

God only dwells when we do the hard work. God is only felt when we do the mending with our own hands.

The Torah also suggests an additional meaning by its choice of words for Moses finishing the work. The Hebrew, “vay’khal,” means to complete or even to perfect. By this word choice it draws our attention to the creation account when God finished that first, although imperfect, building project: “…the heaven and the earth were finished.” There is of course meaning to be found in this comparison.

When we build and create, as Moses and the people did with the mishkan, we imitate God and God’s creation. Part of our creative efforts must be to complete and perfect creation, to bring a measure of holiness into our lives and a measure of goodness to the world.

Making or dreaming up something new is the greatest of human achievements. It is what makes us uniquely human—and perhaps most like God. It is how we achieve repair. We reach for perfection. Albert Einstein said, “If at first, the idea is not absurd, then there is no hope for it.”

I pray that God will fix our world. And yet, I cannot rely on prayer alone.

We must work to fix our world.

Thursday, February 28, 2019

Do Not Kindle Anger

Following the detailed instructions for building the tabernacle we find the command not to work on Shabbat. We are forbidden from performing creative labors. Just as we built the tabernacle so too do we build what Abraham Joshua Heschel calls a “palace in time.” We accomplish this by refraining from work. The rabbis in fact derive the list of forbidden Shabbat labors based on what was done to build the tabernacle.

It is a curious notion. We fashion a holy day by not doing. Sure, there is much that we are commanded to do on Shabbat: recite the kiddush, sing our prayers, read Torah, eat a grand meal to name a few, but the day’s spirit is created by saying no to a long list of labors. It is an exhaustive, and perhaps even tiresome, list of prohibitions.

Among these is the command: “You shall kindle no fire throughout your settlements on the sabbath day.” (Exodus 35) This is among the more confusing commandments. People will often say, “Driving my car is not work. Turning on my lights is not a labor. Heating up soup on my stove top takes little effort. These are silly prohibitions.” The tradition, however, never defined these actions as work but instead as lighting a fire.

This is why we light the Shabbat candles eighteen minutes before sunset. If we were to do otherwise we would be lighting a fire on the sabbath day. Tomorrow night, for example, the candles are to be lit at 5:27 pm (in Oyster Bay, Long Island).

And yet these are not the rules that govern my Jewish life. We will light the candles at the beginning of our Shabbat services around 7 pm. Better to wait until the congregation is sits together in the sanctuary. Better to gather the family, if even for a brief moment, before everyone goes off to their myriad of activities, and light the candles together. Perhaps this occurs at 6:25 pm. Perhaps in the long months of June this moment is at 5:15 pm (well before the prescribed candle lighting time of 8:11 pm). Better not to worry about exactitudes. Better to gather together.

Shabbat is about bringing us together.

Then again if we say yes to everything and say no to little if anything, can we really build a palace in time?

The rabbis being rabbis of course did not limit their interpretations to fires and flames. They also understood fire to mean anger. I welcome their wisdom.

I imagine a day without anger.

Sometimes we get angry with those we love. Our families can be frustrating, but—I hope—never angering. Too often we allow frustrations to grow into anger. Banish those as well on Shabbat. One day a week—at the very least—command such emotions: you are not welcome at our Shabbat table.

Fashion a sanctuary.

There is plenty to be angry with these days. The news provides us with a multitude of examples. Can we find one day without heaving the remote control at the TV (and the Jets are not even playing during these weeks!) or throwing the newspaper on the floor in disgust or screaming at another email from a friend who sees the world’s events through different eyes? Is this possible? Can we fashion a day without the incessant barrage of notifications and alerts? Can the week’s outrage, and disgust, be forbidden? Is a day of Shabbat menuchah—a day of rest—within our reach?

Can our anger be banished for at least one day?

It is within our hands.

“You shall kindle no fire on the sabbath day.”

No fires of anger shall be kindled on this day.

And then perhaps all days. And then, our tradition dreams, the world.

Thursday, February 21, 2019

Failing to Peace

When interviewing for jobs people compile resumes that feature their career highlights, focusing on their many successes. Promotions are featured. Rewards are delineated. Missteps are reframed. Brief tenures are deleted. A recent The New York Times article suggests that we would be better served, and grow and learn even more, if we also tallied a failure resume.

Tim Herrera writes:
Keeping a failure resume — or Anti‑Portfolio or CV of Failures or whatever you’d like to call it — is simple: When you fail, write it down. But instead of focusing on how that failure makes you feel, take the time to step back and analyze the practical, operational reasons that you failed. Did you wait until the last minute to work on it? Were you too casual in your preparation? Were you simply out of your depth? There are countless things that can go wrong when we’re trying to accomplish our goals or advance our careers. But those things are opportunities, not derailments.
I wonder. Perhaps the entire Bible should be viewed as a failure resume. A favorite example. The greatest king, David, has an affair with Bathsheba. When he discovers she has become pregnant, David has her husband Uriah, a loyal army officer, killed. The prophet Nathan confronts David and exposes his sin. King David acknowledges his misdeeds and repents. It is a surprising act—powerful leaders rarely admit their errors.

Could these biblical chapters serve David’s failure resume? Or is this instead the mark of great literature? And yet we learn more from David’s sins than from his many successes. Do his military victories offer us instruction or instead this moment when he acknowledges his wrongs? Our heroes are fallible. They are often quite ordinary and frequently all too human. That is how we learn from Bible. That is how we grow from their example.

Moses is given to anger. God can at times appear vengeful. So too is each and every person. The Bible’s failures are our greatest teachings.

Another frequently cited example. The Torah’s stated goal of bringing the Jewish people to the land of Israel is never achieved. Moses dies, and the Torah concludes, before our ancestors cross over the Jordan River. Is this also a catastrophic failure or like each and every person’s life? Who achieves all their goals? A lifetime is never really enough. Who achieves only success after success, strung one after the other as if in a finely polished resume?

Our lives offer many failures. Examine them. Recount them. And grow from them.

Even the Torah’s successes are nearly failures. Yes, the Jewish people are indeed freed from Egyptian slavery, but it takes ten attempts to convince Pharaoh to let them go. (Is God learning on the job?) And then, soon after gaining their freedom and while waiting for Moses to return from communing with God, the people grow impatient and build an idol. Rather than discouraging them, Aaron tells them to bring him their gold and silver. (Exodus 32)

I imagine a job interview. “Aaron, you apparently feel you are ready to take on a more decisive leadership role. Tell us about that time Moses left you in charge for forty days.” Aaron reframes the episode. He casts it as a success. “The people were on the verge of rioting. They were scared. We were in the middle of the desert. We had little food and water. Moses went off to do one of his ‘I need to talk with God for a few days.’ After a few weeks I decided to refocus the people’s attention so they would not kill each other. Better to give them something to build, I decided.”

The rabbis agree with Aaron’s retelling. They advise: “Be of the disciples of Aaron loving peace and pursuing it.” (Avot 1). Aaron concludes the interview. “It was then that I realized my greatest skill. I am a peacemaker.” Is this week’s Golden Calf episode a failure? Or a success?

Is peace a failure? Perhaps that is the secret. Peace is the recognition that a long hoped for goal will not be achieved (100% security!?), and that our failure to reach that once all-important objective, must be reframed as a success.

We edit our story. The Torah concludes. We refashion our goals. The rabbis imagine. “Enough of blood and tears.”

Is compromise a failure? Aaron thinks not. Others think so.

Is peace a failure? Perhaps it must be. Still it is a resume I dream of reading.

Our failures are not derailments. They are instead opportunities.

Thursday, February 14, 2019

Antisemitism, Tweets and Critiques

I have received many emails during the past week regarding Representative Ilhan Omar’s antisemitic tweets. Some were from the many organizations I support. Others were from friends and congregants.

My Republican friends write, “See I told you so. The Democrats hate Israel. They provide fertile ground for a growing antisemitism among liberals.” My Democratic friends, however, find antisemitism on the other side of the aisle and write, “See I told you so. President Trump continues to offer oxygen to racists, neo-Nazis and white extremists.”

Antisemitic hatred grows. Its venom is heard more and more. It exists on both the right and left. It can be found among Democratic and Republican supporters. I remain perplexed. Why must every instance of antisemitism be used as confirmation of one’s vote? Why must every discussion of this resurgent problem begin with the words, “See I told you so.”?

Antisemitism is an increasing threat. Let us be clear and unified about this fact....

This post continues on The Times of Israel.

Thursday, February 7, 2019

The Biggest and Best Sanctuary

Where can God best be discovered?

The Bible offers a multiplicity of answers. It is as my teacher once remarked a symphony of voices. King Solomon suggests we find God in the Temple. The prophet Isaiah among those who care for the downtrodden and oppressed. The psalmist turns to God’s creation.

Moses too first meets God in nature. Of course he discovers God in the most ordinary, and perhaps even lowly, of places—a bush. (Is this to suggest that people can find God anywhere and everywhere if Moses first sees God in a bush? Or is it to teach that people need to develop a Moses-like intuition so that they might discern God’s presence in even the most ordinary of places?)

Mary Oliver writes: “The god of dirt came up to me many times and said so many wise and delectable things, I lay on the grass listening…”

The psalmist affirms her insight. These poets give voice to Moses’ discovery. “The heavens declare the glory of God, the sky proclaims God’s handiwork.” (Psalm 19)

And yet we spend most of our efforts expressing our religiosity in a man-made sanctuary. The synagogue, and the centrality of the prayer services we offer there, appear to suggest that within these walls is where we can best sense God’s presence. Do any of the words we pray, however, even mention this sanctuary?

We gather in the synagogue and sing, “Even if our mouths were full of song as the sea, and our tongues fully of joy in countless waves …we could never thank You adequately, Adonai.” We may gather together in this sacred space but our thoughts are elsewhere. We lean on nature to bring us closer to God’s presence.

Why then would God command us to build a tabernacle? Why would God insist that the Israelites build a sanctuary when wandering in the wilderness? Why would God demand that we find gold and silver, blue and crimson yarns, dolphin and ram skins, acacia wood and lapis lazuli to build a holy structure?

Why would God offer the command, emblazoned above our synagogue’s ark? “Make for Me a sanctuary so that I may dwell among them.” (Exodus 25) Do we really need to build something so elaborate and grand in order to sense God’s presence?

Again and again I find my way back to the Hasidic masters. Their synagogues were converted homes. Their sanctuaries were unadorned basements. They ventured into the forest to commune with God. They taught: nothing made by human hands could ever be grand enough. God cannot be confined to any one place.

Rabbi Menahem Mendl of Kotzk remarks, “It says ‘among them’ and not ‘among it,’ to teach you that each person must build the sanctuary in his own heart; then God will dwell among them.”

There really is only one sanctuary that must be built, and rebuilt, over and over again.

It is the human heart.

Thursday, January 31, 2019

Judaism & Abortion Rights

Let’s talk about the Jewish view of abortion and abortion rights.

The Talmud offers the following gruesome counsel: “If a woman is having difficulty in giving birth, one cuts up the fetus within her womb and extracts it limb by limb, because her life takes precedence over that of the fetus. But if the greater part was already born, one may not touch it, for one may not set aside one person’s life for that of another.” (Mishnah Oholot 7)

Two insights emerge from this text. If a woman’s life is in danger then abortion is permitted—and even demanded. Jewish authorities continue to debate what might constitute a threat to the mother’s life. More traditional authorities argue only a physical threat, more liberal offer expansive interpretations, including psychological dangers. The second insight however is the more significant and informative for our contemporary debate. The mother’s life takes precedence over that of the fetus.

As I listen to today’s abortion debates I find myself growing increasingly agitated. My religious commitments are offended when others place the life of the fetus over that of the mother. I believe otherwise. My tradition teaches me that the mother’s life takes precedence. My deeply held religious conviction tells me that it is demeaning of women to hold that the mother’s life is of equal value to that of the developing fetus. Despite this I recognize that others have different religious convictions. The strength of this great nation is the belief that different, and even competing, religious convictions are allowed not only to coexist but even flourish.

The fetus is of course sacred and must be treated with care and concern. It is a potential life. Its value must not be brushed aside. Its value must not be treated in a cavalier manner. Nonetheless when its potential life threatens the actual life of the mother it becomes of secondary importance. Despite the debate among Jewish authorities regarding what constitutes a threat to the life of the mother, all agree that the mother’s life is of greater importance. The mother and fetus become two lives of equal value when the baby’s head emerges. Until that moment the mother’s life takes precedence. And that is what Judaism teaches, and that is what I firmly believe.

Yet a woman’s body (as well as a man’s) is not entirely her own. Our tradition also teaches that our bodies belong to God. We cannot do whatever we want to our bodies. My religious convictions are equally offended when people speak of their bodies as if they created them, as if they control them. They are instead entrusted to us. We are commanded to care for them. We do not own them. Even our bodies are divine gifts.

This is what I learn from our Jewish tradition. My faith demands the conviction that our bodies are sacred, human life is holy, but as well that a mother’s life is of greater importance than the potential life of the fetus she carries. I first discover this in this week’s portion. “When men fight, and one of them pushes a pregnant woman and a miscarriage results, but no other damage ensues, the one responsible shall be fined according as the woman’s husband may exact from him, the payment to be based on reckoning. But if other damage ensues, the penalty shall be life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, bruise for bruise.” (Exodus 21)

Here we learn that monetary compensation is offered for an accidental miscarriage. In the Torah the intentional taking of a human life constitutes a capital crime. No compensation could suffice. Only the death penalty could rebalance the scales. That the Torah does not require this is evidence of the Jewish position regarding abortion.

In addition, the meaning of an eye for an eye is not meant literally but instead figuratively. We are to determine the value of an eye. We are to calculate a fair monetary compensation for the injury. There is a profound confusion about this point. In contemporary culture an eye for an eye is instead used when speaking about exacting vengeance. Use of this biblical phrase suggests a veneer of justice, and is too often misused to justify military action. This is not how our tradition understands this phrase. We discover a great deal within the interpretation.

Different religious traditions often understand the same words in different manners.

People speak as if their convictions are the beginning and end of all debate. They speak as if their religious beliefs are the determinants for all and that their interpretations are the only legitimate readings.

I prefer however to look to my own faith for guidance and counsel. There I discover much to inform our current debates. There my religious convictions are restored.

My faith begins, and ends, with my tradition’s interpretations. My understanding however draws a wider circle, and includes the interpretations of others people’s religious convictions.

I wish we could find more room for our different interpretations to live side by side.

Thursday, January 24, 2019

Mountains of Obligation, Mountains of Meaning

There are two competing rabbinic versions regarding how the Torah was given on Mount Sinai.

In one interpretation God first offers the Torah to the other nations of the world. One objects to stealing. Another nation to murder. And yet a third to adultery. Each refuses to accept the Torah. With no one else, God approaches the people of Israel, offering the engraved Torah and all of its requirements. The Jewish people say, “All that the Lord has spoken we will do.” (Exodus 19:8) Aside from this tale’s pejorative sting, the legend suggests that accepting the Torah was a choice. We freely chose the Torah and affirmed its obligations.

Another rabbinic story offers a radically different account. In this midrash, God holds Mount Sinai over the heads of the Israelites and declares, “Either accept the Torah and its laws and statutes or die.” The Jewish people wisely accept the Torah and thereby discover life. This account offers a disturbing image of God. Here God is portrayed as coercive and threatening.

Often, when I share these interpretations, people gravitate towards the first rabbinic legend. Few even find fault with the negative descriptions of the other nations. People want to see their Torah as freely chosen, as our faith and the Jewish commitments that derive from them as brimming with freedom and choice. God said, “Remember the Sabbath day.” And we then observe. And we thereby discover meaning.

But lately I have been thinking that we are not as free as we think.

Ask anyone what gives their life the greatest meaning. Will they say, “I can do whatever I want, whenever I want; I can go to the gym at 11 pm; I can go out to dinner with friends on any evening of the week.”? I doubt such will be their answers. Instead people will say, “My children. My family. My charity work.” More often than not it is those things which involve others that add meaning to our lives. It is that which involves obligation. It is our commitment to others that grants life its greatest meaning.

Are we really free? Are our choices made with complete disregard for those we love, for those we obligate ourselves towards? Is a life of meaning built around choice or obligation?

Then again, who would want to choose something with a mountain hanging over their heads? The choice is coerced. It is tainted.

Is it truly? Can our choices be entirely free? Is the freedom to choose an illusion? Can we really make choices that are devoid of outside influences? Can we disregard family? Friends? Should we cast aside obligation? Perhaps the rabbinic legend is correct.

With every choice there is indeed a mountain suspended over our heads. At times we disregard it and pretend heaviness does not exist. Lately I have come to believe that is better to affirm its pull and allow meaning to be gained by the weight of its obligation and commitment.

The mountain may indeed be frightening and at times even feel coercive, but it can also be meaningful.

The weight of obligation provides life’s greatest meaning.