Friday, May 25, 2012

Loving God

I only have a few minutes, so let's see if I can do this...

Saturday night begins Shavuot, the holiday which celebrates the giving, and the receiving, of the Torah. Judaism has always understood this act of law-giving (because, the Torah is largely a book of law) as an act of love on God's part. How can laws be love?

I've long understood this as a parental metaphor - if I didn't give my kids laws, if I let them do whatever they wanted, that wouldn't be an act of love. I love them, in part, by setting boundaries. They may not like it, but that's different.

It's not a bad metaphor, but it's not the only one. More recently, I learned to think about law not as a specific body of legislation, but as the more general idea of commandednes. Let me explain...

Hillary, my wife, has laws for me. Stop snickering - I'm not talking about "Jason, do this, or else" kind of laws. I mean that, because of my relationship with her, and because of my love for her, there are certain things that I have to do. Certain ways that I have to treat her. Sometimes it's general - treating her with respect. Sometimes it's more specific - doing the dishes, because she hates that job. These are things that I have to do - not because she's said so, verbally, but because our relationship has commanded them of me. 

And--this is important--because they grow out of that relationship, I like those commandments. I even love them. Not every second, every time (sometimes, I just don't want to do the dishes!). But, often, and generally. They are taken willingly, if unspokenly. They reflect, support and even enhance our relationship. They are not a burden.

Every relationship is like this. Relationship breeds commandment (I think I learned that from Dr. Eugene Borowitz). Every relationship. I am obligated to my wife, to my kids, to my friends, to my community members - all in different ways, and to different degrees. But, by being in relationship with them, I am obligated to them. I am commanded, about them.

Relationship breeds commandment. Commandments reflect love. You simply can't have one without the other.

Chag Sameach, and Shabbat Shalom!

Friday, May 11, 2012

When Special isn't all that Special

Yesterday morning, in our weekly Talmud class, the Talmud had a quick aside* about which prayer should be said first, when a certain two prayers (mincha and mussaf) were both required to be said. And, the Talmud (Berachot 27a, if you're interested!) teaches that mincha should be said first, because it is the more frequently said prayer. The prayer that is said more often gets a higher priority than the prayer which is said less often.

* Actually, it's sometimes hard to know when we're having an aside. Sometimes, Talmud study feels like one big aside.

It's a bit counterintuitive for most of us. In general, we think about rare events as more significant, and more important, than common events. “Annual” is used as a kind of superlative—an “annual event” is a big deal. A “once in a lifetime event” is a really big deal. But, something which happens more regularly? That's ordinary. Quotidian (which just means common or daily, but usually has the implication of boring or blandly average).

But, that's not how Judaism sees it. In Judaism, the things which happen regularly are more important, and more sacred than the things which happen irregularly, or rarely. For example, if a holiday falls on Shabbat, then the prayers for Shabbat precede the prayers for that holiday, because Shabbat comes first, priority-wise.

There is a real logic here. The uncommon events, the rarities, are exciting. It's easy to notice them, and to get excited about them. But, that doesn't make them more important. Think about it in terms of a marriage (or other long-term relationship). Anniversaries are wonderful. And “special anniversaries,” such as a 50th anniversary, are even more special, and we're likely to celebrate them with a big party. But, as wonderful as those events are (and they are wonderful) they aren't what's really important. Or, maybe more pointedly, they aren't what really sustain our relationships.

As I've told lots of new brides and grooms, a lovely present bought for a big anniversary is fine. But, it's the flowers brought home on a random Thursday, just because you're thinking of them, that mean a lot more. A once-in-a-lifetime trip taken will give us some wonderful memories and a full photo album. But, sitting on the couch watching your favorite show together will get you through life.

There's nothing wrong with the special events. They're wonderful, and we should embrace them. But we should always remember that they're only made possible by the wonderfully quotidian moments which fill our every day.

Shabbat shalom!

Thursday, May 10, 2012

Literalism and Religion - not exactly a match made in heaven

One of my teachers and friends, Dr. Joel Hoffman has a blog post about whether or not the apostle Paul believed in a historical Adam.

It's interesting - we debate whether or not we think that there really was an Adam (or Abraham, or Moses, or...), but we always assume that our ancestors (who were, depending on your bias, more faithful, more gullible, more ignorant...) had no doubt at all. Joel points out that we might be way off base:

I think that the whole notion of “historical” is a modern one, created by modern science, and that it’s this entirely modern approach that pits history against myth. Paul didn’t believe in an historical Adam or a non-historical Adam. He just believed in Adam. It’s only as modern readers that we divide things — for ourselves — into historical and non-historical.

The entire way that we engage in thinking about truth, facts, history, science, etc. is an inherently modern framework. That doesn't mean it's bad (it is, in fact, the framework in which I most comfortably think!), but assuming that it's the only way to think, and that, therefore, it's the way in which our ancestors thought, is problematic, to say the least.

Assuming that it's the way that God thinks would be, I'll just throw out there, even more so.

If you want to believe that Adam was a historical figure, then go right ahead. But, don't assume that others thought the same way, just because you do.


Tuesday, May 8, 2012

It's not about the settlements

Look, I'm against the settlements in Israel. I think that continuing to build settlements is an obstacle to peace. I think it gives ammunition to those who claim that Israel is anti-peace. I think it's terrible P.R. in the wider world. I also think it emboldens the extremist settlers, who already hold too much sway. 

But, the next time someone tells you that the settlements are the primary problem, that they are the cause of the conflict, that Israel is the real problem, remind them of this:

A senior member of the Fatah Central Committee led by Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas in an interview referred to Israeli Prime Minister Binyamin Netanyahu, and U.S. President Barack Obama, as “dirtbags,” and explained how causing Israel to leave Judea and Samaria would spell its doom.


“If Israel withdraws from Jerusalem, evacuates the 650,000 settlers, and dismantles the wall, what will become of Israel? It will come to an end,” Zaki predicted.


He noted that reaching the “greater goal” would be impossible initially, and that revealing it would not be smart: “If we say that we want to wipe Israel out... C'mon, it's too difficult. It's not [acceptable] policy to say so. Don't say these things to the world,” he warned. “Keep it to yourself.”

Has Israel always been 100% dedicated to peace? No. But, I'll submit to you that when an official from your enemy's government goes on television and declares their dedication to your destruction, and even says that any peace deal is essentially just a step in that process of destruction, well, you may have a reason to be reluctant to negotiate, now.

When someone accuses Israel of being an apartheid state, or of maintaining an illegal occupation, or anything like that, ask them what, exactly, they would want Israel to do. And, ask yourself how much that solution depends on the Palestinian leadership not being dedicated to wiping out Israel.

Thursday, May 3, 2012

Did the Exodus really happen? Does it matter?

Some time ago, Rabbi David Wolpe created quite a stir by telling his congregation that the story of the Exodus, as told in the Book of Exodus, may not have happened.

Congregants, and observers, were scandalized. Academics and many Rabbis were somewhat bemused. This wasn't, for them, shocking news. It wasn't news, at all.

As I've said from time to time, maybe with a touch too much snark, do you expect me to be surprised that there are serious historical inaccuracies in a book which opens with a story about a talking snake and a magic apple?

Snark aside, it's old news to those who pay attention to such things that archeologists all but dismiss the possibility that there was an Exodus or, at least, one which looks at all like the Biblical account. As Wolpe talks about in a recent article, there is none of the physical evidence that you'd expect from 2 million people wandering around a desert for 40 years. But, that's an "argument from silence" - a lack of evidence that is not the same as counter-evidence (even if, as in this case, it's an extraordinary, nearly inexplicable lack of evidence). 

Of course, there's more than just that lack of evidence to support this claim:

However, the archeological conclusions are not based primarily on the absence of Sinai evidence. Rather, they are based upon the study of settlement patterns in Israel itself. Surveys of ancient settlements--pottery remains and so forth--make it clear that there simply was no great influx of people around the time of the Exodus (given variously as between 1500-1200 BCE).

But, where Wolpe's article get most interesting for me is when he explains why it's important for us to talk about this. We aren't, it should be obvious, trying to debunk or destroy Judaism. Quite to opposite:

Truth should not frighten one whose faith is firm. As the Israeli Orthodox rabbi and scholar Mordecai Breuer writes: "Unable to withstand the contradiction (between faith and modern biblical scholarship) most men of faith consciously avoid biblical scholarship in order to safeguard their traditional belief." Those who hold that people should never explore such questions have very circumscribed notions of why God gave us brains. The Talmud ringingly declares: "God's seal is truth" (Shabbat 55a).

As Wolpe points out earlier, "600,000 Jewish men escaped from Egypt" it a fact claim. It's either true or false. But, my wanting it to be true, even my needing it to be true don't make it true. So, a rational person should be willing to ask whether it's true, at all. If my faith is so shaky that some inconvenient facts can destroy it, then it must not have been a very strong faith.

Faith is a terrible word, in fact, for what I have, because in America (the West?), faith is usually taken to mean belief in something for which there is no proof. I hate that definition. Because, I am bound and determined to only believe things that actually are true. And, when something can't be proven true, I am skeptical of it. When something can be disproven, I don't think it's true. That shouldn't be a very controversial or unusual statement, but in the religious world, it often is.

There are those who still believe that blind belief in the inerrant accuracy of our ancient text is the very definition of piety (look at the comments to Wolpe's article, if you want an example). There is literal faith, and there is atheism. Everything in between is a lie - usually seen as a weakness of will to either believe, or to confess a lack of belief.


Religion, God, belief - all of it - can be about much more than the assertion of a specific set of historical facts. Again, I think they have to be - if my faith is centered on facts, then disproving those facts destroys my faith. It's a dangerous place to be - just ask Galileo and others like him who were punished for presenting facts which threatened to upset the theological apple-cart. A faith which is grounded in the understanding that these texts were our ancestors' way of capturing and encoding larger truths, but that they were not a way of recording factual history? That's, to me, a much stronger faith.

And, it's a faith which, I believe, is unassailably true. Which, I have to admit, I kinda like.

Tuesday, May 1, 2012

Free speech, even for those with whom we disagree

So, here's the small chain of events:

  1. Peter Beinart has a long history of speaking out against certain policies of Israel, and of those who support those policies. He recently published a book, The Crisis of Zionism, summarazing and expanding on those views.
  2. As a result of that book (and of his other writings), Beinart is often called anti-Zionist, an Israel hater, and more. Those who support him are treated similarly.
  3. Paul Krugman, an economist and writer for the New York Times recently mentioned in his blog that he doesn't want to talk about Israel right now, because his comments against the current government and its policies are sure to evoke a vitriolic overreaction. I can't find the original article to link to it, but it's referenced in...
  4. An open-letter by Jeremy Ben-Ami to Krugman, in which he begs Krugman to not stay silent:


Mr. Krugman, I understand this sentiment. As the President of J Street, the pro-Israel, pro-peace lobby, I am followed closely by my own personal buzzsaw. I know that the cost of speaking up about Israel can be so dear that many hundreds of thousands of Jews choose instead to stay silent or disengage from Israel entirely.

But as you rightly point out, Israel’s present path affects not only Israel, but all Americans and Jews everywhere.

Which is why I would like to invite you to reconsider your decision. I invite you to not let a vocal minority silence your voice. You are a Nobel prize-winning economist and leading American thinker whose contribution to the marketplace of ideas on so many issues is such an asset to this country’s democracy. I invite you not to let their smears cause you to sit this one out.


Because only when everyone – especially those who already have a megaphone – stands up, will the smears and attacks lose their power. Only then will brave men like Peter Beinart receive the fair treatment you so clearly think they deserve.

I've been critical of Beinart, J-Street and that entire school of thought (which, I believe, unfairly and destructively places too much blame on Israel in a misguided attempt to find balance in blame). But, let me say, just for the record, that on this issue I agree, 100%, with Ben-Ami. I agree that Beinart is brave, in that he is willing to say things which he believes to be true, and for which he knows he'll be excoriated. I don't agree with much of what he says, but he believes it, so he says it, and he faces the consequences.

I also hope that others, like Krugman, will speak. I hope he'll try to convince those of us who disagree with him, but are reasonable, and open to thoughtfulness about it. And, I hope that no one who claims to love Israel will think that the best way to show it is to drown out others who love it, too.