Thursday, August 30, 2012

What was Hannah really praying for?

As you may know, we have a weekly Talmud class at our synagogue (9:30 AM every Thursday! Join us!). It's a lot of fun—often confusing, usually challenging, informative and, sometimes, inspiring. Today, we came across a passage which really caught me—it's a great example of how the Talmud can subtly tell a story that makes it hit home that much harder.

Were studying Berachot, page 31b, and it’s expanding on the story of Hannah. If you don’t know the story (from the first chapter of 1 Samuel), Hannah was unable to conceive a child, and so she begged God to give her a son. But, she uses some strange phrases (or, at least, some noteworthy ones) including “zera anashim – seed/offspring of men.” It probably just meant, “male child,” but it's an unusual form. And so, the rabbis wonder what that phrase means, exactly. Several sages offer their interpretations:
Rav said: a man among men.
And Samuel said: an offspring who anoints two men as kings. And who are they? Saul and David.
And Rabbi Yochanan said: An offspring who is the equal of two men. And who are they? Moses and Aaron…
And the Rabbis say: “male offspring” means: offspring which is “absorbed,” among people.
[This next section seems to be a commentary on that last opinion]
When Rav Dimi came from Israel he explains that means: Neither tall nor short; neither thin nor stocky; neither pallid nor ruddy, neither brilliant nor foolish.
It seems like a rather random collection of interpretations, without much meaning to it. Until we realized that it was building. What did Hannah want? The first guess was that she wanted “a man among men.” A real man. The best of the best.

No, that won't be enough. She wants a man who is great enough to anoint not one, but two kings!

No, even that isn't good enough. She wants someone who is better than Moses and Aaron, put together!

And then, the pinnacle: she doesn't want any of that. She wants someone who can't even be distinguished from his peers. She wants a generic boy. Really, that's because she doesn't care about his qualities, about how he is. She just wants him.

She just wants a son.

I know some people who have struggled with infertility. The rest of us, those of us who are luckier, might dream about what our children will be like. About what great qualities they might have, and what great things they might accomplish. But, to those for whom children don't come so easily, they realize that they only want one thing: their child. What they're like, what they'll do, isn't important.

And, when the rest of us hear their prayer, we realize that they're right. Even if we didn't realize it, that's all we wanted, to.

Tuesday, August 28, 2012

The Temple Mount

When Israel lost Jerusalem in '48, we lost access to our holiest sites. From then until '67, we weren't allowed to go to the Western Wall, we weren't allowed onto the Temple Mount. Jews were banned from our most ancient, holiest site.

When Israel recaptured the Old City in '67, it guaranteed access to religious sites for all. It left the Temple Mount under the administrative control of the Arab Community--a shockingly bold, fair concession, especially considering the complete ban on Jews which had just ended. When tensions rose, along with sporadic violence in (I think) the 90's, Israel banned Jews from ascending the Temple Mount, so that the Muslim community could continue to use the Dome of the Rock and the Al Aqsa Mosque in peace. It sent police and army troops to protect those Muslims who were going up to the mount, and even built a covered walkway for their protection.

Remember that history. Because, last week, The Times of Israel reported:
Jerusalem is a Muslim and Christian city, and there will be neither peace nor security until the Israeli occupation, settlements, and settlers leave the city, Palestinian President Mahmoud Abbas said on Tuesday.
He also claimed that:
“[Israel's] ultimate goal is to rob Muslims and Christians of their holy shrines, destroy the Al Aqsa mosque and build the alleged Jewish temple.”
"Alleged Jewish Temple."It seems to me that only one side is trying to rob the other of their religious sites.

Please remember that Abbas is generally considered, and is nearly always referred to in the US Press as "a moderate." This is what passes for moderation.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem.

Wednesday, August 22, 2012


I'm listening to our choir rehearse for the High Holy Days, and I've been struck by something. Choral music is not a style with which I resonate easily. I don't really have a reason for this--it's impressive, for sure. Quite beautiful. And, our choir, which is all volunteer and of mixed training, is really pretty darn good. But, ultimately, taste is what it is - and this type of music just isn't one which speaks too strongly to me.

But, theologically, it does.

So much of my theology is based around the Oneness of it all: the parts (us) coming together to form a transcendent One (God). And, it seems to me, that no form of music captures that better than choral music (I'd give it a tie with Classical/Symphonic). People subsume their own voices, and their egos, in the name of a sound greater than any one voice. Their goal (outside of the occasional solo) is to not stand out, but to blend.

Strange that most post-modern, non-dualists like myself don't find greater spirituality in this kind of music. They're doing with their voices what I'm trying to do with my soul.

Maybe it's time to listen a little more closely.


Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Theology and Morality

A few months ago, I came across an article about a speech which Mitt Romney gave at Liberty University. Although it was about his campaign, in large part the article wasn't about politics. It was about the intersection of theology and morality. It makes some good points.

The author, Rabbi Meir Soloveichik argues that discussions of theology tend to divide us:

During the heady days of Vatican II, Jews of less traditional denominations were eager to engage in dialogue about theological doctrines with the church, optimistic that new religious commonalities could be discovered. Rabbi [Joseph] Soloveitchik, in contrast, discouraged such engagement. Matters of theology, he stressed, “are personal and bespeak an intimate relationship which must not be debated with others whose relationship with God has been molded by different historical events and in different terms.” Working to find substantive common ground on these theological matters, he argued, is ultimately unproductive because Jews and Christians “will employ different categories and move within incommensurate frames of reference and evaluation.”

I don't agree with the conclusion - that we should avoid talking theology with those from different theological traditions. But, the underlying point is a good one, and an important one. When we talk theology, we're often talking about very different things. Even when we think we're talking the same language, we aren't. For instance, as a Jewish non-dualist, I can tell you that the statement "I believe in God" means something radically different from when, say, an Evangelical would say it. I know that the words "believe" and "God" are used entirely, fundamentally differently. I'm pretty sure that, as a non-dualist, I don't even really mean the same thing by "I." Seriously.

I think that, if we're all aware of how differently we believe and, maybe more relevantly, how differently we talk about belief, then we can still talk. And, we can learn from each other. But, there will be limits to how well we can understand each other. No matter how many times I hear the phrase "my life in Christ" used and explained, I'm never going to understand it, because I don't believe it, and I don't experience it. Trying to explain it to me is like trying to explain to someone who is totally color-blind what color looks like. Our language is always just an echo of our experience; without that experience, the language is lacking.

But, Soloveichick argues (as does Soloveitchick), there is a way in which people can meaningfully engage, even if they have radically different theologies.:

Even as he discouraged public dialogue on doctrinal matters, Joseph Soloveitchik stressed that when Jews and Christians “move from the private world of faith to the public world of humanitarian and cultural endeavors, communication among the various faith communities is desirable and even essential.” ... He then added that in engaging these matters, people of different faiths can discover a profound commonality:

I once heard Dennis Prager say that Jewish and Christians have very different theology and philosophy, but very similar values. I think that's the same idea here. Our conception of God may be very different, but the basic moral impulse is the same.

It has to be said - there's an important, huge caveat to this. Of course there are differences in morality. How to treat LGBT people is an obvious division. How to apply these moral impulses in the political world is another. But, as important as those are, there are probably more areas in which we do agree than in which we don't. And, the underlying, fundamental impulse - to help those who are in need - is shared. And, even when we don't agree, we're still using mostly the same terms, and the categories. We're playing the same game, even if we're playing it a bit differently.

Just one additional thought from me on this. A lot of philosophers (Kant and the Rambam, just to name two) have taught that there is an overlap, maybe even 100% of one, between that which is universal and that which is true. In other words, that which is ultimately true must be true for everyone. I haven't studied or thought about that enough to say if I think that's true, but it's at least awfully close, I'd wager.

So, if theology is not universal, but morality is, then what does that say about their truth? I certainly believe my theology, and to be frank, I believe it more than yours. But, that's the point. If, as Larry Kushner taught us, there are always at least as many theologies in the room as there are people, then that should make us awfully cautious about believing that any of them, our own especially, are true.

But, helping those in need? That seems to be a truth greater than the rest. Sometimes it feels like the only truth about which we can really be sure. And, the only truth which we really need.