Thursday, February 28, 2013

The Purpose Behind Blessings

The Talmud, for those who don’t know, is one of the core texts of Judaism. It is, more or less, the first book of the Rabbis, written over a 400 year period, a couple thousand years ago. It’s a very varied, even eccentric book, but it’s largely made up of a hyper-detailed discussion of Jewish law. There is a weekly Talmud class here at Congregation Beth Am, and we’ve been studying the first section of the Talmud, Berachot (blessings). Most recently, we’ve been working through a long section about the blessings we say before eating various foods (which, like much in Judaism, is highly regimented).

Towards the end of a sugya (unit of discussion), the rabbis included a story*. Apparently, there had been a debate about a seemingly minor point — before eating bread, does one thank “One who brings forth bread from the earth,” or, “The One who brings forth bread from the earth?” It seems like the most inconsequential of debates but a) there is no debate to inconsequential for rabbis and b) this probably actually hinted at an underlying theological question. (It’s too much to go into here, but it may have been about God’s ongoing involvement with the world).

* berachot 38a, for those following along at home...

In the story, there was a visit by an expert in the laws of blessings, named bar Rav Zevid. He was brought a piece of bread, and he said the blessing beginning “One” rather than “The One.” A local sage, Rabbi Zeira, chastised him for this — according to Zeira, he should have used “The One.” Zeira then implies that this so-called expert isn’t such an expert, after all. He doesn’t even know the right blessing for bread!

Bar Rav Zevid’s response? “Hey – I was only trying to stay out of the fight.”

It’s a strange thing to say — how could he be staying out of the fight by picking one side in the dispute? Isn’t that, inherently, participating in the argument? We could imagine some technical explanation to explain it, but I think that would miss the point.

Presumably, the students (being relatively “average” folk) thought that this man was an expert because he knew the specifics of the laws. He was technically proficient. But, Zeira wasn’t impressed by this. He knew that this technical dispute actually hid a theological dispute. And, he seems to be saying that someone who focuses on the specific details of a ritual instead of the underlying theology is missing the point. It’s not enough to be technically correct; Zeira wanted to be theologically correct. Most of us would probably agree with that stance.

And that’s what makes Zevid’s response so powerful. It’s as if he’s saying, “The students were interested in the details of the law. You were interested in the theology behind the law. Me? I’m interested in the personal. I’m interested in using blessings in a way that does a contribute to dispute or acrimony. Who cares if I’m technically or theologically correct, if my ritual makes someone angry? All I wanted was to thank God for this bread, and eat it.”

I’m a Rabbi. I’m pretty idiosyncratically fascinated by legal minutia and by theology. But, at the end of the day, if all that leads to people being angry with each other, then it’s possible that we’re missing the point. If we can fight — not just academically debate, but really fight — over something as silly as the word “the” in the blessing over bread, then it’s possible — just slightly possible — that we’re missing the point.

Thank God that we live in a world were no one ever actually fights over such a picayune religious detail. Right?

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Thinking about very big yachts

A Russian billionaire just unveiled his $1,500,000,000 yacht. 1.5 Billion dollars*. Let me get a couple of caveats out of the way:

* I'm fairly sure that many of you just read that with a "Dr. Evil" intonation. 

  1. He has every right to do this - it's his money. I'm not about to suggest that someone should have forced him to NOT buy this.
  2. I am, arguably, about to throw stones from a glass house. Anyone who spends more than they absolutely need to in order to live is, at least theoretically, open to the criticism that they should be doing something more valuable, more meaningful, more helpful, with their money. I get that.

But, what if this billionaire bought a very nice half-billion dollar boat, and gave the rest to some very good charities? He'd still have a very nice boat, and his money would now being making some very, very sad people a little (or a lot!) less sad.

And, yes, I also, of course, understand that maybe he did - maybe he wanted a 2.5 billion dollar boat, but built this one and gave 1 billion to charity. And, I know that if he built a half-billion dollar boat, I (or someone like me) would be making the exact same argument, just with slightly smaller numbers.

I get all of that.

But, I also get, deep down, that we live in a world where millions (billions, maybe) go to bed every night cold and hungry. Or die of easily preventable diseases. Or (fill in the blank). And, even though there's no clear line (and lots of potential for hypocrisy), at some point spending money crosses over into unconscionable.

There was a time when seeing a 1.5 Billion Dollar Boat would have made be jealous. Now? It just makes me kind of sad. I'm going to make a donation somewhere today. It won't be huge, but at least it will be a positive reaction to this news story.

If you've got a little, give a little. If you've got a lot, give a lot.

Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Responsibility and Guns

I haven't had a chance, yet, to read the original piece, but I just read a commentary on an essay by Stephen King, in which he explores the connection between guns in the media and actual, real world violence. I absolutely love the fact that he addresses the questions of rights and responsibility, head-on:
…I did see Rage as a possible accelerant, which is why I pulled it from sale. You don’t leave a can of gasoline where a boy with firebug tendencies can lay hands on it.

 I didn’t pull Rage from publication because the law demanded it; I was protected under the First Amendment, and the law couldn’t demand it. I pulled it because in my judgment it might be hurting people, and that made it the responsible thing to do. Assault weapons will remain readily available to crazy people until the powerful pro-gun forces in this country decide to do a similar turnaround. They must accept responsibility, recognizing that responsibility is not the same as culpability. They need to say, “We support these measures not because the law demands we support them, but because it’s the sensible thing.”
I'm a pretty strident supporter of First Amendment rights, and I would defend, until I was hoarse and blue in the face, King's right to keep publishing a book, even though it may contribute to violent acts. But, I applaud with even greater enthusiasm his willingness to focus on his responsibility, not just his rights.

Whether a novel can actually, meaningfully contribute to violence is a very difficult question. And, it's probably a debate worth having, although I imagine it will be ambiguous, circular, inconclusive and deeply, deeply frustrating. But, if I'm an author who becomes convinced that there is, at the very least, a real possibility that my writing might be contributing to violence, don't I have a responsibility to at least think about stopping? If my novel (or essay, or sermon, or painting, or movie…) might take the life of one innocent person, then doesn't that override whatever rights I may have? I don't mean that it negates those rights in a legal sense. I mean that, in a moral sense, it makes them irrelevant. 

I have the right to write whatever I want. But, that doesn't make it right to do so.

You may have guessed, I feel exactly the same way about much of the conversation around gun control. There are some serious conversations that we have to have, as a society, about what laws and regulations can meaningfully reduce gun violence. I've heard arguments, for example, that any restriction on large capacity magazines will be meaningless, and won't do a thing to reduce violence. As we decide what we're going to regulate, or ban, it seems important to have a serious discussion about what regulations, or bans, will be effective. And, I'm sure that that discussion will be ambiguous, circular, inconclusive and deeply, deeply frustrating. But, we have to have it. Because, we've got to figure out what, if anything, will stop the violence, or at least reduce it.

You may, or may not, have the right to a large capacity magazine. But, if allowing you access to that magazine will result in the death of one more innocent person, then don't you have a responsibility, don't we all, to forgo that right? To at least entertain the idea?

One of the biggest differences between Judaism and "Western thought," has to do with questions of blame and responsibility. In the West, especially (it seems to me) under our legal system, the ultimate question is "Who's to blame?" And, it seems to always be implied (if not stated outright) that if one person is to blame, then the rest of us aren't. That if I didn't do something, directly, then I am not to blame for it.

Judaism, for the most part, takes a different view. The ultimate question is, "What could I have done to prevent this?" And, even if I'm not "to blame," doesn't the fact that I could have possibly stopped this make me somewhat responsible for it?

This isn't just about gun control — if I contribute, even through my inaction, to any societal problem, then I am partially to blame, or at least partially responsible for, that problem, and for its results. If I don't help the poor to get out of their poverty, and that poverty leads to crimes, then I have some responsibility for those crimes. If I fight to protect dangerous, unnecessary weapons, and those weapons are used to kill innocents, then I have some responsibility for those deaths. You might claim that that isn't "fair." You might claim that it goes against "personal responsibility."

I might claim that, fair or not, that sense of responsibility will move me to act. Will move me to try to alleviate the problem. Will move me to try to make the world a better place. I'm not sure that "fair" is the only operative category here.

I deeply, profoundly believe in rights. We should thank God for the rights we have, and we should protect them, vigorously.

But, lets not make an idol out of them.