Rabbi's Bulletin February 2017

We Live for Times Such as These

“There arose a Pharaoh who did not know Joseph.” Apparently, the new ruler forgot the wise counsel Joseph offered the previous administration, advice that saved the Egyptian people from starvation and the land from ruin. But that’s not enough to explain his hostility toward Joseph’s descendants, the Israelites—why he now sought to enslave them. The narrator’s remark must be pointing to a deeper ignorance.

“Joseph the Tzaddik” is considered the pillar of righteousness in our tradition. He represents the moral foundation that underlies exemplary, principled behavior. “A Pharaoh who did not know Joseph” indicates a leader unmoored from scruples and indifferent to suffering, whose vainglory led him to oppress an entire people. “To know” becomes a recurring motif in the Exodus narrative. The ensuing contest between Moses and Pharaoh unfolds for one main purpose—so that “Pharaoh may know that I, Adonai, am God; the Earth belongs to Me, not to you.”

For Jews, this divine pronouncement, issued at the first liberation, endures as both an ongoing hope and an implicit mandate. Our hope—that the future of the Earth belongs to God and not to any single despot, no matter how powerful. And, our mandate—that it is up to us to hold fast to the precepts of our faith: to love not only our neighbors but the stranger among us, to pursue justice, and to care for the Earth that has been entrusted to us.

We engage Jewish practice—study, prayer, and service—precisely for times of challenge and struggle. There comes a day when we’re not just practicing the dance but dancing, when it’s no longer a dress rehearsal but the actual performance. In 1951, well before the Civil Rights Movement was underway, Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel wrote the following words, in an essay entitled, “To Be a Jew, What is It?” “At a certain point, we have to face our existence in terms of sharp alternatives: we either surrender to the might and threat of wrongdoing or persist in the earnestness of who we are.”

According to the Midrash, upon hearing Pharaoh’s harsh edict: “if it is a boy, throw him into the Nile, but if it is a girl, let her live,” the men separated from their wives. They said to themselves: “why should we bring children into this cruel world, only to suffer?” The women, affirming life, would not succumb to fatalism. They rebuked their husbands: “your decree is harsher than Pharaoh’s. He decreed only against the males, but you would abolish male and female offspring. His intention was for this world only, but yours impacts this world and the World to

Come. His objective may or may not come to pass, but yours will surely take effect.” What did the women do? They plied them with food and drink, until, in their husbands’ state of reverie, they seduced them! The first example of civil disobedience in recorded history is credited to the Israelite women.

Dr. Martin Luther King’s eerily prescient speech on the evening before his assassination is well-known for its closing lines. He’s been to the mountaintop and seen the Promised Land. He may not get there himself, but he knows that as a people, we will get there. What’s not so familiar is what he says earlier on:

“If I were standing at the beginning of time, with the whole sweep of human history unfolding in a panoramic view before me, and the Almighty asked me, ‘Martin Luther, which age would you like to be born in?’ strangely enough, I would turn to Him and reply, ‘If you allow me to live just a few years in the second half of the 20th century, I will be happy.’ Now that's a strange statement to make, because the world is all messed up. The nation is sick. Trouble is in the land; confusion all around. But I know that only when it is dark enough can you see the stars.”

Dr. King was grateful to be alive when he was, during an era of division and struggle, because he knew that God’s hand was at work in the world precisely then, and the seeds of Redemption were taking root at that very moment. What good is a candle at high noon? However, in pitch darkness, a tiny flame may cast its beam for miles around.

Ultimately, freedom means the refusal to take marching orders from the power structures in which we are embedded. Liberation occurs the moment we allow our own moral convictions to dictate our thoughts, emotions and actions. It doesn’t matter who happens to lead the nation. Our authority resides in our faith—as ones who, like the Israelite women, fear not Pharaoh but their God. 

Rabbi's Bulletin January 2017

WHAT JUDAISM HAS TO SAY ABOUT GUNS—AND FEAR

At a crucial moment in history, the Rabbis realized that the study of Torah, rather than armed struggle, would ensure Jewish survival. “Not by might, nor by power, but by My spirit,” became the enduring call of Hanukkah. The Rabbis were prescient; the Roman Empire has long since vanished, but we Jews are here, still promoting the paths of peace and non-violence.

Weapons may sometimes prove necessary, but they are never beautiful, says the Talmud. Even in the modern state of Israel, where the casual tourist cannot fail to notice the ubiquity of army-grade weapons on the streets, the religious principle of tahor haneshek, “the purity of arms,” strictly limits their use to the immediate defense of life. Consequently, the incidence of gun violence in the civilian sector is among the lowest of developed countries.

In the wake of the election, the Beth Shalom Board and leadership have been carefully considering when we, as a religious institution, and I, as a Rabbi, ought to take a stand on issues of contemporary concern. One thing’s for sure: our tradition mandates that we bring our values into the public arena. We do not relegate Jewish life to areas behind the mezuzah—the home, classroom and synagogue—but wherever we go in the world. If we fail to confront pressing social (and environmental) challenges, not just as American citizens but as Jews, we neglect one of the three foundational pillars of Judaism, “deeds of righteousness” (the other two being “Torah” and “prayer”).

Any advocacy the synagogue or Rabbi undertakes must be driven by core Jewish values. The Jewish precept behind gun safety laws is one of the most basic: piku’ach nefesh, “the preservation of life.” For its sake, Jewish law stipulates that we must sweep aside nearly all other commandments and considerations. We break Shabbat in order to rush the wounded to the hospital, eat nourishment on Yom Kippur when sick, and may steal food if it’s a matter of starvation. Nothing is more sacred than human life, not even God, because the human being is the very image of God.

In the name of piku’ach nefesh, Rabbinic authorities enacted a number of rulings over the centuries that have direct application to guns. For example, the Talmud forbids a homeowner from keeping a, wild animal or wobbly ladder at home, pursuant to the verse: “you shall not bring blood upon your house.” (This injunction contradicts the common saying: “ladders don’t kill, people do.”) From another commandment, “you shall not put a stumbling block before the blind,” the Rabbis derive the prohibition against selling a weapon to an angry person. If you do, you bear responsibility for any ensuing bloodshed. By the same reasoning, the decree extends to all who are tempted to inflict harm: the mentally ill, depressed, suicidal, and so on. From the verse: “you shall take utmost care over your lives,” the 18th-century authority Rabbi Ezekiel Landau ruled that hunting for sport, as opposed to sustenance or safety, violates Jewish law. The inviolability of human life dictates that, absent a real-and-present need, you may not intentionally place yourself in a hazardous situation.

By the same token of piku’ach nefesh, Jewish law explicitly authorizes the right to self-defense. Many invoke self-defense to justify owning guns. However, it is crucial to distinguish between the considered assessment of real-and-present danger versus an illogical response to perceived threat. Gun sales spike nationwide after every mass shooting, despite the fact that owning a firearm in America increases the chances of dying by gun violence nearly 300 percent, as confirmed by study after study. We may feel more secure with a gun, but we end up reacting imprudently, in ways that ironically escalate conflict and risk.

We live in an age of fear. Fear fragments communities and unravels the social fabric. Fear and weapons go hand in hand. In a perverse variation of the saying “build it and they will come,” one Rabbi puts it this way: “the more weapons, the more fear; the more fear, the more people feel the urge to possess weapons.” To live in constant fear is the mark of a cursed society. At the end of the Book of Leviticus, the long litany of imprecations culminates with: “you shall flee from the sound of a wind-blown leaf as if it were a sword; you shall stumble and fall, though no one pursues.”

What would constitute the opposite of armed conflict and perennial fear? To meet one another with generosity and open-heartedness. To assume goodwill, absent hard evidence to the contrary. Consider Jacob’s confrontation with his brother after their twenty-year separation. Jacob certainly had reason to be fearful; after all, the previous time together, Esau threatened to kill him. Looking up, he sees Esau coming, accompanied by four hundred men. Were Jacob to gather his troops and gird himself with weapons, who would blame him? Instead, he sends away his family and retinue, and approaches, alone and unarmed. We know the rest. Esau runs up, flings his arms around his neck, and hugs him. Jacob’s non-combative disposition enables Esau to respond favorably. Moreover, it seems that Jacob’s earlier fears were largely the product of his internal anxiety (and guilt).

My hope and prayer for ourselves, this community and this country: may we identify and subdue our own irrational fear-driven impulses. May we cultivate, instead, responses based upon goodwill and compassion. Just as Jacob said to his brother Esau, “to see your face is to see the face of God,” may we search for the trace of God in the faces of one another. May we uphold piku’ach nefesh and the elemental injunction of Judaism: “choose life!” Above all, choose life. 

Rabbi's Bulletin December 2016

The Way Forward

Since the election, I have been pondering the nature of progress. Some of us are jubilant, while others are grieving. Was the outcome a giant leap forward, or a terrible setback? As a Jew, I maintain the messianic conviction that human society and the world as a whole are advancing toward perfection. I want to believe that “the good in us will win, over all the wickedness, over all the wrongs we have done,” as the poem reads in our Siddur. But who defines “the good?” I consider myself a reasonably conscientious individual. How is it, then, that I end up on the opposite side of the political chasm from so many others, whose good intentions I acknowledge, and whose moral convictions and/or religious faith I have to admit are at least as principled as my own?

A response to this quandary can be found in Psalm 19. The poem consists of three units. In the first set of verses, the psalmist praises the divine order throughout the cosmos, pictorially represented by the regularity of the rising and the setting of the sun (“like a groom coming forth from the chuppah, like a hero rejoicing in running his course”). The second grouping switches focus from Creation to Revelation. It turns out that the same unerring Law governs both the natural world and the moral universe (“the testimony of Adonai is enduring; the Torah of Adonai is perfect…”). But whose Torah, or, I should specify, whose interpretation of Torah? “The Torah has seventy faces.” You and I can read the same verse and take away radically different messages.

The final verses are key. At first, the third section seems disjointed from what came before: “No one recognizes her own inadvertent faults. O God! Acquit me of the errors that are hidden from myself. As for willful transgression, withhold Your servant from it, all the more.” Why the sudden shift from assertive praise for the divine order to self-scrutiny and self-doubt? Because the poet seeks to drive home the contrast between underlying perfection and our own human limitations. No matter how sincerely motivated our quest for moral truth (“Your servant is scrupulous in heeding the judgments of Adonai”), we inevitably have blind spots. We are incapable of seeing beyond the reach of our own headlights. Therefore, we must, above all, cultivate humility in the face of our flawed apprehension of God’s will. 

When Dr. Martin Luther King stated: “the arc of the moral universe is long, but it tends toward justice,” he didn’t mean that someday, the entire world would come to embrace his vision of justice. He meant that all visions of justice, including his own, were necessarily imperfect and incomplete, but that over the long haul, they would begin to align. (Apparently, in his day, Dr. King was homophobic; if he were alive now, wouldn’t he very likely support the rights of GLBTs?) It’s not enough to admit that our society fails to live up to its own standards of justice. Our society doesn’t yet know what perfect justice even looks like.

This line of thinking helps me come to terms with the zigs and zags of social evolution. We tug back and forth on the rope of change across the political divide, as each faction attempts to enact its version of the “more perfect union” (to quote the Constitution). Eventually, our differences will shake themselves out, and we will gradually converge onto better and better approximations of the good. We will never fully attain it, however. Pure, divine truth transcends the earthly plane of existence, with its messy, day-to-day realities. Meanwhile, it is incumbent upon every citizen, whether her party is ascendant or in the opposition, to engage in the crucial social and environmental issues of our time, by promoting her cause with respect and humility. Every voice contributes invaluably to the dialectic of change.

“May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to You, my Rock and Redeemer” (which is how Psalm 19 concludes). What this fervent prayer means to me is that in this conflicted society roiled with strident cries on all sides, safety and refuge ultimately reside only in God (or deep within, if you prefer non-theistic language). May our only desire be to do what is right (“God’s will”) to the best of our knowledge and capability. In moments of triumph, may we never be too sure of ourselves. And, in times of despair, may we continue to trust that, someday:

“The good in us will win, over all the wickedness, over all the wrongs we have done. We will look back at the pages of written history, and be amazed, and then we will laugh and sing, and the good that is in us, children in their cradles, will have won.”