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A Short Torah Story

October 28, 2013 Leave a comment

Torah DrowningIt was raining, so we started by talking about that. As it happens, one of the kids had just come back from Colorado, recently ravaged by floods, so the conversation naturally turned to flooding. That segued into flood damage, followed by what one might save in a flood, and, from there, saving a Torah in a flood.

It was Sunday morning, and I was teaching 7th graders.

“Would you save a Torah from drowning?” I asked the class.

“Yes,” all of the students agreed.

“Why?” I asked.

“Because,” one of the students replied, “it would do the same for me.” Tee hee.

The funny thing is that it would.

I explained why.

The Torah is one of the three parts of the Bible, the other two being the “prophets” and the “writings.” The students’ haftarah portions come from the prophets. The writings include well-known works like the Book of Esther (more commonly known as the “Megilah” and read or chanted on Purim), Psalms (such as the famous Psalm 23 that begins “The Lord is my Shepherd”), and so on.

The great Rabbis gave us two major kinds of commentary on the Bible, the first in the form of the Midrash, and the second in the form of the Talmud. It’s that second compendium that offers advice on all manner of things: when to light Shabbat candles and how to read the Torah, why some kinds of damages are like oxen but others like pits, what kind of damage an ox owner is responsible for and why only dead elephants can be used as a wall for sukkah, etc.

One passage in the Talmud section known as kiddushin addresses the obligations a parent has toward a child, including the stipulation that the parents are supposed to teach their children to swim.

Without the Torah, we wouldn’t have the Bible. Without the Bible, there’d be no Talmud. And it’s the Talmud that records the importance of knowing how to swim.

It’s a round-about result, but the Torah did save us from drowning. The student had it exactly right.

This is how a conversation about the weather and our weekend plans turned into a lesson about the centrality of Torah in our lives.



[First published in the Vassar Temple November 2013 bulletin.]

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My God, The Soul That You Have Given Me is a Pure One

January 28, 2013 Leave a comment

“My God, the soul that you have given me is a pure one.”

That line appears in the daily morning service, as if — as Debbie Friedman used to teach — reminding us that each day we start anew, untainted by whatever we may have done the day before.

Debbie used to add that if our religious schools could teach the students that they start each day with a pure soul, we’d be ahead of the game even if we taught nothing else. I tend to agree.

Even the most forgiving among us are often relentlessly unforgiving of ourselves.I have frequently asked teenage students if they think that they have a pure soul, and the most common answer saddens me: “I used to,” they say.

Yes, even by high school, sometimes earlier, the students think they have done something so awful that they have irrevocably destroyed who they used to be.

Certainly part of the problem is the entirely un-Jewish approach that equates sex with impurity. (I remember teaching a high-school class about the Kabbalistic poem “Lecha Dodi” some years ago, and pointing out that the word we usually translate as “my beloved” is, in fact, “my lover.” A surprised student asked, “so the prayer is dirty?” “It’s sexual,” I told her, “not dirty.”)

But I think the problem goes deeper.

I think that even the most forgiving among us are often relentlessly unforgiving of ourselves. We let other people have a bad day and don’t give ourselves the same permission. We accept lapses in judgment by others but not ourselves. We forget about callous remarks aimed our way while we let our own misspoken words haunt us.

We want to take back what we have done or said, and when we cannot, we feel we have sullied our soul.

Some mistakes are so monumental that we read about them in the newspaper and hear about them in courts of law. But most of us let far more mundane errors haunt us: an ill-advised comment, a road not taken, or a choice poorly chosen.

I think there’s a certain nobility to trying to live a blameless life, but an equally certain futility. We want to ask, “can I be perfect?” But the better question seems to be, “how do I react when I screw up?” Our morning prayer addresses that second question.

The prayer’s answer is that no matter what, we are still the very embodiment of holy purity. There is nothing we can do, say, or believe that can destroy the inner beauty of the human soul.

I want to be clear. I don’t know what a soul is, and I’m not sure I believe in a God that can give me a pure one. But I don’t think we should let the lofty language of the liturgy hide an important message for our daily life.

I write this in the first few days of 2013, when many people are engaging with New Year’s Resolutions: I won’t do… I will do… I’ll never again… I promise not to… And so forth.

But I think most of us have unfinished business from last year, last month, and even yesterday.

Maybe an appropriate resolution for moving forward is to start each day by reminding ourselves that the soul you have given me, my God, is a pure one.

[Reprinted from the Vassar Temple February, 2013 bulletin.]

Categories: Judaism, spirituality

What Did You Used to Believe?

November 19, 2012 1 comment

"so they will not understand each other"Some years ago, a college student asked me, “what did you used to believe?”

I didn’t understand the question until she clarified, “what did you believe when you were my age that you don’t believe any more?”

It remains one of the best questions I’ve ever been asked.

Lots of things came to mind, but I chose what I thought — and continue to think — is the most important one: I used to think that most people were more or less like me.

I know that that borders on hubris and egotism, but there it is. I used to think that all it took to understand someone halfway around the world was to reflect on my own upper-middle class life in New York.

Obviously, there were differences: financial, cultural, religious, and more. Some people owned private jets and others couldn’t afford dinner. Some children grew up with families in homes and others on the street. Some religious leaders worshiped one god and others worshiped many or none at all. Some languages and cultures demanded formality while others all but precluded it. And so forth.

But I thought that when it came to what really mattered, most people were certainly like me. And — the other side of the same coin — I thought that I could figure out the differences without leaving my home.

I was the modern anthropological equivalent of the 19th-century armchair scientist.

Having now met some of the people I thought were just like me, I believe that I vastly underestimated the range of human diversity. Even my neighbors sometimes exhibit surprising variation. It was folly to think that I understood the people living in war-torn Sudanese refugee camps, imperial Japanese courts, child militias, Tibetan monasteries, remote arctic settlements, etc. — all without ever meeting them or talking with them.

All of this is on my mind as I watch violence flare in the Holy Land.

I learned long ago that even when people disagree — perhaps especially when people disagree — it’s important to ask, “what does the other side believe?”

I fear that in the present case, we have spent too much energy following the ethnocentric path that assumes that “they” are just like “us,” and put not enough resources into really understanding what the other side believes.

It may not help. To pick the obvious and trite example, understanding Hitler would not (I hope!) have made anyone less inclined to defeat him.

But we won’t know until we try.

Reflections on Hurricane Sandy

November 5, 2012 5 comments

The Aftermath of Hurricane "Frankenstorm" Sandy

The Aftermath of Hurricane “Frankenstorm” Sandy

The wind howling. The power and phones out. The trees arching precariously, some throwing their branches against my house, others crashing to the ground. The sun setting low behind dark, overcast skies.

Astonishingly, that was the calm before the storm, though I didn’t know it at the time.

As night fell, the winds really picked up, roaring louder than any bit of nature I’ve ever heard, save perhaps thunder. A local radio station — my only link to anything beyond the walls around me — reported gusts of over 100 miles per hour: the very air I breathe was racing faster than I’ve ever driven.

The ferocious “calm” before the storm:


Living essentially in the forest, I’ve spent many dark nights unable to communicate with the outside world. I’m prepared for power outages.

But I wasn’t prepared for this.

I wasn’t actually afraid for my own safety (though perhaps I should have been), but my pulse was racing and my heart pounding nonetheless. But for the cacophony outside, I’m sure I would actually have heard it.

In retrospect, I was reliving part of my past.

I re-experienced what my ancestors knew: Nature is awesome, not only in the modern “isn’t it amazing” and “I must take a picture” sense, but more along the lines of the transcendent “my greatest accomplishments pale in comparison,” and “I am both terrified of this and irresistibly drawn to see it.”

All in all, I was lucky. Dozens of people died, but I wasn’t harmed. A tree fell on my neighbor’s house, but mine is fine. (Other neighbors saw a tree fall on their backyard trampoline, voicing the opinion that it should have bounced.) Some not-too-distant communities were swept away, but I was unaffected by flooding.

Sandy left me with no water, heat, phones, electricity, cell reception, or Internet service, putting me in the category of the lucky ones.

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Sanctity Doesn’t Have to be Solemn

September 29, 2012 Leave a comment

This is our “holiday season”: Rosh Hashanah (at least one day, two for many), then Yom Kippur (never more than one day), Sukkot (about a week), and finally Simchat Torah and Shmini Atzeret.

"Then the question arises of  whether a Sukkah can be built on top of a camel."

“Then the question arises of whether a Sukkah can be built on top of a camel.”

It’s these last two that cause confusion.

Simchat Torah, literally, “The Joy of Torah,” is either the 8th day of the seven-day holiday of Sukkot (if you keep only one day of Rosh Hashanah) or the 9th day of the eight-day holiday of Sukkot (if you keep two).

Shmini Atzeret, literally, “the eighth, a convocation,” is always the 8th day of Sukkot, whether or not Sukkot has eight days or only seven. (It also gives us the chance to use the word “convocation,” which doesn’t otherwise pop up too frequently.)

The most important lesson is to try to enjoy whatever we do.  We don't have to be somber to take something seriously, and sanctity doesn't have to be solemn.Generally the first and last days of a holiday are “yontiv,” days on which, more or less like Shabbat, we rest from work. So the first and last days of the seven-day holiday of Passover are both yontiv, or, if you keep eight days, the first two days and the last two days. Similarly, the first day of the seven-day holiday of Sukkot — or the first two days of the eight-day holiday of Sukkot — are yontiv, along with the last day or so.

This background is important for understanding a discussion in the Talmud, that ancient compendium of Jewish law that examines and directs Jewish practice. For example it’s the Talmud that tells us when and how to light Hanukkah candles (put them in the menorah from right to left, light them left to right), how often to pray (thrice daily, unless you don’t feel like it), when one bird is similar enough to a kosher bird that it, too, counts as kosher (if they naturally interbreed or if their eggs are indistinguishable), which activities detract from rest on Shabbat and yontiv (travel, for instance), and, of course much more.

So it should come as no surprise that the Talmud gives us regulations regarding the Sukkah: It must have four, three, or two and half walls; must offer a view of the stars; must have more shade than sun; must be at least ten hand-breadths high, but less than about 10 yards; and so on.

Then the question arises (on page 23a of the section called “Sukkot,” if you want to follow along at home) of whether a Sukkah can be built on top of a camel. And the answer is, no, because the Sukkah is meant for the entire seven- or eight-day period of Sukkot, but sitting on a camel counts as travel, which, as we just saw, detracts from yontiv. So a Sukkah on a camel would be useless for at least two of the seven days of Sukkot (or four of the eight).

The next question is whether an elephant can be used for one of the walls of the Sukkah. And, again, the answer is no, because it might run away, invalidating the Sukkah. What about a dead elephant? Sure! As long as the elephant is as least ten hand-breadths in height, we’re good to go. Smaller animals, of course, might be ten hand-breadths in height only when standing but not when lying down. These, according to the Talmud, should therefore be suspended by ropes from above. (Please don’t try this at home.)

Now, Rabbis Meir, Yehudah, and Zeira, along with the other participants of this Talmudic debate, knew full well that hanging an animal just so it couldn’t lie down was a violation of the prohibition against cruelty to animals, and other obvious considerations prevent beasts of burden from doing double duty as structural supports.

So what are we to make of all of this? To me, the most important lesson is to try to enjoy whatever we do. We don’t have to be somber to take something seriously, and sanctity doesn’t have to be solemn. Torah is joyous.

And we have a holiday just to remind us. Happy Simchat Torah.

Categories: holidays, Judaism, spirituality

Truth, Lies, and Sins

September 5, 2012 Leave a comment

Truth, Lies, and SinI’ve been thinking a lot about truth lately.

For one thing, it’s been in the national news, for instance when Neil Newhouse, a senior advisor to presidential candidate Mitt Romney, told ABC news that, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.” That sounds a lot like a dismissal of the truth. Could that be because lying isn’t illegal?

I suspect that it would be a career-ender, or worse, for a campaigner to suggest that “we’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by judges,” or in any other way to suggest that following the law wasn’t supremely important. But, apparently, it’s okay to dismiss the truth.

This callousness about the truth — and the widespread willingness to accept compromises on the truth — is especially surprising in a culture marked by such catchphrases as “truth, justice, and the American way” (originally from Superman) and “the truth shall set you free” (from the New Testament book of John), and whose founding father is lauded because he could not tell a lie.

Truth has a distinguished history: Aristotle loved both Plato and truth, but demands the truth be put first (amfoin gar ontoin filoin osion protiman tin alitheian — “Nicomachaen Ethics” i.6.1), Cato promotes speaking truth even though it’s hard (vera libens dicas, quamquam sint aspera dictu — “Dicta Catonis”), and Cicero claims that seeking the truth is particularly human (hominis est propria veri inquisitio — “De Officiis” i.4.13). Confucius, too, is in favor of truth, arguing that those who hear the truth in the morning can die without regret in the evening (Analects vi.18). So why have we changed our attitude?

Again, is the problem that lying is legal?

I bring up legality because for some time I’ve been interested in the interplay between the law and ethics, and, in particular, the lack of a codified morality in America and other Western nations. People are allowed, even encouraged, to do anything legal, while it’s often okay to do something illegal if you don’t mind the penalty. (For example, I’m told that UPS truck drivers in New York City are told to park wherever they want, because the fines cost less than late deliveries.) Most modern Western citizens are so used to this mentality that they find it hard to imagine things being any other way.

But there are other approaches.



TEDx: Bible Translation and the Next Generation

The Ten Commandments are interesting in that they single out some laws as having moral content. Their point is that killing, for example, is a matter of both legality and morality. (I have more in this TEDx presentation.)

And all of this brings up an essay I wrote for We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism, which was just released last week. Central themes of that book include the nature of sin, its role in our lives, and the modern relevance of some ancient prayers that list our sins — both those we have committed and numerous ones we haven’t.

My focus there (in addition to serving as chief translator) is what we learn from being bombarded by sins:

The first [thing we learn from the Al Chet prayer about sins] is that some things are wrong. This basic Jewish tenet, so obvious to those who already know it, is neither intuitive nor universal. There are young children who take what they want only because they want it, never asking the deeper, Jewish question of Al Chet: “Is it right to do this?” For them, the world is divided not into right and wrong but, rather, simply into “what I want” and “what I don’t want.”

We Have Sinned:  Sin and Confession in Judaism, Edited by Rabbi Lawrence A. Hoffman, PhD.

We Have Sinned: Sin and Confession in Judaism

Once we accept that some things are wrong, we have to examine our behavior, even our legal behavior, more closely:

Most of us, after all, aren’t murderers. Our lives are more subtle. Deception is an accepted part of negotiation, but is there a point at which we might go too far? Can I lie to the police to avoid getting a traffic ticket? Violence is part of a successful defense of peace. Is it justified? Doling out punishment to children helps them navigate the world as adults. How strict should I be? Misleading the ones we love can be an invaluable gift. What do I tell the people I love? Again and again, we wonder: have we done the right thing?

My general point is that taking time to focus seriously on sin is more important now than ever, if for no other reason than we have to remember that some things — like lying, I suspect — are legal but still wrong.

For that matter, Thoreau wrote that “it takes two to speak the truth — one to speak, and another to hear.” Are we who put up with untruths as guilty as those who speak them?

What do you think? Is lying to get elected okay? Is deception as part of negotiation? Where do you draw the line? And how do you know?

Two Monologues And No Dialogue: How (Not) To Talk About Religion and Social Issues

July 23, 2012 3 comments

FightingThe past few days have highlighted for me once again the degree to which our religious nation is divided.

http://twitter.com/RickWarren/status/226378218456899584The first example comes from the hugely popular megachurch pastor Rick Warren and his recent reaction when a man slaughtered moviegoers in Aurora, CO. Pastor Warren blamed the violence on those who teach evolution. “When students are taught they are no different from animals, they act like it,” he wrote on his Twitter and Facebook accounts. (He has since deleted his tweet, but not before on-line media such as The Examiner wrote about it.)

The second example comes from The Gospel Coalition’s collection of blogs, which featured a post by author and pastor Jared Wilson. In it, Pastor Wilson explains that God’s natural order of things is for men to dominate women, and that rape results from men and women who try to fight that God-ordained hierarchy. (Like Pastor Warren, Pastor Wilson removed the blog post, under protest. Excerpts and an analysis can be found here: “Complementarians and Martial [sic] Sex: The Jared Wilson / Gospel Coalition Saga.”)

The Bible doesn't take a clear stance on evolution, why people commit violence, or what marriage looks like.The same Gospel Coalition is promoting an anti-homosexual marriage blog post: Gay Is Not the New Black, written by Pastor Voddie Baucham.

Most of the reactions to these kinds of claims come in one of two varieties: (1) How could anyone possibly agree? or (2) how could anyone possibly disagree?

The naysayers cite their evidence: Pastor Warren has misunderstood the allegorical nature of Genesis, and misunderstood the natural world in that animals don’t tend to slaughter their own kind. Pastor Wilson has ignored passages such as 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 that put men and women on a par in the marriage bed. Pastor Baucham has taken 1 Corinthians 6 out of context while ignoring other relevant passages of Scripture. And so forth.

Then the claimants respond with their own evidence: Morality comes from religion, Colossians 3:18 subordinates women to men, and Leviticus forbids homosexuality.

As a Bible scholar, it’s abundantly obvious to me that both sides find ample support in Scripture. The Bible doesn’t take a clear stance on evolution, why people commit violence, or what marriage looks like — not beyond what we all agree on, at least.

But I don’t think that these are debates about evidence, science, or religion. In fact, I don’t think they are debates at all. They are, rather, collections of diatribes — monologues, as it were, instead of dialogues. And that’s because we tend to focus on our self-selected evidence instead of our motivations.

For example, if Pastors Warren, Wilson, and Baucham discovered that they were wrong about the intent of the Bible (as I believe they often are), would they change their minds? If a new manuscript surfaced, or a better understanding of the text presented itself, would they care? My suspicion is they would not.

Like slavery in its day and usury before that, these issues don’t start with the Bible. They start with how we feel.

So if we’re going to have a real conversation, I think it has to be about our motives, not the texts we choose to support them.