Sunday, November 04, 2007

Do Jews Matter?

[This is a summary of a talk I gave this past Friday at Congregation Beth Israel in Northfield, NJ.]

What would the world lose if Jews disappeared tomorrow?

A similar question was asked over two thousand years ago of the High Priest Shimon haTzadik who answered with Torah, Avodah, and Gemilut Chasadim, revelation, worship, and generosity (Avot 1:2). Many years later Rabban Shimon Gamliel responded to the same question with justice, truth, and peace (Avot 1:18).

Given that most Jews know little of Torah, rarely engage in worship, and are not noticeably more generous, just, honest, and peaceful than their neighbors, is there any reason Jews need survive? Of course Jews have a right to exist, but do we have a reason for existing? Do we matter any more?

I answer these questions with an equivocal “yes.” “Yes” because there are things we Jews bring to the world that no else does. And “equivocal” because these things may be fading away.

We Jews bring two things to the world that are desperately needed: a love of paradox and pluralism, and religious humanism. Each of these comes with its own Hebrew catchphrase, and it is through these that I will explore our gifts to the world.

The first is Elu v’elu divrei Elohim Chayyim, this opinion and that opinion are both the words of the Living God. This comes from the Talmud where God declares that the mutually exclusive teachings of the competing rabbinic schools of Hillel and Shammai are both the words of the living God (Eruvin 13b). If you are not familiar with the Talmudic original, you probably know the street version: “Two Jews, three opinions.”

The Jewish mind is at home with paradox, and multiple and competing truths. We consider it a mark of true intelligence to be able to argue all sides of a case, and a sign of deep humility to grant your opponent’s rightness even as you argue passionately against it. No other civilization is rooted in Elu v’elu. The world needs this broad mindedness. It is the cure for fundamentalisms of all kinds.

Yet I worry that we are losing this trait. Traditional Jewish pedagogy rooted in passionate argument is being replaced by a gentile model of memorizing facts and mouthing well-worn truisms. We are teaching our children what it is to be a Jew rather than how it is. We are teaching content rather than attitude. We need both, but it is the latter that gives us our uniqueness.

The second gift of the Jews is captured in the phrase Lo baShamayyim he, it is not in heaven. The “it” here is mitzvot, the way of godliness. In Deuteronomy 30:11-14 Moses tells us that the way of mitzvah is “not in heaven, that you might excuse yourselves saying, ‘Who can ascend to heaven and get it for us, so that we can listen to it and perform it?’... Rather it is very near to you— in your mouth and your heart— to do it.”

The way of godliness— the way of justice, mercy, and humility as the prophet Micah defined it— is inside you. Don’t look to heaven for answers to your life challenges, look within. Which brings us to the Talmud (Bava Meztia 59b ) where we find the rabbis debating the fitness of an oven.

All but Rabbi Eliezer said the oven was fine. Failing to persuade his colleagues with reason, Eliezer said, “If the halakha (law) is according to me, let that carob tree prove it.” And a nearby carob tree walked across the yard and replanted itself in the ground. But the rabbis said, “What does a carob tree know of the law?”

Eliezer than said, “If the halakha is according to me, let this brook prove it.” And a nearby stream suddenly flipped and flowed in the opposite direction. Again the rabbis replied, “What does a brook know of the law?”

Rabbi Eliezer then said, “If the halakha is according to me, may the walls of this House of Study prove it.” And the walls of the House of Study began to collapse inward upon the rabbis. Rabbi Joshua rose up and rebuked the walls saying, “When rabbis argue with one another on matters of halakha, what right have you to interfere?” Out of respect for Rabbi Joshua the walls ceased to bend inward; and out of respect for Rabbi Eliezer they did not straighten up.

Finally Rabbi Eliezer said, “If the halakha is according to me, may Heaven itself say so!” Just then a heavenly voice cried out, “Why are you arguing with Rabbi Eliezer? He is right on every point!”

Again Rabbi Joshua rose up saying, “Lo baShamayyim he; it is not in heaven! The Torah is ours to decide according to the majority (Exodus 23:2); we do not pay attention to voices from heaven!”

Some time later, Rabbi Nathan met the prophet Elijah and asked him what God had done when rebuked by Rabbi Joshua. Elijah smiled and said, “He laughed and laughed saying, ‘At last! My children have defeated Me, My children have defeated Me!’”

Defeating God by working out our own understanding of godliness is so alien to most people that they don’t know what to make of it, yet it is just this kind of religious humanism that the world needs; affirming the truth of God while insisting that we work out the details of godliness for ourselves.

Yet are we passing this trait on to our children? When we teach the law are we still open to majority rule or have we made a fetish of tradition? Do we teach a living Torah to be explored or a fixed torah to be imitated? The world around us is based on imitation, worshipping the idols of fashion and following the heavenly voices of loud-mouthed pundits. Were to we turn inward? Yet it is this turning that is so desperately needed. Are we teaching our children to turn or merely to follow?

Elu v’elu and lo baShamayyim he, a love of paradox and religious humanism, are what Jews bring to the table. Yet these are not passed down by blood, but by pedagogy. It is not so much what we learn but how we learn that makes us who we are. Of course we must study Hebrew, history, and sacred text, but if we do so in the manner of the gentiles, choosing fixed truths over the open-ended search for multi-layered and often paradoxical meaning, following external moral absolutes rather than internal ethical prompts, we sacrifice what is most unique and important about us.

In a world being ripped apart by absolutes—religious, political, and economic— we need the open-hearted pluralism of elu v’elu. In a world pushed to the brink of World War IV by men inflamed by heavenly voices, we need the religious humanism of lo baShammayim he. In a world that has forgotten the art of conversation, we need people in love with dialogue. We Jews used to be that people. We can be again.


Mano said...

Beautiful - this will be the platform from which I will teach in Sydney. Thank you

Mano said...

Le Rav Ram HaYakar

I would like to get this piece of yours published in South Africa's only Jewish communal newspaper - reaches about 50 000 people - the Jewish Report. Do I have your permission to reproduce it there? I think that it is important that SA Jews - who are overwhelmimgly orthodox, fundamentalist or non-observant orthodox in orientation - are exposed to the kind of perspectives your piece gives.

You would obviously be acknowledged as the author and if posssible a link to your blog would also be included in the article.

The editor of the Report's name is Geoff Sifrin

but please respond to this suggestion to my email -

Berigshei kavod
Immanuel Suttner

PS What is your emal address... I would like to send you some info about my poetry collection "Hidden and Revealed", if you are interested.