Posts Tagged ‘Talmud’


Last May, the author Michael Chabon—himself Jewish—told graduating Reform rabbis and educators they needed to help dissolve Judaism. The goal? A world where everyone’s the same. Amy Chua, the Chinese-American Yale law professor, who authored Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, opposes that view. I side with Chua.

In “Tribal World: Group Identity is All” (July/August 2018 Foreign Affairs), Chua writes, “The human instinct to identify with a group is almost certainly hard-wired…” In that context, she faults U.S. policymakers for underestimating “the role that group identification plays in shaping human behavior.” Tribes are for real.

I’m guilty of upholding my Jewish identity. Some friends brought up as “just Americans” have confided they envy my ethnic identity. Granted, many North American Jews exhibit no particular concern for Judaism and Jewish life, as Chabon would have them do.

The Talmud (Shevuot39a) teaches, “Kol Yisrael arevim zeh bazeh.” All Israel [the Jewish people] are responsible each for the other. I take this to heart.

I read baseball box scores each morning and note the performance of each Jewish player. As of yesterday, the Astros’ Alex Bregman—this year’s All-Star Game most valuable player—had 22 homeruns and 71 runs batted in. The Dodgers’ Joc Pederson hit two home runs last night. The Red Sox’ Ian Kinsler  had three hits. The Orioles’ Danny Valencia, a position player, pitched.  When Orioles relief pitcher Richard Blier—having a great year—went out for the season with an injury, that hurt. Basketball’s Omri Casspi signed with Memphis. Hooray!

It’s not just sports. Last Sunday night, Carolyn and I went to the Jewish Film Festival to see a documentary about Sammy Davis, Jr. As my synagogue’s congregation and Israel’s population attest, Jews display a wide variety of genetics and cultural backgrounds. I believe in Am Yisrael Echad—the people Israel is one. We’re universalists despite our particularism.

Am I offending others, such as Whites, Blacks, Christians, Muslims, Hindus, Asians, Latinos, Cat Lovers, and Chocaholics? If so, who determines our universalistic identity? Hopefully, no one. I can see the inevitable outcome: Jews forego Chanukah for Christmas to be “like everyone else.”

Yes, tribalism can be toxic. Witness the Greater Middle East and India, for example. Examine Europe: France’s Jews, who suffered during the Holocaust with French complicity, endure violent anti-Semitism, much at the hands of Muslims. European Muslims don’t have it easy, either. A Muslim friend born in England is achieving great success as an actor yet remains wary. Mesut Ozil, five-time German soccer player of the year, left the national team after criticism for posing for a photo with Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan (admittedly not my favorite political leader).“I’m a German when we win, but I am an immigrant when we lose,” wrote Ozil, born in Germany.

The United States offers ample proof that tribalists can be loyal citizens, who take our Constitution and values to heart. The hyphenated American—Jewish-Americans, African-Americans, Irish-Americans, Japanese-Americans and so on—helped make this nation great. When the current political idiocy ends, we will continue to do so. The hyphen enables us to bring varied religious and cultural backgrounds to a common table heaped with bagels, ribs, Mongolian beef, tacos, chicken vindaloo—and respect. All enrich the American experience.

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People become attached to certain words. They—particularly slang words—can help someone display distinctiveness or demonstrate belonging to a group. Many decades have produced cool, dig it, boss, bitchin’, yo, wassup, Bart Simpson’s partee and the now widely accepted— and often-used F-word. For some years, I’ve been partial to grace and dignity. Now, I have a new favorite word—and it isn’t English.

My new fave appears in the Torah’s story of the Golden Calf (Exodus 32:1ff). For it, I’m indebted to Cantor David Frommer of San Francisco’s Congregation Sherith Israel and last week’s citing of commentary by Rabbi David Fohrman.

Our story: God becomes angry at the “stiff-necked” Israelites after they compel Aaron to make a young bull of gold to replace Moses, still meeting with God atop Mount Sinai. Knowing of the calf, God says He will destroy the children of Israel and make a great people of Moses’ descendants. Moses’ response: Why? Why be angry at Your people? Why enable Egypt to say You freed Your people only to slaughter them in the wilderness? What will that do for Your reputation?

The Hebrew word used here for why is lamah (rhymes with mama). Yet there’s another word for why in the Torah—madua (ma–doo-ah). Why (madua) lamah?

According to Rabbi Fohrman, “Madua, from the word mada, is the scientific ‘why’. … When Moses looked at the burning bush … [he asked] what is it about this bush that causes it not to burn? It is a question about the past that would explain the present.”

Lamah,” Rabbi Forhman explains, “is a contraction of ‘le mah’, to what, for what, for what purpose. It is a question about the future.”

I’m into lamah. When I get angry or down, when some disappointment induces me to react negatively, I ask myself, lamah? Not why I feel angry, down or disappointed. That’s a madua question. Rather, what purpose will be served by lashing out at someone—or myself?

Lamah constitutes more than a lesson in linguistics. We’re talking real life. Berating others might make us feel better momentarily when we feel questioned or put down. But how will we feel later if we damage or sever a relationship? How many times do we fly off the handle only to regret our words and deeds? Often, we apologize. Maybe the offended person forgives. But does that person forget?

Most of us learned the wisdom behind lamah as children: Think before you speak. If you get angry, count to ten. But in adults, the desire to get in the next word or the last—and do it immediately—often overpowers our learning and judgment.

The rabbis of the Talmud considered gossip—lashon hara—and negative statements sins akin to murder. They kill the soul. Thoughtless words, they advised, resemble arrows. Once released, they can be regretted but not recalled.

If only we, from the humblest citizens to those at the pinnacle of power, could remember daily that lamah can prevent fomenting confusion, resentment, hatred and violence. That words matter. That measuring our responses to others’ words can defuse rather than fuel challenging situations.

If only.

This post marks number 350 since I began since September 2010. It marks a good time for me to take a lengthy break and focus on some other things for a while. The post will resume on April 20.

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This week’s Torah portion Ki-Tetse (“When you go out”) presents 74 of the 613 commandments. Some, like caring for your neighbor’s lost possessions (Deut. 22:1–4), offer noble precepts we readily understand. Others, like the treatment of a woman taken captive in war (Deut. 21:10–14), offer positive but not totally satisfying principles. Still others, like stoning a wayward, defiant son (Deut. 21:18–21), put us off. Yet this last commandment remains in the Torah, which Jews still read. This cognitive dissonance—holding contradictory ideas in some kind of balance—offers a lesson to consider.

The Rabbis of the Talmud as well as later scholars understood Biblical cognitive dissonance. They found ways, using the Torah as their guide, to negate what they found objectionable in the Written Torah. Often, they cited the Oral Torah (Mishna), put into writing and edited ca. 200 CE. Traditional Judaism believes that God gave the Oral Law to Moses on Mount Sinai along with the Written Torah. Did He? Or did the Rabbis simply believe that some commandments, even if God-given, were too harsh and that interpreting the Law, once presented, lay in human hands?

As it happens, the Torah calls for the death penalty for about three-dozen offenses. The Rabbis resisted. They found rationales for making the death penalty—including that for the wayward son—all but impossible to impose. Still, Rabbi Simeon b. Gamaliel stated the minority opinion—which, importantly, also is recorded—that failure to uphold the death penalty “would multiply the shedders of blood in Israel!” (Mishna Makkot 1:10.) The majority had its way, often redefining Torah but never abandoning it.

I find it interesting—and natural—that weekly Torah study sessions at Congregation Sherith Israel leave many attendees aghast. Even people who have taken part for some time periodically express surprise or even outrage at commandments and/or the biblical narrative. What’s new? Jewish tradition has dealt with biblical cognitive dissonance for two millennia.

In this regard, I often wonder about—and salute—so many people who come to Shabbat services, particularly on Friday nights. Many do not believe in God. Yet their prayers address God. Whom are they praising or asking for help? Here, too, cognitive dissonance holds sway. Yet they approach Shabbat worship understanding that they can find great comfort in connecting with their heritage, each other and their innermost selves even if they’re not sure what God is—or if God is.

I suggest that people who engage in what the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge termed “the willing suspension of disbelief” navigate the world’s inconsistencies in a healthier manner than those who don’t. Rather than insist on a world that can only be described in terms of black and white, they acknowledge the broad gray scale that confronts us.

The older we get, the less certainty we find. But cognitive dissonance needn’t be emotionally and spiritually crippling. Jewish tradition, including the discussions and debates within our community today, should reassure us that we are not the first to ask difficult questions. And we are not alone. May that provide us with considerable comfort.

I will be leading Kabbalat Shabbat services at Sherith Israel tonight. I invite you to join us and, if need be, deal with your own cognitive dissonance in a warm and supportive environment.

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