Posts Tagged ‘Talmud’


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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