Posts Tagged ‘TORAH’

BIBLICAL COGNITIVE DISSONANCE

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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PASSOVER AND TRUTH

Passover begins Monday night. Most Jews—including many who maintain no other religious practice—will attend a Seder to hear and help tell the story of the Exodus from Egypt. Some Seder participants will view the Exodus story as historic truth. Others will dismiss the story as fantasy yet engage in the meal and companionship. Still others at Seders will value the story but understand the Exodus in a different way.

I mention this because inevitably at this season, some Jews question whether the Exodus ever took place. We have no archaeological evidence. If proof existed that the Exodus story is a hoax, they wonder, would Judaism collapse?

For those to whom religion claims legitimacy only if the Hebrew Bible—or by extension the Christian Bible or Qu’ran—is literally true, the answer is self-evident. Prove the Exodus bogus and Judaism, even if practiced minimally, must be abandoned. Without facts, religion must sink beneath spiritual quicksand.

These folks exist on the cusp between the pre-critical and critical stages of religious belief, using the terminology of the late Rabbi Michael Signer. They might like to believe the literal truth of the Torah but maintain serious doubts. Some almost seem eager to call Judaism’s bluff and make their exit.

Signer, however, points to a third stage of belief—post-critical. Literal belief no longer carries much weight. Religion isn’t about facts—whether God spoke to Moses at a burning bush, struck Egypt with ten plagues or parted the waters of the Reed Sea. Post-critical Jews seek Truth with a capital “T.” Facts become irrelevant, although no one can prove that the Exodus did not take place. (Richard Elliot Friedman offers textual proof of the Exodus by a single, small group of Egyptians in the current Reform Judaism magazine. His thesis varies from the biblical account.)

Bearing a capital “T,” Truth reveals enduring insights about human nature rather than historical events. Biblical stories and all the commandments serve as springboards for discussion and speculation. The study of Torah, which includes Talmud and all other Jewish texts—note, interestingly, the “T” words—has involved questioning and, yes, arguing for 2,000 years. Jewish tradition has never promoted easy answers.

Granted, if the Exodus could be proved to never have happened, many Jews—and perhaps of necessity, Christians and Muslims, too—might be faced with difficult choices. But I suspect that most Jews who undertake religious practice would not be deterred from studying and worshipping as they do. The Truths presented by the Hebrew Bible bear our attention regardless of their historicity. As the late Rabbi Robert Gordis wrote in his commentary on Job, the Torah represents the mythos of the Jewish people. As such, it teaches us a great deal about the human condition, and is worth our study and reverence.

So if you are celebrating Passover, may the concluding words of the Seder, “Next year in Jerusalem,” inspire you as you need to be inspired—to make aliyah to Israel, to visit, or just as important, to experience the figurative coming home of the soul as you draw nearer to Truths that remain eternal.

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INVISIBLE

What if you looked in a mirror but couldn’t see yourself? That’s standard for Dracula. Also for Jews. We’re recognizable as one of the nation’s most accomplished ethnic groups and yet so easy to overlook. Three recent experiences illustrate what I mean.

The April 9 issue of Newsweek featured a cover-story headline bristling with imperatives (italics mine): “Forget the Church: Follow Jesus.” Inside, the article’s headline started with a more journalistic approach: “The Forgotten Jesus.” Cool. I love reading about religion. The subhead continued: “Christianity has been destroyed by politics, priests, and get-rich evangelists.” There’s a point of view here. Okay. But then comes another imperative: “Ignore them, writes Andrew Sullivan, and embrace Him.” Who, me?

Sullivan told readers, “Christianity itself is in a crisis” and delineated where it has gone wrong. Many evangelical leaders, he stated, have hijacked Jesus for their own purposes. Interesting. But Sullivan didn’t cite Catholic or Protestant leaders or academics. He was his own source (with help from Thomas Jefferson, who rejected most of the wording in the Christian Bible).

Suddenly, Newsweek wasn’t reporting on religion. Instead, it provided a soapbox for a preacher with no clue I subscribe. Sullivan revealed, “I’ve pondered the Incarnation my whole life. I’ve read theology and history. I think I grasp what it means to be both God and human—but I don’t think my understanding is any richer than my Irish grandmother’s.” I’ve read theology and history—and I have no clue how anyone could be both God and human. But I’m a Jew. So I guess Newsweek screwed up and sent me its Christian edition—unless the magazine is now a blog. Perhaps in late May—at Shavuot, marking the giving of the Torah at Sinai—I’ll see a cover head reading, “Forget Your Rabbi: Follow Moses.” But I doubt it will roll out nationally.

Ross Douthat also had something important to say in his April 7 column in The New York Times. In “Divided by God,” he referred to the varied theologies of Barak Obama, Mitt Romney and Rick Santorum, writing, “These divergences reflect America as it actually is: We’re neither traditionally Christian nor straightforwardly secular. Instead, we’re a nation of heretics in which most people still associate themselves with Christianity but revise its doctrines as they see fit, and nobody can agree on even the most basic definitions of what Christian faith should mean.” I don’t propose that Ross Douthat has it in for Jews. But we’re just not in the conversation. America remains a “Christian nation.”

Finally, Carolyn and I shopped at the Marina Safeway. The last two items scanned by our smiling checker were Passover matzoh and Shabbat candles. He handed Carolyn the receipt and wished us both, “Happy Easter.”

At least the cartoonist Hilary B. Price (Jewish) offered a Passover-themed strip in Tuesday’s San Francisco Chronicle. The media mention for the week. And Wednesday night, when we declined bread at the Clement Street Bar & Grill, our waitress, Baseball Mary, asked if we’d like matzoh then brought us some.

This morning, I thought I caught a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror. But I suspect I’m delusional.

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STUMBLING BLOCKS AND THE MEDIA

All the world’s a stage, Jaques comments in Shakespeare’s As You Like It. Shakespeare, however, could not anticipate how literally that statement would be taken centuries later following the establishment of the United Nations. World leaders love to strut upon that particular stage—none more than Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad.

Given yet another 15 minutes of fame at the UN General Assembly on September 23, Ahmadinejad offered that most of the world believes that the United Sates staged the horrific attacks of September 11. Slaughtered its own people to reverse a declining economy and save the Zionist—“Israel” remains a proscribed word—regime.

Over thirty delegations, led by the United States, walked out. Their protest did not halt Ahmadinejad’s speech. It wasn’t meant to.

Whether deliberately hateful remarks should be allowed in such a world forum raises continuing questions regarding free speech, a value the Iranian regime does not uphold. Restrictions on speech that falls short of inciting violence—drawing that particular line presents no easy task—lead down a very slippery slope. If the United Nations believes in free speech—and it does so at least in corporate theory—then vicious speakers like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will be offered the podium year after year. Yet I wonder if the UN and the cause of peace it espouses might not be better served if it required world leaders to forego geopolitics and focus on issues addressing the world’s basic problems of poverty, hunger, disease, education and human rights.

The Torah offers wisdom to consider. It commands us not to “place a stumbling block before the blind” (Lev. 19:14). The Rabbis interpret “stumbling block” not as a physical item but as temptation placed before the morally blind. Leave your wallet on a restaurant table while you go to the restroom, and someone might take it—although the thief might never have considered removing it from your pocket or purse let alone threatened the use of force. Therefore we are not to aid and abet the morally weak.

Ahmadinejad and his like know that the world is their stage because the media does aid and abet. It welcomes their venom even when it is spewed for no other reason than to gain media attention. Hate speech may be bad news for those who cleave to Leviticus’ commandment to, “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18). But it’s good news for ratings and readership.

In truth, the media places stumbling blocks before the blind with alarming frequency. (See my previous post, “Burning Books for Fun and Profit.”) Its willingness to report hate speech invites such speech. Thus the media doesn’t just respond to the news, it helps initiate it.

What to do? I don’t propose any easy answers. To a great degree, life isn’t about answers. It’s about questions. And I’m just asking.