Sunday, May 21, 2023
Avot 4:17: The Gift of Presence
Sunday, May 7, 2023
Avot 4:4 Embracing Death--and Life
Sunday, April 16, 2023
Avot 3:12: Knowledge and Virtue
Rabbi Chanina Ben Dosa used to say: Anyone whose good deeds exceed their wisdom, their wisdom will endure. But anyone whose wisdom exceeds their good deeds, their wisdom will not endure.
Our Jewish tradition is in love with learning. For many centuries, when most of the world was illiterate, Jews valued literacy as an essential pre-requisite for both prayer and Torah study. It is no accident that our Muslim neighbors named us “the People of the Book.” This was especially true for the Talmudic Rabbis cited in Pirkei Avot, whose lives were grounded, first and foremost, on a foundation of lifelong learning.
But for all their emphasis on rigorous study, our Sages recognized that it does not always lead to ethical behavior. Despite Socrates’ famous claim to the contrary, knowledge and virtue are not synonymous. Learning is amoral—its virtuosity (or lack thereof) depends entirely on how it is applied.
As we commemorate Yom HaShoah—Holocaust Memorial Day—this week, it is important to remember that the Shoah was perpetrated by what many considered to be the most cultured nation in Europe. Germany dominated academics and the arts, producing leading lights among philosophers, scientists, painters, composers, writers, filmmakers, and public intellectuals. Yet many of these brilliant minds ultimately conspired with Nazism. As Dr. Robert Jay Lifton wrote in his essential book, The Nazi Doctors: “An Auschwitz doctor could not only kill and contribute to killing but organize silently on behalf of that evil project. . . .”
In his later years, Abraham Joshua Heschel—a refugee from Nazi Germany who was both an extraordinary intellectual prodigy and a prophetic social justice exemplar—wrote: “When I was young, I admired clever people. Now that I am old, I admire kind people.”
As Rabbi Chanina recognized so long ago, wisdom without good deeds does not endure.
Sunday, April 2, 2023
Pesach 5783: Out of Narrowness, Toward the Promised Land
Sunday, March 26, 2023
Avot 3:2 The Role of Government
Rabbi Chanina used to say: Pray for the welfare of the government, for without it, people swallow each other alive.
Over the past few weeks, our passages from Avot have emphasized the importance of individual acts of justice and compassion. Our deeds and choices matter. Even if their impact seems small, we are obligated to do our part—Although is not incumbent upon us to finish the work, neither are we free to desist from it. But there are many systemic inequities that individuals cannot right on their own. There can be no justice without the exercise of governmental power.
Rabbi Chanina had ample reason to loathe the government. During his lifetime, Roman authorities brutally tortured and killed scores of Jewish teachers (including, by some accounts, Rabbi Chanina himself). Yet he ardently urged his students to honor and even pray on behalf of the regime. Why? Because Chanina knew that as bad as things were under Roman rule, without a strong central government, life would be even worse. He teaches us that human culture cannot thrive without some form of ruling authority capable of preventing the powerful from devouring the weak. His legacy endures: Jewish communities worldwide still offer prayers on behalf of their governments every Shabbat morning.
Two millennia later, Rabbi Chanina’s wisdom is more essential than ever. Today’s far-right politicians espouse a “starve the beast” strategy, slashing taxes for billionaires and mega-corporations in order to deprive the government of the revenue it needs to provide the rest of the population with core social services like Medicaid and Medicare, Social Security, and public education. As one of their key strategists, Grover Norquist, famously said, “My goal is to cut government in half in twenty-five years, to get it down to the size where we can drown it in the bathtub.” Here in our state, the Idaho Freedom Foundation follows the same model.
Rabbi Chanina recognized the peril of radical anti-government ideologies. So, too, even earlier, did the authors of the Hebrew Bible. The book of Judges presents a terrifying picture of society without governmental oversight. Tribes slaughter one another, theft and lawlessness run rampant. The text sums up this sad state in just one line: “In those days, there was no king in Israel; every person did what was right in their own eyes.”
Unless we reverse course, this is where we are headed. May we heed Rabbi Chanina’s wise words and foster healthy respect for a strong and fair government that serves all its citizens, securing justice when the mighty would otherwise tyrannize the vulnerable.