Sunday, April 21, 2013

God on Our Side (Portion Emor)

God’s reputation depends on our actions.

This week’s Torah portion, Emor, teaches: “You shall not profane my holy name, that I may be sanctified in the midst of the Israelites.” In their book, Teaching Torah, Barbara Binder Kadden and Sorel Goldberg Loeb note that the Rabbis interpret this verse as a challenge to us, the Jewish people: God asks us to uphold God’s reputation by maintaining the highest standards of ethical behavior.

This is why it is so awful when people commit atrocities in the name of religion.  Alas, human history is full of such profanation.  Consider our suffering under Christendom for so many centuries: Crusades, blood libel, massacres and expulsions, all orchestrated by “holy” men in the service of the church.   In our own time, we have witnessed countless acts of terror performed in the name of Islam.  And we Jews are not immune to this scourge.  Although our religiously-driven barbarisms and brutalities are arguably fewer and smaller in scale, we, too, have profaned God’s name through faith-based injustices against our Arab and Palestinian neighbors and the assassination of Prime Minister Rabin.

Of course the vast majority of us have no sympathy for assassins and terrorists.  But we, too, might ask: how does our faith move us to live?  Does it compel us to be a source of holiness in the world?  Or does it empower us to criticize others—also created in God’s image—and to scorn those we see as less pious than ourselves?    In the end, I believe that any teachings that would have us act hatefully toward others—Jewish or not—do not really come from God.   Religion should never be an excuse to exploit God’s creation or mistreat our fellow men and women.    Such actions are, by definition, the opposite of holy.  They are shameful, profaning God’s name. 

Fifty years ago, Bob Dylan wrote and recorded a song of protest over such profanation, called, “With God on Our Side.”  He sings of all the unjust wars launched in God’s name and concludes:

But now we got weapons
Of the chemical dust
If fire them we’re forced to
Then fire them we must
One push of the button
And a shot the world wide
And you never ask questions
When God’s on your side

When is God on our side?  When we show kindness, work for justice, and strive for peace.  These actions are worthy of the reputation of the God we claim to serve.

Monday, April 15, 2013

Holiness as Call and Command (Acharei Mot-Kedoshim)

Oftentimes, our commitments are what keep us on a steady life course.

The second half of this week’s double Torah portion, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim,  begins with a famous verse: “You shall be holy, for I, the Eternal, Your God, am holy.”  Some consider this passage to be the basis for ethical behavior: our moral life is grounded on the principle of striving to be like God (known in Christianity as imitatio dei).  As Talmud puts it: “Just as God is merciful, so should you strive to be merciful.”

Yet, as is almost always the case in Torah, the Hebrew text is ambiguous and can be read in at least two different ways.  Some see “Kedoshim t’hiyu—You shall be holy” as a generous promise: we, the Jewish people, will be sacred in the eyes of God.  Other interpreters, by contrast, see the verse as a calling or a commandment: strive to be holy, by following God’s mitzvot.

I like to read the passage as both of these things at the same time: pledge and obligation.  I believe that committing to a life of holiness is what best enables us to achieve the promise of such a path.  Obligating ourselves to a sacred set of values helps us in the always-challenging effort to live up to that high calling we espouse.

In their very enlightening book, Willpower, Roy Baumeister and John Tierney note: “Throughout history, the most common way to redirect people way from selfish behavior has been through religious teachings and commandments. . . Consider a strategy to conserve willpower with great success: precommitment.  The essence of this strategy is to lock yourself into a virtuous path.  You recognize that you’ll face terrible temptations to stray from the path, and that your willpower will weaken.  So you make it impossible—or somehow unthinkably disgraceful or sinful—to leave the path.  Precommitment is what Odysseus and his men used to get past the deadly songs of the Sirens.  He had himself lashed to the mast with orders not to be untied no matter how much he pleaded to be freed to go to the Sirens.”

By analogy, we, the Jewish people have precommitted to a holy life.  This does not guarantee that we will not go astray, either as individuals or in community.  We all err, despite our precommitments, which our tradition recognizes by giving us Yom Kippur as a day to make amends each fall.  But our calling to be holy does help us toward that goal, despite our frequent failings. 

We may not always live up to our highest aspirations, but without those aspirations, we have no hope to grow at all.  Our journey toward holiness begins when we commit ourselves to a life-long pursuit of that sacred destination.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

On Asking the Right Questions (portion Tazria-Metzorah)

Sometimes the questions that we ask are more important than the answers we give. 

Almost thirty-five years ago, Cynthia Ozick wrote a pioneering essay on Jewish feminism called “Notes on Finding the Right Question.”  She began by pointing out, “Every answer is concealed in the question that elicits it, and what we must strive to do, then, is not look for the right answer, but attempt rather to discover the right question.”

So what is the proper question in regard to this week’s double parshah from the Torah, Tazria-Metzora?  The portion focuses on tzora’at,  a leprosy-like skin affliction.  Rashi, and almost all of the rabbinic sages who follow, essentially ask: “Why?”  They conjecture about the causes and origins of this mysterious affliction.  The subtext of their inquiry is: “Why do people get tzora’at?”  Almost all of them answer: God afflicts people with this disorder as punishment for speaking ill of others.  Midrash Leviticus Rabbah even adds some additional failings that might bring on this disease, noting: “Seven types of behavior are punished with tzara-at: haughty eyes, a lying tongue, hands that shed innocent blood in secret, a mind that hatches evil, feet quick to do wrong, a witness who testifies falsely, and one who incites brothers to quarrel.”  

But I believe that all of these classic commentaries are asking the wrong question.
As Rabbi Harold Kushner teaches: “Our Sages often could not resist the temptation to ask, ‘What moral or spiritual failing may have caused this illness?’ Today we recognize that it is medically inaccurate and psychologically cruel to tell someone that he or she is afflicted with illness as a punishment for behavior. . .”  Even when there are partially accurate “why” answers—“He got lung cancer because he smoked three packs of cigarettes a day”—they are neither helpful nor humane.

In the face of suffering, the real questions are not concerned with “why?”  They are, instead: What do we do now?  How can I offer assistance?  Which is the path of compassion?  Where are the possibilities of healing and love?

The prophet Isaiah reminds us that blessing is not found in asking why; it emerges out of deeds of lovingkindness.  We do well to heed his words:

“When you pour yourself out for the hungry and satisfy the desire of the afflicted, then shall your light rise in the darkness and your gloom be as the noonday.”

How do we know when, in the presence of suffering, we are asking the right questions?  When the answers call us to compassionate action.