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

Haggadah: In every generation, it is incumbent upon each of us to see ourselves as if we went out of Egypt

Along the journey of the Passover seder, there are many favorite milestones: the four questions, hiding and searching for the afikomen, singing Dayenu, recounting the plagues, playing the four children, opening the door for Elijah, singing “Who Knows One?” and “Chad Gadya”, the opening invitation Let all who are hungry come and eat and the closing Next year in Jerusalem!  And, of course, the four cups of wine and the festive meal.  All those moments—and many more—form memorable chapters in our freedom story.

Yet I believe the most important line in the Haggadah, which speaks to the essence of the Pesach experience, is this: In every generation, it is incumbent upon each of us to see ourselves as if we went of Egypt/Mitzrayim.

For all of our tradition’s emphasis on honoring our past, this passage reminds us that, contrary to what many of us are taught, Passover is not about recalling what [may have] happened to our ancestors 3500 years ago—it is, instead, about our own lives, here and now.  The mitzvah at the heart of the holiday is not to remember our national history but to re-experience it every year as a timely call to renewal and liberation for ourselves and our communities.  The Holy One challenges each of us to reflect upon what enslaves us, individually and communally, and find ways to free ourselves from those burdens.  The Hebrew word for Egypt, Mitzrayim, means “a narrow place.”  This spring festival of deliverance is the season to open our hearts and broaden our horizons, to do our part to move ourselves and our world a little closer to the Promised Land and its embodiment of justice, compassion, hope and peace.  In a time and place that is so often filled with narrow bigotries and hard-hearted attacks on the most vulnerable among us, let us draw upon this alternative vision and begin to lead the way toward its realization.

Chag Sameach!