Thursday, December 30, 2010

Unity - Not Uniformity

As 2010 comes to an end and 2011 begins, there is an important question that continues to linger for Jews all around the world. Yet, the people who have the answer to this question remain the same - you and me. Here is how Avraham Infeld, President Emeritus of Hillel International, articulates the question:

As mentioned in the video, is it possible for Jews to be unified without being uniform? With all the different denominations of Judaism that have developed, and with all the inevitable changes that go along with modernity, can we remain a unified people without having the more uniform ways of generations past? If the posts on this blog reflect anything, it is that my answer is a definitive yes. But more Jews need to embrace this dilemma and work on a practical solution.

One way or another, I believe we are the generation that will ultimately solve this problem. As deep as some of our differences are, we will either muster up the moral courage to recognize all Jews as equal members of the same tribe, or circumstances will develop in which we will be forced to come to that conclusion. We are a unique blend of people unlike any other that has ever existed. If we don't remind ourselves of this, someone outside of Jewish circles will.

Although ritual observance is extremely significant, one's level of observance does not determine Jewishness.

Although political affiliation is extremely significant, one's political ideology does not determine Jewishness.

Although clothing is extremely significant, one's way of dress does not determine Jewishness.

These are just a sampling of differences often used to cause division among our people. The beauty of Judaism is that we can have different takes on the important issues of life and not be disbanded. It is our common past, present and future that unite us as much as anything. We have it within our power to display the significance of this common bond through decent behavior and good deeds.

Remember, it was an interpersonal dilemma that exiled us; it will be an interpersonal fix that redeems us. With God's help and sincere human efforts, we can succeed. To paraphrase former President John F. Kennedy: "We choose to do these things, not because they are easy, but because they are hard." It should go without saying that improving intra-Jewish relations will be difficult, but that is precisely why succeeding in this venture will be so rewarding.

Thursday, December 23, 2010

Statement on Civility

An American Jewish organization recently decided to form a statement on civility. It was designed to combat the vileness often found during political and religious dialogue within the Jewish community. While you may not agree with other positions the JCPA (Jewish Council for Public Affairs) has taken on certain issues, it should still be refreshing to see that fellow Jews are making a sincere attempt to address this unfortunate problem. Here is the JCPA statement (if you or your organization wish to sign the petition, click here):

"In American society, especially in our diverse Jewish community, we value robust and vigorous debate about pressing issues. Such debate is one of the greatest features of our democracy and one of the hallmarks of our people. We revel in our tradition of debate: A frank and civil exchange of ideas helps to inform our decisions, provoke new ways of thinking, and sometimes even change our minds.

And yet today, the expression and exchange of views is often an uncivil, highly unpleasant experience. Community events and public discussions are often interrupted by raised voices, personal insults, and outrageous charges. Such incivility serves no purpose but to cheapen our democracy. When differences spiral down into uncivil acrimony, the dignity of individuals and community is diminished, and our precious democracy is weakened. People holding diverse views cease to listen to each other. Lack of civility makes it more difficult, if not impossible, to open minds, much less find common ground.

Therefore we as a community and as individuals, must pledge to uphold the basic norms of civil discussion and debate at our public events. We do this not to stifle free expression of views, but rather to protect it.

We will discover civility in the guarding of our tongues and the rejection of false witness. We will find it wherever we show care for the dignity of every human being, even those with whom we may strongly disagree. We will find it by listening carefully when others speak, seeking to understand what is being said and trying to learn from it.

This pursuit has deep roots in Torah and in our community’s traditions. Our Sages saw the fruit of arguments that were conducted l’shem shamayim, "for the sake of Heaven." They fervently believed that great minds, engaged in earnest search and questioning, could find better and richer solutions to the problems they faced. They refrained from insisting on uniformity. They sought to preserve and thereby honor the views of the minority as well as the majority. They did so through their understanding of the great teaching of Eilu v’elu divrei Elokim chayim, "both these words and those are the words of the living God."

As a community, we must commit ourselves and ask others to open their hearts and minds to healthy, respectful dialogue based on our love for our neighbors and our people.

We therefore agree to treat others with decency and honor and to set ourselves as models for civil discourse, even when we disagree with each other.

We commit ourselves to this course to preserve an essential element of a community – the ability to meet and talk as brothers and sisters."

In addition to this pledge, there was a conference held to discuss the issue (to view a video of the conference, click here). As some of the contributors mentioned, a single statement, conference or educational program is not actually going to solve the problem. However, the fact that many Jews are willing to admit that they have either engaged in or been the victim of incivility when expressing their personal views is a great start. More importantly, these same people have shown a willingness to do something about it.

In my opinion, the main reason a lack of civility continues to proliferate among the Jewish community is because of a lack of prioritized values. Consequently, I think the answer to this problem is simple to understand, just not easy to achieve: be clear but courteous. In other words, stand by your convictions while following the Golden Rule. It's called "golden" for a reason; it's of value to both the person who follows it and the person on the receiving end. In this way, those who engage in ad hominem attacks will naturally become marginalized over time, while those who engage in respectful disagreement will naturally become admired over time.

Exchanging views with someone opposite us on the ideological spectrum doesn't have to be an unpleasant experience - unless we want it to be. As Jews, we have a long list of priorities. But if our tradition and common sense tell us anything, it is that civility must be right at the top.

Friday, December 17, 2010

Jacob's Message for the Future

As Jacob's life was coming to an end, he wished to confer divine blessings for success unto each of his twelve sons. This episode is recorded in Genesis 49:1-2, where it states:

"And Jacob called unto his sons and said, 'Gather yourselves together, and I will tell you that which will befall you in the End of Days. Assemble yourselves, and hear, O sons of Jacob, and hearken to Israel your father.'"

Notice how Jacob emphasizes two things: there is a need for everyone to gather together, and they should listen closely to what he has to say. All of this precedes the actual giving of the blessings. In other words, Jacob was hinting to the fact that the prerequisite for receiving the blessings was unity. First they had to come together as a family, and only then could he give each individual a blessing tailored to their place among the Jewish people. What followed were descriptions of how each of the Twelve Tribes of Israel assumed a unique role. Some engaged in commerce or working the fields, others in religious study, and yet others in military or temple service - and all were essential to the survival of the nation.

We must do our best to overcome the inclination to force others into living their lives exactly as we'd like them to. Whether we think that all Jews should pursue postgraduate study and enter a medical or law career, or pursue religious study and enter the rabbinate, or any other path - one way of life does not fit all, and Jacob was alluding to this. In addition, we can derive from his words that while each one of us serves as a unique individual among the Jewish people, we must conduct ourselves as a larger family. We should never disregard others just because of their different approaches to life. In fact, it is precisely because of our differences that this formula works.

This brings to mind a related lesson. The chelbonah (galbanum) was a spice with a foul odor that was included in the Temple's incense service. In the absence of this spice, the entire mixture was rendered invalid. Although one would think that only pleasant-smelling spices would create the best mixture, when the chelbonah was mixed together with all the other fragrances, it produced a beautiful aroma. Our Sages note that this is to teach us that even Jews who do not engage in righteous behavior are an integral part of the Jewish people. Every single Jew - no matter how great or how lacking in deeds - is important in the eyes of God.

From an historic perspective, it appears as though we are living in the End of Days, a time in which the world will eventually change for the better. The only way to get to the desired destination of a better world is by heeding Jacob's call. The message behind his blessings is as relevant today as it ever was. We are each individually unique by design and are asked to use our God-given talents for good. But when all is said and done, it must go along with good treatment of fellow Jews. Whether we like it or not, we're one family charged with bringing God-based goodness to the world. In a veiled way, Jacob was letting us know how to succeed in our divine mission.

Sunday, December 12, 2010

Don't Miss the Forest for the Trees

The recent forest fire in northern Israel brought to mind a saying that can provide perspective to many different areas of life: "Don't miss the forest for the trees." In other words, don't get so caught up in the details of something that you miss the big picture. Just to be clear, this blog post has nothing to do with trying to figure out why God allowed the fire to occur; it just happens to be that it reminded me of this saying. In fact, this adage might bode well for those searching for answers. While it's understandable to desire divine explanations for tragedies, there are more pressing matters at the moment. For the sake of those who were killed (including Rabbi Uriel Malka, who had strong ties to Denver) or otherwise affected by the fire, our primary concern should be with helping them and their families.

Unfortunately, what often happens in religious life is that ritual observance can go awry. To counter such a phenomenon, Hillel provides probably the most succinct analysis of what Judaism is all about when he said, "What is hateful to you, do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole Torah! The rest is commentary. Now, go and study" (Shabbat 31a). This was not merely a sweet line to divert attention away from the more difficult aspects of Judaism. He was expressing that Judaism's ethical laws are actually foremost in significance. Ethical behavior is not an extracurricular activity; it is God's primary demand. Obviously, this is not to say that we shouldn't be holy as well. It simply means that unless we're good to other people first, our holy activities (i.e. ritual observance) will lack the proper perspective.

Of course, we are supposed to do mitzvot simply because God commanded us to do so - regardless of any human understanding for why. But this shouldn't undermine an ethical mindset. For example, take one of the most important mitzvot in the Torah: kashrut. Aside from its intrinsic spiritual value, kashrut is designed to keep us together. For instance, if someone happens to be traveling to a city where there is a small Jewish community and is looking for a kosher place to eat, they are compelled to contact fellow Jews who might be able to accommodate their visit. This should foster a sense of goodwill and brotherhood. Instead, what sometimes occurs is an intense inquiry into every technical detail of the host's level of kashrut, which can completely humiliate the people trying to meet the needs of the visitor. Sadly, there are those who are more concerned with the food that goes into their mouths than the words that come out of their mouths.

Whenever something becomes an end in itself rather than a means to goodness, unfortunate consequences can arise. Hopefully, Jews who are ritually observant understand that these prescribed laws exist to enhance the lives of those who follow them. However, there are times when it's easy to get caught up in all the details of living a religious life that one's concern for other people takes a back seat. That is why it is so beneficial to hearken back to the Golden Rule articulated by Hillel. As long as we maintain a keen awareness of the highest ethical standard God wants from us, we can still each follow our own ritual customs and not have them adversely affect our interpersonal conduct.

To maintain this perspective, whenever there is a conflict between technical differences and overall goodness, it might help to remember seven simple words: "Don't miss the forest for the trees."

Thursday, December 2, 2010

It's a Blessing to Have Flaws

One of the blessings made after eating certain foods or drinks is Borei Nefashot. Here's an English translation of the blessing:

Blessed are You, Lord our God, King of the universe, Creator of numerous living things with their deficiencies, for all that You have created to sustain every living being. Blessed is He, the life of the universe.

Why is it that we bless God for creating us with deficiencies? The Chofetz Chaim provides an instructive answer. He explains that God intentionally created us with certain strengths - as well as certain weaknesses - because we are supposed to be interdependent. Otherwise, we'd be automatons and have no need for other people. In such a scenario, life would be virtually meaningless. Therefore, we bless God that we aren't perfect. Furthermore, by helping other people with the talents God gave us, and by allowing others to help us with the talents God gave them, we sustain the world.

Although the Torah speaks of the greatness of its most famous figures, it also goes out of its way to note their flaws. Why? Our Sages explain that it is to teach us that we too can be good without being perfect. From Rachel's jealousy of her sister who had children to Moses' moment of anger at striking the rock, instances of flaws in character are often mentioned so that we can learn how to control our own jealousy and anger, for example. Obviously, the flaws of our biblical heroes were minor compared to our negative character traits, but such things are mentioned for our benefit.

The Torah wants us to be able to take away practical advice on how we can improve ourselves. If the Torah and its commentaries were only records of how perfect our ancestors were, we wouldn't be able to learn anything tangible from it. As a side note, this lends credence to the authenticity of the Torah. It often speaks of its most beloved people with all their weaknesses. You would think that it would go out of its way to overlook such flaws. But if the Torah did so, it would not serve as an instruction manual for life, and its lessons would be totally unrelateable.

This brings to mind a good sports analogy. While there are many fans who like to see their teams' most talented players return as coaches, this can often be counterproductive. Some of the best coaches weren't great stars during their playing days, and this is precisely why they can be so helpful to struggling players. If they had too much natural talent, they couldn't relate to a player who was struggling in a certain aspect of their game; they would simply expect too much from them. Therefore, coaches who were average players are usually better for younger athletes who need guidance, because they had to overcome similar obstacles.

There's a Talmudic dictum which states, "if you try to grasp everything, you will grasp nothing" (Rosh Hashanah 4b). In other words, if you aim for perfection, you will be disappointed. None of us can be perfect, but all of us can be good. Luckily, goodness is what God desires. So, despite all your imperfections, be the best you that you can possibly be. Don't get overwhelmed when you inevitably do something wrong, because you can overcome the error and still achieve greatness. Who knows - maybe one day you'll be able to help someone else correct a flaw in their character because you had to deal with the same problem.