Tuesday, October 18, 2016

a day like purim - yom kippur 5777

(A d'var torah given at Minyan Masorti, Germantown Jewish Center, Philadelphia)

For a people as entranced as we are by word play, it is surprising that it took until the late middle ages for someone to notice the similarity between “Yom Kippur” and Purim,

תיקוני זוהר תקונא עשרין וחד ועשרין
פורים אתקריאת על שם יום הכפורים דעתידין לאתענגא ביה ולשנויי ליה מענוי לענ
and it wasn’t until the late 19th century that someone would get around to making the pun

ר' צדוק הכהן מלובלין - פרי צדיק שמות פורים
ואיתא בתיקוני זוהר (תיקון כ"א) פורים אתקריאת על שם יום הכפורים דעתידין לאתענגא ביה וכו' וכן אומרים בשם הרבנים הקדושים זללה"ה דפורים בחינת יום הכפורים ונקרא יום כפורים היינו כמו פורים ובאמת נרמז בתיקוני זוהר כנ"ל. וכמו ביום הכפורים עיצומו של יום מכפר כן ימי הפורים עיצומו של יום עושה מחיית עמלק
That “Yom Kippurim” is “Yom k’Purim” – a day like Purim.

Though maybe it’s not that surprising after all; It’s hard to imagine two less similar holidays.  We are – or so the liturgy tells us, engaged in a matter of life and death, facing the many, many, many things we’ve done wrong and the urgent need to fix what we’ve broken.  It is the day when we are told that things matter very much.

 Purim, on the other hand, is a time of play, a day when practically nothing matters: we party, we dress up, we give free rein to our most impious urges in what can be viciously funny purim shpiels. 
The imaginative play isn’t just the icing, it’s integral to the idea of Purim, because it is the subversive power of the imagination, as satire, as mockery which allows is truly revolutionary. For whatever real power tyrants and oppressive systems may have, it is built on the myth that they matter: that they are indeed powerful, and that power is, if not deserved, real and entrenched.  That’s why bullies and dictators hate satire and mockery, because it reminds them that they are not in control over the imagination, and so  it threatens tyrants; it threatens established systems: Purim is the festival of nothing has to be.

If Purim cleans the slate, Yom Kippur is a time in which we prepare rebuild, to make things better, to mend what we’ve broken.  And here’s the thing: the imagination is central to this as well.
First of all, if we want to be agents for good in the world, to act effectively, or to judge actions wisely, we have to be able to look at the consequences of actions – who’s involved, who’s implicated, where the ripples might be.  This is what I think is meant by Rabbi Shimon’s answer when asked for the most important virtue: “ha-roeh et hanolad”, which is usually translated as “foresight” but which really means “to see that which is aborning” : not prophecy, but to have the imagination to see the world as pregnant with possibilities.

Second, in order to understand the import of those possibilities, one must understand what they means to people, and that requires empathy.  But as anyone who’s tried to anticipate what another will like or not like knows, you can’t ever really get into the head of an other, precisely because people are so radically other.  Empathy, too, is an act of the imagination.

But, as we’ve been reminding ourselves all day, we haven’t been doing that work, not the fixing and not the empathizing.  We know that, and yet we don’t change.  What stops us?  For me, and perhaps for you, it’s largely the belief that I can’t. We feel ourselves stuck, bound with the bonds of habit and guilt and – especially as we get older – a kind of moral despair.  In order to do teshuvah, we must be able to – yes – imagine ourselves as different, as better. 

Yom Kippur is a “day like Purim” because so much of its work depends on the imagination.  And, as with Purim, the imagination becomes a central part of the observance.  Today, we too have a “shpiel” – the Avodah service, where we imagine ourselves in a different place, a different time, as different people.  And, over and over and over again, the liturgy invites to imagine ourselves as forgivable.
But that’s not just Yom Kippur, and not just Purim where the imagination is such a central part of the practice:

·         On Pesach, we are famously told that we each have to imagine ourselves as having made the passage from slavery to freedom
·         On Shabbat, the idea of “prohibited activities” provides an opportunity in which to imagine the world as good, as good enough that we don’t need to change it.
·         The blessings we might say on food, or actions, or experiences suggest that imagine the event as an extension of the Infinite into the world
·         And when we pray, those words we didn’t write and don’t feel and don’t believe, are a framework in which we can imagine ourselves as spiritually mature.

Here’s the punch line: Judaism not a practice of faith, but a practice of the imagination, in which we’re invited to be imaginative and even playful, because it’s in that playful mind and heart that we can explore possibilities; it’s the imagination, I’m here to tell you, that is the central religious faculty.   On Yom Kippur, the day like Purim, we begin to focus that faculty. To bring it to our view of the world, of others, of ourselves – so that we can move away from these “playing fields of the Lord” and out of the shul: caring for others, caring for ourselves, seeing the fruit of our imagination blossom, and finding the joy of play in the joy of a rebuilt world.

Friday, July 25, 2014

can we talk?

I have been absent from much of the conversation going on about recent events in Israel and Gaza.  Partly that’s been because much of what I was feeling just did not want to be captured in words.  Partly because there were issues that I felt demanded more knowledge than I could pretend to.  And partly because, given the state of the discourse – at least as it appears on my FB feed – I didn’t feel that anything I might actually say would do anything beyond proclaim, “I’m the kind of person who thinks X!”  And while this seems to be The Conversation the Jewish community is having, it doesn’t feel much like a conversation.
What follows, then, are some notes about what a real conversation might look like, based on what I think I know about ethics, about the current situation, and about how to speak to people who don’t agree with you (I used to teach high school, so I’ve had some experience with that).   If you think I’m wrong on some of these, let me know – although if you disagree with me on any of the “Categorical Statements” under “Thoughts on the Situation” we probably don’t share the same universe.  Because it seems to me that if we’re straight on these, then we might be able to talk.  To each other.

Some thoughts on moral reasoning
To have a right to something does not mean having a right to do anything claimed to be in support of that right.
Conversely, to say that something done in support of a cause was wrong does not in itself invalidate the cause.
To have a right to do something does not mean that thing is either moral or wise.
Suffering does not necessarily endow one with either virtue or wisdom.  Sometimes people  do become wiser as a result of their suffering; sometimes they become broken and bitter; and sometimes it doesn’t change them at all.
The potential total amount of suffering, folly, and injustice is infinite; neither victimhood nor wisdom nor righteousness is a “zero-sum game”.
At the same time, when things like suffering, folly, and injustice, as well as wisdom, righteousness, and compassion, do occur they do not do so in infinite amounts.  The fact that a particular action is unjust does not make the party committing it entirely unjust.
It follows that:
·         Critiques of the wisdom or ethics of an action or strategy cannot be met by arguing for the legality of that action or strategy.
·         Critiques of an action or strategy are not, in themselves, critiques of the cause they are claimed to support. 
·         Similarly, critiques of an action or strategy cannot be met by arguing for the justice of the cause (although the justice of the cause is a precondition for the justice of the action). 
·         Nor can critiques of the wisdom or ethics of an action or strategy be met by arguing that those on whose behalf the actions are purportedly taken are themselves victims.
·         To point out injustices committed by both sides is not to create a moral equivalence.  One could, for example, argue that the fire-bombing of Dresden was a war crime without claiming that the Allies were no worse than the Nazis.

Some thoughts on discourse
The purpose of cheerleading is to bolster the feelings of those already convinced; the purpose of arguing is to convince someone.  It is important to be mindful of the distinction, and to choose one’s rhetoric accordingly.
Insisting on a point is not the same as arguing for a point.
Saying that everyone in a particular community believes something to be true is more a statement about the community than about the truth value of the proposition.
A figure known to be a partisan of one side is unlikely to be seen as a compelling authority to those not already sympathetic to that side.
A figure held to be untrustworthy on a range of issues may not have much credibility on others.
Questioning the integrity or moral status of one’s interlocutor is similarly unlikely to prove an effective strategy for convincing him or her.
If a large number of your target audience is unconvinced by your arguments, it is a more useful exercise to re-examine your own presentation than to blame the audience.

Thoughts on the situation.
1) Categorical Statements:
The death of children is a bad thing.
Targeting civilians is a bad thing.
While particular institutions may be broken and particular polices unjust, the principle of international law is a good, not only when it is helpful or convenient.  This is especially true for treaties one has signed.
Oppression is a bad thing.

2) Particulars
The State of Israel has no less legitimacy, and no less a right to exist, than any other state.  Jews have no less a right to define themselves as a people than any other people.
Palestinians have no less a right to define themselves as a people than any other people.   Palestinians have no less a right to self-determination and freedom from oppression than any other people.[1]
The Occupation is not, and has never been, benign.
Hamas is not a force for good or liberation, and its policies have increased the misery of the residents of Gaza.
Hamas has shown no interest in a long-term settlement with Israel.
It is past time for the American Jewish community to address what it means that  no country outside of Israel has ever seen the settlement of the West Bank (including East Jerusalem) and the Golan Heights as anything other than a violation of international law.
A stable Palestinian state is crucial for Israel’s long term security.

[1] Yes, I’m aware that I didn’t say that Palestinians have the same right to a state as any other people.  That’s because I’m not convinced that peoples have a categorical right to a state prior to that state’s existence, in the way that people have a right to be free from oppression.  Do the Basques have a right to a state?  The Kurds?  The Roma?  And yes, I’m prepared to apply this reasoning to Israel.  I don’t think, prior to 1948, that the Jews had an absolute “right” to a state.  That doesn’t delegitimize Israel; I don’t think there was an absolute right to a Czech nation-state, but that doesn’t delegitimize the Czech Republic.   That also doesn’t mean I don’t think there should be sovereign Palestinian state; I do.  That’s because I think it, like the State of Israel in 1948, is the best political solution in the current situation.

Friday, December 6, 2013

psalms 116:15

Nelson Mandela, of blessed memory.

The example of Nelson Mandela can lead us to llok at other oppressed peoples, espeially those whose struggles are violent and messy and corrupt, and ask, "Why don't they have a Mandela?  Why don't they have a Gandhi, or a King?"  But the real question should be for those of us who, by virtue of nationality or income or what-have-you have any kind of privilege or power: "Why," it asks us, "do you need to see another Mandela?  You know what must be done.  What more do you need to learn about justice?"

Friday, August 16, 2013

in support of bad taste

I know that everybody (including some of America's Most Influential Rabbis) disagrees, but personally, I think that kid's Bar Mitzvah party is nobody's business. Did it cost more than I will ever make in a year? Yes. Did it have anything to do with what I think of as important Jewish values? No. Would I have enjoyed being there? God, no. And my conclusion? So. And also, What?

 Let's face it: Lots of Bar and Bat Mitzvah parties have nothing to do with Jewish, religious, or ethical values. Lots of them are vulgar. In lots of them, people - particularly women - are dressed well beyond the bounds of traditional Jewish definitions of modesty (though many of those are family and guests). And my guess is that many of those took a greater proportional chunk out of the families' discretionary income than this one did. We don't hear about those, though - probably because those don't have quite the volume (read: they didn't cost as much) as this one had.

 Also, there are probably lots of Bar/Bat Mitzvah celebrations that cost a whole lot more than this one did, but we don't here of them, either, because they were in Better - or at least quieter - taste. A celebrity performer? A luxury trip abroad? Why not? As long as it's not tacky.

 Be honest: the values at stake here are not moral or religious but aesthetic. And if you've been elected Censor by the Centuriate Assembly, judging the aesthetics of a private family function is precisely at your pay grade. But otherwise, unless someone is trying to force you to adopt that kind of taste as your own, why is it a subject for your public judgment?

 Look, you want to use your pulpit to inveigh against the kind of wealth inequality that allows one family to spend on one event what most other families will never make in a year? I'm right behind you. You want to establish sumptuary rules so that all simchas are affordable. Rock on (but good luck with your congregants). You want to insist that all Bar/Bat Mitzvah kids and their families demonstrate a commitment to a life of piety and good deeds? Yes, please.

 But if you don't object to private fortunes, if you don't insist on a common standard of taste, or an overarching expression of piety in family celebrations, then maybe a better, more pastoral response would be to stand in front of the prurient crowd, and protect a family from a public shaming. Isn't that a Jewish value, too?

Friday, April 5, 2013

bad stuff

In writing about the culture of violence that is both the necessary foundation and natural concomitant of, the military occupation of the West Bank, Amira Hass writes something bad and stupid:

“Throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule.”

It’s odd, too, because elsewhere in her essay she writes compellingly about civil disobedience, suggesting that training in the theory and practice of thoughtful, peaceful resistance should be part of the curriculum of Palestinian schools.  Violence, though, is not civil disobedience, and her words are not only morally corrupt, but strategically dangerous, threatening to further damage what there is of political discourse and to accelerate a looming spiral into chaos and bloodshed.

So: her statement is bad and stupid.

 It is important, though, to note what her statement is not.  It is not, contrary to the claims of some, an incitement to murder.  Throwing rocks at people is violent, is dangerous, and may be lethal, but it is generally not an attempt at homicide, and everyone knows this – including those making the most extreme claims against Hass.   Should the settlers who threw stones at Palestinian school buses, or  at police and soldiers who have come to dismantle illegal structures,  have been treated as would-be murderers?  

Yes, a stone can kill.  So can a rubber-jacketed bullet; so can a baton.  But when police use them in riot control they are hailed – or criticized – for using non-lethal force, in spite of the potential danger.  And that is because we recognize the distinction between an act of violence with the intent to kill, and an act of violence with a different intent; between throwing a stone and throwing a grenade.
Moral judgment means precisely that – judgment.  It means evaluation, it means judgment.  To say that something is bad does not mean that it is the worst; to say that something is not the worst is not to say that it is ok.  What do incitements to, or justification of, murder look like?  “Deathto Arabs” spray-painted on a wall – that looks like one.   Suggesting that “din rodef” applies to an individual or group, that could look like one, too.  “Throwing stones is the birthright and duty of anyone subject to foreign rule?”  Not so much.

Should we condemn Amira Hass’s justification of violence as morally corrupt?  Yes.  But we should condemn it for what it is – not for what it isn’t.

Tuesday, April 3, 2012

slave eyes

It strikes me that one of the things we imaginatively "remember" at the Seder is how we, as slaves, experienced *all* the Egyptians, whether or not they were rich or powerful. As Egyptians they had acess to a certain amount of power, or protection, or privilege, that the slaves did not, and so all of them were seen through the eyes of the slave as enemies. I offer: now that we are in a condition of relative power, security, privilege, this act of imaginative remembering might make us aware that there are those today who are profoundly oppressed, and make us wonder how they are looking at us.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

judaism teaches us to put on masks every day

What those of us who teach prayer tend to forget is that the prayer book is not a “book”, not in the normal sense.

When I read almost any passage in almost any text, I am being addressed by an external voice. “Yes,” you will say, “but, well, duh.” In fact, though, it is worth saying, because the knowledge that I’m being addressed, and my understanding of who is addressing me, govern the way I will try to understand the text. True, the interpretive strategies I will use will differ if I’m listening for the unified commanding voice of God, or the multiple voices of codifiers and redactors, or even for something as amorphous as the “text itself”. At least I am comfortable with the goal of interpreting what someone is trying to say to me.

For all, though, that liturgy may look like any number of other kinds of classical Jewish texts it is fundamentally different in this, that a liturgical text does not address the reader. Quite the opposite – the very definition of a prayer is that it is something the reader uses to address someone else, specifically God. This small and obvious point has far-reaching consequences especially for the educator, because it insists that the “reader” is really the “speaker”. But of course the student is not really the speaker; not yet. And so in addition to all of the questions normally invoked in learning to read a document (what do the words mean, what are the references, what are the ideas being expressed, etc.), the student is faced with a new and unfamiliar task. Understanding liturgy means finding that speaker, finding that voice, and discovering what it feels like to adopt it as one’s own.

I wanted my students to start thinking of prayers as expressions of an interior world, rather than as descriptions of the exterior one. I suggested to them that they think of a prayer as a kind of mask, much like the ones worn in religious rituals by many peoples. The job of the mask-wearer is to discover the reality on the “inside” of the mask and bring it to life.

In our class work, we had seen that classical blessings always begin with a phenomenon in the world – eating a piece of bread, say, or lighting a candle. While the blessing itself would not make reference to this piece of bread, or this candle, it did re-cast the phenomenon as a synecdoche of an attribute of God: this piece of challah is an example of God’s nature as bread-giver. In other words, a blessing expresses a different way of seeing.

With this in mind, I could ask my students to take a passage that caught their fancy and ask, “How is the author of this prayer seeing the world?” It was then a short step for them to try to imagine what kind of person it might be that would see the world (or a small part of it” in that kind of way. Thus far, the work was very similar to what might be done in a poetry class, or even a class in script analysis. But because in a Jewish religious school liturgy is a practice, not just a text, I took it a step further. “Now that you’ve imagined what the ‘inside’ of the person saying this prayer is like,” I said, “envision that person’s face.” I passed out blank white masks, which I’d picked up at a party supply store, markers, glue sticks, colored paper, various odds and ends. “You’ve picked the Sh’ma? Make a mask of ‘Sh’ma Man’. The Keddusha? Show me the face of the one who sees angels.”

Did it work? I think so. They made masks: some quite striking, some even moving., and they discovered that they were thinking about the texts in ways they never had before, hearing as though for the first time phrases they’d known since childhood. Did it transform the way they felt about prayer or the prayer book? Probably not. Maybe if we I had given them more time to work with those masks, maybe even to davven with them in a closed, safe environment. But perhaps that is asking too much of students in a high school class – too much trust, too much vulnerability. Maybe that wants to be tried with a self-selecting group, or on a retreat. Maybe mask-work should be introduced first to younger children, or maybe saved for adults. What the project did, though, was to give the students another set of tools, another set of questions, to bring to the prayer book. It helped them see, I hope, that whatever prayer is, it isn’t a book.