Posts Tagged 'politics'

Torah 20/20: Looking with Fresh Eyes

As the story goes, was a  baal teshuvah, newly religiously observant person, who started crying in synagogue during the Torah reading.  When the rabbi asked him about this display of emotion, he replied that he just does not understand why Joseph’s brothers could sell him into slavery. This profound empathy moved the rabbi to tears. The next year when they got to Parshat Vayeshev the rabbi was ready and went over to console the crying parishioner during the Torah reading. The following year the rabbi preempted the situation and brought the congregant a tissue. The rabbi was surprised to see that he was not crying or sad, but instead visibly angry. When the rabbi asked the person why he was angry he replied, “I am really annoyed. I used to be sad that his brothers had it out for him, but this time why didn’t Joseph learn his lesson?” 

Every year, the Jewish community reads the entire Torah, our most holy text, on a weekly cycle. With the advent of Simchat Torah we will end this year’s reading of the Torah and start reading it again from the beginning.  It is quoted in the name of Louis Pasteur, “No one is more the stranger than himself <sic> at another time”. Each year we look at the wisdom in this text like a stranger with fresh eyes, and each year we turn to it for sustenance as we navigate our ever-changing, yet also frequently cyclical, world. The nature of the Torah is that we can revisit it throughout our lives. When we learn Torah we demand relevance from revelation and its meaning evolves. 

As we start again from the beginning, we can look at how Adam and Eve saw things. There we read:

And when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of the fruit thereof, and did eat; and she gave also unto her husband with her, and he did eat. And the eyes of them both were opened, and they knew that they were naked; and they sewed fig-leaves together, and made themselves girdles. (Genesis 3:6-7)

Something is peculiar in the language here. If the eating itself caused their eyes to be opened, the Torah would have said that she ate and her eyes were opened and then he ate and his eyes were opened. Instead it says “the eyes of them both were opened” only after they both ate. What do we make of this?

In his genre creating masterpiece, The Tipping Point, Malcolm Gladwell describes the way we can influence each other. There he wrote:

…if I smile and you see me and smile in response–even a microsmile that takes no more than several milliseconds–it’s not just you imitating or empathizing with me. It may also be a way that I can pass on my happiness to you. Emotion is contagious.  (The Tipping Point 84-85)

I posit that this is exactly what happened in Eden. Eve ate of the fruit, enjoyed it, and shared it with Adam. When Adam ate, instead of reciprocating with a microsmile, he winced. In so doing he rejected her bid to share something pleasurable. With that wince his eyes made it clear that they did not experience Good and Bad the same way anymore. In that moment, both of their eyes were opened.

Since then the complexity of coming together has grown exponentially. The nature of politics in a democratic society is preserving the tension between our wanting to be the same and struggling with our differences and desire for individuality.  Each of us may have radically different notions of what is tasty or pleasurable, let alone what is Good and Bad for society. From the beginning, this country has been an imperfect but valiant effort “to form a more perfect Union.” 

As we return to Genesis and the Garden of Eden we are all invited to revisit this tension. This cycle of reading the Torah will accompany us through a high-stakes year in America life in 2020. In Torah 20/20, T’ruah is asking rabbis, writers, political leaders, and artists to explore democracy and questions of how to build a just society through the lens of the weekly Torah reading. How might we want to cry or get angry when reading about Joseph being sold into slavery by his brothers? How does exploring this wisdom impact how we might want to fight human trafficking, systemic racism, or economic disparity? As we look ahead at 2020 we see the value of seeing the world anew with fresh eyes.

 

Coupling Issues

Rabbi Elliot Cosgrove, the Rabbi of the esteemed Park Avenue Synagogue, recently spoke out on a very important issue. I wanted to thank him for pushing the community to rethink our stance on conversion and intermarriage.  And while I might ultimately  disagree with him on halakhic grounds, that is not the thrust of the argument I want to share here. My response is less based on the fact that I am an Orthodox Rabbi and more based on my commitment to strive to treat people equally.This is both born out of my desire to treat my neighbor as I would like to be treated and because I see that every human being is created in the image of God. This klal gadol –great underlying principle in the entire Torah- of being egalitarian is not uniquely a value of liberal Judaism (Torat Kehonim 4:12 and Talmud Yerushalmi, Nedarim 9:4).

I see that the issue of conversion and intermarriage today presents itself as a wonderful opportunity for liberal Judaism to redefine the paradigm of conversion and intermarriage within the context of their own values. Instead of sliding down the slippery slope of loosening their standards, why not define themselves robustly in accord with the communities’ highest values? For the Conservative Movement there is an assumption that only someone with a Jewish mother (and not necessarily Jewish father) is legally Jewish. Simply put, this is sexist. The Reform Movement has one approach to dealing with this sexism; they claim that both situations are fine.  According to their ruling if either your mother or father is Jewish so are you. Orthodoxy has the opposite approach. In the name of keeping the tradition they are fine being sexist. But might we be missing another option?

Can we make everyone undergo a “conversion” of sorts? As I mentioned I am not limiting this to a halakhic discussion; obviously someone who has two Jewish parents does not need a legal conversion.  This would deal with the sexism, but it might also present some other benefits. Surely all of the work that a would-be convert needs to do in the process of preparing for conversion is something that we would like for every Jewish adult.  So why not mandate that everyone go through this process?  One objection is that the current conversion process is not pleasant. Why would we subject “real” Jews to this treatment. Well that is its own big problem that needs to be fixed. Converting to Judaism should be a wonderful experience. I have no doubt that this process needs a healthy dose of transparency.  Another objection is that it would be too rigorous. I do not claim that non-Orthodox Jews should share all of the values and behaviors of Orthodox Jews, but please stand for something. Comfort is not a Jewish value. Being Jewish is marvelous and worth the effort.

Another objection is the right time for this innovative rite. When would someone undergo this “conversion”? And here is the genius of Rabbi Cosgrove’s argument of joining the issues of conversion and intermarriage. While conversion for the sake of getting married is prohibited by halakha, marriage is the perfect occasion for a Rabbi to guide a couple through this new “conversion” ritual. Surely this would make Rabbis better gate keepers if we had a way to offer all people interested entrance.

Coupling these issues of conversion and marriage for Conservative Judaism presents all of us with a wonderful opportunity. Just look at how having a Bat Mitvah, an innovation of Liberal Judaism, has been migrating in different versions into mainstream Orthodox circles. This new marriage/conversion ritual might not be halakhic, but it sure seems like an interesting public policy humra – religious stringency. Our different religious values speak to our most basic and common human needs.   Over time this ritual will make the Jewish people much stronger. Echoing the sentiments of Rabbi Cosgove, this public policy humra seems like an interesting “muscular embrace” of future generations of Jews. 


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