Saturday, September 23, 2017

Rabbis Talking Sense

When I was at a Yeshiva in Jerusalem in 1981, I learned the principle, “You do what you can.”  The statement was made in the context of the so-called “mitzvoth,” or commandments, that Jews are supposed to follow.  The idea was that you try to live as ritualistically observant a life as possible, while recognizing that there are also forces in our lives that may prevent us from going all the way.  So, for example, on Shabbat (the Jewish Sabbath), I do try to obtain from office work – but I don’t prevent myself from turning on lights, driving cars, or writing this blog.  

Today is a special Shabbat.   It is known as Shabbat Shuvah, aka the Sabbath of Return or Repentance.  This is the one that comes during the Days of Awe between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur.  It is the holiest time of the Jewish year, and it definitely should not be spent blogging out bile.  So, to be respectful of the season, I’ll spare you a vituperative blogpost, like the one I was tempted to write, entitled “Spicey Goes to Hollywood.” 

Instead, I’d like to focus on two of my rabbis – one past, one present.   Together, they have reminded me about the importance of allowing ourselves to confront the oft-quoted precepts of conventional religion.  Once these precepts become clichés, we tend to accept them as true – or if we don’t, we feel like heretics for doubting them.  But in fact, the problem might not be ours at all.  Religious precepts can be downright antithetical to common sense and even destructive of the kind of spirituality that can enrich the world. 

Take, for example, the saying “All things happen for a reason.”   That’s innocuous enough when said in a philosophical sense, as in “every effect has a cause.”  But what if it’s said in the religious sense, as in “all things happen according to the plan of an omnipotent, omnibenevolent Lord?”  Nobody can disprove that statement, and plenty of people believe it.  I just happen not to be one of them, which means that I agree with Rabbi Michael Feshbach.

I know Michael Feshbach from his previous gig at Temple Shalom in Chevy Chase.  This past summer, he moved to the U.S. Virgin Islands to become the rabbi at one of the oldest synagogues in the Western Hemisphere.  Little did he know that he would be moving into Storm Central.  The Washington Post wrote a story about Rabbi Feshbach and his experiences with Hurricane Irma.  Yes, the article came out before Maria, which surely mauled his island even more.    Here’s a snippet from the article.

“’I come from a progressive religious tradition that takes spirituality and God seriously but not necessarily always in traditional ways,’ Rabbi Feshbach said. ’I do not think that things happen for a reason, as sacrilegious as that may sound.’

“God, Rabbi Feshbach said, doesn’t control the weather. God doesn’t direct some of us onto a plane doomed to crash and others into a traffic jam that keeps us from boarding that plane.
‘That’s not a God I can live with,’ he said.”

Ever since a horrible earthquake leveled Lisbon in 1755 and killed tens of thousands of people, intellectuals have debated whether or not the people who lived and the people who died were chosen based on a divine plan.   Rabbi Feshbach and I prefer to think that we live in a world in which many things – including life and death events – aren’t planned for any reason.  They just happen.  They have antecedent causes, but those causes don’t involve a conscious scheme to promote some goal, such as imparting justice.  That’s why good things happen to bad people, and bad things happen to good people.  That’s why common sense suggests that we all must work our butts off to ensure that we take care of ourselves, rather than expecting some omnibenevolent cosmic Santa Claus to take care of us out of love. 

I wasn’t around in Lisbon in 1755, and I wasn’t around in Auschwitz in 1944.  But when I look at those times and places and confront the question of whether people died there “for a reason,” the only way I’m willing to give prayers of thanks to the One who killed some and saved others is if I assume that there was no reason -- or at least none that was thought through and designed to punish or reward based on the merit of those involved. 

That brings me to a second rabbi, Rabbi Hannah Spiro, the rabbi of the only Jewish congregation on Capitol Hill.  She happens to be one of Rabbi Feshbach’s former students – and my daughter.   Now, like her former rabbi, she too gets to preach sermons of common sense ... and heresy.

This Rosh Hashanah, Rabbi Hannah slew a sacred cow that comes to us from the great late-18th/early 19th century Rabbi Nachman of Breslov.  He is often quoted for the principle that “The whole world is a very narrow bridge, and the essential thing is not to fear at all.”

As Rabbi Hannah pointed out, we are not compelled to agree with that old saw.  We can widen that bridge.  And sometimes we had better be fearful.  Prudence demands nothing less.

Hannah wrote a new song to make her point.  But my primary muse is philosophy, not music, so allow me simply to cite Aristotle.  The point of labeling virtues, such as “courage,” is to identify a golden mean between a deficit-vice and an excess-vice.  Courage is the virtue for which cowardice is the deficit-vice and foolhardiness the excess-vice.  Similarly, temperance is the virtue for which (a dangerous) asceticism is the deficit-vice and gluttony the excess-vice.   The word we use for the virtue typically reflects whether we generally think people have too much or too little of the characteristic.  Thus, for example, since we think people tend generally towards cowardice, we view courage as a virtue because it is pointing away from the deficit-vice.  Whereas because we think people tend generally toward gluttony, we view temperance as a virtue because it is pointing away from the excess-vice.  But still, we can’t forget that the virtue is a golden mean, not an extreme.  And the above quote attributed to Nachman is an extreme, immoderate statement.  Common sense teaches that we can do better.

By disrespecting legitimate fear, we dishonor one of our greatest allies.  Fear is what prevents us from destroying our planet with fossil fuels – it is, by contrast, the crazy fool who guzzles gas without care, all the while counting on a supernatural God to save us.  Fear is also what thankfully prevents us from ice climbing when we’re not athletic, or from giving up our day jobs when our families need our income, or from smoking cigarettes even though we love that buzz of a good smoke.

And let’s face it – feeling frequently fearful is as natural as the love of chocolate.  So rather than experiencing pangs of guilt about these sentiments, which can destroy our ability to protect ourselves and our loved ones, why not just embrace them?  Perhaps virtue lies in plowing forward.  Perhaps not.  But that fearful feeling is something to be cherished, not detested.  At best, it can save our lives; at worst, it can remind us to think before we act.     

In short, Rabbi Nachman was indeed onto something important: courage is a virtue.   But we in the 21st century must reflect on our ancestors’ teachings with a healthy amount of skepticism and never let them get in the way of common sense.  Teachings of religion, no less than any other domain, must be subjected to the crucible of reason. And when we reflect upon them critically, we’ll find that like most other good things, they can be construed immoderately and cause us miss the mark.

In fact, the Greek word for “sin” is a term for “missing the mark” in archery.  So, if we wish to avoid sin, which is one of the key goals of the Days of Awe, we must concentrate on what it means to live in a way that hits the target as often as possible.  How do we best do that?  By consulting our common sense.  It will tell you that the hundreds of victims of the recent earthquake in Mexico may have been killed for a reason, but it sure wasn’t a good one.   Or that those who out of fear took shelter from Irma were actually thinking wisely, not out of cowardice.  They were widening that bridge that connects us all to life.

Shabbat Shalom.  Shana Tova.   And may you have a blessed year, whether you treat it as starting on September 20th or January 1st.    

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