Saturday, November 24, 2018

An Essay for Your Perusal

This past Monday night, I delivered a talk on a topic that still captivates me, even though I supposedly have "finished" the project.  It focuses on the following paradox in Spinoza's thought: How can a world characterized by  supreme complexity spring from a cause (God) that is supremely simple?  Stated differently, how can God be equated to Nature, which is supremely complex, and to Substance, which is supremely simple?  This paper will get you thinking about both God and politics, and was inspired by a prayer delivered by my daughter Hannah to open a pro forma session of the U.S. House of Representatives.

Why is this topic so intriguing to me?  Above all else, because it deals with a doctrine that is hardly unique to Spinoza -- divine simplicity.  Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus are two other philosophers who supported that doctrine even before Spinoza did.  I must say that it's far afield from the way most people think about God.  But is it reasonable?  Is it compelling?  Does it give us sustenance?  I'll leave those questions for you to think about when you read an essay based on Monday night's talk.   You can find the essay at the following page of my website, under the title:  "The Complexity of the World, the Simplicity of God:  A Spinozist Perspective" --

I hope you enjoy it.  

Saturday, November 17, 2018

A Jew Grapples with Thanksgiving

Last evening at Shabbat Services, my rabbi spoke about the concept of Thanksgiving in the Jewish faith and the Jewish culture.  She addressed a topic that isn’t discussed nearly enough: that despite the myriad of occasions during a Jewish service when we give thanks to God, gratitude doesn’t come as easily for Jews as you might think.  As the rabbi pointed out, Jews are the people of Israel – the so-called “God-wrestlers” – and we find ourselves constantly struggling with the world like ours that is so terribly far from anyone’s idea of utopia.  Adherents of other faiths might not be so dismayed by that prospect for they are taught that virtue in this life will be rewarded by euphoria in the next.  But we Jews don’t tend to think much about what happens after we’re gone.  We’re taught to focus on the here-and-now, with all its imperfections, none of which we sugar coat.  So you can understand why, when it comes to interacting with the Holy Name, Jews may be skeptical, cynical, even angry, rather than appropriately grateful.

My rabbi pointed out that in Jewish culture, wrestling spills into every facet of life.  Jews are inveterate complainers; my mother’s friend once asked her to start a business together called “Rent a Kvetch” in which gentiles can hire them to complain to local businesses who mistreated people.   Jews are prone to interrupting others in conversation.  And we tend to be attracted to litigation – both as a possible profession and as an activity in our private lives.  Go visit Israel and you will find a whole nation of people dedicated to the proposition that whether or not the meek will “inherit the earth,” they’ll have all sorts of trouble finding a seat on a bus from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv.  (Just ask the rabbi who dealt with that very same predicament when she was pregnant.)

Let’s face it – we Jews dedicate holidays to remembering atrocities.  We have no tolerance whatsoever for injustices of any kind.  And we are unusually well trained as to how to confront them.  Even those of us who are 90 pound weaklings tend to be successful at wrestling with our tongues or our pens.  We teach our children to grapple with whatever tools are at their disposal.   And though we dispute that the Messiah has ever walked this earth and await (metaphorically) his arrival, we are religiously commanded to bust our butts to fix this place on our own, so that when the Messiah comes, he won’t even have been needed. 

So how, given all this sturm and drang and all the kvetching that flows from it, can we make room for gratitude?   How can we be expected to launch Jeremiads one moment, and berakhahs (prayers) of thanks the next?

These questions are especially important to ask this time of year -- a time when the entire society is asked to take a moment to give thanks.   For me, the key is to reflect on just how incredibly much there is to be thankful for.  If you look at all the death and destruction in the world, the only reason we view that as such a tragedy is because we all recognize so much beauty in life.  If we weren’t so blessed with the knowledge of what a healthy, happy life looks like, we wouldn’t be so heart-broken whenever we see it taken away. 

Personally, I became a grandfather for the first time this year.  How can I not be grateful for that?  I’ll know if I ever get to Heaven, because there I’d have plenty of grandchildren.  Such a gift. 

And whether you are a grandparent, a parent, or an orphan who has never either dated or procreated, you likely know what it means to have enjoyed a meal.  Or listened to great music.  Or watched the sun set.  Yes, we can go on for minutes listing atrocities.  But we can go on for hours or days listing sources of pleasure.  The problem is that we tend to take them for granted.  We’re all hard wired to respond more to destructive stimuli than to pleasurable ones; that’s one reason we’ve survived so long as a species.

Well, my friends, we’re about to enter the week on our calendar in which we must not take any source of joy for granted.   If you are religious, then by all means – thank God for all the Divine sustenance you receive.  But whether or not you’re religious, feel free to thank your people – relatives and friends alike – for the gift of love.   Love among people comes in so many varieties.   We receive it every day whenever someone makes us smile.   That person deserves to be thanked.  If you are too shy to do it out loud, then do it quietly.

But if you’re Jewish, and you are used to being aggressive when it comes to injustice, you have no excuse for being shy.  Give thanks where it is deserved.  Let the world know that your truest vocation in life is to love and to appreciate.  Let the world know that your kvetching is just a hobby. 

Sunday, November 04, 2018

Reflections on Pittsburgh

If you haven’t yet read my previous blog post, please scroll down and do so before reading this one.  You may notice that when I wrote it, I wasn’t fully aware of what was happening that morning at a synagogue in Pittsburgh, and when I did find out about the details of the Pittsburgh attack, I wasn’t altogether surprised.   After the pipe bomb threats, I had all the information needed to write that post – a nation awash in hatred, weapons and xenophobia will turn to anti-Semitic violence sooner or later.  If we’ve learned anything from history, it’s that.

This week, though, I find myself thinking not only about anti-Semitism, but also about philo-Semitism.  Like most other Jews, I’ve been the recipient in the past eight days of a tremendous outpouring of sympathy from gentiles.  They have reminded me that for every right-wing nut who spews venom about Globalists and George Soros, and every left-wing nut who thinks that Israel is by far the worst country in the world, there are numerous others who find such language to be insane.  What’s more, they have reminded me that just as we live in a world where certain gentiles have a special hatred for Jews, there are other gentiles who – get this – actually love Jewish culture and the Jewish religion.  Those of you who fall into those latter categories and who reached out to your Jewish friends and expressed statements of solidarity and love – trust me that your words will never be forgotten. 

Growing up only a generation after the Second World War, the Holocaust was still in the rear view mirror.  I understood that anti-Semites were in the minority and on the run.  But reflecting on all the causes of anti-Semitism and the historical ubiquity of anti-Semitism, the whole notion of philo-Semitism seemed to be absurd.   In Europe, Jews were associated with killing Christ, refusing to recognize His Lordship, separating from the society-at-large by dressing differently and maintaining different “laws,” and entering immoral occupations that involved greed and competition.  America, I assumed, wasn’t nearly as anti-Semitic as Europe, but we were colonized primarily by Europeans, and old stereotypes die hard. 

In sports camp one summer, I was given the nick-name “Bangladesh” because my Jewish skin was darker than that of the other kids.  I recognized that this was no term of endearment.  A couple of years later, in ninth grade, I had a gym teacher named Andrew Smith who used to mock me with the name “Super Jew.”  I was both smart enough and non-athletic enough to realize that this was said ironically.  In another two years, when I was in 11th grade, I had a lab partner in science class who called himself a Nazi.  And so it goes – I can provide similar examples, but you get the point.  Anti-Semitism has thrived on this continent even during the period when, supposedly, all there is to say about the Jewish experience is that we enjoy white privilege. 

As my daughter said during her Shabbat sermon yesterday on Capitol Hill, most American Jews do enjoy the privileged status that comes with white skin and a relatively comfortable net worth.  But we also enjoy what it means to come from a tradition where the commitment to social justice is an obligation, not merely a choice. In my own book about Judaism, entitled “Moses the Heretic,” the title character wondered why there are so many Jewish social workers, and then said that “if you can answer that question, you’ll have learned most of what there is to learn about Judaism.”  Rabbi Akiva, a man who was martyred 19 centuries before the Pittsburgh martyrs lost their lives, taught us that of all the Torah’s 613 commandments, one stands above the rest: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Lev. 19:18).  That commandment is obviously an ideal, which few if any of us are able to fulfill entirely.  But remember that we Jews are not burdened with an emphasis on the after-life.  We are taught that what matters most to our souls is the need to act in the here-and-now and make a positive difference in the lives of other people.  That is one reason why Jews are disproportionately represented in public service.  The value of service is ingrained in our culture and our faith. 

During the past several months, I have devoted a fair amount of time to studying the Christian Bible (i.e., the books that Christians refer to as the “New Testament”).  I found much of those Scriptures to be moving, but perhaps my favorite line in all those books was the following, which is attributed to Jesus: “For who is greater, the one who is at the table or the one who serves?  Is it not the one who is at the table?  But I am among you as one who serves.” (Luke 22:27)

Ultimately, Jews will be judged by our ability to live in accordance with that teaching.  You see, if we are living consistently with our own faith tradition, we also will serve.  In righteous wars, in the civil service, in classrooms, at hospitals, at free clinics, in soup kitchens ... you name it, we will serve.  We have a word for people who don’t.  They are called “chazers.”  It means “pigs.”  We don’t eat pigs, and we don’t want to be gluttonous like pigs.  We are commanded to serve.

Traditionally, anti-Semites have associated Jews with the opposite of service.  According to the stereotype, we charge usurious interest and desire to rule the world in stealthy ways.  Think of Shylock or Fagin, or all the other “swarthy” white people in world literature who grub for money in the shadows.  When a hate-filled man launched himself into the Tree of Life congregation last week and shut down the hearts of 11 Jewish worshipers, he surely spoke for countless millions over the centuries who have come to think of Jews as selfish, scheming, vermin. 

As Jesus once said about the poor, the anti-Semites will always be with us.  Anything that has survived for 2000 years isn’t going away any time soon.  But in the past week, we have seen that there are many gentiles who obviously don’t think of us as supreme hypocrites, or as people who put the “letter of the law above the spirit.”   This past Shabbat, at two very different synagogues, I watched as gentiles sat for two full hours and prayed with their Jewish brothers and sisters.  It was deeply moving for me to see their support; that’s not something a Jew is taught to take for granted. 
In the end, philo-Semites will realize the truth about us Jews.  We can be hypocrites.  All of us. But we can also be servants.  We love the same God that gentiles love – even those of us who resist that term deeply revere the source of life, whatever or whoever it may be.  We are tribal.  But we are also universalists.  Those who emphasize one of those values but not the other have missed the whole point of Judaism. 

There’s one other thing – just as we mourn being hated, let alone killed, for choosing to retain our Jewishness, we also appreciate being liked, let alone loved, for keeping our faith and our tribal membership.  To all of those who have married into our community, or who enjoy occasionally attending one of our worship services, or who texted or called last week with words of support, or who just felt a moment of solidarity when you heard what happened in Pittsburgh, bless you.

We need you every bit as much as we don’t need people like that man with the AR-15.