by Reb Jamie Hyams, Rabbinic Intern, Congregation P’nai Tikvah, September 10, 2018
Lately it feels like the political scene overwhelms everything. Last night I said that God can be sensed when you look into the eyes of another person and recognize that they too were created in the image of God. Personally, one of the many things that upset me in the past two years was when I saw one of our political leaders mocking a person with a disability. That act, more than anything, symbolized for me what is currently wrong in our society. Clearly when this man looked at that person, he did not see an equal, or someone created in the image of God. When I marched in the first Women’s March, I carried a sign “Make America Kind Again.” It is basic and simple, but our society seems to have moved in a very different direction of late.
What makes a society strong and healthy? What are its defining characteristics? A powerful military? Common beliefs and values? An abundance of natural resources? A benevolent government that treats all its citizens equally, and with dignity and respect? In the crazy world in which we live today, does civility and civil discourse still exist? Have we lost our ability to discuss difficult issues with people with whom we have fundamental disagreement?
Respect for multiple points of view is a core Jewish belief. The Talmud, the body of Jewish civil and ceremonial law, models this by preserving not just decisions made, but the arguments upon which those decisions are based. Minority opinions are recorded and respected. An example of this is found in tractate Shabbat. The Mishna (the earliest written form of Jewish oral law) puts forth the statement that “all sacred writings are to be saved from a fire on Shabbat, whether you read them [aloud] or not, regardless of the language in which they are written.” Discussions ensue to clarify what constitutes a sacred writing? What if the text is one of the books that is not read on Shabbat or is from outside the established canon? What if the text is a translation? Are you required to save the texts from the fire when the use of fire itself is forbidden on Shabbat? Two 3rd century Babylonian sages engage in a lively debate on this topic. Rav Huna stated “You do not save them on Shabbat.” Rav Hisda disagreed and said, “You do save them on Shabbat.” Rav Huna then asked, “Why should I save them if we don’t use them (if they aren’t read)?” Rav Hisda responded “We save them because otherwise it is disrespectful of the sacred texts.” Of course, the conversation continued, but all the ins and outs of the discussion are recorded there, modeling civil discourse and respect.
I’ve just started the novel, The Orchard by Yochi Brandes. Like The Red Tent, it is a fictional account of the legend of the four sages, who went into an “orchard” and what happened to them there. The orchard is a metaphor for encountering God through meditation and/or text study. Now remember, these four sages, Ben Azzai, Ben Zoma, Elisha ben Ayuyah and Rabbi Akiva were flesh and blood people. They each, like all of us, brought their personal experiences, their perspectives, and their metaphoric baggage with them on the journey. What they encountered in the orchard, and what happened to them as a result of this encounter, was colored by all that made them who they were as individuals. Think about the last walk you took with friends and the things you experienced. Did you see the trees above or were you focused on the smell of pine? Did you hear the bees buzzing or were you focused on the conversation you were having with your friend? Even on the same walk, your friends come away seeing things differently than you. You remember the trees, they remember the noise of the passing cars. It is like those group painting parties where everyone is given a canvas and you all paint the same bowl of fruit, and no two paintings are alike. So, when the four men entered the orchard, they each reacted differently. Ben Azzai died; Ben Zoma went mad; Elisha Ben Abuyah became a non-believer; only Rabbi Akiva entered in peace and departed in peace. Each reacted based upon the lifetime of experiences, emotions and knowledge that he brought into the orchard. We bring our baggage with us no matter where we go.
A portion of the Torah we read is Genesis 22:1 – 22. It tells the story of the “Binding of Isaac.” In the portion, God tells Abraham to take his beloved son Isaac and to offer him as a burnt sacrifice. Abraham dutifully sets out to fulfill God’s request, but at the last moment, God stops him saying “I know you fear God.” Abraham has proved he has unshakable faith and in return God promises Abraham “I will bestow My blessing upon you and make your descendants numerous as the stars of heaven and the sands on the seashore….”
How are we to interpret this story? What are YOU thinking when you hear this? Each of us brings our unique selves to the table as we hear the “Binding of Isaac.” Some will say it a good story, about pure faith in God. Some will say it shows a compassionate God who stops a child sacrifice. Others might possibly observe that it is a story of bad parenting in an act of blind faith Other questions we might ponder include:
- What did Isaac think about these events?
- What about the ram in the thicket who was sacrificed instead?
- How do we apply this teaching to our lives here in 2018, in 5779?
- Should I listen and act upon “the voice of God” in my head, if I should ever be so blessed as to hear it~?
We are not alone in asking “Does this make sense? How is it relevant to me? The Torah commentaries preserve for us the opinions of rabbis and sages across the centuries. The section opens with והעלהים נסה את-אברהם and “God put Abraham to the test.” What does it mean to “put Abraham to the test?” The Ramban (Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, a 13th century Catalonian sage) says “The issue of this test, in my opinion, shows that a person has the absolute authority to perform an action; one can do what they want, and not do what one doesn’t want. It is called “nissayon” for the individual being tested, but the blessed Tester will command him to bring out the thing from ability to actuality, giving a reward for a good heart. Every test in the Torah is for the good of the one being tested.” Ibn Ezra, (Rabbi Abraham ben Meir ben Ezra, an 11th century sage from Navarre, in northern Spain) notes “Some say we need to read the word for test/נשא instead of נשה, “uplifted” instead of “test.” Sforno, Rabbi Ovadia ben Jacob Sforno, an Italian sage from the 16th century) notes “The purpose of man’s existence is to emulate the virtues of G’d, and by means of this “test” Avraham had an opportunity to demonstrate this.” Each of these three sages read the same text and yet commented on different aspects and came to different conclusions.
In modernity, both from within and outside of the Jewish community, there are plenty of people who given the same facts and the same issues, will see things differently than you or me, and who will come to different conclusion on any given issue. We are like the four sages who entered the orchard, or the three sages who commented on the previous passage. We view and react to something based on who we are and the baggage that we carry.
Returning to the issue of civil discourse, we all care about democracy. In our community are those who have voted on both sides of the aisle. Sometimes we vehemently disagreed with the ideas put forth in the political realm. We make our opposition known through raising our voices and casting our ballots. At the end of the day though, we accept the decision of the majority and we work together to build a better future. But recently, something fundamental has changed in the public sphere. It seems that we have lost civil discourse, the ability to enter dialogue with another person, to listen to what they have to say, to analyze point by point. In the end, even if we don’t agree with one another, we continue to work together, to be friends, for the common good.
We have a great example of this in the famous friendship of supreme court justices “Notorious RBG” (Ruth Bader Ginsberg) and Antonin Scalia. They were diametrically opposed philosophically. Scalia was an originalist who believed the constitution should be interpreted as the founding fathers meant for it to be. RBG felt the constitution was a living document which changes as society changes. Tradition and precedent matter but they did not determine her legal judgement. These differing outlooks invariably led them to extremes in legal interpretation of the law, but it didn’t stop them from dining together travelling together and enjoying the opera. They kept their arguments intellectual and didn’t let philosophical differences intrude on a good friendship.
It is noteworthy that in both antiquity and modernity, we hear echoes of the same fundamental arguments. Justice Scalia sounds a lot like Rav Hisda who was a literalist and followed the letter of the law… “It says “all sacred writings are to be saved from a fire on Shabbat, whether you read them [aloud] or not, regardless of the language in which they are written.” That means you save them. Justice Ginsberg sounds like Rav Huna, “Why should I save them if they aren’t read?” Like Mordechai Kaplan, the founder of reconstructionist Judaism who famously said, “The past has a vote, not a veto.” Just because it says they should be saved, in light of the fact that no one is reading this material today, perhaps we can change the law?
Some of what is going on in our country echoes the differences between Rav Huna and Hisda, and Justices Scalia and Ginsburg. Huna and Scalia choose to follow the letter of the law, Hisda and Ginsberg, chose the spirit. Like Rav Huna and Justice Scalia, some people want things to stay exactly as they were, and like Rav Hisda and Justice Ginsberg, others want to adapt to meet the needs of the current moment. If there is a commonality in these scenarios, then I take heart knowing that in all generations there is a tension between what was and what will be. The question is how to balance the needs of the present, with the needs of those who long for the past, and the needs of those who drive us toward the future. We must follow in the footsteps of our Talmudic sages who valued a broad diversity of opinion and remained in dialogue with one another despite their differences of opinion. We must follow the example set by Justices Ginsberg and Scalia to engage in civil discourse with those with whom we disagree. We must forge bonds that go beyond philosophical differences. And we must always recognize in the eyes of the other that they too were created in the image of God.
The reconstructionist siddur for Shabbat includes a prayer for our government by Rabindrananath Tagore, a Bengali poet who lived 100 years ago.
What do I desire for my country? How do I vision the land I love?
Let it be a land where knowledge is free,
Where the mind is without fear, and men and women hold their heads high,
Where words come out from the depth of truth,
Where the world has not been broken up into fragments by narrow domestic walls;
Where tireless striving stretches its arms toward perfection,
Where the clear stream of reason has not lost its way in the dreamy desert sand of dead habit,
Where the mind is led forward into ever-widening thought and action,
Into that heaven of freedom, let my country awake.
Rabindrananath Tagore (adapted)
Ken yi’hi ratzon. May it be your will.