Moving Along

As of today I’m relocating this blog to honesttogod.anschechesed.org, part of the JCastNetwork. Please check it out and let me know what you think.

A Mind is a Terrible Thing to Steal

I’ve been thinking about the widening Long Island SAT cheating scandal, since another 13 people were arrested last week. Now five young men have been charged with taking college board exams on behalf of others, and 15 with hiring them to do so.

It is time to do what Jews do in such scandals: examine the last names. One can never be sure from such circumstantial evidence, but I cannot help noticing that one man arrested for taking the tests has an apparent Persian Jewish name, while two others have common Ashkenazi names. A fourth was an alum of the North Shore Hebrew Academy, an orthodox yeshiva high school.  Among those paying the test takers – and these are the real cheaters – two were North Shore Hebrew Academy students.

Bad news for the Jews. It’s a bad indicator of honesty in our corner of society.

What’s so bad about cheating, a particular sub-category of lying? First, cheating on tests violates the general moral principle that one should not receive credit or benefit from work one did not do.  Also there is a consequentialist argument: by getting a better score, test cheaters enhance their applications, gaining a leg up in the competition for scarce spaces in school, and diminishing the chances of honest applicants who did nothing wrong.

Moreover, I would focus on the question of personal virtue. Ethics is not only about the deeds one does or the effects of those acts. It is about what makes for virtue, or excellent human character. (In fact, the word ethics comes from ethos, the Greek word for character.) People in general, and religious Jews in particular, should be honest. We should be people of emet. And the Hebrew emet means not only to accurately report the facts, to have our words accurately correspond to external states of affairs. Emet means we should avoid deceit and trickery. We should be sincere (another meaning of emet), with our inner core matching our outer presentation to others.

I don’t mean to rub it in the face of the poor North Shore Hebrew Academy. I’m sure they are mortified at this very public stumble regarding their moral education. I am sure that cheating also could happen in my own kids’ school, which I think is a genuinely moral place. But I am reminded of the Talmud [Berakhot 28a] reports that Rabban Gamliel II tried to bar all the hypocrites and fakes from the Torah academy, admitting only students “whose insides matched their outsides.” Perhaps an elitist demand (for which the Talmud criticizes him) but it is a powerful moral aspiration nonetheless. I hope our Jewish schools educate for that sort of integrity.

People generally – although as a rabbi I am speaking primarily to Jews – should pursue the virtue of this kind of honesty, sincerity and integrity because it is a noble and courageous way to live. You have to face reality as it is, not evade it or skirt your way around it. These young adults have a lot left to learn about life if they cannot reconcile themselves to sub-par SAT scores. I have bad news for you, honey. It’s going to get worse.

But there is always temptation to put one over on someone. With just a little lie, after all, you can really get a leg up against the competition. For this reason, the Sages consider deception as a kind of theft – indeed “the worst kind of theft,” says Tosefta Bava Kamma 7.8 (in Lieberman ed., p. 31. See also Talmud Hullin 94a). Hebrew idiom captures this point: we call deception geneivat da’at, or “stealing the mind.”

Robbing someone of money is bad enough, but a mind is a terrible thing to steal.

Nusseibeh, Avineri & the Jewish People

What follows is not news – I’m nearly two months behind things. But then again, everything on the internet is simultaneous, isn’t it? So I think it remains worth discussing. Maybe it’s news to you.

On September 30, perhaps the leading Palestinian peace advocate, Sari Nusseibeh, published an essay on why Israel cannot be a “Jewish state.” There are a number of replies out there in cyberspace, including Leon Wieseltier’s excellent comments at The New Republic. See especially Shlomo Avineri’s essay in Haaretz (more below).  Nusseibeh’s essay is total sophistry, perhaps dishonest, or, if not, a very grim omen for the future. I don’t begrudge political advocates the freedom to score rhetorical points in high-stakes contests like the Israeli-Arab conflict. Have done it myself sometimes.

But Nusseibeh falsely posits that states can have no ethnic identity beyond commitments to the rights of their citizens. A “Jewish state,” he claims, would necessarily be either theocratic or apartheid, ultimately fated to disenfranchise its minority citizens. Then he really overheats, stirring up fears that the Israeli government actually aspires to expel the Palestinians to fulfill a biblical mandate to displace ancient Canaanites.

Now, I hold no brief on behalf of the Netanyahu government, and certainly not for the messianic ultra-nationalists on the right-wing fringe. Myself, I’d rather see the religious element shrink in Israeli politics. But we’re nowhere near a theocracy in Israel, where “white meat” (pork) is available in grocery stores and movies play on Shabbat. I believe there are some theocracies in the Middle East … but not in the Jewish state.

And we’re nowhere near apartheid within the borders of the Jewish state – a state in which Arab citizens serve in the Knesset and the cabinet. Did that happen in South Africa? I don’t think so. Admittedly, West Bank Palestinians lack the rights they deserve. And, yes, Israeli Palestinians stand in uneasy relationship to a state whose ideology, whose history, whose national anthem are all about Jewish destiny, in which they cannot participate. But this is not radically different from the experience of minority citizens in most of the world’s countries.  

Avineri’s essay takes Nusseibeh’s apart thoroughly, and it is worth reading. His central point is indispensible: Nusseibeh is prepared to concede priority to the Jewish religion within the state of Israel, but denies centrality to Israel as a manifestation of the Jewish nation. Israel could reasonably be a “civil, democratic, and pluralistic state whose official religion is Judaism,” Nusseibeh writes, “granting equal civil rights to all citizens.” In practice, this is not so far off from what we actually have, of course.

But such a formulation misprises – perhaps willfully and deceptively – how most Israelis and world Jews understand Israel, as Avineri argues. This state was founded as a response to the Jewish people’s millennia of diaspora and of unbroken connection to a homeland, of unspeakable suffering and of a justified yearning for national self-determination, attained at last. This is one of the ways that Judaism differs from Christianity and Islam: it mingles national/ethnic identity with religious culture. It is unlike the way Christians may be French or Korean, and Muslims may be Arab, Bengali or British. We are Am Israel, the Jewish people. The only claim we have to this homeland is national by definition. Even most religious settlers would concede that a purely religious claim (“the Torah says God gave us this land”) is inadequate to settle international disputes. One who denies a Jewish national connection to the homeland has implicitly reduced this conflict to a case of religious bigotry.   

Avineri writes: “Those of us who have no problem recognizing the Palestinians as a people, based on their own self-determination, are thus left with a feeling of bitter disappointment that a Palestinian intellectual and philosopher who - justifiably - insists on the right of the Palestinians as a people to a state of their own, is not ready to accept the self-determination of the Jews as a nation.” Amen to that.

The very idea of a two-state solution is that we are each an independent people and that each of us needs its own country. I recall taking part in a demonstration more than 20 years ago in which Jews and Arabs chanted “two states for two peoples, Israel and Palestine.” It was right then and right now. But rhetoric like Nusseibeh’s evokes the Israeli fear that even the most moderate Palestinians really want a 1.5 state solution: Palestine for the Palestinians alongside a de-Judaized Israel with an incipient Palestinian majority.  

Avineri concludes: “The abyss currently separating moderates in Israel from the most moderate of Palestinians is indeed very, very deep and the chances of reconciliation do not appear to be likely.” Grim. I hope it is not true.

My Food Stamp Challenge

Ansche Chesed folks know that last week I undertook the food stamp challenge – the self-imposed commitment to live for a week as if all I could spend on food and drink was $4.50 per day, the average benefit. Since I went from Shabbat to Shabbat, I only went six days, not seven, and spent less than $27 in all.

It was hard. Full stop. I found it extremely trying, yet it was most enlightening. Lots of people will tell you that this exercise was “life changing.” I wouldn’t go that far, perhaps, but I am very glad I did it. The food stamp challenge did for me what I expected: gave me some small, admittedly artificial, inkling of food insecurity, and cultivated my empathy for those who know they cannot always open the fridge and find enough healthy food to sustain themselves.

And it provided me a small demonstrative platform to advocate for the importance of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP, the official name for “food stamps”). That program is part of the “Farm Bill” – a massive piece of legislation up for renewal next year, which treats a huge proportion of American food policy, here and abroad. With deficit reduction in high gear, SNAP is at risk. It shouldn’t be: more than 44 million people – half of them working poor – receive this aid. The government itself estimates that every dollar of SNAP aid pumps $1.79 back into the economy. Learn more about the issues at the website of Fighting Poverty with Faith, a broad interfaith coalition. And speaking of the farm bill …  if you want to read about the fatal inefficiencies of American food aid abroad, you can read Ruth Messinger’s Op-Ed in the Forward here.

On my own experience, I’d make a few observations. First the main thing is my deepened awareness of how plentiful food is in America … for most of us. Unlike most of human history, even most of the world today, American life is truly a banquet. OK, most of it may be garbage, unhealthy, and obesity- and diabetes-inducing. But food is plentiful, and most of us feel safe. We always can have food when we need it and when we don’t. But last week gave me the tremendously salutary experience of having to count my food. In a small, admittedly artificial way, I had a new experience: deciding to not to eat now so I could eat later. That’s a way of life for more than 48 million Americans in food insecure homes. I certainly feel sensitized, in a very modest way, to that experience.

What did I eat? Eggs, bread (homemade by a friend, assigned a $2 price for ingredients) peanut butter, beans and rice, and a ridiculous amount of grits. Now, I love grits. But the very thought turns my stomach, still, a week later. Food variety is part of the USDA’s healthy eating index. OK, I get it. Blechchch. Fresh fruit and vegetables? One carrot from a grocery store, two pears and five bananas from one of the sidewalk fruit vendors we have here in New York. Also, an apple from my fridge in a moment of desperation, to which I assigned a 35-cent value, based on the fruit vendor prices. Cheating? Perhaps. I still came in under the $27.

No coffee. At all. No one who knows me can believe it. I switched to cheap tea bags – two at a time. And I passed up my other beloved beverages for the week.

How it did it feel? Gray. Often groggy and lethargic. Simply not enough fuel for this machine to fire at its best, physically, emotionally or mentally. Although I repeat that I think it sharpened my empathy. I have a few people who regularly come to me at the synagogue for some money and food cards. One guy – whom I had helped just the previous week and wasn’t really due for me help from me – came to me and asked for some help “because my food stamps won’t arrive until next week.” How could I possibly turn him down?

Did keeping Kosher affect this at all? Interesting. Once I went into a dollar-store to buy a can of beans and noticed that super-cheap ramen noodles were on sale for 50-cents a cup. Of course, I wouldn’t buy these because they were shrimp and pork. But it was notable how much cheaper it would be to fill up on those empty, nutritionless calories. If I were really poor? I would probably be eating the ramen.

But I didn’t feel that a lifetime of self-imposed food restrictions – choosing to bypass McDonalds and whatever else – in any way trained me better for this exercise. I experience keeping Kosher as sanctifying my eating, not as deprivation. I like keeping Kosher. But this was something totally different. I experienced this as inability to access what I longed for, what was before my eyes, but inaccessible.

It’s like the Garden of Eden story in the Torah: that forbidden fruit is “a delight to the eyes, and desirable as a source of wisdom.” Eve and Adam just couldn’t resist. By watching food this week, I felt an inkling of how ancient people – who by definition were almost always food insecure – might have heard that story. Their temptations to steal inaccessible food must have been intense.

Finally, one major Jewish life insight. Modern American Jews can hardly understand the meaning of the weekly feast that is Shabbat. We eat too well all week long. Shabbat is great, sure, but it might not necessarily be the best meal of your week. Especially here in NYC, you might go to a spectacular restaurant during the week days. But for most of Jewish history, people ate dairy or pareve during the week, and not that much of it. And when the sun set on Friday night, it was a time of rejoicing. Last week – I really got it. I have never looked forward to Shabbat as fully as on the Friday when my small period of self imposed poverty would come to an end and I could welcome in the Sabbath Queen.  

12th of Cheshvan

Yesterday was the 12th of Cheshvan, the 16th anniversary of Yitzhak Rabin’s murder, at the hands of a right-wing extremist, Yigal Amir.

 

That day and the succeeding days are vivid in my memory. We were in Jerusalem, and had no television in our apartment, only a radio, which we kept in the bedroom we shared with our one-year old. After a Saturday night party at a friend’s house, we put the baby to bed and didn’t turn on the radio, so he would sleep. The next morning we didn’t turn on the radio either, and didn’t learn anything of the events until I walked to school an hour later.

 

It was a fascinating time to be an American in Israel. My recollections are of profound national mourning and heshbon hanefesh, self-examination. The night after the assassination I walked around the Knesset where thousands of people, including Yeshiva students from the occupied territories, were mourning and reciting psalms with genuine pain.

 

In 1995 it seemed like Israel – and by extension the whole Jewish people – had gone to the brink, peered into the abyss and would pull back toward sanity. The early Oslo period had been full both of hope and rage and accusations of betrayal. It led to the unthinkable – the murder of the prime minister of Israel, a war hero from 1948 and the IDF chief of staff from 1967, for crying out loud! It seemed for a moment that we would all heed the tzav piyus, or the order to reconcile (a Hebrew play on words, borrowed from the phrase tzav giyus, the order to report for military duty). (Check out www.12heshvan.org/eng_index.asp for a great Israeli organization, maintaining the spirit of those days.)

 

But all that lasted only briefly. The deep national rifts over Israel’s direction were only more raw and exposed after the continuing bombings of 1996, the failure of Camp David in 2000, the second intifada and the simply incomprehensible bombings of 2001-2003, and the Gaza withdrawal and subsequent rocket attacks. Now, the recriminations have returned, more accusations of disloyalty and treason. We’ve seen this film before, and know where it may end, rahmana litzlan, may God save us.

 

On the night he died, in his speech before a mass rally for peace, Rabin said: “Violence gnaws away at the foundations of Israeli democracy. We must condemn and isolate it. This is not the way of the state of Israel.” Ken yehi ratzon. May it be Your will.

 

The remarkable features of rabbinic Judaism include its genuine moderation, its revulsion at extremism and violence, its great esteem for open questions beyond solidified answers. What does it mean that perhaps 85 or 90 percent of Talmudic discussions are left unresolved – awaiting grappling by later readers? The inspiring hallmark of rabbinic literature is that it considers most questions as complex and multivalent, not easily resolvable. That means that even when parties disagree diametrically, they each contribute to a search for truth.  

 

Likewise, today’s Jews should not follow the typical response of those confronted with sharp disagreement: we should not regard ideological or political enemies as wicked, stupid or dishonest. Unfortunately we see that response all the time from the right to the left and the left toward the right, the Orthodox to the heretical, and the heterodox toward the traditional. That response lays the foundation for violence: since your ideological opponents are wicked liars, it becomes necessary to be rid of them. That’s the Yigal Amir option.

 

Instead, we should do what the Sages recommended [Talmud Hagiga 3b, paraphrased]: “Make your ear like a grain-hopper – wide going in and narrow coming out. Take in everything and sift it rigorously, to extract the truth.” Your opponents just might have some good points, you know.

 

That’s the hardest part of being a pluralist. Typically, we adopt the pluralist label to mean that our misguided opponents should bend to accommodate our correct views. But all too rarely does a commitment to pluralism mean that we ourselves actually try to learn from our adversaries, because we concede that they actually have something to contribute to hard questions. Please ask yourself: When was the last time you opened yourself to learning from people who take diametrically opposing positions to yours? I find that most people consider themselves pluralists … just not toward error, which is self-evidence of bad faith.

 

Sorry, that’s not the way it works. Jewish society – American society, too – needs to scale back on the peremptory rejection of those we disagree with. We ought not tar people as … fill in the blank … racists, fascists, traitors, Nazis, commies, fanatics, whatever. That is the path of messianists and absolutists, who cannot tolerate what they perceive as error and want to purge the field of people they regard as reprehensible. And that way lies delegitimization and demonization, and ultimately paves the way toward violence.

 

Instead – and this is not easy – we have to be less messianic. Less certain we’re right. Less certain our adversaries are wrong. So we can listen and learn from each other. As Ben Zoma said [Avot 4.1]: Who is the wise? The one who learns from every person.

Food Stamp update

Two-and-a-half days into my “Food Stamp Challenge,” and I have to say … it’s not easy. Generally, the experience is attuning my attention to just how plentiful and varied food typically is in my life. There is just so much food out there on the streets of New York, all of it attractive and fairly easily obtained. Feel a little hungry? Step into the corner grocery, newsstand, or visit the sidewalk fruit vendor. No problem, right?

But these few days are giving me a small inkling – even though this short-term self-imposed restriction exercise is nothing like real food insecurity – of what it would be like to walk through the abundant grocery store of life, with no purchasing power. I was struck today, for instance, by just how many people walk down the streets of the Upper West Side consuming ice cream. Looked nice, too. But not for me today.

My own eating plan has been to purchase inexpensive food for the week, some rice, beans, eggs, bread, peanut butter and grits. I have enough to eat. But it’s certainly a little boring. And nothing compared to the feast that goes on up and down Broadway

Food Stamp Challenge

Tomorrow after nightfall, we will recite Havdala and conclude Shabbat, and – as always - I will wish my family a shavua tov, a good week. But for me, this coming week will not be so good – or at least not so easy. Because when Shabbat ends, I will begin a week of the Food Stamp Challenge, a program organized by the Jewish Council on Public Affairs, along with a coalition of other faith-based anti-poverty groups, called Fighting Poverty with Faith. (Members include the Jewish Federations of North America and the Reform and Reconstructionist movements.)

On this challenge, participants restrict their consumption to the average food stamp benefit of $4.50 per person per day, or an average of $1.50 per meal. That’s a modest amount for a modest time period – just one week. It’s much more difficult to imagine living on that budget with no end in sight.

I myself will shrink the period by a bit and do only six days – since it seems wrong to me not to rejoice on Shabbat with appropriate celebratory meals. So from the end of this Shabbat to the beginning of the next, I will spend a grand total of $27 on food and drink.

(Hmm. I do have a wedding to celebrate on Sunday, and it’s against the rules both of etiquette and Jewish law not to celebrate with the family. I may have to add another day next week to compensate.)

I will have more to say about this exercise tomorrow morning during Shabbat services in the Ansche Chesed sanctuary, also coinciding with another fine program, the American Jewish World Service’s (AJWS) Global Hunger Shabbat. (Check out that site – good stuff there.) Hope to see you there.

Demonstrative and time-limited exercises like this cannot give a person like me any true experience of hunger and food insecurity. Because “hunger is worse than the sword,” says the Talmud [Bava Batra 8b] and I am certainly not going to die from one week on a budget. But I hope this exercise does attune me more to the experience of the 45 million Americans who receive food stamps, and the millions of American households who struggle with hunger.

I’m also undertaking this challenge to express my belief in the necessity of the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP – the official name of “food stamps”). This month the deficit reduction commission will release proposals on controlling federal spending; this year the farm bill will be reauthorized. Now is a time to re-affirm that the wealthiest society in history must remain committed to feeding its hungry citizens.

Keep an eye out for updates from me this week on what the food stamp challenge is like. You may want to give it a try yourself.

Honesty on Paternity (NYT Ethicist)

This week’s Sunday NY Times “Ethicist” column was a fascinating reflection about honesty and deception. The questioner was a man who years ago had an adulterous affair with a neighbor, and he writes that he is the biological father of her child. Neither the child’s presumptive father – that is, the woman’s husband – nor the girl herself has any knowledge of this. Does the girl have a right to know her true parentage upon adulthood? Even earlier? Does he have the right to throw his neighbor’s marriage into havoc with this revelation?

The “Ethicist,” Ariel Kaminer, did a good job of addressing the question in consequentialist terms: that is, what would be the practical outcome of such a revelation? She denied that telling the truth as a general duty could trump the actual effects of such a revelation on everyone’s lives. The best argument for revealing the truth would be consequentialist, she said: the girl would need to know her true family medical history. Similarly, Kaminer wrote the strongest argument for keeping up the falsehood would be that revealing this information could destroy what may otherwise be a happy family. Kaminer wisely urged the man to scrutinize his own motives: was he considering coming clean to serve the girl’s right to know the truth, or his own emotional need to tell it.

There are no easy answers to this multi-faceted question. In the end, I agree with Kaminer’s general inclination that it would be best for the man not to reveal the girl’s paternity, even though it certainly would be deceptive for him to do so. In this case, maintaining a lie of omission is probably the way to go.

(By the way, how rare are such “non-paternity” cases? A well-known urban scientific legend has it that up 10 percent of children are not the biological children of their apparent fathers. According to that unimpeachable source Wikipedia (although the footnotes look good here) that number is too high. But the true number is not negligible. One reported median number for “non-paternity events” among scientific studies was 3.7 percent. Even if the number falls to 1 or 2 percent, that’s still a lot of dark secrets to keep.)

A few thoughts on this theme in Judaic terms. First, on the apparent fact of this man’s paternity of the girl, based on the mother’s word. Well … how sure can you be about this? How does the mother even know for certain? Unless she had no intercourse with her own husband for, let’s say, a full menstrual cycle on either side of the cycle in which the apparent conception occurred, it is certainly possible that the husband is actually the biological father. And if this were the facts of the case, then her husband has probably figured out his own non-paternity on his own.

In fact, even if the mother is pretty sure her lover were the father, Jewish law would presume the husband to be the biological father in any case: “Rabbi Tahlifa of the West taught in the presence of Rabbi Abahu: The children of a known adulteress are presumed to be legitimate, for most acts of intercourse were with the husband [B. Talmud Sotah 27a].” This law is codified (with slight nuance) in Shulhan Arukh Even HaEzer 4.15. Even if the husband were out of town from his wife for up to 12 months before the birth of the child, he remains the presumptive biological father, according to Jewish law.

Now all this might be dismissed in our day as the product of scientific ignorance, now resolvable by DNA testing. But the woman in the Ethicist anecdote is apparently unwilling to perform such a test on her daughter.

But more to the point, I think the Talmudic and Halakhic motivation is ethical, not merely an outgrowth of weak ability to verify genetic data. A similar case (without reference to paternity) is discussed in responsa literature. Although there are some estimable figures who disagree (esp. Rabbi Ezekiel Landau, the “Noda BiYehuda”), a powerful argument is made by Rabbi Hayim Halberstam (d. 1876), of Sanz, that one should not reveal to a man that his wife has cheated on him. In the case before Rabbi Hayim (Responsa Divrei Hayim, OH 1.35), the former paramour wanted to repent. But in view of the public shame that such a revelation would cost the husband, the wife and the lover and all their families, Rabbi Hayim ruled that he should continue the deception through his lies of omission, rather than ruin all their lives for the sake of unburdening his conscience.

There is something tragic about all this. We might hope that people could rectify evil actions with noble ones. But in this case, the path forward holds no possibility of repairing the sin, only the chance not to exacerbate it. And even that possibility can only be attained, not through good actions, but by the fundamentally wrong act of maintaining a lie. The subject of that story in the Divrei Hayim and in the Ethicist had each done something terrible. But living with their guilt is part of the moral burden they now must carry to avoid further hurting everyone involved. All this ends up being quite close to Kaminer’s argument in the Ethicist.

Can this be squared with the Torah’s multiple prohibitions on lying? (eg Exodus 23.7: “Keep far from falsehood.”) Kant regards such a duty as a categorical imperative, applicable at all times, in all circumstances. Judaically, I think, the consequentialist argument carries real weight, as Rabbi Hayim’s argument shows. You have to ask yourself whether “letting the law pierce the mountain” will actually benefit the world around you? Or will it only ease your conscience, but cause worse pain to those already victimized?

In an admittedly less weighty case, the Talmud (B. Ketubot 17a) gives us a good rule of thumb. Beit Hillel and Beit Shammai debate the problem of white lies. Should one compliment an ugly bride (Hillel) or should one tell the truth, however the poor girl may feel afterward (Shammai)?

The Talmud endorses Hillel’s kindly view, no surprise, and gives us a great empathetic rule of thumb: “A person’s mind should always be bound up with other people’s feelings.”

Honesty is necessary. But brutal honesty? That’s brutal.

September Song

Camp is over, after a great season. Today is Rosh Hodesh Elul, and I’m back in New York. Summer is departing, and autumn looms. (And I will resume blogging. Thanks for patience during a hiatus.)

I love autumn, my favorite season. It brings me football, and leaves carried on cool breezes, increasingly frantic preparations for the High Holidays, and readying my kids for another school year. This school year will be particularly emotional, as our oldest child begins his final year in high school, his final year living full-time in our home. That passage certainly makes this 45-year-old feel the leaves swirling away.

Yes, fall is the season for feeling middle-aged, a time for remembering who you used to be, and who you were going to be, and for reorienting your horizons to who you are, and who you might yet become. It’s kind of unbearable, but nonetheless it’s a salutary way to approach the High Holidays, with their insistent reflections on life’s brevity and on inescapable moral and spiritual responsibilities.

Speaking of middle-age …

I’d like to recommend a wonderful lyrical poem on the theme by Rabbi Judah HaLevi (c.1075-1141), one of the giants of medieval Spanish Jewry, an accomplished philosopher and an astonishing poet. Don’t miss last year’s Nextbook biography of him by Hillel Halkin. This poem and others (Hebrew originals with Halkin’s translations) are available in a free e-book at http://nextbookpress.com/books/1589/the-selected-poems-of-yehuda-halevi/. Have a look at the poem I’m discussing here, which Halkin titles “A Man in Your Fifties,” as #24 there. (Another fine recent work is Ray Scheindlin’s Song of the Distant Dove: Judah HaLevi’s Pilgrimage. You can find this poem, called “Still Chasing Fun at Fifty?” on pp. 184-189 there. In the idiosyncratic translation of Franz Rosenzweig, sub-translated again into English, the final section of the poem appears as #88, p. 258 in Richard Cohen’s edition of FR’s Ninety-Two Poems and Hymns of Yehuda HaLevi.) This poem is a literary meditation upon HaLevi’s real-life pilgrimage from riches and fame in Spain to the Land of Israel, ravaged by the Crusades and poverty. In the summer of 1141, he reached the Holy Land, where he died, presumably very soon after arrival.

In this poem, HaLevi calls on his middle-aged self to grow up. No more lust and sloth and immediate gratification. You’re too old for such lazy, juvenile self-indulgence. Live in accordance with God’s commands, not your own sensual drives. This first half of the poem is fine but not extraordinary, employing a conventional medieval theme.

But HaLevi really hits his stride in the second half, when his pilgrimage toward a grander destiny begins, as he takes a mighty ship out into the Mediterranean Sea, where it is overwhelmed by a terrifying storm. The power of this image emerges when you see that the creaky ship of the poem is not only his carriage to the Holy Land, but is itself a figure for HaLevi’s own dwindling life and his own aging body. It once seemed so strong! The cedar masts stood stiff, the sails billowed proudly and the sailors were skillful and fearless! Now tossed on towering waves, the ship is taking on water, tall masts crumple like straw, sailors are helpless, fainting away with terror, and the passengers pray for death.

But the middle-aged medieval poet does not yet go down with the ship. For although time always erodes our bodies as it leads us onward toward death, mortal people still may discover moments of timeless peace and grace when they place themselves in God’s hands.

The final section of the poem expresses this experience of grace beyond time as it describes the sea storm passing into calm, the sun setting, the stars emerging in the night sky, and their reflections flickering in the ocean water. I’ll give you these lines in Halkin’s translation.

Now the waves subside; like flocks of sheep they graze upon the sea.

The sun has set, departing by the stairs

Up which ascends the night watch, led by its silver-sworded captain.

The heavens are an African spangled with gold, blue-black

Within a frame of milky crystal. Stars roam the water,

Flare and flicker there, outcasts far from home.

The seaward dipping sky, the night-clasped sea, both polished bright,

Are indistinguishable, two oceans cupped alike,

Between which, surging with thanksgiving, lies a third, my heart.

 

Man, he could write! The image of the night sky, dressed like an African girl draped in precious jewels, reminds you of Shakespeare (“She hangs upon the cheek of night like a rich jewel in an Ethiop’s ear”).

As a religious person, I find this such a rich expression of deep spiritual absorption. It’s what Freud called the “oceanic feeling” in Civilization and its Discontents, though he averred he never had such a feeling himself. Well, I have, and have been blessed to have them more than once or twice. And I cannot imagine expressing them better than HaLevi’s image of three seas: above, the starry night sky; below, the open ocean, twinkling with starlight; and poised between them lies the third ocean, the human heart.

I love the Weil-Anderson “September Song,” especially the Sinatra version (“And the days dwindle down to a precious few… September, November … And these few precious days, I’ll spend with you.”) But today, on Rosh Hodesh Elul, August 31, 2011, I will reach back to the 12th century for my “September Song.” Grow up and realize you cannot outrun time. Your aging boat will have to ride out too many storms. But fear not and keep still, for your heart is an ocean.

Summertime, and the Living is Miserable

It’s 100 degrees here in Camp Ramah in the Berkshires. It’s sweltering, humid, buggy and dusty. Pretty miserable. But then, miserable is just what high summer should be on the Jewish calendar.

This week we marked the 17th of Tammuz, the minor fast day marking the date when a number of mythic calamities befell Israel, the most important of which is the day Moses descended Mt. Sinai carrying the twin tablets of the covenant, carved and inscribed by God, and – upon seeing the people worshipping before a golden calf – smashed them into a million pieces. 

In another couple of weeks, on August 8-9th, we will mark the 9th of Av, the major (sundown to nightfall) fast marking the date both Jerusalem Temples were destroyed, and when God decreed that the generation that had left Egypt would not reach the promised land after all. (The historical catalog of disaster can be found in Mishna Taanit, ch. 4.)

We mark these hot days generally (and the 9th of Av specifically) with fasting, sweating, going barefoot, sitting on the ground, no bathing, no celebrations, refraining from meat, wine and sex. Is this just more woe-is-us, oy-vey Judaism? Needless self-flagellation over long-ago suffering? Isn’t life hard enough without bringing up forgotten tragedies? Can’t we just go to the beach?

To the contrary, I think this time of year is among the deepest passages in our calendar – in fact, a real paradigm for Jewish time. The “trees” of Judaism are innumerable details of ritual, ethics and story. But they come together in a “forest” that tell us: Squeeze light out of the darkness. Draw life out of death. Find hope overcoming doom.

At this time of year, our spiritual palette is dominated by the darkness, the death, the doom. And it must be this way, because our only chance to fix this cracked world is to focus fearlessly on the all its genuine brokenness. Whether things happened on the 17th of Tammuz or the 9th of Av long ago exactly like the Sages said or not, I cannot miss the enormous mythic, poetic power of the incidents they recalled. To remember the smashing of the tablets is to stare honestly at the truth that God’s plan for the world can be foiled by human faithlessness. We can screw up this world royally.  And we have. To recall a divine decree that the generation of the exodus could never enter the Promised Land is to understand that your destiny might actually end up unfulfilled. There is no promise you’re going to make it. You might die in the desert.

Marking a high-summer period of failure, fasting and national mourning is essential to religious integrity. Our summer mourning period keeps us from over-confidence, from being Pollyannas. You know what? It’s actually not all good.  

Only by staring into the dark can you extract the light, the life, the hope. And that’s what comes next on our calendar. According to that same chapter of Mishna in tractate Taanit, the 15th of Av, just a week after the fast, was Jewish matchmaker’s day, a day of love and sex, when young men and women went into the fields to seduce each other into marriages.

I find this magnificent. The Jewish summer calendar says to us: Spend three weeks remembering the smashed tablets of the covenant; remembering the ruined temples; remembering the wandering in the desert for 40 years. But don’t let mourning overwhelm you. After three weeks, stop. And go make babies. First, pay close attention to destiny unfulfilled. Then, go fulfill it.

By juxtaposing suffering and death on one hand, with eros and reproduction on the other, our Mishna calls to mind one of the stirring facts of the last 100 years in Jewish history. What did Shoah survivors do when they emerged from concentration camps and the forests, caves, attics, barns and other hiding places, now gathering into Displaced Persons camps? Many had lost their first families, seen their spouses and children beaten, shot and gassed before their eyes. What did they do next? They married and made babies in extraordinary numbers. The DP camps saw 700 births a month at one point, and more than 50 births per 1,000 people, the highest rate in the world at the time. (I myself know one person actually born in a concentration camp, in the final days of the war. Unbelievable!)

This is our Mishna and the summer calendar that it commands, in living color. The world is full of suffering. So don’t try to avoid it. Bring our suffering, our failures and our brokenness from the back of your mind to the front. Stare at it. Fast over it. Mourn it. And then emerge from it, to rebuild all that is broken, life by life.