Running for the Mitzvah

February 17, 2014

Kalicard

I have a new decoration on my desk: it’s a home made thank you card done in colored pencils.

I was totally, utterly delighted by the card. Part of it has to do with the fact that it really is a charming little card: it’s a pop up card made with both artistry and humor. But the real delight in it is the gratitude. Every time I see the card, I feel happy and appreciated.

I generally like to translate the word mitzvah as “sacred duty.” I find that is a more palatable word for many people than “commandment.” But both of those words are heavy on the obligation: they say, “I do this because I am supposed to do it.” And yes, there are some mitzvot I do solely out of a sense of duty. I pay my taxes. I pick up after the dog. That sort of thing.

This little card reminds me, though, that many “duties” can be framed differently. Some people think of thank you notes as a chore. This person obviously didn’t – she was shining back her joy to me, and now I have the pleasure of feeling her gratitude. I am challenged: what if I approached the writing of thank you notes with such enthusiasm?

The sages tell us to run to do even minor mitzvot, for each good deed will lead to another. “Run” could simply be read “do it quickly” but perhaps there is another reading: do it with enthusiasm. This enthusiastic little card did more than say “thank you.” It reminded me that on my to-do list are many opportunities for mitzvot, many opportunities to “increase the joy.” Happy Adar!

Ben Azzai used to say: Run to perform a minor mitzvah and flee from sin, for one mitzvah leads to another mitzvah, and one sin leads to another sin; for the reward of a mitzvah is a mitzvah and the reward of a sin is a sin. – Pirkei Avot 4:2


The Perfect Word

January 12, 2014

.ובמקום שאין אנשים השתדל להיות איש

The absolute best thing about being a teacher is the opportunity to learn from one’s students.

I’m currently teaching a class on Pirkei Avot, the Verses of the Fathers, at Temple Isaiah in Lafayette, CA. Today we talked about Chapter 2, and a question came up about the verse that is usually translated:

In a place where there are no men, strive to be a man.

I pointed out that in a spirit of greater inclusion, some translators translate anashim as “human beings” and ish as “human being.” One student offered the following translation, which I love:

In a place where there are no menschen, be a mensch!

Originally, the Yiddish word mensch came from the German for “person.” By the 20th century, it had taken on an additional layer of meaning, that of a person who is decent and kind, one who embodies the best of humanity. The Jewish-English Lexicon offers Rosten’s translation: “An upright, honorable, a decent person.”

Perfect, no?


Reframing Privilege

December 24, 2013

Simple laboratory scales for balancing tubes

 Hillel said: If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?  – Pirkei Avot, 1:14

I’ve read some powerful writing about privilege this year: white privilege, male privilege, straight privilege, economic privilege, and so on. The most recent was When Life Hacking is Really White Privilege, which does a great job of explaining the gulf between those who have privilege and those who don’t. Another great article, a little older, is Straight White Male, the Lowest Difficulty Setting There Is by John Scalzi.  However, one thing has bugged me about a lot of these great articles: so…. what? What is the person with privilege supposed to do, besides feel badly? Is anyone listening to this preaching other than the choir?

I’d like to reframe the discussion slightly: What privilege do I have, and how do I use it?

 

Take an inventory: what advantages and disadvantages do you have in your life? No fudging: almost everyone has something in each column.  Here is my account:

 

Advantages (Stuff that comes with privilege): Financially secure upbringing, financially secure present, white, healthy, Jewish, cisgender.

 

Disadvantages (Stuff that increases the difficulty of the “game,” to use Scalzi’s analogy): Multiple disabilities, lesbian, fat, female, Jewish.

 

It’s good to acknowledge both. I’ve written before about my difficulty with accepting some of my disadvantages. Sometimes it can be awkward to accept one’s advantages in a world where privilege sometimes gets equated with villainy.  Let’s assume for the moment that the fact of being male or female, white or not, etc is morally neutral. Most of these things are the luck of the draw, in terms of who gets what and how society values it. (If you disagree regarding wealth, ask yourself, have you through your own labor risen in socioeconomic status in your lifetime? If so, ok. But most of us who are financially secure were born to financially secure parents, and we got a leg up.)

 

Depending on the how this all settles out, we may have some very legitimate gripes about what our disadvantages have brought us. The fact that I am disabled is morally neutral, but it feels unfair when the only way into a building is up a flight of stairs, and I hate it when people just walk away from me when we’re walking in a group. But for now, let’s concentrate on the advantages we have.

 

If you don’t have any advantages, then this article isn’t for you. If you are poor, sick, disabled, transgender, perceived to be female, and a racial minority, then you have enough problems without me picking on you. Move along, nothing for you to read here.

 

However, if you don’t qualify on ALL those fronts, you’ve got something going for you. It may not be much, and depending on the subtleties of how these things interact in your culture, the advantages may add up to a disadvantage (being black, male, and able brings its own difficulties in U.S. mainstream culture, aka all the people who are scared of black men). Some things, like “Jewish” may carry both privilege and problems depending on context. But in general, advantages work in your favor, and my question to myself and to my reader is, What are we doing with our privilege?

 

In my case:

 

  • What am I doing with the power that my relative wealth gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my white skin color gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that my health gives me?
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being Jewish? (No, not an “in” with international conspiracies, but a grounding in Torah, and a perception by a lot of people that I’m smart and well-connected, whether I am or not.)
  • What am I doing with the power that comes from being cisgender?

If you are reading this and thinking “What power is this crazy rabbi talking about?” then here’s what I mean:

 

  • I have free time that I would not have, if I were working 2 or 3 jobs.
  • I have disposable income, that is, I have choices that I would not have if I were constantly worried about making the rent, or worse, where I would sleep or how I would eat.
  • I am accepted without question in a lot of places that I would not be otherwise, because I’m white. I am assumed innocent, because I am white.
  • I am not sick, so I have have energy and attention I wouldn’t have if I were sick. Also, I do not have big medical bills to pay.
  • I feel grounded in Torah, and confidence comes with that.
  • I am perceived by some people as smart and well-connected, a perception which can be useful even when it isn’t true.
  • I am cisgender, so I don’t have to worry about being beaten up or otherwise messed over because they “can’t figure out if I’m a she or a he.”

So now:  what am I doing with my time, my choices, my acceptance, my health, my confidence, and others’ favorable perceptions of me? What am I doing with these privileges I have?

 

As Hillel famously said, “If I am not for myself, who will be for me? But if I am only for myself, who am I? If not now, when?”  (Pirkei Avot, 1:14) It is fine to be “for myself,” to enjoy the good fortune in my life. It’s OK to enjoy being who I am. But I must also look to see who is not benefitting – are my goodies coming at someone else’s expense? And if it isn’t fair, I need to say so and I need to take action.

 

  • If I have free time, am I using some of it to benefit others?
  • If I have disposable income, am I contributing enough of it to tzedakah?
  • If I am healthy, do I make use of my health to benefit others?
  • If my gender or my sexual orientation or my race give me advantages, can I use those advantages to work for a fairer world? For whom shall I speak up? How loudly? Can I share my advantages? Am I willing to let go of some advantage in the interest of fairness?
  • If I have abilities, do I notice who is disabled in the ways I am abled, and do something about lack of access for others?

If we all played to our strengths, if we all used our positions of relative privilege to make this world better, it would be a revolution… a revelation… a miracle. But making that leap requires that we all take an honest look at who we are and what we have.

 

If not now, when?

 

 

 

 


Advice from Our Uncles

December 18, 2013
In this part of Titus' triumphal procession (f...

Decoration from the Arch of Titus in Rome, with spoils from the Temple in Jerusalem.

Shemayah and Avtalion received the Torah from them. Shemayah said: Love work; hate domination; and do not get too chummy with the government. – Pirkei Avot 1.10

This is a quotation from Pirkei Avot (peer-KAY ah-VOTE), The Verses of the Fathers, a collection of sayings by early rabbinic teachers. Shemayah and Avtalion lived in the first century BCE (Before the Common Era). My friend and colleague Rabbi Amitai Adler teaches that while most translations go heavy on the formal language, these are homespun sayings meant as advice, much of it gained in the school of life. Hence, in my translation, words like “chummy,” and my private name for this document: “Advice from Our Uncles.”

Every now and then I return to Pirkei Avot for inspiration. I love its down-to-earth point of view and its timelessness. For instance, what a commentary on the arguments swirling around 21st century America!

Love work - Contribute to society, for the sake of your own dignity and for the good of society. Don’t live forever on the work of others, whether you are the heir of plutocrats or the recipient of public assistance. Also, love those who work: don’t exploit people who work with their hands. (By the way, under the present laws of the U.S., I am not convinced that anyone is needlessly feeding on the public dole: it is extremely difficult to qualify. I include this here on the chance that a reader personally knows someone who is scamming benefits. I do not know such a person, but I know people who go hungry because they can’t get benefits and haven’t been able to get a job in years.)

Hate domination - Shemaya and Avtalion knew domination: they lived under the domination of the Roman Empire. But it is interesting that they did not limit their hatred to any specific agent of domination. My interpretation? This is both permission to hate something (domination) but a subtle warning that not all domination is from the government. They knew the domination of ideology, also – Jewish society was beginning to splinter into various conflicting ideologies, that ultimately would give rise to sinat chinam, baseless hatred. Sinat chinam would destroy everything: the Temple, the society, local institutions, families, life as they knew it. Demagoguery is as destructive as any tornado.

Don’t get too chummy with the government - I can hear my libertarian friends cheering this one, but notice that it doesn’t say “get rid of the government” (in fact,  Pirkei Avot 3.2  warns us to pray for the government, because without it, people would eat one another alive!) This is about putting too much faith in “connections” – thinking that because we “know someone” the things that are wrong in the society can’t touch us. The ancient Sadducees thought that because they were noisy about being “friends of Rome” that the supporters of the Temple party would be safe from Rome.  Josephus’ account of the destruction of the Second Temple reminds us just how wrong they were.

Rabbi Meir Tamari wrote that over the centuries, apologists for various economic theories have tried to sell the idea that Torah teaches socialism, or communism, or capitalism, when it fact what it teaches is kindness and moderation in all things.

Love work, hate domination, and don’t get too chummy with the government: words to live by, I think. Work hard, and respect those who work. Love those who want to work, and don’t prevent them from getting decent work, or from getting paid for it. Hate domination in all its forms, and question anyone who wants to distract us and dominate us by pointing to scapegoats. Don’t get too chummy with the government: be skeptical, ask questions, and don’t be afraid to speak truth to power.

What do you think?

—–

If you live in the Bay Area, I am teaching two classes on Jewish texts this winter, starting in January: Beyond the Basics, Approaches for Text Study (starts January 16 in Berkeley) and Pirkei Avot: Wisdom from the Early Sages (starts January 5 in Lafayette). For more information, including registration, click on the link for the individual class.


Have I Blown it Already? Not the Shofar, but the High Holy Days?

September 3, 2013

We arrive at the end of Elul, the Days of Awe are upon us, and we aren’t done. There are apologies that were too hard to make, words that were too hard to say, things too hard to figure out in one short month. Or maybe we procrastinated.

Teshuvah is usually translated “repentance” but it would be just as accurate to translate it as “return” or even “turn.” We strive to return to the path, but as with a disoriented hiker lost in the woods, sometimes the path is hard to locate, hard to walk, just beyond us for now.

But the Days of Awe are upon us, and with them the magnificent liturgy of the High Holy Day services. We will do our best to open our hearts, and see where the services take us. Don’t worry about keeping up; let your mind and spirit be guided by the words on the page, by the music, by the sermon. Float.

In 1978, Diana Nyad first attempted to swim from Cuba to Florida. She kept trying. She was finally successful this past week. Over thirty years of training and repeated attempts finally ended in success at age 64. She kept returning to the task, and the number of turns it took ultimately added to her accomplishment.

We balance between taking the time for multiple tries, and the knowledge that our lives are limited. Do not despair if the task is hard. Do not fail to return to it.

Rabbi Tarfon said: The day is short, the task is great, the laborers are lazy, the wage is abundant and the master is urgent. - Pirkei Avot 2:20

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Why Do Good?

August 4, 2013
British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible ...

British Library Add. MS 59874 Ethiopian Bible – Matthew’s Gospel (Ge’ez script) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Why do good?

Recently I read a wonderful post by John Scalzi on his Whatever blog about Matthew chapter 6 (New Testament), the famous Sermon on the Mount. In it, Jesus is critical of those who do good in order to be seen doing it, arguing instead that a wise person will “lay up treasures in heaven” rather than pile up treasure in this life, or collect goodies in the form of other people’s approbation. Scalzi, who sometimes uses his blog as a soapbox for promoting causes, questions his own motives in doing good. Finally he concludes:

I want to be seen as good. Matthew chapter six reminds me how much better it would be to actually be good, first and always.

All this led me to ask myself, why do I do good? Why do I “observe mitzvot” [keep sacred duties], as we Jews put it?

I do not think an afterlife very likely, and should I wake up in either heaven or hell I will be very surprised to do so. However I do believe  that we have it in our power to make heaven or hell here on earth, during our natural lives. Some of us have the power to make this life heaven or hell for those over whom we have a measure of power: children, employees, or dependents. All of us can make life heaven or hell for those who are stuck with us: family and neighbors.

When I choose to do good, like giving money to the food bank, I expand the reach of the heaven I make. I put food in the mouth of someone I do not know. When I give blood to the blood bank, I share my health with some unknown person.

When I choose to be polite or kind to the harried checker in the grocery store, I expand the reach of heaven to them: it is a measure of heaven to be recognized and respected as a human being.

When I choose to vote in such a way that I believe the greatest good will be served, even if it is at the expense of my own interest, I expand the reach of heaven on earth.

None of this requires metaphysics.

My understanding of Torah is that it is a body of teaching about the best methods for making the world better for myself and everyone else. The scroll itself is not always clear on the details or the execution.  We are still engaged in the struggle to apply it all properly, but it is the system that makes the most sense to me, whether or not there is an afterlife, whether or not there is a person named That Name We Don’t Say.

Why do I try to do good? Because suffering is lousy.  I will sleep better if I honestly believe I am at least trying to reduce the suffering in the world.

When asked to teach the whole Torah while standing on one foot, Hillel said, “What is hateful to you, do not do to any person. All the rest is commentary. Go and study.”

All the rest is commentary. Go and study.


I’m Not Done: Thinking about Racism

July 20, 2013
Negro boy near Cincinnati, Ohio  (LOC)

Human Being (Photo credit: The Library of Congress)

Every time someone is reported to have done something racist and all his or her friends begin hollering that good ole George or Paula isn’t “a racist” as if that is the worst, worst thing in the world one person could call another, I want to bang my head on the wall.

For starters, can we quit worrying about who’s a racist and start talking about the effects of racist acts and words? I think we’ll get further in changing people’s behavior. A person who doesn’t intend anything bad can still do a bad thing. I can step on your foot without setting out to do so. The fact that I didn’t plot it with malice does not change the pain I cause when I do it, and i fact, I should look where I step. At the very least I should remove my foot from your instep immediately!

Jewish tradition has a lot to say about unintentional sin: we call such a sin a “chet,” using a term for a missed archery target. Chapter 4 of Leviticus prescribes the proper offerings for atoning for such sins when they have been committed against God. Treating another human being with disrespect or discrimination, even if we do so unintentionally, is such a sin against God, because all human beings are created in the image of God. Someone who calls our sin to our attention (because obviously we didn’t know about it, it was unintentional) is doing us a favor, giving us a chance to redeem ourselves.

These days, with no Temple available for purification or sacrifice, the remedy for sin is teshuvah. (For a description of how to go about teshuvah, check out “The Jewish Cure for Guilt.”) Defensiveness will not work: defensiveness makes these things worse, not better. When I argue that a person who is bringing an unintentional sin to my attention is hallucinating or malicious or “playing the race card” I am missing the point and compounding the error. Those who rebuke me are letting me know how my actions or words came across, and now it is up to me to correct that — with teshuvah.

Secondly, the effect of my words is not limited to the hurt feelings or sensibilities of the listener who speaks up. My words effect all the other people who hear them and who may therefore decide that speaking that way is OK. We teach others with our actions and our speech, not only our children but also other adults. We teach when we fail to speak up about offensive language – when I let something pass, I give it tacit approval. When racist behavior and attitudes are as socially unacceptable as the n-word, we’ll be making real progress.

If I did not intend for my words to teach racism, how much more important is it for someone to let me know that that’s what I communicated?  My intent has been obscured by clumsy words, and the words are teaching evil – better fix them, and fast!

Full disclosure: I was born in Tennessee in the mid-1950’s. My parents are white and during my lifetime, the family has been very prosperous. The only minority experience of which I was aware in childhood was that of being a Catholic in the very Protestant-Christian Southeastern US. I knew lots of  African Americans as a kid, but until I was fourteen, all of them were domestic servants or manual laborers. My parents were open about thinking segregation was a good thing back in the 1960’s. I lived in an environment where I heard the “n-word” all the time, and the only sense I had that there was anything wrong with it was that “nice women don’t say that, they say ‘colored.'” Before I started school, I was explicitly taught that people with any African ancestors were not as smart as white people, and that “civil rights” was an unAmerican movement.

Thank heavens my parents sent me to school with the Dominican Sisters who taught me, and modeled for me, that treating people of color differently was wrong because all human beings are equal before God.

However, the sisters could not flip a switch in my head so that I suddenly became enlightened and would never do another racist thing or think another racist thought. I have said and done things in my life that make me cringe to remember them. I have done what I can to make teshuvah for those words and actions. I continue to make teshuvah for mistakes I make in the present. I do not kid myself that I will ever completely unlearn what I was taught as a child, but I can make an effort to do better, and to teach differently than I was taught.

My background on the subject is very simple to unpack: I was explicitly taught racism, and I am spending my adult life learning to speak and act and think in better ways. This does not make me a bad person – if anything, it is the mark of a good person that I am trying to be better, but only as long as I continue to grow in Torah and treat other human beings with respect.

I realize that for some other whites, things may be a bit less clear. But it is my observation, with my ears that were tuned as a child to such things, that nobody in the United States is untouched by race. Not a single one of us is truly color blind except for very young children (and there have been studies that show that they learn racism early.). Defensiveness speaks volumes, whether it is a liberal insisting frantically that Clarence Thomas‘s race is not an issue or a conservative insisting the same about Trayvon Martin. The mantra of “I don’t care if they are white, black, green or purple” just underlines otherness, and it reeks of desperation. The key word in that phrase is “they,” who are not “us.”

By the way – if this discussion sends some readers to thinking about the ways in which you feel that African Americans have been racist, understand that I am not talking about those behaviors. I’m talking only about the ways that whites talk and behave towards African Americans. Switching over to the “reverse racism” discussion is the equivalent of one child on the playground hollering that another started the trouble: it’s a ploy to change the subject. I’m talking right now about OUR behavior, not anyone else’s, and yes, it’s embarrassing and uncomfortable.

Torah calls us to love the stranger, to love those whom we perceive to be different from ourselves. (Leviticus 10:10) The fact that it repeats this over and over again is a mark of how difficult it is to see someone different as a beloved child of God. How much the more so, if we have been programmed to see that person as dangerous, or stupid, or exotic?

Every time we say a blessing before a mitzvah, we say, “Blessed are You, Eternal our God, Ruler of the Universe, Who sanctifies us with mitzvot [commandments]…” We are given the commandments so that we may become holy. We are not required to already be holy, just to do the work that will take us towards holiness. As Rabbi Tarfon used to say (Pirkei Avot 2:21):

It is not incumbent upon you to finish the task. Yet, you are not free to desist from it. If you have studied much in the Torah much reward will be given you, for faithful is your employer who shall pay you the reward of your labor. And know that the reward for the righteous shall be in the time to come. 

How will we know when we are finished with the task? When can we congratulate ourselves that we don’t need to worry about racism anymore? Not in my lifetime, for sure – I know what’s in my head. If the day comes that I don’t feel the slightest urge to change my behavior in the presence of a black male, when I don’t hear my father’s or my grandmother’s voices in my head, when I no longer notice that the new friend I made is a person of color I’ll let you know. Until then, I’m not done.


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