Advice from Our Uncles

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?

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

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

Related articles

Why Do Good?

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

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.

Recognizing the Good: Veterans Day

Joseph Ambrose, an 86-year-old World War I vet...
Joseph Ambrose, an 86-year-old World War I veteran, attends the dedication day parade for the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in 1982. He is holding the flag that covered the casket of his son, who was killed in the Korean War (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

הכרת הטוב, Hakarat Hatov, means “recognizing the good.” It’s the Hebrew phrase we use to convey the concept of gratitude. Our tradition encourages us to appreciate every bit of good is in our lives, no matter how many legitimate complaints we may have.

November 11 was originally designated Armistice Day because it was the day that the hostilities of WWI stopped. The Treaty of Versailles would not be signed for months, but the people of every nation involved in that war had learned to recognize the goodness of peace. One of the causes of the war had been the tendency of international leaders to forget that war is horrible: they were focussed on potential gains, offended honor, and on their alliances. WWI was a terrible lesson, with more terrible lessons to follow.

In 1958 in the United States, President Eisenhower changed the name of Armistice Day to Veterans Day, in order to include the veterans of WWII and Korea in the appreciation. It became a day to recognize the good in each of those individuals, and the goodness of their gift to the rest of us. When a soldier is drafted or enlists in the military, he or she takes the oath of enlistment:

I, (NAME), do solemnly swear (or affirm) that I will support and defend the Constitution of the United States against all enemies, foreign and domestic; that I will bear true faith and allegiance to the same; and that I will obey the orders of the President of the United States and the orders of the officers appointed over me, according to regulations and the Uniform Code of Military Justice. So help me God.

This oath effectively limits the exercise of many constitutional rights that ordinary citizens enjoy. A soldier in uniform cannot criticize the President or the military, and must be careful about doing so out of uniform. A soldier must follow all lawful orders (and must be prepared to justify in court why an order was not lawful if he does not follow it.)  Search and seizure are perfectly legal on a military base. Most Americans would chafe mightily at these restrictions and others under the Uniform Code of Military Justice.  Military service requires the voluntary relinquishment of freedoms the rest of us take for granted.

Add to that the hazards of serving a nation at war: the physical and mental toll of battle, the stress of living in a war zone for an extended period of time, the strain on family relationships and friendships, and the challenge of return to civilian life, and it’s obvious that we owe our veterans many thanks.

Where we fail, though, is that often all they get is thanks. “Thank you” will not provide health care, education, housing, or mental health care. “Thank you” is cheap, but all those other things are expensive. We and our politicians are quick with thanks and lip service, but not so quick with the rest.

When I am writing a check for taxes it is easy to think about all the things the government does that I  don’t want. (I’ll spare you the list, but trust me, it’s long.) Hakarat Hatov, recognizing the good, demands I look further than the things that are bugging me. It demands that I recognize the good that those men and women have done for me, and that I make sure that enough of my taxes go to at least ameliorate their lost health and lost opportunities.  (If you think that we already take good care of our veterans, I suggest you read this earlier blog post of mine, or this article about veterans and suicide.

In Pirkei Avot 4.1, Ben Zoma says, “Who is rich? He who appreciates what he has.” The question for us each Veterans Day is, do we appreciate what we have? Do we appreciate what these people have given us? And if we say we appreciate it, what are we going to do about it?

Come Out, Come Out, Wherever You Are!

National Coming Out Day logo, designed by arti...
National Coming Out Day logo, designed by artist Keith Haring. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Yesterday was National Coming Out Day.  There are still many places where coming out as L or G or B or T or Q is a very scary proposition. Being gay in Uganda can get you killed. Being any kind of queer in the wrong small town in the U.S. can still be extremely scary and unpleasant. And far too many young people are rejected by parents and other relatives for being gay or lesbian: I still can’t wrap my mind around the idea that some people throw away their children, but it definitely happens.

I remember my first National Coming Out Day, in 1988 (?). It may have been the actual first one, for all I know. I had my last foot surgery that day, to repair the damages from a series of bungled surgeries.  It was at the old Foot Hospital in San Francisco (where the Jewish High School is today).  I have a vivid memory of taking two Valium tablets I was offered, and as they were wheeling me off to the operating room, full to the gills of Valium, I delightedly came out to everyone I passed. “Hi! I’m a lesbian! Happy coming out day!” …

The surgery was a salvage job on a poor little foot that was never going to work right or quit hurting, but the ride to the operating room ROCKED.
Today, it’s usually not a life-or-death decision for an adult American to come out as LGBTQ. We can see lots of people like us on TV, even if the range of color and the stereotyping leaves much to be desired. There are “out” gay folk in the military and in the government.
But that does not mean that the work is done. As long as there are young people, anywhere in this country, who are born into places where they have to feel afraid because of their orientation (or because someone else thinks they look “gay”) we haven’t finished. As long as there are people being persecuted elsewhere simply for their orientation, we haven’t finished. Until all human beings feel free to simply be who they are, we aren’t done.
If you are out, great. Now look in your checkbook to see when you last supported an organization that works to make the world safe for us. If you haven’t done something in the last year, I urge you to “come out” as a philanthropist, even if  your philanthropy consists of $5.
May the day come with there is nothing more to do. Until then, as the rabbis say in Pirkei Avot 2:21: “You are not obligated to complete the work, but neither are you free to desist from it.” 

Seven Tips for Finding Your Rabbi

Rabbis are individuals, no two quite alike.

יהושע בן פרחיה אומר עשה לך רב וקנה לך חבר והוי דן את כל האדם לכף זכות

Joshua ben Perachiya used to say: Get yourself a rabbi, and acquire for yourself a friend, and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. – Avot 1.6.

The Sayings of the Fathers, from which this saying is taken, are a collection of friendly advice from the rabbis of old.  This one, “get yourself a rabbi, a friend, and give folks the benefit of the doubt” is great advice, especially for a person who is or wants to be connected to Jewish community.

If you want to become a Jew, if you want to get married by a rabbi, if you want a rabbi for a funeral, if you want reliable advice on Jewish custom, law, or tradition, you really need a rabbi. Advice from Jewish friends, relatives, and people in the grocery store line is not reliable! (I say this from hard experience of my own: I made my first inquiries about becoming a Jew when I was in my teens.  My Jewish friends were absolutely certain that one had to be born Jewish. I didn’t inquire further, and wasted years when I might have been happily Jewish, as I was destined to be.  Oy!)

So you want to find your rabbi.  Here are seven bits of advice:

1.  ASK YOUR FRIENDS. If you have Jewish friends, ask them for referrals. If they don’t have a specific rabbi to recommend, ask them for referrals to synagogues (where you will often find rabbis.) If they can’t help you, ask them if they know someone who can make a referral.

2. CHECK THE LOCAL SYNAGOGUES & JEWISH INSTITUTIONS.  You want a rabbi nearby, not one you can only contact through email. Check out your local rabbis via synagogue websites and by sitting through services they are leading. Other local Jewish institutions may have rabbis on staff – check their websites, too. Also — this is important! — if you find a synagogue that feels like home to you, their rabbi is a good bet to be your rabbi, too.

3. CALL A RABBI AND MAKE AN APPOINTMENT.  You are not “wasting the time” of the rabbi when you make an appointment to meet with them.  Most rabbis like meeting new people (they would not stay in this line of work if they didn’t.)  You don’t have to be “sure” about this rabbi.  This is a “getting to know you meeting.” There should be no charge for a meeting of this sort.

When you meet the rabbi, be sure to both talk and listen.  Talk to her about your project (learning more, converting, marriage, whatever). Answer his questions as honestly as you can.  Ask her the questions on your mind.

4. LISTEN TO YOUR KISHKES.  Kishkes is Yiddish for “gut.” Are you comfortable talking to this person? Some people want a scholarly rabbi, some want a warm rabbi, some want a fun rabbi, some prefer a rabbi who doesn’t feel too chummy to them.  Often we don’t even know what our idea of a rabbi is on the front end; it’s only when we’re sitting in the room with that person that we say, “Oh, that’s a RABBI!”  So meet the rabbi and see what your kishkes say to you.

5. RABBIS VARY. Rabbis are individuals. Each has a personality, opinions, and ways of doing things. No two rabbis are alike, not two Reform rabbis, not two women rabbis, not two Orthodox rabbis. So if the first rabbi you meet doesn’t feel like “your rabbi” that is OK.  If he or she has opinions or rules or a manner that you find upsetting, just keep looking.

6. WHAT’S A GOOD TIME? August through mid-October is a frantically busy time for rabbis with congregations, and many other rabbis as well. Call after the middle of October, or before August begins. Call the office phone during office hours, or email if you have an email address for them. It’s nice to give them a “head’s up” about the topic: “Hi, Rabbi Levy, my name is Ruth Adar. I’m considering conversion and looking for a rabbi.”

7. IF YOU HIT A SNAG: If a rabbi says he doesn’t have time, or she feels “wrong” to you, or if your Jewish friend thinks you are crazy for even wanting a rabbi, take the advice that opened this essay and give everyone the benefit of the doubt. There are lots of rabbis around. The one who isn’t a good fit for you, or who didn’t have time when you called, might be a good fit for someone else. Your Jewish friend may be reacting out of some bad experience of his own.

If you are in the United States or Israel, you’re in luck – there are lots of rabbis. If you live in the San Francisco Bay Area, you can check out the local rabbis via BecomingJewish.net.  If you keep looking and asking and listening, you’ll find your rabbi.

Happy hunting!