We Must Not Stop Caring

The news is full of pictures of the camps on the southern border of the United States. The photo above is from one such news item, from “What We Know: Family Separation And ‘Zero Tolerance’ At The Border” from npr.org. I know that many of you are, like me, horrified at these reports.

I have been told that these camps existed during the Obama administration. If so, shame on us- this policy does not fit with my understanding of what America is supposed to be. We are slamming the door not only to immigrants like our own ancestors, but slamming doors on refugees from violence, people seeking asylum from terrible danger. I don’t care when it started; I want it to stop, and to be replaced by a fair and coherent immigration policy, something that both Republican and Democratic administrations have so far failed to produce.

I’ve written letters and made calls for months, and the news has only gotten worse. I’ve sent donations, and seen no progress. It is very, very easy to get weary, to decide that nothing will help, and to feel how tired I am of all this worry and activity. That weariness is a temptation to stop caring so much.

Ever since I first heard about the so-called detainment camps and the separation of children from their parents, I have protested it using the verse Deuteronomy 10:19: “You must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.” I’ve quoted those words so often, with so little result, that they have begun to seem meaningless.

Verses do that sometimes. They become rote, syllables that I repeat. At that point I step back and look at the larger context of the thing I’ve been quoting:

Cut away, therefore, the thickening about your hearts and stiffen your necks no more. For the LORD your God is God supreme and Lord supreme, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who shows no favor and takes no bribe, but upholds the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and befriends the stranger, providing him with food and clothing.

You too must befriend the stranger, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt.

Deuteronomy 10:16-19

Listen to the violence in that passage! “Cut away the thickening about your hearts, and stiffen your necks no more.” This verse is sometimes translated literally as “circumcise your hearts” but I prefer this translation because it brings the metaphor closer – we are not talking about brit milah here (upon which we moderns can get sidetracked into debate) – we’re talking about heart surgery!

We who have been sending in our tax dollars to pay agents to orphan children by taking them from their parents —

We who have been leaving mothers and fathers weeping for their children —

We who have been treating strangers like animals, caging them and denying them basic needs like soap and toothbrushes —

We who have been doing this out of fear (“they will rape our women”) or out of greed (“they will get our jobs”) need to change our hearts today!

We who have acquiesced to it by blaming the bad stuff on the president and his people, by saying, “I didn’t do that” or “that’s not US!” need to change our hearts today!

O God, who knows the hearts of all, please help us cut away the calluses on our hearts, please help us to care. Help our caring to find a better way: a just and coherent immigration policy, with the support it needs to succeed.

The worse the news, the longer it goes on, the more urgent it is that we care and that we continue taking action. If you would like a list of possible actions you might take to care and to act, Slate Magazine recently posted an excellent list.

We must not stop caring!

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Do Jews Believe in the Devil?

Image: An image of a devil. (by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay)

The very short answer is: No, Jews do not believe in the Devil of Christian theology.

A longer, more complete answer:

Jewish scripture has a character known as HaSatan, the Adversary. HaSatan appears in the beginning of the Book of Job:

One day the divine beings presented themselves before the LORD, and the Adversary came along with them.

The LORD said to the Adversary, “Where have you been?” The Adversary answered the LORD, “I have been roaming all over the earth.”

The LORD said to the Adversary, “Have you noticed My servant Job? There is no one like him on earth, a blameless and upright man who fears God and shuns evil!”

Job 1:6-8

In this and in chapter 3 of the book of Zachariah, “HaSatan” is not a personality. HaSatan is the title of a role, a job description. “Ha” means “the.” “Satan” means “adversary.” In Job, HaSatan plays the persecutor, taunting God that Job only loves God because God has been good to him. God allows HaSatan to inflict suffering on Job so that Job can demonstrate his faith in God. In Zachariah, he is the Accuser, and an angel (malach) is God’s mouthpiece, rejecting the accusations of HaSatan.

The figure in the adversary role has little or no volition: it cannot do anything without the permission of God. It plays a role equivalent to that in English of a “devil’s adversary:” it is an expression of opposition. Angels have a similar role in the Jewish Bible: they function as messengers or as extensions of God, but they do not have agency of their own.

Sometimes in other texts HaSatan is an expression of the yetzer harah, the evil or selfish inclination. It never acquires the independence, to say nothing of the raw power, of the Satan figure in Christian tradition.

There are a number of Talmudic texts about HaSatan, for instance:

Reish Lakish says: Satan, the evil inclination, and the Angel of Death are one, that is, they are three aspects of the same essence. He is the Satan who seduces people and then accuses them, as it is written: “So the Satan went forth from the presence of the Lord, and smote Job with vile sores” (Job 2:7). He is also the evil inclination, as it is written there: “The impulse of the thoughts of [the human] heart was only evil continuously” (Genesis 6:5); and it is written here: “Only upon [Job] do not put forth your hand” (Job 1:12). The verbal analogy between the various uses of the word “only” teaches that the evil inclination is to be identified with the Satan. He is also the Angel of Death, as it is written: “Only spare his life” (Job 2:6); apparently Job’s life depends upon him, the Satan, and accordingly the Satan must also be the Angel of Death.

Bava Batra 16a

HaSatan has these roles (a named figure in Job, the evil inclination in humans, and the Angel of Death) as it is picked up as a theme in Jewish mystical writing and in folklore, but it is in those sources that it takes on a role more like that of the Christian Satan. That may be from cross-pollination of Jewish and Christian ideas in golden-age Spain and in northern Europe. It may also have arisen from the need of a suffering people to separate the suffering in life from the all-good person of their God.

At any rate, most modern Jews do not believe in “Hell” and do not believe in “Satan” as an independent figure busy in the world. We are much more inclined to attribute the evils that come from human misbehavior to human beings, and to attribute “evils” from the natural world (earthquakes and other natural disasters) to the balance of nature established by God.

Jews have been and continue to be ferociously monotheistic, so that an independent and equal opponent to God is a logical impossibility.

What do you believe, and why?

Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment

Image: Stacks of coins that appear to be sprouting seedlings. (Pixabay)

On June 21 I had the pleasure of returning to Congregation Ner Tamid in Henderson, NV, the first congregation I served as a new rabbi, right out of school. Rabbi Sanford Akselrad was kind enough to invite me to preach.

I talked about a topic dear to me: the mitzvah of tzedakah. The title of the sermon was “Tzedakah for Healing and Empowerment.” Since I generally preach from an outline rather than a full text, to keep my words and delivery fresh, I can’t reproduce the sermon here. However, I can give you the gist of it.

We usually talk about mitzvot as commandments or sacred duties: something we do. However, there is another angle from which too see mitzvot. Mitzvot are actions we take that also cause change within us.

Notice the blessings we say before performing a mitzvah:

Blessed are You, Adonai our God, who sanctifies us with mitzvot, and has commanded us to immerse ourselves in the words of Torah.

— Blessing before the Study of Torah

Before a mitzvah, when we say this blessing, we say that God makes us holy through our performance of the mitzvah. That is quite a claim.

So how does this work?

Take tzedakah, for instance: we normally think of it as our sacred duty to give money for justice or for the relief of suffering. We might think that tzedakah is all about the other person.

But it is also a powerful tool for human spiritual development. Let me explain with a story.

I have a little dog, Gabi. She does not particularly like potato chips, but if we have them, she manages to get one. She grabs a chip and runs a little distance off, hovering over the chip. If any other dog approaches, she growls. If I tell her to drop it, she will very grudgingly give it to me. As long as she has the chip she will not eat it, instead guarding it no matter what other fun thing might be going on.

In short, she makes herself miserable guarding that chip.

Look at the word “miserable.” What do the first five letters spell?

Tzedakah is the sacred duty to give money to a suffering human being, or to an agent who will help suffering beings. It is also a powerful antidote to miserliness, the misery that comes from hanging on too tightly to money.

When we give tzedakah, we remind ourselves that we actually have ENOUGH, enough that we can give away a bit. How much we give depends on our means. Jewish tradition teaches us not to give so much that we endanger ourselves. No, we are only commanded to give a little.

Giving that little bit will remind us that we have more power than we realize. One little tzedakah payment may be small, but when it combines with others, it transforms lives. It can save a person from starving to death. It can pay legal fees to free a prisoner. It can pay tuition so a person can learn and eventually support themselves.

That is POWER.

When we give tzedakah in its higher forms, when we give anonymously, we can fight back against our need for attention and approval. Maimonides teaches us that the mitzvah is fulfilled even if we give a tiny amount, grudgingly, and demand big thanks and a brass nameplate. But it is much more meritorious, he tells us, to give anonymously and to do so without public recognition. That kind of giving trains us away from narcissism. When we give quietly, we cultivate a true humility and become a better person.

So there it is: tzedakah may be the mitzvah of giving, but we still can receive much in return. As the blessing says, God gave us mitzvot to make us holy, to make us better people. In the case of tzedakah, it can take something that can be the source of tremendous stress and anxiety, and transform it into goodness in the world and in ourselves.

Shabbat shalom!

What does “Goot Shabbes!” mean?

Goot SHAB-bes, more properly transliterated, Gut Shabbes, is how a Jew says, “Good Sabbath” in Yiddish. It is the equivalent of “Shabbat Shalom” in Hebrew.

Yiddish is a Jewish language used originally by Ashkenazi Jews in Central and Eastern Europe. There are many Jews in the United States who speak at least a little Yiddish.

What’s the proper response to Gut Shabbes? That’s easy: just say Gut Shabbes right back!

Play Ball! A Meditation

Image: A game at the Las Vegas Ballpark, 1/20/2019.

I’m writing tonight from the Las Vegas Ballpark, where the Sacramento River Cats are playing the Las Vegas Aviators.

Never heard of them? This is minor league baseball, AAA to be precise, the world of Bull Durham, if you’re a baseball movie aficionado. The Aviators are a farm team for the Oakland Athletics. The River Cats are affiliated with the San Francisco Giants. Subtext is strong here.

What does this have to do with Torah? Baseball, like Torah, contains worlds. It is a metaphor for everything. In baseball, the home team plays the outsiders – it’s deeply tribal – but everyone’s worst instincts are constrained by the Rulebook (mitzvot.) Bats are for hitting balls, not heads.

Baseball, well played, is a form of meditation. The more perfectly everyone does their job, the less happens. A completely perfect game would go on forever.

Fortunately it is also a deeply human game, and imperfections abound. They keep the crowd from falling asleep, but it is in the workings-out of imperfection that joy abounds.

I love baseball, especially minor league baseball. The ballparks are human size, and admission is cheap enough that whole families attend together. The lady sitting next to me might be 80, and if she had her way the Aviators would win. Alas, they seem to excel only in interesting imperfections tonight.

Blessed are You, Eternal our God, who has implanted in human hearts the love of games!

Summer Reading, 2019

What are you reading this summer? Here is my current list, always subject to change when a bright and shiny object appears:

Elizabeth Zimmerman, Knitting Without Tears (rereading – a beloved favorite)

Sofie Hagen, Happy Fat

Allan Levine, Seeking the Fabled City: the Canadian Jewish Experience

Rabbi Amy Sheinerman, The Talmud of Relationships

Rachel Mankowitz, Yeshiva Girl. (Recently finished and highly recommended.)

Catherine Bell, Ritual Theory, Ritual Practice

As you see, it’s a mix. What’s on your list? Is there anything you’ve read lately that you recommend?

The Interfaith Potluck

Image: Girl disgusted at food. Some things were just not meant to be reduced to a puree. (koh sze kiat/Shutterstock, all rights reserved.)

Periodically I encounter a well-meaning person who assures me that “we’re all really the same, I mean, we all believe in God, right?” It’s a feel-good, no-worries approach to interfaith issues, minimizing problems and seeking to avoid any unpleasantness.

Here’s an analogy to explain why this feel-good approach can actually cause hurt feelings:

Imagine we’re all going to a potluck supper. I bring a beautiful loaf of home baked challah.

Catholic Bridget brings a traditional Irish cottage pie, savory beef with carrots and onions and mashed potatoes piled on top, gently browned in the oven.

A Hindu acquaintance brings a vegetable curry, redolent with spice, served on a mound of brown rice. 

A Buddhist neighbor brings a crisp green salad with tomatoes fresh from his garden and a tangy dressing that his grandmother taught him to make.

A Methodist from Mississippi brings a plate of fragrant pork loin with baked apples.

A Pakistani Muslim brings a dish of creamy kheer for dessert.

All of the dishes are mouth-watering. All are rich not only in nutrition but in cultural values and tradition.

Then the host welcomes us, crams everything into a giant blender, and begins pulverizing it into a liquid. When one of us protests, she says gaily, “It’s all food!” And that’s true – but the distinctive flavors have been lost, the texture is gone, and it’s just a tasteless mush.

Do you want to eat that mush? Is it really “just the same?”

And by the way, what is the Hindu supposed to do about the beef in the pulverized goo? What am I to do with the pork chops that are in there somewhere? What is the Buddhist to do with all that meat?

For me, interfaith dialogue is a bit like that potluck. Each tradition has its own beauty, its own distinctive texture and flavor. There are things we can share but there are other things that clash and cannot be smoothed over.

For Christians, the person of Jesus is the definitive revelation of God, and a personal manifestation of God. That is dramatically different from the fierce monotheism of Judaism, which insists that God is ultimately indescribable and utterly One. And both of those are completely different from the Allah of Islam, who revealed His will to humanity through the Prophet Mohammad, and to whom believers owe perfect submission.

There are elements in each that simply don’t reconcile. Either Jesus is God, or he wasn’t. (The tense difference is deliberate.) Either the Messiah has arrived, or not yet.  Either the Koran is the definitive word of God, or it isn’t. Either a particular food is forbidden, or it is permitted.

To have a true dialogue, we have to hold those differences – the different flavors, the different understandings of what is permitted. We have to hold them in our hearts and still keep our hearts open to listen to one another.

I understand why these differences can be scary and why it seems safer to insist that there is no real difference. The problem is, there ARE real differences, and all the insisting and pretending in the world won’t change that. Our task, in a pluralistic society, is to learn how to get along despite the fact that we disagree on so much. It can be done, but only if we’re willing to be honest about the differences. If we are honest in owning differences, then we can learn enough about each other to avoid injuries, and to foster mutual respect.

There are still many things upon which we can agree: our religions share moral values that sometimes need to be expressed in all our voices in the public square. We can work together for peace and justice and fairness. We don’t need to be “all the same” – in fact, our differences can translate into great strength.

May the day come when we can appreciate difference without feeling threatened by it.