Rosh HaShanah, Monday AM, October 3, 2016
Rabbi Michael Friedland
One Yom Kippur, a simple tailor came to Rabbi Levi Yitzhak of Berditchev to ask forgiveness for having been disrespectful to God. “Disrespectful? What did you say?” asked the rebbe. “I said, God you wish for me to repent of my sins but I have committed only minor offenses. I may have kept a little left-over cloth from a sale, or maybe once I ate bread without saying a bracha before eating. But you O Lord have committed far more grievous sins. You have taken innocent children from their mothers, and mothers from their children. I will make with you a bargain – if you forgive me, I will forgive you.”
Rabbi Levi Yitzhak looked at the disheveled man with wonder – “Why did you let God off so easily? I would have demanded that God pardon all the world in exchange for God’s transgressions!”
Rabbi Levi Yitzchak was known for his chutzpah in demanding that God act justly in the world. But what if Rabbi Levi Yitzhak was guilty of letting God off a bit too easy? What if we took an honest look at the sacred texts, Biblical and Rabbinic, texts we revere, and acknowledge that perhaps it is in them that we find the worst of Divine transgressions?
Rabbi Donniel Hartman, the president of the Shalom Hartman Institute in Israel and a provocative Orthodox thinker, argues in his book Putting God Second, that religion and specifically monotheistic religion suffers from what he calls an autoimmune deficiency. Now in the normal immune system, the body creates antibodies and white blood cells to fight off viruses and bacteria. Autoimmune disease occurs when, for some reason, the body attacks its own healthy tissue, turning on the very thing it was supposed to protect. Rabbi Hartman argues the same thing can occur in monotheistic religions.
He writes that “God’s presence, and the human religious desire to live in relationship to God, often distracts religions’ adherents from their tradition’s core moral truths.” That is, the very essence of religion which elevates humankind to transcend its narrow, self-addicted focus, also causes the moral blindness that leads to bigotry and persecution and self- aggrandizement. The mechanisms of religious faith that lead virtuous individuals to leave security and comfort, entering war torn areas like Syria to bring food to victims are the same belief systems that lead to holy war in the first place.
Since Rabbi Hartman is a Jew and since we are as well, it is only useful to speak of the autoimmune deficiency as it effects our faith tradition. And that is what I want to explore this morning.
Judaism has many uplifting spiritual teachings so let’s look at one.
In Deuteronomy 22 “If you see your fellow’s ox or sheep gone astray, do not ignore it; you must take it back to your fellow. …you must not remain indifferent – “Lo tuchal l’hitalem”. In the book of Exodus the demand is even stronger – “When you encounter your enemy’s ox … wandering, you must take it back to him.” The Torah demands that we not look the other way when people are in need. Even to our enemies we are required to act in ways that lead to a life of goodness.
Even with God we are not permitted to remain indifferent. Abraham argues with God not to destroy Sodom and Gomorrah. Why should he care if the God of justice wants to destroy towns of wicked people? But he interferes because his understanding of the “derekh HaShem” the way of God, that he has been called to observe, insists that justice is absolute, injustice wrong and even God must be ethical.
And it is God who places that expectation upon us. The creation story is a narrative in which a God who transcends existence chooses for an unknowable reason to create the world and looks for partnership with God’s human creatures. When they break the one rule God has laid down for them, after disciplining them, God does not remain indifferent: “And the LORD God made garments of skins for Adam and his wife, and clothed them.” Even in anger and disappointment, God extends concern and care.
In Deuteronomy 15 we are commanded to help out our neighbors who are struggling financially. Because if we don’t “He will cry out to the Lord against you, and you will incur guilt.” God steps in and helps out the underdog, the needy, the one to whom injustice is done.
And we are commanded over and over again to care about our kinsmen. Not to remain indifferent to their needs or deficiencies. Maimonides went so far as to suggest that is the nature of the Jewish soul – “The children of our father Abraham upon whom the Holy one bestowed the favor of the Law … are merciful people who have mercy upon all.” (Hilchot Avadim 9:8). Where does this innate quality of mercy come from? Our Torah – V’ahavta L’rayekha Kamokha Love your fellow as yourself. Our sages tell us, Kol Yisrael Arevim zeh lazeh – all Jews are responsible for one another. Do not look inward but outward, transcend your narrow self interest to love and build relationships.
But as Rabbi Hartman warns us these ideals which inspire us – don’t be indifferent to others, love your fellow, we are all responsible for each other, love even your enemy or those who hurt us - contain within them the seeds that undermine the noble and spiritually audacious lessons they strive to teach.
Judaism offers God as a model – just as God is hanum v’rahum, gracious and loving, so you to be gracious and loving. But balancing that we have the God who appears in our Torah portions over Rosh HaShanah and God’s effect on God’s devoted followers. Instead of the Abraham of “Shall not the judge of all the earth do justice?” We get the Abraham who, being told, “Take your son, your favored one, Isaac, whom you love, … and offer him there as a burnt offering” gets up early in the morning without protest to do God’s bidding. Instead of negotiating with God over the fate of Gentiles, we get the Abraham who sends out his oldest son Ishmael and his mother into the desert with barely enough water to survive because Isaac is the chosen one. Hartman calls this God-Intoxication. When we love God so much that we can hurt human beings because we believe that is what such devotion requires, the very element that makes Judaism noble, undermines it.
A Judaism that teaches that “all Israel is responsible for one another” which can be a call to care about others not just myself, lays the foundation of a concern only about fellow Israelites and no one else.
In the verse cited above “Lo tuchal l’hitalem” , Do not remain indifferent – the context is returning a lost item. However the Gemara determines that this is true only for a fellow Jew. One is not required to return lost items to a Gentile. The Artscroll explanation for this is that a Jew desires to do God’s will with great passion whereas an idolater has no desire to follow God’s path. Thus if a Jew returns a lost item to an idolater it is as if he equates a Jew, with an idolater, heaven forefend! Artscroll wants to clean up this unsightly teaching by suggesting the text is referring to pagans and idolaters. But the text uses the word Kuti, or Samaritan, who were not idolaters but rival monotheists.
This is what Hartman labels as God Manipulation, in which we use God in the service of our own interests while simultaneously waving the banner of Divine approval.
What does one do when faced with such examples? And is this the day, the day when we come to acknowledge God’s supreme authority in our lives, is this the day to be asking such questions? Maybe I should have brought it up in private.
But it is here in black and white. For those of us who believe, who have experienced the reality of God in our lives, be it a moment of insight, or a life imbued with consoling teachings of our faith, we look at the unpleasant and embarrassing texts and we apologize for them, or reinterpret them, or most likely ignore them. For those who think the notion of God is crazy to begin with, who like Christopher Hitchens say God is not Great or agree with Richard Dawkins that God is a delusion, these verses are catnip. Neither side finds decisive evidence in the other’s preferential passages.
We have come to a point in which the Talmud might state Teku – no winner. Except that in this draw neither the option of religion or no-religion relieves the world of its destructive hatefulness.
But Rabbi Hartman shares a third approach which he finds in a story many of us are familiar with.
Hillel the elder is a much beloved figure in our history. He is a great scholar who came from poverty and sacrificed much in order to study Torah. His great quality we are told was patience. In perhaps the most well known story about Hillel he responds to an odd request from a potential convert. The Gentile came first to Shammai, Hillel’s colleague, and told him he would convert to Judaism if Shammai could teach him all of Torah standing on one foot. Shammai understands this challenge as an affront and kicks him out. He goes to Hillel and Hillel converts him on the spot with the immortal words: Da’ah’lakh s’nai l’havrakh la ta’avaid. What is hateful to you, don’t do to another. Zo hee kol ha Torah kula – That is the entire Torah. V’eedakh peyrusha. The rest is commentary. Zeel G’mur – Go learn.
Rabbi Hartman deconstructs this story and points out two crucial ideas. First and foremost while he accepts the challenge to whittle all of Torah down to a sound bite, Hillel adds a caveat – Torah is not something that one can truly understand in sound bites. Judaism is a richly, layered and nuanced heritage. To be a Jew is to constantly search for new meanings, new details, new lessons.
It’s like the astrophysicist who meets a rabbi in a chance encounter and tells the rabbi, “You know I don’t really get why you Jews spend so much time studying Torah. Isn’t all of religion simply an extenuation of teaching people ‘be nice’ ?”. Interesting, said the rabbi. You are an astrophysicist? Yes? I have never really understood why scientists have to study astronomy so much. Isn’t all astronomy simply a commentary on “twinkle twinkle little star”? Judaism is at least as complex as astrophysics.
Rabbi Hartman shares another insight into this story: The essence of Torah that Hillel shares is not a verse from the Torah at all it is not even in Hebrew. It is a statement he made up! And even more significant, in his grand rubric for what is essential Judaism – it does not mention God. Rabbi Hartman writes, “Only to the extant that moral responsibility to others is not merely considered as one factor in religious decision making but adopted as the lens through which Jewish believers evaluate our religious practices will the essence of the Torah be fulfilled.”
Rabbi Hartman’s most provocative point in his book is that the good and the ethical must be independent of God. We human beings can know what is proper even without God, hence Hillel’s subjective explanation of Judaism’s essence without mentioning God. The challenge, of course, to such a hypothesis is then what are we doing in shul? and I guess I am out of a job.
To me the answer is that for Hillel the Elder this deep ethical truth can only emerge from the depths of his soul because of his commitment to and study of God’s Torah and the distillation of Torah into a path of behavior and ritual. It is only because he is steeped in the wisdom of that revelation, can he with his God given ability to discern and use free will, craft such a statement as “What is hateful to you don’t do to others, that is all of Torah, all the rest is commentary – Go and Learn.”
Hillel can make that statement because he is part of a sublime heritage that teaches as the Talmudic scholar Rava would teach that “Great is the respect due to other human beings – not Jews, but briot, human creatures – for respect of other human beings overrides negative commandments within the Torah.” (Megillah 3b) Thus if one’s choice is to hear the megillah on Purim, the major mitzvah of that day, or to assist in the burial of a person, you assist in the burial. Kavod habriot – respect for human beings, even those who are no longer alive precedes ritual commands.
Hillel can make that statement because he is part of a sublime heritage in which a great scholar a thousand years after Hillel, Rabbi Moses ben Nahman, commenting on the meaning of the verse in Torah , “You shall do that which is right and good in the sight of the LORD” (Deuteronomy 6:18) states “it is impossible to mention in the Torah all aspects of man’s conduct with his neighbors and friends, and all his various transactions, and the ordinance of all societies and countries. … Thus a person must seek to refine his behavior in every form of activity, until he is worthy of being called ‘good and upright”. Nahmanides knows that neither the Torah nor the Talmud nor any of our sacred teachings can give us a proper response to all situations. At some point the individual will have to figure out the right thing to do on his or her own. Directed by Hillel’s categorical statement of ethical primacy and imbued with his imperative ‘Go learn’, there is confidence that he or she will make the upright and good decision more often than not.
Finally Hillel can make that statement because he is part of a sublime heritage that is capable of reframing and reinterpreting the Divine word to uphold the upright and the good. There is a troubling verse in the Torah which permits the children of Israel, who were freed from bondage by the Eternal One, to enslave foreigners. Moses ben Maimon, the greatest philosopher and legal scholar of his generation and perhaps of all Jewish history in his Code of Laws on slavery, acknowledges, “It is permissible to work a foreign slave harshly. But despite the fact that such is the rule, it is the quality of piety and the way of wisdom that a man be merciful and pursue justice and not make his yoke heavy upon the slave or distress him… to such an extant that one is to feed his slave before himself.”
Now we today are not going to give Maimonides a prize for teaching that slaves should be treated well. But note that Maimonides acknowledges the Torah permits a certain behavior but that the way of piety insists you can’t act that way. Our version today would be, the Torah may permit some type of slavery but the way of piety and reason forbids such behavior.
Maimonides and Hillel guide us to appreciate that Torah teaches noble and sublime truths but it is not infallible. We are responsible to read our sacred texts through Hillel’s rubric of ethical primacy – that which is hateful to you do not do to others.
How does that play out in the world in which we live?
When there are refugees suffering from the ravages of war and deprivation, we are called upon to remember that we were refugees once and we should not be afraid to welcome them into our country. Every one in this room is the descendent of refugees. Millions of our relatives were gassed and cremated because in the 1930s this country shut the door to refugees. That which is hateful to you do not do others. It is an embarrassment to all of us Hoosiers that the Governor of this state, who insists he is a Christian above all else, is fighting the federal government and the Catholic church to keep Syrian refugees out of the state. That is simply wrong.
And I know it is complicated for us Jews. Arab Muslims are among the most anti-Semitic groups in the country. A member of the community who came to our synagogue to hear George Deek the Israeli Arab diplomat told us he was ashamed of that but that it was true. We know that despite the terrible flare ups of Islamophobia in recent years, we Jews are still number one in “hate crimes against”. And many of those hate crimes occur on college campuses by groups aligned with Pro-Palestinian causes.
But we have to be able to disassociate bad behavior in one place, with the demands of righteousness in another. Syrian and other refugees should be welcomed into our country. In Canada 20 synagogues have joined the cause to adopt such refugees. Maybe our synagogue should think about how to do the same.
How would a Hillelian perspective help us Americans deal with the terrible problem of gun violence? It would acknowledge that private ownership of guns in America is here to stay. The idea of making handgun ownership illegal is dead. Americans love their guns, it is part of an ethos that while not all of us buy into is there, from John Wayne to Denzel Washington. But sane safety gun measures should be passed. Hunters know this. For many Americans hunting is a family tradition, to be passed from father to son. But no hunter just buys a gun for his son or daughter and says go have fun. They send their kids to hunting camps or seminars to learn to respect the art of hunting. Why is it so farfetched to tell other Americans who buy guns for protection or for fun that there is an expectation that they know how to care for a gun and handle a gun properly? Why should we not say to some individuals who are mentally or emotionally unstable or impulsive that this is not for you? 30,000 Americans are killed by guns each year, many by self inflicted wounds, others by accidental shootings, others from tragic impulsive acts. To insist that gun owners respect the awesome and frightening power of a gun through proper vetting and training would be as Nahmanides has taught to do the good and the upright.
We implicitly understand as Hillel teaches that Judaism’s essence derives from the general ethos of Torah but not any one verse. Some verses ennoble, others disturb, but the overall message has deep meaning for us. Thus when a Torah verse explicitly forbids certain sexual behavior between people of the same gender we know from our experience that a reframing or rereading of that verse is necessary. We understand that homosexuality is normative. We have children or siblings or parents or friends who are gay. Hillel’s teaching has given us religious Jews permission to place the ethical at the forefront of our religious consciousness. And again it is shameful that our elected state officers hide behind religion to promote an ethic of bigotry.
Now perhaps a person will say to me, Wait Rabbi Friedland, Hillel taught what is hateful to you don’t do to others. I find homosexual behavior wrong, perverse, hateful. Exactly. If a person finds such behavior sinful they should not engage in it. But Hillel is not saying if you find such behavior inappropriate, don’t serve the people food in your restaurant, or don’t let them stay in your hotel.
On this Rosh HaShanah as we acknowledge God’s sovereignty and authority we also acknowledge and accept that God has bestowed upon God’s human partners the ability to discern and construct a world which God aspires to be tov meod, very good, a world in which our care and concern is primarily for our fellow humans. Rabbi Hartman suggests that the way to create such a world is to put God second in order that we may put God’s desire for a compassionate world first. May this be our guiding light in the year to come.