July 2009


The book of Deuteronomy is divided into essentially three main parts. The first, which we read in last week’s Torah portion and which concludes this week, is Moses’s opening speech, which mostly serves to remind the Israelites of their history–their journey through the desert, their lack of faith that resulted in that journey, and Moses’s own personal desire to enter the land of Israel which was unfulfilled by God. The second, and longest, portion of Deuteronomy begins in chapter 5 and lasts until chapter 26 (or 28, depending on how you group things), and mostly consists of the laws that Moses ‘reviews’ (though many of them have never been delivered before).

Logically, the law-giving section begins with a recapitulation of the Ten Commandments, the moment when God spoke “face to face” to the Israelites. The force of the law, its commanding power, emanates from the moment of Revelation, and therefore it makes perfect sense that Moses would begin his long legal discourse with an appeal to the touchstone from which all the rest of the laws flow.

What is fascinating, however, is what commandment comes first after the Ten Commandments. After all, these are to be the laws that people are to go over again and again “Mishneh Torah,” which Deuteronomy refers to itself as, can be translated as “second Torah” or “review of the Torah,” but if in fact most of these laws have not been stated in the Torah itself before, then perhaps the meaning of “Mishneh” is not from “Shnaim” — second– or “l’Shanot”–to review–but instead “l’Shanen,” to constantly repeat. (This point is well-made by Menachem Liebtag.) Thus the laws given here are ones the Israelites are to regularly review, the ones perhaps most essential to maintaining their character.

And which one is first? It may sound familiar: “Hear O Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one. And you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your means. Adn these words that I commande you today shall be on your heart.” (Deut. 6:4-6) That is, the first commandment after the necessary repetition of the Sinaitic code is none other than the Shema, the passage we recite twice daily in order to relive the moment of Sinai and renew our acceptance of the commandments and our relationship with God.

One can infer that the rest of the commandments are to be done in light of, or in fulfillment, of this one. And indeed, this is the understanding offered by Abaye in the Talmud (which I quoted recently in another post): “Abaye explained: As it was taught: ‘And you shall love the Lord your God’ (Deut. 6:5) i.e., that the Name of Heaven be beloved because of you.” (Yoma 86a)

Moses’s reminder to us, which we repeat twice every day, is that living a life of Torah is meant to be a kiddush Hashem, to sanctify God’s name. As Abaye elaborates, to be Jewish means to live one’s life in such a way that people will look on you and say, “What a marvelous thing is Torah!” Or as Moses himself says in the parsha this week: “You must observe them diligently, for htis will show your wisdom and discernment to the peoples, who, when they hear all these statutes, will say, ‘Surely this great nation is a wise and discerning people.'” (Deut. 4:5)

Shabbat shalom.

I spent yesterday in downtown Chicago at a Federation-sponsored training seminar on professional-volunteer relations (morning) and e-philanthropy (afternoon). I was one of the only people there who does not have a “standard” Federation job (and I don’t technically work for Federation, either–my paycheck comes from Hillel–but since Hillel in Illinois is an agency of Federation, I was eligible to attend). So I was a bit unprepared for what set off the chain of thoughts that led to this post.

The presenting issue was a discussion in the lay-pro session on “how much you script your volunteers.” In the Federation world, and I’m sure in other volunteer organizations, the professional staff writes the scripts for big speeches by volunteer leaders. The staff in the room yesterday were talking about how they will often script even the running of meetings (not all staff do this, by any means; it depends on the federation’s culture and the people involved).

To me, this was a pretty foreign concept. I don’t staff our “grownup” board, so I’m not intimately involved in the preparation for board meetings. My experience is with students, who would chafe at the idea of being scripted–and who I wouldn’t want to script. Unless, of course, it were something really important. So, for instance, we script student callers during phonathons (“Hi, my name is ____ and I’m calling from Fiedler Hillel…”).

The basic theory here is that you script someone when you want to have complete alignment with the organization’s language. This leads to efficiency (meetings don’t go off on useless tangents) and common words and ideas (everyone is talking about the same stuff in the same language).

Okay, so that was round 1. Round 2 came from the afternoon presentation on e-philanthropy, courtesy of BlueState Digital, the people who brought you Barack Obama’s web presence last year. The conversation was about how to raise supporters and money online, as the Obama team did so well last year ($550 million). The major ideas: Invite your supporters to contribute their stories, their words, their pictures–more than just their money. And segment, segment, segment: Make sure you speak to your supporters the way they want to be spoken to. (The Obama campaign had 300 different market segments that they sent different emails to. Unbelievable.)

The message here: Communication has to be two-way, not one-way. Sound a little different than the morning session?

So all this is swimming in my head as I listen to a story on NPR this morning about a guy making a video game about the battle of Falluja. (more…)

As the person who forwarded this piece to me said in her email, “You likely don’t read the Jewish Press, but I thought you’d be interested in this.” True. (An old joke comes to mind about reading the Jewish Press in the bathroom… but I digress.)

It turns out that one of my more widely-read posts in recent months was this one some months back on Tova Hartman’s visit to NU, which took place when all the sh-t was hitting the fan about Sara Hurwitz’s non-ordination as an Orthodox rabbi. So there seems to be some interest among ye gentle readers about this topic. Good.

So on to today’s post: Rabbi Michael Broyde, a serious halakhic thinker and authority and former head of the Beit Din of America, writes a pretty darn good essay in the Jewish Press. Aside from his little dig at my teacher, Rabbi Avi Weiss, I applaud him for this article. As a good friend of mine pointed out back when all the stuff was happening with Sara, why is it that everyone evidently expects YCT’s folks to do something like this, but no one is asking what YU and the rest of the orthodox community are doing? (This was largely in response to Jonathan Mark’s angry rant about Rabbi Weiss’s capitulation in not calling Sara a rabbi.)

Broyde is essentially making the same move: Why shouldn’t we be demanding of “centrist” Orthodox institutions–institutions that train women in advanced Talmud study, Jewish law, philosophy, etc.–that they create a clerical role for these women? Fine, don’t call them rabbis. As Sara Hurwitz well knows, she cannot lead services from the bima (though a major Orthodox rabbi here in Chicago has recently publicly stated that he sees no reason why not) and cannot serve as a witness in most halakhic matters. But Sara can teach Torah, counsel, and answer halakhic questions just like the rest of us–and probably better than many men who have lousy voices or poor synagogue skills, and who might be illegitimate witnesses for other reasons (see the “rabbis” arrested yesterday for a case in point).

Essentially Rabbi Broyde is saying that the real revolution already happened, and that came when women were given equal access to learning as men. All the rest is commentary–important commentary, but commentary nonetheless. Go and learn.

In a learning session with a student yesterday, we read the following passage from Tractate Yoma (in preparation for the High Holidays and Yom Kippur). The section comes about in a discussion about what constitutes hilul Hashem, desecration of God’s name. How sadly timely in light of today’s news.

Abaye explained: As it was taught: ‘And you shall love the Lord your God’ (Deut. 6:5) i.e., that the Name of Heaven be beloved because of you.

If someone studies Scripture and Mishnah, and attends on the disciples of the wise, is honest in business, and speaks pleasantly to other people, what do people say about him? ‘Happy is the father who taught him Torah, happy is the teacher who taught him Torah; woe unto people who have not studied the Torah; for this man has studied the Torah look how fine his ways are, how righteous his deeds!’ Of him does Scripture say: And He said unto me: You art My servant, Israel, in, whom I will be glorified. (Is. 49:3)

But if someone studies Scripture and Mishnah, attends on the disciples of the wise, but is dishonest in business, and discourteous in his relations with people, what do people say about him? ‘ Woe unto him who studied the Torah, woe unto his father who taught him Torah; woe unto his teacher who taught him Torah!’ This man studied the Torah: Look, how corrupt are his deeds, how ugly his ways; of him Scripture says: “In that men said of them: ‘These are the people of the Lord, and are gone forth out of His land.’” (Ezek. 36:20)

~ Babylonian Talmud Yoma 86a

David Brooks is at it again (no I don’t get commission), with another solid column about higher education. Brooks has written before about how college graduation is one of the main dividing lines in American society. Culturally speaking, those who attend an institution of higher education are more likely to engage in certain behaviors, watch certain shows, own certain cars, vote for certain candidates, etc. (and yes, they tend to be the things you associate with latte-sipping, Subaru-driving, Jon Stewart-watching, Obama-voting people, such as yours truly–minus the Subaru, which we gave up for the Toyota minivan; but of course we never would have seriously considered buying an American car–that’s so… bourgeois).

In this column, however, Brooks points out one of the major looming shifts in how we think about higher education in America, which is the prevalence of community colleges. There are over 5,000 institutions of higher education in America, and over 14 million students in those institutions. Think about that for a second. If you tried to name as many colleges and universities as you could, you might be able to come up with 200, or less than 5 percent of the total number of higher ed institutions in the country. Of those many institutions you probably couldn’t name, nearly 1,200, or close to 25 percent, are community colleges, and 11.5 million of those 14 million students are enrolled in them.

The Chronicle of Higher Education runs a supplement once or twice a year on community colleges, and I, like many others I presume, toss it in the recycling before even giving it a glance. But Brooks reminds us that community colleges are not only important loci of diversity in education; they are, because of their lower cost, harbingers of the future. The day is fast approaching (in California, it came yesterday), when even we who have figured we were sending our kids to prestigious universities aren’t going to be able to afford it. The kids of more people that you know will be attending community college, experimenting with other delivery options for higher education (distance learning while living on some kind of campus that provides a student life experience and mentoring by tutors who are cheaper than tenured faculty), or avoiding college altogether. The economics is simply going to drive it, and higher education in the U.S. is going to look very different than it does today.

The double Torah reading of Matot-Masei feels like an anticlimax, particularly if we buy the notion that Deuteronomy in an important way is its own separate book. This should be the stirring ending to the narrative of the last four books. Yet here we have rules for vow-making, negotiations over living outside the borders of the land of Israel, establishment of cities of refuge, and the thrilling idea that one should not marry out of one’s own tribe. Aside from the war against Midian, this isn’t the stuff of thrilling conclusions.

Yet it’s important, and the general theme of these rules lies in the tension between individual needs and passions and communal responsibilities. In each case, an individual takes an action that puts a strain on the communal fabric. Marriage is not a personal act, but a communal one, and must therefore be undertaken with the community in mind. Similarly cities of refuge exist so that private matters–revenge killings–do not strain the communal structure. The dialogue between Moses and Reuben, Gad and Menashe also highlights this tension, as Moses insists that the tribes agree to fulfill their communal duties before their private wishes of living on the other side of the Jordan.

In the case of the war against Midian, Rashi offers us an insight into Moses’s personal struggle in this regard. We must first remember that Moses himself has a close connection with the Midianites, as his wife is one of them. And we must further bear in mind that Moses understands that upon fulfillment of this commandment he himself will die, as God clearly states: “Avenge the Israelites against Midian, afterward you will be gathered unto your people” (Num. 31:2). Rashi notes that the very next words are “And Moses spoke to the children of Israel,” to command them to make war against Midian: “Even though he heard that his death was tied up in the act, he carried out his orders happily and without delay.” That is to say, even in the ultimate moment of his life, with his own death around the corner, Moses puts communal priorities ahead of his own.

All of this is rooted in the opening of the parasha, with the commandment that whenever one makes a vow, “he shall not violate his word; all that leaes his mouth he shall do” (Num. 30:2). When we speak, when we make a promise, we commit ourselves to something larger than us. Our private world is now a part of the larger world through the medium of language and the concept of contracts and covenants. To live as an island, as John Donne reminds us, is impossible. As the Israelites are about to cross into the land of Canaan, this is the Torah’s major theme. It all comes down to keeping our word and living a live in responsibility to our fellow travelers.

Shabbat shalom:

In his usual fashion, David Brooks thoughtfully explores the bevy of screw-ups in recent weeks by politicians. He traces their inability to deal with reality in a dignified way to the loss of “the dignity code” of yesteryear. Here’s the heart of his article:

The dignity code itself has been completely obliterated. The rules that guided Washington and generations of people after him are simply gone.

We can all list the causes of its demise. First, there is capitalism. We are all encouraged to become managers of our own brand, to do self-promoting end zone dances to broadcast our own talents. Second, there is the cult of naturalism. We are all encouraged to discard artifice and repression and to instead liberate our own feelings. Third, there is charismatic evangelism with its penchant for public confession. Fourth, there is radical egalitarianism and its hostility to aristocratic manners.

The old dignity code has not survived modern life. The costs of its demise are there for all to see. Every week there are new scandals featuring people who simply do not know how to act.

At the same time as I read this article, I saw this piece from my friend Jay Michaelson in the Forward (yes, I may be the first to put Jay and Brooks in the same post). Jay writes about the distractions our minds and hearts drag us towards, chiefly doing busywork instead of work developing our own souls, and about how they manifest themselves both in the “small stuff” of our lives and the larger issues of life on the planet:

This is true on a micro and a macro level. The micro level I’ve already described: how most of us have to drag ourselves to synagogue or yoga class or the gym or whatever works for our personal development, even though afterward we’re so grateful that we did. In fact, just this lesson — not to trust the heart and not to believe the mind — is, itself, “worth the price of admission,” so to speak. I suspect we wouldn’t have quite so much bigotry, antisemitism and cruelty if we all second-guessed our gut reactions a bit more.

It’s true on a macro level, as well. Many of us, if we are basically happy and healthy, are often fine just the way we are. Like our obliviously content ex-president, we don’t see the effects of our spiritual atrophy. We don’t know what we’re missing: how much more compassionate, loving or just we could be, and how much energy we’re needlessly dissipating on the maintenance of the ego and the fulfillment of its demands. And this ignorance has consequences.

Some consequences are social or, perhaps, political. For example, the great achievement of mainstream America has been to hide the costs of its profligacy. We love Wal-Mart because we don’t see the sweatshops. We love SUVs because we don’t see their effects on penguins and polar bears. And until recently, those of us who were well off financially could easily ignore those who were not. Yes, the Torah, and our secular values, call us to responsibility (Exodus 23:9, Deuteronomy 15:7), but my experience is that without some inner work to actually open the heart (Deuteronomy 30:6), such calls fall on deaf ears.

The message I hear resonating between both these pieces is that living well–living right–requires discipline. It requires habits. And if we don’t consciously create the habits we want to have, chances are we’ll wind up having bad habits, the consequences of which extend profoundly beyond the confines of our supposedly private little worlds. Whether you get it from the Bible or from Kant, the lesson is the same: Everything we do matters.

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