April 2010


On a recent rainy Sunday afternoon my kids and I went to the Field Museum. While we have been there before and seen the dinosaur bones and the dioramas of mammoths and mastadons, on this occasion we went into the exhibit called “Evolving Planet.” In vivid form, the exhibit took us through the major geological periods of earth’s development, from the formation of the planet through its cooling, to the emergence of the first life forms, and through the hundreds of millions of years of development of oragnisms, up to the present day.

I don’t know what was different about this visit to a natural history museum. I’ve been to many before. But somehow during this visit I felt in a profound way just how tiny and insignificant our lives are. When you think about the history of the earth in terms of six billion years, or even just (!) the 250 million years since the dinosaurs roamed the planet, and you consider that what we know of human civilization is only a few thousand years old, it puts whatever accomplishments or failures you’ve had into perspective.

Time has enormous power to contextualize. “To everything there is a season,” says Kohelet (Ecclesiastes), “and a time for every purpose under heaven.” Viewed against the vast expanse of the existence of the universe, our lives can indeed seem insignificant. “Vanity of vanities, all is vanity,” as Kohelet also says. What is the point of each of these discreet moments, if ultimately no one will remember us?

And yet Parshat Emor which we read this week reminds us that time can and does maintain significance, if we are willing to acknowledge it. “These are the festivals of the LORD, holy convocations which you shall proclaim at their appointed times.” (Lev. 23:4) The Rabbis learn from this verse a key element that distinguishes Shabbat from the other holidays: While Shabbat is God’s, and happens every seven days of its own accord, the festivals are dependent on the proclamation of the new moon by the Rabbinic court. That is, the power to set the time of the festivals resides in human hands, within limits set by God.

Marking time is the first act of Jewish life. “This shall be the first of the months,” God tells Moses and Aaron in Egypt (Ex. 12:2). Before the Exodus can happen, God requires a human action–marking time. The festivals depend on our proclamation and recognition, to such an extent that the Talmud records that one year, when the Rabbinic court proclaimed Rosh Hashanah a day later than the angels expected it, God told the angels to come back tomorrow in order to hear the prayers of the Jewish people.

However small our lives may seem, however insignificant our actions appear in the grand course of universal history, the Torah reminds us of the uniqueness, the immense power of our creation in God’s image. We have the power to order our world, to mark time and to make moments of significance, moments of meaning. And that reality is just as powerful and real as the billions of years of history that have come before us.

Shabbat shalom.

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There are five possibilities. One: Adam fell.
Two: he was pushed. Three: he jumped. Four:
he looked over the edge, and one look silenced him.
Five: nothing worth mentioning happened to Adam.
The first, that he fell, is too simple. The fourth,
fear, we have tried. It’s useless. The fifth,
nothing happened, is dull. The possibilities are these:
he jumped or was pushed. And the difference between them
is only an issue of whether the demons
work from the inside out or from the outside
in: the one
theological question.

~ “Essay on Adam” by Robert Bringhurst (b. 1946)

My wife introduced me to this poem a number of years ago, and it has resonated with me ever since. What strikes me most about it is the subtlety to which it draws our attention: the line between what happens to us and what we make happen ourselves. Our modern sense of self is built on a notion of agency–our decisions as rational actors are what define us as human beings. Behavior which is irrational, behavior that is coerced, doesn’t carry the same legitimacy. In the modern world, the demons are meant to work only from within.

Yet, to borrow a phrase, “stuff happens.” Life is not only the story we write, the decisions we make for ourselves. As much, if not more, comes from what is beyond our control: the decisions made by our parents, and their parents, and their parents before them, that resulted in us being born in the time and place we were; the decisions of governments and armies and business people; the decisions of so many people beyond us. These decisions and events shape us.

I raise this now because this week’s double-parasha, Acharei Mot-Kedoshim, dances around this point of decision. While last week’s parasha dealt with the things that happen to us, this week’s seems to focus more on that which is in our control: the people we sleep with, the ways we behave, the actions we take or fail to take to uphold the ideal of kedusha, holiness.

Central to the parasha of Acharei Mot is the Yom Kippur ritual. And at the center of that ritual is the casting of lots. Two identical goats–according to the Rabbis, identical in every respect–are brought forward, and lots are cast. One of them is to be sacrificed to God, the other will have the sins of all of Israel confessed upon it, and will be thrown over a cliff in the wilderness.

The word for lot in Hebrew is goral. Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote movingly of the notion of a brit goral, a “covenant of fate.” One of the essential aspects of this covenant, and of Yom Kippur, is recognizing that our lives are not simply the stories we write for ourselves, though we must be responsible for that which is in our control. As important, if not more so, is realizing that our lives are a tapestry, woven of our own choices and those of others that wind up affecting us. We are not the authors of our destiny; “the universe” (the colloquial stand in for “God” these days) is.

This brings us back to the poem. The “one theological question” referred to is this one: where does our own story end and the story of another begin?

Shabbat shalom.

The Torah portion of Tazria-Metzora presents a perennial problem: how to make meaningful the picayune details of ancient laws rooted in faulty science which seem so entirely foreign to our thinking today. This is Leviticus at its most Leviticusyness.

One approach in recent years has been to focus on the act of world-creation that happens in the phrases uttered by the priests who look at the skin disease tzara’at and pronounce the diseased pure or impure. In gazing at a new phenomenon and ascribing to it a name, the kohen re-enacts the work of Adam at the beginning of time: naming, ordering, creating a moral universe through words. This line of explanation partakes of the midrashic tradition that links tzara’at to lashon hara, or malicious speech about others. In the Torah’s system of actions and consequences, such speech leads to a disease, the result of which is the kohen using speech to ultimately cast out the gossiper from the community. Speech creates, and speech destroys, the world.

This approach echoes the philosophical approach of Jurgen Habermas (who for years taught at Northwestern). Habermas’s school is known as discourse ethics, and focuses on how our words construct our worlds. Choosing our words with care is essential to creating and sustaining our relationships and our civil society.

Habermas’s philosophical interlocutor is Michel Foucault. In contrast to Habermas’s focus on the power of words, Foucault follows in the tradition of Friedrich Nietszche, who aimed to reveal a philosophy of embodied, physical power. Foucault spent years studying those who are physically excluded from and marginalized by society–most notably in prison. For Foucault, it is not words that create a universe, but the power dynamics of the body that generate the words we use. ‘Civil society’ is a chimera that obscures disparities in class, race, gender, sexual orientation–these things cannot be overcome simply by words; in fact, the bodily drives the intellectual.

In this line of thinking, there is a Foucauldian reading of Tazria-Metzora as well. In fact, it is much closer to the peshat, the plain meaning of the text. The physical issues presented by the people in the parasha are entirely physical, and they are ultimately excluded from some way in full participation in society. To say that a woman who gives birth, or a man who has a seminal discharge, is impure, is not simply an act of discourse; it is an act of power politics that keeps certain people–average, everyday people, who engage in the average, everday acts of the body–from centers of power. And it leads to an ethical disposition towards sexual taboos, which are really about preserving a certain kind of regime.

We can raise a number of questions on both of these approaches, and a good chunk of academic theory these days takes place at their point of intersection. But listening to them also reminds us that Torah is a different kind of discourse, a different kind of ethics, one that seeks to unify even as it breaks apart. The person afflicted with tzara’at ultimately has a route back into the camp; the zav or zavah ultimately comes back into the community. The hierarchical order created by the langauge of tahor and tamei, pure and impure, is, as Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai states in the midrash, not a reflection of a physical reality. The biological and the cognitive exist in a braided relationship which cannot be reduced to either Habermasian or Foucauldian ethics.They are aspects of a unity that transcends either, the unity of God, in whose image the human is created.

Shabbat shalom.

The following are remarks I delivered at the Yom Hashoah observance on Monday evening. For an audio version, click here.

Several years ago, the writer Daniel Mendelsohn came to Northwestern to talk about his Holocaust-related memoir, The Lost. In his talk, Mendelsohn reflected on one of the key questions of his book, namely what effects, if any, are at play in the discrepancies between historical truth and the truth of memory. Does it make a difference, Mendelsohn asked, if the historical records show that cousin Fayge died in 1942 and not 1943, as Bubbe remembered it? Or if she was born in 1922, and not 1924, as Zayde insists? Does it make a difference if she spelled her name with an i and not a y, or if her birthmark was on the left arm and not the right?

These are seemingly small details, separated by orders of magnitude from questions of the historical veracity of the Holocaust. What they remind us of, however, is that we are at a critical moment, a “hinge moment,” as Mendelsohn put it. We are at a moment when the Holocaust, the Shoah, is swinging, when it is moving from being memory to being history.

Chief Rabbi Sir Jonathan Sacks of Great Britain writes in his Passover Haggadah that history is his story—a story from which are a separate, something we are able to objectify and treat at a remove. Memory, by contrast, is my story, our story. Memory is lived. It is, in the psycho-social sense, an imagination, an imaginary—it is a world we enter into and which enters into us. Or, perhaps, memory is that which constitutes our world. To be human is to have memory, to remember and to re-member—to constitute ourselves by making ourselves members of our story. To remember is to fulfill our role as the constituents, the custodians, of memory.

The work of Holocaust history and scholarship, of documenting and quantifying and using the best of science to understand what happened—this work is vital. But that work runs parallel with the task of remembering, of telling and making meaning, of telling and retelling again. If the former is the work of historians, the latter is the work of artists and actors, writers and musicians, poets and clergymen.

That is why we gather here. That is why we tell our stories: not simply to dryly testify to the historical facticity of the Holocaust, but to do what the Rabbis of two thousand years ago instructed us to do at the Passover seder that we enacted not two weeks ago: b’khol dor va’dor hayav adam lirot et atzmo k’ilu hu yatzah memitzrayim – In every generation each individual is obligated to see himself as if he personally left Egypt. Today we can add that in each generation, each individual is obligated to see himself as if he personally lived through the Shoah. I hesitate to specify whether we must see ourselves as having survived or perished – we are perhaps still too close to the events to know how we lived through. But we must see ourselves as having been there, having suffered. Not to be despondent, not to be fatalistic, not to wallow in self-pity, but simply and powerfully to imagine ourselves as part of the story of the Shoah. That is our duty, to those who perished, to those who survived, and to ourselves. We must make the stories of the Shoah our stories, if we are to keep memory from becoming simply history.

It is that simple, and yet it cannot possibly be that simple. For the phrase “Never Forget,” which has become the motto of the lampcarriers of zekher haShoah, of Shoah memory, begs a question of interpretation: On whose behalf are we not to forget? When we say Never Forget, do we do so on behalf of the khallalei ha-Shoah, the victims and their families? Or do we do so on behalf of humanity as a whole, for the Nazis’ attack upon very concept of what it means to be human?

Likewise, when we utter the more muscular phrase ‘Never Again,’ how do we mean it? To what extent is the Shoah a unique feature of Jewish life, and to what extent is it a feature of the life of humanity as a whole? When we say ‘Never Again,’ do we mean Never again for the Jews? Or do we mean Never again for anyone?

A year ago today, my family and I observed Yom Hashoah in Israel. My wife and I purposely got our kids in the car and began driving so that we would be on the road when the air raid sirens sounded. We wanted our children to see and feel what Yom Hashoah in Israel is: a moment of national unity, a moment of shared memory. When the siren sounds, every Jewish man, woman, and child across the country stops what they are doing—they rise from their desks at work, they stop walking in the shopping malls, they pull their cars to the side of the road and stand at attention. In this singular moment, time overrides space, and commands the attention of a nation.

No one else could observe Yom Hashoah this way, because the Shoah is a unique memory of the Jewish people. (Not, I would hasten to add, because the Holocaust provides the raison d’etre of the State of Israel. That false storyline has sadly become popularized of late, a testament both to the effectiveness of Holocaust education, and ineffectiveness of Zionist education, on the general American public. Zionism predates the Shoah by two generations, and the State of Israel was being built before the ovens of Auschwitz and Treblinka. The Shoah perhaps hastened, but certainly did not cause, the establishment of Medinat Yisrael. But I digress.)

The Shoah is a unique memory of the Jewish people. Am Yisrael, the Jewish people, will and must always have a unique memory of the Shoah. The memory of the six million is part of our inheritance, and we are therefore its primary custodians. And yet humanity as a whole must also not only learn the history, but internalize the memory, of the Holocaust. All of us have this duty, whether or not we are Jews. The Holocaust is both a singular event in Jewish history, and sadly only the most grandiose of a tragic litany of genocides in human history.

So when we say Never Again, we mean both: Never Again for the Jews, and Never Again for anyone:

Never Again for Armenia,
Never Again for Cambodia,
Never Again for Yugoslavia,
Never Again for Rwanda,
Never Again for Sudan,
Never Again for Congo,
Never Again for anyone.

And when we say Never Forget, we likewise say it for ourselves and for all of humanity. Particularly now, at this hinge moment of history, when we say Never Forget, we remind and rededicate ourselves to not only learning the facts of history, but to kindling the flame of memory. Particularly now, particularly today, we must remember to remember.

The Torah portion of Shemini (Leviticus 9:1-11:47) should represent the heights of the Israelites’ relationship with God. The name of the portion means “the eighth,” referring to the eighth day after the consecration of the mishkan, the Tabernacle. Eight is a number of super-completion–seven plus one, the days of creation plus the beginning of a new cycle–and it was on this day that the operation of the mishkan finally and fully took hold, with the inauguration of the kohanim, the priests.

But immediately after this moment, everything comes to a crashing and silent halt:

Aaron’s sons Nadav and Avihu took their censers, put fire in them and added incense; and they offered unauthorized fire before the LORD, contrary to his command. So fire came out from the presence of the LORD and consumed them, and they died before the LORD. (Lev. 10:1-2)

What precisely did Nadav and Avihu do? What was their eish zarah, their strange, unauthorized fire? The Rabbinic tradition offers a number of different thoughts, some of them metaphorical: perhaps they were drunk (and thus Moses’s instruction immediately afterwards that the priests may not drink wine while on duty); perhaps they were haughty, and arrogantly taught the law in front of their elders, Moses and Aaron. Perhaps, as Rabbi David Weiss Halivni used to comment every year at my old shul in New York, the eish zarah was the study of foreign thought and philosophy.

Whatever the case, the story ultimately tells us something that perhaps escapes our ability to capture in words, about the fire of closeness. For the Torah continues:

Moses then said to Aaron, “This is what the LORD spoke of when he said:
“‘Among those who approach me
I will show myself holy;
in the sight of all the people
I will be honored.'”
Aaron remained silent.
The approach to God is one of playing with fire. Like all of our most intimate relationships, it contains a paradox: While we feel an intense sense of closeness, even a symbiosis, with someone with whom we are intimate, we also know that precisely because of that trust and closeness, there are some things that we can’t say. If we know another so well, we learn that we have a responsibility not to say certain things, even though our relationship is characterized by an intense honesty at the heart of love.

So too, perhaps, with the Divine. The last line of the passage above, “And Aaron was silent,” has been taken to mean that Aaron–the man of words, in comparison to his brother Moses–accepted the tragic loss of his sons. But as my teacher Rabbi Avi Weiss was fond of saying, this passage also reminds us that often times, in our relationship with God as with humans, there are moments that transcend words, moments when words are wholly and fully inadequate, and when we must simply be, and be with one another, in silence.

Shabbat shalom.