July 2010

There’s a compelling piece in this morning’s eJewishPhilanthropy about the sad reality of how little Jews think of their rabbis. The writer, Adir Glick, refers to a survey by the Elijah Interfaith Institute (no link provided, unfortunately) that shows that Jews have the lowest opinion of their religious leadership among all world religions. Glick links this to Jews’ rejection of their own religious life and embrace of others, such as Buddhism.

What struck me the most in reading the article, however, was the way in which Glick contrasted rabbinic or religious leadership with secular leadership within the Jewish community: “Religious leaders are more than simply teachers, community organizers, or professors – they are spiritual shepherds,” he writes. He relates that at a conference in Israel he once saw “how a Burmese Buddhist monk stayed up late every night to teach Burmese foreign workers, who came from across Israel to sit on the grass and listen. I call this selflessness and dedication religious leadership.”

A little further on in the article, Glick asks, “where can we turn for spiritual and moral leadership, if not to our rabbis? Religious education is more than an academic pursuit.” [Emphasis added.]

Jews, according to Glick, have too-easily embraced the notion that our leaders are simply human. When we allow ourselves to have loftier conceptions of our leadership, we inevitably wind up being disappointed. For Glick, the recent story of Rabbi Mordechai Elon is proof of this. But the list could include any number of rabbis who have committed criminal acts, or, on a much lesser scale, simply let down their flocks by failing to be everything they wanted them to be. (more…)

Every week for the last several years I have studied Talmud with the same havruta, or study partner. The purpose of this learning is strictly lishmah, for its own sake. Our learning takes us in many directions, and we have worked our way in and around several different tractates of the Talmud–Sanhedrin, Bava Kamma, and for the last year or so Bava Metziah, which deals with issues pertaining to movable property.

Even though our study is strictly lishmah, I have often wanted to write down the notes from our conversations, because frequently we achieve some very good insights, and, as readers of my blog know, I find I do a lot of my own thinking and clarification in the process of writing. So I’m going to give a shot of summarizing a bit of our discussion, and we’ll see how it goes. Please let me know what you think.

We are currently at Bava Metziah 38a, in the middle of the third chapter, which generally deals with cases about depositing items with another person. The Mishnah on this page details a disagreement between the Tanna Kamma (first teacher) and Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel: “One who deposits fruit with another , and the fruit begins to go bad: he should not touch it. Rabban Shimon ben Gamaliel says: He should sell it before a beit din (rabbinic court), because it is like returning a lost object to its owners.” What is the issue in the Mishnah? Rabban Shimon’s statement seems to make perfect sense: If you are watching your neighbor’s fruit, and you see it’s going bad, you should sell it and then return the money to your neighbor. Why wouldn’t you do this?

The Gemara provides two rationales: Rav Kahana explains that “A person prefers his own [produce] to nine times the produce of his neighbor.” Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak says: We are worried that perhaps the owner had designated the produce he gave to his friend as terumah and maaser, tithed food, which are only allowed to be eaten by Kohanim and Levites, respectively. If so, then the person who buys the produce from its guardian will wind up eating prohibited food (unless, of course, he is a Kohen or Levi).

The Gemara proceeds to work out these two explanations and unpack the differences between them. You can look at that discussion for yourself. For my purposes right now, I want to dwell on the difference between Rav Kahana and Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak. One of the things that seems to be at stake between the two of them centers around our relationship to the product of our labor. Rav Kahana appeals to what he sees as a general principle of human nature, namely that people prefer what they themselves have had a hand in harvesting or creating. While one tomato seems interchangable with another when you’re in the grocery store, the tomatoes you eat from the plant in your backyard are different, better–not necessarily because they taste better, but because they’re yours. That’s his thinking, at least (and, from personal experience, I’d agree with that, at least as it applies to my own tastes).

For Rav Nachman bar Yitzhak, the question is one of responsibility: The guardian of the produce might inadvertantly cause the buyer of the produce to sin by eating prohibited food. We are accountable to one another, and therefore we have to be on guard against such a possibility. (One wonders as one reads the Gemara, why not simply ask the owner if he had designated the produce as terumah or ma’aser? This is part of the solution that is brought down as law in the Shulchan Arukh.) Rav Nachman wants to be on guard in order to protect an unwitting consumer.

In a non-agrarian, capitalist economy, much of this might strike us as foreign. We are not terribly familiar with the rules of tithing, and most of us don’t grow our own food. For us, an apple or an orange or an ear of corn are simply things we exchange for cash and then consume. But for Rav Kahana, our food is something with which we have a relationship–not even symbolically, but essentially. The food doesn’t even need to point to something else; it, in and of itself, is something with which we have a relationship, and therefore we prefer our own food to that of someone else.

Similarly, for Rav Nachman, food is not something that can easily be disposed of and converted into capital. There are rules about food, rules that have the effect of checking our ability to immediately exchange our produce for cash. Those rules remind us of social obligations to one another (remember that the Levites were grouped by the Torah with other poor people: widows, orphans, and strangers) and to God: “For the Earth is mine, and you are strangers and sojourners with Me.” (Lev. 25:23)

Yet capital is not a bad thing either. Rabban Shimon’s original statement in the Mishnah is about social obligations as well: We have a responsibility to our neighbors to make sure they don’t needlessly lose money, just as we have an obligation to return their lost property. And those responsibilities can best be discharged by converting the rotting produce into cash, which, unlike the rotting fruit, can be returned to the owners.

The sugya (Talmudic discussion) is therefore playing with several factors: human nature, responsibilities to the law and to our neighbors, and the network of relationships that exist between individuals, the earth, and God. It reminds us both of some of the problems inherent in capitalism and some of its virtues. All of it, fundamentally, is rooted in the idea that we have a relationship with the earth and its produce–something we have sadly lost and could all stand to reclaim.

The Kol Nidrei prayer, recited on the evening of Yom Kippur, is perhaps the most famous in all of Jewish liturgy:

All vows, obligations, oaths or anathemas, pledges of all names, which we have vowed, sworn, devoted, or bound ourselves to, from this day of atonement, until the next day of atonement (whose arrival we hope for in happiness) we repent, aforehand, of them all, they shall all be deemed absolved, forgiven, annulled, void and made of no effect; they shall not be binding, nor have any power; the vows shall not be reckoned as vows, the obligations shall not be obligatory, nor the oaths considered as oaths.
While there are fascinating details about the story of Kol Nidrei’s origins and its entry into the Yom Kippur service, the question I would put forward at the moment is why Kol Nidrei comes when it does, just as we begin the Day of Atonement.

To answer that question, it is useful to consider the language that opens this week’s Torah portion, Matot-Masei: “When a man makes a vow to the LORD or takes an oath to obligate himself by a pledge, he must not break his word but must do everything he said.” (Num. 30:3) The Torah proceeds to elaborate how a vow (made by a woman) may be annulled within a set of rules. But the fundamental point here is the sacrosanct nature of an oath or vow: it is so powerful that one must go through a significant legal process to undo it. The fundamental presumption is, as the Torah states, that one is obligated to do that which one promises to do.

Fast-forward now to a later moment in the Torah portion, when the tribes of Gad and Reuben come before Moses and the Elders to ask that they be allowed to stay on the eastern side of the Jordan river, and not cross into the Land of Canaan. Moses’s first response is disappointment and anger. “Shall your countrymen go to war while you sit here? Why do you discourage the Israelites from going over into the land the LORD has given them?” (Num. 32:6-7) He proceeds to compare the tribes to the spies who, forty years earlier, had discouraged the Israelites (turned and prevented their hearts, says Rashi) from entering the land. Now, Moses says, Reuben and Gad are doing precisely the same thing.

Finally the tribes agree to go to battle with the rest of the Israelites, and only once the war is over to return to the eastern side of the river. At this moment, Moses states the terms of the agreement, reminding them of what they have said they will do, and that they will be considered sinners if they fail to do so. And then, in language directly parallel to the opening verses of the parasha we quoted above, Moses simply says, “Do what you have promised.” (Num. 32:24)

Reuben and Gad were presumed to be joining the rest of the Israelites on the western side of the Jordan. Their desire to separate themselves creates a literal rupture in the life of the people. And the way that tear is stitched together again is through a promise. We might say that it is no ordinary promise, but as Moses’s words and God’s own instructions on vows and oaths make clear, there is no such thing as an ordinary promise. “All that leaves your mouth you shall do.” Our words, and specifically our promises, create worlds–they create debts and expectations, they shape the world as we know it. Our promises are holy. They hold the world together. A rupture can be repaired with a promise. And a promise broken creates a rupture, a violation of trust, a violated covenant.

So now back to Yom Kippur and Kol Nidrei. Yom Kippur is the day when we press the reset button on our lives. It is the day of complete and total forgiveness. And it is a day when we stand outside the world, as it were: we do not eat, drink, wash, or engage in any of our normal bodily activities that signify our involvement in society. It is a day on which we are simply and powerfully human. In order for us to be whole, we need to know that our debts are forgiven. And likewise, in order for society to fade away for the day of Yom Kippur–in order to reach that sublime level of simplicity–we need to be able to operate outside of promises. So we say Kol Nidrei, in order to create the moment in time when can restore our covenant with God.

Shabbat shalom.