January 2011


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This week saw one of the biggest outbursts of widespread student civic engagement I’ve witnessed in my six years at Northwestern. It came about after word spread (apparently falsely, according to Mayor Elizabeth Tisdahl) that the city would begin enforcement of an old law, still on the books but heretofore unenforced, that prohibits more than three unrelated people from sharing a dwelling. The Mayor refers to this as the “three unrelated rule,” while the campus has dubbed it with the more interesting title, “the brothel law.”

Students absorbed the message that the maximum size of apartments would now be limited to 3 roommates. Fears spread that available rooms would decrease, rents would increase, and students would have to move farther from campus. All of this spilled over in a 500-person town hall meeting on campus on Tuesday night, which, according to many students I’ve spoken with since, was a tense affair.

(As an important side note, to me this illustrates the potential power of reinstating the draft in America. If students can get this animated about where they will live and who they will live with, imagine if they had to deal with the question of fighting in a war. But I digress.)

What interests me in all of this, and what I find resonant as we approach Parshat Mishpatim this week, is what seems an ancillary issue but is nonetheless at the core of the debate: What does it mean to have a law on the books which is not enforced?

Parshat Mishpatim is, at its Hebrew name suggest, replete with laws, covering topics from how to treat slaves, to helping your enemy’s donkey when it is overburdened, to not cooking milk and meat together. It is one of the places in the Torah in which the “eye for an eye” rule is stated. In places it is inspiringly clear, in others more murky and ambiguous. Nevertheless, it serves as the basis for a large corpus of Jewish law, and entire tractates of the Talmud.

Like the Evanston City code, or any legal code for that matter, Parshat Mishpatim contains laws that are no longer applied, or which we even find legally or morally problematic many years after they were written. The deep question has been, and remains, what do you do with texts that are no longer not on

ly irrelevant, but fundamentally problematic? Do you simply cut out the bad parts and leave behind a sanitized version, as Thomas Jefferson did with his Bible? Do you take the words seriously, and reconcile yourself to the notion that we are not in a position to act on these words, but that, in an ideal world, we would?

There other options between these extremes, and Jewish readers and thinkers have embraced them for millennia. The notion of an Oral Torah, given along with the Written Torah, was the ancient Rabbis’ response to this tension, which was already present at their own time. By treating the written text as canonical, and by believing in the legitimacy and imperative for interpretation, the Rabbis of the Mishnah and the Talmud were able to massage the text and keep reading it, allowing the text to expand and breathe and live. The “eye for an eye”clause is a fine example: While the literal meaning of the Torah in Exodus 21:24 would seem to indicate that one should literally poke out the eye of one who poked out another’s eye, early on in Jewish history the Rabbis interpreted this to mean that one pays the value of the eye in compensation; we don’t actually poke out another’s eye.

And yet the law remains on the books, as do other passages we might find problematic today. Because to excise those passages opens up a host of problems about authenticity and authority: Who gave us authority to edit the Bible? and the like. The very question at hand presumes that the words we say, the laws we enact, have to be completely aligned with our values, our interior sense of right and wrong. Anything less strikes us as hypocrisy, and that’s what gives “religion” today a bad rap in the eyes of many.

But what the Rabbis realized is that long-term relationships, covenantal relationships–with people and with texts–are complex and dynamic. They have to be appoached with a sense of commitment, a sense of trust, a sense of faith. They do evolve and breathe and grow, if we let them. These relationships–and the people and texts within them–evolve over time with one another. They are organic, not mechanical. The language of replacing parts or reprogramming, of rewriting legislation, doesn’t apply nearly as well to these systems as does the language of evolution and adaptation, growth and decay, trust and love.

Which brings us back to Evanston and the students of Northwestern. An important theme that seemed to be at play in this whole episode was the missing relationship between the students of Evanston and the city of Evanston. Without relationship, there can be no trust and no dialogue. And, guess what: the president of the university, who has built a strong relationship with the mayor, was able to solve the problem within 24 hours of the town hall meeting. My guess is that trust and commitment, and the salvific effect they have on communication, played an important role.

Our relationships with text, with living texts like the Torah or our own laws, are like our relationships with people. They require time and tending, trust and communication. If we nurture those relationships, we will be richer and healthier for it.

Shabbat shalom.

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Rabbi Josh Feigelson, Rev. Jason Harris (Reformed University Fellowship) and Associate University Chaplain Tahera Ahmad discuss religion, suffering, and violence at a fireside at the Cultural and Community Studies residential college on January 24, 2011. Moderated by Prof. Nathan Hedman. Click here to listen.

The Talmud (Brachot 45a) records the following discussion: From where do we know that, in the ancient practice of reading the Torah, when an interpreter would translate the Hebrew words of the Torah reader into Aramaic, the interpreter was not allowed to raise his voice above the level of the reader? From the verse: “Moses spoke, and God answered him in a voice.” What does the text mean when it says “in a voice?” asks the Talmud. “The voice of Moses,” meaning the same volume as Moses’s voice.

The medieval commentary of the Tosafot, among others, asks an important question on this statement: If the relationships in the metaphor work like this: Speaker is to Moses as Interpreter is to God, how can the Talmud say such a thing? How can the Talmud imply that God is not the speaker at the moment of revelation, but merely the interpreter? Tosafot, following the explanation of Rabbi Yitzhak Alfasi (Rif) answers that God spoke to Moses in a loud voice, and Moses would then answer God in a loud voice—and yet God would still speak loudly so that Moses’s voice would not be louder than God’s.

Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, author of the 19th century Hassidic work Mei Hashiloach and known as the Ishbitzer Rebbe, offers his own understanding of this reading. The Ishbitzer points out that God could simply inscribe the words of Torah directly on the hearts of the Israelites. Why then does God need Moses in the first place? Why speak? Why not simply communicate directly to the people’s hearts? He answers that, in essence, God performs an act of tzimtzum, divine contraction, in order to make space for Moses to achieve the spiritual heights that Moses achieves. God allows revelation to occur not through supernatural communication, but through the natural, physical process of speech and hearing, complete with all its deficiencies and ambiguities, with the need for interpretation and translation inherent in any act of human communication. In so doing, God allows for the gap between divine and human in which human becoming—as epitomized by Moses—can take place.

An even more radical reading comes from Prof. Art Green in his book Seek My Face, in which he goes back to the statement in the Talmud that “God spoke in the voice of Moses.” Though the Talmud seems to mean that God spoke at the same volume level as Moses, Art reads the line at face value: God actually spoke in the voice of Moses. That is, at the moment of revelation, the voice of God and the voice of Moses were identical, indistinguishable. Art thus takes the Ishbitzer one step further, making the gap between divine and human even more tantalizingly close.
And yet the gap persists. No matter how close or far we may posit God, no matter where on the Maimonidean to Hasidic spectrum we may lie, the whole concept of revelation rests on the notion that there is something beyond what we experience—something deeper, something richer, something truer. Whether God is far away in heaven or at the threshold of our lips, God is still beyond us, calling us to be something more than what we are and yet something we are capable of being.

Shabbat shalom.

The word shir in Hebrew has a double-meaning, or a double-translation, in English: A shir is both a song and a poem. Whereas we make these two distinct, though often connected, experiences, in Hebrew they remain fused, ambiguous.

It is with that understanding that we begin to think about Shabbat Shira, the Shabbat of Song whose names comes from the most prominent song of the Torah, the Song at the Sea. Or perhaps it is the Shabbat of Poetry, from the Poem at the sea? Our association with song, with music, is so strong that already in the act of translating Shabbat Shirah we slip and don’t give poetry its due.

But let’s think about poetry for a little bit. Poetry is a different way of communicating, a different way of thinking. Prose is powerful because it is linear, because it can lay out an argument and prove it. But poetry has other powers, powers of persuasion that appeal to a different part of our beings. Vladimir Jankelevitch helps us think about the uses of poetry (and music) by contrasting them with the linear, scientific ways of prose: “One would criticize a mathematician or a civil code for saying the same thing twice when saying it once is sufficient. But one does not reproach a Psalmist for repeating himself—because he aims to create religious obsession in us and not develop ideas.”

The Shirah, the Poem-Song of the Sea, does not speak in straight lines. It is built on repetitions and cadences, it is sung to a special tune. Its purpose is not to make a point through logic, but to arouse our passion and speak to our imagination. Foreshadowing the midrash on Revelation we will read next week, the midrash this week memorably states that, at the Sea, a handmaiden saw more than the  prophet Ezekiel. The experience of salvation was prophetic; it was not logical. And so its expression is in poetry and song, not in the linear forms of prose.

Poetry is something of a lost and misunderstood world for most Americans these days. Even in our Torah learning, we look for historical, scientific, rational explanations, and we can feel a bit displaced (or even freak out) when the understandings we explore do not jibe with the rules of science. But to try to explain miracles like the Splitting of the Sea according to science is missing the point; it is using the wrong language.

Parker Palmer writes that the inner truth of the heart “is not well-served by the language of science, social science, or management theory. Inner truth is best conveyed by the language of the heart, of image and metaphor, of poetry, and it is best understood by people for whom poetry is a second language.” What is poetry, he asks, “if not, among other things, an instrument that helps us take readings of our own hearts?”

As we talk this week about how to talk better, how to understand one another, how to be a more civil society, perhaps we should also be considering what poems we can read, what songs we can sing, and what other forms of communication we can explore to express ourselves and understand one another.

Shabbat shalom.

Years ago I spent Shabbat at an orthodox yeshiva near Ashkelon, along the southern coast of Israel. The yeshiva was affiliated with Kibbutz Hadati, the religious kibbutz movement (a bit unusual, as most kibbutzim had their roots in labor Zionism, a distinctly secular movement). The singing at the yeshiva was wonderful throughout Shabbat—serious and rich, beautiful and harmonious. It was what I had come to know and expect from the musical ouvre of religious Zionism.

When it came time for havdalah on Saturday night, the students at the yeshiva (all young men) gathered in a circle to sing songs of farewell to Shabbat. And then they did the havdalah ceremony itself. And up rose the familiar tunes of, of all people, Debbie Friedman (sing along if you know it): “Yai dai, dai-dai-dai-dai dai dai dai, dai dai-dai-dai-dai dai dai dai, dai dai-dai-dai-dai dai daidai , dai dai-dai-dai-dai dai.” The melody soared, the bachurim (yeshiva students) embraced and swayed, and havdalah went on for a good long time, a last, longing embrace of Shabbat.

Later that night I was talking with one of the students. I asked him (in Hebrew) if he knew that the melody was written by an American Reform woman song leader. “No,” he said. “But what does that matter? It’s beautiful.”

I have found myself going back to this story over the weekend, as news spread on Friday of Debbie Friedman’s critical illness and then her death. I didn’t know Debbie, and as I didn’t grow up in the Reform movement, I haven’t been as inside her music as many of my friends and colleagues who did. But, remarkably, Debbie’s music has transcended denominational lines. At the Hebrew Institute of Riverdale, the Orthodox synagogue where I interned during rabbinical school, Rabbi Avi Weiss leads the kahal (congregation) in singing Debbie’s Mi she-Berach as they pray for healing. At the Jewish Baccalaurate Ceremony we have held for years at Northwestern, Rabbi Dov Hillel Klein of the Tannenbaum Chabad House and I join everyone in singing Debbie’s Lechi-Lach. And as my story from Israel demonstrates, Debbie’s havdalah tune is universal.

Debbie Friedman’s music brought people together. It opened a whole new world of liturgical possibilities for a generation. The Reform movement, and American Judaism, are richer for it. May her memory be for a blessing.

As all this was unfolding, of course, I was trying to digest the attempted assassination of Rep. Gabrielle Giffords. The first word I got of the Tuscon shooting was from, of all places, the Jewish Telegraphic Agency, which sent out an email bulletin just after Shabbat, saying that Giffords, the first Jewish representative from Arizona, had been shot. We still have many questions: Was this solely the work of a very sick soul, or did the political climate have something to do with it? How did such a mentally unstable person acquire a semi-automatic weapon? And many others.

But for the moment, I find myself sitting with the contrast: On the one hand, a woman whose music transcends lines of division and denomination, whose byword is blessing and whose songs sing of healing; on the other, a crazy man’s hate-filled violence, whose acts have robbed families of loved ones and the public of courageous servants.

At school on Friday my son Jonah’s teachers said that Debbie was sick. Over Shabbat he couldn’t stop singing “Miriam’s Song,” Debbie’s composition about the singing of Miriam and the women of Israel after the crossing of the Red Sea (Exodus 15:20-21). It seems that Debbie held on long enough that the Torah portion we read during the week of her death is that very portion, Beshallach, which recounts the Israelites’ journey through the sea.

The Israelites’ task on the other side of the sea, which will become their eternal mission, is to weave together a sacred community in which God can live. The exodus from Egypt, the revelation at Sinai, all the lofty narratives and events of Jewish history, ultimately find their expression in the building of the Tabernacle: “V’asu li mikdash v’shachanti b’tocham,” “Build me a sanctuary, that I may dwell among them” (Exodus 25:8). The shooting in Tucson is a reminder to us of how far we can stray from that vision, and a calling to do teshuva, to return to care, concern, empathy and civil disagreement. The life and music of Debbie Friedman show us what it can be to weave together such a community, to sing together, to pray together, to find healing and renewal.

One of the most influential theorists of religion in the twentieth century is the anthropologist Clifford Geertz. In a 1966 essay called “Religion as a Cultural System,” Geertz (famously, to those of us who study this stuff from an academic point of view) proposed this definition of religion:

Religion is: (1) a system of symbols which acts to (2) establish powerful, pervasive, and long-lasting moods and motivations in men by (3) formulating conceptions of a general order of existence and (4) clothing these conceptions with such an aura of factuality that (5) the moods and motivations seem uniquely realistic.

You may want to read the definition over again, and maybe one more time after that. An essential element of Geertz’s approach is that religion, like language, is a symbolic activity. Geertz is a symbolic anthropologist, and he follows in the tradition of earlier structuralist thinkers who saw human life as fundamentally about making meaning of nature and experience. So Geertz’s definition of religion sees the elements of religious life as symbolic, suggesting something beyond themselves. What makes religious symbols so unique–different from, say, a billboard we might see on the highway–is that they feel particularly immanent or real to us. The connections we have with them, the associations they arouse, are uniquely rich.

Geertz’s approach is very useful for many of us today, who see religious activity as fundamentally about meaning. When we read the original commandments of Passover in Parshat Bo this week, in particular the words, “And you shall tell your child on that day, ‘It is because of this that God did for me when I went out of Egypt'” (Exodus 13:8, an approach like Geertz’s makes a lot of sense. Indeed, it seems perfectly aligned with the words and practice as outlined in the Mishnah and the Haggadah, namely that when we say these words we point to the shank bone (in memory of the Paschal sacrifice), making the symbolic food meaningful. As I have written in many other places, the Haggadah invites us to play with history, to recognize that we are in the time and space that we live in, but to imagine ourselves into another time and place. And, at Passover, we aim to do this just as Geertz says: with such an ‘aura of factuality’ that it seems ‘uniquely realistic.’ In other words, our imagination should be so powerful that we can really feel ourselves leaving Egypt.

One of the important critiques of Geertz, however, comes from a contemporary anthropologist named Talal Asad. Asad’s major point is that not everyone engages in practices deemed religious because they’re searching for meaning. In Geertz’s formulation, the quest for meaning is primary (it’s what all human beings try to do), and religion happens to provide a powerful vehicle for meaning. But if other avenues were more promising, people would choose those. Asad points out that many people in the world aren’t necessarily looking for meaning—they’re simply doing what they do, and the motivations for doing so can be extremely varied. As Saba Mahmood, an anthropologist influenced by Asad writes, “Tradition… is not a set of symbols and idioms that justify present practices, neither is it an unchanging set of cultural prescriptions that stand in contrast to what is changing, contemporary, or modern. Nor is it a historically fixed social structure. Rather, the past is the very ground through which the subjectivity and self-understanding of a tradition’s adherents are constituted.” In other words, it’s not that I’m looking for meaning, and that doing the seder provides me with meaning. Rather I am a Jew, and doing the seder is what Jews do. When I enact the seder, I am doing nothing less (and nothing more) than being a Jew.

There is something important and deeply resonant in this critique. In my work in Hillel, I often find that we focus on the word “meaningful.” We feel a need to make everything meaningful, which leads us to want to make meaning explicit, to teach and tell folks, “Here’s what this ritual means.” But I have often felt that perhaps the word we should be equally if not more focused on is “memorable.” We should be helping people engage in memorable Jewish experiences. Memory is a different creature than meaning. It’s something we inhabit, something a bit more porous. Meaning posits that we stand outside of our experience and analyze it; memory opens up to the possibility that we fuse with our experience, or that it fuses with us. It is more elastic, and it can even incorporate meaning.

I have long been preoccupied with Rabban Gamaliel’s statement in the Mishnah, which we repeat at the Seder: “In every generation each individual is obligated to see him/herself as if s/he personally left Egypt.” To me, the key word in this formulation has always been “as if,” which acknowledges our historical distance from the events of the Exodus and also invites us to get as close to them as we can. To me this one Hebrew word, k’ilu, “as if,” marks what Clifford Geertz and Talal Asad spend hundreds of pages unpacking.

Shabbat shalom.