I want to focus this week on a couple of midrashim from Midrash Tanhuma. The first (Yitro 11) offers this understanding, which is found in several other places in Rabbinic literature: “‘And God spoke all these words saying: I am the Lord.’ Rabbi Yitzhak said: Even that which the prophets would prophesy in the future, all of it was received from [the moment of] Mount Sinai. How do we know this? From the verse, ‘I am making this covenant with its oath not only with you who are standing here with us today in the presence of the Lord our God but also with those who are not here today (Deut. 29:14-15).”

Rabbi Yitzhak claims that everything that later prophets would say was in some way uttered or revealed during the revelation at Mount Sinai. The words of Samuel or Isaiah or Amos or Zechariah were uttered at Sinai. Which is to say that the power of their prophecy derived from the Sinai revelation. Or, the insight of God that they understood in their own time had its roots in the God’s appearance to Israel at Sinai. In witty fashion, the prooftext he uses for this claim itself comes from a moment demonstrably after the Sinai revelation: 40 years later when Moses is taking his leave of the people. And yet, according to Rabbi Yitzhak, Moses’s words then are likewise an elaboration of the Sinai moment.

This is a challenging idea for us to understand. We tend to think in historical terms, which means that we understand moments to be separate: two moments cannot really be linked. What happened at Sinai happened then; what Moses said 40 years later, or what Isaiah said centuries after that, cannot really be the same thing. But Rabbi Yitzhak insists that they can. His understanding of history is different than ours. As Faulkner put it, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.”

The midrash (Yitro 12) goes on to make a related, more comprehensive claim about the moment of Revelation:

“And God said all these words”–All at one moment. ‘I bring death and give life,’ at one moment. ‘I punish and heal,’ at one moment. ‘I answer the woman on the birthstool, the ones on the seas, the wanderers in the desert, the ones locked in prison; the one in the east and the one in the west, the one in the north and the one in the south; I fashion light and create darkness, make peace and create evil,’ all of these at one moment…’ “What is the meaning of what is written above this passage, that “Mount Sinai was covered with smoke?” (Ex. 19:18) Perhaps it was because of God’s glory. But the Torah comes to teach that it is was because God descended upon the mountain in fire. For the Torah is entirely fire–from fire it was given, and in fire it is completed. Just as the nature of fire is such that if a person comes too close to it he is burned, and if he is too far from it he becomes cold, so with Torah: a person must come near the light of its scholars to warm himself.”

Like Rabbi Yitzhak’s earlier assertion, the Midrash here goes even further in articulating that the essence of the moment of Sinai was paradox. Sinai was the moment of profound unity, not only in history, but in all human experience. It is the taproot of prayer, as the Midrash suggests by referring to God’s ability to answer the prayers of people in far-flung places all at the same time. And it is the moment when those present had some insight into the parts of life and the universe that are beyond our ability to explain: the presence of good and evil, the mysteries of light and darkness. As we say every Friday night, Sinai was the moment when language itself was transcended: “Shamor v’zachor b’dibur echad,” ‘Keep’ and ‘Remember’ [the Sabbath day; cf. the Exodus and Deuteronomy accounts of the 10 Commandments] were uttered in one word.

Rabbi Yitzhak claims that all prophecy has its roots in this moment. But other thinkers, most prominently in Hasidus, go further. “And these words which I [anochi] command you today [hayom]” (Deut. 6:6) means that Anochi, the same Anochi as in the first word of the Ten Commandments, speaks to us every day. Every day can be Sinai, not only for the prophets, but for us–we who were not at Sinai, but who, according to the Midrash, really were.

Sinai then is not something far off, something remote and separate from us. It is something we can experience every day, if we learn to stop and listen and look for it.

Shabbat shalom.

I watch ESPN while I’m at the gym. Not having cable at home, it’s my chance a few times a week to stay up to date on the world of sports (and keep up with my sons, who manage to find out sports information more quickly than I can).

As I stood on the elliptical machine and turned on SportsCenter this morning, the show was featuring clips of Denver quarterback Tim Tebow. Tebow has achieved notoriety for his very open expressions of Christian faith on and off the football field. And in the clips that they showed on ESPN, Tebow was wearing a microphone during the game. Here was Tim Tebow sitting on the sidelines, humming a hymn to himself. And here was Tebow exhorting his teammates to play hard and win. And here was Tebow “Tebowing,” kneeling and praying after his team’s overtime victory against the Chicago Bears.

Segue to my son Jonah’s basketball camp this week, which is organized and run by Tamir Goodman. Goodman, you may recall, was the subject of a four-page spread in Sports Illustrated and dubbed the “Jewish Jordan” as an Orthodox high school phenom in the late 1990s. Tamir was signed by the University of Maryland and ultimately played at Towson University, which changed their schedule to enable him to avoid playing on Shabbat. He went on to a pro career in Israel, and retired a couple years ago after injuries.

Now Tamir is running basketball camps (Natalie’s project, the iChallenge Ideas Incubator, is sponsoring this community-wide one in Chicago). He is shameless in teaching Judaism and Jewish values through basketball. He wears his kippah on the court. He gets a minyan together to daven mincha (he’s saying kaddish for his father). He highlights how Jewish ideas are mirrored in the ethics of team play, discipline, communication, respect, and all the other middot that it takes to be both a good person and a good player.

Tamir tells lots of stories about how his insistence on keeping Shabbat, keeping kosher, and unabashedly being a traditional Jew, became a kiddush Hashem, a sanctification of God’s name in public. His teammates, opponents, fans, and the general public encountered a very public Jew, and learned about traditional Jewish life, as a result of his remaining true to his commitments. Most dramatically, his willingness to give back a full-ride scholarship to Maryland, after the school’s failure to alter its schedule in order to be Shabbat-friendly, made a dramatic statement: Shabbat is fundamental, and no career move is worth sacrificing it.

I see a lot of similarities between Tim Tebow and Tamir Goodman. The NCAA created a “Tebow Rule,” banning writing on eye paint, after Tebow wore “John 3:16” under his eyes in the 2009 national championship game and 92 million people Googled the verse (a silly rule, in my opinion; how many people would have Googled yarmulke if Tamir Goodman had made it to the Final Four? What’s wrong with trying to do a kiddush Hashem?). With his unashamed commitment to his faith, Tebow is creating a kiddush Hashem in his own religious community, and, like Goodman, showing that religious faith can be deeply woven into a modern life.

Parshat Miketz marks the low-point of Joseph’s running away from his own culture. The parsha opens with the dramatic transformation of Joseph from a prisoner to the second-ranking figure in Egypt. Pharaoh gives Joseph clothes, his ring, his chariot, and a wife of high social station–all the trappings of “making it.” Joseph names his first-born Menashe, because “God has made me forget all my trouble and all my father’s household” (Gen. 41:51). Though Pharaoh’s steward remembers Joseph as an Ivri, a Hebrew–one who is “across,” or over or against–Joseph is ultimately unrecognizable to his brothers when they arrive, and he speaks through an interpreter. To his brothers, Joseph is an Egyptian.

What would have happened if Joseph had insisted on maintaining his identity as an Ivri a little more than he did? What if he had said no to Pharaoh? Presumably no one says no to Pharaoh. But presumably no one says no to the University of Maryland basketball program, and four free years of college, either. Joseph was actually in a strong negotiating position, but he didn’t use it. He simply accepted what was offered to him. While he maintained a strong inner sense of faith (as exemplified in the naming of his second son, Ephraim: “It is because God has made me fruitful in the land of my suffering,” Gen. 41:52), he made his identity a private affair. This put him in a position to help his brothers in the end, but also potentially contributed to the simmering negative feelings among the Egyptians towards the Hebrews.

Chabad has embraced this message as the message of Hannukah: Maintain particularity. Don’t assimilate. Be proud to be Jewish. The Lubavitcher Rebbe’s life was the inverse of Joseph’s: The Rebbe was the only one of his siblings to remain religiously observant. (His daughter was his only blood relative to attend his funeral. N.B. Stan Mazo reminds me of the obvious: the seventh Rebbe had no children. I had heard this story in a lecture by Rabbi Aharon Rakeffet, and will check on which Rebbe he was referring to.) Chabad has taken up his message, and it is their greatest contribution to the Jewish people. Hannuukah is indeed a time to be proud, to be out, to be open about our particularities. As Tamir Goodman reminds us, and as Tim Tebow shows too, we have nothing to hide and a great deal to gain in living an undivided life.

Shabbat Shalom and Hannukah Sameach.

Dear Sara,

You wrote to me this morning asking for guidance about how to respond to the death of Osama bin Laden. I’m glad you asked this question, and I’m glad you have the moral sensitivity to engage it.

It’s important to remind ourselves of who Bin Laden was and what he sought to do. Bin Laden was a mass murderer on an enormous scale. He was a man of hate, and he caused untold death and destruction to human beings around the world, let alone to America itself. There is no eulogy for him.

So our first response is that of the Bible’s Book of Proverbs which states, “When the wicked perish there is song” (Prov. 11:10). To see wickedness removed from the earth, to see evil stopped, is a joyous thing. We are thrilled, just as the Jews were thrilled when Haman was stopped, just as Americans were thrilled on V-E and V-J day. Our response is one of thanks and gratitude and joy.

At the same time, as your question itself suggests, something feels weird about celebrating death. It feels somehow unseemly to many people, a violation of the spirit in which we removed the wine from the second cup at the seder just two weeks ago. As the midrash recounts, as the Israelites sang at the sea after the drowning of their Egyptian enemies, the angels were about to start singing when God reproved them saying that God’s own children were dying. This impulse evokes another line in the Book of Proverbs, “Do not rejoice when your enemy falls, and do not let your heart be glad when he stumbles” (Prov. 24:17).

Yet I think here it is important to remember two things. First, as a colleague of mine reminded me, the enemy in question in the verse may not be an Osama bin Laden type of person—it is more likely your neighbor with whom you bicker, or your roommate who you can’t get along with. Butchers of the variety of Bin Laden are in a different category. We can sing at their downfall.

Second, the standard of not singing recorded in the midrash is a standard for the angels, not for us. Neither God nor Moses gets angry with the Israelites for singing. Quite the opposite: Moses’s sister Miriam is the one who gathers the women and exhorts all the children of Israel to sing. The midrash is making a theological statement about a reality that may exist in the mind of God. But as the Rabbis state many times, the Torah speaks in the language of human beings. It responds to human realities and human emotions. God and the angels do not have to deal with death the way that humans do. There is nothing wrong with celebrating the death of those who seek to kill us.

Christianity has given us a radical conception of love, and I would refer you to my Christian colleagues about how their tradition shapes their response to Bin Laden’s death. Jewish tradition acknowledges that evil exists in the world, that evil people exist in the world, and that we must be unflinching in countering them. There is no room for moral paralysis when fighting a man like Bin Laden.

You point out that this news comes on Yom HaShoah, Holocaust Remembrance Day, and you ask, rhetorically, what our reaction might have been to the death of Hitler. There is no question there. Bin Laden was not Hitler, but not for lack of ambition. We celebrate his end—not necessarily with parades and balloons, for his demise cannot bring back those whose lives he ended. But we are happy that a man who perpetrated such gruesome crimes against our nation, and sought to do so against our people and all of humanity, is no longer among the living.

Sincerely,

Rabbi Josh

One of the most important and rewarding parts of my work as a Hillel rabbi is studying Torah with students. In addition to the talks and discussions I regularly lead, over the years I have maintained many individual havrutot, or study partners, with undergraduates. The topics under study have ranged from the Bible to Mishnah and Talmud to Jewish philosophy. And while it is a commonplace among Jewish educators to invoke the Talmudic saying, “I have learned from my students most of all,” there’s a reason it’s a commonplace—it’s true.

This year one of my student havrutot is a philosophy major, and we are learning the Mei Hashlioach of Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner, the nineteenth century Hasidic master also known as the Ishbitzer Rebbe. Mei Hashiloach is a commentary on the weekly Torah portion. But it is not so much a commentary as, like other Hasidic works, a creative meditation on big, eternal questions, by means of the words of the written Torah.

While he is beautiful and provocative, the Ishbitzer is also incredibly challenging—particularly if you are a linear thinker looking for a scientific sort of analysis. One of his main theological premises is that human beings are ultimately vessels for God’s will. In one of his more famous formulations, he suggests that Zimri, the Israelite who was publicly fornicating with a Midianite woman and was killed by the priest Pinchas in an act of righteous zealotry (see Num. 25), was not actually sinning, because God had willed it. This line of thinking is where the Ishbitzer crosses a line into dangerous territory.

But in other places, he offers compelling challenges to the ways we traditionally approach Torah and the world. As I wrote a few weeks ago, the Ishbitzer’s commentary on the revelation at Sinai is breathtaking in the way it meditates on the limits of language and history. His approach to the Mishkan helps us see the deeper questions in its symbolism: What does it mean to have a body? How does the symbolism of clothing and furniture help us experience the gap between our desires and our ethics?

Parshat Ki Tissa, recounting the incident of the Golden Calf, provides yet another twist on these questions. How can we, who have bodies, who think and speak in language, relate to a God who doesn’t have a body, who exists beyond time, space, and language? Going further, into the real heart of Ki Tissa—Moses’s incredible encounter with God, and God’s act of grace in forgiving the people of Israel—the Ishbitzer prompts us to ask, How do we understand God’s forgiveness? How do we understand our own capacity for righteousness and grace, which exists alongside our capacity for self-interest, exploitation and sin? Particularly for the Ishbitzer, who sees God as the force behind everything, how do we understand the gap between our potential and our reality?

His answers can be beguiling. God created Moses with the attributes (middot) to be able to accept the words of Torah, he says. And at the moment of Moses’s plea for the people, God recognized those attributes in Moses and showed him grace. It’s confusing: Why does God need to recognize those attributes in Moses, if God was the one who put them there? Doesn’t that suggest that God forgets God’s own actions? And isn’t that a problem if God is all-knowing?

My havruta and I circled around this question repeatedly during our hour reading the Mei Hashiloach. I tried to suggest that this linear approach—trying to understand the sequence of events—was not going to work, because it’s not following the questions of the Ishbitzer. He isn’t trying to explain what God is, he isn’t engaging in speculative metaphysics. He’s offering a meditation. It’s more poetry than prose.

Being a parent, I have an inarticulable intuition of the Ishbitzer’s gesture: I have had hopes and dreams and visions of the future for my children, which I may forget at various moments, but which are brought back into consciousness at other moments—moments which I would identify as hen, grace. How that works is a mystery, and that’s precisely what makes the idea of hen so powerful. This is the essence of God that God cannot show Moses, the mystery par excellence: “I will be show grace unto whom I will show grace, and will show mercy unto whom I shall show mercy.” (Ex. 33:19)

At this stage of my life, the question “What is the nature of the universe?” is less important to me than the question, “How does this approach help me live a better life?” Perhaps this betrays my philosophical affinity for pragmatism, a la William James or John Dewey. Perhaps it also represents a certain surrendering of control: in seeking to explain the universe, we often seek to control it. By easing off on the quest for explanation, and accepting the fact that I cannot really ever know the workings of world with certainty, I find I can actually get to a more fruitful place in being a servant of God.

Shabbat shalom.

Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things

(Phillippians 4:8)
To put it mildly, it’s unusual for a rabbi to begin his Yom Kippur sermon by quoting the Christian Bible. The Torah, the High Holiday machzor, the Talmud, even the Big Book of Jewish Humor (which I’ve done). But Saint Paul? Really? Well, as we say at Hillel, we are distinctively Jewish and universally human. Chalk this up to the latter half.

But seriously folks, this is not a gratuitous quote from Paul’s Epistle to the Phillippians. Quaecumque Sunt Vera – Whatsoever things are true. These are the words on the seal of Northwestern University. They are the very motto of this place. And they come from this verse of St. Paul. “Whatsoever things are true: think on these things.”

Northwestern adopted these words as its motto in 1890. Presumably the trustees wanted Northwestern to be dedicated to truth. Harvard’s motto was veritas, truth; Yale’s was lux et veritas, light and truth. Northwestern, like other universities, was and remains about learning truth, searching for truth, knowing truth, and living by truth.

Of course we have a word for this in Hebrew, and it is emet. Emet in Hebrew is as powerful as truth is in English. The book of Deuteronomy refers to judges who “inquire, probe, and investigate thoroughly” (13:15) to arrive at truth. The Talmud goes further and determines that judges must actually perform seven separate inquiries to ascertain the truth in a case. They must check and check and check again. They must interrogate witnesses and check all the facts. They must be absolutely certain in their judgments. They must be true.

So finding the truth can be hard work. Like a science experiment or an archaeological dig, the truth is there to be discovered, and it must be measured and investigated and probed before we can be certain. In this conception, truth stands outside us, and we must use our tools of historical and scientific inquiry to find and verify it.

But there is another kind of truth, one that doesn’t stand outside us, but which emerges from within us. This is the truth of belief. This is the truth that tells us that our family and friends will be there for us when we need them. It is the truth that says we can always come home. It is the truth we experience when we tell the story of the Exodus at Pesach. It is the truth we rely on today, Yom Kippur—the truth that God will always forgive, if only we will return. (more…)

We got a thoroughly amazing piece of news yesterday at Northwestern Hillel: A hate group that has previously picketed us plans to do so again as Rosh Hashanah services begin on Wednesday night. This is part of a tour of theirs around the Chicago area today and tomorrow, visiting synagogues, the Israeli Consulate, and the Illinois Holocaust Museum. (I am not identifying them by name—not only because doing so would generate automatic internet spam from their supporters, but also because it would give them exactly the attention they don’t wish to have. But their name rhymes with Shmestboro Shmaptist Church.)

Yes, this news was amazing because it complicated an already very busy day in our office. But what’s even more impeccable about the timing of this incident is how it coincides with the mainstreaming of hateful religious rhetoric in American public conversation. The New York Times this morning reports on an emergency interfaith summit of religious leaders to respond to the rise in hate speech. The epidemic is epitomized in the planned burning of the Koran by a church in Florida this weekend. As Rabbi David Saperstein of the Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism put it, As Jews we know religious persecution. We know book burnings. Now is a time to speak up.

Rosh Hashanah is our most universal holiday. Unlike Yom Kippur, which emphasizes the unique covenant between God and the Jewish people, Rosh Hashanah focuses on God’s general covenant with humanity. The liturgy implores God to remember Noah—the father of all of humanity that remains after the flood. It refers to today as the birthday of the world. It is the anniversary of Adam’s creation, the creation of all humankind. The themes of Rosh Hashanah are general, and focus on what it means to be human, and only secondarily on what it means to be Jewish.

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks has written eloquently over the last decade about what he terms the ‘dignity of difference,’ the capacity to hold, acknowledge, and celebrate our deepest differences. In one of my favorite passages from his book of the same name, Sacks asks, what would the experience of faith be like in a world in which the dignity of difference was truly enacted? ““It would be like being secure in one’s home,” he writes, “yet moved by the beauty of foreign places, knowing that they are someone else’s home, not mine, but still part of the glory of the world that is ours.” Emphatically, Sacks rejects the notion that pluralism involves surrendering our uniqueness. Adaraba—just the opposite: in order to live together, we need to do with and through what makes us different, not by erasing it. We need to be secure in our own homes—our familial homes, our communal homes, our national homes and simultaneously concerned for and engaged with the homes of others.

That is the challenge of brotherhood, which forms one of the themes of the Torah reading of Rosh Hashanah. The question asked by the story of Ishmael and Isaac, of Hagar and Sarah, is this: how can brothers get along? It is the question of Genesis, and the question of the Bible more generally: how can we recognize that we share a common ancestor while simultaneously acknowledging and accommodating each individual’s uniqueness? How can we reconcile the tension implicit in the idea that human beings are created b’tzelem elokim, in God’s image: one the one hand we are all equal, on the other we are each unique?

In the title of another of his books, Sacks puts forward his answer: The Home We Build Together. When we build a home together—not simply live next to one another as guests in someone else’s home, nor rent a home that belongs to a common landlord, but actually build a shared home—we forge a covenant. His model is the mishkan, the Tabernacle built by the ancient Israelites. Every member of the community contributed to its construction. Everyone had a stake in it. And thus it created a physical, psychological, and spiritual center for a people. And today it continues to provide a model for what a society can be. “Society is made out of the contributions of many individuals,” Sacks writes. “What they give is unimportant. That they give is essential.” The home we build together is society.

The Rosh Hashanah liturgy famously refers to three essential acts of the High Holiday season: teshuva, tefilla, u-tzedakah – repentance, prayer, and charity. Central to each of these acts is a spirit of openness. Teshuva is not possible unless we are open to critique of ourselves. We can only engage in tefilla if we are open to the presence of God in our lives. And tzedakah requires an openness, awareness, and concern for lives beyond our own, and an actual, tangible act of giving and generosity.

These are the acts of restoring and renewing our covenant—between God and Jewish people, but, particularly on Rosh Hashanah, between God and the world. Today is the birthday of the world—the whole world, and all its inhabitants. Today, and every day, our spirit of generosity begins with ourselves, our families and our communities, but ultimately extends to all of God’s creation.

It’s hard to write these words without sounding almost a little trite. But let me be clear: the challenge here is to both liberals and conservatives, to those who would reject religion altogether and those who would retreat into narrow and exclusionary religious perspectives. As Eboo Patel, founder of the Interfaith Youth Core (and a friend and colleague) has powerfully argued, this is the moment for a new approach to interfaith understanding and cooperation to emerge. We have a choice between producing a generation of religious extremists rooted in hatred, or a generation of religious peace-makers, rooted in the dignity of difference.

On this Rosh Hashanah, on this Shabbat Shuva, our choice is clear: u’vacharta ba-chayim, Let us choose good. Let us choose life. Let us drown out the hatred of the few with the openness and brotherhood of the many.

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…)