Friday, January 27, 2012

A 'New' New Testament

Christmas has come and gone, but for most American Jews, Christianity is never too far off our radar screen. Maybe that's because most of us have close friends who are Christian, or significant others, or a parent or grandparent. For most of us, to live in America is to be conscious on some level of the fact that our religion differs from most of the people that surround us. For the last 2000 years, Jews have willfully kept Christians at arms' length. Historically speaking, this often happened as a result of the violent anti-Semitism that Jews suffered at the hands of Christians in medieval Europe. There was distrust between our community and theirs....and so we lived separately, worked separately, studied separately, and married separately.

The rise of the Enlightenment and its accompanying Emancipation of Western and Central European Jews changed all of that.  For the first time in history, Jews were permitted to live amongst their Christian neighbors, compete with them for the same jobs, study at the same universities, etc.  Our communities mixed in other ways, as the phenomenon of interfaith dating (and ultimately marriage) came to be. 

Today, even as we strive to authentically maintain the traditions of our ancestors by passing Judaism on to our children in every successive generation, we can celebrate the remarkable degree of acceptance (and some would say 'assimilation') that American Jews have achieved, vis a vis our relations with our Christian friends and neighbors. 

And yet...even though we have such a high degree of comfort regarding relations with individual Christians, American Jews continue to keep Christianity (as a religion) at arms length.  Some of us are still suspicious of Christian tradition, and to what degree contemporary Christianity embraces the anti-Jewish attitudes that were a part of the Christian past.

One result of this suspicion is our shocking lack of knowledge about Christianity!  Jews (many of whom were raised to think that "Jesus" was a word that shouldn't be uttered out loud) hear John and Paul and think about the Beatles first - without even realizing the significance that those names bear to early Christianity.

Thankfully, the last few decades have marked the arrival of a new genre of non-fiction: excellent scholarly books on Christianity written by Jewish scholars for a  Jewish audience.  I would call your attention to two titles in particular:
This year, I can happily announce that there is a third title that is worthy of belonging on every Jewish bookshelf!  Drs. Amy-Jill Levine (of Vanderbilt) and Marc Zvi Brettler (Brandeis), in partnership with Oxford University Press, have published The Jewish Annotated New Testament.  To put it quite simply: this text is unlike any other edition of any religion's scripture that I have ever seen.

The volume contains a full English version of the New Testament.  But every margin in this volume is filled with thought-provoking and engaging commentary offered up by Jewish scholars.  This volume is safe for Jewish readers, who are now free to read/learn the New Testament and be guided by commentary, free from any suspicion about the accuracy of the commentary/its religious agenda.  (Read a recent New York Times article about the book here.)

For those who are puzzled as to why a rabbi would encourage Jews to become more familiar with the New Testament, all I can say is that we live in a Christian world.  I guess I'm presuming that your life is not all that different from mine: I have very close friends who are Christian.  My neighbors are Christian.  I have made peace with the fact that I live in a Christian world, surrounded by Christians.  Shouldn't we Jews who find ourselves in that reality want to learn everything there is to know about Christians, so that we can better understand the people who surround us, and who play such important roles in our lives?

Just as we should want to respectfully share the very best about our own Jewish identities, so do we have the responsibility to learn about the traditions of others.  Levine and Brettler's new book most certainly helps us do so.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 20, 2012

Sacred Talking and Listening

One of the things that has really set this year's Republican presidential primary campaign apart from primary seasons in years past has been the preponderance of debates. In case you haven't been keeping track, there have been 17 so far (the first one took place on May 5, 2011!).  And the unbelievable thing is that Americans continue to tune in in droves!  Say what you will about our broken political process, but it does seem as if Americans are genuinely interested in listening to what these candidates have to say.

Interestingly, this week's Torah portion - Parshat Va'eira from the middle of the Book of Exodus - shows us a Moses who struggled in a way that this year's Republican candidates apparently don't have to.  Moses was concerned that the Israelites wouldn't listen, or pay attention, to what he had to say.

We read that upon returning to Egypt, Moses "spoke to the Children of Israel [and informed them that he had come to free them from slavery] but they did not heed Moses, for they were exhausted from their labor.  So the Holy One spoke to Moses, saying 'Come, speak to Pharaoh, king of Egypt instead...that he might send the Children of Israel from his land.'  Moses replied to the Holy One saying: 'Behold, the Children of Israel have not listened to why should Pharaoh?  For I have uncircumcised lips!"  (Exodus 6:9-12)

The phrase about "uncircumcised lips" has puzzled our rabbis and commentators for more than 2000 years.  What does it mean?

I'm quite fond of the insight offered here by the Sfat Emet of 19th century Poland.  The Sfat Emet notes on this passage that: "If the Israelites refuse to listen to their leaders, their leaders cannot serve as their spokesmen...and they thus become 'of uncircumcised lips.'  Only if there are those who are prepared to listen is it possible to speak, because the leader's power is derived from the people."

There are common-sensical political ramifications to this insight.  Even though viewers are tuning in in record numbers to watch the debates, we know that they are not necessarily interested in listening to everyone on the stage.  Consider the candidates that were absent from last night's debate in South Carolina that featured Romney, Paul, Santorum, and Gingrich.  There was no sign of candidates Bachmann, Cain, Huntsman, Johnson, Pawlenty, or Perry!  They've dropped out of the race because they were polling in the single digits: the statistical evidence that few people were interested in hearing what they had to say.

The Sfat Emet's commentary goes on, by exploring the fact that neither the Israelites nor Pharaoh listened to Moses: "Therefore, had the Israelites at least listened to Moses, he would have had the power to speak to Pharaoh and to influence him.  Here, though, the Israelites had not been willing to listen to him and so he had become 'of uncircumcised lips.'  Thus Moses asked: Why should Pharaoh listen to me?"

Speaking and listening....the basic activities that make the world go round.

Our tradition is suggesting here that if the Israelites had been better listeners, Moses would have been a more effective speaker with Pharaoh.  And if Moses had been a more effective speaker...then maybe the Israelites would have been freed earlier, and both the Israelites slaves and the Egyptians (victimized by the subsequent plagues) would have all suffered a lot less.

The Sfat Emet also suggests some important lessons for our own lives today.

In the realm of Jewish ethics, reams and reams have been written on the proper Jewish way of speaking.  There are whole legal discourses on the subject of gossip alone!

But there has been comparatively little written about sacred - or mindful - listening.

It seems to me that mindful listening has two components to it.  On one level, there's an ethical component.  Think about how vitally important it is for us to be good listeners to one another...because the person you are talking to might actually be crying out for help.  They might not use those words exactly.  But they might be expressing it nonetheless.  And we can only pick up on that message, and respond accordingly, if we are listening truly, deeply, and carefully to what someone else is saying to us.

But there's also a spiritual component to sacred listening.  Check out, for example, this link...which encourages us to listen more carefully to the sounds of the world around us by way of a guided meditation.  Consider how much more appreciative we might become of the beauty of the natural world, if we just became better listeners.  (It's one reason that I love going to the zoo so much....not just because of the animals and the stunning landscaping...but because there's such a rich aural tapestry to encounter when you go to the zoo.)

Martin Buber, the great 20th century Jewish philosopher married the spiritual and ethical components of sacred listening in his masterwork I and Thou.  In it, he suggests that if we are truly present with others in an ethical way (i.e. deeply listening to what they have to say/being there for them, even as they are present for us)...then the resulting sense of deep, though temporary, connection between the two people is - for Buber - the presence of God (which he called the "Eternal [or Everpresent] Thou").

All of this should serve as a weighty reminder: that our words matter....and that our ability to hear the words of others might matter even more!  We shouldn't just mind our words.  We should mind the way we listen as well.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 13, 2012

MLK Day 2012: Crossing Boundaries to Save the World

There’s been a great deal in the news recently about the rising tensions between the United States and Iran. Iran has argued that their territorial sovereignty extends into the Persian Gulf. And we’ve argued that they have no right to close the international waters around the Strait of Hormuz, which would have an immediate global impact on oil prices and the world economy.

But while all of that bluster has been exchanged by both sides, two related stories were largely ignored by the American press. Did you know that the US military has come to the aid of Iranians in danger twice in the last two weeks?! Ten days ago, the US Navy rescued 13 Iranian fishermen who had been held hostage for more than a month by dangerous Somali pirates. And then, this past Tuesday, the US Coast Guard saved the lives of six Iranian sailors, whose cargo ship was sinking.

Isn’t it remarkable that we’ve done these acts of lovingkindness for a country that is an acknowledged enemy and threat? Our own military doesn’t want to take any credit, insisting that humanitarian missions are a regular part of its mission. But sacrificing oneself for the enemy….or for anyone who is markedly different from you is remarkable in this day and age….and is in my opinion, and in the opinion of our Jewish tradition, worthy of recognition.

That message is especially relevant this weekend, as people of all faiths and colors gather together to celebrate the life of the late Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King. We Jews can look back at the Civil Rights Movement with pride…as a high point in the ongoing relationship between African Americans and Jewish Americans. Different though we might have been, we bound ourselves together for one of the great legislative fights of the last century. And even though relations between the Jewish community and black community have frayed in the present day, we can look back in pride at our shared past….and be inspired to work together again for a better future.

This value is also deeply reflected in the words of this week’s Torah portion, Parshat Shemot…the very first portion of the Book of Exodus. Before we learn of the birth of Moses, we learn of Pharaoh’s genocidal order that the male babies of all Jewish mothers be murdered. And that Pharaoh expected the midwives…the women that actually helped to deliver these babies….to carry out the horrible death sentence.

Take a look at the exact way that the Torah conveys the plight of the midwives: "The king of Egypt spoke la’mi’yaldot ha-ivriyot […] saying: “When you deliver the Hebrew women […] if it is a boy, kill him…” (Exod. 1:15-16). The rabbis of the Talmud 2000 years ago were puzzled by the unique language that the Torah used here. To describe the midwives the text says mi’yaldot ha-ivriyot – the problem with the phrase is that it can be translated two different ways! Either as the Hebrew midwives….which would mean that the midwives were themselves Jewish. Or: the midwives of the Hebrews, which opens up the possibility that the midwives were not Jewish, but were rather Egyptian.

Okay, so there is an established tradition that the midwives were Jewish. But, in all honesty, I find the other interpretation to be more compelling. A number of sources and rabbis have suggested over the centuries that the midwives Shifrah and Puah were actually righteous gentiles….non-Jews who courageously stood up for right, and good, to save the Jewish people! According to this reading, the fact that the midwives were not Jewish makes their actions even more heroic and remarkable.

Now, there are some in our community today who would suggest that the religious identity of Shifrah and Puah does not matter. None other than Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, the well respected Orthodox chief rabbi of Great Britain, once wrote that: “The Torah’s ambiguity on this point is deliberate. We do not know to which people they belonged because their particular form of moral courage transcends nationality and race.”

For Sacks, their religion doesn’t matter. What’s right is right, and what’s wrong is wrong. And the midwives did the right thing. Their actions should be applauded. End of story.

But, with all due respect to Rabbi Sacks….I’m not sure that I see it that way. It seems to me that our identities – who we are at our very core – make all the difference in the world. And that it is infinitely easier for us to do an act of lovingkindness for someone that is just like us….someone that we can totally and completely identify with. Whether it’s someone that is from our same religious community, or who is the same skin color, or who speaks the same language with the same accent, or whose kids go to the same school as our’s, or who live in the same neighborhood, or who drive the same car, etc etc etc…..we naturally identify with, and are more easily sympathetic to…the people that are like us.

That’s why the notion that Shifrah and Puah were not Jewish is so amazing to me. At a time when the Israelites were reviled in Egypt as worthless third class citizens destined to a life of hard labor, these non-Jewish midwives swept in, and not only saved the lives of those babies that were born under their care….but literally saved the entire Jewish people as well. We Jews would not be here today if it wasn’t for them.

I can’t think of a more apt reflection on this Martin Luther King Day Weekend. We don’t just celebrate his life and work….we celebrate all of the people from outside of the black community who came together in the common spirit of humanity to stand with African Americans in the fight toward equality. And as we celebrate that partnership…a partnership that was not unlike the one that existed between the non-Jews Shifrah and Puah and the Jewish women they worked with…may we be inspired to reach across boundaries again today. To think again about those who are different from us….but who nonetheless deserve our compassion and our aid….in order that we might join together to unify and heal our most fractured world.

Shabbat Shalom.

Friday, January 6, 2012

The Great Shave

It's been a few weeks since our last posting.  But while I was gone (happy 2012 by the way!), there was major news for our American Jewish community.

Many of you will have perhaps heard, by now, that the acclaimed American Jewish musician Matisyahu shaved his beard in mid-December.  It might not seem like big news.  But JTA (the 'Jewish Associated Press') thought it was important enough to mail the news out to its thousands and thousands of subscribers via a BREAKING NEWS ALERT that is typically reserved for things like news of a devastating terrorist bombing.

But no...this was a bomb of a different sort.  And it caught everyone off guard.

As background, click here for an introduction to the role of male facial hair in Judaism.  And see below for an illustrated guide to contemporary American beards:

I am curious as to whether our interest in Matisyahu as a musician should change in light of this recent move.  Although I am not the world's biggest Matisyahu fan, I can appreciate that his beard was a key part of his image.  It was a very tangible way for him to broadcast to the world that his music, and his identity, were rooted in traditional Judaism.  The beard was a central component of his projected Jewish authenticity.
Should we like his music less because of his choice to become 'less' Jewish?  (Ordinarily I wouldn't describe beard-shaving as being less Jewish...but in this case he himself has indicated that the shaving reflects a desire to move beyond the confines of Chassidic Judaism.)

I'm not sure that I have an answer to that question.  I guess you should like him if you like his music, and you shouldn't like him if you don't like his music.  Leave the beard out of it.

But here's what I am sure of: when we think about the kind of musicians that we do like, there should be space for us to ask ourselves: what values does this person/group embrace and represent?  And are those my values?  And if they aren't my values, should I allow myself to enjoy that music/art/etc?

I thought about that over Hanukkah a few weeks ago, when everyone was emailing around again (it debuted in 2010) the link to the Maccabeats' song "Candlelight".  Do take the time to watch the whole's a catchy song!  But if you watch the whole thing, you'll note that there are no women that are featured in it at all!

No offense is meant here to the Maccabeats or their (admittedly good) music.  You have a group of guys that want to form an all-male acapella group?  You've got no objection from me.

My concern here is really about the Orthodoxy with which the Maccabeats are affiliated (literally: they're a student group at Yeshiva University).  Now it's not the same Orthodoxy that Matisyahu used to be connected with.  Note that most of the Maccabeats don't sport beards!

Nonetheless, their Orthodoxy prevents them from singing with women.  Because traditional Judaism believes that kol ishah - the voice of the woman - is sexually tantalizing and therefore inappropriate in the public (mixed gender) sphere.

For me, there's a basic disconnect between my own progressive Jewish values (which do not at all object to female singing), and the ones being promoted by Orthodoxy (perhaps not consciously but subconsciously in the Maccabeats' music).  And that affects my opinion about the Maccabeats and their music. 

I'm not trying to be a party pooper here.  People have a great deal of Jewish pride when they encounter this kind of Jewish music.  There's nothing wrong with that.  Jewish pride is a powerful thing.  (Read about it here, in this Shmuley Boteach article about Matisyahu and the beard shaving.)  But, for me, the price to be paid for that pride is a bit too high.

I'd love to hear your thoughts...about Matisyahu and The Shave.  And about whether or not the values (religious or otherwise) of a musician/actor/etc should impact the degree to which we "like", promote, and pay for the art that they produce.

Shabbat Shalom.