Category Archives: Torah

Schwartz vs. Greenberg, or Reimagining the First Commandment

This is a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 2/3/18 –

Many years ago, as a young rabbinical student, I had a job teaching in the Introduction to Judaism Program at the 92nd Street Y in New York.  The class consisted mostly of couples – one person Jewish, one person not Jewish, with the non Jewish person considering conversion.  One evening, at the end of class, a student – a young woman – asked me if I though it was possible to convert to Judaism without believing in God.

After pondering the question for a moment or two I said ‘Yes, I do believe it is possible to convert to Judaism without believing in God.’  Then I went on to talk with the class about Judaism’s emphasis on action – on what we do on a day to day, sometimes moment to moment basis – and its DE-emphasis on what we believe.  I said to the students ‘Our tradition will often tell us what we should be doing, but it will rarely tell us what we should be thinking.  And that is why,’ I concluded, ‘I think someone could convert without believing in God.’

The next evening the phone rang in our apartment.  It was my supervisor for the Introduction to Judaism course.  He said ‘I heard you had an interesting discussion in class last night.’  He talked the previous night’s conversation through with me, wanting to hear my perspective on what was said.  Then he said two things to me.  First, he said ‘you may be right, but you also may want to carefully consider when and how you say things like that in public, especially in a class full of people who are considering conversion.’  And the second thing he said was ‘you also may want to study the debate between Maimonides (the RambaM) and Nachmanides (the RambaN!) about the first of the 10 commandments.’

This debate is well known in rabbinic circles, going back to the early Middle Ages when Maimonides lived in the 12th century (1135 – 1204) and Nachmanides in the 13th (1194 – 1270).  And their debate, which played out on the pages of various commentaries over the years, revolved around the first of the 10 commandments, which is?  “I am the Lord your God who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, out of the House of Bondage.” (Exodus 20:2)  Of course the problem with this verse if you read it closely is that it does not contain a commandment.  And that is what Nahmanides pointed out.  The verse does not say, for example, ‘believe in the Lord your God.’  The other 9 all contain specific verbs that command the listener to do something, or to not do something.  Honor your father and mother!  Remember the Sabbath!  Don’t worship idols!  Don’t steal, or commit adultery, or covet!  Those are commandments, no question about it.  But “I am the Lord your God” does not fit into that category.  No question about that either.

Nevertheless, Maimonides, in a book he wrote called Sefer HaMitzvot – the Book of Commandments – lists belief in God as commandment number one, and the verse he cites as proof is the first verse of the 10 commandments we read this morning – ‘I am the Lord your God.’  Nachmanides argued that he was wrong, and that a true commandment must include a rule about behavior, about something you should or should not do, and that in some way a commandment should be measurable.  That is to say, you should be able to know if you have fulfilled it or not.  Most of Judaism works that way.  You know specifically what prayers you are supposed to recited at a given service, and you either complete them or you don’t.  You know you are supposed to eat matzah at the seder, and you even know how much you are supposed to eat, and then you either fulfill the commandment or you don’t.  You know you are not supposed to eat certain things, and you either abide by that commandment, or you violate it.  But you know whether you’ve done it or not.

Belief is something that is entirely different.  People believe in different ways, they believe different things about God, their belief about God changes over time, it waxes and wanes, sometimes it is stronger, sometimes it is weaker.  Sometimes it might not be there at all, and then it might come back.  On top of that belief is such a personal thing – I am not sure I can even describe my belief to you.  How can you regulate something like that?  How can you determine whether it is being fulfilled or not, how can you measure it?  And as the debate about the first commandment that began with Maimonides and Nachmanides continued to play out through the centuries, some Jewish philosophers began to argue that matters of belief should not be commanded at all.  That  – like I said to my group of students more than twenty years ago – being Jewish is not something that should be defined by what you think, particularly by what you believe about God, or even if you believe in God or not!   Instead it should be defined by what you do.

You may know the old story about Schwartz and Greenberg, a story I’ve told before.  Schwartz and Greenberg are old friends and they come to shul together every morning, and they sit together in the morning minyan.  They both put on tallit and tefillin, they both know the service, follow the Hebrew, and can participate.  But there is one problem.  Schwartz does not believe in God.  And every morning, Schwartz’s wife gives him a hard time.  ‘Why do you go to shul all the time?  Greenberg I can understand, Greenberg is a believer, Greenberg has faith, but you, you have no faith, so why do you go?’  And finally one day Schwartz says ‘You know, Greenberg goes to shul to talk to God, and I go to shul to talk to Greenberg.’

The truth, of course, is that we all probably have a little Schwartz in us, and we all probably have a little Greenberg as well.  There may be days when we sit here with doubt in our hearts, when our faith is at a low point or maybe it is not there at all.  On those days are we any less Jewish?  And there may be other days when for one reason or another, probably for reasons we don’t even understand, our belief is stronger, and we are more sure that God exists and that God’s presence is a part of our lives.  On those days are we more Jewish?

I can only speak for myself, and I can tell you I’ve been in shul many times feeling like Greenberg, but I’ve also been here many times feeling like – well, Schwartz.  What I am grateful for either way, whether my faith that day is strong or weak, is waxing or waning, is that I am part of a tradition and community that honors that struggle, and that gives me a place to live my Jewish life with meaning every single day.

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The King’s Speech

You may know that Rabbi Saroken and I spent a good part of the week at the Pearlstone Center in Westminster at the annual Rabbinic Training Institute.  Every January some 70 Conservative rabbis from around the country gather to study, talk, pray, eat, even drink a little bit – and of course sing karaoke.  I will simply say after the Wednesday night session, if you haven’t seen a bunch of rabbis singing karaoke than you haven’t really lived!

One of the morning text classes I took was a Bible class that focused on characters in the text who struggle with disabilities.  The idea behind the course was that if we can see disabilities in some of our biblical heroes than our communities and synagogues will be more open and welcoming to people in the disabled community.  With close textual reading our teacher, Dr. Ora Prouser, showed us how Esau could be seen as a person struggling with ADHD.  Jacob, Esau’s brother, lives most of his life with a significant limp.  And perhaps most famously of all, we poured through texts describing Moses, thinking about the disability that he struggled with throughout his life, which is?  Yes, his speech.  Although the text is unclear as to what exactly Moses’ problem is – it has been suggested that perhaps he stuttered, or had a severe speech impediment –  it is absolutely clear that Moses had trouble talking.

There are multiple occasions where Moses reminds God of his difficulty with speaking, one of them in this morning’s Torah portion.  When God tells Moses to bring a message to Pharaoh, Moses responds by saying “אני ערל שפתים ואיך ישמע אלי פרעה – I am of impeded speech, how will Pharaoh hear me?!”  Almost implying that his speech is unintelligible.  God at first seems to pay no heed, but the truth is if you look a bit closer God seems to agree – how do we know this?  God says to Moses “OK, I’ll speak to you, you speak to Aaron, your brother, and then Aaron will be the one to speak to Pharaoh and the people.”  We can presume that Aaron, being Moses’ brother, can understand him, just as a parent of a child learning to speak can understand what the child is saying even thought to everyone else it sounds like gibberish.

I always knew about these passages, and the truth is most people, if you ask them, will be familiar with the idea that Moses has trouble speaking.  But what I had never really thought about before was that Moses carried this struggle throughout his life.  If you take out conversations that Moses has with God, which are already something different, and if you take out the book of Deuteronomy, which is also a book that is distinct in the Torah, and if you just look at the Moses in Exodus, Leviticus, and Numbers, you’ll find a Moses who struggles to speak.  There are a few short speeches here and there, but for the most part Moses speaks in short spurts, a few words at a time, and by and large seems to speak as little as possible.

You may be thinking of the movie The King’s Speech, which tells the story of King George VI.  I don’t want to get into all of the palace intrigue, and the abdication of the throne by the older brother, but if you know the story you know that when King George came to the throne he had a terrible stuttering problem.  The movie follows his efforts to defeat that difficulty, and with the help of a speech therapist he is ultimately able to address his people, both on the radio and in person, with moving words during some of Britain’s darkest days, helping them maintain faith and hope for a better future.

The parallels between our Torah narrative and Moses, and the story about the King are clear.  Both are the leaders of their people, both have deep misgivings about whether they are suited to the roles they have been called to, and of course, both struggle with their ability to speak.  But there is one distinct difference.  The King overcomes his speech difficulties, but Moses never does.  Imagine the pressure he felt walking in to Pharaoh’s throne room knowing how hard it would be to get his words out properly.  Or the humiliation he might have felt having to whisper God’s laws into Aaron’s ear, who would then proclaim them to the people.  But despite this challenge, Moses persists and, if you’ll excuse the expression, carries on.  He never again brings up the fact that it is hard for him to properly speak.  He goes about his business, using Aaron when he needs to, sometimes speaking for himself when there is no other recourse.  Despite his difficulty with speech, he is able to lead his people to freedom.

Now I have a sense  – mostly from my own work – of how difficult it can be to speak properly, even when you DON’T have a speech impediment.  As a leader, your words carry real weight, and what you say makes a difference.  People want to hear from you, they want to know what is on your mind, what you think about issue x,y, or z.  The right words, carefully chosen and properly spoken, can inspire, soothe, heal, mend fences, and bring hope.  The wrong words can have the opposite effect – they can break relationships, create mistrust, hurt people, and bring anger and divisiveness into a family, or large scale, into a country.

Judaism was always sensitive to the power of words.  It is no accident that God creates the universe at the beginning of the Torah by using words.  That is an illustration of the power of words to create and bring goodness into the world.  But our tradition was well aware that the opposite side of the coin is also true, and that words can destroy, damage and hurt.  I imagine most of us are familiar with the concept of לשון הרע, commonly translated as gossip, but literally meaning ‘evil speech.’  This concept is considered so important in Jewish thought that the Chafetz Hayim, one of the great rabbis of the 19th century, wrote an entire book about the subject that he called שמירת הלשון, the Guarding of Language.

But this morning I would like to bring to your attention another Jewish concept about proper speech, less well known than לשון הרע , a concept called לשון נקי, which literally translated would mean ‘clean language.’  It is a simple and straight forward idea – when we speak, we should strive to elevate our language, to speak to our fellow human beings – or to speak about them – in the same way we might try to speak to or about God.  And that when we coarsen or cheapen our language, when we curse, or yell, when we rant and rave, we diminish others, but even more so we diminish ourselves.

That is a lesson we should all remember, in every interaction we have, whether with friends or family, whether at work or standing in line at the food store, whether we are a rabbi, an accountant, a teacher, whether Moses or the King of England, or even the President of the United States.  Hateful words, especially from leaders, will build a hateful world.  But clean language – לשון נקי – elevated language – will help us all to rise.  God willing in the months ahead we will figure out a way to leave the hate behind, and to rise together to build a more hopeful, peaceful, tolerant world for all.

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You Can Run…

You know the second half of the phrase.  You truly can’t hide, especially from yourself.  Here is the unedited version of the Torah portion column that was published in today’s Baltimore Jewish Times.  Their editors decided to cut out the section about Dave Mason and Traffic. The song ‘Feelin’ Alright’ appeared on Traffic’s eponymously titled 1968 album.  Joe Cocker made the song famous with his hard driving version, recorded for his 1969 record ‘With a Little Help From My Friends.’  The original version by Traffic is more laid back, but it still has that distinctive shuffle.  Give it a listen at this link:  Traffic/Feelin Alright.

Deception is everywhere surrounding Jacob, a virtual dance of deception from which he cannot escape.  He has been raised in a dysfunctional family, where his parents Isaac and Rebecca favor different children.  He cannot trust his brother Esau, who is his rival for affection, power, and the ever illusive birthright and blessing.  In the end, Jacob is trapped by the deception that surrounds him.  Not in the sense that he is fooled.  He is not, and in fact understands exactly what is going on around him.  But rather in the sense the he begins to engage in it, and in the process he learns something about himself:  he, too, is a master at deception.

Perhaps that is why Jacob flees from his parents’ home.  It is true – Esau is angry with him, and he has lied to his father.  But he could have worked through it with Rebecca’s help and his own cunning mind.  There is, however, one thing Jacob cannot escape in the home of his birth – himself.  He has taken a long, hard look in the mirror, and he does not like what he sees.  There is an ugliness in his soul, a growing ease with the telling of lies and a growing power to manipulate others.  He has been trapped by the continual deception of Isaac and Rebecca’s home because it has become his way of life, his method of interacting with the world.

So Jacob runs, hoping to escape the ugliness he sees in himself, wondering if he can recreate himself in a new place.  Perhaps with a new start he can become a new person, more honest, truer to himself and to God.  Some of you may remember the lyrics to the great Dave Mason song “Feelin’ Alright”: “Seems I got to have a change of scene; ‘Cause every night I have the strangest dreams; Imprisoned by the way it could have been; Left here on my own or so it seems;  I got to leave before I start to scream…”

That is Jacob at the beginning of Parshat Ya’yeitzei.  Alone, wrestling with his conscious, fleeing from what he experienced as the prison of Isaac and Rebecca’s home, dreaming of things untold, looking for a better place, and a better self.  What he will learn in the course of his journey is that deception is everywhere.  Laban’s home, where he will live for the next two decades, is also a place of deceit and cunning and lies.  To survive there Jacob once again becomes the master deceiver.

So it always is.  You cannot escape from yourself.  A change of scene does not produce a change in values, personality, morals, or ethics.  That only happens with serious self-reflection, with deep and committed work of the mind and soul, with an internal battle to conquer your worst predilections.  So Jacob will ultimately wrestle the mysterious angel, at that moment finally coming to terms with who he is and who he wants to be.  Only then can he return home a new man, leaving deception behind,  finally prepared for an honest confrontation with the legacy he left behind.

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#Charlottesville

This a text version of my sermon from Shabbat services on 8/19 –

It was a Shabbat morning, and a small group of Jews – about 40 or so – had gathered together in their shul to recited the morning prayers.  They were there for various reasons – some to celebrate, some for the sense of community, some because they felt obligated – the same reasons why many of us are here today.  The little synagogue was their spiritual home, connecting them to our ancient tradition.

While they prayed storm clouds were gathering outside.  There was unrest in the streets, marchers waving flags, chanting slogans, and spewing hate.  The president of the shul stood outside at the entranceway, with an armed guard the congregation had hired for protection.  For a time three men dressed in fatigues and armed with semi-automatic rifles stood across the street, staring coldly at the front of the building.  Multiple times in the course of the morning loosely organized groups of Nazis marched by the synagogue, pointing at it, screaming out ‘there is the synagogue!’, and anti-semitic slurs, and carrying flags with swastikas on them.  When the services ended, the shul president advised the worshippers that they should leave the synagogue by the back door, and they should walk in groups until they get to their cars.  And so the worshippers had to sneak out of their own shul, by the back door, because they were afraid.

What I just described happened over and over again in Germany in the 1930s.  Who would have imagined that it could happen here in the United States, in Charlottesville Virginia, in the year 2017, just last weekend?  Nazis marched in the streets, openly.  Jews were afraid to go outside, a synagogue was threatened, and as we know later in the day a young woman was killed and others injured by a Nazi sympathizer.  Perhaps things we never expected to see in the United States.  I think we all felt like the nation had taken a step back to a darker and more dangerous time.

The first verse of this morning’s Torah portion is ראה אנכי נותן לפניכם היום ברכה וקללה – Behold!  I put before you this day both blessing and curse.  And we have indeed seen both this week.  The curse has shown itself in the violence and hatred, in the stark reminder from the events in Charlottesville that the twisted tropes of anti-semitism can still be found in the dark corners of our country and in the ignorant minds of the Neo Nazis and White Supremacists who marched last week.  That is the ‘kellalah’ – the curse, that we have seen, that we have been forced to confront.

What is the ברכה, what is the blessing?  It has not come from the White House, and many in the Jewish community have been deeply disappointed by the response or lack of response from Washington.  Perhaps we thought that at least the President’s daughter and son in law, both Jews, would step forward and speak out, but to this point they have not.  So what is the ברכה, and where can we find it?

And the truth is, there have been many rays of light in the darkness.  America’s top ranking military officers forcefully and unequivocally spoke out against extremism and bigotry in all its forms.  Leaders from across the communal spectrum – from both sides of the aisle – were quick to condemn the hate groups.  CEOs from some of the top businesses in the country made it clear they would not stand for anything less than the dignified treatment of all people, regardless of race, color, or faith.  The mother of Heather Heyer, the young woman who was killed during the violence by a man who revered Nazi Germany, gave an eloquent eulogy for her daughter that reminded us all of what we can be at our very best.  Each bright moment helped to counter the darkness, each ray of light helped to restore hope to our hearts, and we were reminded of what makes this country great.

Freedom is at the core of that greatness.  That is why Jews came to these shores, that is why Jews have done so well here, that is why we love this country.  But the key is remembering that freedom cannot exist without freedom for all.  We know as Jews that when some are free and others are not, the freedom is not real. That is the insight that has enabled America to become the greatest country in the world.  We haven’t yet fully realized that vision, but we subscribe to it, we believe in it, we find hope and comfort in it.  We work for it.  And when others try to destroy it, we have a responsibility to speak out.

Those are the values and ideals that we must embrace as a nation and as individuals as we try to move forward from Charlottesville.  If and when we feel hatred and prejudice tugging at our own hearts and poisoning our own minds, we must reject them, categorically.  If and when we see hatred and prejudice in our communities, we must not turn our heads away, but instead walk forward to confront what we know in our heats to be wrong.  If and when we see hatred and bigotry in our nation, we must call it what it is, and discover what our role is in making sure it will not happen again.

You see the berachah – the blessing – is in each and every one of us.  The courage and strength and faith and hope that God gives to each one of us, that enables us to stand up for what we know to be right, to embrace in our daily lives the values of freedom and tolerance and dignity for all that the founding fathers of our nation learned from the words of our Torah.  When we ignore those values we fall short, and we are all diminished.  But when we embrace those values we become the blessing, and we fulfill our destiny as human beings and as Jews.

In 1861 Abraham Lincoln concluded his first Inaugural Address with the following passionate words:  “The mystic chords of memory, stretching from every battlefield and patriot grave to every living heart and hearthstone all over this broad land, will yet swell the chorus of the Union, when again touched, as surely they will be, by the better angels of our nature.”  May we together follow those angels to a more peaceful, tolerant,  and just world for all.

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This Land is Your Land…

Some thoughts about Israel after our recent congregational trip, expressed in my Shabbat sermon from 7/1/17 –

Just back from Israel – the Beth El trip – and to travel to Israel today is to both step back into the past, and also to look forward into the future.   The past – both ancient and recent –  is everywhere in Israel.  In the north we stood in an excavated synagogue from the year 350 the CE, knowing that 1700 years ago Jews came together in that space to recite the words of the Shema, to listen to the reading of the Torah, to celebrate the festivals and Shabbat.  On the road from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem we saw the remains of burnt out tanks and transport vehicles.  They have been rusting in the hot sun since the War of Independence in 1948, still pock marked with the bullet holes of Arab guns trying to prevent the Jews from bringing supplies to their brothers and sisters in Israel’s most sacred city.

In the Israel Museum in Jerusalem we traveled back 4000 years as we looked at artifacts from the early Canaanite settlements in the land, and saw an Israelite altar that was in use 2000 years ago.  But we also saw the Ayalon bullet factory from the mid 40s, where young Jews from the early days of the Yishuv ingeniously hid an entire bullet factory underneath a laundry mat, less than a half a mile from a major British post.  These Jews – 19, 20, 21 years old – risked their lives every day to manufacture the ammunition that would enable the first Jewish soldiers in the modern era to defend their homeland.  The entrance to the underground factory is located underneath a movable laundry machine, and to climb down into it is to have an immediate sense of the unique blend of genius, courage, and hutzpah that defines Israel to this very day.

But Israel does not feel in any way like an ancient or outdated place.  In fact, just the opposite.  The vibrant energy of Tel Aviv, with its sky scrapers and beach front bars and cafes is palpable and feels entirely fresh and modern.  If you have any doubts they are put to rest as you drive north along the Mediterranean coast, and see the huge buildings with names like Intel and Microsoft on them.  This is Israel’s version of Silicon Valley, and inside those buildings Israeli scientists and engineers are creating and perfecting technology that will make the entire world a better place for all.  As we drove we saw the foundation of the new mag lev train track that is supposed to open in 2019.  It will enable people to travel from Jerusalem to Tel Aviv in 15 minutes time.  Imagine that!  You will literally be able to live in Tel Aviv and work in Jerusalem, or vice versa.

Imagine that!  From the shore of the Mediterranean to the hills of Jerusalem in 15 minutes.  For our ancestors in ancient times that would have been a trek of many days, possibly even weeks.  They would have made that journey multiple times a year, particularly for the 3 pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Shavuot, and Sukkot.  After a long, hot, and difficult journey they would have arrived in Jerusalem with a deep sense of gratitude, hope, and faith.

Today the way we reach Jerusalem has entirely changed.  Whether on a maglev train, or a bus, or arriving from some foreign land on a great plane filled with people, we  can get from point A to point B in ways our ancestors never could have imagined.  But for all of our technology, for all of the wonders of the modern world, the human heart is still the same.  And I suspect the emotions we feel as modern travelers when we come around a bend and see the city of Jerusalem – the city of gold –  laid out before us – how that touches our soul, how that feels in our heart – is very much the same way it felt to our ancestors thousands of years ago.  The gratitude.  The sense of God’s presence.  The connection to the history of our people.  Those things have not changed for the pilgrim – they are as strong as they have ever been.

This morning’s Torah portion ends with the Israelites camped across the Jordon River, within sight of the ancient city of Jericho.  For the rest of the Torah, through the last chapters of Numbers and all of Deuteronomy, they will remain in that place, looking across the river – westward – toward the land they have been promised by God.  Jericho lies before them as both a challenge and an incentive – a challenge in that they know it must be conquered before the land is theirs, and an incentive because they see that great cities can be built in this new land they are about to enter.

It was just a little more than a week ago that we drove by Jericho, winding our way down through the hills that lead from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea.  We were on our way to Masada, the legendary ancient fortress of Jewish heroism, in the south.  As we passed Jericho and turned to the right, the Jordon River was in front of us, and across it the very place where the Torah tells us Moses bade the Israelites make camp.

It is a strange thing to think about, but Moses never left that camp.  He stayed there, with the Israelites, until the very end of his life when God told him to ascend Mt Nebo, where he had one last view of a Promised Land he knew he would never enter.  He had spent his entire life working towards a goal that only others would realize.  The people would cross over, a Jewish homeland would be established, a Jewish monarchy would come into being, Jewish sovereignty would be lived and breathed for generations, but Moses saw none of it.

Or did he?  There is a well known midrashic legend that God gave Moses a parting gift, just before his death.  When God took him to the top of the mountain where he breathed his last God showed him not only the Promised Land, not only the physical space, the hills and mountains and vineyards and orchards and valleys, but also the future of that land.  The great triumphs, the building of the Temple, the establishment of an Israelite nation, as well as the tragedies, the destruction of the Temple, the exile of the people.

Thinking about that legend, I wonder if Moses knew that one day I would be blessed to enter that land, that I would one hot day be riding in a bus, with a group of tired and yet excited and fulfilled Baltimoreans, many of them experiencing Israel for the very first time.  Did he know then that some 3500 years after he stood at the far side of the Jordon, looking towards this land, that the land of Israel would still be the heart and soul of the Jewish people?  Whether he knew or not, whether the legend is true or not, I don’t know.  But I do know this – if Moses, in his vision, saw today’s Israel, he would have been deeply grateful and proud.

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Make America Gilead Again

A wonderful turn of phrase I discovered in this morning’s NY Times.  It appeared in James Poniewozik’s review of the new Hulu series adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.  Reviews of the series have been exceptional across the board, citing the quality of the acting, production, directing, etc, etc – evidently, it is top notch all the way through.  But what all the reviews make special note of is how ‘chillingly’ relevant the story line is to today’s world.  In Atwood’s dystopian near future women are treated like objects, fundamentalist religion reigns supreme, and the government has been overrun in a military coup.  It all reads (or views) a little too close for comfort.

Which is precisely what Poniewozik’s phrase so perfectly captures.  Gilead is the name of Atwood’s twisted future ‘republic.’  And as I suspect you remember, ‘make America great again’ was the current president’s campaign slogan.  How ironic that the end of Trump’s first 100 days comes in the very same week when The Handmaid’s Tale adaptation airs its initial episodes.  As ever, great art enables us to raise a mirror to our current reality, a mirror in which we see things as they are, but with a deeper sense of meaning, understanding, and context.  As the old saying goes, when you read the newspaper you find out what happened yesterday.  When you read great literature you find out what always happens.

Atwood begins her novel with a quote from Genesis 30, describing Rachel’s infertility and her decision to use Bilhah, a ‘handmaid,’ to conceive in her stead.  The reference fits with the narrative’s understanding of religion as a dangerous and destructive force, one that by nature subjugates women.  And it is true, if you pick and choose the right verses you can read the Bible that way.  And perhaps that is the way some fundamentalists would read the text, and certain politicians as well.

But the Bible is a long book, and there are many ways to read it, and many ideals and values expressed in it.  Some of them are radically progressive, even for our day and age.  The great Hebrew prophets of old, Isaiah the greatest of them all, stood on the streets of Jerusalem and proclaimed the word of God.  Their message was one of tolerance and dignity, of hope and faith, of God’s ultimate goodness and the responsibility of the people to create a just society.  They cried out at injustice directed against the poor and the marginalized.  They spoke in God’s voice for those who had no voice of their own.

Word on the street is that the new Handmaid’s Tale TV series will  take the story beyond the end of Atwood’s novel.  Perhaps in a future episode there will be an Isaiah like character, dressed in robes, eyes flashing, speaking with unmatched eloquence about a world gone wrong.  No question the Republic of Gilead needs that prophetic message.  What we are coming to understand is that we need it too, in our world, in our republic, in our own time.

“No, this is the fast I desire:  to unlock the fetters of wickedness, and untie the core of the yoke;  to let the oppressed go free, to break off every yoke.  It is to share your bread with the hungry, and to take the wretched poor into your home;  when you see the naked, to clothe him, and not to ignore your own kin.”  (Isaiah 58: 6-7)

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Just the Evidence, Ma’am

This a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 3/20/17

Some of you will remember the TV show Dragnet, which ran on first NBC and then ABC through the entire decade of the 50s.  Week in and week out a dedicated audience would tune in to watch the adventures of the plain spoken detective – what was his name?  Joe Friday (Jack Webb) – as he methodically and systematically investigated crimes, solved cases, and brought in the bad guys.  There was very little actual action in the show.  Occasionally Joe Friday might draw his gun and run after a criminal.  But for the most part he went about his job using his mind, interviewing people who were connected to the case, figuring out what the truth was by assembling the facts.  And if you remember the show you also remember Joe Friday’s famous phrase, which became part of the vernacular – what was it?  Just the facts, ma’am, just the facts.

It is sad to say, but it is hard to imagine Joe Friday being successful in today’s world.  The criminals he chased down were not psychopaths or serial killers, they didn’t have some kind of infernal plot to destroy an entire city like so many of today’s TV evildoers.  There was no violence in the show, I don’t recall even a fist fight, there were no explosions, no car chases.  There were no fancy cars for that matter – I think Joe Friday drove around an old Buick – and no fancy clothes – just a plain grey suit, a white shirt, and a dark skinny tie.  And of course in those days, in the 50s – admittedly a simpler time – there were actual facts – something that today seems to be regularly called into question.

So in Joe Friday’s world, he could say ‘just the facts, ma’am,’ and everyone knew what he meant.  There was a fundamental assumption shared by all that facts could be determined, and once they were determined they were not debated.  Something either happened or it didn’t.  A person said something, or they didn’t say something.  If you read something in the newspaper or heard Walter Cronkite say it on TV you believed it was true.

But today we seem to be in a different place.  Facts are debated, not accepted.  People seem to make assertions about what did or did not happen based more on what they wished had transpired, as opposed to what actually did.  This isn’t entirely new, and no question it is something that has been going on in politics in one way or another for awhile, but it does feel like it has reached a new level.  Certainly a number of assertions that have been made by the current administration don’t seem to have any factual support at all, from inaugural numbers to wire tapping accusations to voter fraud.  But the left does it too.  You may remember the uproar a couple of weeks ago from the about Uber, the car service.  There were claims that when JFK airport taxi drivers joined in a strike against the administration’s immigrant policy Uber had rushed in and taken advantage.  Almost immediately the left started a #deleteUber campaign to try to get people to stop using the service.  The problem was, there was no actual evidence that Uber had done anything wrong.  To put it simply, there were no facts to support the claim that the left was making.

And it is precisely about this issue that Judaism might have something to teach us.  Going all the way back to Torah times Judaism has insisted on the use of evidence to determine what has happened or not happened.  The Torah teaches that witnesses – first hand, eye witnesses – must be consulted when criminal cases are tried.  And one eye witness is never sufficient – at least two are required, because when two people say the same thing it is more likely to be true.  Rabbinic law develops this idea further in the Talmud, creating strict criteria for determining whether witnesses should be considered trustworthy, and also describing an extensive procedure for examining witnesses to make sure that the actual facts of any given case are being uncovered.  Joe Friday might not be very comfortable with the way we deal with facts today, but had he studied the Jewish laws about evidence requirements and witnesses he would have been in very familiar surroundings.

The Torah also insists that the system of law should not be influenced by the power, or lack thereof, of those involved in any given case.  That is to say that a poor person should not be believed just because they are poor – nor should a wealthy person, a person in a position of power, be believed just because of who they are.  The very same requirements of evidence apply either way.  Neither the low person or the high person on the totem pole should get any preferential treatment.  Torah law is insistent on this point, teaching in Leviticus 19 the following:  לא תישא פני דל ולא תהדר פני גדול – do not favor the poor or show deference to the rich – rather judge them fairly. (19:15)

In fact I would argue that the Torah seems to believe that even God is not to be believed without verification.  In this morning’s portion we read about the sin of the golden calf.  It is a story we know well – Moses at the top of the mountain, communing with God, receiving the law, while the people at the mountain’s base are worshipping an idol.  At a certain point God says to Moses ‘hey, you had better get down there, the people are out of control, and they are worshipping an idol.’  And Moses’ first reaction is to defend the people and try to calm God down.  Once he does this Moses goes down himself, and he is carrying the tablets that God gave him.  What does he doe with those tablets?  He breaks them!  When?  Not until he sees with his own eyes what has actually transpired.

God have given Moses testimony.  God had told Moses exactly what was going on.  If he fully believed God, why didn’t he just break the tablets right then and there?  But he doesn’t – he waits until he has seen it with his own eyes, until the actual evidence is right in front of him – and at that point, the facts become clear to him, and he acts, shattering the tablets and punishing the people.  It seems that even with God the tradition insists on actual evidence to establish the facts, to determine what has or has not happened.

I think we should insist on the same.  When statements are made today, regardless of who makes them, when stories are reported, regardless of whether we hear about them on Fox News or read about them in the NY Times, we should follow our tradition and wait for the evidence to appear.  A claim without evidence is not a fact – it is simply a claim.  That was not good enough for Moses, even though the claim came from God.  It was certainly never good enough for Joe Friday.  And it shouldn’t be good enough for us either.  Just the evidence, ma’am, just the evidence.

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