Tag Archives: Maimonides

God’s Ears

Funny what people remember, what catches their attention.  It was virtually a throwaway line in a Friday night sermonette.  I was talking about the importance of having faith in prayer.  My point was that faith in prayer and faith in God are not the same thing.  Faith in prayer, at least to me, means that when we pray we believe the experience can be transformative.  In other words, we believe engaging in prayer can make a difference in our lives, in how we relate to one another, and in how we understand who we should be.   That is faith in prayer – believing in prayer’s potential power.

This is not to be confused with faith in God.  Those ideas – faith in prayer, and faith in God, do not necessarily have to be connected.  They might be, in fact they often are, but they don’t have to be.  And one of the things I worry about today is that we’ve lost faith in prayer.  That is to say, fewer and fewer people today believe that engaging in prayer can make a difference in their lives.  I  believe prayer can be transformative – I have faith in prayer! – and that was the point of my remarks.

But in the context of what I was saying I mentioned that I am not sure if God ‘hears’ our prayers.  By way of illustrating that I briefly talked about the concept in Judaism of God’s incorporeality.  Incorporeality is a big word which means ‘lacking physical substance.’  According to Jewish tradition God is incorporeal – in other words, God does not have any physical qualities. Maimonides made this quite clear, and in fact codified the idea as one of his 13 Principles of Faith.  Those principles were incorporated into the siddur in the form of the Yigdal, a beloved song often sung at the conclusion of Friday night services, or on the holidays.  Here is the germane line in Yigdal – אין לו דמות הגוף ואינו גוף – God has neither bodily form, nor physical substance.

And now we come to the crux of the matter:  if God has no physical body, God has no ears.  This means, by definition, that when we ask the question ‘does God hear our prayers?’ we are asking a question that doesn’t really make sense.  If God has no ears God can’t hear, at least in the conventional way we understanding hearing.  This does not mean that our prayers can’t in some way be received by God.  I think they can, and if you engage in prayer in a regular basis, and if you have faith in prayer! you’ve probably experienced the sense that your prayers have in some mystical way connected with God.

But how that works is a mystery, at least to me.  Minimally it is not a normal, human, conversational process, where one party speaks and the other hears the words, and then responds.  Prayer to me is more of a reaching out into the infinitely deep mystery that is at the heart of the universe, and a reaching in to the infinitely deep mystery that lies at the heart of each of us.  Sometimes in the course of our prayers, in those moments of reaching, we are granted an insight.  It might be a moment of connection, of feeling with surety God’s presence in our lives and our world.  It might be a profound and overwhelming sense of gratitude for the blessings in our lives.  It might be a deeper understanding of ourselves, of who we are and who we should be.

Of course regular prayer has many other potential benefits.  It clears the mind, focuses the spirit, and helps us live in the world in a more positive and productive way.  It is true, we are hoping for those ‘ah ha’ moments, when something suddenly becomes clear, when we are truly and deeply touched by God’s presence.  In my experience those moments are few and far between.  But they are worth seeking, day in and day out.

From the beautiful poem written by Solomon ibn Gabirol in the 11th century, often chanted as part of the Shabbat morning service:

“At dawn I seek You, Refuge, Rock sublime;  My morning prayers I offer, and those at evening time.  I tremble in Your awesome Presence, contrite, for my deepest secrets lie stripped before Your sight.

My tongue, what can it say?  My heart, what can it do?  What is my strength, what is my spirit too?  But should music be sweet to You in mortal key, Your praises will I sing so long as breath’s in me.”

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Hevruta

Here is a text version of my sermon from 7/14/18 –

     I would like to tell you a tale this morning of two rabbinical students, who entered the rabbinical program at the Jewish Theological Seminary in the same year.  They had never met before, and came from very different backgrounds, but they quickly became friends, sharing a number of common interests, among them the Grateful Dead and good beer.  Before long they were not only friends, but also they were a hevruta, they were study partners.

     In the traditional world of Jewish text study your hevruta becomes your closest companion.  You spend an inordinate amount of time with your study partner tackling difficult texts, and the dynamic of the relationship is supposed to be one of prodding and pushing the other, of challenging the other’s interpretation of a given text, of using your partner to test ideas and to explore concepts.  To do this you must trust the other person, because you must also make yourself vulnerable.  That is to say you must at times be willing to acknowledge the limits of your own intellectual ability, you must also be willing to admit sometimes before someone else that you don’t know the answer, something that generally rabbis don’t like to admit.

     Over time, the relationship – the hevruta – either works or it doesn’t.  If it doesn’t work, it breaks apart.  But if it does work, the study partners become very close, through the shared time, the intellectual exploration, and coming to know one another in a deep way.  And so it was for me – I imagine you’ve already guessed I am one of the students in this story – and my hevruta, my rabbinical school study partner.  In fact depending on whether you ask me, Becky, or my study partner, our son Josh is named for my rabbinical school hevruta.  

     But as it has to happen in all the great tales, there was a parting of the ways.  This did not happen because we fell out of favor.  It did not happen because we grew distant from one another – in fact we are close to this very day.  It happened because at some point during our third year of rabbinical school my study partner Josh decided to make aliyah, to move to Israel and become an Israeli citizen, and Becky and I decided to return home, to the States.  Josh ultimately left rabbinical school and pursued an academic career, while I continued on the rabbinic track, and am now twenty one years into my pulpit career.

     Now that I’ve taught you the term hevruta – which means?  study partner! – I want to teach you another term – bar plugta.  Your bar plugta is the person with whom you often disagree, and it is not uncommon that your hevruta is at times your bar plugta – that your study partner is often the intellectual thorn in your argument, or in the way you understand something about the world.  And so it was with me and with Josh about Israel.  He made aliyah from a deep belief that there is only one place on the earth that a Jew can fully live as a Jew, and that there is only one place on the earth where the Jewish people can fully realize their destiny – and that place is?  the land of Israel, Eretz Yisrael.

     But I returned from Israel to the States with a deep belief that my Jewish life would be most meaningfully lived here in the Diaspora, and what is more, that a healthy and vibrant diasporic Jewish community is important for the Jewish people, and for the land of Israel itself.  And what is curious is that now 23 years after Josh decided to stay in Israel and Becky and I came back to the States, I think we are both right.  In other words, there is something to be said for Josh’s position – more and more the destiny of the Jewish people as a nation is being played out in the land of Israel, and those of us who live in the Diaspora are in many ways observers of that great saga.  Not that we don’t love Israel, not that we don’t follow events there closely, not that we don’ travel there and send our children and grandchildren there – we do all of that.  But what we do not do is live there.

     On the other hand, as the years have gone by, I have been more and more convinced of the need for a healthy Jewish community outside the land of Israel.  You may have noticed an odd narrative that appears in this morning’s double Torah portion Matot -Ma’aseh.  It is curious because for forty years now the Israelites have wandered in the wilderness with one goal in mind – which is?  To make it to the promised land.  And now here they are, just on the other edge of the Jordan River, just about to cross over into that land.  And suddenly – as if out of nowhere – the leaders of two tribes – Gad and Reuben – come forward to ask Moses a question.  “Would it be OK,” they ask Moses, “if we don’t go into the land.  Would it be OK if we just stay here, on the east side of the river, outside the land that God has promised, and make our lives?  It is a good land,” they say, “So would you mind terribly if we don’t go into the land?”  Moses at first is not pleased with the request, but in the end, after some negotiation, he permits it.   And in that moment Moses establishes what for all intents and purposes is the very first diaspora Jewish community.  

     Why did Moses agree to do that?  He had worked his entire life to get the Israelites into the land, and just when that goal was about to be realized he backed off, at least for two of the tribes.  Why?

     To answer that question I would like to point your attention to a fanciful midrashic text that imagines that before Moses died God showed him the entire future of the Jewish people.  And if we set aside reason for a moment and take that textual idea to its logical conclusion, then Moses knew what a crucial role the Diaspora would play in Jewish life and Jewish history.  

     Moses knew, for example, that for 2000 years Jews would not have a homeland, and would need to figure out how to maintain their faith and their identity when those things were not tied to a specific place.  He knew that Jews would need the intellectual give and take of the larger world around them.  He knew, for example, that what would make Maimonides great one day would not be his knowledge of Jewish texts, that what would set Maimonides apart would be his knowledge of Greek philosophy and secular sciences.  Moses knew that one day there would be an Einstein, and that what would make Einstein Einstein would be his Jewish propensity to ask questions set against a secular scientific method that came from the non-Jewish world.  He knew what Judaism would give to the world, and he also knew what Judaism would need from the world.

     Perhaps Moses also knew that Israel would need both a hevruta and a bar plugta.  A study partner to support her, to be close to her, but also to push and prod her, to sometimes challenge her, even to respectfully disagree with her.  To live a Jewish life outside of the land, and so to see things through a Jewish lens but from a totally different perspective.  He knew that at times the Diaspora community would carry the Jewish torch, while at other times it would burn most brightly and beautifully in the land of Israel itself.   That one community would strengthen and support the other, and that the ethical and moral vision of Judaism could be lived in the land, but taken to many other lands.  So may it continue to be for many generations to come.

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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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