Tag Archives: Ten Commandments

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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Idols Old and New

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 11/4/17

Three months from now, on Saturday February 3rd, I hope you’ll all be back for services.  That morning we’ll read from the Torah Parshat Yitro, which contains probably the best known text in the entire Bible, the Ten Commandments.  You may know that the 10 commandments are symbolically represented here in the Berman Rubin Sanctuary – where?  Right!  On top of the ark just behind me, with the carving of the two tablets, and you’ll notice, even if you can’t read Hebrew, that there are 5 lines on each tablet, and each line has two words – those are the first two words of each of the 10 commandments.  Lets go through them quickly – they are –

There is a wonderful George Carlin bit about the 10 commandments, one of my favorite comedy bits, and in 3 or 4 minutes he deconstructs the 10 commandments to show that at the end of the day they are really only one commandment, or maybe one and a half at best.  I would like to play that game just a bit this morning, and to argue that of the 10, the two most important are the first two commandments. Number one, which is understood as ‘believe in God!’  And the second – which is understood fundamentally as ‘don’t worship idols.’  Those two commandments are at the core of Jewish life, they are overarching principles, while the rest of the 10 attend to details.  And I would also argue that the first two commandments – believing in God and not worshipping idols – define Abraham’s life as the first Jew.

The believing in God part is easy to see, both in last week’s Torah portion and this week’s.  When God suddenly appears to Abraham last week, asking him to leave his native land, to give up everything that is familiar to him, Abraham does not say a single word.  Instead, with a straight forward sense of faith, with an iron cast belief that the God speaking to him is authentic, he simply packs his bags and he leaves.  And in the portion we read this morning Abraham shows a similar strength of faith and belief when God comes to him and tells him to sacrifice his son Isaac.  Again, Abraham says not a single word.  God’s message comes to Abraham, and the text simply says וישכם אברהם בבוקר – Abraham rose up early in the morning and went about the business of fulfilling God’s command.  Now I don’t know about you, but my faith is not strong enough to listen to a command like that, even if it did come from God.  But Abraham’s faith is so strong that he never for a moment doubts that God will do what is right in the end.

But if Abraham’s belief in God is one of the defining qualities of his life, his rejection of idols seems to be almost, if not as, important.  Perhaps the most famous midrashic text of all time is about Abraham and the rejection of idols.  It is so well known many people believe it to be in the Torah itself.  It tells the story of a young Abraham, working in his father’s idol shop back in Ur.  And one day while his father is away, Abraham smashes all the idols with a hammer.  When his father returns, he yells at his son – what did you do?  Abraham’s answer to his father is tongue in cheek – “I didn’t do anything, the idols were fighting and they smashed each other!”  “That is not possible,” his father replied, “they are made of clay, they can’t move, they don’t think!”  And Abraham had his opening – “Well then, father,” he said, “why do you worship them?”

And that rejection of idols, that rejection of anything or any culture that is not monotheistic, becomes a second defining quality of Abraham’s life.  Abraham is called in the Torah העברי, which we commonly translate as ‘the Hebrew.’  But the root means ‘over there,’ or ‘the other side,’ so Abraham is the one who stands apart.  That is one of the ways I read the Binding of Isaac story.  When everyone else was sacrificing their children to their gods, Abraham stood apart, ultimately refusing to sacrifice his son to God.  When everyone else buried their family members in a common burial area, Abraham stood apart, purchasing a distinct plot of land for his family.  And as a boy, when he was growing up in a culture where everyone else worshiped idols, he stood apart, rejecting the idea of idol worship, and embracing the idea of a universal creator of all.

Over time the prohibition of idol worship became one of Judaism’s most important commandments and values.  There is an entire Talmudic tractate, Avodah Zarah, devoted to the dangers of idol worship.  Over and over again the great biblical prophets of our tradition warn against the worship of idols.  And of the 613 commandments, there are only three that a Jew must never violate, even to pain of death – and idol worship is one of them.  That intense, almost visceral, rejection of idolatry all began with Abraham, and it has continued to this very day in the lives of individual Jews and in Jewish communities through the ages.

Of course many things can be idols.  I would guess just about everyone in this room knows that Apple released a new state of the art iPhone yesterday.  And isn’t there something just a little bit idol worshippy about how people line up from 6 in the morning to get their hands on that object, about how they walk out of the stores with reverent expressions on their faces?  Here is David Brooks writing about modern idols in a column that appeared in this week’s NY Times:  “idolatry is seductive because in the first phase it seems to work. The first sip of that martini tastes great. At first a new smartphone seems to give you power and control. The status you get from a new burst of success seems really sensational. But then idols fail. What seemed to offer you more control begins to control you.”

Being honest, we all probably have our personal idols, objects or ideas that we worship to one degree or another in unhealthy ways.  It could be almost anything.  Food or alcohol or drugs.  Wealth and status and money.  Dare I suggest, the Ravens?  But there are times when communities also begin to worship idols.  In the Jewish tradition we have our very own example of that, in Exodus 32 and the story of the Golden Calf.

What are today’s communal idols?  One would be a culture that tells us success is defined by material possessions.  Another today would be political orthodoxy – worshipping at the feet of the political ideology of your chosen party, whether the right or the left.  Self interest might be a third – the growing trend to prioritize the needs of the individual over the needs of the community.  All of these things on the surface seem to offer you more control, but in the end, as Brooks pointed out, they end up controlling you.

So you see Abraham was a hero not only for his own time, he also is a hero for our time.  As we read about him in the Torah we are reminded of how important it is to identify the idols in our lives, whether communal or individual.  But we are also reminded that identifying these idols is not sufficient – they must also be confronted, and eventually destroyed.  It is when Abraham destroys the idols that surrounded him that he is finally free to begin his journey and live the rest of his life.  So it is for all of us as well – may we do that work in community, fellowship, and faith, with God’s help –

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Say What You Mean, Mean What You Say

this a text version of my Shabbat sermon from 7/22/17

As a child of the 70s, like many boys of my generation, I was both fascinated and obsessed with the Planet of the Apes.  I am guessing you all have a sense of what I am talking about – the movie franchise about a planet where apes speak and have a culture and society, and humans are mute and treated like animals.  In the early 70s when the movies were on TV I watched them – you’ll excuse the expression – religiously.  In 1974, when it was decided there was going to be a weekly Planet of the Apes TV series, I was beyond ecstatic.  When it was cancelled after just one season, I was inconsolable.  I begged my father to let me stay up late one Saturday night to watch the Carol Burnett Show because Roddy McDowell, the star of the movies and my hero, was going to be on.  There was a time in my life when it was Planet of the Apes pretty much 24/7.  And yes, I’ve seen the new Planet of the Apes movies, although the newest one is still on my to do list.

Some of you may know that the entire Apes franchise was based on a novel published in French in 1963, called La Planete des Singes – Planet of the Monkeys, I think is the literal translation – written by Pierre Boulle.  I read his Planet of the Apes novel in one night, straight through, with a flashlight under the covers so my parents would not know how late I stayed up.

When I was a little boy I was drawn to the story because of the space travel and adventure, but like all great science fiction the book deals with contemporary issues and themes, and at its core its one central question:  what is it that makes us human?  Is it the trappings of humanity?  The clothes, the manners, the culture, the societal structures?  Or is it something deeper, something perhaps even God given?  Our intellect?  Our consciences?  Our creative ability?  And the book explores these questions by taking humans out of the traditional trappings, and putting apes into them.  So if a human is naked and running around in a jungle, and an ape is dressed in a suit and sitting in a cafe sipping coffee, which of them is actually ‘human’ and which is the ‘animal?’

One of the most provocative ways that the novel tries to explore this question is through the use of language, of speech.  In the Planet of the Apes movies the most shocking moments, the most dramatic, are the moments where a character who is not supposed to be able to speak suddenly does.  And that is because more than anything else we understand that speech separates us from animals.  We have fundamental drives and needs, we must eat, we get angry, we have sexual drives, when we are pushed far enough we will even kill – and in all of those ways, we are indistinguishable from the animals.  But the one thing we can do that animals cannot is use language to communicate complex ideas to one another.  Language – our ability to use words – enables us to transmit scientific discoveries, to problem solve, to philosophize – to talk about God, or justice, or dignity.  And as the Planet of the Apes seems to suggest – were we to lose our ability to speak, to communicate with one another through language, we would also lose our humanity.

Judaism has long had a sensitivity to the power and importance of words and language.  It is not in my mind a coincidence that in the Creation story in the beginning of Genesis God brings the world into being by speaking a series of words.  Each act of creation in that story is preceded by the phrase ויאמר קילוהים – And God said.  And God said ‘let there be light.’  And God said ‘let the waters gather together.’  And God said ‘let us make man in our image.’  This is why we say in the siddur ברוך שאמר והיה העולם – blessed is the One Who spoke, and the world came into being.  God’s revelation at Sinai is conveyed to Moses and the people through words – וידבר קלוהים את כל הדברים האלה לאמור – God spoke all of these words, saying – that is the introductory verse to the 10 Commandments, emphasizing speech – language – as the means of communication between God and Israel.  And in fact in Hebrew – what are the 10 Commandments called in Hebrew?  The Aseret HaDibrot, which is probably best translated as ‘the 10 utterances, the 10 words.’

And human speech in the Bible is supposed to echo God’s speech.  It is supposed to  be sacred, it is supposed to have real meaning and real power, it is supposed to convey truth.  Harold Kushner points out that in the Torah a word is not merely a sound.  It is actually something that is real, that has substance and power.  There are many examples of this in the Torah.  When Isaac mistakenly gives his blessing to Jacob instead of Esau, he cannot take it back – the words have been spoken, and they must stand.  The covenants that are made in the Torah – between people, and between God and people – are verbal agreements, but they are eternally binding.  This morning’s double Torah portion begins with a series laws that describe how vows worked in ancient Israelite culture.  And it is clear that when a vow is made it cannot be broken, that the words that have been spoken have a true force that cannot be revoked once they have been uttered.

In our world today this might seem like a strange idea.  We have grown accustomed to using words cheaply, and even worse we have become very accomplished at using words to twist the truth instead of to arrive at it.  It is one of the great ironies of modern life that in what we call the ‘age of communication’ we are less and less capable of communicating with one another.  We talk by one another, and not to one another.  In a world of texts, and tweets, and emails, our sensitivity to the nuance of language, to the power of language, has been diminished.

There was a time, not so long ago, when this was not the case.  When I meet with a family about a funeral, and they are telling me about their loved one who was a member of the generation that we now call the greatest, they will often say like:  ‘they  meant what they said, and they said what they meant.’  Or, ‘their word was their bond.’  Or, ‘if they said they were going to take care of it, it was as good as done.’

It was just a generation or two ago that words still retained their meaning and power, their sacred sense of being binding and true.  That is something that we should not only remember – it is something we should strive to return to, in our own lives, in our communities, in our public discourse.  What are the six words we say before we pray the amidah?  Adonai sefati tiftach, u’fi yagid tefilatecha – God, open my lips, that my mouth might declare your praise.  Before we pray, we ask God to help us make our language sacred.  Perhaps we should keep the same idea in mind whenever we speak, to whomever we are speaking, and whatever it might be we are saying –

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