(Kol Nidre 5777)
One of my greatest pleasures as a rabbi is when I am contacted by one of our young adults – college students or recent grads – with real-world questions they are facing. So not long ago, I got a call that really challenged me.
“Rabbi, I’m going to get a tattoo. Can you translate these words into Hebrew for me?” She then proceeded to tell me the phrase, which was perfectly inspirational. “Be happy! Be radiant! Be yourself.”
Now, you are probably aware that Jewish law frowns on tattoos. The idea is that the human body is considered sacred, and a priceless gift from God, one that it is not ours to abuse. Unlike Christianity, Judaism feels the body is every bit as sacred as the soul. So physical pleasures are not sinful – they are in fact vehicles to holiness, when done in moderation. The fact that we abstain from these pleasures on Yom Kippur doesn’t mean these they are evil; just that physical urges need to be controlled; and that there is a time and place for everything.
But tattoos are considered an abuse of that gift of the body – a form of mutilation that in ancient times was done for cultic purposes. And for Jews today, just a generation after the Nazis forcibly tattooed numbers on our arms, branding us like cattle for the slaughter, there’s yet another reason to avoid tattoos.
All that is well and good, but the young adult did not call me looking for a lecture about tattoos. She was looking to connect to her Jewish heritage, to express pride in it in her own way. Nothing I could say would change the fact that she was going to get this tattoo – she already has a few – so I could either help her, or douse her enthusiasm for being Jewish and turn her away, which could have more dire consequences down the road, when she might arrive at more significant life decisions or more painful life crises and have nowhere to turn.
What’s a rabbi to do?
This week I’ve been looking at what it means to live an authentic Jewish life – what authenticity really means in these confusing times. In Hebrew, there is no direct translation for authentic – the word most commonly used is autenti – but several synonyms are found in the dictionary. Last week I looked at several of them, including– “baduk,” which connotes looking beneath the surface “mekori,” which calls on us to go back to our roots, and “nachon,” which means correct. This evening, I’d like to elaborate on another synonym that I briefly introduced on Rosh Hashanah: “samooch.” Samooch means to connect. In script form, the Hebrew letter samech is a perfect circle, with no beginning and no end. In Jewish mysticism this letter has great significance as an agent of support and healing. Circles are magical. When we are part of a circle, a family circle, a community circle, the circle of life, we are never alone. We are always connected.
An authentic Jewish life requires such connection – and that connection must be to other human beings.
And, we might add, to God.
We might add that – but with one caveat – only if that connection to God reinforces our connection to other human beings.
That caveat is the essence of what has become the world’s greatest misunderstanding about religion – and unless we do something about it, that misunderstanding will become religion’s downfall.
A new book by Donniel Hartman has been receiving a lot of attention in the Jewish world this year. Its provocative title is “Putting God Second.” Hartman claims, as he puts it, that “faith in God is not meant merely to inspire one to worship but to change those who worship, and to be a force for generating care and concern for all of God’s creatures, in particular for those over whom one holds power.”
Hartman’s main point is that most people of faith – not just Jews – tend to focus so much on following what they perceive to be God’s will that they forget what the primary purpose of religion is – and what one can plausibly argue that God wants the most – and that is to put people first – to connect to human beings.
THAT is the authentic Jewish way.
He illustrates this through some biblical quotes and rabbinic anecdotes. For instance, in the book of Jeremiah, God is quoted as saying, “Torati lo shamaru, v’Oti Azvu.” “They deserted me and did not keep my instructions,” which, in the Midrash, Rav Huna interprets in an unusual way – that God is really saying, “IF ONLY they had deserted me but nonetheless kept the mitzvot!”
In the rabbinic view, even GOD would prefer that we focus less on God and more on living a good, moral life among other people.
Similar ideas can be found in Amos, as well as the New Testament and Quran.
And of course in Isaiah – in tomorrow’s haftarah, where God states that all our fasting, our temple worship and our atoning – all of that means absolutely nothing if we don’t feed the hungry. Ironically, this prophetic plea to get beyond ritual has itself become a part of our Yom Kippur ritual, which has drained it of some of its spontaneity and overwhelming moral power.
In the Talmud there is a story about Rabbi Eliezer and Rabbi Shimon Bar Yochai, who were forced to hide in a cave for 12 years in order to escape the fury of Roman rule. They were sheltered there and miraculously, a carob tree grew inside the cave, and all their needs were provided. They had it all – it was the first man cave, complete with snacks, and it became almost like a mini Garden of Eden for them. They could sit around all day and study Torah on the flatscreen to their heart’s content.
Eventually the prophet Elijah appeared to them and told them that the emperor had died and they could leave the cave safely. They went outside and peered around. Immediately they were disillusioned by what they saw – they saw a guy plowing and kvetched to God, saying, “They forsake life eternal for the drudgeries of everyday life.” The two rabbis could only see shame in the toil of those whose every waking moment is not consumed with contemplation about God.
But in the story, God doesn’t validate those feelings and instead rages against them, saying, “Have you emerged to destroy my world? Go back to your cave.”
The message is clear: there is no escaping this world. Unlike those two rabbis, we are compelled to repair it, not to ignore it. We are compelled to work tirelessly, to speak out, to engage passionately with this world.
That is what God wants. You can’t escape. You can’t throw up your hands and leave a troubled world to fend for itself.
Incidentally, we have a version of this cave in current conversation. We call it Canada. I love Canada dearly, but Canada is a copout. I promise you that no matter what happens next month, I will not be moving to Canada. You gotta grapple with life’s messes – not run away from them.
There’s a Hasidic story about a man praying so intently that he doesn’t hear the cry of a child right next to him. Another person sees this and remarks that if a prayer makes one deaf to the cry of a child, there is something flawed in the prayer.
Not just in that man, but in the prayer itself.
We become so intoxicated to God that we forget what religion is about. It’s about connecting with our neighbor.
If our prayer does not lead us to a heightened conscience and moral action, there is no point to the prayer. You might as well put down your machzors take the shuttle back to down Roxbury Rd. and go out for Chinese food. (Sorry)
That’s basically what Isaiah would be saying if he were here today.
Hartman states, “The more we walk with God, the less room we have to be aware of the human condition – our moral sensitivities become attenuated.” He notes that, in the Bible, as Abraham hears the word of God, his capacity for critical thought breaks down, leading to his near murder of his son Isaac. When we are blinded by God, we cease to see the other human being.
Hartman calls this God intoxication “religion’s autoimmune disease,” a disease “in which the body’s immune system, which is designed to fight off external threats, instead attacks and destroys the body’s own healthy cells and tissues.”
I experienced that God intoxication myself, at a young and impressionable age.
I took my first pilgrimage to Israel when I was a teenager. It was the summer of ’73, just before the Yom Kippur War, and Israel’s self-image was at an all-time high. The same was true for American Jews too. We were unbeatable! The Jews, this little, weak nation that had nearly been destroyed a generation before, suddenly we had an empire. Our pride was unbounded.
On my teen tour, we climbed Mount Sinai and snorkeled among the world’s most beautiful coral reefs of Sharem El Sheikh. We walked the streets of Hebron, Jericho and Nablus without a care in the world. If the Arabs didn’t want peace with us, no matter. We were the conquerors. We were God’s chosen.
On one occasion, I was walking through the Arab shuk in Jerusalem’s Old City on my way to the Kotel, and I got into a conversation with one of the shop owners while haggling over an olive wood camel or something. The man noticed which direction I was going and said, “Are you going to have a chat with Adonai?”
I was jarred by the way he said that. It was as if our particular gods were our bowling buddies, our BFFs. He borrowed a cup of sugar from Allah, and I go to the Kotel to schmooze with Adonai. I kind of liked that. I liked it because I knew at that moment that Adonai had just beaten up Allah in a steel-cage match in 1967. Adonai was the big brother I never had, who in the end would wipe the floor with Arafat and the Soviets the way he had pummeled Nasser when he took our lunch money in ‘67.
I was intoxicated with Adonai. So was 80 percent of the state of Israel. And only a few months later on Yom Kippur, they paid for their arrogance in blood. To this day, God intoxication still is toxic for too many Jews who believe that God loves us best.
God intoxication leads to what Hartman calls “God manipulation.” Those who think they own God, who think God has chosen them, believe they have the right to determine whom else God loves. “When chosenness permits the co-opting of God into the service of the interests of the chosen, the immoral becomes mysteriously moral, the profane miraculously holy. The infidel becomes not merely the subject of God’s judgment but fair game for the believer…. The outsiders have no rights. They are not seen. Most significant, the descent into craven self-interest becomes clothed in piety, as our manipulation of God makes us blind to our own moral corruption.”
“The universal God is drafted into the service of a particular worldview,” Hartman states, “leaving all others devoid of access to God’s grace.”
“Ultimately,” Hartman concludes, “I believe that religion’s record of moral mediocrity will persist as long as communities of faith fail to recognize the ways in which our faith itself is working against us.”
God Manipulation blinds us to our moral responsibilities to others. Ultimately it blinds us also to ourselves.
We cloak ourselves in the grace of God, whom we define as being with us regardless of what we do or deserve, attributing pious motivation and religious value to all of our behavior. Once we can no longer see what we have become, we have lost the ability to self-correct, to say we have sinned, and to repent.
Al chait shechatanu lefanecha – for the sin that we have committed before you by assuming that we and God are best buds – which has caused us to lose our moral compass completely.
But if religion has become so dangerous, we can’t blame God or Judaism for it. There are ample clues in our texts that tell us what Judaism was meant to be before we so distorted it.
Take another look at Abraham, before he lost his moral compass with Isaac. He actually argues with God to save the people of the city of Sodom by saying “Shall the Judge of the universe not do justice?” But isn’t “justice” simply what God decides at that moment is justice? No. The Torah seems to be recognizing a level of justice that is independent of the Judge, which has been part of the moral order from the start. The Torah seems to be saying that, just like Hebrew National, even God must answer to a higher authority.
“To combat God manipulation,” Hartman states, “moral good must be seen no only as primary to religious truth but also autonomous from it.”
Is it good because God says so – or does God say so because it’s good? This verse about Abraham seems to be implying that “Good” is somehow independent of God – or at least independent of how God is portrayed in religious stories.
When Moses smashes the tablets after the incident of the Golden Calf, according to a Midrash, it’s not to express anger at the people, but in order to PROTECT Israel from God’s wrath (Avot d’Rabi Natan chapter 2). Moses asks, “How can I give them these tablets? I’ll be obligating them to the commandments, which will make them liable to the penalty of death! Rather, I’ll take hold of them and break them!”
In other words, MOSES PUTS HIS LOVE FOR THE PEOPLE BEFORE OBEDIENCE TO GOD – AND EVEN THE SIN OF IDOLTRY. Better to destroy the Ten Commandments, he reasons, and give them time to prepare themselves to receive it again, then to give it when they are already committing idolatry, breaking the law, liable to the death penalty.
Like Abraham, Moses put people first and refused to remain indifferent. Moses and Abraham put people first – and God second.
And as I said, God seems to be supporting this conclusion. How do I know? First of all, because the Abraham story about Sodom is IN the Torah. And look at tomorrow afternoon’s haftarah, the story of Jonah.
God instructs Jonah to warn the people of Nineveh to change their ways or face destruction. Jonah is afraid to do that, because, before him, prophecy was always been about prediction rather than moral correction. That was the only model he knew. So if he was to warn them that they would be destroyed, and they were to actually repent and not be destroyed, Jonah’s reputation as a prophet would be shattered, and to a degree, God’s reputation as well. So Jonah runs away.
The rest of the book demonstrates Jonah’s education to the ways of authentic Judaism – putting people first. God teaches him that lesson very specifically at the end of the story. The biblical God begins to model non-indifference to the plight of others – even others who come from a city with no Jews.
Elie Wiesel, of blessed memory, will be known forever as our generation’s great prophet of non-indifference. “The opposite of love,” he said, “is not hate; it’s indifference. The opposite of art is not ugliness; it’s indifference. The opposite of faith is not heresy; it’s indifference. And the opposite of life is not death; it’s indifference.”
Non-indifference is the key to Donniel Hartman’s view of God and Judaism.
Here’s a question that comes from the Talmud.
It’s a Friday in early winter, Shabbat Hanukkah is approaching, and you have just enough money to buy either Shabbat candles or Hanukkah candles. Which is more important? It’s an interesting dilemma. So you might guess that Shabbat takes precedence – and that is correct. But probably not for the reason you are thinking – and not because it’s a more important holiday. As Rava explains, the Hanukkah candles are intended to promote God’s miracle, while the Shabbat candles are intended to bring joy and light to the family – shalom bayit. Judaism prioritizes human needs over the need to publicize God’s presence – and that, Rava might have added, is how God wants it.
It is the primacy of the ethical that matters. Maimonides speaks about the halachic principle known as “Lifnay Meshurat Hadin,” which means going above and beyond the letter of the law, particularly when it comes to extending kindness. He writes, “Going beyond the law IS the law.”
Rabbi Yisrael Salanter, the 19th century founder of the Mussar movement that brought ethics to the forefront, was once asked what special instructions he had for the women who were baking matzahs for the community before Pesach. “Make sure,” he replied, “that they get paid on time.”
Putting people first.
So a natural question that might arise from this notion of putting God second would be, do I have to believe in God to be a good Jew?
For the answer to that, you’ll have to read the book.
Or take our course this year, “The Ethical Life: Jewish Values in an Age of Choice,” a groundbreaking collaboration with JTS.
Moral excellence is sufficient to qualify one as a good Jew. But the real question is: how does one go from “Good to God to great?” There are many reasons to build God back into the equation. Faith and ritual can be very helpful – and in my mind are essential – as long as we keep reminding ourselves that authentic Judaism is all about putting people first.
Which brings me back to our young adult, the girl with the Hebrew tattoo.
In Deuteronomy we are commanded to return a lost item of our neighbor’s. This seemingly trivial mitzvah is given astounding importance – it is one of the rare mitzvot in the Torah where long life is promised as the reward. And twice in the verse we are reminded not to be blind to the need of our neighbor – and not to be indifferent. The word for indifference and the word blindness are actually the same word.
You see a lost item. It is so easy to just keep on walking, to hide our eyes. But what if that lost item is actually another person’s dignity or another person’s ability to feel joy, or love, or pride?
What if the thing that you have lost is your self-esteem? Your self-confidence. It’s up to me to help restore it.
Or if someone has lost her smile. Or his faith. Or her sense of humor – we can’t stand idly by. We’ve got to bring it back.
Our intoxication with God is what distracts us from focusing on the needs of other human beings. THAT is what puts blinders over our eyes.
In the context of our young adult, it means this – the God blinders would have forced me to say to her, “Tattooing is against Jewish law, so beat it! I’m not helping you.”
What I would have been blinded to is that this young adult was reaching out to HER RABBI wanting to connect to her Jewish self in her own way – by putting life-affirming Hebrew words affirming life on her body. (By the way, I do that all the time – it’s called tefillin.)
What I would have been blinded to is that those Hebrew words on her arm may inspire her at a moment of great vulnerability. She may be lost or distraught, and she will look at those words and recall that there was a place where once upon a time she was loved unconditionally, for who she is, and that might save her, or make her more likely to return.
For the sake of my distorted understanding of God, I would have lost the person. And is that what God really wants?
“I’m going to tell you what my religion is,” Gene Wilder, of blessed memory, said in an interview. “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. Period. Terminato. Finito. I have no other religion. I feel very Jewish and I feel very grateful to be Jewish. But I don’t believe in God or anything to do with the Jewish religion.”
It’s too bad Wilder never understood that his religion was a pretty authentic vision of what Judaism really is. If he had understood that, he would have been a member here and my sermons would have had to be a lot funnier.
And he would have been much more connected to an amazing heritage that goes far beyond lox and bagels. He would have been tied into Judaism’s most cherished values; he would have been connected – samooch – to a community of likeminded human beings, all passionately espousing an ethic of non-indifference.
Elie Wiesel never gave up on Judaism, even as he habitually questioned God. He had every reason to give up.
Unlike Wiesel, who lived through hell, there are many living Jews who whose lives have been pretty darn easy, but who have given up on affiliation with synagogues and connection with the Jewish community, because they have issues with the toxicity of God centric religion or simply because they feel they will be judged for as not being, in their minds, “good Jews.”
It’s not true. I’m here to tell that to you, and to them. And to the girl with the Hebrew tattoo.
But she already knows that. I gave her the translated words.
So here are some takeaways for you to chew over on this fast day:
- All of religion can be distilled down to the question of how to be a good person. Only kindness matters. To be religious is to be good – to be good is to be religious.
- Ritual is just intended to teach us how to be kinder people.
- Messianism is simply the way of aiming high. In working toward a messianic age, we aim transform the Golden Rule into universal practice. We set the bar high for society.
- And in our own lives, we aim equally high. Our authentic selves are our aspirational selves. When we say, “To thine own self be true,” we’re not saying, “Accept me as I am; I’m not gonna change,” we are saying, “Accept me as I am striving to become. Yes I DO want to change!”
Ultimately this journey does lead to God – but not necessarily to the God you were expecting to find. But the search for God is secondary to the search for our authentic selves, our authentically JEWISH selves.
And that’s the journey that we will continue over the coming 24 hours.