A Grain of Sand

"I will multiply you as the stars in heaven and as the sand upon the shore." - Genesis 22:17

"I can see the master's hand in every leaf that trembles, in every grain of sand." - Dylan, Every Grain of Sand (on Shot of Love)

Thursday, March 24, 2011

J Street Conference

Rabbi David Saperstein, a national Jewish leader and a mentor to me, delivered the opening remarks at the J-Street Conference. His remarks to the group are below.

I agree with his main point: if those who consider themselves to be pro-Israel chase away those who have legitimate moral questions about Israel, this works to Israel's political and moral disadvantage. And, if those who criticize Israel don't ground their criticisms in a way that takes account of the complexity of the situation they do real damage to Israel.

Here you go....

Rabbi David Saperstein Addresses J Street's Conference from Isaac Luria on Vimeo.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Another Week, Another War

It is clear that the US is prepared to fight another war - this one in Libya. True, there won't be any US troops on the ground - at least at the outset; I wouldn't expect that to hold if things get messy, as they tend to do in war - and the cause seems just. But isn't our culture growing too comfortable with war? Yes, the situation in Libya is already out of control and is already militarized, but does our nation's response need to be sending in men and women to put their lives at risk

Also - is President Obama unaware, as President Bush seemed to be, that we have a Constitution? It didn't used to be the case that the President could just declare war in all cases without the Congress being involved. Why isn't every editorialist and Congressperson in the country outraged at the President for this?

Here is a paper I wrote on Judaism and war. It is not quite on topic - my subject was Jewish teaching concerning the taking of civilian life in war - but there are some useful sources there.

Wikipedia entry on Judaism and war is here.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

A Responsible Life, Part IV, ctd.

Notes on Chapter 15

The challenge of a life of Torah is to remain "awake" to the true reality of the world. We are seduced into sleep by our inability to confront our responsibilities. The method for keeping awake to the true nature of reality and to our responsibilities to others (and to ourselves) is a life of Jewish observance through halachah (Jewish law). In fact, halacha's (he spells it halakhah) power and authority stems from its capacity to keep us morally awake

if halakhah is to have any authority or hold over us, then it must by its very nature carry this compelling wakefulness with and for us. (p 119).
I want to point out here that Rabbi Stone is trying to find a foundation for Jewish life and Jewish observance that does not rest simply on tradition (that's how it's always been done) or divine authority (God told you to observe) in the commonly understood sense. In other words, he is answering the question, "Why should we observe Jewish law and teaching?" His answer is that Jewish law helps make us be better human beings, more awake to the realities of our world, more attuned to our responsibilities; Jewish law won't let us "go to sleep."

Having said that, though, I should also be clear that by no means does Stone flee from the idea of God. Not at all. In fact, he writes immediately after the quoted passage above "Halakhah is the vehicle by which the divine makes its way into our experience, as the burden we carry for another." (119).

Halakhah is not just a list of laws that are passed down and observed (or ignored). Halakhah also is shaped by the experience of our own lives in the present day. Jewish law

is based in Torah but it is equally based on avodah (worship) and gemilut hasadim [acts of loving kindness]...Insofar as halakhah is based on Torah, the shape of the acts it requires is determined by Jewish experience. (120)
That is, Torah records the experience of the Jewish people. I think he means Torah in the broadest sense here. Not just as the five books of the Torah, but as all Jewish teaching, which draws its wisdom from reflections about human experience. By the phrase "the shape of the acts it requires" he means the sorts of acts Jewish law requires or prohibits.

Insofar as [it] is base on avodah, the shape of its acts is determined by the voice of those who suffer and cry out. (120)

Prayer (avodah), Stone has written previously, gives the individual and the community the opportunity to cry out in need and in pain. Halakhah (Jewish law) has to take human suffering into account.

Insofar as [it] is based on gemilut hasadim, the shape of its acts is determined by the imperative to respond to another's suffering... (120)

Jewish law must also take into account our experience of the suffering of other people and take into account our sense that we are responsible to help alleviate that suffering and come to the aid of our fellow.

[Halakhah] is a whole cloth constantly being woven, un-woven, and re-woven, depending on the circumstances. (120)

Again, Jewish law is not just a list of habits and requirements passed down from generation to generation. It has to adapt to human experience, to be flexible to take account of how we live our lives in response to the divine call to to care for others. So, it is always being revised to take account of our changing reality.

Thursday, March 3, 2011

A Responsible Life, Part IV, ctd.

I'll continue my summary of 'A Responsible Life.' I'll deal with chapter 14 here.

For those in my '613' class, I hope this is a helpful summary of a reading that has been difficult for many people. For people not in the class - you might find the ideas in his book very useful.

Stone says that to be a human being is to live with a constant choice between good and evil and that this imposes a "terrible responsibility" on us (p 112).

Awareness of this responsibility brings what is traditionally called yirat hashem ("awe of God"). Fulfillment of our obligation - doing what is good - brings a sense of fulfillment and pleasure. In seeking out this pleasure we are experiencing ahavat hashem ("love of God").

To seek what is good we have to "choose the good of our neighbor." That is, we have to care about doing good for other people.

"This principle reaches us in the language of scriptural commandment: ve'ahavta le'rayakha kamokha, "You shall love your neighbor as yourself" (Leviticus 19:18)."

But why do we need all of the mitzvot - all the 613 commandments of Jewish life? Why not just take "love your neighbor as yourself" as a kind of general commandment, and use that to guide our lives. Wouldn't that inculcate the kind of responsible life that Rabbi Stone thinks is essential to Jewish life?

Stone argues that human beings want to run from the responsibility of being alive. We just want to be left alone when confronted with yirat hashem, awareness of our responsibility. The responsibility feels too much too bear, so we want to "go to sleep," as he puts it, and be relieved of responsibility. This is where the mitzvot fit in. The mitzvot

keep us awake to our...obligations. Moreover they allow us to invoke the community to share the burden that...would otherwise be all our own. (114).
So, two points here. First the hundreds of mitzvot help create a kind of mindfulness (he calls it wakefulness) that keeps us attuned to our responsibility as human beings. This is why he says the mitzvot are important in mussar. The mitzvot remind us and help us to live with the middot.

The second point is that Jewish life is communal and that helps us share and endure the burden of yirat hashem. For example, the responsibility to care for those who are ill is an overwhelming responsibility for one person. But because it is a communal obligation, we share in the responsibility and help one another fulfill it.