Monday, July 27, 2020

Baseless annoyance, baseless hatred, and a rabbi's foolishness: a pre-Tisha b'Av sermon

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This is an improved version of a sermon given at (whatever “at” means any more) Kol Sasson Congregation.

I propose an additional prayer for Tisha b’Av, one that’s useful for every day. Some of you may be thinking, “What, we’re suffering from a shortage of Tisha b’Av prayers?” I agree; what we already have is more than sufficient.

The Tisha b’Av liturgy is full of kinot—dirges, laments. They describe in gruesome and graphic detail the sufferings of the Jewish people in connection with the destructions of the First and Second Temples. They also lament at some length the sins we committed that provoked God to unleash destruction on the First Temple. And the kinot go on and on. There are a lot of them, some of them quite long.

The Talmud (Yoma 9b) tells us why the Temples were destroyed. The first was destroyed because of murder, prohibited sex, and idolatry. These three sins have a special halachic status: if an oppressor tells us to commit one of these sins, we choose martyrdom over sinning. The generation of the Second Temple was quite different from the first; it occupied itself with learning Torah, observing mitzvot, and acts of chesed. So why was the Second Temple destroyed? Because of baseless hatred (sinat chinam). This teaches us that baseless hatred is as serious as the other three sins combined.

Given that baseless hatred is so much more serious than the other three, why doesn’t halachah require that we undergo martyrdom rather than engage in it? I have two guesses, both of which may be wrong. First, it would be impractical. People can be told not to murder, not to have sex with close relatives, and not to worship idols, and there’s some chance they might obey you. There’s little chance that people will stop hating baselessly. Second, how likely is it than an oppressor will order you to baselessly hate someone on pain of martyrdom? Nevertheless, it's a good teaching tool to bring home the fact that baseless hatred is a very serious matter.

And we need to define terms. What is baseless hatred anyway? Rashi defines it (at Shabbat 32b). Baseless hatred is hatred in which the hater sees no sin that would permit hatred. In other words, baseless hatred is hatred that you can’t blame the hated person for.

Now for the prayer I recommend for Tisha b’Av. It’s a statement on forgiveness that’s used as an introduction to the bedtime Shema. There are several variations, and some siddurim just don’t include it.

All the versions I’ve seen include this language:

Hareini [or harei ani] mochel lechol mi {she-hichis oti o hiknit oti} o {she-chata kenegdi bein begufi bein bemamoni bein bichvodi bein bechol asher li. . . .} (emphasis and curly brackets added)
I forgive all {who have angered me or annoyed me} or {who have sinned against me whether against my body or my property or my honor or anything of mine. . . .} (emphasis and curly brackets added)

The author of this prayer had great insight. If he had assumed that we are angry or annoyed only with those who have sinned against us, he wouldn’t have listed them separately; he would have simply written “I forgive all who have sinned against me,” since that would include those who angered or annoyed the one who’s praying. He emphasized this with the second she- or who (emphasized above), which divides the people we forgive into two groups (curly bracketed above). In the first group are those who angered or annoyed us, and in the second, those who sinned against us. (Obviously, someone can be in both groups.) If someone angers or annoys us, that has to do with our reaction to them, not necessarily with anything they did to us. The first group is all about us. Is there anyone who just ANNOYS you??? Not that they’ve done anything to you, but is their presence like the sound of someone playing with Styrofoam????

This prayer is appropriate for Tisha b’Av because it’s very possible that baseless anger and baseless annoyance are the gateways to baseless hatred. In your personal Tisha b’Av liturgy, you have my permission to substitute this prayer for a kinah (or for many kinot). If you’re using a siddur where this prayer mentions incarnations or Israelites, you have my permission to skip those parts, which aren’t included in some versions anyway.

Let’s talk about some events of 2020. Women of the Wall (WOW) released a letter that Shmuel Rabinowitz (Rabbi of the Western Wall and Holy Sites) sent to one of his rabbinate’s supporters in which he denies that a Torah scroll intended for the women, which was taken into custody, was confiscated. He writes, “The only event which sadly provokes animosity, violence, and baseless hatred [emphasis added] is the demonstrative prayer service conducted by the Women of the Wall.” Odd. So I wrote to WOW to ask for the Hebrew version; I wanted to find out if he actually used sinat chinam. (I contacted WOW because the Wall rabbinate’s only online presence is a very beautiful site that doesn’t say anything about WOW—no press releases or the like). WOW sent a slightly different letter, dated about a week later, from Rabinowitz to another supporter. The Hebrew letter mentions “an event arousing animosity, violence, and sinat chinam” (the Hebrew uses me’orer, meaning to awaken or arouse, where the English uses “provoke,” which is a reasonable translation under the circumstances).

If I were one of the violent guys with animosity (which I’m not; I support WOW), I think this would probably be my reaction

Well, this stuff from the rabbi is strange. Violence and animosity, obviously, I get that. But baseless hatred? That’s as serious as an accusation gets. Does this rabbi person even get that? If he thinks we’re baselessly hating, he should be preaching to us about it and trying to get us to do teshuvah, not just mentioning it in passing in a letter. But the worst part is his talking about “provoking” or “me’orer” baseless hatred. What sort of foolishness is this? It’s not merely ridiculous, but actually absurd, to talk about provoking baseless hatred. If there’s provocation, then the hatred isn’t baseless. Do we really need this rabbi fellow with his nonsense?

Nonsense indeed, and we need to learn from this rabbi guy’s foolishness. We need to be absolutely clear with ourselves that we can’t blame anyone else for our baseless anger and baseless annoyance. It’s on us, and we need to deal with it; it isn’t the annoying person’s problem. (For me, annoyance is a much more serious demon than anger.)

And more 2020. In the prayer, we forgive those “who have sinned against me.” It doesn’t say anything about forgiving those who have sinned against others, or against whole populations. There is much to be angry about. I’m angry. We mustn’t let our anger distort our beings, but we need to stay angry. And focused. We need to keep in mind that cutesy nicknames for those we’re angry at or making fun of their appearance is a behavior that should be discouraged in children; so what excuse do we chronological adults have? It’s not helpful, it’s not going to convince anyone of anything (except maybe our wondrous cleverness), and it degrades us. As Rev. Bernice King, daughter of Martin Luther King, points out, the problems are institutional, not personal.

This Tisha b’Av we’ll be thinking about the sufferings of our people, which are many and tragic. Some of us may also be reading literature bemoaning the flawed piety of today’s Judaism. I ask that we devote some of our time to thinking about our baseless anger and baseless annoyance and our need to conquer them.

Sunday, February 09, 2020

Not taking Nancy Pelosi at her word: Donald Trump on prayer

Back when Barack Obama was president, some Republicans were saying that he was actually a Muslim. The reasonable response would have been “It’s none of your blessed business what my religion is, and it has nothing to do with my performance as president.” Reasonable but impolitic, and Obama was a politician. So Obama announced that he’s a Christian. On Meet the Press on August 2, 2010, Dave Gregory asked Mitch McConnell to weigh in on Obama’s religion:
SEN. McCONNELL: The president says he’s a Christian, I take him at his word. I don’t think that’s in dispute.
MR. GREGORY: And how do you think it comes to be that this kind of misinformation gets spread around and prevails?
SEN. McCONNELL: I have no idea, but I take the president at his word.

Some people were upset by this answer. In New York, Dan Amira wrote,

While it’s nice McConnell says Obama’s faith is “not in dispute,” his answer wasn’t an unequivocal “The President is a Christian.” It was, “He’s telling us he’s a Christian and I believe him.” Recalling Hillary Clinton’s remark during the presidential primary that she takes Obama “on the basis of what he says,” McConnell leaves some room for doubt in the minds of anyone who doesn’t generally take Obama at his word, which, in the GOP, is probably most people.
This anger was misguided, although possibly politically handy. McConnell gave the only possible reasonable answer. Amira thinks he should have said, “The president is a Christian.” If McConnell had said that, a number of other questions would follow. How in the world would McConnell know that? Did God tell him? Did he look into Obama’s eyes and see his soul? The only sane answer would be “I take him at his word.”

I don’t know McConnell’s motives (and it’s possible he wasn’t being honest when he said he didn’t know how the Muslim rumors got spread). Regardless, this was the only reasonable answer. If he had said, “It’s none of your business, or mine, or anyone else’s. We oppose him based on policy disagreements, and his religion is irrelevant,” that would have been an excellent answer. A few problems with it: he’d never give such an answer for the same reasons Obama wouldn’t, and that answer, though excellent, would be noncommittal about Obama’s religion. “I take him at his word. I don’t think that’s in dispute” at least gives lip service to Obama’s Christianity, regardless of McConnell’s motives.

I didn’t know that Nancy Pelosi had said she was praying for Donald Trump until he accused her of lying about it in his December 17, 2019, letter to her. Trump wrote, “You are offending Americans of faith by continually saying ‘I pray for the President,’ when you know this statement is not true, unless it is meant in a negative sense.” We’ve come a long way from McConnell’s taking Obama at his word. We don’t know how Trump knows the statement isn’t true (or how he knows Pelosi knows it isn’t true). Trump repeated this, complete with mind reading, at the 2020 National Prayer Breakfast. As Caleb Parke reported for Fox News, “‘I don't like people who use their faith as justification for doing what they know is wrong,’ Trump said, and added, in a seeming hit at Pelosi, ‘nor do I like people who say, “I pray for you” when they know that that’s not so.’”

I can’t speak for Pelosi, but I see no reason not to believe her. I pray for all who are malevolent, or cruel, or selfish, or uncaring. I pray that we (I often have to include myself) change ourselves and get rid of, or at restrain, our bad qualities. That we mensh out. I believe Trump to be malevolent, cruel, selfish, and uncaring, and my prayer includes him. I pray for him—us—because of his bad qualities. Besides being an obvious thing about religion, it’s part of American folklore. When the bad guy ties the widowed mother to the railroad track, the oldest sister tells the youngsters to pray for him. I don’t know how anybody could have missed this.

I also don’t understand why the prayerful pious at the National Prayer Breakfast didn’t rise in righteous protest at Trump’s complete cluelessness about prayer.

Sunday, November 17, 2019

Do angels look Jewish?

In Judaism, Abraham is considered the exemplar (I mean, other than God, of course) of ḥesed—extreme kindness (to be discussed at greater length in a later post, I hope). The November 16, 2019 (Parashat Vayera), issue of Likutei Peshatim (a devar Torah and announcement newsletter distributed at Orthodox Jewish institutions in the greater Chicago area) preaches on Genesis 18:3: “‘And he [Abraham] said: My lords, if it please you that I find favor in your eyes, please do not pass from before your servant.’” Abraham had been sitting outside his tent waiting for wayfarers whom he could be hospitable to; the quoted verse is his invitation to three men who turn out to be angels.

Judaism teaches that hakhnasat oreḥim—welcoming strangers into our homes—is a form of ḥesed, and Abraham’s behavior here is the model we should follow. In expounding on this, Likutei Peshatim says, “When a Jewish person is visiting an unfamiliar community, we have the privilege and opportunity to greet him as a member of Hashem’s chosen children, and as a family member in our nation.” The question is whether Abrahamic people were visually distinguishable from others back in Abraham’s day. If so, did the angels look Abrahamic? If there was no visible difference between Jews and non-Jews, we would follow Abraham’s model by welcoming people without distinguishing between Jews and non-Jews. (Of course, if the angels looked Abrahamic, we’d still be following Judaism by welcoming non-Jews.)

Tuesday, November 28, 2017

Noah, ishhood, and responsibility

Genesis 6:9 reads (in part) “Noah was in his generations a man righteous and whole-hearted” (Jewish Publication Society 1917 translation). At least two interesting things are going on here.

First, why specify “in his generations”? Who else’s generations would he be righteous in, right? Noah lived in a time of great wickedness. Rashi notes that among the rabbis of the Talmud, there are some who take “in his generations” as praise. He was fully righteous even in his corrupt environment; if he had lived in an age of righteous people, he would have been even greater. Others take “in his generations” as a reproach. He was righteous only by the standards of his corrupt time; had he lived in the time of Abraham, he would have been considered a mere nothingness righteousnesswise.

Second, the phrase translated here as “man righteous” is ish tzaddik. The basic meaning of ish is “man”; in various contexts, it can mean a person or a leader of either sex. The word tzaddik can be either the adjective “righteous” (an adjective comes after its noun in Hebrew) or the noun “righteous person.” Ish tzaddik does indeed mean “righteous man,” but tzaddik by itself can also mean that. So ish seems superfluous in this verse. Why is it there? I have no clue, but I won’t let that stop me from preaching about it.

Pirkei Avot 2.6 quotes Hillel as saying “in an ish-less place, strive to be an ish.” In this context, an ish is a person who takes responsibility. Hillel is addressing the non-ish among us. A job needs to be done, and there’s nobody around to do it. So you, who aren’t yet an ish, you need to step up and take care of things.


This is Noah under the derogatory understanding of his character. A job needed to be done, and Noah, who let’s face it wasn’t such a big tzaddik, took care of biz. The non-ish became an ish. For those of us (such as my good self) who aren’t as righteous as Abraham, mediocre Noah is more inspiring than magnificent Noah. This Noah guy, he wasn’t such a big deal, and he saved all life on earth. I’m even more superlatively mediocre than he was, so what’s my excuse for not doing the same?

Sunday, October 09, 2016

Avinu Malkenu (ver. 2.0)

Let me clarify. This is not version 2.0 of Avinu Malkenu, but version 2.0 of this sermon.

We recite Avinu Malkenu (Our Father, our King) during the Ten Days of Teshuvah as well as on fast days throughout the year. It ends with a well-known song that contains the phrase "ein banu ma'asim"--we have no deeds or acts or the like. More literally, it means we have no deeds within us--the usual way of saying "we don't have" is ein lanu, not ein banu.

This raises two questions. First, we're saying we have no deeds on the same days that we're alphabetically listing our bad deeds in the Viduy (Confession). English translators of siddurim recognize the problem and fix it incorrectly--they English it as "we have no good deeds" or words to that effect. The problem with this translation is that it makes no sense. We know that we have good deeds. Furthermore, we're supposed to act as though both our scale and that of the world, of which we're part, is evenly balanced between good and bad deeds. If we think in these terms, we realize that every deed, whether good or bad, tips the balance on both scales. To proclaim that we have bad deeds and no good deeds is counterproductive. The second question is why we say "ein banu ma'asim (we have no deeds within us) instead of just "ein lanu ma'asim" (we have no deeds).

To figure out what "ein banu ma'asim" means in this context, let's divide Avinu Malkenu into seven sections. In fact, we only need the first five sections for our purposes; sections 6 and 7 are bonus sections.

Section 1

Section 1 consists of the first three lines. It's just an introduction--it's us, we've sinned, for the sake of your name forgive us.

Section 2

Section 2 is a wish list of things we want from God--a good year, the ripping of the unhappy decree, good health, and so on. We're asking for results that are out of our control. We can influence the process and improve our chances--don't eat unhealthy stuff, don't start fights, be a good person--but we're asking here for results that we can't guarantee for ourselves. Section 2 takes up most of Avinu Malkenu.

Section 3

In section 3, we're no longer asking for things--now we're referring back to the list and telling God why he should do these things for us. In the first through third of the four lines that make up section 3, we ask God to do these things for the sake of our martyrs: "Do it--act--for the sake of those who were murdered for your holiness. Do it for the sake of those who were slaughtered for proclaiming your unity. Do it for the sake of those who went into flame and water sanctifying your name." Each of these three begins with "'aseh"--do it. Fulfill our requests for these reasons. In the fourth line of section 3, we ask God to avenge before our eyes the spilled blood of his servants. It's sort of part of section 3, because it's about our martyrs, but it's also sort of part of section 2, because we're asking for a result that we can't guarantee.

Section 4

In the first line of section 4, we realize that maybe we were being a little hutzpedik in section 3: "Act--'aseh--for your sake if not for our sake." The remaining three lines all also begin with "'aseh". "Act--'aseh--for your sake and save us. Act--'aseh--for the sake of your great mercy. Act--'aseh--for the sake of your great, mighty, and awe-inspiring name, which we call upon."

Section 5

In section 5, we finally get to the well-known song, up to the words we've been trying to figure out, "ein banu ma'asim": we have no deeds, or we have no deeds in us.

In the most general context-free sense, what does one do? One does deeds. Or what is a deed? It's something someone does. Ma'asim (deeds) and 'aseh (the imperative verb meaning "act" or "do it") have the same root, and are even more tangled up in one another than do and deed. This is ma'aseh, the singular of ma'asim:

מעשה
.

This is 'aseh:

עשה
.

In Avinu Malkenu, we ask God to do ('aseh) deeds (ma'asim) for us. These are the ma'asim that "ein banu ma'asim" refers to. And these are deeds that we can't do for ourselves; we don't have it within us to do them. Thus "ein banu ma'asim."

Section 6

Well, now we've figured out what "ein banu ma'asim" means. Section 6 is the first of the two bonus sections. The song continues with "'aseh 'imanu tzedakah vahesed"--treat us with charity and lovingkindness. I propose an alternative reading, based on ignoring idiom and translating it verbatim. 'Imanu literally means "together with us." Translating this word by word, we get, "Do, together with us, charity and lovingkindness." This is remarkable. We often say that someone who does charity and lovingkindness is doing God's work. Under this reading, we are taking the initiative. We're claiming charity and lovingkindness as our work and asking God to sign up to help out as a volunteer.

Section 7

Avinu Malkenu concludes with "vehoshi'enu"--"and save us." Saving us is still in God's allegorical hands, like all the items in section 2. And, not presuming to read God's allegorical mind, it's possible that charity and lovingkindness might influence the outcome in a positive way.

Conclusion

So what's my conclusion? Avinu Malkenu is somewhat about human helplessness, sort of. But it is absolutely not a call for human passivity.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

proposed addition to our vocabulary

In an "I forgive" statement that appears in many prayer books before the bedtime Shema, we say "I forgive all who have angered or annoyed me, or who have sinned against me, whether regarding my body or my possessions or my honor [bein bikhvodi], whether under compulsion or willingly, whether mistakenly or intentionally..." (emphasis added). The statement forgives those who have dissed us, which may be the hardest one to forgive. (I discuss the statement a little more here).

Jews, at least those who use Ortho-speak, have a number of conversational tags. "Lo aleinu" (it shouldn't happen to us), "Yasher koach" (or "Shkoich") (good job!), and so on. I propose that we add "bikhvodi" from the "I forgive" statement to this list as something to be said silently. It means "in my honor" (or, given what a pain prepositions are when going from one language to another, "having to do in some prepositional sort of way with my honor"). When we get bent out of shape because someone has slighted, superciliated, or otherwise dissed us, we can use this to bend ourselves back into shape.

Warning to those who don't know Hebrew: It would be reasonable to surmise that bein (rhymes with "pain"), means "or," but it generally doesn't. In this case, "bein this bein that bein the other" means "whether this, that, or the other."

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

The first (as far as I know) Jew to anglicize his name

I don't remember why, but yesterday a person I knew in high school a zillion years ago whose middle name was Athelstan was floating around in my mind. I knew the original Athelstan was an early English king, but I didn't know the details. So of course I Wikipedia'ed him. What I found there gave me an insight that was so astonishing, and yet so obvious, that it completely smacked my gob. It's obvious in the way that the convenience of having zero in our arithmetic is obvious now that it's been pointed out.

Æðelstān (the correct spelling) was the first Anglo-Saxon king of all of England. But here's the thing. We all know that Old English is derived from Yiddish. And Æðelstān, according to Wikipedia, means "noble stone." OK. I mean. Æðel! Noble! Edel! Right? Right? And check this out. Stān! Stone! Stein!

Yes, it's true. This King Æðelstān guy? He was in fact an Edelstein who anglicized his name. I surmise that his first name was Mel, short for melech, the Hebrew word for king. Mel Edelstein, the nice (so I assume) Jewish boy who became the first English king of England. The king of England, and yet he kept his origins hidden. Until now.

What is the significance of this discovery? Most importantly, did he pronounce his Jewish name "Edelsteen," or "Edelstyne"? Further research, beyond the scope of this post, is needed.