Saturday, September 15, 2012

It Is Not Too Hard for Us: A High Holy Day Message

It was the Sabbath before Rosh Hashanah, but at Temple B'nai Brith, my friend Rick Silberman was already looking toward Yom Kippur--and in particular, the Kol Nidre prayer that forms the heart of the service on Yom Kippur eve.

All vows. bonds, promises, obligations, and oaths [to God] wherewith we have vowed, sworn, and bound ourselves from this Day of Atonement unto the next Day of Atonement, may it come to us for good; lo, of all of these, we repent us in them.  They shall be absolved, released, annulled, made void, and of none effect. they shall not be binding nor shall they have any power.  Our vows [to God} shall not be vows; our bonds shall not be bonds; and our oaths shall not be oaths.

According to Rick, it seems as if the rationalists of the Jewish tradition have always had a problem with Kol Nidre.  We are encouraged not to make vows at all--wouldn't that be better than annulling them in advance?  Some, like Mordechai Kaplan, wanted to remove Kol Nidre altogether, and only agreed to leave it in with the proviso that the vows we were breaking were harmful ones, like "I swear I'll never talk to that mamzer again!"  Others, like Rick's father Charles Silberman, recommended keeping it because the emotional meaning of the prayer was more important than the words themselves.  Rick did a fine job of explaining that even the words have meaning.  We are finite beings who strive toward transcendence, he said, and inevitably, we fall short.  We need to recognize our limits and forgive ourselves in order to keep on striving.

Please forgive me, Rick and other rationalist philosophers, but I think the anxiety about the language of Kol Nidre is completely unnecessary.  Of course, we are not using the prayer to let ourselves off the hook easily.  We're Jews, famously ridden with guilt about the ways that we fall short!    And we are not concerned with our metaphysical finitude.  Our personal shortcomings are very real to us.  We are tempted to despair, to give up on ourselves as agents of change in this sadly imperfect world.  We need to know that just as we are, we are still important, and our actions still matter. 

In today's Torah portion, Nitzavim, one of my favorites in the Five Books, there is a beautiful passage (Deuteronomy 30:11-14) that gives me heart.

For this commandment which I command thee this day, it is not too hard for thee, neither is it far off.  It is not in heaven, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go up for us to heaven, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?' Neither is it beyond the sea, that thou shouldest say: 'Who shall go over the sea for us, and bring it unto us, and make us to hear it, that we may do it?' But the word is very nigh unto thee, in thy mouth, and in thy heart, that thou mayest do it.
This passage has many meanings, all of them important.  At this time, I would point out just one: that we do not have to be perfect--we do not even have to live up to all of our own aspirations--to be God's partners in perfecting the world.  It is not too hard for us.  We just have to do it...and fail, and fail, and keep on doing it.  That is how we succeed.

As for the sins?  The same Kol Nidre service quotes God:  "I have forgiven according to thy word."  Or, as I would translate the same passage, "You had me at 'Please forgive me.'"

Let's all celebrate our human strengths and imperfections and bring them to bear on doing good work in the new year.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

The Best Use of Authority is to Share It

The best use of authority is to share it.

In previous posts, I've shown how the story of Korach contains a lot more than a challenge to authority and the way the challengers are punished.  When we read it with enough attention, Korach gives us encouragement to pay attention to rebels and dissenters.  They can "speak with authority"--meaning two things: they can speak to the recognized leaders as peers, and they can speak like someone who knows what they're talking about, someone to whom we should pay attention.

How do we make sure that challenging voices are heard?  Partly, of course, by our own commitment as individuals to listen to what bothers us most.  Partly, as Jews, by an understanding of what I have called our "heckling tradition", in which it's possible to be reverent in a most irreverent way...and in which minority opinions (like those of Shammai in his famous disputes with Hillel) can also be "the words of the living God."

It takes more than a moral commitment to include dissenters, however.  To be sure we won't do what's convenient instead of what's right--shut people out instead of listening to them--we need institutions that force us to do the right thing.

In the history of the Zionist movement, people knew this.  They also understood that they could not afford permanently to alienate other factions, no matter how bitterly they disputed.  They wrote rules for making decisions that gave a voice to groups from all over the world and all over the political spectrum.  We can see the influence of these rules in the Israeli Knesset today.  True, a small faction can hold up proceedings, or exercise power disproportionate to its size.  That is the price you pay for making sure they are not shut out altogether.

Groups can also operate either by consensus, by near-consensus, or by voting rules that recognize the outsized interest a group can have in an issue that touches its members more closely than anyone else.  Think what a difference it would make if legislation about women's health, including reproductive rights, had to get a majority of the women in Congress in order to pass!

We can (and should!) debate the exact nature of the institutions.  What we can learn from Parshat Korach, in the end, is that when a large part of the population feels excluded from the political process, things will end in violence.  It is not up to God to prevent or to punish these outbreaks.  It is the responsibility of those in power to make them unnecessary.