David Wolpe tells the story of advice given to a student beginning advanced study Talmud. (The Talmud is a series of discussions by the leading rabbinic sages between 100-500 C.E.) If you happen to fall asleep during class and are called upon by the teacher to explain the lesson, he said, you can always rely on one answer: “The rabbis disagree.”
The Talmud is full of disagreements. Many are resolved. Some are left standing. All reflect a culture in which we use every part of the intellect to understand God’s word.
Doubt Strengthens Faith
In Judaism argument is holy. But it is not argument for the sake of argument. It is argument for the sake of truth. It is argument for the sake of figuring out what God requires of us. It is argument for the sake of realizing Paul Tillich’s insight that “Doubt is not the opposite of faith. It is a core element of faith.”
The value of sacred argument distinguishes Judaism in several ways. These ways can enrich seekers of all faith. They include
- Democracy: No one person or group has a monopoly on defining the truth. In other words, there is no Jewish Pope. Anyone with the appropriate knowledge and commitment can arrive at a new understanding of a text or law.
- Flexibility: Reasonable people can arrive at different conclusions. To remain viable, Jewish thought and practice had to make room for those different conclusions without dividing into irreparable tribes. It did so by remaining moslty unified on core issues of practice like how and when to observe holidays, while permitting great divergence on matters of belief and interpretation. In other words, unity in deed with diversity in creed.
- Civility: The sages learned early how to disagree without being disagreeable. The Book of Proverbs captures some of their thinking in its teaching: “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger…. Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.” What a powerful verse! The aim of argument is not to hurt your opponent. It is to find understanding and truth.
- Responsibility: We draw wisdom and inspiration from the past. Yet, we cannot rely on another person to tell us how to live. Each of us is born with a responsibility to think and to respond to God’s call with our own skills and insights. As the book of rabbinical wisdom, Ethics of the Sages puts it, “It is not your duty to complete the task. But neither are you free to desist from it.”
We have elections coming up in a week and a half. Why should we vote? Think about it: You are one person. Will your particular vote change the election?
Even in times when elections seem close, they are rarely are. A recent piece in the New York Times tells us, “The odds that your vote will actually affect the outcome of a given election are very, very, very slim.”
Should this truth dissuade us from voting? Absolutely not. It’s not my job to encourage us to vote one way or another. But I can teach, from the perspective of Jewish law and tradition, why voting is an obligation and responsibility.
The first reason comes from the Talmud. The Talmud compiles the teachings and debates of the rabbis between 100-500 C.E. One of their core teachings is dina d’malchuta dina, which means the law of the land is the law.
The Christian Gospels, by the way, drew from this teaching when they proclaimed the famous law, “Render unto Caeser what is Caeser’s, and unto God what is God’s.” We live by civic law. If we value the freedoms we enjoy, we need to participate in securing them. In other words, being a good citizen is a religious responsibility.
Religion is Public
The second reason is derived from the nature of Judaism itself. We often think religion dwells solely in the private realm. The philosopher Alfred North Whitehead said that “religion is what one does with his own solitude.”
But in Judaism (and in other faiths) religion also has a public dimension. It’s not something we do alone. It’s something we do with other people. Consider marriage. Even today, when religious commitment often seems to be waning, more than 80% of Americans choose to have a religious wedding ceremony.
Without seeking to impose them on others, we can also express our religious values in the policies and ideals and interests we support. Voting is the best way to do so.
You are Indispensable
The third and final reason requires a certain degree of faith. An old piece of Jewish wisdom says we should carry two slips of paper with us at all times. (Or, as one artist recently suggested, two stones)
On the first is written, “I am but dust and ashes.” The other says, “The world was created for my sake.”
They seem like opposites. The first says we do not matter. We are like a floating particle in the wind. The second says we matter more than anything else. We are the center of the universe.
Neither slip of paper expresses the whole truth. But taken together, they prescribe a beautiful sense of balance. If we thought exclusively in terms of “I am but dust and ashes,” we would do nothing. We would say: “My vote doesn’t matter. I’m just one person. Millions of others will vote.” In doing so, we would leave our civic life to the desires of others.
We need the counter-veiling voice: “The world was created for my sake. The future of this country depends on me. I need to vote.”
Not Taking Life for Granted
At its core, faith is about not taking life for granted. We recite blessings over food so that we remember how lucky we are to enjoy it. We celebrate major life cycle moments so we recognize how important relationships are to our happiness. Religion cultivate gratitude and responsibility.
Similarly, voting helps prevent us from taking our freedom, our country for granted. When we participate, we realize how critical we are. And we also recognize how blessed we are to live in this country of freedom, whose survival depends on us. To quote Abraham Lincoln, we vote so that “this government of the people, by the people, and for the people, shall not perish from the earth.”
Noah is the biblical hero who builds an ark, saves the animal kingdom and helps rebuild the world after a great flood. In spite of his heroism, he is not without fault.
Consider his seeming lack of concern with anyone outside of his own family. Why did he not ask God to consider saving others or warm them of the upcoming flood?
Noah may be the first exemplar of a trend I’ve noticed more and more. It is a faith concerned primarily with oneself.
When God Becomes Ourselves
Alan Lurie calls it “narcissistic spirituality.” Today it happens when religious practice becomes an exercise in self-indulgence.
He gives the personal example of a time he walked into a synagogue and passed a man deep in meditation. Eyes closed, the man breathed in and out, soaking in the Rabbi’s call to “become the Sabbath peace.”
Lurie accidently stepped on his toe. The man opened his eyes and snarled, “Hey, watch it, buddy.”
Does that strike you as a gesture of peace? When we religion becomes focused on the self, it loses its connection with God. We begin to ask what God can do for us, rather than what we can do for the world.
Ask Not What God Can Do for You
Authentic faith begins when we ask not what God can do for us, but how we can do God’s work here on earth. We find that faith when we look for God not only in ourselves, but in the deeds and needs of others.
Consider this beautiful story told by the Nobel Prize winning author Jorge Luis Borges. Entitled The Approach to Al-Matussim, it is a fantasy written in the 1930s.
The narrator has become an outcast among the lower classes of India. In his dealings with the poor, he begins to see traces of kindnesses and tenderness that seem out of place. They are light intruding into the darkness.
He imagines that they must be a reflection of someone else–of a perfect person–from whom “this clarity, this brightness, emanates.” He calls that person al-matusim. He becomes a detective, searching for this mysterious presence by following its reflections in others.
How Do We Find God?
That is how we, too, can find God. We discover God’s presence not in ourselves, but in the hands of hearts of others. We experience God in the faces of those who visit us when we are ill; who comfort us when we have experienced a tragic; who challenge us when we are complacent; who love us when we find it hard to love ourselves.
“God does not live in one place,” a great Rabbi taught. “God dwells wherever we let Him in.”
A classic Jewish joke… When two Jews gather together, expect at least three opinions. Our tradition embraces debate and discussion. Argument becomes a vehicle to truth.
As we enter the final presidential debate, perhaps the following lessons from Jewish tradition can enrich the discussion. Here a few to consider:
1. Respect the other’s point of view, even if you vehemently disagree with it: Two early rabbis–Hillel and Shammai–disagreed on almost everything. Yet, when a ruling was made, the other assented. The losing position was recorded, in case changing circumstances demanded a new approach.
Later Jewish sages described the disagreements between Hillel and Shammai as “arguments for the sake of heaven.” They were not about scoring points. They were about finding what is true and enduring.
2. Use civil language: The media thrives on conflict. The sharper the words, the bigger the headlines. Society, on the other hand, thrives on relationships. The closer our bonds, the stronger we are.
Politics today is weakening those bonds. Anger has become a political weapon. Our harsh words perpetuate it. We see it on the Right and the Left. Each can use a refresher with the Book of Proverbs, which says brilliantly, “A soft answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger.”
3. Stop the Spin: Newt Minow, one of the creators of the Presidential Debate Commission, advised viewers to turn off their televisions immediately after the debate and decide for themselves who spoke more persuasively. I couldn’t agree more.
Jewish tradition teaches that parties to a contract need to understand clearly its terms and conditions. The importance of our decisions demand we understand what they mean and why they make them. The same is true in politics.
The spin may be entertaining, but it is not enlightening. We are smarter than the spinners, and the future rests in our hands.