Humbling Wisdom

A number of years ago I had to fly from Los Angeles to Cleveland, with a stop in St. Louis. The plane was supposed to leave at 8:45 a.m. and arrive in Cleveland in the
late afternoon. But due to a mechanical problem our flight didn’t leave LAX until 1:30 p.m., which put our Cleveland arrival at midnight on the first night of Chanukah.

As I stood on the very long line to change our tickets for the connecting flights, the fellow ahead of me dressed like Crocodile Dundee turned around, looked at me and said in a deep Midwestern accent, “Hi, my name is John, and boy are you in trouble.”

What a way to introduce oneself, I thought. He continued, “You are going to be arriving after sunset.”

At first I had no idea what he meant. Looking at my watch, I replied, “The way things are going it might even be tomorrow morning.”

“So what are you going to do?” he asked.

“Sleep,” I answered.

“No, I mean what are you going to do about lighting candles?” he said. “Isn’t tonight the first night of Chanukah?”

I thought for a moment that maybe “John” was a real Torah scholar who was raising a legal question about how late one can light Chanukah candles.

Although most authorities agree that one can kindle the menorah as long as a minimum of two people are still awake and can see the lights, perhaps he was referring to the opinion that you can kindle only if people are still walking outside.

But then looking again at him, I said to myself, “This fellow probably isn’t even Jewish let alone knowledgeable about halacha.”

Propelled by curiosity, I asked, “By the way are you Jewish?”

“Not at all,” he answered. “I was born Presbyterian, and now I am a Baptist. Maybe one day I will become Jewish. What do you think of that?”

Deciding it would be best not to answer, I acted Jewish and responded with a totally different question: “How do you know so much about Judaism and Chanukah?”

With total seriousness he said, “You can’t claim to be a religious Christian without knowing Judaism. All religious wisdom starts with Judaism.”

The truth is that we can find an elementary concept of wisdom in this week’s Torah portion.

Pharaoh recognizes Joseph’s uncanny ability to correctly interpret his dreams.

Almost in awe of the profound knowledge that Joseph reveals, the Egyptian monarch declares: “After God has informed you of all this, there is no one so understanding and wise as you” (Genesis 41:39).

Joseph is the first man in the Bible to be called “wise.” But what, asks 20th century biblical commentator Benno Jacob, was so special about Joseph’s wisdom that “all the wizards of Egypt and all its wise men” didn’t possess? The answer, he says, is obvious from the text: “Joseph’s wisdom defeated that of the Egyptians because it emanated from God; it was wisdom that led directly from God to him, and is fundamentally identical with fear of God…. It presents the genuinely Jewish combination of brains and heart.”

True wisdom, Benno Jacob argues, recognizes first that there is a God, and second that He is the source of all our talents and wisdom. There is no room for the haughty who think they are to be respected and worshipped because of their brains or special talents. Humility is the only possible response for men, for all emanates from God.

I remember that in my first position as rabbi when I was a young rookie just out of rabbinic school, one congregant publicly criticized me to the other members because I quoted my rabbinic teachers whenever I had to decide a question of Jewish law. This member opposed me by questioning, “Doesn’t Muskin have any opinions of his own?”

When I was informed of this criticism I was asked for a response. I replied with humor, “I don’t know, I will have to ask my teachers.”

After the laughing stopped I answered that I was actually honored by the comment. The truth is that as soon as we think we know all the answers and we do not need to turn to those with more knowledge and experience, we have demonstrated our ultimate ignorance.

Joseph taught us that our knowledge all comes from God in the first place, and if we have an opinion it better be His.

Elazar Muskin is rabbi of Young Israel of Century City.

Silence on Israel Is Not Golden

For Avi Davis, truth is a blazing light threatening to blind the unprepared.

There are no moderating factors or gradations, just a division between those who can handle its assault and those who can’t.

In contrast to Davis’ unitary absolutism, traditional Jewish wisdom tends to frame things in twos and threes. So we read in Pirke Avot 1:18, the teaching of Rabban Simeon ben Gamaliel, that “the world is established on three principles: truth, justice and peace.”

I write as one of those who formulated and then signed “the most recent lachrymose statement on the back page of The Jewish Journal” that draws Davis’ ire. For my colleagues and me, the truth that we live in the Diaspora, rather than Israel, must be balanced by the transnational demand to pursue justice and peace.

Feeling that demand, we did indeed “buy advertising space” in The Jewish Journal — not to weep and wail, but to share our concerns with others in a responsible public way. All of us have spent considerable time, if not lived for some years, in Israel.

I myself paid Israeli taxes, took part in neighborhood patrols and spent hours in my sealed bedroom during the Gulf War. I know the difference between living there and here.

But surely the State of Israel belongs not only to those who live within its borders. This entity that was envisioned, prayed and worked for by generations of our people must exist as, in some sense, the state of the Jewish people. Even Israeli citizens will need to fly home to vote on Jan. 28. But certainly, other ways of joining the national debate are open to Jews abroad who care deeply about “Hatikvah,” the 2,000-year-old hope that is Israel.

The ad titled “One Community, Many Voices” represented one such way. It sketched what we see as the essential ingredients for peace with justice: the end of occupation, withdrawal from settlements and secure borders for both peoples. But our main assertion is captured in our name, which insists that Klal Yisrael (the unity of the Jewish people) is strengthened, rather than undermined, by vigorous debate about pivotal matters.

In our view, having a free and open exchange of ideas makes it more likely that new understandings will emerge. It is precisely our Jewish willingness to challenge even close-to-the-bone sacred truths that wins the respect of outsiders, while making our community deeply resilient, even in hard times.

Davis tells us that his Zionist education traced a strong, red line around criticizing Israel from abroad. As the Oslo process went forward, he bit his tongue rather than express bitter opposition to policies pursued by the democratically elected government of Israel.

What shall we say about such restraint? Is it really admirable? Don’t journalists, public leaders and even individuals in democratic countries engage in a constant process of evaluating the actions of other governments, as well as their own? Clearly, the give and take of public opinion plays a role in moderating conflict, both internal and external, around the world.

Without global reaction, a neo-Nazi might still be in office in Austria, and India might well be warring against Pakistan. By what right and moral standard do we exempt Israel from this court of world opinion, and especially from being judged by those who know and care the most — Diaspora Jews?

Those of us who spent our precious time and dollars on the One Community, Many Voices ad have no desire to micromanage Israeli military and governmental operations. We really do know the difference between living here and there, and we also have our individual lines of work as teachers, rabbis and professionals.

What we claim for ourselves is simply the right to participate in a substantive communal discussion about where, in broad terms, Israel is heading. It cannot be that supporting the State of Israel means agreeing with everything that happens or gets planned there. Like good parenting, loving Israel requires asking hard questions, looking far into the future and spotting internal contradictions.

In order for us to do that effectively, we American Jews need to mount serious programs in which substantive knowledge is communicated, a range of views gets expressed and rational questions may be posed. Unfortunately, these are not the sort of programs being presented currently.

Scholars with genuine expertise on the Middle East and Jewish history are passed over in favor of those who encourage distrust of academic learning. Instead of urging college students to take classes in international relations and other fields that would genuinely equip them to understand world events and represent Israel knowledgeably, huge public relations campaigns get organized to teach them and their parents how to “stand with” Israel. Rather than helping people sort out various ideas and options, too many communal leaders and rabbis are yielding their responsibility to a specialized organization with a single point of view.

Davis’ contention that the forums he participates in or attends mostly feature alternative points of view cannot be disputed by someone who has not shadowed him. Others of us have been exposed to speakers whose idea of providing general, “centrist” background has been to criticize everything different from the Sharon government’s current policies. How can it be, one asks, that it is right to denounce the policies and practices of past democratically elected governments of Israel, while unequivocally upholding those of the present one?

I have in my office a hanging scroll purchased in Israel, on which the words of Isaiah 62:1 are written. While they are, of course, open to interpretation and application, I take them as a watchword for conscientious activism. Often, they help me continue holding to account the Israel in which my people’s past and future are so deeply invested.

Rather than Davis remaining silent when he disagrees and speaking up when he agrees with particular Israeli governments and policies, I would want him and others to join “One Community, Many Voices” in continuing conversation under the banner of Isaiah’s words: “For Zion’s sake, I will not be silent; for Jerusalem’s sake, I will not be still.”

Rabbi Susan Laemmle is the dean of religious life at USC.

A Letter to My Sons

Dear Matt and Steve:

Thirty-five years ago, armed with a letter of introduction from one of your grandma’s friends to the vice president of personnel at Time, Inc., I got my first job. As you guys begin your working lives, and I listen to your efforts, dreams and disappointments, my random-access brain has been retrieving words and phrases from our Jewish tradition.

Work is one of the strongest Jewish values. God provides the ultimate example: He worked a six-day week to create the universe. And when the Tabernacle was built, every person contributed according to his skills and talents. The Talmud reminds us that, "No labor, however humble, is dishonoring."

Unfortunately, I cannot give you a list of beneficial business contacts, but I can pass on something of greater value. My job at Time lasted only nine years, but these words of wisdom from the Five Books of Moses and other Jewish sources can help you weather challenges throughout your lives.

1) Show up for life: Remember that every time God called Abraham, Abraham answered, "Hineni — I am here." Say "hineni" to your lives every day, even in the confusing, disappointing and frustrating times.

2) Get into action: Nothing happened at the Sea of Reeds until Nachshon stepped off the bank. It’s not called footwork for nothing. The Children of Israel had to put one foot in front of the other to get from slavery to freedom. In other words, take the next indicated step.

3) Pause: If there seems to be 17 indicated steps, priorities will become clear if you pause. Acting rashly is never a good idea. Look what happened to Moses the one time he lost his cool and struck the rock twice at Meribah. His rashness kept him from leading the Children of Israel into the Promised Land.

4) Be patient:. Anything we do for the first time, even looking for a job, has a learning curve. Rabbi Nachman of Bratslav said, "A person must be very patient, even with himself." I would modify that to say, especially with oneself.

5) Ask questions: While you’re in that learning curve, don’t be afraid to ask questions, to ask for help. In the Pirke Avot, Hillel warns "A bashful person will never learn." Asking questions is a sign of wisdom, not weakness.

6) Have confidence: "The man who has confidence in himself gains the confidence of others," says a Chasidic maxim. Remember the 12 men sent to reconnoiter the Land of Canaan? Ten of them reported back with fear: "We looked like grasshoppers to ourselves, and so we must have looked to them, (i.e. the people already living in Canaan)." Joshua and Caleb, on the other hand, had confidence that, with God’s help, they would prevail. Ultimately it was they who led the Children of Israel into the Promised Land.

7) Trust the process: Sometimes what we think is the worst thing that could happen turns out to have been a blessing. The story of Joseph is a wonderful example. Joseph reassures his worried brothers after Jacob dies, "Although you intended me harm [by selling him into slavery], God intended it for good so as to bring about the present result — the survival of many people."

8) Seek Balance: Don’t spend every waking moment looking for a job. The Pirke Avot says, "Without flour, there is no Torah; without Torah there is no flour. Only labor and learning together produce a purposeful life." And it’s also OK to have a little fun. Kohelet wrote, "Eat your bread with gladness and drink your wine with joy."

9) Live consciously: Even if you are frustrated or disappointed, be aware of the miracles around you every day. God did not speak until Moses turned to look at the burning bush. Messages may come through small, daily marvels.

10) Know for whom you work: The Hebrew word avodah means both work and worship. Offer your efforts and your work to God. Proverbs says, "Commit to the Lord whatever you do and your plans will succeed."

There is a Chasidic saying, "Everyone should carefully observe which way his heart draws him, and then choose that way with all his strength." My prayer for you, as you go through this sometimes-painful life experience, is that you will learn the way your heart draws you, and find work that allows you to be a blessing in the lives of others.


With much love,

Your Mom

What I Have Learned From the Clinton Affair

I have learned from the Clinton affair how unprepared our technologically sophisticated society is to deal with moral issues, and specifically how to transmit moral wisdom to our children.

Parents ask, “What are we to say to our children about the conduct of the most powerful leader of our country and the world?”

I suggest they sit down with their child before an open Bible and ask, “What are we to say about David, the king and psalmist, who was revealed to be a murderer and an adulterer?” Moreover, what are we to say to children about the patriarchs and matriarchs who are revealed as men and women flawed, yet capable of moral heroism and acts of unsurpassed fidelity.

Let them recover the wisdom of Ecclesiastes who observed, “There is no righteous person upon earth who does good and has not sinned.”

The principle reality of the Bible will help them understand that it is foolhardy to expect from any single person or leader, whatever his celebrity and power, to be a model to be emulated. They will then understand the Bible's fear of idolatry, the deification of any man or woman.

The Bible does not compartmentalize its figures into saints or sinners, heroes or villains. It knows that the sinner can have dimensions of moral character. And this is as true of King David as it is of Oskar Schindler.

Further, if we cannot deal with the Clinton affair, it is because we have reduced the complexity of moral character into a matter of sex alone. Character is a multifaceted quality that includes not only sexual attitudes but also projects and programs rooted in compassion for the weaker vessels of society, protection of the persecuted pariahs, and defense of the voiceless.

In the face of bitter partisan acrimony, I note the wisdom of the sages who warned that when the kettle boils over, the boiling water spills over all its sides. No one, “managers” or defenders, emerges from this trial by ordeal unscathed. “If a man spits in the air, it will fall on his face.” Genuine patriotism calls for a transcendent vision of harmony and purpose beyond the parochialism of partisan politics.

Harold M. Schulweis is rabbi at Valley Beth Shalom in Encino.