In Unity there is Hope.
From Mordecai Kaplan
August 18, 1942
The main effect of the present crisis is to shift the goal of all our efforts from the individual to the collective, from the “I” to the “we.”
We hardly need to be reminded that no man is alone now, that our safety lies in cooperation and in the pooling of all our resources. This applies not only to the individual, the family, the organization, but also to the state or the nation. No matter how strong a nation, it cannot hope to find safety in isolation. “One thought at the fore -/That in the Divine Ship, the World,/Breasting time and Space,/All Peoples of the globe together sail,/sail the same voyage, are bound to/the same destination”
(Walt Whitman, “Old Age Echoes.”) (From Communings of the Spirit, The Journals of Mordecai M. Kaplan . Vol III ( Wayne State University Press), to appear in Fall 2020, ed by Mel Scult
By Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D.
Even if one could get away with something unethical, with deceiving another person, it is incorrect, improper, barbaric and desecrates God’s name.
There are few commandments in our Jewish tradition which have total acceptance as to their moral necessity, yet have generated a myriad of conflicting interpretations and applications. Yet perhaps the abundance of discussion in our tradition about the commandment “Thou shalt not steal” is in fact indicative of an ongoing debate – about who we want to be.In rabbinic texts as well as among medieval commentators, there is little agreement about the applications of this core commandment. Rashi and Nahmanides interpret “Lo tignov” as a reference to kidnapping, gneivat nefashot, rather than theft; while Ibn Ezra and Sforno claim that Lo tignov encompasses stealing both people and property.
Later commentators argue that the commandment alludes not only to standard theft but also to the theft of a person’s self-respect, by not responding to his greeting; or attempting to win someone’s gratitude or regard through deceit, known as gneivat da’at.At the core of these applications is the question of the basic human dignity of the person who previously was in possession of his freedom, his property and his perception, and has lost it. But from ancient times to today, an even larger questions looms: Is this protection of human dignity a protection the Torah seeks for Jews, or does it extend to all peoples? As we shall see, it does not take a liberal 21st-century interpreter to imagine that God’s sanctity depends on respecting the dignity of all people, and on the equal application of ethical principles to all human beings, not just Jews.Indeed, a possible halachic interpretation of the command against stealing might include the widening of its application, along with the widening of the ethical considerations of those such a command seeks to obligate and protect, including the non-Jew.The ancient sages actually predicted this question and some sought to clarify it, lest we have any debate of the broader universal implications.In the Jerusalem Talmud, we find the following curious but instructive tale: “The Roman government once sent two officers to learn Torah from Rabban Gamliel, and they learned from him… When they were finished, they said to him, ‘All of your Torah is pleasant and praiseworthy, except for these two matters in which you maintain… that it is prohibited to steal from a Jew, but that it is permissible to steal from a non-Jew.’ “At that very moment, R. Akiva decreed that stealing from a non-Jew would be prohibited because of hillul Hashem [desecration of God’s name]” (JT Baba Kama 4:3).
A related story is also told in which Shimon Ben-Shetah, a great sage and businessman who traded in cotton, was given a gift of a donkey from his students, who didn’t want him to have to work so hard. After they bought him a donkey from a “certain Syriac,” they found upon it a precious stone. The students rejoiced, telling their rabbi he would never have to work again.When Shimon Ben-Shetah learned about the stone, he asked his students if the owner knew about it. They told them the owner did not, so their rabbi told them to return it.The text then brings a source and asks: Even if stealing from a non-Jew is forbidden, is not appropriating his lost property permitted? But the narrator answers rhetorically, “What do you think, that Shimon Ben- Shetah is a barbarian?! He preferred hearing: ‘Blessed is the God of the Jews’ to all the riches of this world” (JT Baba Metzia 8c).In other words, even if one could get away with something unethical, with deceiving another person, it is incorrect, improper, barbaric and desecrates God’s name. Our sages have clarified this multiple times in multiple texts, over many generations.Yet in this contemporary reality, one might think that some have forgotten these concerns of the Talmud and Nahmanides. Hillul Hashem is what happens when Jews defile, steal and uproot the property of others, even/especially of our neighbors, our others, in the State of Israel or anywhere else. But there are reports that such deceit is taking place in many corners and levels of society. Still, too few of the offenders – especially those in power – are found guilty by authorities, and too few influential voices have spoken out against or taken action to prevent such deceit.The desecration of God’s name occurs in precisely these situations, when an ethical aspect of Jewish law is applied only to some. This desecration occurs when one treats the property and the person of another in a less dignified way than one would demand for oneself. And when we fail to uphold the ethical values that we want to represent who we are, we bring on deserved critique.On the other hand, kiddush Hashem, the sanctification of God’s name, occurs when what we do, how we act, how we apply law, how we take care of hungry children, protect the innocent and the stranger, protect ourselves and our country, represents the best of who we want to be. Every act – or failure to act – brings on this deserved praise or critique, not only of the individual but of all of us.It is not easy to hold others responsible – but if we don’t, we are all responsible for the critique and desecration of God’s name that ensues.Yet the reverse is more true, and what our tradition ultimately seeks us to have us do: Act in a way that makes those around us say, “Blessed is the God of the Jews.”
| By RACHEL SABATH BEIT-HALACHMI|
We are the ever-worrying people.
Philosopher and ideologue Simon Rawidowicz (1896-1957) is regularly quoted in his description of the Jews as “the ever-dying people.”
Or so we have often perceived ourselves. From the moment the first biblical spies went to scout out the Land of Israel and felt “as grasshoppers” in the eyes of others, to the projections of some of our leaders following the recent Pew Research Center study, we see ourselves as the ever-threatened, ever- dying people.
When we aren’t being existentially threatened, we regularly worry about our own spiritual or cultural demise. But the truth is that far more than being an ever-dying people, we are an ever-thriving people.
It’s understandable that we worry, however. Given the enormity of issues facing the Jewish people both in Israel and throughout the Jewish world, it is no wonder that we are concerned. If we aren’t worried about our physical survival in Israel, we’re worried about our Jewish identity everywhere. And when we aren’t worried about our Jewish identity, we’re worried about our spirituality.
But perhaps we should also see all the ways in which we are thriving, both as a start-up nation in Israel reclaiming the best of Jewish tradition, and a thriving array of communities and institutions throughout the wider Jewish world. If we can see all the totality of who we, the Jewish people, are today, and what has enabled us to become who we are, we might better understand and learn from what makes us thrive: leadership that has at its core the desire to create ethical societies.
Regardless of the strength of an economy, or the internal and external threats that are so real, what has mattered most in our collective survival and thriving as a people has been the capacity of leaders to inspire communities of meaning and, especially in our time, to provide multiple models of a Jewish life worth living. With excellence in leadership, while some may still need to see us as the ever-dying, leaders with vision who know that we are the ever- thriving people will be able to harness the resources and knowledge necessary to make it so.
According to leadership experts who teach about long-range systemic change in countries, universities and business, successful leadership depends upon the combination of knowledge, the trust of a community of people, the capacity to leverage power and the willingness to take risks.
Successful leaders also learn from other leaders, from their brilliant successes and their disastrous mistakes. But not enough has been said or taught about how Jewish leaders can succeed in transforming organizations, communities and countries.
Jewish leaders don’t just need to lead according to communal needs; they need to be led by the ethical imperatives of this hour.
There are three Jewish leaders we should study, who I think best model the rare combination of leadership capacity motivated by ethical imperatives: (1) Moses; (2) Yohanan Ben Zakai (first century CE); and (3) Theodor Herzl (1860-1904). Each one, in different contexts, embodied not only powerful leadership capacity, but perhaps more importantly their leadership was guided by ethical imperatives – and they were willing to take risks. Each one responded to a profound existential threat facing the Jewish people and acted on the ethical imperative of his time. Similar arguments could be made about Ben Zakai, in fleeing the siege of Jerusalem in 68 CE and setting up the rabbinic academy of Yavne, and about Herzl in calling for the Jewish state in 1896, expanding the Zionist movement and establishing international alliances. Without each of these three giants of Jewish history, we would probably still be enslaved – without Torah, rabbinic tradition and even the possibility of political sovereignty. In other words, we wouldn’t exist.
While the existential threats of our time are real, we live with the blessing of Jewish sovereignty and the political leadership willing to take risks to defend the physical existence of the Jewish people.
But Jewish spiritual and communal existence in North America is – while not under existential threat of physical destruction – much in need of more Jewish leaders attuned to ethical imperatives of another sort. Jewish leaders today – professional and lay, young and old – must have the capacity to fully respond to an unprecedented reality of what some call a post-ethnic Jewish era, an age characterized by what was unthinkable just a few decades ago. We are blessed to live in a time of egalitarian Judaism, women rabbis, Jews of patrilineal descent, families of intermarriages and Jews of a wide spectrum of sexual orientations. Multicultural and multilayered identities are (generally speaking) accepted if not embraced by the majority.
This kind of Jewish communal reality probably demands that we rethink everything. But it also presents us with enormous opportunity. Given such expansive affirmation of the ethical demands of many who were previously disenfranchised, we are also likely to be living in a time in which there ought to be greater sensitivity to the needs of those still seeking a place or a voice within our communities and in the world altogether.
It is also likely that this diversity holds within it not only the ethical sensitivities and the social capital to lead the transformations necessary to become more of what Jewish tradition wants us to be, but this diversity should also breed more leaders who have the knowledge, capacity, power and willingness to take risks.
Published in Sh’ma, a Journal of Jewish Sensibilities, June 2019
Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi
Eugene B. Borowitz, who died in 2016 at nearly 92, was a theologian and Jewish thinker who had enormous influence on liberal ideas about God, authority, and autonomy. He taught at Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion for over half a century — and founded the journal Sh’ma. I was blessed to be his student, his disciple, and his intellectual biographer.
Unlike previous liberal Jewish theolo- gians, Borowitz, argued extensively that our relationship with God is not one of ongoing process. In the 1960s, Borowitz explicitly rejects the idea of God as a verb/process, in his article, “The Idea of God.” Instead, Borowitz’s theology offers a non-Orthodox sense of God as the absolute commanding source of our ethics and values. It is that powerful
God with whom we are in relationship and who makes unconditional demands that we fulfill out of a sense of duty. In his teaching and writing, Borowitz reoriented liberal Jewish theology from relying on human sources for ethics.
He moved the theological conversation from “ethical monotheism” — based
in part on the work of philosopher Hermann Cohen, that there is one God whose standards for morality apply universally to all peoples — toward an existential and transcendent relation- ship with a commanding God. Borowitz not only reframed the central questions of modern Jewish philosophy, but he created a new field of Jewish theology — the idea of “covenant theology” as explained in his article in Commentarymagazine in 1961.
Borowitz understood the necessity of
a new kind of thinking that could
build on the work of the early modern German-Jewish thinkers and yet take the contemporary American-Jewish reality seriously. Frustration with liberal humanism led many Jews toward a postmodern spiritual search
for a source of human meaning beyond the self. Borowitz sensed this search when he wrote, “We know we are commanded but…we have no widespread understanding of Who or What author- itatively commands us and how such a thing is possible….”
When Borowitz was in his 20s and studying the religious thought of Mar- tin Buber and Franz Rosenzweig, he rejected their existentialist philosophies. Borowitz was deeply troubled by Buber’s rejection of the possibility of absolute knowledge. For Borowitz, Buber also overemphasized the autonomy of the individual independent of any uniquely Jewish commanding covenantal rela- tionship with God.
Borowitz did, though, embrace Buber’s understanding of the relationship between the self and God. Ultimately for Borowitz, while postmodern liberal Jews see themselves as decidedly autono- mous, at the same time they do not and cannot exist only as individuals. Rather, they are Jewish autonomous selves. We are not simply singular selves interested only in ourselves; one’s autonomy is vaguely but decisively limited by being in relationship with God and with the entire Jewish people — past, present, and future. In other words, being a Jew in covenant with God is to recognize that the covenantal relationship itself limits one’s autonomy in a way that is the source of the compelling nature of this postmodern Jewish spirituality. This shift in focus is not because events have changed God, or that God has necessarily evolved, but rather that we — in our new understanding and as a result of our experiences — can better engage in a committed, non-halakhic but dutiful and covenantal relationship with God.
For Borowitz, God remains the “senior partner” with a commanding voice.
Borowitz focused on the questions of how the relationship between God, the Jewish people, and an emerging and increasingly powerful sense of “sovereign self” or “au- tonomous self” could be construed in a relevant and compelling theological sys- tem. This becomes an increasingly urgent Jewish question today — as what we have traditionally understood as “authority” appears to be losing ground.
In the years following World War II, Borowitz and his colleagues struggled with a search for a ground for our values that would be more ethical and powerful than the realization of the human capac- ity for evil that led modern enlightened societies to allow for and enact the Ho- locaust, murdering six million Jews and millions of other human beings, and drop nuclear bombs leading to the suffer- ing of countless innocents. In study and fellowship with many thinkers, including Rabbis David Hartman and Yitz Greenberg, Borowitz clarified that “we come to God these days primarily as the ground of our values and, in a non-Orthodox but nonetheless compelling fashion, as the ‘commander’ of our way of life.” He ar- gued for the renewing of the covenant based on an age-old Jewish view of our relationship with God and the clear sense that that relationship cannot be based on law/halakhah or on ethics alone. He felt that we must be able to correct the law when it could lead to unethical results.
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maintain a collective commitment to it in the future. His sense of duty to the whole of the Jewish people and to an experience of God is not a process but a relationship with a Commanding Presence of a real God in my life.
….for covenant theology because of post- modernism’s appreciation that the truth of personal experience still holds that God remains the “senior partner” with a commanding voice. That discourse gave him the language to “assert my Jewish conviction that…we can have unmediated, compelling, quality-laden religious experience” that could occur in prayer, in song, in nature, in a synagogue, in giving birth, in being with someone who is dying.
Borowitz articulated a new understanding of the self not just structured by pure autonomy but “grounded in a relation- ship with God, with community, and as part of the Jewish people’s historic cove- nant with God. The result of all this is a new theory of non-Orthodox Jewish duty, the acts of which constitute the primary expression and medium of Jewish holiness.”
While those who understand themselves to be ”radically claimed” by the Orthodox Jewish halakhic tradition may seek to find more room for the individual, those of us who are committed to liberal Judaism often perceive ourselves to be ”radically free,” and I, like many others, seek more room for the claim of Jewish law in our lives.1 In my own religious life, I have sought out a balance of being both radically free and radically claimed. It was Borowitz’s notion of the “autonomous Jewish self”2 that gave me the language to say that while we celebrate our autonomy as liberal Jews, if we are truly part of a covenant, that autonomy is limited by the demands of a commanding God as well as by our commitment to the wisdom and lived experiences of the Jewish people of the past, present, and future…..
Rabbi Rachel Sabath Beit-Halachmi, Ph.D. is a senior fellow of the Mordecai M. Kaplan Center for Jewish Peoplehood and most recently served as Assistant Professor of Jewish Thought and Ethics and National Director of Recruitment and Admissions at the Hebrew Union College-Jewish Institute of Religion (HUC). Prior to her appointment at HUC she served as Vice President of the Shalom Hartman Institute and as a member of its faculty for over a decade. She has also served as rabbi of Congregation Shirat HaYam on Nantucket Island. Ordained at HUC nearly 25 years ago, Dr. Sabath earned a PhD in Jewish philosophy from the Jewish Theological Seminary. Website: www.RabbiSabath.com and Twitter: @RabbiSabath
1 See my essay “Radically Claimed and Radically Free” in Jewish Theology Today, edited by Elliot Cosgrove.
2 Borowitz, “The Autonomous Jewish Self,” 1984.
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