June 7, 2008
A front page article in the Washington Post this past Wednesday presented an analysis of the strategy employed by presidential candidate Senator Barak Obama to win the Democratic party’s nomination. That same day, the Wall Street Journal offered a fascinating article about Senator Hilary Clinton’s campaign’s missteps and the mistakes made by her advisers to explain how she lost the nomination, despite having been the front runner and heavy favorite going into the primary season.
So which article is correct? Which one accurately describes what happened? Did Obama and his advisers win it, or did Hilary and her strategists lose it?
I pose the question and highlight the articles to point out that there is always more than one way to view an issue. It is a matter of perspective.
The two conflicting approaches explaining the outcome of the primaries and the fight for the nomination reminds me of the Talmud. The difference though is that the Talmud would place both perspectives side by side, in the same text, on the same page.
It is precisely this kind of dynamic approach to life that makes Judaism an intellectually vibrant religion and philosophy. It is so much more, so much deeper and so much more sophisticated than many realize. One of the things I love about being Jewish and studying Jewish commentaries and sources is that it does not insult one’s intelligence. It demands that we think, stretch and strive to comprehend the concepts and reasoning behind complex ideas and beliefs.
Whose explanation about the creation of the world is correct? Should we believe in the scientific approach, or what the Bible teaches? And what if I were to answer the question by saying the answer is – yes.
I come to that conclusion in part because of the very nature and structure of the Talmud, which teaches us a great deal about how to view life and how to deal with its complexities.
A page of the Talmud is laid out so that the Gemorrah, the primary text is in the center. Around the page are commentaries, and commentaries on the commentaries, and so on. Even the margins contain further references. There is an ongoing conversation that spans across the generations.
The first message to take from this is to be in conversation with the text. No one has yet written or proclaimed the last word. I want to challenge you to be a part of the ongoing dialogue and discussion. This is not the domain or purview of previous generations or elderly rabbis. It is yours. It is your heritage and therefore your responsibility to keep up the conversation. Think of a group of people in a circle playing hackey sack, where the point is not to drop the object, but to keep it going. That is your task. Keep it going.
By placing opinions that disagree with each other on the same page, the Talmud teaches us another profound lesson. It is encouraging us to think and reason for ourselves, to realize it is good to question and not just to accept what is handed down to us.
As a result, when we examine the question about science and religion we can apply what we have learned from Judaism and see that such a question does not have to be an either or proposition. Rare among world religions Judaism says it is possible to maintain a belief in a God who created the world and gave meaning and purpose to life while simultaneously accepting the current scientific thinking about the creation of the world. If you hold that both can be true, you would be in the company of one of the most brilliant of all Jewish philosophers, Moses Maimonides. He taught that there can be no conflict between science and the teachings of the Torah. Since both are truth, and truth is one, and it emanates from God, and since God is by His very nature, infallible, it follows that the two cannot contradict each other. If there is a conflict between scientific theories and the Torah, he said, the problem must be that we are not interpreting Torah correctly. We must go back and reassess or redefine our understanding of Torah so that it conforms and is consistent with scientific norms.
Judaism demands that you think, that you process, that you reflect, that you study and struggle with the tradition and with your responses.
From the role of the Talmud and text, we learn that life is not black or white, nor is it grey. Sometimes it is black and white, and maybe even grey, all simultaneously.
This past Wednesday I was in New York attending a meeting of the Executive Council of the Rabbinical Assembly, the organization of conservative rabbis. No, I did not get another haircut. But I did have an interesting experience. I was invited to give a report about the RA national convention I chaired in February. For a little more than a half hour the body of rabbis met in executive session to discuss some sensitive, confidential matters. Since I am not on the Executive Board, but was invited as a guest, I stepped out, along with some other ex officio members of the council. To my good fortune, one of the people waiting in the hallway with me happened to be a preeminent teacher and scholar of Talmud at the Seminary, Rabbi Mayer Rabinowitz, and so I took advantage of the time by having a fascinating conversation with him about Jewish law and tradition.
He mentioned to me how unusual our traditional code of law, the Shulhan Aruch is. He pointed out that numerous passages will state that the halakha, Jewish law, for example, does not permit us to do such and such, and then it goes on to say in the very next sentecne, but some do. “This is a code of law?!” he said to me. Look at how often we find variant practices listed in it. While all our sages agree that there are 613 mitzvot, commandments, there is no agreement as to what those 613 are. Maimonides and Nahmanides have different lists.
We talked about whether the Oral Law came from Mt. Sinai or was it developed later. Surely an explanation of the Torah accompanied it, in order to explain obtuse passages. Yet clearly there were aspects of the Oral Tradition which came later and were developed by the rabbis who felt perfectly comfortable making changes to the law.
One explanation for the vitality of Judaism is the tension inherent in it. Its pluralistic approach and embrace of the dialectical tension of opposite notions is part of what makes it so exciting to study what Judaism has to say about ancient and contemporary matters. It is also part of what makes it so exciting to live as a Jew as well!
This year our confirmation class studied “The Great Books and Ideas of the Jewish People.” It is crucial to me that Jews be knowledgeable about the great texts of our faith and heritage. I want our children to at least have a working knowledge of the style, format and issues raised, as well as a familiarity with the great Books of our people. After all, there is a reason we are known as “the People of the Book.” It would be a tragedy if we were to be ignorant of the content of those books we have created throughout the millennia.
And so we studied Torah, Bible, The Oral Law, the Mishnah, Gemorrah, and Talmud. I taught the students what is a baraitha, as well as the difference between halakha and agadah, Jewish law and Jewish folklore. We read the Torah and then saw how the midrash elucidates, clarifies, and sometimes modifies the text. We looked at Responsa literature, and came to understand the need for a code of Jewish law, the Shulhan Aruch. Maimonides and other Jewish philosophers were introduced to the students. And with all this, we only scratched the surface.
I want to let you in on a secret. Promise me you won’t tell anyone. Let’s just say, when I attended Hebrew school, I was not the best pupil. But I came away from my religious school experience knowing two things – I realized how little I knew and more importantly, I had a thirst and strong desire to learn more.
That is what I hope to have implanted within you – an appreciation of how enormous our tradition is, how much more there is to learn, and hopefully by appreciating its relevance to your lives, you will obtain a desire to explore your heritage and to expand your knowledge of Judaism.
There is one other thing about my conversation with the scholar of Talmud. While we were talking I brought up the Hebrew phrase Taku – an anacronym for “When the Tishbite comes.” It refers to the unresolved disputes in the Talmud. When the rabbis could not determine the answer to a question, they call it a “taku”. We would say it is a “tie.” The idea is that when Elijah the Tishbite comes, we will find out the right answer. In other words, when Elijah, who heralds the coming of the Messiah comes back to earth, then we will found out once and for all the correct outcome, solution or answer to the question. I have always personally been enamored of this phrase, because it is fascinating that our legal system recognizes there are some matters for which the response eludes us. I also am intrigued by the term because it is the term used in modern Hebrew when a soccer match in Israel ends in a tie. It is as if we are saying, when the Messiah comes we will find out who really won the match.
So what happened last week: Did Hilary lose it, or did Obama win it? We might have to wait for the Messiah to arrive to find out the correct answer.
The rabbi went on to teach me something I had never heard before. The great Hasidic master, Rabbi Levi Itzhak of Berditchev once asked, why is it that the answer will be provided by Elijah and not by Moses? After all Moses is the great law-giver, shouldn’t he be the one to make the final decision? Rabbi Levi Itzhak responded to his question by saying that Moses died, but according to the Bible and rabbinic lore, Elijah never died. He remained among the people, and that is why he is the one to proffer the response. It must come from someone who is one of the people, who is still immersed in everyday affairs, who is still alive. Our religion celebrates life and living, and offers keys to understanding how to live a meaningful life.
That is my greatest prayer, to keep Judaism alive. By studying its texts, by arguing about their meaning, by debating their applications, we are nourished by them, and we do just that. Let the dialogue continue and live on.
Also published on Medium.