Tag: middot (Jewish Values)

When ‘just be good’ isn’t enough

Cross Posted at the Jewish Journal

“Why all these values, rabbi?” preteen Josh asked. “Can’t you just say we should be good people?” Often it is the most basic questions that set me thinking, and Josh’s query sure did.

My wife, Michelle November, and I are at Camp Newman, a Reform Jewish summer camp in Santa Rosa, where we are chaperoning Congregation Or Ami’s 45-person delegation. While Michelle serves as camp mom, answering questions by phone for the next session’s camper-parents, I work as dean of faculty, guiding young people with the camp’s daily middah (or Jewish value/virtue).

Jewish Values Guide Our Interactions
Over the course of a session, we explore b’tzelem Elohim (recognizing that each person was created “in the image of God”), kehillah kedushah (that as part of a “holy community,” we have responsibilities to each other) and kavod (that “respect” necessarily guides every interaction we have with other people and creations).

We embrace ometz lev (being “courageous”), insist on ahavah (the “love” that binds us together) and turn our hearts toward Yisrael (the land, modern state, people and children of Israel). These middot and others permeate the camp, invigorating every moment of the day from mifkad (morning assembly) to sports to hashkavah (bedtime activities).

When ‘Just Be Good’ Isn’t Enough

Josh’s question penetrates these moments of meaning by asking, “Why do we name and number so many middot, when one simple instruction — Just be good — or one simple Torah verse — v’ahavta l’reiacha kamocha (love your neighbor as yourself) — might suffice?

We find our answer back in the mid-19th century, in a commentary by Rabbi Mordechai Yosef Leiner on this week’s parasha, Shofetim. The Ishbitzer (Polish) Chasidic rebbe (d. 1854), whose teachings were compiled as “Mei HaShiloach,” believed that the more clarity we have about how we should live, the purer, more righteous lives will we lead.

Guarding the Gateways Into Our Bodies
Our parasha opens with what appears to be basic instructions for the creation and implementation of a new justice system for the tribes. “You shall appoint magistrates and officials for your tribes, in all the gates [she’arecha] that YHVH your God is giving you, and they shall govern the people with due justice” (Deuteronomy 16:18). For Rabbi Mordechai, this opening verse points also to the way we guard our lives from sin. He teaches, “She’arecha (gates/settlements): we are to establish magistrates (judges) for each and every detail of life, in every state and in every city. This applies, as well, in our individual lives. These ‘gates’ are the seven sense-gates by which we receive God’s goodness: two eyes, two ears, two nostrils and a mouth. We have to exercise great care over each of these gates by which we derive good.”

Rabbi Jonathan Slater of the Institute for Jewish Spirituality drashes (explains) that “the Ishbitzer is concerned with guarding what enters us from the outside, how we are affected by what we see, hear, say and smell. All of these sense-events/acts are powerful, affecting our inner awareness and our capacity to respond in a balanced, loving manner. Without awareness of the forces at work on our consciousness we are unable to align ourselves with the Divine.”

A Complex World Requires a Multiplicity of Tools
So why do we name and number so many middot? Because we live in a complex world with widespread influences that pull us in all sorts of opposing directions. Because our yetzer harah (inclination for evil) can easily overpower our yetzer hatov (inclination for good). Because we need multiple tools to filter everything we experience. The middot stand as shofetim (judges) at our seven sense-gates, ensuring that everything we see, hear, say and smell can and will be interpreted and moderated for goodness and godliness.

Sending Kids Off With Toolboxes Filled With Torah
When we say goodbye to Josh — and to the 1,400 young people who enter Camp Newman’s gates every summer — we know we are sending him home with a toolbox filled with Jewish virtues to keep him on a morally straight path. As the 19th century Rabbi Mordechai Yosef teaches and the 21st century Rabbi Jonathan Slater reinforces, the overall message is this: We need to establish practices that guard us from passively being affected in negative ways, just as we need to prevent ourselves from affecting the world negatively through our deeds.

For this is our highest hope: that Josh and all the children who attend Jewish summer camps around the country find direction and guidance from the Jewish values we impart to them. And we pray: May all they have learned transform them, so that they come home kinder, more compassionate and more Jewishly self-identified than ever before.

Saving the Jewish People… on a Sports Field

How do we save the Jewish people? 
With more Jewish day schools or more creative religious education? With greater outreach to interfaith families? By transforming the B’nai Mitzvah process? Or by focusing on Jews in their 20’s and 30’s?

Yes, yes, yes and yes. Much has been written about each endeavor, and undoubtedly we will discover that each offers a significant, if partial response to the challenges our Jewish people face.

We Found the Solution on a Sports Field
Recently, however, as I watched a group of teens lead a group of at risk kids through a day of sports, I realized that at Congregation Or Ami, we may have discovered yet another piece of the “Save the Jewish Future” puzzle. We found it on the sports field, of all places.

Called Future Coaches, this teen engagement program is part of a constellation of teen activities known at the temple as Triple T: Tracks for Temple Teens. Inspired by the Union for Reform Judaism’s Campaign for Youth Engagement, Future Coaches begins with a simple premise: that many boys (girls too) find meaning and purpose in sports and that we, the Jewish community, need to capitalize on that reality. (Read about the summer 6-Points Sports Academy.)

A few times a month Future Coaches participants – most are boys between 7th and 10th grades – gather in our sanctuary to learn from four congregant dads, who between them have over fifty-six years of coaching experience. These dads – Brian Buckley, Frank Catone, David De Castro, and Paul Gross – plan each session, with Jewish content input from the rabbis.

Future Coaches Analyze then Organize
Each session includes a review of what makes an excellent sports player or a talented coach. Sometimes they analyze YouTube sports videos; other times they learn leadership skills from a professional leadership coach.

Each session also focuses around a Jewish value, which is illuminated in the YouTube video or in the skill workshops. They have explored kavod (respect), emet (truthfulness), shmiat ha-ozen (attentiveness and good listening), shmirat haguf (caring for the body), among other values. These Jewish values become touchstones as the Future Coaches explore and practice coaching techniques.

Coaching and Connecting with At-Risk Kids
Three times a year, the future coaches break into working teams to plan the upcoming sports day. Teams include scheduling, team building and event planning. The dads reserve a local sports field and arrange for a local caterer to provide a buffet of breakfast foods, sandwiches, snacks and drinks for game day.

We are partnering with New Directions for Youth (NDY), an organization which helps at-risk youth gain confidence, improve academic achievement, and develop appropriate social skills. For a few years now, Or Ami has taken groups of NDY children on Back to School shopping sprees, fishing trips, and fun outings.

No sooner do the NDY kids arrive than our Or Ami future coaches – clad in special “coach” t-shirts – get to work. They usher the NDY kids over for breakfast and then divide them into teams for the first round of games. I watched a laughter-filled water balloon fight, followed by 3-on-3 basketball, a mud-sliding game of capture the flag, and flag football. Arts and crafts projects filled the down time. Our Or Ami future coaches alternated between playing, coaching and refereeing.

Each New Directions for Youth participant went home with a sports medal, an age-appropriate reading book (also donated), a full stomach, and memories of a great day.

My Epiphany about the Jewish Future
The epiphany came while I was schmoozing and taking iPhone pictures with the dads and the teens. Of the 19 Or Ami students in attendance that day, all but five of them would have disappeared from temple life had this program not been available. None of them wanted to continue in a class situation. Most academic or religious topics would have bored them.

That’s the brilliance of Future Coaches. Accepting that for many students, and most boys, sports is the priority of their teenage years, Future Coaches meets them where they are and then stealthily engages them into learning about Jewish values and participating in Tikkun Olam. Sure, it is not Talmud or Comparative Religion. But for these 19 young men and women, it is just what anchors them to Jewish communal life.

So Go Ahead
Ask the Future Coaches teens what they accomplished on game day. They might respond that they had a great day at the park. They might say they befriended a bunch of kids over sports. But we know better.

In the midst of the sports and the food, our teens displayed leadership, served as role models for at risk kids, and lived out wholesome Jewish values. All within the context of their synagogue. For 15 of the 19, Future Coaches saved them for Jewish life.

Not bad for a sunny day in the park.

This Rabbi’s Hollywood TV Shoot

I always expected that Hollywood sets were peopled with entitled stars and prima dona producers. That is, until I spent two days for my star turn as the marrying/burying Rabbi on ABC’s Body of Proof. There on location at the hotel, I witnessed one of the nicest and most welcoming workplace environments and approachable cast and crew ever.

Let me step back. As I was elbow deep in preparations for the Jewish High Holy Days, my congregant Matthew Gross approached me about an idea he had for his TV series Body of Proof.

Body of Proof follows the life and career of Medical Examiner Megan Hunt, once a high-flying neurosurgeon, who works in Philadelphia’s Medical Examiner’s Office. As a Medical Examiner Megan applies her vast medical knowledge, keen instincts and variously charming and scalpel-like personality to the task of solving the medical mysteries of the dead and bringing the people responsible for their deaths to justice.

What did I think, Matt asked, about a wedding where moments before it starts, the bride jumps off the seventh story balcony and falls through the chuppah (marriage canopy)? I told him that I thought he was a sick man if as Executive Producer and Writer, he spent his days dreaming up innovative ways to kill people. Then he made an offer I couldn’t refuse…

Would I like to officiate at the wedding and funeral for the show?

Thus I found myself two days after Yom Kippur, dressed in my tallit and “wedding officiation suit,” preparing to be filmed at the pre-wedding cocktail reception. After being introduced around to a few of the crew members, I was walked through my role in the scene (no lines but lots of fun nonetheless).

It was during the downtime that my wife Michelle (who was background as a mourner at a funeral) noticed that how wonderfully approachable and kind the people were. They exhibited what we Jews call the middah (or Jewish virtue) of nedivut lev, a generous heart.

The stunt coordinators proudly and patiently explained how they would have a woman fall from seven stories up and “die”. The make up guy showed me how they planned to push a leg bone “through the skin.” The props and crew showed their faux gravestones, while the lighting crew demonstrated how huge lighting shields brightened a darkening sky. And the on location caterers piled our plates with delicious desserts, that rivaled my parents’ baking. Everybody was gracious, inviting, and welcoming.

You’d expect the Hollywood types to be, well, unapproachable. But it wasn’t so.

Each actor approached us during our days of filming, to say hi, introduce themselves, and see how we were enjoying being on the set. Over the course of two days, we met most all of them – including Dana Delany (Dr. Megan Hunt), Jeri Ryan (Dr. Kate Murphy), Peter Dunlap (Nicholas Bishop), Sonja Sohn (Det. Samantha Baker), John Carroll Lynch (Det. Bud Morris), Geoffrey Arend (Dr. Ethan Gross), and Windell Middlebrooks (Dr. Curtis Brumfield).  And like the episode’s director, AD’s and the whole crew, they were wonderfully kind.

Knowing that the kindness must emanate from the top, we complimented our host Matt on the kind staff he brought together. Matt indicated that like our Congregation Or Ami – where warmth, kindness and compassion define the community – he and his staff work diligently to surround themselves with like-minded people for whom creating a caring community is a priority.

There is a lesson in there somewhere. That if you want to live a life of kindness and compassion – if you want to be embraced by nedivut lev, by kindness of heart – then surround yourself with people whose personalities bring forth the same. It is easier to be caring when surrounded by caring people.

I have been told that our episode will air over the next few months. Catch up previous episodes of  Body of Proof so you will be prepared to understand our episode. Body of Proof airs on ABC-TV Tuesdays at 10 pm/9 Central time. Find out about it on Facebook, Twitter or ABC-TV.

[Full disclosure: (1) I get no kickbacks or residuals if you watch the show or not.  But do watch, because it is great. (2) This is not the first show on which I had a walk-on part. Back in the 1990’s, when then Executive Producer Ira Steven Behr was a member of my then pulpit Temple Beth Hillel, my wife arranged for me to play a Lieutenant Jr. Grade Starfleet officer in Quark’s Bar during a scene on my beloved Star Trek: Deep Space 9 (final season, episode: Strange Bedfellows).  It was one of the best birthday presents ever.  (3) When not tending to his nascent/non-existent TV career, I am rabbi at Congregation Or Ami and an avid blogger. ] 

Innovation and Tradition

Our Or Ami board explored the intersection between innovtion and tradition by looking at four teachings and deriving lessons about them.We discussed:1. What do these texts teach us about tradition and change, stagnation and innovation?2. What lessons might Or Ami take from these texts?The Hungarian halachic authority of two centuries ago, Rabbi Moses Sofer insisted that “Chadash asur min ha-Torah – innovation is forbidden by the Torah.”Jewish tradition teaches: Bechol yom yiheyu b’einecha k’chadashim – Every day should be in your eyes like new.Rabbi Simeon Maslin of Pittsburgh wrote: For the Torah to survive, it must grow. The mystics of old taught: “There are seventy faces to the Torah” (Zohar and Midrash). Some of those faces existed in antiquity, at the time of Moses, King David, the prophets, and Hillel. Others appeared among the marvelously creative Jewries of Babylonia, Spain, and Poland in their golden ages. Still others carried the scars of expulsions, pogroms, and the Shoah. And there are the faces of the here and now, for we too are compelled to confront the challenges of our contemporary world, as the Pharisees did, with both veneration for sacred tradition and the courage to innovate. [The Pharisees were the predecessors to the rabbis]To paraphrase Rabbi Alan David Londy of New York [possibly taking his words out of context]: If we stop innovating, Judaism will become lifeless. If we … innovate without a sensitivity of how our innovations impact [on others], we might be acting irresponsibly.Finally we reviewed this statement from Congregation Or Ami’s Vision and Values:Innovation/Chiddish: We delight in continuing opportunities to renew and transform our community, our traditions, our programs and ourselves.I am proud to be part of a community that values innovation even as we hold onto Torah and Jewish values as the foundation of our innovation.

RAC’s Tep Ten List of Top Ten Lists

Our Religious Action Center of Reform Judaism (RAC) in Washington DC represents our progressive Jewish values in our nation’s capital. They educate, raise awareness, explain Jewish values regarding current issues, and help local congregations engage their Congresspeople on issues of concern.

They also write an engaging RACblog. RAC Press Secretary Kate Bigam wrote their List of the Top 10 Top 10 Lists. I loved it. What were your favorite lists?

1. Grist’s Top Green Stories of the ’00s
Like others, Grist decided to go a step beyond a simple “Best of 2009” list by covering the aughts in their entirety. Starting with the greening of Paris Hilton (among other celebs), the list takes a more serious tone when it lists the environmental movement’s newfound climate focus and American politicians’ newfound willingness to talk about climate as a serious legislative issue as among the top environmental stories of the decade. With the snappy catchphrase “Local gets vocal, organic goes manic,” it also includes a shout-out to the sustainable food movement, which the Reform Movement embraced this year at our Biennial Convention.

2. TIME Magazine’s Top 10 Religion Stories of the Year
Included in TIME’s “Top 10 of Everything of 2009” compilation is this gem of a list that includes year-toppers titled things like “Secularism of Bust.” Among them is “Keeping the Faith-Based,” highlighting President Obama’s decision to “create the new Presidential Advisory Council on Faith-Based and Neighborhood Partnerships to weigh in on matters ranging from funding of social-service and poverty-alleviation programs to the more controversial issue of abortion reduction.” The RAC’s Director, Rabbi David Saperstein, was named by president Obama to serve on this council.

3. The International Women’s Health Coalition’s Top Ten Wins for Women’s Health and Rights in 2009
This list of the world’s advancements in women’s rights tackles issues in the Unites States, the UK, Bolivia, Nigeria, Cameroon, and Yemen, among others. But as blogger Lorena Espinoza Peña writes on Feministing.com, “As important as it is to celebrate victories surrounding women’s rights and health, it’s also important to acknowledge when there’s still much more work to be done.”

4. Odyssey Networks’ Top Interfaith Stories of 2009
Odyssey Networks asked its members, “Which activities and events of 2009 best illustrate the important and hopeful work being done by faith communities working together?” The list represents their recommendations along with the suggestions of the folks at Odyssey and is presented alphabetically rather than ranked – members are asked to vote on the story they feel is most important. In one story, “Speaking and Acting on Health Care Reform,” our own Director Rabbi David Saperstein is featured (photo above).

5. Religious Clause’s Top 10 Church-State, Religious Liberty Developments In 2009
Church-state blogger Howard M. Friedman, Professor of Law Emeritus at the University of Toledo, submits his choices for the biggest religious liberty stories of the year. “The choices are based on the long-range implications of the developments on legal doctrines and on future of relations between government and religion,” he writes. Highlights include the Rifqa Bary case, of a Christian teenager at odds with her Muslim parents, court cases against Scientology in France and Germany, and conservative Christian groups’ opposition to the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act.

6. Religion Newswriters Association’s Top 10 Religion Stories
More than 100 religion journalists voted President Obama’s June speech in Cairo, Egypt — in which he pledged a new beginning in Muslim-U.S. relations — the top religion story of the year. During his talk, Obama invoked the Qur’an, Talmud and the Bible while declaring that America was not at war with Islam. The second-rated religion story was health care reform; in addition to the top ten, the Religion Newswriters Association also compiled a list of 13 more noteworthy religion stories that made headlines this year.

7. Politics Daily’s Top 10 Economic Stories of 2009
The title reads “Jobs, Housing, Bailouts and — Yes — Tiger Woods,” so you know this is probably going to be a list a bit off the beaten path. Still, the first economic story listed is “‘Great Recession’ ends but unemployment hits 25-year high,” so golf stars aside, the list is still addressing the most pressing economic issues of our time – in a year when the economy has been a topic at the forefront of everyone’s minds. Other issues that make the cut in this arena include health care reform, the housing crisis, the UN Copenhagen Climate Conference, “tea parties” and more – including Tiger.

8. MSNBC’s “Decade’s Top 10 Political Lines”
NBC writers compile “what we consider to be the most memorable political lines/statements/quotes of the decade, which shaped or cemented perceptions, were repeated endlessly, and impacted American politics.” The usual political suspects make the list – Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama, Vice Presidents Cheney and Biden, Presidential hopefuls John Kerry and John McCain, now-Secretary of State Clinton – but there are a few surprises, too, including some profanity. Most notably, keep your eye out from a famous two-liner yelled just this year on the House floor and even a political joke from an old Saturday Night Live alumna.

9. The Forward’s “The Aughts and Us: 2000-2009: A Look Back at What a Decade Brought”
Ten Jewish leaders write one paragraph each on 10 of the ways life changed for Jews in the first decade of the 21st century, from the Diaspora’s presence online (makes it easier to kibbitz, fundraise, etc.) to the lasting threat of terrorism brought about by September 11th (and it’s impact on Jews, in particular). The final write-up is from Rabbi Eric Yoffie, President of the Union for Reform Judaism, about the emergence of Birthright Israel. He says, “It has demonstrated that at a time when commitment to Israel is supposedly withering, even the most disengaged young Jews have a yearning for connection to the Jewish state.”

10. TIME Magazine’s Top 10 Editorial Cartoons of 2009
Who says politics isn’t animated? Rounding out our list of Top 10 Top 10 Lists is TIME’s compilation of the best visual jokes of the year, but don’t be fooled by imagery that invokes Saturday morning cartoons – each of these drawings packs a political punch that highlights the biggest gaffes and missteps of 2009.

Tikkun Olam: The Backstory

Recently, 31 Or Ami adults gathered for our monthly New Dimensions Shmooze ‘n Study at a congregant’s home. Over hors dourves and drinks, we chatted, connected and then sat down for some learning.

Our discussion about community quickly turned to the community building power of Tikkun Olam (fixing the world or social justice work), which led to a discussion about the origins of the idea of Tikkun Olam.

Recognizing that many people do not know where origins of Tikkun Olam, I share here an article from Reform Judaism Magazine: Social Action: Tikkun Olam: The Backstory – An RJ conversation with Howard Schwartz.

What is the origin of tikkun olam?

While most modern Jews interpret the term—meaning “repair of the world”—as a synonym for social action, what they don’t know is that this idea is rooted in the last great myth infused into Jewish tradition, the creation of the renowned 16th-century Jewish mystic, Rabbi Isaac Luria of Safed, known as the Ari.

Did the Ari originate the term?

No. Tikkun olam first appeared in the Mishnah (2nd century CE) and meant “guarding the established order.” It is also part of the Aleinu prayer: “perfecting the world under the rule of God.” Later, in the 12th century, Maimonides spoke of tikkun olam in the context of rabbinic rulings and customs that would “strengthen the religion.”

How then did the Ari’s use differ?

In these earlier definitions, it is God who is doing the repairing. The Ari was the first to propose that the Jewish people are God’s partners in repairing the world, and he did so by constructing a cosmic myth around the term, beginning with the creation of the world and ending with the Messianic Era.

Please summarize the myth for us.

At the beginning of time, God’s presence filled the universe. When God decided to bring the world into being, to make room for creation, He contracted Himself by drawing in His breath, forming a dark mass. Then God said, Let there be light (Gen. 1:3) and ten holy vessels came forth, each filled with primordial light.

God sent forth the ten vessels like a fleet of ships, each carrying its cargo of light. But the vessels—too fragile to contain such powerful Divine light—broke open, scattering the holy sparks everywhere.

Had these vessels arrived intact, the world would have been perfect. Instead, God created people to seek out and gather the hidden sparks, wherever we can find them. Once this task is completed, the broken vessels will be restored and the world will be repaired.

Did the Ari invent all the myth’s aspects?

Quite the contrary: Every aspect of the Ari’s myth can be found in earlier biblical, rabbinic, and mystical Jewish interpretations and principles. For example, the Ari elevated the concept of tzimtzum, the idea that God contracted to make space for Creation. This perspective assumes that God’s presence occupies physical space—a biblical teaching. God told Moses to build a tent of meeting, but “Moses was unable to enter the tent because a cloud had settled upon it and the presence of God filled the Tabernacle” (Exod. 40:34-35). Similarly, the shattering of the vessels recalls Moses’ rage when he saw the golden calf and “hurled the tablets from his hands and shattered them at the foot of the mountain” (Exod. 32:19). So too were the holy vessels of the Ari’s myth like the heavenly tablets—crafted by God.

Scattered sparks also appear in Ezekiel 10:2, in which angelic figures scatter fiery coals from the Temple altar over the city of Jerusalem (“Fill your hands with glowing coals from among the cherubs, and scatter them over the city”) and bring to mind the Israelites who gathered the manna that fell from heaven (Exod. 16:17). Just as the manna fell to nourish the body, so the holy sparks serve to nourish the soul.

A midrash about the light created on the first day inspired the idea of primordial light inside the vessels. Here the ancient rabbis noticed an apparent contradiction: On the first day of creation, God says, “Let there be light” (Genesis 1:3); and on the fourth day, God created the sun, the moon, and the stars (Gen. 1:16-18). If God did not create the sun until the fourth day, they asked, what was the light God called into being on day one? The rabbis identified it as a primordial light—perhaps the light of paradise, or the light that emerged when God wrapped Himself in a garment of light (Psalms 104:2).

What, then, happened to this light? According to the Talmud and other rabbinic sources, God withdrew it from the world, and it became known as the ha-or ha-ganuz, the hidden light. Some said the light was taken back into paradise when Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit. From the perspective of the Zohar, the 13th-century foundational text of Jewish mysticism, this light is hidden in the Torah: Whenever a person studies the Torah with great concentration, a ray of the primordial light will illuminate both the Torah and the person, reflecting his/her new understanding of it.

In the Ari’s myth, the primordial light God sent forth on that first day is the same light scattered around our world as holy sparks, which each of us is called upon to seek out and gather.

How do we go about finding and gathering these mysterious, elusive sparks?

The Ari explained that the sparks are raised up whenever the Torah is studied or one of God’s commandments is fulfilled. This is a radical explanation of why we perform the mitzvot. Whereas before these rituals and prayers were regarded purely as God’s commandments, the Ari now attributed a beneficial spiritual effect to them: Studying the Torah as well as observing its laws and partaking in all other devotional and loving acts are the means to gather the sparks, and thus engage in the great mitzvah of tikkun olam.

How might the Ari’s life have influenced his interpretations?

The Ari lived in the 16th century, not long after the expulsions of the Jews from Spain and Portugal. He was well aware of the great dislocation that had followed in the aftermath of that trauma. Jews who for generations had been part of an advanced Sephardic culture on the Iberian Peninsula were suddenly scattered throughout the world, living in foreign and unfamiliar lands. Until they learned of the Ari’s myth, many of these exiles found themselves isolated and spiritually bereft. The notion of tikkun olam brought them almost immediate consolation and a sense of purpose by explaining why God had dispersed them—to gather the holy sparks that had fallen on these distant lands. Learning that their exile was part of God’s plan for tikkun olam also raised their hopes for an ingathering of all Jews with the coming of the Messiah. Little wonder that, within a year of its formulation in the Galilean town of Safed, the Ari’s myth had spread throughout the Jewish world.
Does the Ari’s myth give Jews a special role in the repair of the world?

The Ari viewed Israel as having a singular destiny based on God’s covenant with the Jewish people. However, the idea of God creating humans to remedy a Divine error suggests a more universal meaning: A repaired world can be realized only if the whole of humanity engages in collecting the sparks.

Did this myth continue to evolve?

Yes. Consistent with the ongoing myth-making process in Judaism, after the Ari’s death, his teachings, known as Lurianic kabbalah, became the leading expression of kabbalah, deeply influencing Sephardic and Hasidic mystics. Their commentaries sometimes embellished the Ari’s myth. The hasidic master Rabbi Menachem Mendel of Rimanov (1745–1815), for example, stated that “when the task of gathering the sparks nears completion, God will hasten the arrival of the final redemption by Himself collecting what remains of the holy sparks that went astray.” Later, Rabbi Kalonymus Kalman Shapira (1889–1943) linked the Ari’s myth to a famous midrash about prior worlds that God is said to have created: “At the time of creation, God created worlds and destroyed them. The worlds created and destroyed were the shattered vessels God sent forth. Out of those broken vessels God created the present universe.”

How do you account for the continued appeal of tikkun olam?

The concept of human partnership with God to heal heaven and earth is both engaging and energizing. In a sense, tikkun olam expands God’s original covenant with the Jews at Sinai by adding a metaphysical and spiritual dimension to our ethical and moral obligations. The Ari was a rare genius who understood the need for a guiding myth for the Jewish people and joined together an array of Jewish legends to create a single, seamless, unifying myth. This myth’s integration of mind, body, and spirit has given tikkun olam its timeless appeal.

[Howard Schwartz is a professor of English at University of Missouri-St. Louis, a Jewish folklorist and mythologist, and author of, most recently, Tree of Souls: The Mythology of Judaism and Leaves from the Garden of Eden: One Hundred Classic Jewish Tales.]

Gossip, the Anti-Torah

http://www.bizdevblog.com/bizdevblog/images/istockphoto_gossip.jpgNot too long ago, I posted about Rudeness All Around: Loud Public Cellphone Talking, Texting During Services as a way of opening up a conversation about texting, cell phoning and other activities that fragment the common decency upon which civil society depends.  It led me to a conversation about Lashon Harah, gossip, as a nefarious force which undermines community. 

Recently I learned that our ancient rabbis recognized this same danger, branding gossip (in not so many words) as the “anti-Torah.”  My colleague Dr. Judith Abrams, founder of Maqom, a program for spiritual searching and serious Talmud study, illuminating the Talmudic Teaching (originally posted on Tzei ul’mad: A Blog of Continuing Jewish Learning).

One of the things I love about studying Talmud is that it’s like a kaleidoscope: take a look, shake it up, turn it around, take another look and you see a whole new picture.

We all know that there are 4 things that benefit you here and in the world to come:

  1. honoring father and mother
  2. doing deeds of kindness
  3. bringing peace between people and
  4. the study of Torah is equal to them all. (Mishnah Peah 1:1)

The (Talmud) Yerushalmi, in its gemara to this mishnah, shakes the kaleidoscope and show us the other side of this teaching, i.e., the four things that hurt you here and in the world to come:

  1. idolatry
  2. murder
  3. inappropriate sexual relations
  4. lashon hara (gossip) is equal to them all. (Yerushalmi Peah 1:1, 8a1 in the Artscroll Elucidation)

Each of the four good things is paired with its photo-negative. The links are easy to see: Honoring ones parents includes honoring one’s divine parent, i.e., God. So idolatry is the anti-honoring parent deed. Deeds of kindness show we treasure life. Murder, of course, is the farthest from that that we can get. Peace between people depends on appropriate boundaries and inappropriate sexuality dismisses such boundaries as meaningfless. What I especially love is that gossip turns out to be the photo-negative of Torah study. It’s words that can do so much good or so much harm.

But here’s the real catch-22: according to the (Talmud) Bavli (Baba Batra 164b-165a), everyone gossips to some extent every single day. Unless you’re going to stay in a cave somewhere and never speak again, your going to at least do the “dust of lashon hara” everyday. Since you couldn’t live anywhere near a complete Jewish life in such isolation, there’s only one thing to do: add more Torah words to your life. In that context, Torah study isn’t just a good thing…it’s the one thing that tips the balance back into your favor, shoring up the imbalance that inevitably follows gossip.

So Torah study isn’t just good for you lishmah…it compensates for lashon hara.