So, after reading this morning about a rabbi in B’nai Brak who has banned the use of tap water or flushing of toilets on Shabbat due to the fact that it will cause an electronic water pump to kick on, I got to thinking about all of this recent extremism among the Haredim. I try to operate from a place of assuming that most people, other than sociopaths, are basically good people. I like to be able to think that “religious” people really are trying to do what they think God wants even if we can’t understand it and that they must have a positive goal in mind. I know that Judaism teaches ethics and focuses on moral living. We are repeatedly reminded that we were strangers in Egypt and therefore must care for the stranger, the widow and the orphan. Hillel summarizes all of Torah as “love your neighbor as yourself” and on Pesah we decrease our joy by removing wine from our glasses in memory of the Egyptians who died during our escape from slavery. So, how to understand all of this working from these assumptions?
This summer I was in Jerusalem during the Three Weeks which lead up to Tisha B’Av and there was much focus on bringing Moshiah. Let’s face it; this world is majorly screwed up. Wars, terrorism, starvation, human trafficking, child slavery, poverty, inequality of rights and means, homelessness, bigotry, I could go on but I will stop before it gets too depressing. We NEED Moshiah. The world is deeply broken and we are desperate for repair and wholeness – true Shalom/Shalem. We need what Moshiah represents – a time of peace and completeness. A time where religious hatred and rivalry will end. A time when people will live together in love and will all have what they need. Jews have been waiting for Moshiah and the Messianic Age patiently – and sometimes not so patiently – for thousands of years. It is the hope that has kept Jews Jewish through pogroms, expulsions and the Holocaust. Maimonides includes belief in the Messiah – not matter how long it takes – as one of the 13 principles of faith. As a Jew, it is our job to help to complete God’s creation and to bring the time of Moshiah closer. We each have a job that is ours and ours alone to do in this world and we must discover it and complete it so that we can have our part in a renewed Gan Eden. So, if, based on my assumptions, we are all working for this, why all this strife and anger? Why all this tension and dissension?
It is my belief that we don’t know what to do to bring the time closer and this makes some desperate. We have been trying for 2000 years, give or take, and we aren’t sure what we have been doing wrong. For progressive Jews, perhaps this means bringing in those who haven’t been equally welcomed at the table. God wants us to care for the “orphan.” So, perhaps that means gays and lesbians and others in the community who have been orphaned by the Jewish people for so long. So we ordain and marry them just like anyone else and that will bring us closer to the world God wants us to make. For many, that seems ethically and morally the right thing to do. But, for those of a more traditional mindset, it probably doesn’t seem like the right thing to do. It might even seem to make things worse and that makes people angry. Grasping at straws, those who have been so observant, keeping each iteration of halacha, protecting the Torah with higher and higher fences, begin to build even thicker walls around the Torah to keep it safe and hope to bring Moshiah. If using tap water on Shabbat hasn’t brought the Messiah – then maybe forbidding it will. It reminds me of an article about a ruling after the Shoah on the necessary size of a Kiddush cup. This ruling made many families’ centuries old Kiddush cups (for many all they had from their past life in Europe) p’sul – ritually unfit. Included in the cups that were made p’sul was the cup of the Holy Rabbi, the Hofetz Chaim. How could this be?
It can be because we don’t know what is needed. We can’t understand God and we can’t know what will be that final act that brings Moshiah. We are unable to see clearly what we should be doing and must rely on those who think that they do. But even they don’t really know. They can’t. So, we turn to what we do know – progressive ethical living in the Modern world OR traditional Orthodox (ultra or Modern) living, engaged to varying degrees in the Modern world – and we let that help us try to discern what we have been missing. If we live a life fully dictated by traditional halacha, we create more halacha and if we live a life directed by an understanding of modernity and ethics, we try to be more ethical. Not to imply these are mutually exclusive, in many places they are in full agreement – but on some issues, I truly feel you have to pick one or the other. God of the Prophets or God of the Wilderness? A God who is good and wants good or a God who tells us to stone those who sin? Again, not to imply that there are two Gods – they are one and the same – which makes understanding what God wants all the more impossible. How do we mere mortals understand and make sense of what God wants when what God wants appears contradictory? It is no wonder there is so much disagreement and infighting among Jews!
Unfortunately, what we are doing is keeping Moshiah from coming, not bringing him/her closer. We are creating so much desecration of God’s name and so much sinat hinam – baseless hatred – in the process of each group of Jews doing what they think is the right thing that Moshiah may never come. What is missing is a sense of balance and an effort to understand each other’s ways. This can be very hard when what is being done seems to fly in the face of all that one understands Judaism to stand for or mean. I am as guilty as anyone. I, like many people, find the idea of a grown man considering an 8 year old girl as a sexual object and protesting her “immodest” attire by spitting on her appalling and the act of a sick mind. A mind driven to extremes by its desire to bring the Messiah and who sees this little girl, and others like her who do not adequately (by his standards) cover themselves, as preventing this from happening. But, try as I might, I can’t believe that the God in which I believe would want what this man wants. I can’t believe that the God that I believe in would want people to do without basic hygienic facilities on Shabbat. How can you honor Shabbat when you can’t wash your hands or flush the toilet? In his book, The God Who Hates Lies, David Hartman talks about how we need to figure out just “which” God we believe in and what that God wants. I believe in a God who is loving and kind and who wants all of us to remember that we are all made in God’s image and therefore all holy. I believe in a God who wants us to treat each other with the dignity and respect due to someone made b’tzelem Elohim – in the image of the Holy One. I believe in a God who wants me to act in a way that is in line with what I say and how I want to be treated – as Hillel summarized the Torah. That God would not spit on an eight year old no matter how she was dressed.
Perhaps if those who yearn for Moshiah more than they engage with the world around them would pause in their pursuit and truly look around, they would begin to see this God. Judaism has never been about a focus on The World to Come – it has been about the life that we live here on God’s Creation and how we live that life is what matters. Shlomo Katz teaches in his song “Veaf al pi” about awaiting Moshiah and that the Hebrew word translated as “to await” can also mean to “imitate” and that we need to each imitate the Moshiah in order to bring the Messianic Age. This is based on Shlomo Carlebach’s teaching that if you change the hard chaf to a kof (they both make the same sound) you become a part of the solution rather than passively waiting for change to happen. You need to become what you understand Messiah to mean. By being “moshiachdiche” you will hasten the coming of Moshiah by living your life in a way that actively brings more wholeness to the world. We can’t afford to just sit and wait. The world is so broken. People are so desperate that they are grasping at thinner and thinner straws and causing more chaos and darkness rather than bringing the light of Moshiah. The world is horribly broken and we need a real solution. One of my favorite stories to read to my students is “The Village of the Messiahs”. In this Chasidic tale, there is a village that is sad and broken. A man from the village visits a wise Rabbi who says he can’t help but shares a secret. The Messiah is someone in this village. The man goes home and tells his neighbors this news. They all begin to treat each other with love and care because they don’t know which one of them it is. They begin to treat themselves with love and care because it might be them! The town becomes a place full of laughter, light and peace. If only we could remember that each of us has the potential to be the Messiah and treat each and every person with that love and care, rather than with fear, derision and hate, we might translate the miracle of this story to the whole world and that would bring the Messiah.
January 20, 2012
I agree Nance. These are wise words. How difficult it can be sometimes to see the humanity in other people. And at times the world seems to be getting darker and darker. May we see more light soon!