Tisha B'av - Arguing for the Sake of Heaven

From David Waksberg,  CEO Jewish LearningWorks

“How desolate lies the city, once so full of people,” begins the Book of Lamentations, Jeremiah’s wail of grief over the (first) destruction of Jerusalem.  Jerusalem was laid waste and Solomon’s Temple was destroyed by the Babylonians.

In Lamentations, which Jews read on Tisha B’Av (9th of Av -tonight and tomorrow), Jeremiah assigns blame for the catastrophe, not with Nebuchadnezzer (the Babylonian king), but at the feet of the Jews themselves - it was our own behavior that brought on this calamity.

Six hundred years later history repeats itself as the rebuilt Temple and Jerusalem are again destroyed, this time by the Romans.  Incredibly, both events occurred on Tisha B’Av.

The destruction of the 2nd Temple is an event that weighed heavily on the rabbis of the Talmud, who lived in the centuries following that tragedy. They sought to explain the cause of the disaster. Like Jeremiah, they found the need to look no further than a mirror.

Sinat chinam or “groundless hatred” -led to their downfall, the rabbis claim. Groundless hatred does not refer to disputes or controversy. Makhloket l’shem shamayim,a “dispute for the sake of heaven,” celebrates the notion that we can disagree and even argue over important matters. In the Talmud, even when the rabbis agree on an interpretation - the alternative approach is presented as well.

At the end of a dispute over law between the followers of Hillel and those of Shammai, the Talmud reports a heavenly voice saying: Elu v’elu devrei elohim chayim - “These and those are the words of the living God.” It proclaims both sides of the disagreement are worthy. “But the law follows Hillel,” concludes the heavenly voice. Why? Because the followers of Hillel were “kindly and modest and studied both their rulings and those of Shammai.” (Eruvin 13b)

We are a disputatious people. Part of Jewish education involves learning how to manage these “disputes for the sake of Heaven” without tearing ourselves apart in sinat chinam, petty and groundless hatred.

The last vestige of the destroyed Temple is haKotel, the Western Wall. In a religion that exalts time, the Wall is the closest we Jews get to sacred space and once again it is in our sacred space that sinat chinam has reemerged. Visions differ on how that space should be used. These could be respectful “arguments for the sake of heaven,” however, the Women of the Wall have seen more of the sinat chinam that our rabbis suggest brought about the destruction of the Temple.

Last month, as their prayer service was disrupted, a woman carried a note from a friend fighting cancer, a prayer for healing to be placed in a crack in the wall. Once it was clear she would not get near the wall, the woman asked those who were blocking their way if one of them would please take the note and place it in the wall. “Your friend should die,” was the response.

In his Torah of Reconciliation, Rabbi Sheldon Lewis cites Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook’s interpretation of “these and those are the words of the living God.”

“...the truth of the light of the world will be constructed from many points of view and varying approaches, for “both these and those are the words of the living God.”... the multiplicity of views that emerges from the differences of souls and education is just that which enriches wisdom ...”

In Rabbi Lewis’s view, Rav Kook challenges the equation of peace with “oneness.” He suggests that peace (shalom has the same root as shalem - wholeness) emerges out of the “diversity that includes all of the unnumbered dimensions and pathways to wisdom” (R. Lewis, Torah of Reconciliation).

The young men and women in Jerusalem who have been mobilized in violent opposition to the Women of the Wall are being indoctrinated in the ways of groundless hatred rather than educated in the ways of arguing for the sake of heaven. Education, in contrast to indoctrination, equips our minds with the kind of critical thinking the rabbis of the Talmud modeled for us, and it is this critical thinking that enables us to engage in meaningful and respectful dialogue with one another.

The Jewish world is filled with disagreement - religious, political, cultural. The lessons from Tisha B’Av are not to engage in zealotry and dehumanization of the “other” in a never-ending spiral of hatred. They are, rather, to find and respect the humanity and merit even in ardent dispute.

As we prepare for Tisha B’Av and mourn the destruction that has accompanied this day, let us mourn and challenge sinat chinam, the groundless hatred that plagues us still. And may our educators prepare our students for a meaningful Jewish life which requires engagement in meaningful and respectful “disputes for the sake of heaven.”

Dreams, Vision and PRIDE

By David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks

“I have a dream,” Martin Luther King declared fifty years ago before a quarter-million people gathered on the Washington Mall.  Those who watched the news on our black & white TVs knew the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom was all about racial equality, or its absence, in our country.  The March addressed changing laws to advance equality.  The March and King’s speech also influenced the way others in this country saw people of color, and how they saw themselves.

The contemporary corollary to the civil rights movement of those days is the push for equal rights regardless of sexual orientation.  It is LGBT Pride Month, with LGBT Pride Shabbatot and other events occurring throughout our community, and organizations like Keshet and A Wider Bridge working to advance LGBT inclusion in Jewish life.

 In last week’s Torah portion, Balak, king of Moab, fears the Israelites and commissions a prophet, Balaam, to curse them.  When Balaam finally sees the Israelites, he does not curse them; instead he blesses them.   “How fine are your tents, O Jacob, Your dwellings, O Israel,” he famously pronounces.  “Blessed are they who bless you,” he concludes, “and cursed are they who curse you.”

Balaam was hired to curse people he didn’t know.  It is easier to demonize people you have not met. When he was able to actually see them – really see them, and see their humanity – he could not help but bless them.

Did you ever have a pre-conceived notion about someone and have that image turned upside down upon actually meeting them?  Who knows how long it would have taken me to overcome my own homophobia if two of my best friends in high school had not come out as gay?

Vision plays an important role in Balaam’s story.  At first, Balaam’s vision is impaired – he cannot see an angel that is visible even to his donkey. Perhaps God’s role was to enable Balaam to see beyond the stereotypes, myths, and fears he was fed and to see the Israelites for who they truly were – deserving of blessing.  Perhaps that is God’s role with us still.

The focus of the March on Washington in 1963 was on the REST of America –a call to change our perspectives.  Soon thereafter, much focus in the African-American community shifted inward.  “Black is Beautiful” advanced pride in who you were – regardless of the state of white racism.

Growing up, I related to “Black is Beautiful” as a Jew; it helped me focus less on external anti-Semitism and more on my own Jewish pride.  Pride, as opposed to shame – that emotion that so perniciously embeds itself into the hearts and minds of the oppressed (and seems so absent among the oppressors).

LGBT Pride Month is very much about Pride as opposed to shame.  I’ve noticed that at some synagogues, the mere existence of an LGBT Pride Shabbat has inspired LGBT teens to participate with pride in their synagogue.  It helps them feel whole and wholly included in their community.

We can celebrate this week’s legal victory for marriage rights for the historic landmark that it is.  What must accompany the march for legal equality is the change within our hearts and minds – the change that occurred in Balaam - to see one another, and ourselves, not as stereotypes, but B’tzelem Elohim (in the image of God).


Join the celebration and the conversation on Facebook.

Shavuot Without Labels

By David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks

We tend to label ourselves and one another.  So-and-so is secular, and that guy is observant.  This one is Reform and she’s an environmentalist.  And so on.  There is no end to the labels and distinctions.

But when the Torah was given on Mount Sinai – an event commemorated on Shavuot and one at which, according to tradition, we were all present – there’s no record of labels.  We were all the children of Israel and the Torah was given to us all.

Receiving the Torah, as Vavi Toran writes in our blog , is a daily practice for many observant Jews.  Increasingly, others are getting into the act – understanding that Torah and Jewish learning are our birthright. 

Shavuot – zman matan haTorah - the Time of the Giving of the Torah - has emerged as a festival of Jewish learning.  Jews around the world gather to study together, recreating the experience Shavuot commemorates - the experience of the children of Israel at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Across Northern California, Jews will gather for Tikkuney leyl Shavuot – Shavuot study sessions, where all are welcome.  

My most powerful and meaningful learning has often happened in the wee hours of the night on Shavuot – when defenses are down and small groups of Jews – with different backgrounds (and no labels) sit and study together and grapple with our tradition and how it relates to our own lives.  If you’ve never participated in one, perhaps this is the year for you to begin and join with other Jews who will feel as if we ourselves are receiving the Torah for the first time at the foot of Mount Sinai.

Because today, no less than on that day, the Torah belongs to us all.

People of the Book

By David Waksberg, CEO Jewish LearningWorks

We sometimes refer to ourselves as the “people of the book.”  What does this mean and what does it say about who we think we are?

The expression’s origin is not Jewish – it is Islamic.  Ahl al-kitab (Arabic for People of the Book) refers to non-Muslims who adhere to a previous/alternative documented divine revelation – this refers to Jews, Christians, and a few other monotheistic groups from the Middle East in the time of Mohammed.

For us Jews, Am ha-Sefer (People of the Book in Hebrew), refers to THE Book – Torah, which each of us is commanded to study  (“Torah tziva lanu Moshe morashat kehillat Yaakov” – just before Moses dies, we are told that the Torah is commanded to us, that it is our inheritance).

But what does “Torah” mean?  The Torah is five books, the Tanach includes those, plus eight additional books of the prophets and eleven additional books of writings for a total of 24.  But Torah is generally understood to include Torah b’al peh (the oral law) – the Talmud, which includes another 63 tractates. And then there is nearly two millennia of Responsa – a never ending conversation about Torah among rabbis that continues to this day.

For many Jews, People of the Book, goes beyond Bible and Talmud.  Torah began the Jewish love affair with books.  It did not end there.

How do you relate to this idea?