Sunday, January 27, 2013

Thou Shalt Not Covet: does that include everything? / Yitro

Rudyard Kipling wrote: “There is no jealousy in the grave.” (The Eye of Allah, 1926) But between now and then, there’s plenty of jealousy. Torah warns us: the prohibition against coveting is the last of the Ten Commandments, articulated first in Parshat Yitro of Exodus.

Do not covet (lo tachmod) your neighbor’s house: you shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female slave, or his ox and his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Exodus 20:14)

Jealousy is a natural human tendency that leads to overblown acquisition and consumption. Concerning Planet Earth, Henry George wrote in 1879 in Progress and Poverty (book IV, chapter 2):

It is a well-provisioned ship, this on which we sail through space. If the bread and beef above decks seem to grow scarce, we but open a hatch and there is a new supply, of which before we never dreamed. And very great command over the services of others comes to those who as the hatches are opened are permitted to say, "This is mine!"

Back in the first chapter of Genesis we read:

God blessed [human beings] and God said to them, “Be fertile and increase, fill the earth and master it; and rule the fish of the sea, the birds of the sky, and all the living things that creep on earth.” (Genesis 1:28)

Henry George reflects the manner in which this verse has been read far too long by far too many people as license to regard earth’s resources as an inexhaustible pantry for people’s pleasures.

And indeed, “This is mine!” has become the rallying cry of our acquisitive and consumptive society. Economist Kenneth E. Boulding (1910-1993) of the University of Michigan in 1966 described this attitude in economic terms as the “Cowboy Economy” and contrasted it with the “Spaceman Economy.”

… I am tempted to call the open economy the "cowboy economy," the cowboy being symbolic of the illimitable plains and also associated with reckless, exploitative, romantic, and violent behavior, which is characteristic of open societies. The closed economy of the future might similarly be called the "spaceman" economy, in which the earth has become a single spaceship, without unlimited reservoirs of anything, either for extraction or for pollution, and in which, therefore, man must find his place in a cyclical ecological system…

(The Economics of the Coming Spaceship Earth, presented at the Sixth Resources for the Future Forum on Environmental Quality in a Growing Economy in Washington, D.C. on March 8, 1966.[1])

The Cowboy Economy is driven by the desire for acquisition. The Spaceman  Economy is moderated by awareness of limited resources.

If “This is mine!” is the rallying cry of our consumer-driven society, then “You need it and we can provide it” is the rallying cry of marketers who daily spend their time and energy convincing us that we are unhappy because we lack what we don’t need. Spending some time with Torah’s tenth commandment can help us set aright the equilibrium that jealousy so easily disturbs.

Commentators have long debated the meaning of tachmod (“covet”). Does it mean to desire out of jealousy? Or perhaps it means to act on feelings of jealousy? Is it an emotion or a behavior? We might argue that the prohibitions against adultery and theft already cover the act of acquisition, but Rambam (Moses Maimonides) provides a more nuanced understanding:

When you desire a neighbor’s object and pressure him heavily until he gives it to you, even if your pressure was friendly and even if you pay handsomely for it, you have violated the prohibition.” (Mishneh Torah, Hilkhot Gezeilah v’Aveidah)

Rambam also notes that the version of the tenth commandment found in Deuteronomy employs a second verb:

You shall not covet (lo tachmod) your neighbor’s wife. You shall not crave (lo tit’a’veh) your neighbor’s house, or his field, or his male and female slave, or his ox, or his ass, or anything that is your neighbor’s. (Deuteronomy 5:18)

In Sefer ha-Mitzvot, Rambam distinguishes between tachmod (“covet”) and tit’a’veh (“crave”): tachmod is desire leading to sinful action (such as theft and exploitation); and tit’a’veh is a matter of the heart. The one who tricked his neighbor into giving up one of his possessions has violated both prohibitions.

The Ra’avad (R. Avraham b. David of Posquieres, ~1125-1198) challenges Rambam’s view, pointing out that it conflicts with the Talmud’s ruling in Baba Batra:

R. Huna said: If a man consents to sell something through fear of physical violence, the sale is nonetheless valid. Why so? Because whenever a man sells, it is under compulsion [i.e., we may assume he needs cash quickly] and even so the sale is valid. But should we not differentiate between self-generated compulsion [i.e. the need for quick cash] and external compulsion [i.e. avoiding physical violence]? (B.Baba Batra 47b)

The Gemara concludes that we may presume that even under coercion and threat, the seller eventually made up his mind and intended to sell; therefore the sale is valid. To my thinking this is very dicey territory. The decision may well be to avoid torture, not to sell property. The sale is merely a means to avoiding physical violence.

The Talmud understands how far people will go in their quest to acquire what they covet. That tendency is in each of us. It’s easy to condemn the advertising industry, as Jeremy Bernstein does with ease:

If there were a multi-billion-dollar industry in our society whose sole purpose was to get you to murder, commit adultery, steal, or perjure yourself, we might wonder about its legitimacy. These transgressions are forbidden by commandments No. 6, 7, 8 and 9 [of the Ten Commandments], proclaimed for the second time in the Torah in Deuteronomy 5:17. Yet regarding the next one on the list, No. 10, there is just such an industry - the advertising industry. It is designed to get you to want things you don’t have, to covet. (The Jerusalem Report, August 13, 2001)

But do we not have responsibility to monitor our feelings and control our behavior? This is precisely what the tenth commandment warns against: rein in your desires; don’t let them reign over you. Perhaps the answer is to consider carefully whether what we covet is legitimately a need, and whether in the long term it will promote our happiness and well-being.

In considering what we truly need, on one end of the spectrum, an answer is suggested by Leo Tolstoy’s short story “How Much Land Does a Man Require?” (which James Joyce considered the greatest short story ever written). Its protagonist, Pahom, is not satisfied with the size of the plot of land he owns. He finds ways to enlarge his holdings, but is never fully satisfied. Peasants with much land to sell make this deal with him: for the sum of 1000 rubles, and in the time between sunup and sundown, if Pahom walks the perimeter of as much land as he wants, and arrives back at the starting point before the sun sets, he owns the land. If he fails to return by sunset, he forfeits both land and money. Pahom makes a mad dash to acquire as much land as possible, arriving back at the starting point just at the moment of sunset, but so utterly worn out that he collapses and dies. He is buried in a grave six feet long — a plot of land that answers the question posed by the title of the story.

Isn’t there something between an enormous swath of land and a burial plot? Parents of young children are well acquainted with the importance of distinguishing between “want” and “need” in the minds of their children. How often do parents intone the mantra, “You want that, but you don’t need it.” Would that we could all internalize that mantra!

It turns that there is much we crave — and covet when we see that others have it and we do not — that is not only a legitimate need, but a healthy one. What is more, we don’t have to take it away from others to acquire it for ourselves. We all want to be noticed, for our value to be affirmed, and to be loved. No amount of land, money, or possessions can compensate for that. So how do we become noticed, valued, and loved? It’s really pretty simple: notice, value, and love others. There is great truth to the adage that “What goes around comes around.” Send out into the world what you want to receive.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman


Saturday, January 19, 2013

The warrior and the sage / B'Shallach

The “Song at the Sea” is a paean to the God of victory and redemption. Torah tell us that Moses and all Israel sang this song to Adonai:

I will sing to the Lord, for He has triumphed gloriously;
horse and driver He has hurled into the sea.
The Lord is my strength and might,
He is become my deliverance.
This is my God and I will enshrine Him;
the God of my father, and I will exalt Him.
Adonai is an ish milchama / Warrior [lit. “man of war”)] —
Adonai is His name!
(Exodus 15:1-3)

God as an ish milchama (“warrior”) disturbs some people. Curiously, it’s not so much the militaristic image as it is the very human image that bothers them.

The Rabbis could have easily finessed this verse by saying that the Israelites experienced the redemption from Egypt so powerfully, it was as if God were a warrior on their behalf. Instead, they push what appears to be a metaphor into the “No. Really! Literally!” zone. Commenting on the first of the Ten Commandments in Exodus chapter 20, midrash Mekhilta de-Rabbi Yishmael tells us:

I AM THE LORD YOUR GOD. Why is this said? Because at the sea He appeared to them as a mighty hero doing battle, as it is said: “The Lord is an ish milchama (warrior) (Exodus 15:3).” At Sinai He appeared to them as an old man full of mercy. It is said: And they saw the God of Israel etc. (Exodus 24:10). And of the time after they had been redeemed, what does it say? And the like of the very heaven for clarity (Exodus 24:10). Again it says: I looked until thrones were placed (Daniel 7:9).” And it also says: A fiery stream issued and came forth from before him etc. (Daniel 7:10). (Mekhilta de’RabbiYishmael, Bachodesh 5)

The same tradition is found in midrash Pesikta Rabbati:

At the Sea of Reeds He appeared to them as a young man, and at Mount Sinai He appeared to them as an old man. (Pesikta Rabbati 21:5)

God appeared twice to the Israelites in human form? In two different human forms? Really?

From my 21st century perch, it is apparent to me that the images of God as a warrior, or a wise and merciful elder are just that — images, visual metaphors. They are pictures people create in their minds with words in order to think about God who is more than our minds and imaginations can encompass. Our tradition abounds in images of God. For our biblical ancestors, God was often made manifest in concrete avatars such as angels or a burning bush. God is king, father, commander. For the Rabbis, God is rooted in the human heart and mind; we access God through study, prayer, and the observance of mitzvot. For Rambam (Moses Maimonides), God is the Active Intellect: pure thought and reason that makes possible this universe, but which does not directly create it, and does not interact with it. The Kabbalists rejected the remote, unchanging, disinterested God of the rationalists. They said that God is not utterly beyond the universe: the universe is contained within God, whose flow of energy is dynamic and continuously flows through us, interacting with us. These are not definitions of God; they are images of God.

In the modern age, rationalism has resurfaced and resonates far more strongly than poetry and mysticism. Many have tried to reread Torah and rabbinic literature through a rational lens, explaining and excusing the “ancient texts,” rather than allowing the texts to flow through them and convey meaning.

How can we move beyond rejectionist rationalism and reclaim the spirituality of our sacred stories? The French philosopher Paul Ricoeur wrote of a “Second Naivete” that we reach — intellectually, emotionally, and spiritually — after we have passed through the critical, rational phase of intellectual growth. In the Second Naivete we discover another way to engage sacred text. "Beyond the desert (Rational stage) of criticism, we wish to be called again." (The Symbolism of Evil, p. 349) Having shed unquestioning truth and shrugged off the dismissal of our sacred stories as “mere myth,” we are now open to the spiritual depths of our sacred stories: What can we learn about life? human nature? becoming better versions of ourselves? how to live better lives? how to repair the world? It is not a static, ossified “Truth” we seek, but rather wisdom.

The images, once rejected, return to us as ripe fruit. For example: In the Bavli (Berakhot 5) the Rabbis envision God as having difficulty controlling and containing the divine anger. Where does God go? To the Holy of Holies, where the High Priest gives him a blessing, a prayer to recite each day — much as any one of us might do to promote our patience and subdue our tempers. In Eichah Rabbah, the Sages envision God as a jealous, petulant lover, overwrought that his beloved (Israel) has dallied with other lovers (idols), and who responds with violent wrath (the destruction of the First Temple in 586 B.C.E.). The patriarchs, prophets, and Torah herself implore God to forgive Israel, but God’s ire is red hot until Rachel appears. Rachel tells God that if she, who is but flesh and blood, was able to set aside her feelings of jealousy when her sister married her beloved, Jacob, surely God can do the same. And God does.

The Rabbis give us a God who needs the blessings and counsel of people. For the Rabbis, God is so far beyond the images they conjure that there is no danger employing them: Who would take them at face value? So, too, God’s appearance at the Reed Sea as a young, courageous, virile warrior, and His appearance at Mt. Sinai as a wise and compassionate elder: there were two revelations of God, not one. God was revealed at the Sea and at Sinai. The revelation of God was not a one-time event. Images of God abound, because revelation of God abounds. As the Kotzker Rebbe taught: "Where is God? Wherever you let God in."

Rabbi Arthur Green writes:

“For me the personal God is a bridge between soul and mystery, a personification of the unknown, a set of projected images that we need and use, rather than an ultimate reality.” (Radical Judaism, p. 158)

For me, the universe is within God, and God is within us: the reality and animating force found in every cell of our bodies. Our job is to discover the meaning and purpose of our existence. When we do, we find the values and principles to preserve and promote life. We have also found God.

Don’t fear the images. Grab hold of them and let them take you for a spiritual rollercoaster ride.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Voldemort, gold, and empathy / Bo

The marvelous and highly acclaimed Harry Potter series culminates in the Second Wizarding War, fought to oppose the Dark Lord Voldemort’s rise to power. Although Voldemort and his minions, The Death Eaters, have a stranglehold on most of the wizarding world, they also face opponents, led by the Order of the Phoenix and Dumbledore’s Army, both part of an underground resistance movement. J. K. Rowling paints a brilliant picture of the perilous danger and chaos generated by fascist dictators who enlist and dragoon their own people into do their grim bidding. It sounds much like the pharaoh of Egypt who holds the Israelites slaves, demands that the midwives butcher newborn boys, and commands his own people to participate in the carnage.

The midwives refuse and, from the look of things, they initiate an underground resistance movement, working cooperatively with the Israelite women to save the babies; Moses is the paramount fruit of their efforts. It further appears that the midwives’ resistance movement has a larger following than we might have thought.

This may shed light on a curious and anomalous facet of the story of the Exodus. Earlier, in chapter 3 of Exodus we read:

I will dispose the Egyptians favorably toward this people, so that when you go, you will not go away empty-handed. Each woman shall borrow (v’sha’a’la) from her neighbor (mi’she’khen’ta) and the lodger in her house (u’mi-gar’rat beita) objects of silver and gold, and clothing, and you shall put these on your sons and daughters, thus stripping (v’ni’tzal’tem) the Egyptians. (Exodus 3:21-22)

The term v’sha’a’la means “borrow” which tells us that the Egyptians gave freely of their possessions to the Israelites; Torah tells us they were predisposed to give. The term v’ni’tzal’tem has a less positive connotation, suggesting that the Israelites fleeced the Egyptians. Note that the verses above speak of the Egyptians as neighbors and even boarders in the homes of the Israelites. Are you surprised? If the Egyptians gave their possessions freely, is this fleecing?

Now, in Parshat Bo, which records the last three plagues (locusts, darkness, and the death of the firstborn sons of Egypt) we return to the notion that the Egyptians will materially support the Israelites when they break free of Pharaoh’s grasp and leave Egypt. Before the final plague that will win their release, God instructs Moses:

And the Lord said to Moses, “I will bring but one more plague upon Pharaoh and upon Egypt; after that he shall let you go from here; indeed, when he lets you go, he will drive you out of here one and all. Tell the people to borrow (va’yish’a’lu), each man from his neighbor (rei’ei’hu) and each woman from her neighbor (r’u’ta), objects of silver and gold.” (Exodus 11:1-2)

And indeed, Exodus 12:35-36 confirms that things went according to God’s plan: The Egyptians willingly turned over their gold and silver to the departing slaves.

The verb used in all three passages is sha’al, which means “borrow,” and the terms rei’ei-hu and r’u’ta, male and female neighbors, connote friendship and emotional closeness, not mere physical proximity. In our wedding liturgy, we refer to the couple under the chupah as rei’im ahuvim “beloved companions.” Same term.

Some commentators have attempted to explain this confusing scenario as the fulfillment of the biblical requirement to provide debt-servants with funds when they are set free:

If a fellow Hebrew man or woman is sold to you, he shall serve you six years, and in the seventh year you shall set him free. When you set him free, do not let him go empty handed: Furnish him out of the flock, threshing floor, and vat with that which your God Adonai has blessed you. Bear in mind that you were slaves in the land of Egypt and your God Adonai redeemed you; therefore I enjoin this commandment upon you today. (Deuteronomy 15:12-15)

I don’t buy it. Deuteronomy speaks of Israelites who are indentured servants of other Israelites. Completely different.

I think what Torah is hinting at is that the underground movement inaugurated by the midwives’ refusal to comply with Pharaoh’s ghastly decree has a ripple effect: other Egyptians join ranks and when it comes time for the Israelites to physically depart, they willingly donate their own wealth to support their former mistreated neighbors in the Israelite’ epic endeavor to break free of slavery. The midwives initiate a ripple of compassion and kindness that spreads out and encompasses what must have been thousands upon thousands of Egyptians who give generously of their own wealth to people they have come to view not as “slaves” but as “neighbors.”

Perhaps darkness, the ninth plague, helps propagate the rippling wave. Parshat Bo reports that during darkness: People could not see one another, and for three days no one could get up from where he was; but all the Israelites enjoyed light in their dwellings (Exodus 10:23). The Rabbis understand this to mean that the Egyptians feel no compassion toward the Israelites. But the evidence is to the contrary. Perhaps darkness is the blindness of the Egyptians who initially feel little or no compassion for the Israelites: they were “Other,” mere slaves. But the plague lifts when the Egyptians see the Israelites no longer as objects for exploitation, but as “neighbors” and friends, fellow human beings who are being cruelly treated. Perhaps when Torah reports God saying, “I will dispose the Egyptians favorably toward this people…” that is a way of saying that the Egyptians will open themselves to what the mystics call the shefa, the flow of God’s compassion into the world.

 That ripple of kindness continues to this day:

You shall not wrong a stranger or oppress him, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 222:20)

You shall not oppress a stranger, for you know the feelings of the stranger, having yourselves been strangers in the land of Egypt. (Exodus 23:9)

When a stranger resides with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. The stranger who resides with you shall be to you as one of your citizens; you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I the Lord am your God. (Leviticus 19:33-34)

It’s not just that we know the pain of the oppressed: we learned to transform our empathy into acts of compassion.

It is this ripple that informed the ethics of the great prophets. It is the ethics of the prophets that inspired Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel to fight for civil rights and march with Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.

At the 1963 March on Washington, Rabbi Joachim Prinz, himself a refugee from Nazi Germany, a much later fascist regime ruled by a barbarous and bloodthirsty pharaoh, said:

…From our Jewish historic experience of three and a half thousand years we say: Our ancient history began with slavery and the yearning for freedom. During the Middle Ages my people lived for a thousand years in the ghettos of Europe. Our modern history begins with a proclamation of emancipation. It is for these reasons that it is not merely sympathy and compassion for the black people of America that motivates us. It is, above all and beyond all such sympathies and emotions, a sense of complete identification and solidarity born of our own painful historic experience. (The full transcript of Rabbi Prinz’s words can be found here.)

Each year during Passover we express our compassion for the Egyptians who suffered from the plagues and drowned in the Reed Sea — even those who knew no compassion for us. Talmud tells us that at the very moment of redemption, when the Israelites were safely on the far shore of the Sea and the waters were closing in on the Egyptians:

In that instant the ministering angels wished to utter song before the Holy One, but God rebuked them, saying, ‘The works of My hands are drowning in the sea, and you would utter song in My presence!” (Babylonian Talmud, Sanhedrin 39b)

We remove wine from our cup of joy as we recall the suffering of the Egyptians. Perhaps we should add a special ritual to honor those Egyptians who showed compassion and followed the lead of the righteous midwives.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Monday, January 7, 2013

Change happens / Parshat Va'eira

There are at least one hundred versions of the light bulb joke. A friend who is a Baptist minister told me this one: “How many Baptists does it take to change a light bulb?” “Change?!” I had to laugh; Jews tell the same joke about a segment of the Jewish community.

“A fanatic,” Winston Churchill is reported to have said, “is one who can’t change his mind and won’t change the subject.”  Apocryphal or not, it’s a terrific description of the Pharaoh of Egypt. Pharaoh plays only one note and never deviates. As a character in the story, he doesn’t come across as a real person. He’s a stereotype, a foil for God’s invincible power. Of course, there’s a lovely irony here: to the Egyptians, Pharaoh is not a human being; he’s a god.

 Is it possible that a person never changes? Harvard psychologist Dr. Daniel Gilbert would say no. He and his colleagues explain in a study recently published in Science: "The End of History Illusion." We’re changing all the time. Our personalities and values do not remain static. Yet we believe that who we are today is who we will be a year from now, five years down the road, a decade hence. Looking back, we can recognize change in ourselves, but looking forward we cannot envision it. Yet growth and change — throughout our lives — are the norm, not the exception. 

So what’s with Pharaoh? Parshat Va’eira offers us a bird’s eye view of Pharaoh. Torah goes out of its way to tell us that Pharaoh “stiffened his heart” and even that God stiffened Pharaoh’s heart. It’s not that Pharaoh was hesitant to change his mind; he was adamantly opposed. Va’eira catalogues the first seven plagues (blood, frogs, lice, wild beasts, cattle disease, boils, and hail).

Pharaoh is a bull with his head down charging straight ahead. He fights growth and abhors change. Oh sure, he appears on the verge of change a few times, but these turn out to be mere illusion. You might argue that a chink in the armor appears with the fourth and seventh plagues, lice and hail, and again with the eighth plague, locusts. The lice inspire Pharaoh to say he will permit the Israelites to go out into the Wilderness to worship God under the condition that Moses plead with God to lift the plague:

Pharaoh said, “I will let you go to sacrifice to the Lord your God in the wilderness; but do not go very far. Plead, then, for me.” (Exodus 8:24)

But no sooner does God lift the plague than Pharaoh reneges:

So Moses left Pharaoh’s presence and pleaded with the Lord. And the Lord did as Moses asked: He removed the swarms of insects from Pharaoh, from his courtiers, and from his people; not one remained. But Pharaoh became stubborn this time also, and would not let the people go. (Exodus 8:26-28)

Similarly, in the aftermath of the wholesale destruction of crops, herds, and property caused by the plague of hail, Pharaoh admits his guilt and pleads with Moses:

But when Pharaoh saw that the rain and the hail and the thunder had ceased, he became stubborn and reverted to his guilty ways, as did his courtiers.  So Pharaoh’s heart stiffened and he would not let the Israelites go, just as the Lord had foretold through Moses. (Exodus 9:34)

Psychologists and neurologists tell us that this is an aberration, not the norm. In an article entitled “The Neurobiology of Teshuvah” Dr. Allan Tobin of UCLA writes:

Evolution has produced a genetically programmed brain, adapted for plasticity. Humans may be hardwired to learn language, just as a songbird is hardwired to learn a song, but the particular language and the particular song depend on experience. We can also learn to pedal a bicycle, play a piano or putt a golf ball. While we learn these skills best during childhood, we maintain plasticity as adults.
In every case, learning changes the physical state of the brain. Even people who have suffered strokes or spinal cord injury can often recover lost functions during rehabilitation by practicing strategies that employ and strengthen alternate neural routes. Similarly, psychoanalysis and psychotherapy may well work by selectively training alternate neural pathways.

Given that, as Daniel Gilbert, Allan Tobin, and others in the fields of psychology and neurology have demonstrated, our personalities and values do change, it seems futile to fight it as Pharaoh did. Rather than asking, “Will I change?” we should be asking ourselves, “How will I change?” because then we can make growth and change a more thoughtful and deliberate process.

We might begin by monitoring our changes in value and priorities, behavior and relationships. What motivates our change? Is it fear, mistrust, or hatred? Are these changes justified? Or do we privilege idealism and hope while keeping our feet planted in the ground of realism?

How might we monitor changes in ourselves? Here’s one idea that came to me: Each year — perhaps in preparation for Rosh Hashanah — ask yourself a series of questions and write out short answers to each. Here are some suggested questions:

1.     If I could change one thing about myself (not physically or financially), what would that be?
2.     What do I believe to be the most valuable attributes/personality traits? How would I rate myself for each?
3.     What are the three most important aspects of living a good life?
4.     Who are the most important people in my life? Why?
5.     What inspires the best in me?
6.     What is most important to me?

After writing out answers to each question, seal what you’ve written in an envelope. The following year answer the questions again — as the changed person you now are — and then revisit what you wrote the previous year. Are you moving in the direction you want?

Even light bulbs change. We have three choices: We can bumble along, denying that we change (as Gilbert and his colleagues tell us most of us believe is the case). Or we can make grand and glorious resolutions we are unable to keep. Or we can revel in the glorious natural plasticity of our minds and more consciously direct our own growth and change.

Only Pharaoh stays in dry dock. Your ship is sailing. Whom do you want at the rudder?

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman

Thursday, January 3, 2013

Rolling on the River / Shemot

Horace Kallen wrote (Culture and Democracy in the United States): “Men may change their clothes, their politics, their wives, their religions, their philosophies, to a greater or less extent; they cannot change their grandfathers.” The Israelites have seen everything change because slavery changed everything. Yet Torah supports Kallen’s observation. When Moses pleads with God not to send him back to Egypt, God assures him that God will always be present for him. But…

Moses said to God, “When I come to the Israelites and say to them, “The God of your fathers has sent me to you,” and they ask me, “What is His name?” what shall I say to them?” And God said to Moses, “Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh.” He continued, “Thus shall you say to the Israelites, “Ehyeh sent me to you. And God said further to Moses, “Thus shall you speak to the Israelites: The Lord, the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, has sent me to you…” (Exodus 3:13-15)

Why isn’t Ehyeh-Asher-Ehyeh sufficient identification? Why must Moses reference their “grandfathers”? It certain seems that Kallen got it right. Kallen is suggesting that while people can work scrupulously to shed aspects of their cultural identity, they cannot change their background, and that background is a part of them. Perhaps that is why I often hear people say, “Jews see the world in a certain way.” An example: I moved to Columbia, Maryland the home town and brain child of James Rouse, nearly 20 years ago. The symbol of Columbia was a sculpture know as “The People Tree.” It has a large “trunk” with 66 people in a sphere reaching outward. The first time I took a good look at it — a really good look — was only last summer while sitting on the lawn downtown listening to a concert. I was taken aback. Rather than being a positive, life-affirming symbol, I found it, well, creepy. To me, those rail-thin bodies reaching out were trying to escape; it could have been a Holocaust memorial sculpture. My grandfathers are part of me. To the core.

What does it mean that we cannot change our grandfathers? For many it means that  the status quo is sacrosanct. Rabbi Samson Raphael Hirsch started that ball rolling in the 19th century. It is encapsulated in the horrific motto of the Chatam Sofer: All change is forbidden by Torah, at any time, in any place.” That wasn’t even the case for the Israelites! Their very first religious act is to observe a wholly new rite: the ritual of the Pesach. God tells them:

This day shall be to you one of remembrance; you shall celebrate it as a festival to the Lord throughout the ages; you shall celebrate it as an institution for all time. (Exodus 12:14)

Before someone pounces on the phrase “throughout the ages” we should remind ourselves that the pesach is not a facet of the covenant Abraham forged with God. Passover was not the foundation story of the patriarchs. It is new. And what is more, the manner in which God tells the Israelites to keep this new festival was wholly revamped by later generations. We don’t do it the biblical way; we go by the later rabbinic innovation of a seder and special prayers. And even that isn’t fixed. There has been an explosion in the publication of haggadot and new practices around Passover. If you have the slightest doubt, get a copy of A Different Night, the Family Participation Haggadah by David Dishon and Noam Zion.

Throughout history, we have interpreted, innovated, and invented. The Rabbis invented shabbat candle-lighting; Rambam took us down the road of law codes (a most unfortunate initiative); the mystics of Tzfat gave us Kabbalat Shabbat and a universe of new theological views. Heraclitus encapsulated it best: “You cannot step twice in the same river.” Perhaps you cannot change your grandfathers, but you needn’t be your grandfathers.

The river that parted for the Israelites to complete their redemption flows on. In our time, we have seen Eco-Kashrut, Magen Tzedek, the rise of independent, vigorous minyanim, new theologies (neo-Hasidism and Process Theology, for example), and new rituals. Neil Gillman gave us a new understanding of techiat ha-meitim (resurrection of the dead). Abraham Joshua Heschel gave us a new view from Sinai of revelation and Torah. Scholars such as James Kugel and Jon Levenson are opening doors for us to see our heritage in a new light vis-à-vis Christianity. This will in turn lead to new understandings of basic Jewish categories which will, in turn, beget new expressions of Judaism. In short, the river rolls on.

When God tells Moses to identify God to the Israelites as Ehyeh, the God of their ancestors, I understand God to be saying: Let your heritage be a source of strength to move forward out of Egypt to redemption and a new covenant with Me. That is what we, as Jews, do. We step into the river — again and again — and enjoy its newness each time.

© Rabbi Amy Scheinerman