The Need for Moral Confusion
09.10.2018 Rosh Hashanah Day 1
A few weeks ago, I had a Tom Sawyer moment with my granddaughter, Daniella, who was then 20 months old. We have a big apple tree in our front yard. Its branches extend over my neighbor’s yard and over the street that runs through our neighborhood.
The apples are not really good to eat. And, at this time of year, there are lots of them. They fall everywhere in great numbers. It’s not such a problem when they fall on my lawn. But, they also fall on the neighbor’s lawn. They fall in the road. Cars squish them, and they rot.
So, my neighbors are not so happy with me at this time of year. I knew I need to collect those apples. But, there were so many of them. However, it just so happens that Daniella is going through a stage right now where she loves to collect things and put them inside other things. One day, when we were walking outside, Daniella saw the apples and she yelled “apple!”.
Suddenly, I had a brilliant idea. I said to Daniella, ‘would you like to help me collect these apples?” And, she said “Yes!. So, we got a bag. And, every day, we went out together, and we put the apples in a bag. The neighborhood never looked so clean!
There was only one problem. There is one thing Daniella loves to do even more than collect things. She loves to dump things out. If she sees a basket full of items, she gets tremendous joy out of dumping it out on the floor. So, I had to make sure, when the bag got full enough, that I dumped it into the compost bin quickly enough before Daniella decided to dump them all out. Most of the time, it worked pretty well.
Now you know, there are many ways we can teach a child about being Jewish.
- I love it when Daniella kisses the mezuzah as we walk in the house.
- And, it’s incredibly sweet to watch her cover her eyes whenever she hears Hebrew spoken because she associates that language with the blessing over the Shabbat candles.
- But, most of all, I know Daniella is getting what it means to be Jewish when she deliberately creates chaos by dumping all her toys on the floor, only to methodically pick each one up and put them back where they belong.
To be Jewish is to love order and to love disruption with equal passion, to be rebellious and to be loyal. Now, to be sure, it is can be very confusing to hold these opposites in our minds and hearts at the same time. But, this confusion is at the heart of being Jewish.
We often think religion is about learning the rules. And, we have plenty of them in Judaism. But, a better way to describe what we do as Jews is we master the art of moral confusion.
Judaism is not only about order. It’s also about disruption. It’s about upsetting the apple cart.
The most famous example of order in our Tradition is the Passover Seder. The very word Seder means ‘order.’ And, on Passover night, our houses are meticulously cleaned, our tables precisely set.
And, suddenly, into this festival of orderliness, come small children. Now, everyone knows the idea of inviting small children to a Seder/Night of order is a complete contradiction. Small children are the very embodiment of disruption. They disrupt our sleep patterns. They spill things on our clothes. They pull things off shelves.
Yet, not only do we invite small children to the seder. They are the centerpiece of the seder. And sure enough, they disrupt. They steal the afikoman, and they hold up the entire Seder while they hold the Afikoman hostage to their desires. And, we celebrate this moment!
And, lest we think this is just a child’s game, not to be mistaken for a moral principle, we are made aware over and over that this moral confusion is not exceptional at all. On the contrary, it is at the heart of our tradition.
The Rabbis of the Midrash noticed that the death of Abraham’s father is reported in the wrong place in the Torah. Terach dies at the end of Genesis, chapter 11. And, then in chapter 12, God says to Abraham: Lech lecha, leave your birthplace, your father’s house and go to a new land.
So, the impression is given that Abraham left for the Promised Land after his father died. But, in fact, if you add up the numbers, it’s clear that Terach was alive when Abraham left, and lived for another sixty years.
So, the Rabbis said that the Torah was embarrassed by Abraham’s disrespect, and therefore deliberately obscured the fact that Abraham left his father by making it appear that his father had already died.
Now these are the same rabbis who depicted Abraham as openly rebelling against his father’s idolatry.And, yet, the Rabbis also understood that we are not only about disruption. We are also about order and tradition. Do we want our children to do to us what Abraham did to his father?
Yet the Bible itself doesn’t see the qualities of rebellion and loyalty as mutually exclusive. The same Abraham who openly questions God’s judgement in chapter 18, when God threatened to destroy Sodom—this same Abraham obeys God without question when God asks him to sacrifice Isaac in chapter 22. Fiery revolutionary and loyal follower. How confusing! And how delightfully and thoroughly Jewish.
Judaism brings moral confusion to the world. This is our great contribution. There is no more confusing book than the Talmud. You want order and clarity? You go to the Shulchan Aruch. This is the latest great Code of Jewish Law, compiled in the 16th century. Shulchan Aruch literally means ‘prepared table’ because all the laws are neatly laid out by logical character. The Shulchan Aruch leaves very little to the imagination. It will tell you everything you need to do, down to what order to put on your shoes in the morning.
But, you know, Jews traditionally don’t spend a lot of time studying Shulchan Aruch. It’s just not that interesting. Traditional Jewish study is Talmud study. You don’t study Talmud if you’re looking for the answer. You study Talmud to get confused.
And, that’s why the Rabbis loved to make statements that break our heads a little. Here is a typical Talmudic statement. Yetzer hara hoo tov. The evil inclination is good. The Rabbis taught us that each of us has within our soul a yetzer tov, an inclination to be good, and a yetzer ra, a selfish side.
Beautiful, perfectly clear. But, then, the rabbis muddied the waters by saying that our selfish side is good. Why? The Rabbis explain that if it were not for our yetzer ha’ra/our selfishness, human beings would never engage in business, build houses, or get married.
I went to NYU in the late sixties. I attended Washington Square College, the liberal arts school. But, two of my three roommates attended the Business School. My friends didn’t know whether to feel sorry for me or to ask me questions about them: “what are they like?”
Because in the sixties, the conventional wisdom was you could either spend your life pursuing material gain or you could change the world for the better. You couldn’t do both. You couldn’t go to business school and love poetry. That would be too confusing.
But, the Talmud loves confusing. And, the Talmud says that if Seattle magazine didn’t publish its list of Top Doctors,we’d still be living in caves . And, if the couple who fell in love didn’t have a moment early in the relationship when they looked at each other and said, “she is really hot/he is really a hunk”, then they may never have taken the next step and made the effort to get to know each other’s beautiful souls.
In fact, the biggest problems we have in the world today stem from our inability to embrace our own moral confusion. We want to win. And we want to be kind. We want to be the star. And, we want to be part of the group. And, the biggest mistakes we make come when we think can’t be both.
Our Tradition teaches us otherwise. The yetzer hara is good. Yes, that’s confusing. It’s one of the reasons we have been hated. When the world craves hyper-simplicity, Jews are public enemy number one. It’s not that we’re better. Every nation has its gift. This is our gift. We teach the world to be confused.
But, I fear that we are losing our edge, that we’re beginning to prefer the comfort of the Shulchan Aruch, to the disruption of the Talmud. The world today craves clarity! Lee Siegel writes that in today’s world, there is little room for moral nuance. “These days,” he says, we prefer ringing moral indictment, the hallmarks of which are absolute certainty…and conformity to collective sentiments.”
And, our Jewish community is not immune to such cultural pressure. That’s why I’m so grateful for the outliers, people for whom moral confusion is still a high value. People like Lior Raz and Avi Issacharoff, the creators of Fauda, the most confusing tv drama about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict I have ever seen. Fauda is about a team of undercover Israeli operatives pursuing Palestinian terrorists across the West Bank.
Here are some of the things I find happily confusing in Fauda. First of all, it’s often hard to tell who is an Arab and who is a Jew. The Palestinians learn fluent Hebrew and they fool Israeli soldiers. The Israelis speak fluent Arabic and they fool the Palestinians. What’s true for the show’s characters is just as true for the tv audience. If you miss a scene in the plot and a new character appears, you may not know for a few minutes which tribe he belongs to. There’s a message there.
Secondly, the line between good guys and bad guys is blurred. Israeli soldiers do some pretty ugly things in their pursuit of terrorists. And, the producers cast an attractive looking actor in the role of a Hamas member turned ISIS fighter. You want to hate him, but he’s good looking and charismatic. That’s confusing.
Raz and Issacharoff are not moral relativists. They are lovers of Israel and haters of terrorism. But, they are hoping that a little bit of creative confusion can only help to break through an intractable, centuries old conflict. Raz says he’s getting emails from Israelis who are saying for the first time in their life they feel empathy and compassion for the other side. And, the same from Gaza, Kuwait, and Lebanon and Turkey.”
It’s comforting to divide the world into neat categories in which people always behave the way we expect them to. But, if we want to change things, we need people who will surprise us. One of those people who surprised me this year was Sheldon Adelson.
I’m not a fan of Sheldon Adelson. He funds a lot of far right wing causes and political leaders who I passionately oppose. I don’t like that he excommunicates J-Street from any project that he funds. So, when I read that Adelson was funding a project on campus that was making inroads against the BDS movement, I was confused. Part of me really wanted him to fail.
But, there was something that confused me even more. The Hillel run college student tours which Edelman is funding are incongruously broad minded. They include stops at the Palestinian Authority headquarters in Ramallah, an encounter on the Abu Dis campus of Al Quds University, and meeting with an African refugee in Israel. These are not experiences which match up well with traditional right wing ideology. Yet, Adelson is funding them.
So, now I have a choice. I can hope he fails. Or, I can live with my confusion that Adelson is not conforming neatly to the category that I have reserved for him in my mind. I prefer to live with my confusion. Because it’s the people who go against type, who defy the simple categories, who are the people who move the world forward.
Spike Lee is one of those people. I thought I understood Spike Lee. Now I’m confused. Spike Lee’s film “Black Klansman” is the story of a black cop who infiltrates the Klan with the help of his Jewish partner. It’s based on the true story of Ron Stallworth, but the Jewish part is made up.
So, this is already interesting. I’ve seen most of Spike Lee’s films. They all portray Jews in very unsympathetic, stereotypical terms. Now, in this film, Spike Lee invents a Jewish hero, when he doesn’t have to. I find this very confusing.
But, it gets better. At one point, the black cop says to the Jewish cop: “why are you acting as if you have no skin in the game? ” In other words, Stallworth is saying to Zimmerman, “this investigation is not just about helping black people. It’s also about your own self-defense. You’re a victim of this hate, just like I am.”
Now, I’m really, really confused. Because for decades Blacks and Jews have been sparring with each other over who is the greatest victim. And, often, Blacks have said openly to the Jewish community: “we are not the same. Don’t compare your suffering to mine”.
And, the result has been that Jews have been excluded from the circle of the oppressed. We are just white folks, partaking of white privilege like everyone else. Worse than that, the latest definition of racism is prejudice plus power. So, if you are powerful, you cannot be a victim of racism.
And, as one activist explained, Louis Farakhan cannot be a racist because he has no power. But, and this is my inference, if you are living in Israel, with Hezbollah to your north and Hamas to your south and Iran to your east all tell you that the Jews are a poison to humanity and need to be eradicated, that is not racism, because Israel is stronger than them.
What’s troubling is that we have bought into this definition. We have accepted the idea that we can’t be victims of bigotry because we’re too successful. Never mind the fact that it’s precisely the fantasy of Jewish power that inflames the anti-semite.
Yes, it’s true, in America, we cannot compare what we have gone through to what Blacks are still going through. The other day, here in Seattle, there was an incident in which two African Americans were followed by employees until they left the store where the police were waiting to question them about the items they had purchased, receipts in hand. The only crime these people committed was shopping while being black. Black people have to endure this kind of humiliation every day.
Thank God, we Jews don’t have to go through that in America. But, we Jews are a global people. In France, 50,000 Jews have left to move to Israel since the year 2000. Tens of thousands of others have left the peripheries of Paris and Lyon where Muslim populations are rising, and have retrenched in other neighborhoods. There has been a dramatic increase in Jews being spat on, insulted, robbed, beaten, raped, and even killed.
It pains me to say this, but Jews are not safe in France or anywhere in Europe, and it’s primarily because of Muslim anti-semitism. Everybody knows this, but nobody wants to say it. But, if you can’t say it, how can you make it better?
I say this without malice. It’s a sin to hate Muslims, or any religious group. But, the Muslim world globally has an anti-semitism problem. 92% of Egyptians and 94% of Jordanians regard Jews ‘very unfavorably’ in recent surveys. Jews, not Israelis. There can be no solution if we do not acknowledge the problem.
Add to that the growth of white supremacy in America and Western Europe. Add to that the regular vilification of Israel in the U.N. Add to that Jeremy Corbyn, the head of the Labor Party in Britain, is an outright anti-semite. He supported a group that calls for the eradication of Israel. And, he laid a wreath near the grave of a terrorist who murdered Israeli athletes in Munich. So, I’m sorry, don’t talk to me about white privilege.
Which brings me back to Spike Lee’s question to the American Jewish community: “Why do you act like you have no skin in the game? I was having a conversation about Spike Lee’s previous negative portrayal of Jews with a group of African Americans who are going to be part of our Black-Jewish conversation in the Fall. They said, “yes, we know.” They know! So, why are we afraid to bring it up?
Aretha Franklin died a few weeks ago. She was a monumental singer. The breakthrough moment in her career came in 1967 when she recorded “Respect,” a cover of Otis Redding’s song. The man who helped Franklin record “Respect” was her Jewish producer, Jerry Wexler, who persuaded her to come to Atlantic Records, and open up her singing style. He wrote about this song: “given the civil rights and feminist fervor that was building in the 1960’s, ‘respect’ especially as Aretha sang it, started off as a soul song, and wound up a kind of national anthem.”
You can’t change the world unless you respect yourself. The black community understood this. The feminist movement understood this. And, now, we, the Jewish community need to understand this, too.
There is a way to insist on that respect without anger and without self-righteousness, but simply because that is what every human being deserves. A Jewish reader wrote in to the ethics advisor of the NY Times that at her bank, the teller thanked her for not making a fuss about showing her ID. “Some people get angry,” said the teller. “Then she leaned in and quietly added, “mostly, it’s the Jews.” And, the reader asked, “should I report it?”
The advisor suggested a different strategy. Confront the teller honestly. “Tell her you enjoyed chatting with her until she made the comment about Jews. Say, ‘I’m Jewish. I gave you my ID gladly, and you hurt my feelings. Please don’t generalize about other people.’ Challenge her world view by giving her a second chance. The manager is right there if you’re not satisfied.”
I like this strategy of forwardness without bitterness. This is truly a case when yetzer hara hu tov. Our own self-interest is good for the world. If we are too timid in the face of hate, even if the hate is directed at us, we’re enabling the forces of bigotry in the world.
Toward the end of Spike Lee’s film, he puts the following words in the mouth of a fiery Stokely Carmichael who has been invited to speak on campus:
If I am not for myself, who will be?
But, if I’m only for myself, what am I?
These, of course, are the words of Hillel. Sometimes, we need others to remind us of what we cannot see ourselves. Defending our own dignity is not incompatible with empathizing with others. According to Hillel, it’s a pre-requisite.
We need a paradigm shift in the way we think about social justice in the Jewish community. And, it should start with the fact that you can be powerful and still the target of bigotry. And, you can be powerless and still be a bigot. Isn’t that what those white supremacists are when they marched and shouted ‘the Jews will not replace us’? All of the mass school shootings in our country were committed by people who felt powerless.
Morality is not simple. This is a message we can offer the world. But, first we have to reclaim it for ourselves. We need to regain our capacity for independent thinking. We have 3000 years of experience in working out issues of enormous moral complexity. That experience is desperately needed in a world in which increasingly ethical discourse has lost its depth, its rigor and its courage.
If we want to reach our true potential, we need to bring a richer, more nuanced Jewish voice to discussions of American ethics. The words ‘tikkun olam’ are very nice. But, they do not exhaust our 3,000 year old tradition of ethical soul searching. Just slapping on the words ‘tikkun olam’ to a predetermined ethical outcome doesn’t make it Jewish. We can do better than that.
We need to speak out much more forcefully against anti-semitism and the demonization of the State of Israel, especially to people who claim to speak with a moral voice. We need to stop being afraid that standing up for ourselves compromises our ability to be empathetic to others.
Most of all, we need to embrace our moral confusion.
- It should be possible to hate Muslim anti-semitism, but not hate Muslims, and seek genuinely to heal the rift that separates our peoples.
- It should be possible to love the State of Israel, and out of that love, be outraged when a major Israeli winery sends Ethiopian Jews to the back of the bus out of a desire to cultivate the market of religious extremists who didn’t consider them Jewish.
- It should be possible to applaud the president for moving the U.S. embassy to Jerusalem, but condemn the president for race baiting and for creating a policy that required U.S. border workers to separate three year olds from their mothers.
- It should be possible to wonder why Israel would invite to the new US Embassy a speaker who recently described “Islam and Mormonism as heresies from the pit of hell,” while acknowledging that in the past 30 years, it was the Christian Right that stood by Israel when the rest of the Christian world abandoned her in her hour of need.
That’s confusing. But, it’s the kind of confusion that could form the foundation of a much deeper understanding of right and wrong.
There’s a beautiful prayer of hope for the future that we recite every Saturday evening at twilight. It goes like this: ‘Karev yom asher hu lo yom v’lo Layla.’ God, bring the day soon that is neither day nor night.
In many cultures, the twilight zone is a fearful time. But, for us it has always been a magical time, a time of miracles. What the prayer means is that good things come to the world when we stop thinking of life as black and white, when we’re not locked into rigid categories of right and wrong, when we’re open to something new and unexpected.
Let’s create that world together. Let’s embrace the magnificent contradictions that have kept our people ethically dynamic for 3000 years. The selfish inclination can indeed be good, if honest conversation about our own needs can open our hearts to the needs of others.
In the words of Stokely Carmichael quoting Spike Lee quoting Hillel:
–If I’m not for myself, who will be for me?
—but if I’m only for myself, what am I?
V’im lo achshav, eimatai?
And, if not now, when?