09.19.2018 Yom Kippur
According to a Jewish comedian, the following true story happen to his Bubbie. Bubbie was going 70mph in a 40 mile zone and she was pulled over by a policemen. Bubbie, said, ‘what’s the problem, officer?” The policemen said, “May I see you your license, m’am?
Bubbie said, “I’m sorry, officer, I don’t have a license.”
The officer said, “What do you mean you don’t have a license?”
Bubbie said, “Well, I’m not allowed to have a license. I’m legally blind.”
The officer is getting a little concerned and he says, “Well, m’am I’d like to see your registration.”
Bubbie says, “I don’t have registration. This car isn’t mine.”
The officer says, “What do you mean the car isn’t yours?”
Bubbie said, “I stole the car.”
The officer said, “Well, whose car is it?”
Bubbie said, “I don’t know. When I stole the car, do you think I asked the driver who he was?”
The officer is getting very worried now, and he says, “M’am I want you to pop the trunk.”
Bubbie says, “I can’t pop the trunk. There’s a body in the trunk. I killed the driver of the car. I put his body in a bag. And, I put the bag in the trunk.”
At this point, the policemen is getting very anxious and he calls for backup.
The second officer arrives on the scene. He says to Bubbie: “M’am let me see your license.”
Bubbie takes out her license, hands it to the policemen. Everything checks out.
The officer says, “OK, m’am, can I see your registration? Bubbie opens her glove compartment, takes out the registration, hands it to the policemen. Everything is fine.
Now the officer says, “If you don’t mind, ma’m, would you please pop the trunk, ” Bubbie pops the trunk. The trunk is empty, except for a bag of potato chips.
The officer says to Bubbie, “You know m’am, I’m very relieved. Because my colleague here told me you told him you didn’t have a license, you were driving while legally blind, you had no registration, you stole the car, and you killed someone and put them in the trunk. Why didn’t you tell the officer the truth when he first pulled you over?
And, Bubbie leans over and looks the officer straight in the eye and she says to him: “I bet he told you I was speeding, too.”
In this joke, we know the cop is being manipulated, and we laugh. But, in today’s lingo, we would undoubtedly say, there are two narratives here. There is the policemen’s narrative and there is Bubbie’s narrative. And, increasingly, given that kind of choice, we don’t have a clear way to establish which narrative is real.
We live in a world of Fake News, where the very possibility of a fact is questioned. The simplest piece of information we used to take for granted for true is now suspect. And, the idea that we can’t trust the reality that is being presented to us has penetrated deep into our culture.
It has translated into the movies and tv series that we watch, across genres. In the sci fi horror film “Get Out” an apparently benign white family is part of a dark conspiracy to kidnap black people and insert the brains of dying white people into their bodies. In Sorry to Bother You, there is a hidden plot to turn African-American into pack animals.
In the tv series Westworld, the characters that appear to be human are in fact robots that have been programmed by a sophisticated evil genius. What these different stories have in common is the idea that we cannot trust the reality we know.
Now, of course, there have been films like this before. But, the sheer proliferation of films and tv shows with this theme in the past 20 years is unmistakable—including Ex Machina, Humans, Her, The Matrix, Vanilla Sky, Total Recall and The Truman Show. And, they reflect a deep cultural anxiety. Their plots are made credible by the belief of our time that belief itself is suspect, that what we trust to be true on the most fundamental level is malleable and subject to sinister manipulation.
I’d like to offer two very different very examples of this. A few weeks ago, I attended an AIPAC session with Marcus Sheft, the CEO of an Israeli organization that monitors school textbooks throughout the Middle East. Marcus is a member of the Israeli Labor Party. So, he is inclined to see good news on the peace front, if there is good news to tell.
And, there is a little bit of good news. In Egypt under Mubarak, the textbooks were all written by the Muslim Brotherhood, so they were full of venom for Jews and Israel. But, today Al Sisi is having the textbooks re-written, so there are passages about the warm peace between Israel and Egypt.
On the other hand, the Palestinian textbooks, revised in 2017, are so radical that even though they were written by Fatah, they are used by Hamas, because they could have as easily written by them. They are full of glorification of jihad and martyrdom. There is no mention of co-existence or a two state solution. They call for the liberation for all of Palestine, from the river to the sea, and the expulsion of all the usurpers from our country.
As Sheff points out, for a child or a high school student, a textbook represents reality, even more than a newspaper. So, as long as a whole new generation of Palestinian children is being taught that the State of Israel itself must be destroyed, there is little hope for peace.
There are small beginnings of some new joint efforts of Israelis and moderate Palestinians to change this, and we can only hope they succeed. But, it’s clear that at the moment, Israelis and Palestinians are living in different universes.
Now, we have almost become used to this dual narrative idea in the relationship between Israelis and Palestinians. We are less used to it in America. Yet, increasingly, Americans, too, are living in separate realities.
A few months ago, I had a conversation with a good friend of mine, not from this community, who voted differently than I did in the last presidential election. I was talking to my friend about the policy of zero tolerance that led to small children being separated from the border. My point was that you could vote for a candidate and believe in him without necessarily supporting every decision they make.
So, I asked my friend whether he thought it was right that children be separated from their parents. To my surprise, my friend said “it never happened”. I said “what do you mean it never happened?” It was all over the New York Times. I knew right away I shouldn’t have said this. My friend said ‘you can’t trust anything the NY Times says. They have their own agenda.’
I said, “it wasn’t only the Times. It was in every newspaper and every news channel. And, there were objections to this policy across the political spectrum. That’s why it was changed.
I was beginning to make some headway, but I was stunned that we were even having this conversation. I was used to the idea that reporters can be biased and that stories can be slanted. But, the idea that realities could be completely fabricated by reputable American news media was new to me. We have had deep divisions in our country before. But, even in the Civil Rights Era, there may have been differences about whether segregation was right or wrong. But, no one said it wasn’t happening. Americans disagreed profoundly about the ethics of the Vietnam War, but no one claimed there was no war.
The truth, in our time, has been privatized. For some time now, we’ve been living in our own private realities, with our own preferred news sources which reinforce our pre-existing opinions and which we re-broadcast on our own private networks we call our facebook pages, so that no inconvenient information can rattle our world. How did this come about? How did we get to this situation?
The truth is, at the core of Fake News is an idea that started out as very positive. When I was in high school, I studied history. But, when I was in college, I studied historiography. Historiography teaches us that no historian can completely escape the cultural biases of her time.
That’s why we revise textbooks. It’s not because we see everything in the previous version of reality as a fabrication. Rather, it’s because our understanding of reality has broadened and we want our textbooks to reflect our expanded vision of the world.
The New York Times recently revealed that in looking back over the past century of reporting, the newspaper had omitted obituaries of some of the most notable women in modern history. I don’t believe there was a conscious falsification of facts, here. The women just weren’t there. It was as if they didn’t exist.
In a healthy community, this kind of questioning of our belief systems is a positive.
But, what’s happening today is entirely different. There is no longer a shared textbook. And, I can’t help thinking that there is something deeper at work here. My friend’s distrust of reality is rooted in a more profound trauma in modern Western culture. The one textbook which millions of people were once sure they could trust turns out also to be biased. That textbook is called The Bible.
It’s one thing to say that I have to take the New York Times or Fox News with a grain of salt, because they suffer from human bias. But, surely God isn’t biased. If I can’t trust the word of God, then whom can I trust?
The truth is, for many years, even as an adult, when I read “va’yomer Adonai/God said” in the Bible, I took it as reporting on reality. It never occurred to me to ask “who says ‘God said?’”
But, the way Bible is taught today, the way I learned it in Rabbinical school, we no longer assume that the Bible is objective in portraying what God does, what God wants, and even what God says. Instead, when we look at a Biblical passage, we ask ‘who wrote this piece? What was his bias? What was his agenda?’
It’s tempting to think that this idea is modern. But, in fact, the idea that our understanding of what God wants could reflect our own bias is found very early in the Bible. And, it appears in a very elegant way in the Joseph story.
In the Biblical story, Joseph has a dream that his brothers are going to bow to him. The dream is understood as a prophesy, a message from God. The dream does in fact come true. After Joseph’s brothers sell him into slavery, he goes down to Egypt and ends up as second to Pharoah. When his brothers come looking for food, they go to him, but they don’t recognize him. And, they bow down to him, not as their brother, but as an Egyptian ruler.
So, we think: Ah, you see! God’s prophecy is fulfilled. But, the story is not over. The brothers, not knowing who they are talking to, show Joseph they have changed, and that they are willing to sacrifice their lives to save their younger brother.
Joseph is now thirty years old. And, he realizes that at the age of 17, he misunderstood God’s dream, which he thought at the time was about being the big boss of his family. He now understands that what God wanted from him was not to rule his brothers, but to save his brothers from starvation, and to save the Egyptian people, too.
There are some surprisingly radical conclusions that we can draw from this story. First of all, and most radical, the Bible is not the fixed word of God for all times. It can’t be, because, like Joseph, our understanding of God’s message can change over time, as we mature.
There is a very brave Israeli Orthodox rabbi, Rabbi Nathan Cardozo, who says that there are many laws in the Torah that are unethical by the standards of the 21st century. They include: the commandment to commit genocide against the Canaanites, the commandment to execute people for
violating the Shabbat, the commandment that allows a court to execute a disobedient teenager. I would add to that list the view that gay sexuality is an abomination.
Cardozo said the Torah was given to our ancestors who lived 3000 years ago. Their view of what God wanted was slanted by the biases of their time. The Torah reflects what God felt they could handle, not what God believes is ideal.
I would say it a little differently. The Torah reflects our people’s best guess as to what God’s message to us really was. But, just as Joseph did not really understand God’s message until he was older, we, the Jewish people, have a better understanding of what God wants today than our ancestors did 3000 years ago.
We could draw very similar conclusions about our American ancestors.. I recently used the analogy of the harpsichord and the piano. Back in the 18thcentury, someone invented the piano. It was an instrument with far greater potential than the harpsichord. But, early composers did not really get that. So, they kept writing boring harpsichord music for the piano. Along came Beethoven and he began writing real piano music. And, humanity’s jaw dropped open.
It’s like that with American history. In 1776, Jefferson and Washington invented the piano. They grasped something profoundly new about the human relationship which we call democracy. We could say they read the mind of God. They intuited a great truth about human reality.
But, they read God’s mind imperfectly. They didn’t fully understand that slavery was evil. They certainly had no concept of racial equality. They treated women as inferior to men. And, gay liberation wasn’t even on the horizon. They were still playing the piano as if it were a harpsichord.
Centuries later, in our day, we began to play Washington’s piano with Beethoven’s genius. Like Joseph, with maturity, we realized more fully what God wanted from us. And, as brilliant as the founding fathers were, today’s vision of America is infinitely more expansive and beautiful.
It includes Emma Lazarus’s vision of ‘give me your tired, your poor,’ of America as a land of immigrants, a place of refuge for people of every background fleeing tyranny and hopelessness, as beacon of freedom throughout the world. It includes the vision of America as a defender of liberty far beyond our borders.
And, this is the second lesson of Joseph’s life. For Joseph, the experience of God is associated with his discovery that there is so much more to life than he imagined. God’s will is often associated with finding the answer. But, in our Tradition, it is often quite the opposite.
Religious experience isn’t about certainty. Just the opposite. Religious experience is about the sea opening up when you least expect it. When God first to Abraham, God said lech lecha me’artzecha, leave your land, some rabbis understand to mean leave your landedness, leave your certainties, the ground beneath your feet. And, go to a land ‘asher arecha’, a place I will show you. In other words, the journey of faith is open ended.
My Muslim friend Tezcan Inanlar went to Jerusalem last year to study Judaism and Zionism at the Hartman Institute. I asked him what he was hoping for. He said he tried to go into these conversations without a predetermined outcome in mind. Maybe there will be an opening from an unexpected source. Maybe he will learn something about himself or about someone else that he did not anticipate.
The most profound experiences we have in life are occasions of surprise that life could contain so much. Falling in love. The birth of our child; the birth of our grandchild.
This was Joseph’s experience of God. It was not a holding on to some preexisting dogma. It was a letting go of his assumptions about his brothers. It was a letting go of his own ambitions. And, when he did that, he realized that the world was a whole lot bigger than he had imagined.
That also meant that Joseph himself was a whole lot smaller. Joseph, age 17, took up all the air in the room in the micro-world of his family in Canaan. The big shock for Joseph when he became a slave in Egypt was that he was not the center of the universe.
We’re not strangers to this experience. There was a time not so long ago when we human beings were first shocked to discover that the earth was not the center of the universe.
Undoubtedly, this discovery made us feel smaller in the beginning. And, that’s upsetting. So, I imagine that there was a movement called “Let’s Make Earth Great Again.”
For two hundred years, the Catholic Church and many others insisted on clinging to an outmoded picture of the universe, an infinitely smaller one. And, the crazy thing was, we thought we were doing this to defend God. But, really we were doing it to defend our own egos, our own sense of significance.
This was not the way of Joseph. For Joseph, God was not a refuge of certainty to defend his receding ego. His ego needed shrinking. That was the problem! The experience of humility did not destroy Joseph. On the contrary. It deepened him. It made him a better person.
The biggest mistake we make today is to confuse humility with despair. Steven Pinker reports on the following letter he received from a student:
“Dear Professor Pinker,
What advice do you have for someone who has taken ideas in your books to heart, and sees himself as a collection of atoms? A machine with a limited scope of intelligence, sprung out of selfish genes, inhabiting a spacetime?”
Woa! That does sound depressing. But, not if we look at it as Joseph did. I remember back in 1996, there was an incident at an Illinois zoo, where a three year old child fell into the gorilla enclosure, and was knocked unconscious. And, the mother, of course, was terrified. Lo and behold, a mama gorilla, her own child on her back, picked up the human child gently, cuddled it, and then returned it to rescuers waiting at the door.
Now, we can look at what happened in that zoo in two ways. We can say that what looks to us like the noble virtue of compassion is just some machine-like, evolutionary instinct. And, we are just big gorillas.
Or, we could say the opposite. We are a little less than we thought we were, and the gorilla is a little more. What became in us something extraordinarily uplifting, already has its beginnings in humbler creatures.
Immunologist Barbara Ehrenreich says that biggest scientific mistake of our day is the notion that Nature is dead, passive, inert. Ultimately, it’s led to the idea that we ourselves are dead, “a machine, a collection of atoms”, in the words of Pinker’s student.
Ehrenreich says, to the contrary, the universe is vibrating with choice. Fruit flies make tiny decisions. Whether a virus attacks a cell or lays dormant is not predetermined. There is a kind of choice that virus makes. And, according to physicist Freeman David, ‘there is certain kind of freedom that (even) atoms have to jump around, and they seem to choose entirely without any input from the outside, so in a certain sense, atoms have free will.”
None of these scientists are claiming that fruit flies have consciousness. But, they’re saying that universe is brimming with confidence, the tiny beginnings of what in human beings we call freedom.
Yes, of course, we are a collection of atoms. But, we need not despair. Because even atoms are not ‘just atoms.’
We are living at a time, when the fear of our own smallness is take us back to a narrower vision of the world. Calls for a greater America are really calls for a smaller America, a retreat from the ideal of America as a place of hope for people at the bottom of the ladder anywhere in the world.
Calls for a greater Israel are really calls for a smaller Israel. When a government passes a law calling Israel a Jewish state, but fails to mention democracy, this is a shrink-wrapping of the greatest gift we the Jewish people have had in our entire history. It’s a misreading of the ancient dream of our people to be a light unto the nations. We need to recover the dream interpreting ability of our ancestor Joseph.
The Torah says “In the beginning God said ‘let there be light’.” And, it all began 5779 years ago. Modern astronomy says “in the beginning there was nothing, which then exploded. And out of dying stars, the elements which created the elephant and the armadillo were forged. And, it all began 14 billion years ago.”
Our ancestors read the mind of God, but they read it imperfectly, just as we do. But, as Jane Goodall has said, what we now know is an even better story. We should embrace it, not fear it.
I had a Joseph-like experience once. I know I’ve shared with you at least once my experience many decades ago snorkeling in the waters of the Red Sea at Ras Muhamed on the southern tip of the Sinai Peninsula.
I was paddling in three feet of water, and a friend said, “You won’t believe what’s coming up.” Sure enough, ten seconds later, the depth of the water dropped suddenly 50 feet straight down. A wall of coral lay beneath me. The water was so clear that I could see all the way down, and I felt like I was flying over a cliff.
And, I remember thinking at the time that I had never seen anything as remotely beautiful as that in my life. And, I thought, ‘this is what a miracle must feel like.’
It’s a little disconcerting flying over a cliff, even when we are supported by water underneath. So, we have a choice. We can be content to swim in three feet of water, secure in the knowledge that we can reach down our feet at any time and touch the coral beneath us. But, of course, look what we’d be missing.
We can convince ourselves that we already know the mind of God, and we can take comfort in seeing the earth and ourselves as the center of the universe. Or, like Abraham, we can allow our feet to leave the ground. Like Joseph, we can admit humbly that at any given moment we can read the mind of God only imperfectly, and find joy in the notion that we have no idea just how beautiful the world really is.