RHR 2008: Introduction to the vision and program of RHR-NA
RHR 2008: Torture in Jewish Laws and Values

RHR 2008: Something There Is That Doesn't Love A Wall

This text study session looked at texts from the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, Torah, midrash, and Talmud, with a tiny taste of modern poetry on top. The session was led by Rabbi Miriyam Glazer, from American Jewish University, and it was fantastic.

Article 29 of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights begins: "Everyone has duties to the community in which alone the free and full development of his personality is possible." As Jews, we know the particular kind of freedom which arises through duty and obligation, but this statement has all kinds of implications, among them that the development of personality arises in and through community. This doesn't jibe with the "rugged individualism" of which Americans are so fond. (And personally I get caught on "in which alone" -- is there really only one community in which the free and full development of my personality is possible?)

In talking about this, we touched on Ralph Waldo Emerson's famous essay on self-reliance, in which he grouses about the guy who's shown up at his door seeking charity. And we looked at different texts which approach these conflicts in Biblical and Talmudic tradition, starting with the opening lines of Ruth:

In the days when the judges ruled, there was famine in the land and a man from Bethlehem in Judea left to live in the country of Moab, he and his wife and two sons, and the man's name was Elimelech, his wife's name was Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Chilion...

Ruth Rabbah asks the question, why do Elimelech and his sons all die? For what were they being punished (since clearly, if he were a good person, this would not have happened?) Of course, the rabbis have an answer:

According to Rabbi Shimon ben Gamaliel, Elimelech was one of the notables of his place and one of the leaders of his generation. But when the famine came, he said, "Now all Israel will come knocking at my door for help, each one with his basket. He therefore arose and fled from them.

Elimelech seems to have taken into account what his family needed, but not his people. Was that wrong? Rambam would argue that in a time of extreme need, you care for your family first; is Elimelech being held to a higher standard because he's a notable, or is this challenging Rambam's whole notion? To whom are we obligated, really?

While we're at it: what can we learn from the opening line, that this was during the time when the judges ruled? This was the Wild West of the Tanakh, a time of outlawry, every man for himself. It's interesting too that the text mentions Bethlechem twice -- beit lechem, the house of bread. Famine in the house of bread. But what are people like in a lawless time, and what is the problem of not living with just laws? The lack of law impacts human nature in all kinds of ways. The strong and rich survive, but the poor suffer. The challenge of lawlessness is that it becomes every man for himself.

This midrash presumes that law is necessarily just; a lawless society is one without justice. What can this midrash teach us about a leader's obligation in a time of trouble? How about the rabbis who left Europe in order to avoid the camps, but their families or communities were not saved? Is his obligation to the survival of the lineage/teaching, or to the survival of lives? What if it's clear that the people aren't going to survive: is he then obligated to stay with them to the end, or to offer life to future souls? We need criteria for exercising leadership.

But what about a mother and her children? Is there a gender difference in how we respond to this? And notice: in this midrash Elimelech doesn't say, "My family needs food, I have to leave in order to provide for them first." He leaves because he's anxious that others are going to start making demands on him. He's trying to escape his obligations. He doesn't want to be bothered. The question becomes: what does a leader do in imperiled times?

The rabbis taught...at a time when the people of Israel are steeped in distress, and an individual separates himself [from the community], the two ministering angels who always accompany each person come to him and place their hands on his head. They say, "This unnamed person who has separated himself ffrom the community shall not witness the consolation of the community [when they are delivered from their affliction.]..."

This passage from Masekhet Taanit 11a (Babylonian Talmud) continues with a parable about Rav going to a place to pray during a drought. His prayers were not answered but another man's were, and he asked the other man, what do you do to make your prayers so quickly answered? The other man replied that he teaches children to study, and he teaches the poor as well as the rich. Also he owns fish ponds, and when one of the children is reluctant to study, he gives the child some fish and thereby gets him interested again.

The first part of the passage tells us clearly not to separate ourselves from the community when there is need. There are moments in our lives when it's tempting to do just that; when in our lives have we not wanted to be a part of our community's story, and do we have what it takes to overcome that? How does this story speak to us in the current economic crisis? What about sending our kids to private schools: is that an instance of separating ourselves from the community? How do we develop our own capacity, the capacity of those around us, to serve? This text calls us to be engaged, and in so doing, we enrich our own lives.

But what do we make of the text about Rav, the great holy man of the Talmud, who proves unable to end a drought with his fasting and prayers while some ordinary guy comes and prays and the drought is ended? The man whose prayers get through to God is the one who teaches children, an act of paramount importance -- and not only that, he teaches the poor and rich alike. And he uses what he has -- the fish pond -- to reach the children where they are. So what is efficacious holiness? To whom does God listen? Not the big macher holy man, but the one who does his prayers and comes from a place of social commitment and generosity. And note, what ends the drought is not some dramatic act, and it's not an act of overt mercy; it's an everyday act of justice.

(We had an interesting conversation about the difference between acting out of principles, versus acting out of moments of inspired charity. And about the tendency toward cultivating the heart, versus the tendency toward cultivating a legal system of ethical obligation.)

The last text we studied was titled "Something there is that doesn't love a wall" -- a text from the Babylonian Talmud, Bava Batra 7b, though the title is obviously Robert Frost. The text asks the question, what are your rights and responsibilities toward your neighbor? The mishna is about compelling a resident whose home shares a courtyard with others to contribute to the cost of building a gatehouse. So is it implying that a gatehouse is a good thing?

The first opinion argues, maybe, but there's a story about Elijah who used to speak with a hasid openly, until the hasid built a gatehouse and Elijah stopped speaking with him openly. Their open dialogue was no longer possible. If Elijah is a sign of mosiach, does that mean moshiach won't come to a gated community? In that case, clearly doors are a bad thing.

But the next opinion challenges that: no, it says, the hasid's gatehouse was inside his courtyard, whereas the mishna is talking about a gatehouse outside the courtyard. And the next opinion contradicts that: no, the thing is, the hasid's gatehouse had a door, whereas the mishna's gatehouse didn't have a door, so the mishna's gatehouse was easy to walk into. And the next argument is about whether or not the door had a strap/latch. In all of the opinions, the question is about whether the door shuts out the Other. If it's a door that's easy to access, then it's a positive thing; if it's a door that serves to shut out the cries of the poor, then it's a bad thing. The question is, how can we live our lives today and hear the cries of the poor?

Technorati tags: , , , .