[URJBiennial] Dinner with the San Antonians; Ruth Messinger
[URJBiennial] Integrating Social Justice Throughout the Congregation

[URJBiennial] What Does It Mean to Be Good?

The first session I attended this morning was a talk by Rabbi Joseph Telushkin, author of many books (among them The Book of Jewish Values and Jewish Literacy). "More than simply an issue of behavior, for Jews being good is about living a life that reflects the values and ethics of our tradition; about living a life that matters. How do we live such a life?" Rabbi Telushkin spoke beautifully in response to this question, and at the end of the panel Rabbi Jan Katzew gave a brief response.


Rabbi Joseph Telushkin began by saying:

"One of the sad things that happened to Jewish life in modernity is that the word religion became associated only with ritual behavior." So when one Jew describes another as "religious," that tends to mean only Shabbat, kashrut, et cetera -- as though ethics were "extracurricular."

"We do a disservice to Judaism when we restrict it to the realm of the ritual. Now, I'm a big believer in ritual...Ritual [gives us] a sense of holiness." For instance, Shabbat observance involves the custom of lighting Shabbat candles, and though only two are mandated, many light extra candles for the children in the household.  There's real poetry in that, and in the custom of blessing our children on Shabbat. We can add our own words to those blessings, and the practice helps us be conscious of the good thing we want to remember. "Without rituals we wouldn't have continuity." Our story of liberation would have been lost without the Passover seder, for instance. "And rituals communicate ethics." The practice of kashrut can impel us to be ethical in the way we prepare our foods.

And ethics are at the heart of Judaism. "Love your neighbor as yourself" is at the heart of the Torah, is how Hillel encapsulated the Torah in one line.

Rabbi Telushkin talked about moral imagination. What does that mean? "When we look back at the 20th century in Jewish terms, we think of a few events. The most awful, the Holocaust; the creation of Israel; and the transplantation of Jewish life to the United States. When we think of it in universal terms, we think of...advances made in science and technology. Those advances all came about because a group of individuals used the full resources of their imaginations to solve problems that had been believed to be unsolvable." We did a great job of solving scientific problems, but we didn't use the full resources of our intelligence to solve moral dilemmas.

"One of the tragedies of Jewish life is that Orthodox Jews don't know non-Orthodox heroes, and non-Orthodox Jews don't know Orthodox heroes." He told stories about an Orthodox man in Jerusalem, Reb Shlomo Zalman Auerbach, who -- for instance -- counseled a family on how to care for their developmentally-disabled son. Moral imagination means thinking of a different way of understanding problems.

"It's not enough in life to have good intentions. You have to have a system." How often do we see problems and want to do something about them, but we can't, because we don't have a system?

"I want to help people in cultivating gratitude." Talk about lowering and raising how we tip wait staff in restaurants. It's arguable that we tip out of cowardice, not gratitude -- we can't face our servers if we haven't given them something. But how many of us tip hotel maids? Do we feel gratitude toward those whom we don't directly see? Prayer is directed toward God Whom we don't and can't see! And maybe it can help us have that same kind of gratitude toward the people who serve us, who interact with us, even if we don't face them directly.

Famous quote from Talmud about the need to face our fellow human beings with a cheerful face. And who said that? Shammai. Shammai: grouch of the Talmud! He has that reputation because of the story about the guy who wanted to learn Torah on one foot, and Shammai chased him away with a stick. But how would you like it if, a year after you finished your dissertation, someone wanted to hear all about it in one sentence? (laughter) "I think Shammai knew that he had an irascible disposition... And therefore he had to remind himself, you have to greet people nicely." Since Shammai had to remind himself to be good to people, that's why he said that famous quote about facing each other with good cheer.

Rabbi Telushkin talked about moodiness and how it impacts those around us. We have a moral and ethical obligation to treat one another with kindness and good cheer. If one has a chemical imbalance, one has an ethical obligation to seek medical treatment to rectify it. Because my moodiness can be aggressive, can impact those around me negatively, and that goes counter to v'ahavta l'reakha kamocha, "Love your neighbor/other as yourself."

"Ethics are taught in two ways: by laws, and by examples. That's what makes the Bible fascinating, the Talmud -- halakha, laws, and aggadah, stories."

He told a story about a conversation he had with Reb Zalman during the years when he lived in Boulder. Rabbi Telushkin mentioned something that happens in Manhattan: conversations are shattered by the sound of an ambulance, and he said his first reaction to that was always annoyance, though he knew that was the wrong reaction. Reb Zalman suggested that when we hear ambulances, we say a short prayer: El na, refa na la, "Oh God, heal her." And Rabbi Telushkin said that when he started that practice, he found immediately that he stopped feeling annoyance in response to the ambulance noises, and that it expanded his consciousness. What if we get stopped in traffic because there's an accident ahead? Can we circumvent the impulse to be annoyed at our inconvenience, and instead spend the time praying for their healing? Even if it doesn't help the person in need, it might help us.

He talked about "love your neighbor as yourself." One must love oneself, of course; and as a neighbor, one must allow oneself to be loved. Sometimes that means telling each other what we need, articulating our needs so that they can be met.

"Gratitude is not only the prerequisite trait for being a moral person, it's the prerequisite train for being a happy person... At the very moment that a person cultivates gratitude, she is cultivating an awareness of being loved." An ungrateful person reveals that he has a stingy disposition -- and that he feels deeply unloved.

Two suggestions on cultivating gratitude. The first is, at the Shabbat table, or at Thanksgiving, everyone has to say at least one good thing that's happened to them that week. Because even someone who's had the worst week of their life, if pushed to come up with something good, can come up with something! And that's an important practice. And the second is: declare a complaining fast. We all know about food fasts. There also exist fasts from speech. Haven't we all experienced the kind of thing where we had a good day and a loved one had a wretched day, and in the process of commiserating with the loved one, one loses one's own sense of good day?

"Parents should reserve the highest praise for their children when they perform kind acts." Most of us praise our children most when they have academic achievements, or athletic achievements, or cultural achievements (music et al), or for their good looks (especially girls). Giving our kids compliments is important, it's something they important, but what message do we send when those are always conditional? "Imagine if children if children got their highest praise when they did kind acts! We'd raise a generation of people who most liked themselves when they were doing kind deeds. This would have the capacity to change the world, because people would associate kindness with happiness."

Apologize to our children -- don't give them the message that only weak people apologize. And if you get angry with someone, restrict the expression of our anger to the incident that caused it. Don't turn that into "you always [this]" or "you never [that]" -- it's not fair, and it's not true, because nobody's "always" anything. If you lose your temper unfairly, fine yourself and give some tzedakah. (And if that doesn't help, give the money to a cause of which you'd otherwise disapprove! He quipped that he tells Orthodox audiences to send it to HUC, and he'll tell us to end it to Chabad.)

He closed his speech with, "If you're not going to be better tomorrow than you were today, then what need to you have for tomorrow?" (That's a quote from Reb Nachman of Bratzlav.) "I wish you a very good today, and an even better tomorrow."


Then there was a response from Rabbi Jan Katzew:

"The title of this session is 'what it means to be good,' not 'what it means to be great.'" We should seek acts which are good, and which are also possible. One needn't be a great tzaddik in order to do things which are good!

With respect to ethics, we're speaking about something we can all achieve. "We live in a society in which good is seemingly never enough...But to be good is also not to be perfect...We're talking today about something that's universally desirable -- and something that each one of us, at each age and each stage in our lives, is capable of doing."

"A person should always occupy himself with Torah and good deeds, even if not for their own sake, for out of doing good with an ulterior motive a person will eventually do good for its own sake." (Pesachim 50b) So our tradition teaches us that goodness is a question of action.

The Talmud also says that at the end of our lives, when God asks us to account for ourselves, the first question will be, "Were you reliable in your business dealings?" (Story of ordinary businessman who took extraordinary measures to help our speaker find a suit for a colleague's funeral in an unfamiliar city.) Then God will ask, "Did you set aside fixed times for Torah study?" There is "a moral valance to Jewish learning." Our challenge is to become engaged in study regularly and often, instead of leaving it to transitory or ephemeral times.

...And God's last question will be, "Did you delve into wisdom? When you learned Torah, did you learn it deeply, and infer one thing from another?" In our tradition, both knowledge (intellectual apprehension) and ongoing engagement and experience are necessary. Learning has an ethical dimension, and so does being in a community. As it says in Psalms, "How good and pleasant it is that brothers (and sisters) sit together."

"One of the ways that goodness is measured in our tradition is we recognize that we're not entitled to everything that we have. We don't deserve everything that we have. And so we need, as a consequence, to be explicity thankful for the brachot in our lives." He closed with the prayer, "God, teach me to count my blessings, so I may be thankful for them."

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