Lance Strate's D'Var Torah for April 1, 2022
This week’s Torah portion, Parshat Tazria, comes from the dermatology section of the Torah. I say that because it’s mostly about skin disease, and how a kohen is needed to diagnose whether it is to be considered pure or impure, and if impure, whether the individual needs to be quarantined. Tazria also includes rules for purification after giving birth, for the mother to go to the mikvah, and male infants to be circumcised. And it ends with instructions regarding ritual sacrifice and offerings to be made on the Sabbath, at the start of each new month, and as a sin offering. With that in mind, I want to suggest that what all of this has in common, and what the Torah is mainly trying to do, is to answer the question, how shall we live our lives? And that includes the question of how should we worship God? And it includes ethical questions regarding how we should treat other people, and animals, and plants for that matter. And what we should do when we get sick. This ancient document is a complete guide for living.
As modern Jews, and especially as Reform Jews, we understand that the Torah is a product of its times, of antiquity, and much of its practical instructions no longer make sense to us. If you have a skin disease, you go see a doctor. And you don’t need a kohen to tell you that. As for whether to quarantine, we’re more likely to listen to Dr. Fauci, or our primary care physician, or follow the advice of the CDC, or the requirements of our schools and employers. And if that is the case, why do we still cling to the Torah? What does it still have to teach us?
Rabbi Abraham Joshua Heschel once said that, we are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers. To this I would add that good questions are eternal. The answers will change, depending on the times we are living in, depending on who you ask, depending on the situation. Scientists understand that the answers they provide are always subject to change as new information is obtained, and our knowledge increases. That’s why the rules and recommendations regarding wearing masks have changed over the course of the pandemic. At the start they were based on the experience of previous airborne diseases, but as medical researchers learned more and more about COVID-19, they updated their findings and corrected their conclusions.
And the point is that answers may come and go, but good questions remain with us forever. Questions like, how should we live our lives? If we focus on the questions, then we can understand that what Parsha Tazria and similar parts of the Torah are telling us is to ask that question, how should we live our lives?, to reflect on our actions, not to go about our lives moving from one activity to another in mindless fashion, like robots and automatons, or in naïve innocence like animals or infants. And in asking, how should we live our lives, we are also asking, how should we live our lives as Jews?, because the Torah is specifically trying to answer that question, as a document particular to the Jewish people. And in accordance with that question, we are also asking, how should we, as Jews, live in harmony with nature, and with God?
So, when Rabbi Heschel said that, we are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers, he was answering the question of how we should live our lives, as Jews, in harmony with God. Which is by asking questions. Asking questions is very much a part of Jewish culture, and the Jewish religion. Even asking questions of God. During troubled times, we have been known to ask, why me, God, why me? And it is not a part of our tradition, but others tell the story of a rabbi some 2,000 years ago who asked of God, why have you forsaken me? More recently, after losing his son to an incurable disease at the age of 14, Rabbi Harold Kushner set out to answer the question, why do bad things happen to good people?, and the result was a bestselling book published back in 1981.
We love questions so much that we are even known for substituting questions for answers. The advice columnist known as Dear Abby was once asked, why do Jews always answer a question with a question? Her response was, how should they answer? That of course is a variation on an old joke about a congregant who asks the rabbi, rabbi, why do you always answer a question with a question? To which the rabbi responds, do I? And then there’s the one where two guys are having lunch at a deli, and one says to the other, life is like a tuna fish sandwich. The other fellow thinks about it for a bit, and then asks, so, why is life like a tuna fish sandwich? To which the first guy replies, what am I, a philosopher?
And then there’s the similar question asked when we’re overlooked or not given our due: what am I, chopped liver? Maybe we don’t ask that question so much anymore, but for the past four thousand years, we have been asking the twin questions of the mi chamocha, the oldest prayer in our liturgy. The translation is along the lines of, who is like You, among the gods, Adonai? Who is like you, great in holiness, awe-inspiring in splendor, doing wonders? In the centuries that followed the exodus, and the revelation at Sinai, the sages studied the texts that make up the Torah and asked, what do these writings mean? How are we to understand them? How are we to make sense of them? They understood that the meaning of a written work is never entirely obvious. That there is always a need for interpretation. And that interpretations differ, depending on the reader, the place and time and circumstances, and so much more. Asking questions about the meaning of the Holy Scriptures, and how to apply them to our lives, is the basis of the Talmud, and Rabbinic Judaism, and Reform Judaism.
I do want to add a small, friendly amendment to Rabbi Heschel’s statement, that, we are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers. This refers specifically to asking good questions, because not all questions are good questions. I know that we tell our children that there is no such thing as a bad question, and we do so to encourage them to ask questions. But it’s not really true. There most certainly are bad questions. Some of them are known as loaded questions, a classic example being a question asked of a male politician by his opponent: have you stopped beating your wife? Some other examples: Have you always had a gambling problem? Is it difficulty to hide the fact that you’re incompetent? Do you actually believe your own lies? Or on a more positive note, why do you feel that our product is the best? You get the idea.
Then there’s the familiar story of a young man who sets out to ridicule a respected elder, a rabbi of great renown. He holds a small bird behind his back, and asks the rabbi, is the bird I’m holding alive or dead? If the rabbi says the bird is dead, he plans to show him the live bird that he’s holding. If the rabbi says the bird is alive, he plans to crush it and show the rabbi that the bird is dead. Recognizing the young man’s intent, the rabbi responds, the answer, my son, is in your hands. A good question is one that is asked with an open mind and open heart, and an intent to learn something new, not to mock.
Neil Postman, in his book Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk, tells the story of a town in Lithuania that suffered from a mysterious plague, back in the days before modern medicine. People afflicted would fall into a deathlike coma, and no one could tell if they were still alive or not. The dilemma, then, was the uncertainty of whether the individuals being buried were actually alive or dead. Two different solutions were offered, based on two different questions. One group based their solution on the question, how can we make sure that we don’t bury anyone who is still alive? The other group answered a question that on the surface seemed to be asking the same thing, but in fact was asking something entirely different, and actually simpler and easier to answer: how can we make sure that everyone we bury is actually dead? Think about it.
It’s not just that, we are closer to God when we are asking questions than when we think we have the answers. It’s also that the questions we ask determine the kinds of answers we get. If I ask, when was Congregation Adas Emuno founded?, there is only one correct answer, 150 years ago, on October 22nd, 1871. If I ask, do you know when was Congregation Adas Emuno founded?, there are two basic answers, yes or no. If I ask, what do you know about the history of Congregation Adas Emuno?, that is an open ended question that would allow for a wide range of answers, and a different set of answers from the question, how do you feel about Congregation Adas Emuno?
So now, I am going to ask a question, but I don’t want you to tell me the answer, I just want you to think about the question itself. The question is, do you believe that God exists? And now, I want you to think about a question that sounds like it’s the same question, but really is quite different: do you believe in God? And my point is not about whether you are an atheist or agnostic or not, but just to recognize the difference between the two questions. Because they refer to two different kinds of belief.
And before going any further, I want to remind you that the main question in Judaism is, how should we live our lives? And that includes questions of religious practice. It’s about what we do. When it comes to belief, the emphasis is on the oneness of God, as expressed by the shma; the emphasis is on monotheism as opposed to polytheism. The mi chamocha almost seems to admit of the possibility that there are other gods of lesser stature, when we ask, who is like You, among the gods, Adonai? Less accurate translations try to fix this by adding a phrase so it reads, who is like You, among the gods who are worshipped? There is also some ambiguity at the start of the Ten Commandments, where it reads, I am Adonai, your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt and the house of bondage. You shall have no other gods before Me. And then, after the prohibition against making graven images, it reads, you shall not bow down to them or serve them, for I, Adonai your God, am a jealous God. This refers to idol worship, but it is also about the nature of God.
What is important to understand is that for most of human history, stretching all the way back into prehistory, there was no question regarding belief in the divine. There was no question that the world is alive. Not just animals and plants, but rivers, lakes, and oceans. The earth, the soil, the land, even mountains. Even the air, which we experienced as the wind. And everything that is alive is understood to be conscious in some form, maybe not in the same ways that human beings are conscious, but conscious in their own ways. And everything that is alive and conscious is animated by spirit and soul, words that in Hebrew are synonymous with breath and wind. So it is only natural for people to see the world as populated by divine and semidivine entities, supernatural beings, spirits and gods. The existence of a spiritual dimension to the world was taken for granted, and never called into question. And that is why the Torah and Tanach do not address the question of the existence of the divine, but take that as a starting point, and instead present a radical new idea about the nature of the divine.
Rather than a world of different deities, each one competing for people’s loyalty, defending different territories, in conflict with one another, we have a universal God who is the God of all of the different peoples of the earth. Oneness is at the core of Jewish belief. One God and one Creation. One set of basic ethical standards that apply to everyone, with one judge above us all, so that there is no one else to appeal to, no other court of appeals, no second opinion. And a singular, coherent universe that is open to our exploration and discovery, that we can learn about and come to understand through study and science. This allows for the God of Spinoza, who equates God with nature. And for Albert Einstein, who says that the God he believes in is the God of Spinoza, and also says that God does not play dice with the universe. By this he meant that the universe is orderly and ultimately knowable. But it’s also true because if there is only one God, the God has no one else to play dice with.
So the question I posed, do you believe that God exists?, is a thoroughly modern question. It comes up only after so much of the workings of our universe, and ourselves, has been explained by modern science. And it is a question that references external reality, something separate and apart from ourselves. As such, for those who answer yes, it suggests the need for some form of external support, some proof or evidence, something relating to the empirical method of modern science, something open to sense perception. And if the answer is simply that it’s a matter of faith, that cannot help but come across as an inadequate response, just as it would for a question like, do you believe that gravity exists?, or do you believe that molecules exist?
By way of contrast, the question, do you believe in God?, is significantly different. It is not just about the existence of the divine, but about feeling the presence of the divine. Arguably, you could believe that God exists, but not believe in God, not believe, for example, that God cares about us, or accept what’s we call God’s will. There is a difference between believing that and believing in. Believing that takes us into the external world of facts and data. Believing in takes us into the world of internal feelings and intuition, of trust and mutual presence. In religious terms, believing that leads us to think in a transactional way, for example to do good so that we will be rewarded in the afterlife, or to engage in prayer in order to get something that we want. Believing in leads us to do good for its own sake, to pursue tikkun olam, the healing of the world, and to accept that we will not always get our way or be in control of our own destiny. Believing that appeals to our rational side, believing in to our spiritual side. Even when our rational side fills us with doubt about the existence of God, we are still capable of believing in God, listening to that still, small voice within, even when we are unsure of its origin.
There is a marvelous exchange in the novel by Stephen King, The Stand, which posits a post-pandemic conflict between good and evil. The ostensible leader of the good community, Mother Abigail, is speaking with one of the heroes, Nick, telling him that he’s called upon to confront evil, and shouldn’t try to run from the will of God. Nick responds that he doesn’t believe in God. And Abigail answers, “Bless you Nick, but that doesn’t matter. He believes in you.” In the same way, we can believe in each other, and think about the difference between me saying that I believe you exist, and I believe in you.
I was introduced to the distinction between believing that and believing in through the writings of Walter Ong, who was a Jesuit priest. And Ong, in turn, was inspired the writings of the great Jewish philosopher and theologian, Martin Buber. Buber famously distinguished between two types of relationships, the I-It and the I-You. In the I-It relationship, we relate to things, to objects, to possessions and commodities, to stuff that we seek to control, or manipulate, or own. This is true even of other living things, even people, when we treat them as objects, when we objectify them, or view them as means to an end. In the I-You relationship, we relate to persons, to persons as persons, whether they are human beings, or other living things, or any part of the natural world, or of the divine and the spiritual. Both relationships are important, both have a role to play in our lives, as they relate to our material and spiritual needs, to science and religion.
What Martin Buber teaches us is that we exist only and entirely in relationships. This is the same lesson taught by Einstein, the lesson of relativity, which is that everything in the universe exists in relation to everything else. This is the lesson of ecology, that all living things exists in interconnection with each other, and with their environment. And it’s not that we’re reduced to a game of chance, that there is no certainty. It’s rather that the certainty is to be found in the relationships, not in the isolated fragments of those relationships. This too is the message of oneness that guides our faith.
So we can believe in each other because we can believe in our relationship to one another. We can believe in our people, in our tradition, in our religion, as a relationship, a relationship to the people in our congregation and all around the world, a relationship to the people who came before us and those who will come after us, a relationship to the past and the future. We can believe in humanity as a whole, we can believe in life in all of its forms, we can believe in our world, our planet, and our relationship to it. And we can believe in our relationship to the spiritual dimension of the world, even if we are unsure as to what exactly there is on the other end of that relationship. As Martin Buber explains, God, or the divine, or whatever name we choose to use, is in the relationship. And that is why we follow the shma with the v’ahavta, the commandment that you shall love God. Because love is the relationship we need to enter into, love is the I-You relationship that we need to believe in.
Once upon a time, people mostly saw the world as made up of I-You relationships, and saw the divine everywhere they looked. That is why the Torah deals with skin disease. In modern times, we mostly see the world as made up of I-It relationships. So, for us, the Torah calls upon us to remember that other dimension of human life, to remember the I-You relationship, to remember to believe in other persons as person, and to remember to believe in something greater than ourselves. To remember to remember to believe in love.