Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Rules and Regulations: Part 2 – People and Groups

So in the very middle of VaYikra/Leviticus, in Chapter 19 we find the words “veahavta lereacha kamocha” – on one hand a simple and lovely platitude of “love your neighbor/friend/the other as yourself” but in practicality such a hard principle to utilize and show to others. It is around the center point of this notion which continues with the words “Because I am the Lord your G-d” that we are to formulate our lives as Jews, and hopefully as human beings. It is on this simply worded and most complicated actuality that we are to think of Torah in our lives and the many details contained therein. In other words, as I have discussed at other points, we are COMMANDED to be nice and to love… but how can this be? Yes, we can set all types of rules about setting limits on Shabbat, and how we treat our animals (as discussed in my last post) but to command one to LOVE THE OTHER…. This is simply counter-intuitive and really difficult to wrap our heads around generally.

Both before and after this proclamation, we are in fact given very practical ways to enact this ideal – We are not to curse the deaf, because after all they cannot hear and respond. We are not to place a stumbling block in front of the blind, for they will trip and fall and harm their body and much more in terms of shame. We are to judge fairly and not show favoritism for one who brings a case, whether they are rich or poor. We are not to hate the other in our heart. We are to save a specified amount of our earnings for those who are less fortunate…. And so much else! In short we are to act with dignity and fairness towards the others, TOWARDS ALL OTHERS, and in doing so, we bring a conscious presence of G-d into our world. THIS is what we mean when we say we should LOVE, that is, consider and show concern for the other. The rooted word ALEPH-HEH-VET – the word for OHEV in Hebrew actually means so much more than the word LOVE that we generally attach to it. It evokes a sense of trust and congeniality – that is the positive feelings that we are able to and have the capacity to evoke in others. We are NOT talking about romantic or even relational love per se, but rather filial love, in which we find ways to connect with others in our lives and reality.

I would propose that this is the meaning of the CENTRAL RULE OF TORAH, the one that is often cited in so many texts as being the pivotal and foundational rule of Jewish life and living – that we are to connect with, care for, trust and show compassion and concern for others as we would want others to show for us and that this is G-d’s design of and the very reason for the creation of the world.

It is within this context that I come to better understand the purpose of the myriad of details and various components of them found in our Torah and vast tomes of Jewish law as discussed in my last post (which I invite you to look at again for context).

Such a simple and agreeable message, and yet how short we fall of achieving it. My husband, Ken, and I just returned from Israel and while we were able to spend some time communing with nature in the Galil and Golan, experiencing and enjoying so much art – both man-made and G-d-made in the hills of Tzefat, and spending time with family and friends, the highlight was watching our wonderful daughter Talie graduate from Ben Gurion Medical School of International Health. We observed this incredible group of talented newly minted medical doctors – they were Jewish and from so many other religions and thought systems, they were from different ethnic and regional groupings throughout the world, and in watching their interaction, I was struck by the many different displays of showing the same concern for the other that you would want/need for yourself. About 40 young people came together four years ago to achieve a shared goal – to become doctors. They would acquire many skill sets and knowledge pockets regarding the tiniest details of the many facets of the human body and how it works and how it needs to be healed as necessary. This vast font of knowledge is clearly comparable to the many details of living discussed in Rules and Regulations: Part 1 (the last post already referenced). BUT most important, we witnessed love and concern and compassion and were privileged to hear this message loud and clear about touching and being touched by others, especially when there is tension and a need for healing. This was the theme of the student speaker (who happened to be Talie) as well as the keynote speaker. The clear message was that in being so wrapped up with the details of doctoring, we must not forget the central part of healing and caring – seeing and understanding the other as we want to be seen and understood.

I was heartened (both physically and spiritually speaking) watching these wonderful young doctors. My prayer for them is that they will always remember that the details of living properly and healing proficiently begin with feeling and caring for the other as one would want for oneself. My prayer for all of us in our world is to remember this important focus of living and learning in our daily lives – that begins with our heart and soul and the very essence of who we are as human beings.

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Now about all of those rules and regulations…

I am almost finished learning Masechet Shabbat in my Gemara learning adventure. For many pages now, I have been carefully trying to absorb all of the various and particularistic details of a concept called MUKTZEH, that is items that we are not to touch or move on Shabbat or Yom Tov (Holidays) due to their status as not serving a need for that day and its own rhythm. What strikes me as so very interesting is that there are various categories and reasons that are constantly interfaced in the discussion of the Gemara and for those of us who engage in this intellectual exercise, the more time I spend in the pages of the Talmud, the more I appreciate the free flow from topic to topic as these other points are made and reinforced.

Years ago, I spent some time at the Barnes Foundation ( a very well known personal collection of art) before it was moved from its home location in Lower Merion (Pennsylvania) to Philadelphia. One of the signature aspects of the rooms of so much art, which were put together by Dr. Albert C. Barnes, was his understanding of the composition of art. While the characteristic art enthusiast might look for the Picasso Room or the Abstract Art Collection, Dr. Barnes, worked with size, form and symmetry as his guiding principles of composition of collections within the collection. Artists’ works were placed according to this criteria, and once the observer understood this, going through the collections was a more comprehensible and enjoyable journey.

I feel like this understanding of the foundational structuring principles is critical to study of Gemara. I have said it in the past to my students, I have heard many espouse this thinking, and yet have not fully appreciated it until this past year, during which I have spent an average of two hours daily learning and appreciating the text and the structure of Gemara.

So, time and place are everything in the Gemara. TIME determines usefulness and what is permitted and not permitted and PLACE is definitive in terms of what is allowed. For us in our modern day world, we want to do what we want to do when we want to do it and where we want to do it as well as how we want to do it. One could even make the point that if not explicitly, this could implicitly be a governing principle of how one defines their Jewish Practice.

By adhering to Jewish practice as determined in the legalistic and developmental pages of our important text of Talmud, one must remember that permitted or unpermitted use of an object in a defined time frame such as Shabbat is connected to the general uses of that object, the time frame of Shabbat and the spaces in which that use takes place. This is a completely different thought process than that with which we may be familiar within the context of contemporary living (i.e. what I want Shabbat to mean to me). Further, within the framework of these seemingly legalistic concerns, fundamental values must not be sacrificed.

As an example, consider that someone has belongings that they need to transport as Shabbat approaches Friday night. Do they carry these articles to their intended destination? Well that depends on what these items are used for, how are they transported, and what different categories of space (private property, public property, adjoining areas, etc.) they are going through, as well as other related factors. In this discussion that continues for pages and pages, the issue is presented regarding whether or not they can place their packages on their animal. So, here we are reminded of the principle of kindness to and compassion for animals (Tza’ar Ba’alei Chayim) as well as the degree to which we are commanded to insure that our animals rest on the Shabbat as we do. Well, what about handing the belongings over to a non-Jew? Not so simple either, in terms of what can or cannot be asked in different spaces. What are the implications of ownership of the spaces through which the items are carried? And on and on the discussion goes….

Here is the point, I think! This is all about intentionality of action and insuring that our actions respect the space we are in, the time during which we act, other categories of people and living things in our environs, and the ramifications of what we do…. and ONLY THEN do we consider what we want to do, how, when and where we want to do it.

This may seem laborious and excessive to others, but I rather think that this imposed intentional planning is NOT a bad thing. Even in considering just transporting our belongings from one place to another…

Now, if we can think about the donkey’s need to rest, the regard we should have for the non-Jew who is not Shabbat-observant and the elements of place and space, think how much more all of this should lead us to consider the ramifications of our actions regarding others. And this will be the topic of the next posted discussion.