Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Talk at Tikkun Leil Shavuot, NTHC, May 18, 2010

After many years of labor an inventor discovered the art of making fire. He took his tools to the snow-clad northern regions and initiated a tribe into the art – and the advantages – of making fire. The people became so absorbed in this novelty that it did not occur to them to thank the inventor, who one day quietly slipped away. Being one of those rare human beings endowed with greatness, he had no desire to be remembered or revered; all he sought was the satisfaction of knowing that someone had benefited from his discovery.
The next tribe he went to was just as eager to learn as the first. But the local priests, jealous of the stranger's hold on the people, had him assassinated. To allay any suspicion of the crime, they had a portrait of the Great Inventor enthroned upon the main altar of the temple, and a liturgy designed so that his name would be revered and his memory kept alive. The greatest care was taken that not a single rubric of the liturgy was altered or omitted. The tools for making fire were enshrined within a casket and were said to bring healing to all who laid their hands on them with faith.
The High Priest himself undertook the task of compiling a Life of the Inventor. This became the Holy Book in which the Inventor's loving-kindness was offered as an example for all to emulate, his glorious deeds were eulogized, his superhuman nature made an article of faith. The priests saw to it that the Book was handed down to future generations, while they authoritatively interpreted the meaning of his words and the significance of his holy life and death. And they ruthlessly punished with death or excommunication anyone who deviated from their doctrine. Caught up as they were in these religious tasks, the people completely forgot the art of making fire.
From Taking Flight by Anthony de Mello -

צֶדֶק צֶדֶק, תִּרְדֹּף--לְמַעַן תִּחְיֶה וְיָרַשְׁתָּ אֶת-הָאָרֶץ, אֲשֶׁר-יְהוָה אֱלֹהֶיךָ נֹתֵן לָךְ.
Deut 16:20 Justice, justice shall you pursue, that you may thrive, and inherit the land which Adonai your God is giving you.

The key to understanding this oft-quoted injunction is to understand what is meant by צֶדֶק.. The word can be translated as justice or righteousness. The latter, in the context of Biblical times did not carry the sense of arrogance or self-righteousness that the word carries today, or in the religious context an overly showy piety or religiosity that may be sincere, but often is not. Instead it meant something more like conforming one’s behavior to God’s expectations – to do what is right is to do what is just, and vice versa. Similarly, “justice” can be understood to have more to do with living in the spirit of God’s expectations than living according to a code or rituals. Throughout the Tanach we find the terms “justice” and “righteousness” used interchangeably, for example in Amos:
וְיִגַּל כַּמַּיִם, מִשְׁפָּט; וּצְדָקָה, כְּנַחַל אֵיתָן. But let justice well up as waters, and righteousness as a mighty stream.
And we find, notably in Deuteronomy and in Jonah the terms חמלה,compassion, רַחוּם, compassionate, and חסד, grace or graciousness closely associated, even equated, with God’s justice or righteousness
But in modern times a number of different forms of justice have been distinguished – three of the main ones are retributive justice, restorative justice, and distributive justice.

Retributive justice is, as is clear from the name, about retribution – justice in the sense of payback or getting even for a wrong that was done. Thus retributive justice always looks to the past to determine what is the “right” payback in the present or for the future. In theology it refers to divine retribution – punishment for failing to live up to God’s standards.

Restorative justice is also concerned with righting a wrong – in this case not by retribution or punishment but by restoring what was lost or taken away or by compensating the person who was wronged for the value lost.
Distributive justice means the just distribution of what is needed for life – food, clothing, shelter, etc. In a religious context we can say that it means just distribution of God’s gifts – divinely mandated economic and social justice, that God is equally available to all, that God’s spirit is distributed freely to each and every person and everyone has the power to transform God’s world into a place of that same justice and equality. In this view, there is no hierarchy – men don’t take precedence over women, Jews over Gentiles (or vice versa), rich over poor, etc.

צֶדֶק, justice or righteousness is also the root of הַצדָקָה, justification – to make just, and in the sense of Distributive Justice, justification must assume a common divine law for all humanity. This in turn requires that we posit one God who is the same for all people, Jewish, Gentile, Muslim, Buddhist, Hindu, and non-believer alike. If we bring together all these terms – צֶדֶק, הַצדָקָה, חמלה ,רַחוּם, חסד – justice or righteousness, justification, compassion, compassionate, grace or graciousness we come to a sense that we are justified, brought right with God as a gift of God – that is, by God’s grace.

One writer draws an analogy to the air we breathe – “it is always and equally available for everyone in any normal place or time. We do nothing to obtain it, nothing to merit it, and it is there unconditionally for good and bad people alike. On the one hand it is absolutely transcendent, since we depend on it totally. On the other, it is absolutely immanent, since it is everywhere inside and outside us, all around us.”
The same author goes on to point out that air is a free offer that only becomes a free gift when we accept it and cooperate with it. Should we abuse the gift – pursue asphyxiation or hyperventilation, that is our choice, not the air acting on us. With God, as with air, it is a matter of collaboration and participation with what is already there, everywhere.
צֶדֶק – God’s righteousness, that is God’s very character as distributive justice, is, like air, a free offer that becomes a free gift through our participation with it, through our collaboration with God in tikkun olam – transforming the world. It is from God’s free offer of God’s own spirit – the primary distributive justice - that the secondary distributive justice that transforms the world will come.

We accept God’s offer by faith. For example, Habakkuk says וְצַדִּיק,בֶּאֱמוּנָתוֹ יִחְיֶה – the righteous shall live by his faith. Faith is to justice as breathing is to air – we accept the offer by participating in it. Don’t hear “faith” here as “belief.” They are vitally different. Alan Watts points out that the root of belief in middle English is lief – to fervently wish for. Faith, on the contrary is commitment to a program. To have faith in צֶדֶק is to commit oneself to being God’s partner in transforming the world into a place of love, joy, and peace through engaging from our heart and spirit. One familiar example of this is צדקה – charity, but not just giving money once a week or even once a day, or giving clothes or food at different times of the year (though both of those are good and worthy forms of charity), but day to day, minute to minute engagement with being charitable – with recognizing that God’s justice includes the even distribution of God’s spirit to all as a free offer, and that whether they accept the offer or not (because unlike air, which we decline at the cost of our life, God’s grace can be accepted or declined), the next person is as worthy of it as I am.

It is only if we remember this last point that we can avoid the trap of righteousness, or what our Christian neighbors call “works without faith.” As Jews we have a great structure of law that can be seen as the external manifestation of our covenantal relationship with God – 613 commandments, of which probably no human alive can keep all of them. As Reform Jews we have chosen to look to the spirit of the Law rather than its letter – with Hillel the tolerant and liberal “loose constructionist” of the Law, “That which is hateful to you, do not unto another: This is the whole Torah. The rest is commentary — and now go study.” And some of us do go study and others don’t. In either case, when we turn from “faith with works”– living in conformance with the spirit of God’s law however we understand it – to following the letter of the law in the belief that that alone makes us good people – “works without faith” we find instances of Hasidic Rabbis who steal and embezzle, Catholic Priests who molest children, and all the other so-called “abuses of religion” we have seen over the years.
To bring God’s justice to bear in this world is possible only for humans by virtue of our being created in God’s image in that we (and apparently only we among God’s creations) share with God the ability for what has been called time binding. This is a term coined by Alfred Korzybski, the founder of General Semantics. Korzybski posited that all living things engage in bindings at progressively more complex levels. Energy binding is what all life forms do in the process of converting ambient energy for use in their life processes. Space binding is performed by animals and to a much lesser degree by some plants in their various activities as they claim territory. Finally, through language and culture, human beings perform time binding by the transmission of knowledge and abstractions through time which become, by accretion, cultures.

Put more simply, animals, which bind energy and space, simply repeat the same instinctive actions over and over again, and each generation must acquire the same learned behaviors for itself. A dog today does not behave very differently from a dog in Biblical times. Human beings, on the other hand, pass on the lessons they have learned from generation to generation, and each generation builds on the learnings of those that have gone before. In the Tanach, particularly in the Torah, God is not static and unchanging. Rather, the God of Noah, who destroys most of life on Earth becomes the God of Abraham, who destroys Sodom and Gomorrah and is at least open to possibly sparing the cities, becomes the God of Moses who tries nine non-lethal plagues before destroying the Egyptian first-born, the God of Jonah who spares Nineveh. In Exodus we are introduced to the attributes of God:

1. Adonai — compassion before man sins;
2. Adonai — compassion after man has sinned;
3. El — mighty in compassion to give all creatures according to their need;
4. Rachum — merciful, that mankind may not be distressed;
5. Chanun — gracious if mankind is already in distress;
6. Erech appayim — slow to anger;
7. Rav chesed — plenteous in mercy;
8. Emet — truth;
9. Notzer chesed laalafim — keeping mercy unto thousands;
10. Noseh avon — forgiving iniquity;
11. Noseh peshah — forgiving transgression;
12. Noseh chatah — forgiving sin;
13. Venakeh — and pardoning.

Which Maimonides asserted are the essential ways God operates. As Maimonides interpreted these 13 attributes, they are the essence of God’s justice and therefore of the justice we are to pursue – compassion, mercy, graciousness, truth, forgiveness.

Einstein said “All means prove but a blunt instrument, if they have not behind them a living spirit." Following the rules, whether the 613 mitzvot, the principles of Reform Judaism, or the 13 attributes of God must be an expression of faith, not a substitute for faith. It’s an uneven proposition – works without faith is easy, but if I may borrow from the Christian canon, faith without action is no faith at all. Action is the natural expression of faith – it’s almost an oxymoron to talk about faith without action. The living spirit that Einstein is referring to is God’s own nature, offered to us through God’s distributive justice – it is God making us “just” like God,– this is what is meant, I believe, by human beings being created b’tzelem Elohim in the image of God, and like God we are free by nature – free to accept the offer or to decline the offer. To accept it is what we Habakkuk means by ֶאֱמוּנָ – faith – working toward a reclaiming of the world in partnership with God.

Working for justice, mercy, equality, and the equal value of every human being regardless of race, gender, sexual preference, skin color, economic status, religious belief, or any of the other irrelevant external factors that fool us into forgetting the Shema – that God is Unity.