Thursday, September 20, 2018

Schlepping the Dogma: Yom Kippur Eve 5779/2018

          Since my wife Keleigh recently had a total knee replacement, and our Westie, Zeke, is disabled, several times a day I have had to carry him up and down the stairs.

            Last week I was writing a message on my smartphone, which uses predictive text to suggest how to complete the word you are typing. I went to write “schlepping the dog” but the predictive text completed the phrase as “schlepping the dogma.”

            At first I was offended. I consider myself to be pretty open-minded and not at all dogmatic. Why would my phone make such a suggestion? What dogma would I be schlepping? Many books have been written on the question of whether or not there even are dogmas in Judaism and one of my rabbinical school professors, Jakob Petuchowski, famously said that the only dogma in Judaism is that there are no dogmas in Judaism.

            A dogma is defined as “a principle or set of principles laid down by an authority as incontrovertibly true” and is mostly associated with Catholic beliefs such as papal infallibility or the Virgin birth.  Depending on who you ask, Moses bringing the Torah down from Mt. Sinai in the precise form we have it today might be a dogma in Orthodox Judaism. But in Conservative Judaism, we don’t exclude someone from the community because they don’t believe a particular teaching. We definitely do not have dogmas. So what was this predictive text really telling me?

            Schlepping the dog was made easier by knowing that in doing so I was performing a religious act. In Jewish teaching there is a mitzvah known as tza’ar ba’ale hayyim, usually translated as “avoiding animal cruelty” but more accurately, “the obligation to avoid causing animals pain.” And Judaism going back to the Bible recognizes that animals can feel not only physical pain but emotional pain. If I wanted to avoid schlepping Zeke up and down the stairs, we could have kept him on the lower level of the house or even penned him up in the kitchen which has a tile floor rather than the wood that’s in the rest of the house. But this would have caused him distress as he is very attached to us but particularly Keleigh, and if she is in the house but he can’t be with her it bothers him a great deal -- and he lets us know it. By carrying him up and down the stairs so that he can be with Keleigh, I am helping to avoid inflicting emotional pain on an animal and thus fulfilling a mitzvah.

            So schlepping the dog is not dogma but it is a religious act. And the autocorrect reminded me that Judaism gives us a framework to make meaning out of the little things. Judaism gives us a broader context to consider the things which we do every day.

            In the play “Fiddler on the Roof”, Tevya says that the Jews of Anatevka have traditions for everything -- “how to eat, how to sleep, even how to wear clothes.” Tevya of course was pious but not particularly well-educated Jewishly -- although learning Torah was his highest desire -- and he might not have recognized what was tradition, minhag, as opposed to halacha, law. But his overall point is nevertheless pretty valid. Judaism provides guidance, wisdom, and meaning in every area of life. True, I didn’t particularly enjoy carrying a 22 lb. dog up and down the stairs several times a day, and I didn’t enjoy having to occasionally go back home -- even though it’s only a 2 minute drive -- to take the dog downstairs and let him out. But reframing what I was doing from a “chore” to a fulfillment of the mitzvah of tza’ar ba’alei hayyim made a difference. Not merely the fact that by doing what I did I was acting in accordance with Jewish tradition or even Jewish law. But it wasn’t just that, it was something deeper. It’s not just that we are supposed to do it because it’s a mitzvah; we are supposed to do it because animals feel pain, even psychological pain. As the ones who are responsible for the wellbeing of animals entrusted to us, we are obligated to do everything within reason to avoid causing them pain.

            There is a statement in Midrash Rabba 44:1 that “the Torah was only given in order to refine human beings.” I once saw a publication from the Hillel Foundations in the 1950s that said one of the purposes of Hillel was to help Jewish college students become “spiritually finer” people.

Certainly Jews are not the only people looking to be “spiritually finer” people. Henry David Thoreau wrote in Walden that “the mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” Thoreau decided to see if he could get out of his “quiet desperation” by moving to a cabin in the woods by Walden Pond in Concord, Massachusetts. He advocated solitude, self-reliance, contemplation, proximity to nature, and renouncing luxuries as means of overcoming human emotional and cultural difficulties. But Thoreau didn’t maintain his experiment -- he returned to Concord after two years. His Walden experience enriched his life and through his writings has enriched millions of others, but most of us will not find meaning in our lives by moving to a cabin in the woods.

I too sought solitude in my quest to find meaning. From October 1996 to July 1997 I spent ten months living in a Trappist monastery in Northern California -- as many of you know. I had spent a year as an administrator at a rabbinical seminary and the less said about that, the better. I needed some time to regroup and figure out what I wanted to do next. Thomas Merton, the writer and Trappist monk, had been an important influence on my own spiritual development and the Trappists were willing to let me come, so I went.

The first question asked in the Torah is also the shortest, when God asks Adam, “ayeka,” where are you?  This is not a question about geography. God knows where Adam is, God wants Adam to look inside himself.  A monk or a cloistered nun -- the female equivalent of a monk -- spends so much time in solitude, and even when working with others is silent. He or she is constantly asking himself or herself “ayeka,” where are you? The routine of the monastery is designed to give the monk the maximum potential to develop his soul and his relationship with God.

I went to the monastery a Jew and a rabbi and I left the monastery a Jew and a rabbi. Indeed, while living at the monastery I spent every other weekend serving as the interim rabbi of the Conservative synagogue in Reno, Nevada, where I lodged at a casino owned by a congregant -- another place where there is constant, fervent, prayer. But my year at the monastery was beneficial. Before my monastery period I was known for having a short fuse and being sarcastic. Those character traits still percolate up on occasion, but much less frequently than they used to.

Thoreau could not spend his life at Walden. Only a very small percentage of men who enter monasteries as postulants stay through until final vows. Withdrawing to the woods or joining a monastery can provide a meaningful life for some people but they’re not choices that most people will make. And frankly, if most people did make them, that would be the end of human existence. Thoreau never married and monks and nuns, of course, are celibate.

We all seek meaning in different ways but the search is important. Rabbi Harold Kushner is known for writing the book When Bad Things Happen to Good People. But he has written many other books, including When All You’ve Ever Wanted Isn’t Enough. In that book, Rabbi Kushner writes: “Our souls are not hungry for fame, comfort, wealth or power. Our souls are hungry for meaning, for the sense that we have figured out how to live so that our lives matter.”

So what type of meaning do people seek out? The author and columnist David Brooks is an active Conservative Jew who belongs to Adas Israel congregation in DC. A little over three years ago he wrote a book, The Road to Character, where he distinguished between what he calls “Resume Virtues” and “Eulogy Virtues.”

            He’s certainly not the first person or even the first active Conservative Jew to make this type of distinction; Rabbi Kushner said many years ago that “no one ever said to me on his deathbed, gee, Rabbi, I really wish I had spent more time at the office.” But Brooks captures the distinction nicely. “The résumé virtues are the skills you bring to the marketplace. The eulogy virtues are the ones that are talked about at your funeral — whether you were kind, brave, honest or faithful. Were you capable of deep love?”

            At its best, Judaism provides us with guideposts to developing our eulogy virtues. This is one of the reasons why our religious school curriculum is now organized around Jewish values rather than distinct subjects like history, Bible, life cycle events and so on. Virtually any Jewish ritual we observe has a moral-ethical component but sometimes we have to dig a little deeper to find it.

            For example, most of us know that when we are observing a Shabbat or holiday meal where we say Kiddush over wine and ha-motzi over challah, we say the Kiddush first while the challah remains covered. The conventional explanation as to why the challah remains covered is that if the challah knew we were saying the blessing over wine first, its feelings would be hurt. I’ve been a rabbi or rabbinical student for 36 years, and this is the way I have always explained it.

            A couple of years ago one of the children in our congregation raised an objection. Bread is an inanimate object. It doesn’t have feelings.

            I was momentarily taken aback. She was right. Then it hit me.

            “True,” I said. “Bread does not have feelings. But people do. If Judaism teaches us to take into consideration the feelings of a loaf of bread, which is an inanimate object, how much more should we take into consideration the feelings of our fellow human being?” While we sometimes think of our practices as mere rituals, the act of covering the bread before saying the blessing for wine can carry a deep ethical message, but sometimes it takes the innocent question of a child to help us understand what that message is.

            Almost the entire book of Deuteronomy is Moses’ farewell speech to the people of Israel as they prepare to enter the Land of Israel and begin their new life as a nation without Moses to guide them. In Chapter 13, Moses says to them “אַחֲרֵ֨י יְהוָ֧ה אֱלֹהֵיכֶ֛ם תֵּלֵ֖כוּ”, “you shall walk after the Lord your God, ” but a more literal translation would be “you shall walk behind the Lord your God.” Hundreds of years later, the Talmud in Tractate Sotah raised an objection. “How is it possible to walk behind God? After all elsewhere in Deuteronomy (4:24) it says that God is a consuming fire!” If we walk behind God and God is a consuming fire, we’ll get burned up!

            The Talmud goes on to say that while we can’t physically walk behind God, that isn’t what Moses meant. We are to imitate the attributes of God and act in Godly ways -- clothe the naked, visit the sick, feed the hungry, comfort those in mourning.

            Judaism teaches us that we find God, not just in a cabin in the woods or smoke, fire, and thunder at Mt. Sinai. We encounter God through learning and then applying our practices and sacred texts. Through feeding the hungry, through worrying about hurting the feelings of a loaf of bread, and through schlepping the dogma -- I mean, schlepping the dog.

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