Love, Justice and Religion
D’var on Shabbat Ha-azinu 5779
Nance Morris Adler
This d’var is given with gratitude to all those who helped make a summer without a “formal” learning trip to Europe into my most interesting, educational, and wonderful trip yet – Simonas, Michał, and Alan in particular, with many others also having a role in its success and of course much appreciation to Steve for supporting my need to learn and travel. It is no small coincidence that a d’var about love and unity was made possible by lots of love and international unity. Simonas and I in Vilnius before visiting the US Embassy to discuss a grant proposal for me to come to Lithuania and teach about Jewish Partisans. Michał and I outside the Polin Museum in Warsaw, Poland
Alan and I at the Anti-fascist Punk Music Festival in Potsdam, Germany
Over the summer i was in Berlin for a few days. While there I was invited to attend an anti-fascist Punk music festival with a emphasis on footballer culture. My German friend Alan, who invited me- is all of those things – a punk, anti-fascist and a footballer – he is also a high school teacher and a strong supporter of Israel. He does an exchange with Israel every year with his students – they go there and Israeli students come to visit their school in Eppingen. Alan is not Jewish – nor are his students. I have known Alan for five years and consider him to be a tremendous mensch. We were joined at this festival by two friends of his from Serbia – Pagan, so named because of his staunch anti-religious views, and Zeka – who was just as staunch in such views. Considering that these two come from a region that has been repeatedly torn apart by wars and crimes against humanity fed by religious differences, I can hardly say I blame them. Nationalism also contributes to the issues in the Balkans and so their anti-fascist stance is also not so surprising. Attending this event in Potsdam – a suburb of Berlin – was quite fascinating. We were greeted at the entrance by a “No Nazis” sign and it was chilling to realize they meant literal Nazis and not some hyperbolic use of the term. Inside every t-shirt had an anti-fascist, pro-humanity and pro-music message. My favorite, and I still want to find one of my own, was “I love music and hate fascists.”
During the evening, Zeka and I had a number of conversations. He realized during these that I was actually a “believer” as he might put it. He was stunned. I seemed so enlightened and intelligent. What could be going on? So, he began, with apologies if he was getting too personal or invasive, to question me about religion, God, and myself. All of his questions were answered with some version of “to be a better person” “love” “to remind me of my job to make the world a better place” “rules to live by so I make the world a better place” “reminders of the work I have to do”. He finally realized that this really was my reason for being “religious” – love, being a good person and knowing my job here on earth was to make it better than I found it. He was stumped by my lack of condemnation of other religions, judgement, desire for miracles or any other of the stereotypical answers he had heard or believed he would hear. He walked away. After about 10 minutes he came back and looked at me with deep respect and said “You are the first person in 20 years of asking that question who has given me an answer I can accept.” I laughed and said “I am sure the fact that I do this for a living might have helped me.”
I certainly don’t believe I am the only person who could have given Zeka that answer, but the fact I was the first was significant for him. I hope that he is able to be more open to those who do believe and who use that belief to do good. Current events in the Balkans make it hard to hold out too much hope, but every bit helps.
When in graduate school and multiple times since I have heard the advice to ask those who don’t believe in God about the God that they don’t believe in. As Rabbi Ed Feinstein says “I probably don’t believe in that God either.” I think it is equally important to think about the God YOU do believe. R. David Hartman talks about a God who hates lies and a God who demands justice, decency and compassion. His son, R. Donniel Hartman, states that he believes in the God of Sodom and Gomorrah, and not the God of the Akedah – the binding and near sacrifice of Isaac. Many teach that the core of Judaism is love – from Hillel on one foot stating that we are to “do to others as we would have done to us” and that the rest is commentary, to the prophets who call on us to treat the most needy well and to create a world filled with tzedek. The God I believe in is the God of love and justice – but also the God who gave humans free will. Which means that the enacting of love and justice here on Earth is our job – not God’s. I always tell my students that God gave us the guidebook, gave us wise teachers, parents, community members, and other role models to show us the way to treat each other. Sadly these role models often fall short, or the rewards of behavior not full of love or justice are more fulfilling.
R. Jonathan Sacks writes in “Not in God’s Name” about the “almost irresistible drive towards tribalism” that religion leads to – something my friends Zeka and Pagan are well familiar with. Catholic Croats kill Serbian Orthodox who kill Bosnian Muslims – who are ethnically the same as Serbs and Croats and descended from Slavs who converted to Islam under Ottoman rule – but are perceived as literal descendants of Ottoman Turks – who killed both of the other two. The threat of a new civil war or worse lingers in Bosnia as the Republika Srpska hints at a desire of independence and land. A Serbian friend sent me a picture from Croatia of a “Serbian family reunion” that would be recognizable in our country as a tree hung with “strange fruit”. R. Sacks speaks of the impulse in religion to feel that God’s love is finite and if God loves your religion, God must not love the others. He speaks of a need for religious leaders who “embrace the world in its diversity and sacred texts in their maximal generosity.” We often hear the argument that your freedom to practice your religion can’t limit my freedom to practice mine – or my lack of one. When we see the purpose of religion, and God, as love – when we see our connection to God and to humanity through love – when we remember that Judaism teaches all humans are made in the image of God – not just some of them – then moving to a practice of Judaism centered on love, justice and equality becomes the next logical step. A Judaism that makes the world better for all – one where righteousness and uprightness are the focus of a “religious” life and being observant doesn’t involve “bean counting” of mitzvot observed, but rather making sure everyone has their just share of beans – will help people to reconnect and find meaning in tradition and want to be closer to God because it will mean being closer to their fellow humans.
R. David Hartman states that “God would no longer be found in miraculous intervention, but in the materials of everyday human life. It is for this reason that the Talmudic Rabbis, and their successors, so tirelessly dedicated themselves to finding new opportunities to tie mitzvot to daily activity. We fill our lives with mitzvah in order to cultivate the habit of mind that we live within the encompassing presence of God.” I see this idea as seeing the mitzvot as opportunities to do good and to make the world more just and to create equality and fill the world with love. R. Hartman continues – “We cannot know God, but we can know how to live with God. We can know, for example, that God requires decency, compassion, and justice. For Maimonides, the lived experience of that imagery constitutes my understanding of God. I always relate to halakha with that question. Does halakha, which structures lived experience, bring me into ever-deepening contact with a God that wants me to act justly?” If the answer is no – then R. Hartman – and many others – would question the validity of that halakha. In his book he takes on the Orthodox on no lesser topics than agunot – women trapped by the lack of a get – a Jewish divorce – and unable to remarry while their former husbands are free to do so – and conversion in Israel – particularly the status of immigrants from the former FSU and their children who fight and die for Israel but are refused Jewish burial.
In a world where religion is equated with decades of pedophilia, war, genocide, patriarchal views and practices, homophobia, racism and other unjust and unloving behaviors – it really is no wonder that one might question why an educated person would participate. Judaism thankfully is not a religion that asks you to mindlessly obey, it demands your intellectual engagement. Judaism does not have one answer – there is little dogma and much discussion and disagreement. One of my favorite things about Judaism is the month of Elul and the Yamim Noraim (Days of Awe) – our yearly time for taking an accounting of our soul. The fact that I am given the oblitunity each year to assess my past behaviors and figure out what I need to fix and that I have to fix them – no one else can do my work – is such a gift. Confronting my sins and the sins of the community in the prayers of these days makes escaping self reflection impossible. The expectation of both the seeking of forgiveness, and the giving of it – the clear guidelines of what actually constitutes true t’shuva – all of these make me have to confront where I have fallen short and how I am going to do better in the future. This year much of my reflection has been on how I can be sure I am making the best use of my skills and opportunities to make the world better. As a teacher, I am fortunately in the position to impact the way young Jews think about Judaism and approaching the world Jewishly. I try to instill in them the sense that being a Jew isn’t about just religion or just culture – I try to show how it should influence their life choices on a daily basis and big picture. We talk about tzedahka – about tzedek – about being upstanders – about living one’s values every day. I teach prayer as a conversation with self as well as with God and quote R. Zaiman – and others I am sure – when I say prayer should make us different.
Practicing a religion – or non-religion – of love is always important and should be the goal of all humans always – but the state of the world today makes it all the more necessary. We are being swallowed by hate and division and those who truly believe in love and unity need to speak loudly and often. This summer I also traveled through Lithuania and Poland and heard stories of those who saved Jews and never told their stories or wanted to be acknowledged – I explained to a grandson in Vilnius why his grandparents had likely never told anyone but family their story and helped him realize that it wasn’t that Jews weren’t grateful – but that the Soviets and perhaps his grandparents’ neighbors were murderous. I then thanked him. I saw shock on the face of Polish teacher I had spent a whole day with touring churches and Polish sites as he realized I was a Jew. “She’s a Jew?” he asked my friend Michał in Polish. I explained to a Polish teen, a student of Michał’s, whose first question to me was “do I feel safe in America” that as a white woman I felt pretty safe. But as a Jew I felt a little less safe though far safer than others at this point. I then went through the various groups who didn’t feel safe and we talked about racism and guns and police violence in the US. It gave him a lot to think about. Again in Lithuania, I visited WWII sites where a very thin tightrope was walked between memorializing murdered Jews and honoring LIthuanians who fought the Soviets after helping kill some of those same Jews. My friend and guide in Lithuania, Simonas, is proud to be Lithuanian, but wishes his fellow Lithuanians were more enlightened and able to see the shades of gray necessary for moving forward. He often assures me he is not a “casual Lithuanian”, meaning his views are not those of the ordinary Lithuanians or “homo Sovieticus” as he refers to them. Michal, while guiding me in Warsaw was openly angry at the Poles who insist on calling attention to their suffering in the middle of the area where the Jewish Ghetto had been. I was sure his ranting about the “holy suffering of Poles” was going to get us lynched on the train. All of the tension in these situations is due to division and hatred based in religion, ethnicity, and race. Do I know if we can overcome this impulse in humans? I don’t. But I know we need to try if we want to survive.
Ha’azinu – the parsha this week – is Moshe’s last message to B’nai Israel – it is not a cheery one. It begins with a declaration of God’s perfection and faithfulness – “The Rock! God’s deeds are perfect, Yea all God’s ways are just; a faithful God, never false, true and upright is God.” God is just and wants us to be just – but the rest of Ha’azinu makes clear that already, after 40 years in God’s daily presence in the desert, human beings – b’nai Israel – will fail to be faithful to God. Despite being “fed honey from the crag,and oil from the flinty rock, curd of kine and milk of flocks; with the best of lambs and rams of Bashan, and he goats; with the finest wheat…” we cannot be faithful to God. God threatens vengeance on those who stray. Life today is not lived in the daily presence of God – God’s bounty is not easy to find in many places. Daily miracles are no longer found – but we can make them. We are meant to be partners in perfecting this world. We are the hands to do the work to bring about peace and prosperity for all. Staying engaged and focused on being godly – bringing love and unity into the world – is hard. It was hard in the desert, it is even harder today. R.Donniel Hartman in “Putting God Second, Saving Religion from Itself” urges us to live as God wants us to live, rather than to live FOR God. God wants us to be love, to create justice, and care for each other. This is our guiding torah – and if following it does harm – then we need to revisit the first part and make changes. Our world depends on it.