Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
Each week, find a commentary on something connected to verses of Torah or another source of wisdom
The Leviticus:8 Project
But if one cannot afford the equivalent, he shall be presented before the priest, and the priest shall assess him; the priest shall assess him according to what the vower can afford. Leviticus 27:8
As every older generation does, my generation wonders how things can be so different with younger generations. I know some of things I did drove my elders crazy. During my first year of seminary, I was outraged that the pristine building in which my classes were held was suddenly sprouting heavy brass plaques engraved with the names of wealthy donors.
(In fact, I remember a worker entering a class in progress with such a plaque and a huge drill to anchor it into the concrete block walls. Our teacher, a very gentle and modest rabbi, said, “Excuse me, we are conducting a class in here.” The worker responded, “Oh, that’s okay, you won’t bother me.” And with that, he revved up the drill and proceeded to hang the plaque.)
I took matters into my own hands and used Post-It notes to put up my own plaques ahead of the formal dedication. I am not certain what Ed and Trixie Norton had dedicated in honor of Ralph and Alice Kramden, or exactly who dedicated the urinals, but they were all discovered and removed. Well, all but one: The Julius and Ethel Rosenberg Memorial Wall Socket.
My elders were not amused. The new building was a big deal – a milestone in the school’s maturity and a leap forward from the repurposed hotel that had served as classrooms and offices for many years.
Not so many years later, I was interviewing with a congregation anxious to move from its long-time building to a growing community that was miles away from its graying population. I was approached about taking the position, but I declined. I did not want to begin my tenure by taking on a construction project, especially one that left devoted members behind. (They built it without me.) But revenge was in the cosmos. It wasn’t so many years until the congregation I served grew to the point of needing renewed facilities.
Brick-and-mortar was very much the measure of success for the generation of my parents and their parents. The synagogue of my youth had arrived when it stopped meeting in the Oddfellows Hall and Methodist church and moved into its own classroom-and-auditorium building.
For my generation, renewal and renovation of existing facilities seems to have been our physical focus. The synagogue I served boasted an award-winning design which was eliminated when we needed more room in the sanctuary and pews that had not been salvaged from a local movie theater decades before. We saw it as an opportunity to leave our mark as we met our needs.
This past week I had occasion to speak with a younger rabbi who serves in an historic congregation in a very old building. It has been renovated and repurposed as best as possible to accommodate the changing population of the neighborhood – young couples, some with kids, and older individuals who no longer have or never had kids. He described to me the task of building to a new paradigm. “Membership” is a term in certain disfavor, and “dues” sounds too rigid. In particular, younger people, who are often reluctant to be joiners, are encouraged to contribute what they can afford as a way to ease into engaging as community members (rather than a la carte consumers), just like in the verse above.
For a long time, the American Jewish community seemed to practice an adage that later became famous in a movie: If you build it, they will come. And for a while, it worked. Belonging to a synagogue was mostly a value in the Jewish community, and it was not so much whether you joined a synagogue or temple, but which one you chose. As synagogues became centers of comprehensive learning and activities, those large halls were redesigned to be more flexible, and another generation arrived, perhaps not in the same numbers, but more frequently for a wider variety of reasons.
Now, as younger leaders try to create intentional communities, the focus is not on a building. These independent groups, like the growing congregation in the old building, are willing to make do with what is available. They meet in church basements, community rooms, libraries, or even apartments of various participants. The choice to use what is available and affordable has removed the role of architecture and decorating from the worship experience. (And sometimes even more: one very successful group meets in a church sanctuary, surrounded by iconography.)
Some groups will want a place to call their own and others just a place to call home. No matter which, it is a pretty fair bet that a generation will arise with a different perspective and a new way to address it. The leaders at the time will have to assess what they all can afford. It will be considered equivalent.
This column brings to a conclusion the Leviticus:8 Project. All past offerings may be found at www.jackmoline.com. Beginning soon, watch for the new weekly series, The Numbers:13 Project, which will continue through calendar year 2019.
THE GOLIATH OBSESSION
The Leviticus:8 Project
Five of you shall give chase to a hundred, and a hundred of you shall give chase to ten thousand; your enemies shall fall before you by the sword. Leviticus 26:8
It’s the plot of every underdog film. The ragtag band of misfits is charged with the defeat of the highly-trained and heavily-armed army of bad guys. That’s the fantasy, right? Since little David dinged Goliath between the eyes and brought down the entire Philistine shock-force, it’s what we always want to see and always hope will happen.
Look at the world today and you can see it playing out. On the global stage, Kim Jong-un’s obsession with the United States has persuaded him his missiles could defeat us. In Las Vegas, everyone with a system believes they can beat the house. And the current President of the United States has behaved like a beleaguered loner while encouraging those who identify with him to resist the juggernauts of the press, the Democrats and, well, anyone who disagrees with him.
But the fact of the matter is that almost all of the time the lesser combatant loses. There may be some short-term promise, but ultimately, North Korea doesn’t stand a chance, the casino has the odds and Donald Trump’s administration will end and he will return to private life somewhere.
I can’t fault the fantasy. In a lot of ways, it is encouraged by faith traditions, including my own, that promise that brute force is not the ultimate determinant of dominance. In the end, faith suggests, there is a higher power rooted in the object of faith. Access what you worship, and that power will serve you against all foes.
I am by far not the first person to call out this misconception. In the United States, toward the end of the Civil War, Abraham Lincoln famously said, of the two cohorts of combatants, “Both read the same Bible and pray to the same God, and each invokes His aid against the other.” The North prevailed because of superior resources and strategy, not because God was on their side.
So, am I suggesting that the Bible presents a falsehood in this assurance that faithfulness is the superpower of the believer? Only if you choose to take this assurance literally.
Anecdotally, there are certainly cases where David beats Goliath. What makes those anecdotes remarkable is that they are unusual and unexpected. To consider them a reward for diligence or observance is to deny the way of the world. Even without our contemporary knowledge of physics and chemistry, the Bible affirms the dependability of the ways of the world – cycles of the sun, of the moon, of the years, of life. To rely on miracles is to deny the creative powers that formed the world.
Instead, we are admonished individually and collectively to do what is right and good, physically and spiritually, so that we will be prepared to face the challenges of the thousands and ten-thousands when they arise. In the physical world, neglecting to anticipate and prepare for aggression from hostile nations or from the inevitable “natural disasters” means that lives and comfort will be lost. Spiritually (or, if you prefer, ethically or philosophically), a failure to reflect on what is right and good and to cultivate individual and societal standards of righteousness that respects all people and celebrates the diversity of our world means that those with malice in their hearts and the power of words will triumph in their attempts to oppress and repress.
I recently returned from a visit to Alabama where I was reminded of the accomplishments of the civil rights leadership – the people who assumed Lincoln’s unfinished business. The marchers in Selma did not dispatch the state troopers at the foot of the Edmund Pettus bridge. Goliath was ready for David in 1965. The battles were won because the hearts of Americans were urged to live up to the values we professed by leaders who deployed the language of righteousness and the songs of freedom.
That’s what is missing in our society at the moment. Our superior firepower – assuming it is yet superior – will protect us against foreign adversaries who are foolhardy enough to believe their own hype. But our country needs to aspire to more than the accumulation of physical power. We are in desperate need of leaders who will appeal to our better angels and arm us with dedication to do more than just to win, to make a beneficial deal, to collect the most money, toys or votes. A wall may or may not prevent people from crossing a border, but it will most certainly not inspire wise and effective and compassionate treatment of people on either side.
The will to do good makes the five hundred powerful enough to disarm the thousand with the will to do wrong by persuading them otherwise.
David took five stones when he went out to meet Goliath. Only needed one because he was prepared and because his aim was true. And not just the aim of his sling.
The Leviticus:8 Project
You shall count off seven weeks of years—seven times seven years—so that the period of seven weeks of years gives you a total of forty-nine years. Leviticus 25:8
Some number of years ago, a movement was underway to forgive the debts that countries with developing economies had amassed. The notion was that lender countries with strong economies were in a better position to assume the loss than countries with significant debt were in to maintain the interest on the loans. It is not surprising that many of the advocates for forgiveness were familiar with the Biblical mandate to reset the economy and land holdings every fifty years – the jubilee.
Before any such program could be finalized, those strong economies plummeted, and the plans were abandoned. But it is worth noting that the conversations about this innovative approach were not all supportive.
There’s no doubt that both the Biblical mandate and the contemporary proposal were well-intended. After all, if wealth is concentrated in the hands of the few, the many suffer disproportionately. That situation seems to be acceptable only to those with wealth or the expectation that they will amass it to the disadvantage of others. Still, the Bible (and, indeed, all of Jewish thought) concedes that there will always be poor people. It also insists that the privileged have the responsibility to provide for the disadvantaged. In every way from creating self-sustaining opportunities (such as leaving the corners of the fields unharvested or teach a person a marketable skill) to simply handing over money (preferably with joy, but even with resentment), those that have must provide for those that don’t.
But this notion of the forced redistribution of wealth is one of the places that capitalism chooses to disregard the instruction of Scripture. Who would lend money, who would build a house, who would plant an orchard if, after seven years or seven times seven years, the investment would be lost?
Close readers of the Bible know that the reluctance of lenders to lose their loan is anticipated. And those who have studied even a little Jewish law know of the invention of the prosbul, a legal fiction that allows lenders to assign their loans to the court, an institution that is not a person (my friend), so that debts can survive the mandatory forgiveness. Despite the moral authority of the Bible and the admirable notion of a society free from permanent want, practical experience made it clear that human nature was sometimes more reliable than divine instruction.
The old joke is both older than old and not such a joke: The students come to the rabbi and say they have found a way to rid the world of poverty – the rich will give the poor what they need. “How is your plan doing?” asked the rabbi. “We’re half-way there,” they replied. “The poor have agreed to accept the gifts.”
And it turned out that there was some pushback against the debt-forgiveness movement as well. Countries, like people, were reluctant to forgive existing debts even when they were prospering and might well have been able to afford the gesture. In almost every case, the debts were being managed to prevent disabling the smaller economy. But the anticipation that strong economies might not always be so strong (which turned out to be devastatingly true) made representatives of lender countries declare their reluctance to extend future credit to these same countries. A once-in-a-generation reset might very well have complicated the ability of any country to move beyond momentary solvency.
I know that there was disappointment in some quarters (especially among some faith-based activists) that the “jubilee plan” did not come to pass. If there had been a willingness, it not only would have alleviated a significant amount of debt, but also it would have validated a particular perspective on the wisdom and authority of the Bible. At least a few of the proponents believed that the latter “witness” was as important as the former problem-solving.
There were other creative minds who went to work on national debts. There has yet to be a solution, but with the exception of those few leaders that will not acknowledge their country’s economic crisis, the combination of public and private efforts has made inroads in alleviating poverty. There is a long way to go, but not as long as before.
But the lesson of the push for debt forgiveness gives me quiet satisfaction – not because I am somehow in favor of crushing debt, but because I continue to reject a literal reading of the Bible. The embedded skepticism of the idealistic vision, tackled by the legal logic so disparaged by outsiders to Jewish tradition, gives me great delight. With a minimum of exceptions, everything is a negotiation, not out of some worship of making a deal, but because of the constant celebration of our capacity to be idealistic and practical at the same time.
In the best sense, that’s my definition of politics, my version of Otto von Bismarck’s “art of the possible.” You work at something for a long time – maybe seven times seven years – and in the end, with people of good will, you get the best possible outcome. That’s a jubilee worth celebrating.