The Numbers:13 Project
From the tribe of Asher, Sethur son of Michael. Numbers 13:13
I have many discussions with people of different faith traditions, but the ones that intrigue me the most are those that include other Jews. I am certain that my listening skills have changed during the years that I have immersed myself in interfaith work, but I hear the representations about Jewish concerns very differently these days than when I spent most of my days in a synagogue.
To be succinct, I am much more aware of tribalism.
I could offer all sorts of examples. I am always bemused to hear about Jewish territorial claims in the Middle East (which I support, by the way) being qualitatively different than non-Jewish territorial claims. Usually the Bible, Jewish law and/or historical presence are invoked to distinguish our affirmations from those who appeal to different scriptures, codes or narratives.
Then there are those who insist that Jewish identity is qualitatively different from other faith-based identities because “we are a way of life, not a religion” or “we are a people, not a faith.”
And then there are some who sneak their pride of accomplishment into conversations by mentioning the number of Jewish Nobel prize laureates, philanthropists or humanitarians, generally understood to be disproportionate to the rest of the sub-groups of the human family.
Of course, few of the speakers draw on personal experience as they do not live in the aforementioned territory, practice the way of life or have been awarded the Nobel Prize. I do not dismiss their pride or even their perspective, but I have noticed increasingly that the implicit message is “this is what makes us distinct from the rest of you.” Even when it doesn’t and, therefore, we aren’t.
But of all the matters of tribal chauvinism that have become increasingly conspicuous to me is a pride in victimization. Lest I be misunderstood, the scourge of Jew-hatred (mostly known as anti-semitism) is real and demanding of attention from people of good will, Jews or not. But from old to young, I hear a desperation to preserve the distinctiveness of Jewish suffering as if we lose a critical aspect of our identity if an outsider can form empathy with us or expect empathy from us. Sometimes it sounds like it is the only unifying aspect of our tribal identity.
That’s really harsh, isn’t it? But I share two examples that cause me to think about it as I see the word “tribe” in the verse above, which appears twelve times in the surrounding twelve verses.
The first involves the choice of words by a very public figure to describe a very public tragedy. A Member of Congress, controversially outspoken, used the term “concentration camps” to describe the facilities in which children who crossed the southern border of the United States illegally are being held, separated from their families. I could have predicted that the conversation would focus on her choice of descriptor rather than the disturbing, even criminal situation she condemned. (And let’s make clear: the term was not used in any complimentary sense, nor was it used to imply that Jews were somehow responsible for the policy.)
The umbrage that erupted from mostly Jews was extraordinary. I can’t say if it had anything to do with the speaker’s politics or ethnic identity or confrontational style. But some version of “how dare she” seemed to be on so many people’s lips you would think that she was a Holocaust denier. I had to laugh when I read an acquaintance of mine declare that if she had never visited a concentration camp, she had no business invoking the image. (That person has been an acquaintance of mine for more than fifty years and invoked the image multiple times before setting foot in Europe.)
The second was even more disturbing. In a private meeting with members of another faith group, the term “anti-semitism” was bandied about to describe any perceived prejudice toward Jews. I observed that we needed to be more careful with the term. Aside from the fact that it has historical meaning (it was a political term invented in the late 19th century), “anti-semitism” carries with it thousands of years of anti-Jewish bigotry and oppression and the murders of six million Jews. There is no such thing as acceptable bigotry, but there is such a thing as overstating intent or impact of a choice of language or action.
A member of my tribe – and a much younger one at that – pushed back on my point. She claimed that she wanted to preserve the distinctiveness of prejudice toward Jews to remind anyone who practiced any form of it that they were part of a long history of oppression. It is important to call it “anti-semitism,” she suggested, precisely because of that history.
I did not pursue the matter at the time by asking about terms like racism, sexism, homophobia or other words that describe a range of behaviors that exist on a continuum from insensitive to criminal. But I did say to myself, “Wow, do I feel sorry for her.” Her tribal identity may include a sense of geography, religious practice or personal heroes, but it seems to be defined by the perpetuity of hatred.
I have performed no studies on this subject. Like most everyone, I am an observer of anecdotal evidence. It allows me to hope that I am wrong. But I worry that I am right. I have no desire to define my tribe by its disregard for those who are not members.
The Numbers:13 Project
So Moses cried out to the LORD, saying, “O God, pray heal her!” Numbers 12:13
There are times when the simplest words are the most eloquent. Expressing an idea, a concept or a feeling in uncomplicated language allows something profound to rise above the craft of constructing a meaningful phrase.
I had the experience of contrasting two parallel phrases when I saw the stage adaptation of “To Kill a Mockingbird,” written by Aaron Sorkin. At one point, Scout, the young daughter, is being lectured by her father Atticus about the mentality of a mob. He spends a number of sentences on the process of mostly reasonable folks joining a mob, and then concludes with “A mob is a place where people take a break from their conscience.”
I was impressed with this Sorkin-esque discourse, but I could not capture enough of it to jot it down in the dark theater. (I found the short version online.) However, just before launching into this description, Atticus rebuffs Scout’s expectations of others with the pithy, “A person is smart; people are dumb.” Those seven words capture everything about crowd-sourcing anger.
(By the way, intentionally or not, Sorkin lifted that line from “Men in Black,” a decidedly lower-brow production. Tommy Lee Jones says it to Will Smith. Look it up.)
It is harder to write short, but it is infinitely more satisfying (certainly for the listener!). I learned early in my career as a rabbi not to use up too many words in a sermon. The fewer I used for one talk, the more I had left for the next. Simple words deployed in short declarative sentences do not necessarily put a speaker’s erudition on display, but they hone a message to its essence. When Moses sees his dear sister Miriam afflicted with debilitating disease (a punishment for sinning against him), he proclaims the prayer contained in the verse above. Five words contain everything you need to know about the relationship between brother and sister and the character of the speaker.
Brevity is not a guarantee of clarity, however. We have spent a lot of time over these past two years and some reacting to simple words inexpertly jumbled. Used in place of profundity – or when profundity escapes the speaker – simple words can also reveal a simple mind. The decline of meaningful public expression is a loss I have felt increasingly, mostly after I hear someone capable of speaking well.
It is true that a smooth-talking person can distract from the implications of his or her message, but the contrast between fashioning an inspiring thought and blurting out hackneyed adjectives like “great” or “unfair” is striking. It was apparent when I heard a candidate for public office recently who referred to “fecklessness” as characterizing a policy. My first thought was that his monosyllabic opponent likely thought the word meant going without sex. My second thought was how refreshing it was to hear the kind of expression that William Safire used to champion.
I think that the more urgent the thought, the more admirable the brevity. The plaintive plea for Miriam’s healing required no elaboration. The instruction offered by Atticus (or by “K”) was about respecting the person, suspecting the crowd. But when nuance is essential, maybe it is not such a good idea to offer simple (read: simplistic) estimations of complicated notions.
We shouldn’t forget that, in contrast to this powerful and brief prayer, is the Book of Deuteronomy, almost entirely Moses’ monologue that goes on for most of 34 chapters containing 959 verses. I dare you to sum it up with more conciseness or power than these five words.
The Numbers:13 Project
Where am I to get meat to give to all this people, when they whine before me and say, ‘Give us meat to eat! ’Numbers 11:13
I was in a classroom not so long ago in which a renown scholar was trying to persuade students who were preparing to embark on a leadership career to embrace a teaching of Max Weber: politics is striving to share power (or distribute resources). One student pooh-poohed the notion. “You can get additional resources,” he said.
I wasn’t sure whether to admire his optimism or pity his naivete. Sure, sometimes there are more resources. But generally, whether it is an organizational budget, seats in a theater or taxes, sooner or later you reach capacity.
Judaism and Christianity both have central stories that try to disprove the notion. For Jews, Moses persuades God that the people need meat after eating nothing but manna in the wilderness. God causes an avalanche of quails to inundate the people and they eat beyond their capacity.
For Christians, Jesus feeds the masses with a minimum of loaves and fish. Even those who do not take the story literally see it as a powerful metaphor for unlimited spiritual resources.
Both of the stories remind me of the famous representation of a Hindu scholar, Mohandas Gandhi. He said, “There are people in the world so hungry that God cannot appear to them except in the form of bread.”
The Jewish and Christian stories, tellingly, are about miracles. They acknowledge that in ordinary circumstances, there may not be additional resources. The Hindu story speaks a truth: when resources are necessary for survival, people will worship the provider. That truth may underlie the other two stories.
In our time, Weber’s suggestion about the nature of politics and the student’s assertion about resources are in constant play. Whether people cry, “Give us jobs” or “Give us tax relief” or “Give us (back) privilege,” they focus on that hunger so acutely that their savior cannot appear to them except in the form of jobs, tax relief or privilege – or the promise thereof. People so wrapped around the stick about their desires or needs that they can imagine nothing else will worship the person who says he or she will assuage that hunger, even if they know it would take a miracle to do so.
When the deliverables arrive, they are often beyond the capacity of the receivers to absorb. Or, on some occasions, like the ironic twist to a short story, they are an abundance of the wrong resource – jobs with low wages, tax relief for the wealthy, privilege that is meaningless or, worse, empowering of those who exploit it for oppressive purposes. Or both.
Finding (or even promising) more resources is not always the right response to the clamoring of the people.
Weber’s definition of politics, proclaimed 100 years ago, is expressed in a more contemporary idiom by Marty Linsky, who has studied and taught about leadership in contemporary America. One of his definitions of leadership is delivering disappointment to people at a rate they can absorb. It is appropriate to all of these stories.
Manna sustained the Israelites for forty years; the abundance of quail makes gluttony fatal for many. The loaves and fishes that fed five thousand at Tabgha placed an expectation on Jesus that went unfulfilled; to this day, Jesus’ followers yearn for a miraculous return though suffering is abundant. Gandhi’s remarkable insight, taken literally, set the bar too high, whether for meat, for fish or for bread.
And in our times, we are about to enter the season of overpromising and exceeding capacity. When we clamor for abundance of what we perceive as lacking, it would do us well to remember that the short-term alleviation of desire or need is not the same as preventing that desire or need in the future. It may be a disappointing message, but a true leader will practice politics by sharing limited resources wisely and delivering disappointment at a rate we can absorb.
The Numbers:13 Project
When the march was to begin, at the LORD’s command through Moses, Numbers 10:13
There’s a small irony (very small) that as I sat down to write these words I was distracted by two contrasting issues relating to Israel – which was not the subject I thought I might address.
The first, which relates directly to the verse at hand, is the Dyke March in Washington, DC. Held during Pride Month, this gathering of lesbian women and allies take to the streets in a given city to promote their concerns about affirming diversity and expressing their solidarity with oppressed people around the world. A couple of years ago, when this march was held in Chicago, some Jewish participants found themselves shut out of the march and its surrounding events. The presenting reason was Zionism, which has been identified by some on the far left as being an oppressive political ideology. Participants carrying a rainbow-striped flag with a Star of David in the middle were excluded from the march itself, and an ancillary event they organized was interrupted by protesters. Organizers of the march and protest claimed the flag, and therefore those carrying it, was resonant with Israel’s blue-and-white version of the same flag, which represented Zionism.
Today (as it happens) is the Dyke March, and once again the flag in question has been prohibited as a symbol of “nationalism” (though the Palestinian flag is permitted). A series of outraged statements has been issued, including by Jews, many of whom are not Dykes (who want the flag included) and Dykes, many of whom are Jews (who want the flag excluded). By the time you read this, angry Zionist Dykes and their allies will have marched to the official march to take their place with their flag. It is anybody’s guess what will happen.
I’ve read the hyperbole on both sides and will say that it reminds me of the old joke about the rabbi who tells each of the two litigants that he is right. Only this time, the rabbi thinks both sides are wrong. And if you tell me that both sides can’t be wrong, my punchline will be, you know what – you are also wrong.
Likely, you are sympathetic to the Zionists (or, perhaps to be completely accurate, the folks who are accused by the anti-Zionists of being Zionists, though they may or may not be Zionists.)
That brings me to the other distraction that popped up on my Facebook feed early today. It was a news story that Israeli doctors had successfully treated the wife of Palestinian Authority leader Mahmoud Abbas for a serious ailment. The person who posted it introduce the story with a rant – there is no other word for it – about all of the enemies of Israel who will never hear about it and the mainstream media that will never report it and the members of Congress who will ignore it. I felt like a little ranting myself. In the Talmudic volume “Pirkei Avot,” a sage named Antigonus (who must have had some Greek relatives…) warned against doing the right thing for the wrong reason. We do them because they are right, not because we expect some benefit. If the reason to treat Mrs. Abbas is not because she is ill, but because we want to weaponize our compassion against our detractors, well, you finish.
My objection was met with a counter-objection: we Jews (it was Jews, not Zionists, BTW) are so oppressed, that this kind of behavior is justified. Though the irony of my distraction is small, the irony of this bogus argument is large: it is the same one being made by the anti-Zionist Dykes, to wit, my bad behavior is justified by your bad behavior.
I am in none of the above camps (well, I will proudly cop to Zionism, but a slightly different version than the one at play in these incidents). But I do believe, and deeply so, that when the righteous causes we support become excuses for bad behavior we demonstrate, it is incumbent on allies to call out their own. Jews should remind Jews of Jewish values. Progressives should remind progressives of progressive values. Human rights activists should remind human rights activists of human rights. And so on.
Nothing is gained by proclaiming how much more admirable the best of what I am is than the worst of what you are. As the eminent human rights activist Bryan Stevenson has said, in a very different context, each of us is better than the worst thing we have ever done.
Congratulations to the marchers who march for equality and affirmation. Congratulations to the doctors who ignored politics to save a human life. As for those of you who would weaponize those values, you need a time-out.
The Numbers:13 Project
But if a man who is clean and not on a journey refrains from offering the passover sacrifice, that person shall be cut off from his kin, for he did not present the LORD’s offering at its set time; that man shall bear his guilt. Numbers 9:13
A long time ago, I misread a calendar and inadvertently caused a conflict at a major university between a campus-wide party (now defunct) and Passover. Just to highlight the magnitude of my mistake, the first night of Passover that year was Friday, making Jewish students choose between four cups of wine and virtually unlimited beer.
I own the mistake, as I did back then. Every student made her or his own decision about which to forego – the seder or the concert. Except one.
This particular student called home and asked the parental units to make an adjustment. They postponed Passover to the following weekend. Initially, I thought I would be the only one rolling my eyes at the way this student was indulged. It turns out, a lot of others found the chutzpah astonishing.
In my old age, I have been taught to celebrate the persistence of Jewish identity that would make the person in question look for a way to affirm a connection to tradition. In fact, recently I took special delight when I discovered that a friend conducted a seder at 30,000 feet during an unavoidable flight (over Southeast Asia!) on the first night of Passover. But I think there is a difference between a situation beyond control and controlling the situation.
More and more I have encountered the appropriation of ritual, custom and language to serve individuals who consider their Jewish identity an enhancing element rather than a defining one. I do not deny them the right to do so, but I still believe it devalues the coin, so to speak. The function of ritual is as a vehicle for shared meaning. And while it is true that established ritual sometimes means more in the performative sense than the symbolic sense (for example, some Jews prefer to pray in Hebrew even when they do not understand the meaning of the words), I believe there to be a line between accommodation and exploitation.
The verse at the top of this brief essay illustrates what I mean. The observance of the anniversary of the Exodus – that which we now perform at seder – held great power for the escaped slaves. But some of the celebrants were prevented from participating because other ritual or geographical challenges presented themselves. The Bible makes accommodation: there is a second chance for them a month later. But the person who knows of this accommodation and decides, for whatever reason, to postpone observance for convenience’s sake, even though he would do exactly what the others would do, is sanctioned.
And it is quite a sanction, to tell the truth. The person is “cut off from his kin.” The penalty resonates with me not only in its original context, but as a sort of existential observation as well: the person who exploits community rituals or customs or language for utilitarian purposes creates a disconnection from that very community.
There were many times that I was approached as the rabbi of a congregation by people who felt guilty about their abandonment of specific traditions or their lack of knowledge that led to neglect of something they now found important. For example, distraught adult children would come to me worried because they did not know the Hebrew date of the anniversary of a parent’s death, and they had subsequently discovered the date had passed. They had missed the opportunity to recite a memorial prayer or light a 24-hour candle in memory. The solution is obvious to you as you read this: I would reassure them that it was not too late, and they could designate a near-term date to do both.
But I will acknowledge a different kind of response to my students at a Protestant seminary who sought my endorsement of a “personal shabbat,” a day of the week chosen by them to refrain from their pastoral duties. Instead, they would play golf, shop, get a massage, try a new restaurant. I was very happy for them that they understood the importance of self-care and that they were willing to set aside 24 hours for a day off. But I explained that “shabbat” was not only about self-refreshment, but about community and affirmation of the rhythm of creation – two aspects in which they were among the participants, but not the focus.
In all sorts of ways, people intent on gaming the system for their personal satisfaction will succeed. But in one significant way they will not. By stripping ritual, custom and language of their consensual meaning, they pick at the threads that weave us together as community. To my way of thinking, that’s a fatal flaw.
Please let me call your attention to a column in a different section of my website, www.jackmoline.com. I am linking it here, as well as an installment of the podcast State of Belief. Through a remarkable confluence of opportunities, my personal concerns about the fractious debate about abortion wound up being discussed by two dear friends of mine, both of them on the podcast and one of them in the New York Times. I commend them all to you.