Talmud this Shabbat: “Helped” by Elizabeth Strout

Why a Talmud teaser on Tuesday?

Because this Shabbat I am asking the class to do something I have never asked before: a little homework. I am attaching the short story “Helped,” part of Elizabeth Strout’s new collection of stories in Olive, Again.

A few words about this short story. It is dark. Creepy. And at a certain point, yucky, which is the word Shira used when she read it at my request. The moment of disgust will be obvious when you get there.

And, for all that, the story is poignant and beautiful. It features the one and only Jew in Olive, Again, somebody whose family was largely wiped out in the Shoah. This story speaks about faith and God, what God has not done and cannot do, and what a belief in something larger than us can do.

As you read the story, please think about its title. A lot of religious language is more robust than the title. Religious language often uses words like save, redeem, transform. Help is more humble. And the title is in the form of a past participle, helped. Who or what did the helping, and who or what was helped?

This short story is long on meaning—exactly the kind of meaning we try on a good day to make at Temple Emanuel. Thank you for reading it. Look forward to our conversation on Shabbat morning.

Click here to read “Helped.”


Talmud this Shabbat: Truth is Overrated, Say the Torah and the Rabbis

At the end of Genesis, in our portion this week, our ancestors lie through their teeth.

Perhaps surprisingly, our rabbinic sages are okay with their lie. They acknowledge the lie–and then justify it for the sake of peace.

What happens when truth becomes dispensable? When we can set aside truth because doing so advances an agenda that we deem more important than truth?

The end of Genesis does not instruct us to tell the truth. It instructs us to weigh the truth against other values that are upheld when truth itself is denigrated. The Talmud takes this point and deepens it. What matters are not raw facts, but human relationships and feelings. What do we need to say that will preserve peace, make people feel good about themselves, strengthen relationships? Say that—even if it is not true. This is extremely destabilizing, even dangerous. What are the limits of this kind of thinking? Where does it lead?

What do you think about a religious tradition that invites that kind of complexity? Is that wise, or a recipe for a hot mess that never ends?

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: Trading Your Life for a Necktie, Your Birthright for a Pot of Stew

He was one of the most prominent rabbis at one of the largest and most influential congregations in the world. He was lauded and applauded, his advice and counsel sought after by presidents, popes, and the Dalai Lama.

And then, at the height of his career, he had to resign from his congregation. Why?

An affair with a congregant? No.

Embezzled funds? No.

Addicted to drugs or alcohol? No.

Why then? Because he stole a designer necktie from a store in Palm Beach, Florida, and the police discovered four more stolen neckties in his car. He spent the last chapter of his life, twelve years, no longer doing the work he loved to do—over a necktie. What is that?

It’s not just him. It’s us. Why do we shoot ourselves in the foot? Why do we trade everything for nothing? Where does our capacity for enormously stupid self-destruction come from, and what can we do about it?

Shabbat morning we will encounter one story that is well known but suffers for its familiarity (Esau’s trading in his birthright for a pot of stew), and one story that we know about but never study (Samson trading in his God-given strength for Delilah even though he knows she means him ill in Judges 16).

Both men do what this rabbi did: trade everything for nothing.

How do we not do that?

Happy Thanksgiving, and see you on Shabbat!


Talmud this Shabbat: Jonathan and David–Platonic Love, Queer Love, or Complex Love That Cannot be Put in a Box

One of the more enigmatic relationships in the Hebrew Bible is that of Jonathan and David. They are natural antagonists. Jonathan is the son of King Saul, and according to dynastic principle would be king himself. David is the youngest son of a shepherd who becomes king.

Yet for all this natural antagonism, they are famous not for fighting but for love.

The Hebrew Bible uses words of love and intertwined souls to capture their relationship. But when you read the text closely, the nature of their relationship is hard to pin down.

Tomorrow we will do three things.

Read the text in I Samuel and II Samuel closely, and let it speak for itself.

Read a classic rabbinic interpretation—namely, that the relationship of Jonathan and David is a paradigm of unconditional platonic love.

Read the interpretation of a queer scholar who argues that the couple were clearly lovers. Whatever you think of the merits of this view, the reinterpretation of the facts of the story—the stripping of clothes, the shooting of a bow—in homoerotic terms is really interesting.

What if neither the traditional nor queer read takes in the complexity of the story? What do Jonathan and David teach us about us?

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: Wise Voices, Wise Choices

When you have an important decision to make, whose advice and counsel do you seek out? Whose wisdom do you heed? Whose wisdom do you ignore? How do you know? What are your criteria for figuring out whether to heed or ignore somebody’s counsel?

Tomorrow morning we will see that the entire United Kingdom of Israel split over just this issue. We will explore a chapter of the Bible most have not read, and the actions of a protagonist most have not heard of, to extract a lesson about how being open to wise voices can help us make wise choices.

Your living regret-free sometimes turns on hearing and heeding the wisdom of other people.

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: The Heartbreaking Jewish Pattern–First Comes Suffering, Then Comes Blessing

On this weekend of the first yahrtzeit of the Pittsburgh massacre, tomorrow morning in Talmud we are going to shine the light on a heartbreaking pattern in the Torah and in Jewish history: first comes suffering, only later can we get to blessing.

First slavery, then freedom. First wandering in the wilderness, then entering the promised land.

That is the biblical paradigm tragically etched in our lived history as well.

First the Holocaust, then Israel. First Yom Hazikaron (remembering Israel’s fallen soldiers), then Yom Haatzmaut (celebrating Israel’s independence).

First suffer, then be blessed, has been part of God’s plan for us since the beginning.

God said to Abram: Know well that your offspring shall be strangers in a land not theirs, and they shall be enslaved and oppressed four hundred years; but I will execute judgment on the nation they shall serve, and in the end they shall go free with great wealth. (Genesis 15:13-14)

Tomorrow morning we confront this mysterious and inexplicable intertwining of suffering and blessing. We would not have picked it. We do not want it. We do not like it. But this pattern of suffering and blessing are intertwined, and suffering comes first, echoes not only in our sacred texts, but in our sacred and often tragic history.

What does it mean for us as we reflect on Pittsburgh?

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: Managing Our Multiple Selves

“Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.” Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Part 51

Tomorrow morning we consider the problem of our multiple selves. Our point of departure will be two snapshots of David.

The first snapshot: David is being hunted, literally, by King Saul. King Saul is mad with envy and jealousy. He takes a huge fighting force to hunt and kill David. David is on the run, hiding out with his men in a cave in En-gedi. Just then Saul goes into the cave to go to the bathroom. David cannot believe his eyes. There is Saul, the man who is tormenting and chasing him, relieving himself. David is right there and can easily kill him, thereby defending his own life. David’s men urge him to go for it. What are the odds that Saul is vulnerable in this moment? Of all the caves in En-Gedi, Saul chooses this one to use just now. It must be a gift from God. God must want you to do this. Kill Saul. It is legitimate self-defense. You become the King. We can all go home.

But this David exercises restraint. He sneaks up behind King Saul and cuts off a corner of his garment but spares his life. Something in him just knows it would be wrong.

The second snapshot: David is King. He sees and wants Bat Sheba, summons her, has relations with her, gets her pregnant, sends her husband Uriah to the front lines to be killed in battle. When the prophet Nathan tells a parable about a rich man taking a poor man’s sheep, which is obviously about David stealing Bat Sheba from Uriah, David is outraged at this rich man—and cannot even see the parable is about him.

What happened to David’s restraint? To his core?

How do we manage the multitudes that we contain?

See you tomorrow at 8:30.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: Kohelet and You

The thesis of the Book of Kohelet is short and brutal:

Utter futility!—said Kohelet
Utter futility! All is futile!
What real value is there for a man
In all the gains he makes under the sun?

Why is Kohelet in the Bible at all? Feels a bit dark for a book that, on balance, posits a loving God in control of our universe.

Why do we read Kohelet on Sukkot? How does its dark message connect with Sukkot as z’man simchateinu, our season of joy?

Where, if at all, is there uplift? What does the book of Kohelet say to you as you lead your life in this new year?

See you tomorrow!

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: When there is No Easy Fix, Can Yom Kippur Still Help?

Consider three cases of brokenness. Can Yom Kippur help?

Case One:
Since the 2016 election, it has just been different between you and somebody who used to be your good friend. You have not had an explicit falling out, just a gradual and deepening chill. There is more and more you cannot talk about. As events transpire, the sense of mutual incomprehension deepens. Can Yom Kippur fix this?

Case Two:
You didn’t make your friend’s wedding. At the time there just seemed to be no way you could get there, you had so much going on, it was far away, you hoped she’d understand. But turns out she was really hurt. She feels a simple equation: if you really cared about me, you would have been there. You cannot go back and make the wedding you missed. Can Yom Kippur fix this?

Case Three:
Much of your life you have struggled with some inner demon. You never solve it. All the previous Yom Kippurs were to no avail. You still struggle. Why should this Yom Kippur be any different?

Tomorrow morning, we will consider a brilliant piece by Rabbi Ethan Tucker on Maimonides’ laws of teshuvah entitled: “When Repentance is (Im)possible.” As Rabbi Tucker shows, Rambam anticipates the range of our insoluble problems and gives us options that help. If you come tomorrow, you will enter Yom Kippur with some new thinking for an old problem.

Shabbat shalom,

Talmud this Shabbat: The Book of Job, And You, on the Eve of Rosh Hashanah

The Book of Job is an orphan. It has no ritual home. It has no spot on the calendar. It is associated with no holiday. Kohelet has a home—Sukkot. Megilat Ester has a home—Purim. Shir Hashirim has a home—Pesach. Megilat Rut has a home—Shavuot. But the Book of Job is left to graduate students, divinity students, and scholars, an ancient text that is sad and opaque, and for the most part unloved and unread.

Job is not just good, he is perfect. In a recent Hartman on-line lecture, Micah Goodman points out that Job is described in ways that no other person in the Hebrew Bible is described—”blameless and upright, he feared God and shunned evil.” And yet, he loses his family, his friends, his wealth, his health.

Why? Why do bad things happen to good people? The traditional reading of the Book of Job is quite pious. It is what Micah Goodman calls the big, cosmic theory. Namely, God created the world, and we humans didn’t. God is big, and we are small. God is eternal, and we are mortal. Therefore, humble mortal, accept that there are things we cannot understand. But God who created the world has a cosmic rationale which is unknowable to us.

In his lecture, Micah proves conclusively that this pious read is dramatically wrong. The Book of Job does not offer us the cosmic read, but mocks the cosmic read. The message of the Book of Job is that the reward and punishment system of the Bible is broken. It does not work. And there are no explanations or answers for that brokenness. When you examine the sources in the Book of Job itself that Micah cites, which we will do tomorrow, there is no other way to read it. It is not piety. It is a parody of piety.

All of which leads to Micah’s suggestion that perhaps the best home for the Book of Job is the high holiday season. Perhaps the message of the Book of Job is that we are to go to God with our questions that have no answers. We do not need to sacrifice our intellectual integrity to get close to God. We do not need to suppress our doubts and questions to get close to God.

Would reconceiving prayer as a mode of talking to God about our questions, our doubts, our tumult make prayer more honest, more relevant, more alive?

Shabbat shalom and shana tova,