Generous Orthodoxy  

Tuesday, December 23, 2008

The Judeo-Christian tradition: still the best

For many years I have been testing my belief that the Judeo-Christian heritage is the strongest of all the world’s traditions, and I have not found any evidence to make me change my mind. The superiority of the Jewish and Christian faiths, tied ineluctably together as they are, is certainly not dependent on superior moral performance, however. It can be persuasively argued that no faith is superior to any other in the arena of actual human behavior. There are atrocities and horrors enough to go around (who knew, until the book Zen at War was published in 1997, that Zen Buddhism was profoundly complicit in the whole Japanese military effort before and during World War II—with an added overtone of anti-Semitism?). The Church has acknowledged its manifold sins repeatedly and still continues to make amends. The factor that makes our tradition unique is its self-correcting core. I do not see this deeply rooted value in Hinduism, Buddhism, Islam or Chinese philosophy.

Take for example an article on today’s New York Times front page, “Betrayed by Madoff, Yeshiva University Adds a Lesson.” The point of the article is that the arch-schemer is Jewish, and the Orthodox university is searching its soul. It is an arresting example of the way that Judaism questions itself from within. I argue that this capacity is built into the Biblical faith and derives from its ever-renewing Source. Jews interpret the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) differently from Christians, because they read it through the lenses of the Talmud and the Mishnah, but there can be no mistaking the emphasis on self-criticism in light of the values derived from the story of the Hebrew God.

Here are some excerpts from the news article (my links are not working well at the moment, but Javier C. Hernandez wrote it):


One by one, the students in Rabbi Norman Linzer’s class last week wrestled with the headlines and their emotions. Some said Mr. Madoff’s religious affiliation was irrelevant; others worried that his Judaism might tarnish their own…

Yeshiva, a campus of about 7,000 students in Upper Manhattan, is grappling with a sense of personal betrayal that extends beyond the $110 million it says it lost in investments with Mr. Madoff, who had been on the board of trustees since 1996. There is resentment; fear of the revival of ugly, old stereotypes; and, after the fall of a favorite son, uncertainty about how Jewish institutions like theirs should choose role models.

At a school that aims to inculcate ethics and interpersonal morals in its students along with academics — to train future doctors, lawyers, educators and financiers to not just be good at their jobs but to perform them in accordance with traditional Jewish ideals — the story of Mr. Madoff has turned into the consummate teaching moment...

In Rabbi Benjamin Blech’s philosophy of Jewish law course, students pondered whether Jewish values had been distorted to reward material success. “This overrides everything else,” said Rabbi Blech, who has taught at Yeshiva for 42 years. “It is an opportunity to convey to students that ritual alone is not the sole determinant of our Judaism, that it must be combined with humanity, with ethical behavior, with proper values, and most important of all, with regard to our relationship with other human beings”…

Rabbi Blech, who teaches the philosophy of law course, said he… worried that community expectations had steered students away from public-service professions like teaching and toward more lucrative jobs. “In elevating to a level of demi-worship people with big bucks, we have been destroying the values of our future generation,” he said. “We need a total rethinking of who the heroes are, who the role models are, who we should be honoring”…

“What does it say when this fraud is so intertwined with the Jewish community?” asked [Edward] Farbenblum, 26, who is Orthodox and attended Yeshiva as an undergraduate. “One of our religious imperatives is to be morally upstanding, to be the exemplar of what it is to be a moral citizen, and this is a very public case of a failure of that religious ideal”…

Rabbi Blech, for his part, turned to the Ten Commandments, noting that some focus on a person’s relationship with God, others on relationships with fellow human beings. He said that “both tablets are equally important. Just because you eat kosher and observe the Sabbath does not make you good,” he explained. “If you cheat and steal, you cannot claim you are a good Jew.”

For Christmas: the news from Zimbabwe and other fronts

It will be hard for us, in the midst of the economic crisis around the world, to muster up the energy and generosity to care about the indescribable suffering of Africa and other impoverished parts of the world. A friend from India who is presently working in Cambridge (Mass) writes this compelling passage about Zimbabwe:

"In India, we are used to hardship and poverty, but how do we account for problems such as economic uncertainty, job loss and the foreclosure of homes in America, especially when millions of people are involved? It is a fact that there is a genuine sense of fear and anxiety all around us now. However, some analysts have pointed out that the current economic crisis in the U.S. is integrally rooted in the consumerist culture that developed in the West over the recent decades. The pattern of consumption, lifestyle changes and comforts that Americans got used to over the last quarter century were truly unsustainable both economically and ecologically. If, therefore, the present predicament helps all of us to focus clearly on the Gandhian dictum, 'We must live simply so that others might simply live' that would indeed be worth it.Even as we are caught up in the 'lifestyle problems' of our own societies, let us not lose sight of the far more severe challenges faced by people elsewhere. Zimbabwe is one example. Over a short period, that country has moved from the worst possible political and economic crisis to a grave situation in the health sector. In Zimbabwe's cholera-ravaged townships, the dying today make their final journeys home in wheelbarrows and pushcarts, turned away from clinics by nurses too overworked and underpaid to care much about who survives and who doesn't. Early this month, 71 year old Tarcisius Nerutanga was summoned to the clinic in the Budiriro township. There he found his 27 year old son, Allan, dumped on a wooden bench outside, racked with severe vomiting and diarrhea. 'They didn't say anything. They just said, "Take him home,"' Nerutanga said. He carried his son home where Allan died last Monday. The young man died grieving that his life was over before he could rescue his parents from their grinding poverty. Allan's mother Loveness sat on the concrete floor in their tiny room, weeping silently. She recalled: 'He just said, "Mom, we're a laughing stock. We die a laughing stock." ' "

This reminds me of a story a few years ago about two dozen illegal immigrants who died of suffocation locked in the truck that was smuggling them over the border from Mexico. As far as I know, a number of them were never identified. They suffered terribly and died nameless.

As we celebrate the birth of our Lord, we will surely want to remember how the Bible teaches us that God knows us each by name. Part of our calling this Christmas season is to raise our eyes above our own circumstances and reflect upon those who have no names or identities in society because of their extreme poverty and lack of resources. My husband and I are trying to raise our year-end contributions slightly in order to do our teeny bit to help take up some of the slack from those who have lost even more than we have. The photo on the cover of The New York Times yesterday must reach the consciousness of all but the most hardened: young boys squatting down at street level, their faces close to the pavement, trying to pick up a few kernels of corn spilled by a passing truck. Imagine it!