“Relatively Speaking”

Last week, the Wiesenthal Center’s Rabbis Marvin Hier and Abraham Cooper issued a statement thanking President Trump for withdrawing the US from the Iran nuclear agreement. In their statement, they asserted that “Lying is the National Anthem and Magna Carta of the Ayatollah’s regime.”

Ramita Nava is an Emmy-Award winning journalist who spent time as a foreign correspondent in Tehran. When she published a book about her experiences, she notes how she was struck in particular by how normal it is for Iranian citizens to live double lives, hiding their true selves, activities, and interests from the regime and its repressive control. “In order to live in Tehran,” she wrote, “you have to lie.” A government based on lying produces citizens who have to lie. So, if you will, on a holiday when we reenact the revelation of the Ten Commandments, maybe an entire national culture, external and internal, based on bearing false witness?

But, speaking of broad national characterizations, the Rabbis tell a fascinating story about God’s choice to reveal the Torah to the Israelites. According to a legend in the Talmud first attributed to the third century sage Rabbi Yochanan, the Israelites were not God’s first choice to receive the Torah. In fact, they were actually God’s last resort. In this account, God first went to the children of Esav, Jacob’s brother, who to the rabbis represented the Roman Empire, and offered them the Torah. “What is in it?” they asked. God responded, “Thou shalt not kill,” whereupon the children of Esav immediately rejected the Torah, explaining that it was incompatible with their national culture, which was based on war and militarism.

God moved on to the children of Ishmael, Isaac’s brother, who to the rabbis represented the fading but still powerful Persian empire, and offered them the Torah. “What is in it?” they also ask. God responded, “Thou shalt not steal.” They, too, turn away, explaining to God that they could never accept a Torah that so stands against their national culture. Rabbi Yochanan continues, that, in similar fashion, each of the nations of the world was offered the Torah but rejected it until God, finally, came to the smallest of the nations, the Israelites, who accepted it with the words, “Na’aseh v’Nishma – we will do and we will hear,” in other words, the Israelites said, “we commit to the Torah BEFORE we find a good reason to say ‘no’ to it”

It seems almost obvious to draw a line connecting Rabbi Yochanan in the third century to Rabbi Hier in 2018 (I sort of just did), but something in me also resists it. My internal resistance is because making sweeping statements about which character traits or patterns of behavior are part of particular national or ethnic identities is not so much in vogue these days. Some call it racist stereotyping. Others may call such statements unproductive. Still others might say they are not politically correct.

I also feel as though attitudes around these sorts of sweeping statements have changed dramatically, As an example, consider that, a generation ago, Charles Murray, was a somewhat mainstream public intellectual. Murray, you may remember, argued in his best-selling book, “The Bell Curve” that endemic poverty and crime in the black community may well be because black people are, on average, less intelligent. He wondered – out loud and in print – if perhaps there was a biological explanation for the fact that throughout history, few women were scientists, inventors, or philosophers of world-changing impact.

Back then, Murray’s ideas were debated even within the pages of prestigious liberal magazines like The New Republic, discussed in the op-ed pages of the NYT and WSJ, and referenced at the most high-minded academic conferences. Engaging with him and his ideas was a sign of being open-minded, of being willing to consider even the most controversial positions, of following the evidence no matter where it would lead and no matter how uncomfortable it made people. That was appealing to lots of people.

Nowadays, though, as The New York Times’ Bari Weiss recently pointed out, Murray is no longer welcome in many magazine or newspaper pages, television studios, or even college campuses. He has been semi-exiled to what she called the Intellectual Dark Web, a loose network of podcasts, websites, and YouTube videos.

Now, was Rabbi Yochanan the Charles Murray of his time? I don’t think so, and let me explain why.

Some of the commentary that followed the publication of Bari Weiss’ article in the Times noted that Murray’s theories were largely considered unconvincing twenty and thirty years ago – he was no more accepted by experts then, when he was mainstream, than he is now, on the fringe. What’s changed, mainly, are the demographics of magazine editors, of academic boards, and of television producers. Twenty years ago, they were almost exclusively male, and almost exclusively white – like Murray himself. The may not have agreed with Murray, but Murray’s ideas did not personally threaten them, and they enjoyed the give-and-take. To them, his ideas were abstract and theoretical, and the debate made for good theater.

Twenty years later, all of those venues are now much more diverse – the people Murray had been talking about are now the people he was talking to. That raised the stakes, because they recognized that Murray’s ideas carried dangerous real-world consequences. If black people are inherently less primed for success, there is less reason to invest heavily in black communities and schools. If women are inherently less adept at math, science, and, perhaps corporate leadership, there is less reason to make room for them. As the implications of the conversation became more personal, and more directly threatening, there was simply less room for a provocateur like Murray.

In contrast, Rabbi Yochanan was always starkly aware of the real-world implications of his teaching. In his telling, the Romans deciding whether to accept the militarism in their society or Thou Shalt Not Kill mattered, because Roman rule was directed against his community. The Persians deciding whether to continue building their empire around theft and exploitation or adopting Thou Shalt Not Steal mattered, because large Jewish communities also lived under Persian control. The real point of Rabbi Yochanan’s story is to highlight how the choice of accepting or rejecting the rules and values of the Torah is not simply an abstract question of philosophy, not simply a fascinating topic to consider, but a choice that carries life and death implications.

As a leader of a community that was largely oppressed, vulnerable, and powerless to defend itself, Rabbi Yochanan understood that the values by which a powerful society defines itself really do matter, that what a world power credibly discusses – and how it is discussed – really matters.

Rabbi Yochanan’s message bears special relevance for us as we celebrate Shavuot in a culture where public policy debates often feel like carnival entertainment and partisan politics often feels like following professional sports. These things matter, Rabbi Yochanan is telling us. Lives really do hang in the balance.

[In contemporary terms, this is the critique that Ta-Nahisi Coates leveled in the pages of The Atlantic against Kanye West, who came out in support of President Trump but who, by his own words, has little understanding (or even awareness) of the Trump Administration’s positions on policy questions that affect so many of his own fans. Coates calls that lack of awareness “whiteness.”]

It is not an accident that Rabbi Yochanan is famous for another teaching, one that notes how descriptions of God’s greatness are always complemented by descriptions of God’s humility. “HaEl HaGadol HaGibbor vi-HaNora – the great, mighty, awesome God,” is complemented by a description of God’s concern for the widow, the orphan, and the stranger. Translated to human terms, if some of our greatness is the ability to search out truth, to debate grand ideas, to participate in a vibrant democracy, part of our humility has to be the awareness that other people are affected by those things in real, concrete terms, to a degree that we often are not. It is that sense of humility that we need more of today.

Perhaps this is why on Shavuot, as we reenact the revelation of the Torah at Sinai, we also recite Yizkor. As we recall the memories of our loved ones, we also recall our own mortality. It’s our reminder that the Torah we accept has life-and-death consequences, that the stakes are high. At the same time, though, Yizkor offers us the comfort of reflecting on the impact and durability of values. And, as we consider how the values and dreams of our loved ones continue to reverberate for us, so too may we consider the impact of what we discuss, live, and advocate for have on those around us, and to those we will eventually leave behind.

Delivered at The Hampton Synagogue, Second Day Shavuot, 2018/5778

About the Author
Avraham Bronstein is rabbi of The Hampton Synagogue in Westhampton Beach, NY.
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