Less than you Can. All that you Should.

We’ve just concluded the High Holy Day season.  On Rosh Hashanah, I spoke to my congregation on the topic of Justice.  Here are some excerpts from my sermon.  Click here to hear the full sermon.

Less than you can. All that you should.

…A better year, a better world, means more of us taking less than we can but all that we should. Today I want to talk about justice. Not abstractly. Not a vague concept we call tikkun olambut a concrete mission statement that can inform how each of us, in countless contexts big and small, might increase equity, fairness, godliness and love. I’m talking about justice in our homes and relationships, justice in our schools and urban institutions, justice in our country and in our world.  Less than you can. All that you should. 

…There’s a concept in Jewish law (halacha) that has always baffled me: Lifnim m’shurat hadin, which is usually translated “beyond the letter of the law.” But…what does it say about halachato claim it’s not enough, …that you need better than the law, to mete out true justice in society?

…Each community or society has a set of norms that define its existence, that contain and constrain it. That line is what we are due, what we are fully entitled to under those set of norms, rules or laws. When I drive my car, by law I may go 65 miles an hour on the highway. I don’t have to, but I may. If I go 55, though, I know (because I’m from Illinois, not Maryland) that I should drive in the right lane so that those who exercise their right to drive faster, can pass me.  We all exist within that circle called a speed limit, and each of us chooses how much of that space we claim, how close to that line we come…. “Beyond the letter (or line) of the law” would be speeding.

…And this is my point: the parameters of justice are not the totality of justice, just like an orange is more than its peel. And that’s good because, guess what? Lifnim m’shurat hadindoesn’t actually mean “beyond the letter of the law.” Each of us (our families, our city, nation) exists within an imaginary circle (shurat hadin), our circle of justice…. Lifnim m’shurat hadin, means within the line of justice, within the circle of what we’re due, what we’re entitled to. Less than you can. (see C. Hayes, “Legal Truth, Right Answers and Best Answers: Dworkin and the Rabbis,” pg. 113-114).

Which brings me to the second part of my 5779 bumper sticker mantra: all that you should. People with power and access are good at taking all that they can. Which is, not always, but too often, more than they should. But taking less than you can is only half the equation, because societies aren’t made whole through paternalism. It requires a partnership, a contracting by some and an expanding by others.

…It wasn’t men who made woman suffrage possible in 1920, as Beth Am’s own Elaine Weiss explains in her wonderful new book The Woman’s Hour. It was women and the male allies who worked with them. And it’s African American protesters…who brought about the beginning of police reform in Baltimore through the Consent Decree, immigrants who talk about being separated from their children, women who say enough of being overlooked, underpaid and objectified, and teenagers who say they’ve simply had enough of gun violence in their schools. And, it wasn’t the British or even the United Nations who made the State of Israel. It was the Jewish people who did that.

…This is Rosh Hashanah, but another name for it is Yom HaDin, day of justice. This year…let’s consider the nature of justice. What sort of communities do we want to work toward this year?  What kind of nation do we want to support this year?  What sort of world…do we want to pass along to the next generation?

(A version of this post will appear in the October issue of Jmore).

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Relational Justice

One of the Talmud’s most famous stories involves Hillel who, long before he was a campus student organization, was a man and rabbi — indeed the consummate rabbi’s rabbi.

Hillel was known for his patience, and once a non-Jew seeking to convert approached him with the following demand: “Teach me the entire Torah while I’m standing on one foot.” Anyone who has attempted a Yogic Tree Pose knows standing on one foot is not so easy, and Hillel grasped the man’s meaning quickly: “Distil an entire, ancient, robust, complex, multi-vocal tradition into one pithy phrase!”

It’s what’s affectionately referred to as a klutz kashe, a question unworthy of thoughtful response. But if Hillel views it this way (or the questioner as a klutz) he doesn’t respond in kind. He converts his interlocutor on the spot and summarizes Jewish tradition in this way: “What is hateful to you, do not do to your fellow. That is the entire Torah. The rest is commentary. Go and learn it!”

This expression is a precursor to the Golden Rule, which frames the call to human empathy in the positive. But Hillel’s approach may point to a deeper truth of human nature: Our tendency is to postulate what we think best for others by assuming our desires and needs are also theirs.

Dara Horn puts it this way in her recent novel, “Eternal Life: “It’s arrogant to think that others want exactly what you want.” Placing a demand for empathy in the negative is, ironically, more believable; there are plenty of things most people “hate.”

But this begs another question: Why doesn’t Hillel say, “What is hateful to your fellow, don’t do to him”? Is it really that difficult to know what our neighbors, family members and co-workers don’t like? Can’t we just ask them? The answer is as simple as it is inscrutable: sure, we can ask those with whom we’re already in a relationship. But it’s much harder to do so with people we’ve never met!

In our increasingly polarized society, where even family members can barely talk to each other across political or ideological divides, Hillel’s concise summary of Jewish wisdom is in fact a passionate call for thinking justly, for making the audacious cognitive leap to accept that there must be a set of experiences so anathema to human thriving, they apply to all of us.

Who doesn’t hate feeling invisible, unheard and undervalued? Who among us is not offended by the prospect of a life of destitute poverty or abuse? Says Hillel, if you do not want these things for yourself, how can you abide them in others?

Hillel is trying to teach us less about interpersonal relations and more about societal justice. What are the basic parameters, the boundaries of an acceptable life? How can communities and municipalities be organized to permit fewer journeys beyond the pale? How can a city avoid becoming the next Sodom – a place fundamentally lacking in empathy and therefore irredeemable?

There was a time I thought relationships were a gateway to justice. Increasingly, I believe they are the very nature of justice itself! There’s a teaching in the Mishnah, a 2nd century legal text from the land of Israel: The temperament of the one who says: “What’s mine is mine, and what’s yours is yours … there are some who say that’s the way of Sodom [midat Sdom]” (Avot 5:10). Relational Justice is the capacity to say, as did John Donne, “No man is an Island, entire of itself. … And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls; It tolls for thee.”

We are all interconnected. We know what we do not wish for ourselves and, therefore, we cannot wish it for others. None of us wants to be misunderstood, so we are called to understand. None of us wants to be left behind, so we are directed to look over our shoulder. None of us wants to be hated, so we are commanded – despite difference and disagreement – to love.

(A version of this post appears in Jmore).

Compassion Fatigue

I’m not sure who coined the phrase “compassion fatigue,” but anyone in America who cares about justice must be feeling it these days.

There are so many things to worry about, so many systemic oppressions about which we’ve become more conscious, so many threats to our basic civil society that too many of us (rightly) cannot seem to focus on any one thing for long.

With immigration, gun violence, #MeToo, institutional racism, transphobia, environmental justice, generational poverty or so many other pressing concerns, too many of us feel like we’re bolted to our seats, transfixed as we snap our heads jarringly back and forth like spectators at some kind of grotesque tennis match.

It used to be that, for many of us, it felt hard to figure out what was just. Now, for too many of us, it feels like we know exactly what justice looks like but have no conviction it can be achieved (and not much confidence we can even move the needle).

When societal problems appear so intractable, what can we do to avoid the paralysis of compassion fatigue? The prophet Micah has wisdom to offer here. Micah prophesied during the 8th century BCE.  During his lifetime, he rails against political corruption and oppression in both the northern and southern kingdoms, witnessing first the invasion and subjugation of the former and then the anxious relief of the latter when it is spared the brutality of Assyrian conquest.

How do we function when confronted with complex and overwhelming societal problems? Micah’s answer: simplify! “[God] has told you, O man, what is good and what the LORD requires of you: Only to do justice, and to love goodness, and to walk modestly with your God” (Micah 6:8).

Rashi, the 11th century sage, asks, what’s the difference between walking with God and walking with our fellow human beings? When it comes to people, he says, “If one man embarrasses his fellow and comes to appease him, the fellow says to him, ‘I will not accept your apology until this person or that person, before whom you disgraced me, comes [to make amends].’ But the Holy One of Blessing desires only that the man’s return be between the two of them.”

Paradoxically, God is big enough to avoid making failure bigger than it needs to be. Whereas human beings tend to blow things out of proportion. The solution? Try to be a bit more like God.

When humanity’s baser instincts get you down, says Rashi, focus on the positive. Yes, we have a tendency to allow small problems to become bigger ones until each flawed human interaction escalates into communal failing and then societal degradation. Micah’s philosophy of modest walking doesn’t ignore this reality, but it also recognizes that moving forward begins, to paraphrase the ancient Chinese philosopher Lao-Tzu, with a single step.

And what step should we first take? A step toward one another. We start with our family members, our friends or our co-workers. We start with a stranger we encounter in line at Starbucks or an acquaintance from shul. But to be most effective, we start with those whom we’ve hurt or those who have hurt us, perhaps even someone with whom we disagree politically.

The sage Shammai says, “Greet each person with a gracious expression on your face” (Avot 1:15), which implies we are to do so even (perhaps especially) with someone we dislike or who has caused us harm.

This isn’t easy, but if we can repair one broken relationship, have empathy for one person with whom we disagree (or allow that person to come to better understand us), we can begin to move forward.  Sometimes it’s as simple as giving someone the benefit of the doubt.

It’s no accident that Micah’s metaphor is about walking. Justice must be done. Goodness ought to be valued.  But journeys are best undertaken with traveling companions.

(A version of this post can be found at Jmore Living).