I'm Jon Spira-Savett, rabbi at Temple Beth Abraham in Nashua, New Hampshire. This website and blog is a resource for Jewish learning and Jewish action. It is a way to share my thoughts beyond my classes and weekly Divrei Torah. You'll find blog posts, standing resource pages with links and things to read, and podcasts as well.
That's Rabbi Sari Laufer, my partner for Chapter 5 of Tov!
"To Measure or Not to Measure" -- on “The Good Place” Eleanor is excited when she is polite for the first time without thinking, Tahani’s philanthropy doesn't score enough points with her parents or the algorithm, and Chidi doesn’t find pleasure in doing the most good. So on the podcast Jon has his first stomach ache and Sari Laufer (new rabbi on the team) helps us think more about where measuring goodness does and doesn’t make sense. Oh, and where intellectual vs. sensual pleasure fits in!
I was in the middle of thinking about the parah adumah -- the red heifer with its potpouri of potion parts that would be very at home in a Harry Potter book -- when I came across an e-mail from The Forward titled, “Has Shabbat become just another form of #self-care?” In one corner is the idea that Jewish practices are good for us in a self-care sense, on secular terms -- we need rest, we need to unplug, we need not to let seven days go by without calming and resetting. In the opposite corner is the red heifer, the most inscrutable practice in all of Torah.
In Midrash B’midbar Rabbah, we learn that a Roman pagan asked Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai specifically about the parah adumah: "These rituals you do, they seem like witchcraft! You bring a heifer, burn it, crush it up, and take its ashes. If one of you is impure by the dead, two or three drops are sprinkled on him, and you declare him pure?!" Rabban Yochanan said to the pagan, "Has a restless spirit ever entered you?" He said to him, "No!" "Have you ever seen a man where a restless spirit entered him?" He said to him, "Yes!" ..."And what did you do for him?" He said to him, "We brought roots and made them smoke beneath him, and poured water and the spirit fled." Rabban Yochanan said to him, "Your ears should hear what leaves from your mouth! The same thing is true for this spirit, the spirit of impurity...They sprinkle upon him purifying waters, and the spirit of impurity flees." After he left the rabbi's students said, "You got rid of him with a skimpy response, a thin reed. What will you say to us?" Rabban Yochanan said to them, "By your lives, a dead person doesn't make things impure, and the water doesn't make things pure. Rather, God said, 'I have engraved a rule, a chok -- I have decreed a decree and you have no permission to transgress what I decreed, as the parasha begins: ‘This is a chok [rule] of the Torah.’
To the Roman pagan, Rabban Yochanan says: You and I know that certain things work, and maybe what Jews are doing seems like magic to you but we’ve all got a common language of self-help. The red heifer is a kind of medicine; it makes us better. But to his own students, he says: There’s no explanation in this case, but we have to do it anyway. It is one of the chukkim, one of the inscrutable laws that are mitzvot just because the Divine has commanded, no other reason.
I do not think that Rabban Yochanan ben Zakkai believed that everything in Torah is like the red heifer, the parah adumah. Not everything is one of the chukkim, the impenetrable laws. But I admit I like his answer to the Roman. Not the outdated medicine part, but the idea that there’s a function to the practice that we could figure out, and it’s good for a person. In fact, in spite of what Rabban Yochanan says to his own students, Jewish tradition does try to interpret the elements of parah adumah potion -- the cedar, the hyssop, the scarlet -- to try to find a purpose for each element. Something for us to meditate on that will help us heal our souls or something that symbolizes how to become better people.
But at the same time, we have this phrase that is familiar from many prayers and the Torah -- chukkim u’mishpatim. In Jewish thought, chukkim are those practices that are or seem beyond our comprehension, while mishpatim are practices or rules that are socially valuable or valuable to our personal lives. Chukkim come first in this phrase -- the irrational laws before the functional ones. Some would say it's the chukkim that define religion as religion.
But trying to make most things in Judaism like the red heifer, something we do to prove that we can serve something other than ourselves -- that can lead in absurd directions and dangerous directions too. We here wouldn’t buy that. The Torah itself says later that other peoples look at Israel and our ways and say that only a wise and understanding nation could live in such a way. Wisdom, meaning wisdom to apply to life -- not just awe and obedience.
So, some Jewish philosophers have suggested that the Torah of revelation is a short-cut, because most of us don’t have the time or energy or wisdom to figure out for ourselves what is good for us.
And yet -- the problem with Shabbat as #self-care is that if we can explain Jewish practices always in terms of a purpose, is that really Judaism? Isn't that just looking back at ourselves? Surely we could design from scratch a weekly rest and even some rituals that give us rest, build community, and even move us toward kindness and justice that are more direct and easier, without the mumbo-jumbo and the details we don't get.
So where does that leave us, as far as chukkum u'mishpatim? Can we have both the red heifer and #Shabbat-as-self-care?
A big part of me thinks that if Judaism can be taught in terms of self-care -- dayenu. We certainly don’t suffer from a lack of self-care and grounding in our lives and this current world. If Judaism can be a vehicle for that, even if it’s for reasons that aren’t completely coherent intellectually, that’s not bad at all.
But my real answer comes sort of from the red heifer. It comes from magic -- specifically, the magic of Harry Potter world.
To me the genius of Harry Potter is not that it takes place in an alternative universe, although it’s true that Muggles can’t go to Hogwarts. To me, the big khap is that the magical world is layered on top of our world. If you are fortunate enough to have inherited the capacity for magic, you can see things others in London don’t see, and you have special powers too.
And my favorite locale in the universe of Harry Potter is Platform 9 3/4 at King’s Cross Station. To get from the regular city onto the train to Hogwarts, you have to run into a brick pillar. It really is a brick wall, and you run at it and into it. It looks impenetrable -- like trying to understand the red heifer. But your propensity for magic, even before you are well-trained in it, allows you to get through it, to the train that will take you to the special school, where you learn where you fit into the magic world layered on top of the world most people see. Where you struggle with how to make the potions that work and rescue, and you complain about the teachers, and you wonder whether it all makes sense.
Judaism, all its practices and rhythms and even the ethics that you could pick up elsewhere, are a magical world layered onto our world. To get there does require flinging yourself at brick walls -- red heifers,practices that aren’t obvious, Hebrew words, sometimes Aramaic -- but when we do go at them full speed, we see that we are connected to a bigger story. Our daily lives, our friendships, our rivalries even, our powers are all connected to a bigger story -- the Torah story, the Exodus, the story of redeeming and completing this world. Every Shabbat is part of that story, every word of our Siddur is, every specific ritual is. They don’t all make sense one by one; yet each is a piece that whole tapestry.
Being part of that story involves taking care of ourselves. Because being the person or the people who deserve care and rest and joy is itself one of the main points of the story and of Jewish history. Because Shabbat rest and ritual celebration are what allow us to glimpse where the story is heading. Our individual acts and each piece of the Torah, even the strange parts, are part of a much larger book we are playing a part in.
So whether it’s the parah adumah, the red heifer, or Kashrut or Shabbat or the Hebrew language, fling yourself at the brick walls of Judaism. Believe that the grape juice at kiddush is a magic potion, more than just the sugary chemicals in it, and enjoy the sweetness too. Keep flinging yourself, and don’t settle for easy but incomplete explanations on this side of the wall. It’s not bruises or intellectual brick walls ahead, but a deep care for you, and special powers for you and us together. It’s not just sensible; it’s magic.
Looking for something to watch on a Saturday night in the month of Elul? At 7:43 PM find some grape juice/wine, a candle, and spices, say or listen to the Havdalah blessings, then settle in for a movie. Here are some of my favorites for the season, pure Hollywood. Suggest your own by posting in the comments below!
Groundhog Day -- an obnoxious TV personality is trapped in the same day over and over again, and tries to figure out how to live that day right (Bill Murray, Andy McDowell)
Heaven Can Wait (remake) -- a football player tries to live out his dream in another person's body and life, when an angel mistakenly takes him out of his own (Warren Beatty, Julie Christie)
Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind -- after a fight, two lovers each hire a firm to erase all memories of the other from their brains (Kate Winslet, Jim Carrey)
Sliding Doors -- two alternate but related versions of the same life, after a person makes or misses a train (Gwinneth Paltrow, John Hannah)
The Adjustment Bureau -- a rising political star tries to find the woman he met by chance, while the Bureau responds to his every move to try to prevent him from deviating from "The Plan" (Matt Damon, Emily Blunt)