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Forbidden Answers
Rosh HaShanah 2, 5767/2006
© Rabbi Jack Moline

Please note that this material is under my copyright. You have my permission to forward it in its entirety, but not excerpted, as long as you include this disclaimer. I am sorry for these conditions, but they save me a lot of explaining on the other end! Jack Moline

RH2 5767/2006 Forbidden Answers ©Rabbi Jack Moline

Yesterday I suggested to you that world is in need of the unique gift of Shabbat from the Jewish people. Today, I want to discuss another gift, and it is completely different than the dedication of time I asked of you.

You may remember from yesterday that I quoted my friend and teacher Rabbi Shamai Kanter. He wrote, "If I were speaking this year, I would present two messages: `Be proud to be a Jew' is one, and the other is `Fear not, for God is with you.'" That is what passes for a theme in this year's collection of the wit and wisdom of Jack Moline. You will hear the two messages at the beginning and the end of each sermon, and if a friend or family member from another congregation asks you what your rabbi spoke about, you can repeat those two phrases and be relatively accurate. The rest, you may ignore.

You may also remember that I quoted the brilliant and dear young scholar, Rabbi Shai Held. His concise philosophy of Judaism, in fact Conservative Judaism, is worth studying in depth, but I distill his few paragraphs into fewer still.

He posits the obvious foundation of Jewish belief: we are created in God's image, and therefore each of us is uniquely beloved of God. But the evidence in the constant assault on human dignity seems otherwise – in literal and figurative ways we suffer from hunger, poverty, oppression, illness and loneliness. Rabbi Held writes: in the yawning chasm between the [two]…the covenant between God and Israel is born.

He writes:
"By creating human beings, God has taken an enormous risk – the risk that God will be painfully and repeatedly disappointed. In an infinite act of love, God has chosen to need us. Judaism rises and falls with the insistence that God has entered into a relationship with the Jewish people[, a covenant,] in which we are called upon to help narrow the enormous gap between the ideal and the real; evil must be combated and suffering must be dramatically mitigated so that the earth can be filled 'with the knowledge of the Lord.' God's dream is of a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest. To be a covenantal Jew is to dare to dream with God."

By what means do we dream with God? Rabbi Held makes an admirable case that the language we use to dream is Jewish law, halakha. But it is not Jewish law that is our gift to modern American society and world community. Halakha is just for us; only we are commanded to observe the 613 commandments and the oodles of additional expectations that our sages have heaped on us in the intervening years between the revelation to Moses and the revelation to Senator George Allen.

Instead, I want to suggest something related to halakha, and that is the way we think. Jews think differently than non-Jews. Since that statement comes dangerously close to arrogant bigotry, I want you to give me a minute to clarify. And I want to illustrate it with a story that many of you already know from the early years of my tenure here at Agudas Achim.

For about three years, our congregation was part of a discussion among three religious communities – Church of the Pilgrims, a Presbyterian Church in the District, St. Charles Borromeo, a Roman Catholic Church in Arlington, and us. The conversations rotated among the congregations and dealt with the truly substantive matters of faith and religious tradition – sin, forgiveness, salvation, afterlife, all that good stuff. One member of the clergy would speak, and the other two would respond from their traditions.

It turned out that no matter what I said, the priest and the minister would find some way to agree with me. If I talked about Shabbat, they would insist that their traditions honored those values. If I talked about kashrut, they would talk about sacred meals. No matter what I said, they found some way to agree. It got to a point that I would play a little game with myself – how outrageous could I be and still get them to agree with me. I kept upping the ante, until one night, at St. Charles, we were discussing the Eucharist, the very essence of Catholic ritual, and I made some genuinely outrageous comment that should have sent the priest flying across the room at me to reenact the crucifixion. Instead, both he and the priest allowed as how that perspective was also a part of their traditions.

After we spoke, the laypeople divided into discussion groups and the three of us sat down for a cup of coffee. I could not believe what I had heard. And I said to them, "Is it impossible to insult you guys? You make it sound like there is no difference between Judaism and Christianity – that all your traditions are is another version of mine."

The minister said, "But that's why we are in dialogue."

"What are you talking about?" I asked.

The priest said, "That's the purpose of interfaith dialogue – to discover common ground."

"No it isn't," I said. "The purpose of interfaith dialogue is to sharpen the differences so we can better understand each other!"

Oh, did we laugh!

But therein is the point about the way Jewish tradition, Jewish culture train us to think. It is for a different purpose than most of our neighbors. There is no such thing as a forbidden question in halakha. I think that if my minister and priest friends were here now, they would affirm that the same is true of their traditions, and I would not argue with them.

However, in Judaism, unlike Christianity and Islam, there is no such thing as a forbidden answer. And the among the gifts we have to offer the battered soul of humanity is a willingness to accept that sometimes the answers we want – for reasons of faith or patriotism or ethnocentrism – are not the correct answers to those difficult questions.

Friends, not all Jews think that way, of course. And it is also not true that no non-Jews think that way. But the necessity to follow inquiry wherever it leads is essential to the Jewish ethos, and at no time in history has that legacy been more important than it is right now.

There was a time not so long ago that most of us would have believed that the pursuit of truth, no matter how uncomfortable, was the central tenet of an education in America. I would guess that many of you were in the midst of, or in close proximity to your formative education when the film version of the stage play "Inherit the Wind" was released. Spencer Tracy and Frederick March squared off as fictionalized opponents in what was a thinly-veiled recreation of the Scopes trial. In the film, in the play, in real life the issue was whether Darwin's theories of evolution could be taught to children in the public school of a small Tennessee town. It seemed to contravene the Bible, long accepted as the truth, and the city fathers were having none of it. In the end, in spite of a Pyrrhic victory in the courtroom, religious belief clearly falls before science.

As a piece of drama, "Inherit the Wind" was terrific. Seeing those two old pros square off with some delicious writing between them was a delight. But the film had a conceit: when science speaks, religion shuts up. Faith is the refuge of the ignorant. Science is truth.

It is a conceit that eventually produced a backlash among large numbers of God-fearing Americans. Raised to believe the truth of the Bible, they began to demand that Biblical models be taught alongside scientific ones, disingenuously pointing out that Darwin posited the theory of evolution, not the fact of evolution.

I have a strong opinion on the difference between the Bible's version of the creation of the human being and The Origin of the Species. It's not relevant here. What is relevant is that over the course of a hundred years, our society has been unsuccessful in integrating knowledge and faith. To be sure, there are individuals who have straddled the divide, but for the most part, Americans line up on one side or the other. And that's because just as there are forbidden answers to the person of a certain kind of faith, there are forbidden answers to those with faith in the scientific method.

A number of you have sent me a widely-circulated list of the Jews who have won the Nobel Prizes. The number is extraordinary, far out of proportion to our percentage of the population. Frequently, it is paired with a list of the few Muslims or Evangelical Christians who have similarly been honored. Whatever the purpose of such a list, it is indicative not of the superior intellect of the Jewish people – no offense to anyone in this room, but you don't want me to start listing some of the stupid things that have been done by members of this congregation alone. It is indicative of a heritage of asking forbidden questions and accepting forbidden answers when they are true.

Please allow me to give you an early illustration. The legend is that Columbus set out to prove the world was round. His assertion was heresy at the time – generally accepted fact was that the world was flat. But 1500 years before Columbus, the rabbis of the Talmud proved that the world was round. Before you get too proud, I hasten to add that by "round" they meant as opposed to "square." Our Sages of blessed memory were convinced that the world was shaped like an upside-down shallow soup bowl, and that the sun traveled above it by day and below it by night.

All sorts of halakhic rulings were based on the assertions of the sun's trajectory around a giant kipa. And I remind you that halakha is the language we use to give expression to our divine aspirations. I'll go farther than that – in pre-modern times, most Jews believed Moses brought down the Talmud, the Shulchan Arukh and the rebbe's most recent lesson along with the two tablets from atop Sinai. But when it became clear that the presumption on which all of that halakha was based was untrue, it was not the science that changed. It was halakha. And though it represented a quantum shift in the way the world was imagined, it damaged the quality of our faith not one iota. Why? Because we have always, always believed that there is no such thing as truth that is separate from faith.

Allow me to give you a later illustration. There is a halakha of death. Since life is sacred and can be taken by other human beings only in very specific and extreme circumstances, there needed to be Jewish law that determined when a person was dead. Burying a person who was barely alive was the same thing as murdering a person in the prime of life.

The Talmud and later codes are very specific about how to determine that a person has died. As long as there was any sign of breath or any indication of a beating heart, the person was alive. No matter how shallow and labored the breath, no matter how faint and irregular the heartbeat, a man or woman with either function was alive.

Medical technology in our day and age has produced machines that can artificially stimulate the heart to keep it pumping blood, and can assist the lungs in inflating and collapsing to bring oxygen into the system. How is it possible to know if a person is genuinely alive if those non-negotiable markers are no long reliable indicators?

And before you say, "no problem," please remember that not only is halakha tied up in this question, but even Hebrew language. Neshama, the word for soul, is also the word for breath. And more than one scholar has suggested that God's proper name, the yod-heh and vav-heh, is the sound of a human breath. The Torah says God breathed life into the very first human being.

But you know what? When it became clear that the presumptions about the markers of human life were unreliable, everyone – not just the Reform, not just the Conservative, but even the Orthodox Jews took a forbidden answer and made it halakha. Death is defined by the cessation of certain kinds of brain functions. The man the Talmud would have protected with the enforcement of capital penalties can now be treated, according to Jewish law, as a corpse.

In order for human life to have genuine meaning, this premise must be in place: faith cannot contradict truth. I have had discussions with more than one of you about how we determine what truth is, and I acknowledge that the answer is not always easy to come by. It is hard to distinguish between deeply held beliefs and actual facts – I certainly would never tell a faithful Christian or Muslim that their beliefs are false, just as I would never accept such an assertion about my own deep faith and trust in God. But when life presents a wealth of experience that previous inexperience contradicts, it is not faith in God that denies the necessary conclusion. It is willful ignorance. And Judaism stands against willful ignorance.

Rabbi Held put it succinctly when he expanded on the Talmudic saying, chakham adif mi-navi, "a sage is preferable to a prophet." If we rely only on revelation to shape our world, we have no use for scholarship. He cites Rabbi Abraham Isaac Kook, who acknowledges that prophets may be good at identifying and lamenting evil and articulating the importance of loving God, but they are less effective at implementing a response; it is the sage who takes the grand ideals of prophecy and translates them into the realities of life.

The one without the other is inadequate. As Rabbi Held wrote, "Prophecy without halakha easily descends into empty platitude, while halakha unmoored from prophecy too often ceases to be about anything at all."

What would be gained by relying on decisions made two thousand years ago in treating the sick and dying? Mere mechanical motion would prolong the agony of the inevitable, and life retrievable would be abandoned. How would such denial of progress serve the cause of daring to dream with God of a better world?

And what would be gained by relying entirely on contemporary standards that measure only function and productivity? Life compromised would soon enough mean life forfeited – we are all going to die, what use is there in pretending to cherish its decline? How would such denial of faith serve the cause of daring to dream with God of a better world?

The fear that would accompany an ocean voyage to the edge of a finite world would be paralyzing. The faith that no harm could come on such a voyage would be foolhardy.

And what are we to do with those who seek to equate the accuracy of a Biblical tale with the ever-increasing evidence of a scientific description of the emergence of human life on the planet?

To this point, you are with me all the way. I hope – I insist – that there is no one in this room who believes that the world is a cereal bowl or that there is no difference between respiration and a respirator or that God created the vegetation of the world before there was a sun to shine on it.

And I likewise hope – with less confidence – that there is no one in this room who dismisses the essential role that faith plays in the life of the human family, and of the Jewish family in particular.

And so none of us would find fault in a remarkable statement by an atheist anthropologist named Robert Ardrey, even though it seemingly contradicts the Biblical text we hold sacred:

"But we were born of risen apes, not fallen angels, and the apes were armed killers besides. And so what shall we wonder at? Our murders and massacres and missiles, and our irresponsible regiments? Or our treaties whatever they may be worth; our symphonies however seldom they may be played; our peaceful acres, however they may be converted into battlefields; our dreams however rarely they may be accomplished. The miracle of man is not how far he has sunk but how magnificently he has risen. We are known among the stars by our poems not our corpses."

And we would find no fault in it despite the magnificence of Psalm 8, which speaks a similar truth:

"Oh Lord, what is a man that You bear him in mind
or the child of a man that You take notice?
Yet You have made him little less than godly
and crowned him with glory."

Is the truth of a godless man less true because of his lack of faith? Is the truth of a faithful insight less true because it cannot be empirically proven? Of course not – neither truth is exclusive. Neither question is illegitimate. And neither answer to the question of the origins of the human being is forbidden.

But it is also the case that, for some people, one or the other answer in undesirable. The atheist may not be willing to make room for faith out of strength of conviction. The believer may not be willing to make room for inconvenient truths out of strength of faith. Though I honor the free will that allows them each to make such choices, their personal biases are not a substitute for the obligation we have to be comprehensive in our encounter of this world. As Jews, we have a contribution to make to a world that is polarized between pure faith and pure reason, which is to say one kind of human arrogance and another. We must model how we absorb the forbidden answers to the questions human beings are compelled to ask.

This November, a very bad constitutional amendment will appear on the Virginia ballot for your consideration. It will, for the fourth time, put this Commonwealth on record as validating bigotry against people with same-sex orientation. Once again, the faithful and the reasonable will line up against each other and declare the other to be offering a forbidden answer to a once-forbidden question. They are both wrong. Human sexuality was not defined only by an ancient document. And human sexuality is not defined only by organic or systemic functions. Sexual orientation is no more contagious than faith in God, but both can be promoted oppressively by zealots and bigots.

We know more about human sexuality than ever before. What was once a reason for humiliation and self-deprecation is now understood to be merely one of the many ways that we are little less than divine. Six weeks after the November election, another decision will be made. The Committee on Jewish Law and Standards will decide on one or more position papers on how to frame homosexuality in halakha. Unless I am very wrong, a forbidden answer to a difficult question is going to be affirmed because it will be the right thing to do.

For many of us, it is not the answer we want to hear – for reasons of faith, chauvinism or egocentrism – but just because we don't want to hear it does not mean we can deny it. When life presents a wealth of experience that previous inexperience contradicts, it is not faith in God that denies the necessary conclusion. It is willful ignorance. And Judaism stands against willful ignorance.

I hope the good people of the Commonwealth of Virginia will have the sense to turn back this cruel and mean-spirited constitutional amendment. When they do, it will still leave three ugly sets of laws on the books. But we as Jews, especially as Conservative Jews, have a way to offer to this world an example of how to narrow the gap between the image of God in which we were all created and the realities of the trampling of human dignity.

I look forward to that moment in December when we will welcome Jews of all sexual orientations into this synagogue as fully enfranchised members of our community. And I look forward to enabling the ceremonies of all fully enfranchised members of our community as they mark the important moments in their lives – the arrival of children, the coming of age through bar and bar mitzvah, the grief of bereavement and, most especially, the celebration of exclusive love and intimacy through marriage.

Rabbi Held said it, and I repeat it: God's dream is of a world in which human dignity is real and the presence of God is manifest. To be a covenantal Jew is to dare to dream with God.

Dare to dream of such a world. Be proud to do so. And do not be afraid that by doing so the dire predictions and dark imprecations of the willfully ignorant will come down upon us. Fear not, for God is with us.

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