Editor’s Note: On Fridays we publish a selection of letters our readers have sent in regarding articles and podcasts published recently on Tablet.
In response to Liel Leibowitz’s “We Are All Anthony Weiner”:
Brilliant article. We all have our demons, and schadenfreude is a common one that makes us forget we are all human with failings.
— Joey David
In response to Ann Roiphe’s “My Husband Quit Smoking, Then He Started Again”:
It is so rare, so unusual, to read an essay so filled with love and affection, sweetness and light. Herman was a hero, and Anne Roiphe communicated his heroism without resort to cliché. The cigarette hook worked splendidly.
— David Lehman, New York, New York
In response to Liel Leibovitz’s “Dear Social Justice Warriors: Your Religion Is Progressivism, Not Judaism”
As a liberal Jew, I practice Judaism. This should be somewhat apparent. Perhaps I ought to note that “Jew” is the noun in this statement and not the other way around. Truth be told, I rarely bother to add the adjective “liberal”—for like many Jews I feel that my values and actions, while labelled one way or another, have nothing to do with those labels. They come from my own understanding of what we, as Jews, are commanded to do in this world. (Others have slapped on the label later). They come from my understanding of the fundamentals of our faith.
But what are the fundamentals of our faith? A thorny question to be sure, but we do not need to look beyond our own tradition to find the answer. Judaism has a rich history of theologians, scholars, and rabbis who attempt to tackle this question. Conveniently, we have the teaching of Hillel to reduce the entire Torah to one line (from Babylonian Talmud, Shab 31a): “…that which is hateful unto you do not do to your neighbor. This is the whole of Torah. The rest is commentary.” Indeed, much of Talmudic commentary is concerned with the relations of man to their fellow man. Is it truly so surprising that today Jews everywhere are concerned with the rights and freedom of others?
What’s more, nowhere do we find any mention of a quid pro quo approach to these interactions. In Judaism, most of the fundamental components of our faith are stated as absolutes: Lo Tirtzach (Do not murder), or, more relevantly, V’ahavta L’reyacha Kamocha (Love your neighbor as yourself) (Leviticus 19:18, 19:34). This lack of transactional approach to interaction, while perhaps frustrating, is just as pertinent today as when it was written. Whether or not we as Jews are disappointed in the decision of the Black Lives Matter movement to include a supportive reference to BDS, whether or not the Muslim community in France has failed to support the Jewish People. We are literally commanded to care about them and their struggles as our own.
Yet perhaps too often, Jews of all types can fall into the trap of projecting their own views and beliefs onto their religion. Too often, Jews are unaware of the theological underpinnings of their tradition. When you live within the dual worlds of Judaism and modern society, conflating the values of one with that of the other is a real hazard. Though the theological foundations of Judaism have been subjected to a rich tradition of exegesis, part of the role of religion and faith is to shape us: not the other way around. But what is it that we are being shaped to do?
Tikkun Olam, in its modern usage can seem to have become a catch-all phrase for compassion, generosity, or charitable acts. Yet those more closely align with another Jewish value of chessed, which describes the individual approach of caring and kindness each person should demonstrate to another. In the Talmud, Tikkun Olam is used to explain the correction of an injustice—in the cases of divorce, or to rectify treatment of prisoners (Gitten 4:2, 4:6). It is the rationale given when the system of Jewish Law is used to create a more just society. Lurianic Kabbalah later added to the perception of tikkun olam by refocusing on the concept of ‘tikkun’ (repair), and with the interpretation that such acts are divine in nature.
The burden of the covenant that falls upon us is weighty. To be a “light unto the nations” (Isaiah 42:6) encompasses much more than tikkun olam, and yet tikkun olam is a key tenet of what it means to be a Jew. That there are other tenets does not negate the importance of this burden. The fact that many other faiths subscribe to similar ideas does not diminish our role in any way. Whether this takes the form of social justice on a grand scale or volunteering on a smaller one, it is one of the cornerstones by which we understand our own faith; of how our faith wants us to understand ourselves.
These values we hold, despite modern descriptors like “progressive” or “conservative” or whatever the modern ideological sentiment that is projected on them, have sprung directly from the pages of the Tanach and Talmud, and are enacted by Jews all over the world. Some Jews have grappled with the idea of our covenant and found that it leads them to build their communities or donate to causes. Others have grappled with the idea of our covenant and found themselves focused on social justice. Far from being an “enfeebled” club, the mentality that Judaism is more than a belief, that Judaism is a call to action, has led the Jewish People to make a substantial impact on both themselves and the world around them. It has led to organizations like Mazon, “the Jewish response to hunger”; Repair the World, which trains Jewish leaders to transform their communities through volunteer work; or Livnot U’lehibanot, a program in Israel for young Jews that develops Jewish identity through service and the outdoors.
It may be convenient to conceive of Judaism in a clearly packed box of religion, to see it as a neatly defined interaction between man and God. But Judaism is also part of the life around us, the peoples around us, and the world around us. As Jews, our beliefs do not exist discrete from our ideals, politics, and actions. They inform and shape them, and make our ancient religion into one that remains relevant and authentic in every age. I will not presume to tell any Jew what to do with his or her Judaism. But I will defend the work of Jews everywhere, acting out of faith, belief, and longing to improve the world around them.
— Michael Walden, Tuscon, Arizona
In response to Liel Leibowitz’s “‘Stranger Things,’ a Show of Faith“:
The author captures the elusive magic of Stranger Things by pointing out its masterful use of what must be at the heart of every fantastic text: the willing suspension of disbelief. As the author points out, it’s the role of the grieving mother and the childhood friends left behind after the mysterious disappearance of their close friend, to wave aside “logic” and the tools of “modernity” in favor of a less logical and more faith-based ethos that adheres to a belief that there are “more things in heaven or earth than are dreamt of in (our) philosophy.”
The show indeed toys with this idea of a parallel dimension to our known reality. But this dimension, as in Stephen King’s oeuvre (which the show pays a very loving and conscious homage to), is always dark and menacing, made up of our worst fears and nightmares, come to life and always ready to devour us. The effort to decode the “signs” that lead the mother and the police officer into the belly of the beast is an exercise in making sense of the non-verbal (music, flashing lights): abandoning the left brain logic for the right brain (creativity) is the only way to penetrate the darkness and maybe also a way to come out on the other side.
— Yael Maurer, Tel Aviv, Israel