Twenty one years ago today, the love of my life said yes, and agreed to become my beautiful bride. Moby Dick was published 120 years before that. The events are unrelated, except for the fact that they are two of my favorite things. This is also the time of year when the demands of my job pull me in to longer, more intense days. I have been focused more exclusively on family and work. I haven’t written as much as I’d like, and I apologize for that. With any luck, I’ll get back to posting every week or two. Big changes are coming to KingstonBarn, and I am excited.
The big change for today is our first guest blogger, Rabbi David Nelson. As promised at the outset, this is a forum for discussion of our local and area issues. Well, this greeted me in this morning’s inbox, and I thought it too good, too pertinent, and too thought-provoking not to share with you.
As always, I invite you to join in the discussion, either in the comment section, or by writing you own post for this blog. Just send it on to the email address below.Andrew Champ-Doran KingstonBarn.wordpress.com email@example.com
‘Tis the season! Debates! Polls! And those ever-popular television attack ads! What does it all mean? Consider this morsel from the Babylonian Talmud (Shabbat 11a): “Raba ben Mehasia also said in the name of Rabbi Hama ben Goria in Rab’s name: If all seas were ink, all reeds pens, the heavens parchment, and all men writers, they would not suffice to write down the intricacies of government. ” Explaining the last few words, “…the intricacies of government…,” the renowned 11th century French scholar known as Rashi writes, “The depth of its [i.e., the governing authority’s] heart/mind. For it must have the heart/mind to pay heed to numerous countries, to the tax that is levied, to numerous wars, and to numerous laws all on one day [i.e., all at the same time].”
This ancient observation and its medieval explanation seem to hold a wise truth that has been completely overlooked in our society (which, we are fond of pointing out, is the most participatory, open, and enlightened political system the world has ever known). In fact, the business of government, even in the ancient world (and, as the Talmud would say, how much the more so in our world) is extraordinarily complex. Acts of Congress regularly run to thousands of pages. Supreme Court decisions are far shorter, but often even more arcane. And the details of military planning, diplomatic negotiating, fiscal policy, and the delicate balance of power between the federal government and the states are mind numbing. Yet with all this, we have come to accept a political process that boils down our choice of leaders to 30- or 60-second TV ads and 90-minute debates in which the candidates take every question as an opportunity to recite a well-rehearsed speech filled with clever lines (“zingers”) and talking points.
I would be highly suspicious of any claim that religion-in-general or any specific religious tradition offers clear support to one candidate or another. But religion, taken seriously, would clearly warn us against reducing any political process or choice of candidate to simple, brief, bumper-sticker witticisms. Jewish tradition in particular encourages us to immerse ourselves in the details and ramifications of ideas. Such activity is so highly valued that numerous portrayals of the afterlife imagine a huge, celestial study-house where God presides as the head teacher, and all the souls of the righteous spend their time studying the law with divine guidance. In a strange and wonderful twist, one rabbinic scenario reports a heavenly study session followed, as is the custom, by the recitation of Kaddish (Kaddish is often thought of as a mourner’s prayer, but in fact it is simply an extended praise of God and is recited not only by mourners but at the conclusion of any traditional study session). At the end of the recitation, the righteous in Heaven all answer “Amen!” And then the wicked condemned to Hell also shout “Amen!” — apparently they were listening to the discussion of law as well! The “Amen!” of the damned so moves God that he commutes their sentence and sends angels to bring them out of the pit, bathe and clothe them, and escort them to Heaven. It seems there is endless reward for those who are willing to take the time to think through issues of law in all their true depth and complexity! It kind of makes me wonder about the values of a society that has fallen deeply in love with a tweet limited to 140 characters!
Visiting Asst. Professor of Religion
*Editors note: Rabbi David Nelson has been a teacher and Chaplain at Bard College since 2008. In his time there, Rabbi Nelson has published periodic emails to all subscribers on Bard’s local webmail. True to rabbinical tradition, Nelson’s entertaining meditations inspire reflection and often quite spirited discussion among his readers. Today’s post first appeared in the same forum on 18 October 2012, and is published with the author’s expressed permission and blessing.
Rabbi David Nelson’s biography, as published by the Bard Chaplaincy, is as follows: B.A., Wesleyan University; M.H.L., rabbinic ordination, Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion; Ph.D., New York University. Associate director, ARZA (Association of Reform Zionists of America; 2005– ); director, Jewish Life Connection, Washington Township, New Jersey (2001–05); rabbi and principal, Garden City Jewish Center, New York (1980–85). Has taught at Hebrew Union College–Jewish Institute of Religion, New York University, Adelphi University; guest lecturer at University of Virginia, Wesleyan University, St. Andrew’s Presbyterian College, Reconstructionist Rabbinical College, Vassar College. Contributing editor, Shma (1995–2000). Author of Judaism, Physics and God: Searching for Sacred Metaphors in a Post-Einstein World. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org