This essay appeared in the RRA Connection, the newsletter of the Reconstructionist Rabbinical Association, in 2014.
I’m guessing that many of us have given a d’var at some point that cited the passage in the Babylonian Talmud, Tractate Berachot 32b, that reads, “From the day that the Temple was destroyed the gates of prayer have been closed . . . but even though the gates of prayer are closed, the gates of tears are not closed.”
I’ve always been struck by what this, and some of the surrounding passages in the Talmud, appear to reveal about the attitudes of the early rabbis towards God. For instance, right after this sha’aray dimah [gates of tears] passage, we also read, “Since the day that the Temple was destroyed, a wall of iron has been established between Israel and their Father in Heaven.” (I left the male God imagery unaltered because it offers the poignant metaphor of a child unable to access his or her parent.)
As one studies the whole of this page of Talmud, one also finds passages that nevertheless offer reassurance that, with great effort and sincerity, we can still reach God and move God to compassion. For instance, “Every person who lengthens their prayer – their prayer will not be returned empty (ayn tefilato chozeret ray-kam).” And, “If a person sees that s/he has prayed but it is unanswered, s/he should pray again, as it says in Scripture, ‘Wait for the Eternal, be strong and let your heart take courage,’ etc.” Continue reading “The gates of the ancient rabbis”→
This was a talk I gave at Temple Beth Israel in Eugene, Oregon in 2009.
In this week’s parashah we find high drama as Moses comes down from his 40 day stay atop Mount Sinai carrying shnai loochot ha-aydoot – two tablets of the covenant – loochot even – tablets of stone – k’tooveem b’etzba eloheem – inscribed with writing from the finger of Almighty. You know what happens next. As it says in the text, “The ETERNAL spoke to Moses: ‘Hurry down, for your people — note that now it’s your people, not my people — whom you brought out of the land of Egypt, have acted basely. They have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them. They have made themselves an egel masecha — a molten calf, and they have bowed low to it and sacrificed to it, saying ‘This is your god, O Israel, who brought you out of the land of Egypt!'”
And then comes one of my favorite phrases of divine exasperation. God tells Moses, “Am k’shay oref hu. I see that this is a stiff-necked people.” God tells Moses that God is considering destroying the Israelites, and Moses quickly pleads on their behalf, ultimately succeeding in persuading God to give them another chance. And then Moses turned and journeyed down that mountain, carrying the shnai loochot, the two stone tablets which were, according to the text, inscribed on both sides with the direct writing of God.
When Moses finally arrived near the camp and saw the people reveling in idol worship and other lewd behaviors, he hurled the stone tablets from his hands and shattered them – v’yeeshbor otam – at the foot of the mountain. Then he took the golden calf made out of their jewelry and coins and burned it. Then he had it ground into powder, mixed into water, and he made the Israelites drink it.
By the time we get towards the end of this week’s Torah portion, we are reading about Moses and the Jewish people’s second chance at the encounter with God at Mount Sinai. Chapter 34 of Exodus begins with the words p’sal lecha shnai loochot avanim ka-reeshonim — God says to Moses, “Carve for yourself two stone tablets like the first ones.” P’sal the verb that means “carve” and “lecha” means for yourself. This is the beginning of Moses’ second journey up the mountain. This time he will bring stone tablets that he has carved himself (God had created the first set), and he will return with the text of the commandments and the covenant, bringing these sacred words to a more sobered people.
Rabbis over the centuries have taken a close look at this second set of tablets – the tablets we actually received, and through midrashic lenses they found many possible deeper lessons in the Torah’s account of this cosmic do-over. Some of the sages looked at this phrase, “p’sal lecha,” and considered how the Hebrew verb p’sal — to carve — could be read in different ways and offer up different meanings. One tradition states that the phrase, “p’sal lecha,” “carve for yourself,” actually hints at a different meaning. Instead of God saying to Moses, “carve for yourself” these two new stone tablets, if you read instead of the Hebrew word p’sal the related word pesolet, which means “leftovers,” then what you end up with is God saying to Moses, “the leftovers are for you.” What leftovers is God talking about? This midrash teaches that God was referring to the leftover bits and pieces of the highly valuable stone material that the first set of tablets were made up of. As God carved the letters into that first holy set of tablets, little bits and pieces of the stone fell onto the ground, and, according to this midrash, God told Moses to scoop them up and keep them, and sell them. The midrash says that Moses did just that, and in fact became very wealthy in the process! But then the sages add that Moses, being Moses, didn’t care for the wealth or need it. Continue reading “D’var Torah – Ki Tissa 5769 (2009) – Exodus 30:11 – 34:35”→
I just had the pleasure of presenting a two-part series on connections between Midrash and New Testament writings to an interfaith audience in Corvallis, Oregon. We met at the Church of the Good Samaritan (Episcopal), and a local synagogue, Congregation Beit Am, co-sponsored the course. (Shout outs to Rev. Simon Justice and Rabbi Benjamin Barnett of the respective congregations!) Members of at least 3 other Christian churches in the area attended as well.
I used PowerPoint slideshows and I think they were really effective.
I’m using my blog to share links to them on Slideshare.
I created this 18 minute video for a Melton course I taught a couple years ago, and I think it’s pretty good. If I were to re-do it, I would change a couple things, but overall I think this is a decent resource of its kind. If you think it could be useful, please do share it.
Now for the promotional part: I would love to come to your congregation & offer a teaching, or work with communities looking for the development of new online education resources, on a contractual basis. Please let me know if you’d like to talk about it!
I’m closing in on finishing up my third book. It’s working title is The (Book) of Joshua, and the publisher is Cascade Books, the same folks who published my previous two books. The book focuses in on the story of an ancient rabbi who played a key role in giving us the kind of Judaism we recognize today. Below are descriptions of 3 different kinds of programs I’m available to offer at synagogues, JCCs, or in interfaith learning settings.
D’var Torah (Sermon): Introducing Rabbi Joshua ben Hananiah – the First Century Sage Who Gave Us the Judaism We Know
How did Judaism get its love of debate? Its openness to multiple viewpoints and its questioning nature, including questioning God? There were many ancient rabbis who wanted Judaism to be more doctrinal and less open to debate, more intolerant of other faiths, more internally hierarchical, and more focused on the afterlife than on this life. What caused Judaism to take the shape it took?
There were many rabbis who helped shape these attributes of Judaism. And yet, about 1900 years ago, there was one rabbi in particular whose decisions and teachings may very well have created the “tipping point” that set Judaism on its course to become the decentralized, multi-opinionated, exile-surviving, other-religion-respecting, pragmatic-yet-altruistic, wounded-yet-hopeful religion that we recognize in our time. Strangely, the vast majority of Jews today have never heard of him. And outside the Jewish world he is utterly unknown. His name was Joshua ben Hananiah, and this talk is about him.
Text study with discussion: Birthing the Judaism of Debate and Sacred Doubt: Rabbi Joshua Speaks to Us
One of the best known stories in the Talmud depicts a debate pitting Rabbi Joshua and a
bunch of his colleagues taking sides against the most brilliant rabbi of their era, Rabbi Eliezer the Great. The story is sometimes referred to as “Akhnai’s Oven,” because the dispute centered on a question regarding whether or not a particular communal oven was ritually “pure.” Eliezer musters every conceivable argument but fails to persuade his colleagues, who vote him down on the ruling. In the frustration known only to geniuses who clearly see what everyone else can’t, Eliezer loses his cool and summons divine miracles to demonstrate that God thinks he is right. The miracles all manifest, but one by one Rabbi Joshua leads the rabbinic majority in refusing to consider the miracles as valid arguments. In the end, a divine voice from the heavens announces to all of them that Eliezer is right, but in a classic act of Jewish chutzpah directed towards God, Joshua rejects God’s attempt to intervene in the rabbinic process of debate and majority rule.
We’ll work through a new translation of this classic rabbinic text in order to gain an understanding of how this story has shaped Judaism’s embrace of sacred debate and even sacred doubt. We’ll also look at the tensions and ambivalences the narrative expresses about its own conclusions. Even though this story appears to reject Rabbi Eliezer’s absolutism, certainty, and authoritarian impulses, it also critiques the way Joshua and the other rabbis treat Eliezer in the aftermath of the debate. “Akhnai’s Oven” offer us a distant mirror as we grapple with our own social struggles over questions of authority, democracy, multiple perspectives on truth, and the legitimate or illegitimate sources of power.
A text will be provided in English: Rabbi Harris’ new translation of Bava Metzia 58a – 59b
Workshop: Illness, Trauma, and the “Wounded Storyteller”: Rabbi Joshua Speaks to Us
Rabbi Joshua and his contemporaries survived the Roman destruction of Jerusalem, and in the years immediately following that national catastrophe they struggled to make sense of their situation and the purpose of their lives. Rabbi Joshua emerged as a crucial voice encouraging the other survivors to develop what we, in modern times, might call a healthy, honest, and adaptive process of grieving and meaning-making.
During this workshop we’ll look at an ancient text describing how Rabbi Joshua advises a group of young rabbis who are coping with the aftermath of the Roman devastation by turning to a life of severe asceticism. Instead of asceticism, Rabbi Joshua urges that they embrace the possibility of becoming what the contemporary writer, Arthur W. Frank, describes as wounded storytellers. We’ll bring the text and its ideas into a conversation with Frank’s ideas and our own personal thoughts and feelings about the challenges of integrating loss, illness, and woundedness in our lives.
Texts will be provided in English: Tosefta Sotah 15: 11 – 15 and excerpts from Frank’s The Wounded Storyteller: Body, Illness, and Ethics. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1995.
If you think these sound like fun adult ed programs that people at your congregation would enjoy, contact me! I’m at mauricedharris (at) gmail (dot) com. Even if you’re located far from me in Eugene, Oregon, I do travel to different parts of the country from time to time for various reasons, and I’m always interested in finding ways to do some teaching when I’m out of town.
This is a guest sermon I was invited to give at a Presbyterian church in September 2013.
“In Praise of Doubt” By Rabbi Maurice Harris
University Sunday – September 29, 2013
Central Presbyterian Church (Eugene, OR)
Good morning and thank you for this opportunity to share some thoughts with you during University Sunday. Rev. Bostwick told me that one of the purposes of University Sunday is to explore the connections between church and academic disciplines, and to demonstrate this church’s commitment to creating the kind of spiritual community that welcomes all questions and invites critical thinking skills into religious life. Actually, what he said was more like, “Maurice – your job is to convince the university crowd that they can feel at home here. You must accomplish this task in one sermon. No pressure though.” . . . It’s possible that I’m remembering our conversation a little wrong.
The point here is that clergy like Rev. Bostwick and me – who welcome the questioning mind, who regard doubt as a healthy part of spiritual seeking – we sometimes struggle to get the word out that there is such a thing as non-dogmatic, intellectually honest, open-minded religious life. That there are places where people can come for prayer, song, community, social action, and yes, tradition too, and together explore how to form a plausible faith in a desperately uncertain world. That is the kind of religious life that synagogues like the one I served for eight years, Temple Beth Israel, and churches like this one seek to cultivate.
This talk is called “In Praise of Doubt,” so let me get to the heart of it. The Reverend Val Webb is an Australian Christian theologian and writer who writes about the spiritual value of doubt. She’s the author of one of my favorite books, In Defense of Doubt: An Invitation to Adventure. Webb describes a healthy religious community as one that turns to its sacred texts, traditions, and customs for deep guidance, but that also allows room for the open expression of doubt and the possibility of change, especially in response to new knowledge about the world or the insights of human experience. She writes, “…questions of human experience cannot be silenced by the loudness of authoritative doctrinal interpretation.”
Webb describes two kinds of congregations – those that are inhospitable to doubt, and those that welcome doubt as part of the spiritual adventure. She describes doubt as not only spiritually necessary, but also as inevitable. She critiques religious communities that treat doubt as a demonic influence, and she argues that there’s a falseness to responding to healthy doubt by telling worshippers to repeatedly affirm the officially sanctioned set of beliefs until the doubts are driven out. Continue reading “In Praise of Doubt – Guest Sermon at Central Presbyterian Church – Eugene, OR”→