I’d like to begin with a little poll: Chocolate or vanilla?
Which taste do you like better?
Music from the 80’s, 90’s, or the past two decades?
Spicy food or sweet food?
Modern art or renaissance art?
Thank you to all those who participated. I wasn’t keeping track of who likes what, but it’s quite clear that we do not all agree, and that is fine. Isn’t it?
In Israel, there is a phrase, “al ta’am v’rei’ach ein l’hit’vakeiach, regarding taste and smell, there is no reason to argue.” It’s a proverb coined by Avraham Shlonsky, a Russian poet, and it doesn’t need much explaining. We have different tastes, it’s as simple as that. Some of it is genetic, some of it is the environment that we grew up in. You stop arguing about such things when you graduate, I don’t know, elementary school because it’s silly. Al ta’am v’rei’ach ein l’hit’vakeiach.
Let’s continue our poll: Is the temperature in our main sanctuary too hot, too cold, or Goldilocks-perfect?
How about the pace of services on a typical Shabbos – too fast or too slow?
Once again, we could invoke al ta’am v’rei’ach ein l’hit’vakeiach, there is no perfect temperature and there is no perfect davening pace. But these types of questions evoke a liiiittle bit more emotion, don’t they? Maybe because my taste on these questions have a direct bearing on you.
How about this one – Trump or Biden?
Masks or no masks?
It just got really hot in here, didn’t it?
Aside from being mad at me for bringing up politics and the most divisive questions of 2021 on the first day of Rosh Hashana, you may also be wondering what those questions have to do with this list. Mask-wearing and who to vote for are not questions of taste. They are questions of morality, of beliefs, of right and wrong.
That’s what it would seem, but it’s not so simple.
Dr. Jonathan Haidt is a prominent social psychologist and professor at NYU. In one of his best-selling books, The Righteous Mind, he lays out the case to describe our inner moral system as taste receptors. Just like we have all different tastes in food, in music, and in temperature, we also have different tastes in morality. This is not an analogy. He means it literally. Citing an exhaustive collection of data, he argues that just like our DNA defines how we respond to certain tastes, our genetic code significantly impacts our moral judgment.
His theory, again, backed up with significant evidence, is that we are born with moral inclinations that are predisposed to certain political parties and ideas. Each of us are born with a full palette of moral taste buds. And just like we are born with differing tastes for different foods, some of us have moral taste buds that are more strongly geared to one form of morality over others. Some of us are born with a strong moral “taste” for fairness and protecting the vulnerable. These people will likely, but not necessarily, vote Democrat. Some are born with moral taste buds that are especially sensitive to loyalty, respect of authority, the notion of sanctity, and liberty. These people will likely, but not necessarily, vote Republican.
To be clear, by saying that our moral taste buds are genetic, he does not mean that they are static. No one here liked brussels sprouts the first time they ate them, and no one here liked Scotch the first time they drank some (– despite pretending otherwise). Our moral taste buds are also malleable. Through nurture, through our social surroundings, they can change.
The implication of this theory cannot be overstated. This would mean that my moral decisions and your moral decisions are less a function of reason, and more a function of DNA. Which would mean that when we argue about moral issues, to some extent we are arguing over what tastes better, chocolate or vanilla.
Now some of you are likely quite offended by what I’m saying, silently screaming, “No! My political views are guided by pure reason!” (Which of course implies that the other person’s political views are guided by a lack of reason.) I know this is a lot to swallow. I know that you all feel like I have insulted your intelligence and all I have accomplished thus far, is uniting this very diverse crowd in a dislike for me. Okay.
But let’s run with this for a moment, or at least the possibility that it’s true. If Dr. Haidt’s theory is correct, then I cannot think of a more important idea to share with you this Rosh Hashana. Because if 2020 was the year of uncertainty, then this past year was the year of divisiveness. Elections that are still being contested almost a year later, bipartisanship of any sort being grounds for dismissal from one’s political party, an attack on the Capitol which left people dead and numerous police officers committing suicide in its wake, and none of this deep hatred is limited to Washington, which would be bad enough. It surrounds us, it’s in this room!
To make matters worse, we are shockingly masked up again, not only because of the Delta variant but because of a national debate over the safety and efficacy of vaccines, and because of a deep and growing distrust of the medical establishment – a distrust of any and all establishments. Covid killed millions of people. Divisiveness is destroying whatever is left.
And thanks to these national debates, our immediate surroundings, the Jewish Orthodox community we live in, is fracturing even further. We are a nation divided. We are a people divided. We are a community divided. This has been a year of divisiveness like no other.
In the leadup and aftermath of the elections, it was truly disturbing to hear friends discuss those who voted for a different party than them. For some reason, everyone assumes I vote for the same party they do. (They forget that I am Canadian, and I did not vote for anyone.) But they were candid, and this what I heard: “All liberals are socialist snowflakes.” “All conservatives are dishonest and immoral.” If you’re a mask-wearer, all those who don’t wear a mask are selfish. If you are not a mask-wearer, all those who do are sheep.
And once we’re at it, let’s be honest, how do we feel about our fellow Jews? Some of us may struggle with our relationship to Jews of different denominations, seeing them as cheapening and ruining our faith. Some of us may struggle with our relationship to other Orthodox Jews, seeing them as fundamentalists who are trampling on others to further their cause. And everyone is too right or too left – except for us. Mm hmm.
In the mid-1800’s, the Chassidic movement, still in its infancy, was being ripped apart by in-fighting. The center of much controversy was Rav Nachman of Breslov, a man known for his over-the-top statements and outlandish behavior. His followers were persecuted, chased out of many a town. Rav Nachman’s prime student, Rav Nosson penned an important piece where he explained to his followers that they should not bear any ill-will against those who persecuted them. Why? Because their opinions, the theories that animated their hate for the Breslov movement, stemmed from their unique shoresh haneshama, the root of their soul. Referring to the big fights in the Chassidic movement, he suggested that there is no right and wrong, it was a matter of individual souls being rooted in different places in the Heavens, and therefore possessing very different views. What Dr. Haidt describes as moral taste buds, Rav Nosson described as ‘roots of the soul.’ But they both agree, we have innate differences of opinion.
So maybe, just maybe, we can begin this year, coming off of a year filled with so much hate with a mantra. A mantra of al ta’am v’rei’ach ein l’hit’vakeiach. To run with the possibility that most people are not malicious, nor are they dumb. They, like us, are assessing every situation with a moral compass, only that our moral compasses, like our souls, are hard-wired differently. Of course, there are limitations to what is considered moral, and as believing Jews, the goalposts of morality are not that wide, but wider than we often assume. Al ta’am v’rei’ach ein l’hit’vakeiach. Let’s start there.
But it’s not enough. Al ta’am v’reiach ein l’hitvakeiach teaches us to stop arguing and hopefully stop hating. But we are encouraged to love every human being, Jew and non-Jew alike. We are commanded to love every Jew. Is this a Mitzvah that we can proudly say we fulfil?
This Mitzvah is important every day and especially today. The very first historical recording of the Jewish People celebrating Rosh Hashana, in the book of Nechemia, describes our ancestors, not listening to the Shofar, not spending the day in shul, not doing tashlich, or dipping apples in honey. Nechemia instructs the Jewish people to go home and to give gifts to one another and to establish new relationships. Why is that? Why are they told to be loving on this day?
Rav Yitzchak Hutner (Pachad Yitzchak, Rosh Hashana, 1) explains that on Rosh Hashana, the day that G-d chose to create us, which was an act of kindness and love, the greatest act of kindness! He does not need us. He chose to create us to give, to love. On this day we emulate Him by doing the same. Olam chesed yibaneh, G-d created the world, the ultimate act of love, and we are asked to create our own worlds of love, starting today. So how do we do so?
Rabbi Y.Y. Jacobson, a journalist and speaker, once described the difference between anti-Semites and Jews. An anti-Semite says, “I hate the Jewish People.” “The Jewish People are thieves.” “The Jewish People are a parasite.”
And then you ask this anti-Semite, “Okay, but what about your dentist, Dr. Weinstein?”
“Dr. Weinstein? He’s an exception.”
“And Stanley Green, your accountant? Don’t you trust him?”
“Oh, Stanley. He’s the most honest guy I know. But the rest of the Jews – they’re terrible.”
A Jew says, “I love the Jewish People. Am Yisrael chai. I would give my life for the Jewish nation.”
And then you ask him, “But what about Shloime, your neighbor? You know, the one you don’t talk to.”
“Shlomie? He’s an absolute jerk. Do you know what he did to me?!”
“And that group of guys who broke away from your shul and started their own minyan?”
“What a bunch of rabble-rousers, chutzpinyaks!”
The anti-Semite hates the Jewish People but has no problem with individual Jews. The Jew loves the Jewish People, but particular Jews… eh.
So how do we do it? How do we love not just “the Jewish People” but each Jewish person, especially today, when the disagreements run so deep? This is a Mitzvah we can all rally around. Loving your fellow Jew is not controversial. And yet, sometimes, it’s really hard to perform.
One of the exercises I do with my high school students, is I ask them to describe themselves. They typically tell me about their interests, about their favorite classes, and what they do in the summer. Try the same exercise in a non-Western country and you’ll hear another category of self-identification. The students, in non-Western countries will answer, “I am a child of my parents.” “I am part of this nation.” “I am a part of my family.” They will describe themselves and identify themselves as part of a group of people.
One of the great ideas that the Enlightenment brought to the Western world was the notion of individualism. Individualism, at its finest, means that every human is endowed with liberties and rights and this idea changed the world. It was the idea that helped overthrow tyrannical kings, it ended slavery, and it animated the civil rights movement, bringing personal rights and freedom to all.
But there is an underbelly to this idea, a negative and unintended consequence; the notion that each of us stand completely apart from one another, that we are a world onto our own, that I have no responsibility to anyone but myself; the goal of life, in this worldview, is to actualize my potential and to live my dream. Family may play a supporting role, and I will care for them, but my sense of self is exactly that – my self. Whereas in the ancient world, my identity was my family, my faith, my country. In the modern Western world, my identity is me.
Over the past twenty years, this notion of me being the center of the universe has been amplified and distorted. Think about it – the marketplace is no longer a place to sell ideas, we now sell ourselves, and incredibly – people are buying it. Reality television was the first hint to this phenomenon. Facebook posts highlighting my vacations, my dinner, my pet cat, liked by hundreds and thousands of people, make me believe that I am the center of the universe. Tik Tok videos of me dancing, talking, of me videoing my parents yelling at me, shared all over the internet, all reinforce one idea – we are all on a stage and we are all the star actor.
The Kabbalists explain that we all share one soul, what they describe as a nefesh k’lali. By all, I mean the entire world, not just Jews. But for today, or maybe for this year, let’s start small, seeing ourselves as one entity with the Jewish People. Not in the abstract, but with every particular Jew. You know what, forget every Jew! Can we see ourselves as one with every Jew in Baltimore? Can we do so with every Jew in this room? One entity.
How does seeing ourselves as one help anything?
It helps a lot. Franz Kafka, one of the great thinkers of the 20th century, grappled with the same question we are. He wrote, “What do I have in common with Jews?” Is that now what so many of us grapple with? How can I have something in common with Jews who are so different, who are so dangerous, who are acting so foolishly?
Listen to his answer: “What do I have in common with Jews?” he asked. And he answers, “I hardly have anything in common with myself.” “I hardly have anything in common with myself.”
As individual people, we are made up of a mess of good and bad, pride and shame, but we still like ourselves, don’t we? Despite some characteristics that we are quite embarrassed of. No? Can we look at the people around us with the same compassion? You’re a part of me, I am a part of you. We are one. That’s what it means to see ourselves as one. The same compassion we have towards our own shameful qualities, can we direct some of that self-love to others? Can we?
So we now have a floor, and we have a ceiling. At the floor, the lowest place we’ll be this year, we have the saying, al ta’am v’reiach ein l’hitvakeiach. We will fight for science, and medicine, for morality. But we will also realize that some people are hard-wired very differently than we are. And hopefully that phrase will catch us from stooping to saying or even thinking things that disparage others; not dumb, not evil, just hard-wired differently. The ceiling, what we are aspiring to is to see ourselves as one. What the Kabbalists describe as nefesh k’lali, a collective soul.
I imagine some of you are still stuck. It’s a lot to swallow, I get it. So allow me to conclude by sharing with you one final story. It’s a story I did not initially believe until I heard it from the granddaughter of the man it happened to, someone I trust, Rebbetzin Yocheved Goldberg from Boca Raton Synagogue, and it goes like this:
Yocheved, her last name was then Bruckstein, was a young girl in sleepaway camp, at Camp Chedva. On visiting day, her parents and grandparents came to see her. As they were walking through the campgrounds together, her grandfather walked by another older gentleman and nodded hello – and kept on walking. Yocheved’s father was curious. “Who is that man, dad? I’ve never seen him before.”
The grandfather initially tried to brush it off. “It was nobody.” But that made his son even more curious. “Who is he?”
And so finally the grandfather said, “He was my best friend before the war.”
“Your best friend before the war?! And all you did was nod?! What’s going on, dad? Why didn’t you give him a hug, or even talk to him?” The grandfather stopped walking. “Let’s find a seat, I want to tell you a story.”
They found a place to sit, and the grandfather continued. “As you know, I had a wife and a son in Romania before the war. I saw the writing on the wall; I knew what was coming so I got visas for myself, my wife, my son, and my in-laws, and I had plans to leave just before the Nazis arrived.”
“The day before I left, I went over to the house of my best friend; we used to study together, we shared so many ups and downs together, I couldn’t leave without telling him. I told him about the visas, I told him they were hidden away and that tomorrow I would be leaving. And we hugged each other goodbye.”
“The next morning, I went to get the visas – but they were gone. And so was my friend and his family.”
“The Nazis came, we were deported to Auschwitz, and I lost everyone; my in-laws, my beloved wife, and my precious son.”
The son could not believe his ears. “Dad, a moment ago I wanted to know why you didn’t hug him, now I want to know why you didn’t punch him in the face? He killed your family?! How could you even say hello to him?!”
And the grandfather replied, “Son, it was a different time. People were scared, people acted in ways they wouldn’t have otherwise. We cannot understand it. We just have to move on.”
Friends, we are living in a time of violent divisiveness, sinat chinam run wild, not just out there, but here. In our community, in our shuls, in our families. It does not have to be so. If Mr. Bruckstein could find it within himself to “move on” with the person who quite literally caused the death of all the people he loved, there is almost nobody that we cannot forgive.
We need to be compassionate with the knowledge that we are all hard-wired differently. No one is dumb, we are different. Al ta’am v’reiach ein l’hitvakeiach. At the very least, let’s stop fighting over matters of taste. We need to strive to internalize the reality that we share a nefesh k’lali; we are one. Lastly, even when we know people who have made terrible decisions, decisions that are lethal – when the dust settles, when this saga is all over, we need to forgive and to forget; we need to move on.
Barcheinu Avinu kulanu k’echad, bless us our Father, together as one.