The Sino-Hebraic Connection

Adam Daniel Mezei asks via Twitter:

What’s your read on the connections between Chinese and Jews. Beyond obvious factors, what do you think our connections are?

After wondering aloud if I could answer that in 140 characters, I though about it and gave him this precis of an answer.

I think Chinese and Jews look each other in the eye and see something comforting and familiar. It comes not necessarily from a shared set of values, but of common experience: each is the ancient and seminal culture of a civilization, has endured unspeakable hardship/persecution, and each has emerged from the crucible of history with great depth beneath the hardened exterior shared by all survivors.

Therein, I believe, lies the heart of the mutual respect and admiration – and in my household affection – between the two great cultures.

Thoughts?

The Blessing of Boredom

From a fascinating article in The Wall Street Journal entitled “Boredom Enthusiasts Discover the Pleasures of Understimulation” I discovered this interesting little insight.

Journalist and author Naomi Alderman spoke about the difficulty of having to observe the Jewish Sabbath as a child. Her talk, “What It’s Like to Do Almost Nothing Interesting for 25 Hours a Week,” ended on an unexpected, touching note. “When we learn to tolerate boredom,” she said, “we find out who we really are.”

Superb. It also explains why I enjoy reading Judaic writings on airplanes.

Judeo-Christian Ethics and Sustainability

China hands even the most grizzled conservative an opportunity to contemplate our growing need to be better custodians of the planet. Along those lines, Worldchanging did an interesting interview with Jonathan Watts, author of the recent bestseller When a Billion Chinese Jump. Naturally, the topic of sustainability came up, and Watts’ comments are interesting, especially toward the end.

JW: Looking for a solution to the predicament we are in, of living unsustainably, the importance of values comes up again and again. The focus in China is mainly on science and technology, on hardware – on things that if you drop them will hurt your toe. The importance of values hasn’t really kicked in, but it’s absolutely essential. Where do you get these values? Clearly western values haven’t stopped the west from screwing up the environment. So, it’s worth looking to China’s philosophical and cultural roots.

Which got me thinking (being that I live in China but I am from a country that is still skittish about making any major commitments to the environment), perhaps it is time for non-Chinese to look into our philosophical, cultural, and religious roots for answers to why we might need to change our behavior toward the planet.

Those of you who know me understand I am nobody’s idea of a tree-hugger. But there is so much sound and fury around climate – often pitting the eco-zealots against the self-interested – that I am starting to think that it is time to go back to a more fundamental source for some perspective in the debate.

A few places I am looking for ideas and guidance:

Two Paths

Interesting quote from the first volume of Rabbi. Joseph Telushkin’s magisterial A Code of Jewish Ethics:

The Midrash teaches that if a person wishes to become a priest (Kohen) or a Levite, he cannot do so, since these roles are passed down by heredity from father to child. But any person, Jew and non-Jew alike, can become a tzaddik, a righteous person (Midrash Psalms).

Indeed.

O, Hashem. If it is your will that I shall never be a Get Tzedek, make me instead a goyische tzaddik.

The Rebbe and American Values

Menachem Mendel Schneerson

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In God We Trust: A Handbook of Values for All Americans, Rabbi Menachem M. Schneerson

Compiled from talks and written works of the Lubavitcher Rebbe Menachem Mendel Schneerson (of blessed memory) makes a reasoned case for all in America to commit to a set of values that come from a place beyond man.

The Rebbe’s goal is not to convert anyone, make a case for Judaism, or suggest that America should become the kind of theocracy-in-fact that many fundamentalist Christians seem to support.

Rather, he suggests that the nation is better when we as individuals subscribe to and live by a set of values that is not subject to change at the drop of a hat. For those of us inclined to see the wisdom in what the Rebbe says, he makes an entirely satisfactory case. The Rebbe’s focus always was first and foremost to his own chassidim, his followers, and given that much of what was written here came from imprecations to the Lubavitchers in the original Yiddish, some of the material does not deliver the same force with outsiders as it might.

This is by no an aspersion on the Rebbe: when the occasion arose during his life (which, as he aged, was often) to counsel those of other faiths, he did so with a profundity and empathy that was as accessible as it was uncannily accurate. Those occasions – which came in primarily in the form of correspondence and personal meetings – are not captured here. If there is a weakness, it is in the necessary exclusion of those works (they were personal, after all) from the compilation.

Others, some of whom were the Rebbe’s Chassids, others who were not, have set out explicitly to lay out universal values, and have arguably done better. Denis Prager, Rabbi Shmuely Boteach, and (Think Jewish), to name a very few, have concerned themselves much more with the matter of the wider audience.

But what the work does convey is what is to me one of the most profound beauties of Judaism: its staunch refusal to position itself as the sole legitimate faith, and its explicit recognition that there are many nations, each with it’s own path to God.

Ethics and Tikkun Olam

Chief Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

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To Heal a Fractured World: The Ethics of Responsibility by Rabbi Jonathan Sacks

By creating a work that implores not only Jews but people of all faiths to recognize our mutual responsibility to one another, Rabbi Sacks, the Chief Rabbi of Great Britain and the Commonwealth, proves once again why he has become one of the most eloquent and inspiring advocates of a life lived with meaning and purpose.

Ethics is always a tricky subject, but to his credit Rabbi Sacks is reasoned but unrepentant about his message: there can be ethics without religion and religion without ethics, but it is the joining of the two that deliver the far greater impact over time.

Religious skeptics need not bother: Sacks is not trying to make a case for religion here, but for ethics.

A must read for anyone wondering how to make a real difference in the world.

Enriching the Haskalah

A Reform synagogue with mixed seating and equa...

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While the Haskalah, the Jewish Enlightenment movement, probaly saved millions of Jews from total assimilation, in its rejection of the Oral Law and much tradition as well as practice, did it not deny generations of Reform jews all knowledge of the richness of their legacy?

What I must wonder is how many we lost because of a shallow understanding of Judaism, and an ignorance of the true depths of its heritage.

Is it not time to consider turning the tide, to consider bringing to Reform and Conservative Jews a greater exposure to the parts of their heritage arbitrarily cast aside a century and a half ago?