Off the Pulpit


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Ignorance and Wisdom

In 1913, British novelist E.C. Bentley wrote a mystery called “Trent’s Last Case.” It became a classic not only for the sparkling writing, but because the detective observes meticulously, reasons brilliantly – and comes to the exact wrong conclusion. It is a marvelous lesson in intellectual humility. As recently as 2002, scientists asked a large number of people how such everyday things as zippers, piano keys and bicycles actually work. People were robustly confident that they knew – and then proved abysmally ignorant. We know far less about the world than we assume, and our reasoning is often flawed. All…

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Courts of Love

In medieval England and France, there were courts of love. They legislated on questions regarding love, passed sentence on lovers who were in the wrong, and generally tried to establish a system of jurisprudence to keep love disputes from the regular courts. Charles the IV established his court on Valentine’s Day of 1400 by having a panel of women select the judges based on oral recitation or examples of poetry; others were composed of married women or widows themselves. One man who renounced his vows to a lady only to marry a woman of ‘higher station’ had to pay his…

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The Emotions of Elul

This week began the month of Elul, a time of introspection and self-appraisal. These are not entirely the same tasks. Introspection helps us understand our own motivations, thoughts, and emotions. Self-appraisal is concerned with our actions and how they affect other people. These are naturally intertwined, since our actions spring from within. Yet it is remarkable how often what we do is not taken as intended. We say things that are misunderstood, gestures of tenderness that seem callous, help experienced as interference, restraint interpreted as indifference. We need to explore why we do unkind things, and also why we sometimes…

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Wide As The World

Many years ago at Hebrew University I studied with the renowned Israeli philosopher Eliezer Schweid. During a bus ride we took together, he talked about my plans of becoming a Rabbi and explained why the challenge to Judaism was different in the modern world. Prof. Schweid told me that traditionally, Torah had to measure itself against a single tradition or school of thought: it was the Torah versus Aristotle, or Islam, or Christianity. But today the Torah must contend with a large variety of disparate disciplines: astronomy, sociology, biology, psychology, archeology, history, linguistics, physics and on and on. As a…

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Excellence, Not Perfection

As a child I had the disorienting experience of visiting other children’s homes and discovering that their families sometimes did things better than my own. Because I loved my own family and thought them ideal, I didn’t know what to do with this information. Eventually I came to recognize that something or someone you love can be excellent without being perfect. As I grew I came to this realization about my country. The United States is unique. Ours is a remarkable and blessed land. Yet I have studied history and know that we have also done some disreputable and even…

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Only God, My Dear

“My beloved is radiant… the winter is passed.” So does the Song of Songs, Judaism’s preeminent poem of passion, speak about the warmth and glow of the one who is loved. Such similes endure throughout the ages. Shakespeare asks if he shall compare his love to a summer’s day. Leonard Cohen asks, “With Annie gone, whose eyes to compare with the morning sun?” Pointing to the wonders of nature is for religion a sacred as well as a poetic duty. God has given us a treasure house of metaphor to explore our feelings, to understand how to love and to praise. The human…

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Peace Or Discontent?

There are powerful competing ideologies of religious meaning, one promoting acceptance and the other, discontent. Are we supposed to accept the world, be at peace with its foibles and tragedies, or are we to fight always against the world, to seek to make it better and not rest easy with its shortcomings? In 1946 Rabbi Joshua Loth Liebman wrote a bestseller called “Peace of Mind” in which he argued for balance and calm as religious objectives. In contrast two years before in “Halakhic Man,” Rabbi Joseph Soloveitchik wrote that “Religion is not, at the outset, a refuge of grace and…

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Normal Mystics

The rabbinic scholar Max Kadushin came up with a marvelous title for the Rabbis of the Talmud. He called them “Normal Mystics.” Mystics throughout history have seen visions denied to the rest of humanity. Many retreat from the world to mountaintops or forests in order to cultivate and concentrate on those visions. They practice deep, continuous spiritual exercises in the hope of sharpening and deepening the special sight that is granted to them by virtue of their gifts. As Kadushin pointed out, that was not the Rabbinic path. Yes, the Rabbis prayed and meditated, and certainly had moments of solitude…

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Effortful Eloquence

When God calls to Moses at the burning bush, Moses protests that he cannot go to Pharaoh because he has a speech impediment. If the Torah were a children’s fairy tale book, God would have simply cured Moses of his impediment, and sent him to Pharaoh. Rather than cure Moses, God says, “Who gives man speech? Who makes him dumb or deaf, seeing or blind? Is it not I, the Lord? (Ex. 4:11). God not only acknowledges Moses’ problems with speech, but claims responsibility for them. For the next forty years Moses will lead a recalcitrant and immature people through…

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Broken Whole Hearts

When someone suffers the loss of a person whom they love, there is always a certain wonder and even resentment that the world seems not to notice. The heavens do not open, the sun still shines, and most people go about their business as if nothing monumental had happened. That is one of the reasons we observe shiva, the seven days of mourning. The avel, the one who mourns, wears torn clothes except on Shabbat so that everyone knows that for this person the world has been plunged into a kind of darkness and will never be the same. The…

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