Sunday, June 17, 2018

I Want You To Like Me!

My Parents told me what it used to be like before there were cell phones. To meet up with a friend, you had to set up a time and place in advance, and then you would go and hope the other person would show up. And once you were there, you were there. You couldn't text up your other friends to meet somewhere else, or show your friend a viral video, or check your email. You just had to look the other person in the face and talk. The same thing with job interviews, dates, break-ups. I can just imagine how nice that must of been, or how boring, our worry about whether I would have been able to do that.

Our way is much more convenient and flexible, and we share more information, even personal information, than ever before. But I wonder if communication is about more than facts and signals.

The Rambam delineates several laws of speech in the beginning of the Mishnah Torah. There is one law that forbids lying - transmitting facts through speech that don't correspond to reality. This is called שקר (sheker) or falsehood. There is another law that forbids speaking in a way that the heart is not aligned with the mouth. This second law is said to be more severe than the first. Even fetuses, says the gemara, that have not come into the world and are not affected by the distortions of falsehood, curse such a person. This second kind of false speech is called חניפה (Chanifah), or flattery. Why should flattery be more stringent than regular lying if it can even be objectively true? What is this strange way of expressing the stringency of חניפה, and what does it teach us?

A fetus has a unique relationship to speech. It says that while he is in the womb, he learns the whole Torah, and with his pure wisdom can see to all ends of the earth. But before he is born, an angel hits him on the mouth and he forgets the whole Torah. It's explained that this hit on the mouth gives him the power of speech, and it is the very power of speech that causes him to forget.

This is no bed-time story - it's higher wisdom clothed in earthly terms. It means a person comes into the world having an inner connection to a higher truth that he cannot express until he "remembers" - learning Torah is called remembering because you find the words for that which was always close to the soul. In a nutshell, a fetus is born into the world to "bring out" his inner potential by learning to express and act on his ideals and partner in the creation of a world that reflects the Torah that precedes the world.

So back the the Rambam. There is one kind of speech that is about sharing information, and for that there is the prohibition of שקר. But there is a second kind of speech that is essential for a person sent out into an external and confused world to reconnect upstairs and make it real here. For that kind of speech there is the prohibition of חניפה, a way of speaking that only pretends to connect from the inside but is really just playing nice. This kind of transgression may seem less severe - after all, it can be objectively true. But the Torah teaches that it damages the platform that supports the reason for a fetus to leave his pristine pre-world, all-spiritual existence. It makes this world lonely because people don't expect to hear the speaker when they hear his speech. It makes a world where people can be together externally and share all of there personal information, but can't really connect because the medium does not support it.

We are accustomed to praising the benefits of individuality and freedom, and the sensitivities of political correctness. To tell someone else he is wrong is mean and colonial. But where does that leave us? The opposite of חניפה is called תוכחה (Tochachah) or rebuke. It means more than just suggesting to reconsider or change. It is a special power we have to reveal to someone else something in our internal world that obligates him to change. Shlomo Hamelech in Proverbs calls the Torah itself תוכחה. In order to be connected it must be understood that what one person thinks is right and wrong carries weight for others. Isn't it a core part of hope for humanity that we can do more than just tolerate each other and get along? The Jewish hope, at least, is that we live in a world that is united spiritually, that my inner sense of what is right and wrong, and how the world should be, really means something to you and has consequences and vice-versa. A world where our speech is more than an exchange of information and more than white noise and flattery; where speech is a medium for genuine expression.

It might be risky and uncomfortable, but have to learn to be real and handle the rough and tough with each other face to face, learn to relate to the speaker behind the speech. I'm not saying we should be insensitive and say what ever we feel like, or assume that we know what's right and no one else does - on the contrary. I'm just saying, I wonder if when people say we live in a post-truth world, they've given up hope. And when we pour all that personal information out there, are we saying more than "I want you to like me?"

Saturday, June 2, 2018

Is Marriage Private?

It may seem a little funny for hundreds of people to gather in celebration of one couple's marriage. After all, the decision to marry is arrived at through a very private, internal process that can only be appreciated by the man and woman themselves. And the experience of married life is also extremely personal. Why does Jewish tradition celebrate marriage communally? Does it emphasize communal life at the expense of privacy, and the delicacy of personal experience?

The Torah actually stands out, as a drama, for the importance and power it gives to private experience. Whereas in Greek drama the climax takes place in the presence of a chorus, Torah's heroic moments take place hidden from the public eye, when Avraham Avinu tells his servants to stay behind as he climbs up Mount Horiah to sacrifice his son Yitzchak, or when the Cohen Gadol enters the Holy of Holies alone on Yom Kippur. These moments when we're alone with Hashem can be the most defining.

But while the quality of the experience of marriage may be defined by what goes on in private, it cannot be initiated without witnesses. In fact, marriage, specifically, requires witnesses for the event to carry any halachic significance, as opposed to other kinds of agreements where witnesses only serve to prevent lying. No matter how committed they are, and how extensive and poetic their vows, a couple is not married unless there were two kosher witnesses involved.

The concept of private connection in Judaism is encompassed by the term קדושה "Kedushah". Weakly translated as holiness, it means a special, private and all-absorbing kind of connection. Kedushah always includes two aspects, like two sides of a coin. The first is a complete and total separation and removal from everything, and the second is a unique and specific connection formed by virtue of that separation. It's a theme that appears throughout all of Judaism, most apparently in the relationships of man and woman, and Israel and G-d. For example, Marriage is made up of two parts, the first is called "Kiddushin," which is a commitment of fidelity, today customarily an exchange of a ring, and the second is called "Nissuin," which is the first official private co-inhabitance of the married couple.

A Jewish home is compared to the "Mishkan," the holy temple. The Mishkan was a microcosm. Every part and every vessel paralleled different parts of the world, from the stars to the earth. The Mishkan is the place where Hashem's presence is most palpable. The Jewish way to establish a relationship is to make it more than an important part of our life - it has to be a whole world unto itself.

Kedushah is the true way to be totally connected and present in the world of the relationship created solely for that purpose. It is because marriage is founded on Kedushah that there is nothing shameful about it and it's not an excuse to close the doors so no one will intrude. Even though it is essentially a private world, Kedushah is also the secret of all Jewish life and continuity. The Jewish people as a whole live and thrive on Kedushah, and each individual soul thrives on its connection to the eternal collective.

L'Chaim!