Here’s something that’s been on my mind for quite a while now. I started writing something on it when the this meme popped up in my Facebook “memories.” It’s a paraphrase of a saying in the Talmud by a second-century Jewish sage whom I’d never heard of until I looked him up in Wikipedia, felt like I’d known it all my life.
It hit home, but I got sidetracked when I went in the hospital and never finished the post. In the meantime, it seems like the news has been an unmitigated exercise in the enormity of the world’s grief. A couple of data points:
- An interview on the interview on the PBS NewsHour (beginning at 25:50), in which James Davison Hunter of the University of Virginia spoke with chief PBS correspondent Amna Nawaz about the “culture wars,” a term he coined in 1991. In it, Hunter returned to a theme he developed in an influential interview in May with Zach Stanton of Politico: “Democracy, in my view, is an agreement that we will not kill each other over our differences, but instead we’ll talk through those differences. And part of what’s troubling is that I’m beginning to see signs of the justification for violence on both sides.”
- A Nov. 22 op ed in the Washington Post by Brian Klaas, professor of global politics at University College London: “For the past decade, I’ve studied the rise of authoritarianism and the breakdown of democracy around the world. Traveling from Madagascar to Thailand and Belarus to Zambia, I’ve tried to understand how despotic politicians and authoritarian political parties systematically destroy democracy. And based on that research, I have some bad news: The party of Reagan and Romney is long dead. The party of Trump is here to stay. What has happened in the United States over the past five years is, in many ways, a classic of the autocratic genre.”
Neither scholar attempted to offer a prescription for how we might dig our way out of what looks like a coming apocalypse. A third data point, to my way of thinking. And one that brings me back to the Talmudic saying in my Facebook memories. Yes, the enormity of the world’s grief is daunting, and no, we likely won’t be able to complete the work of digging out. But, no, we are not free to abandon it.
I first saw it posted to social media three years ago when MyJewishLearning.com, a nonprofit that maintains a “website for all things Jewish: history, holidays, and culture; quizzes, recipes and more,” shared it to Facebook. On Oct. 27, 2018, a white nationalist had killed 11 worshippers during Shabbat services at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. Armed with an AR-15 semiautomatic rifle, he targeted the synagogue for supporting Latino immigrants, whom he called “invaders […] that kill our people,”and added, “Screw your optics, I’m going in.”
So MyJewish learning posted the quotation: “For those of you who are struggling today, here are some powerful words, a paraphrase of the prophet Micah and Pirkei Avot.”
Powerful words, then and now
I think all of us felt the enormity of the world’s grief at the time. And three years later, it still seems like we’re sleepwalking into an apocalypse. So I felt it again — and shared it again on Oct. 29. Mass shootings haven’t gone away — 470 people died in them by the end of October (when I started this post), with nearly 1,927 injured. Racial hatred, overt and covert, still marks out national dialog. And our government is gridlocked, unable to do anything about gun violence. Or minority voting rights. Or much of anything else. Including an attempt by to overthrow a presidential election by violence. The first in our 200-plus-year history. Yes, I thought, the enormity of the world’s grief is nothing if not daunting.
But, not to belabor the obvious, I think we’re called to at least try to do something, to work for justice and mercy. In whatever small ways are open to us. And to do it humbly. Even when it seems hopeless. Neither are we free to abandon the effort. Especially now, perhaps.
The words are partly familiar. The passage from Micah (6:8) — […] and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God? — has long been one of my favorites. But the other parts are quite unfamiliar. And there isn’t much on the internet about them. A 2017 thread on Tumblr cites it to Pirkei Avot, a book in the Talmud known in English as the Sayings of the Fathers. Here’s the original (from the Sefaria online edition):
Jessica Price, a self-described “[g]ame tastemaker,” producer and writer, has a detailed and informative Twitter thread on the quote I saw on Facebook — “Do not be daunted by the enormity of the world’s grief …” Price attributes to a 1995 book, Wisdom of the Jewish Sages: A Modern Reading of Pirke Avot by Rabbi Rami Shapiro (check Goodreads.com listing here). It is indeed a mashup of Micah and a passage in the Talmud, she says, but it’s very much in the spirit of both.
“I’d argue […] that while it’s a translation that definitely isn’t word-for-word, it’s actually a very good interpretive translation and completely in keeping with the text,” says Price. “In addition to being a rabbi, teacher, and essayist, the author, Rami Shapiro, is also a poet, and sometimes it takes the principles of good poetry to make ancient texts accessible.”
Rabbi Tarfon, whom I also had to look up in Wikipedia, was one of the first generation of Jewish sages who fled to Yavne, on the Mediterranean coast near modern Tel Aviv, when Roman armies destroyed the Second Temple in Jerusalem, and with it the Jewish culture of first-century Palestine. There the Jewish sages began the centuries-long discussions and disputations that are recorded in the Talmud.
At the same time, early Christians fled the destruction of Jerusalem to Galilee, and to Ephesus, Corinth and other cities of the Roman Empire. While Christianity and Judaism as we know it today would diverge in later years, both were offshoots of Second Temple Judaism in what started as a Jewish diaspora after 70 CE.
So why does it sound so familar?
Rabbi Harold Kushner, best known perhaps as the author of the best-seller Why Bad Things Happen to Good People, also wrote a book titled To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking that turned up in my mother’s belongings when we were clearing out her apartment. In To Life!, Kushner makes a useful distinction between what he calls the religion of Jesus and the religion about Jesus. He says in the first century of the Common Era:
[…] we begin to move from the religion of Jesus (love your neighbor, turn the other cheek, prepare for the End of Days) to the religion about Jesus (he was the Son of God who died to absolve us of our sins). [Italics and parentheses in the original.]
In much the same vein, says Fr. Richard Rohr, Franciscan priest, author of several popular books on spirituality and director of the Center for Action and Contemplation in Albuquerque:
It’s possible to trace the movement of Christianity from its earliest days until now. In Israel, Jesus and the early “church” offered people an experience; it moved to Greece, and it became a philosophy. When it moved to Rome and Constantinople, it became organized religion. Then it spread to Europe, and it became a culture. Finally, it moved to North America and became a business.
The trick, says Fr. Rohr, is to recover the “Jesus experience” — living simply, working for social justice, “ignoring unjust systems and building up a better system by his teaching to his disciples.”
In other words, the religion of Jesus.
And that’s what I find in the book of Micah in the Hebrew scriptures of Jesus’ day; Rabbi Tarfon’s first-century aphorism in the wake of the destruction of Jerusalem; Rabbi Shapiro’s 1995 paraphrase of it; and the meme that popped up in my Facebook news feed the morning of Oct. 29.
If nothing else, it reminds me that most generations throughout history have thought they were living in times of apocalypse. (Remember the Mayan calendar that predicted the end of the world on Dec. 21, 2012? But it’s easy to make fun of failed predictions.) If nothing else, Rabbi Tarfon reminds us that we have endured apocalyptic times before, and the moral imperative to seek mercy and justice transcends time and circumstance.
James Davison Hunter, interview with Amna Nawaz, PBS NewsHour, Nov. 25 (beginning at 25:50) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=vyApMpbWezc.
__________. “How the ‘Culture War’ Could Break Democracy.” interview with Zack Stanton, Politico, May 20, 2021 https://www.politico.com/news/magazine/2021/05/20/culture-war-politics-2021-democracy-analysis-489900.
Brian Klaas, “Republican authoritarianism is here to stay,” Washington Post, Nov. 22, 2021 https://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/2021/11/22/republican-authoritarianism-is-here-stay/.
Harold Kushner, To Life! A Celebration of Jewish Being and Thinking. Boston: Little Brown, 1993. 286.
Pirkei Avot, Mishnah [Sefaria edition]: https://www.sefaria.org/Pirkei_Avot.2.15.
[Revised, updated and published Nov. 27, 2021]